Today's performance was about as perfect as the weather I ran it in. Low 50s, thick overcast and just a light breeze. The forecasted rain even held off.
The SJJ Half is the race I love to hate. The course is terrible, not because it is challenging, but because it practically takes a master's degree in orienteering to navigate it. Yet, I run it every year and so do most of the area's elite runners. Today was no different. Early in the week, the elite lineup was somewhat paltry...so paltry that, on paper, I had as good of a chance as anyone to win the whole thing. But, as usual, it filled in nicely with two guys -- including the defending champion Paul Limpf and Nick Schuetz-- coming up from Oregon. Nick won the St. George Marathon in his debut back in 1997 when Paul Petersen and I qualified for the Olympic Trials. I haven't heard much from him since but apparently he is in good shape and training for Chicago next month.
Paul and Nick finished 1-2 this year although Paul's time was well off his winning time last year. Paul is a sub 30:00 10k guy. He's also only 23. Ahhh...to be young again.
Local icon Uli Steidl finished third well back of second place.
So back to the race. Other local elites toeing the line included Mike Bresson from Spokane. He's a great guy. We raced together in the debacle that was the Spokane Marathon earlier this year. He just turned 39 and is well on his way to being a dominant Masters runner.
Brett Winegar, John Riak, Phil Olsen, Josh Ricardi and Steve DeKoker were a few of the others. I love seeing "the guys" at each of these races. The starting and finish lines are my favorites parts of these events because we get to see each other and catch up.
Anyway, got off to an ontime start which is always nice. What seemed to be missing this times was the small group of 12-year-olds sprinting out to the front as if ESPN was carrying the race live.
Mile 1 has a steady uphill start to it before flattening out for the final 3/4. For whatever reason, the race director can't seem to ever get the first mile marker placed correctly. So it showed us coming across in 4:56 which was definitely not the case. Since I was shooting for 5:16s, it was still way too fast even with the mismarking. The good thing is that by Mile 2, the issue is always corrected. Mile 2 was 5:13. So on average, our first two miles were in 5:05 or so. Still way too fast. That said, I knew I needed to be opportunisitic as each mile of this course is very different from the other...especially Mile 7.
Everything felt good through mile 3 which I hit in 5:11. Still too fast but I was putting seconds in the bank to compensate for Mile 7. By this time, Uli, Paul and Nick were well ahead of us in the chase pack. Probably a good 15 seconds. It was pretty clear that the race would be for fourth. I was leading the chase back on and off again sharing duties with Riak. I didn't know who Riak was until Mile 12 when Mark Mandi called out his name. I recognized the name.
Mile 4 crosses two bridges over the Sammamish River. Beautiful part of the course with a lot of rollers. It's a good thing it was dry because those two bridges can be treacherous in the rain. Mile 4 was in 5:07. So after four straight miles of being well under desired pace, I was starting to wonder if I should just stick with it and see what happens. I also did the math of where I needed to be at Mile 10 to hit my goal time of 1:09 (an ambitious goal) and that time was 52:40. But still a lot of work to do before then.
Mile 5 was fll of twists and turns but pretty flat. We were at the point where we were dodging walkers who started the event an hour earlier. Hate that. Mile 5 was in 5:09. More seconds in the bank.
Mile 6 is pretty flat with just a few mild rollers but a fair amount of congestion. This was the first point at which I started to feel a little bit of calf soreness. Nothing out of the ordinary, just a bodily reminder that I was working pretty hard. Mile 6 ends right under SR 522 as we head into the UW-Bothell Campus area. Time was 5:19. Oops...gave back a few of those seconds.
I got to see my mom, dad and brother-in-law several times in the cmapus area which was a huge boost. They are always so supportive of my running and their support came at an important time in the race.
Mile 7 is the worst mile in recorded history. I am only sort of exaggerating. It's a 20% grade for about an 1/8 of a mile. Followed by only a 6% grade for another 1/8 with some flat for about a 1/4 and then a 20% downhill grade for about a tenth of a mile. It's ridiculous if not perilous. I was just glad to escaoe that section without either falling or pulling a hammy. By this point, it was just me and Riak, trading the lead every 1/4 mile or so. It was a great battle. Mile 7 time was 5:32. Not as slow as I had expected.
After winding through the historic area of Bothell and headed back toward the campus area for a series of nauseating loopty loops. The next two miles are a lot of small rollers with some flat sections thrown in for good measure. Pretty tough stretch to get a good rhythm on. We Mile 8 in 5:14. By this time, Mike Bresson had seemingly come out of nowhere and he blew right past me and Riak as we headed through the heart of campus. I decided right then to go with him. Riak made the same decision and we stayed together for about a mile. Then they both gapped me.
From Mile 9 on, the course is pancake flat. There was a bit of a headwind for the next three miles, but at this point, anything but a tailwind seems like a headwind. Bresson was ahead of Riak by about 3-4 seconds and Riak was ahead of me by about the same. I took a look back and didn't see anyone even remotely close to me. I somehow missed the Mile 9 marker but I felt like I was doing fine.
Mile 10...more of the same. The three of us were slotted the same with 5k to go. The time I was supposed to hit at Mile 10 was 52:40. I hit it in 52:12. Wow. With nothing but flat in front of me, I had a chance for an epic race. Mile 10 and Mile 9 combined were in 10:29. Beautiful. I had settled into my desired pace after throwing the hammer down for the toughest 8 or 9 miles.
Mile 11: 5:16
Mile 12: 5:16
With 1.1M to go, I knew I was on pace to not only hit 1:09, but to crush it. The only question was could I catch Riak. He was in 5th place and the money only runs 5 deep for this race. He was still about 3-4 seconds ahead, which is quite a bit.
As we rounded the corner to go over the bridge back to the brewery and finish line, I realized Riak was out of reach. So I looked at my watch to find some motivation to really kill the final 1/4 and I realized I had a shot at sub 68:30. So I really focused and ran hard crossing the finish line in 1:08:27. It was a course PR by 66 seconds and my second fastest 1/2 marathon time ever...second only to the pancake flat Indy Mini back in 2009 where I was something like 1:07:57. My placing -- sixth -- was the same as last year but far more gratifying. The funny thing is that sixth overall was only good enough for 3rd in my age group. But all I care about is the time. It was faster than either of my Seattle Rock and Roll Halfs on a course that is quite challenging. My coach said afterward that my 1:08:26 today was easily faster than my 1:07:57 in Indy last year.
So I am thrilled. A lot of hard work and perserverance has me in, perhaps, the best shape of my life heading into seven final weeks of training before the Indianapolis Marathon in November.
This was a huge race both physically and mentally for me. Easily a top three race of my life in terms of overall performance.
Now I just need to recover properly, jump back into some hard training next week and stay healthy.