When Winning is Losing: Learning From a 1st Place Half-Marathon

Winning a half-marathon is usually reserved for the elite. But last Saturday, I won my very first half by over 13 minutes.

On 10/22 I raced the Run for the Hills Half-Marathon in McHenry, IL and finished in 1:15:07. I was in Chicago visiting my sister-in-law and her boyfriend with my wife Meaghan. While we were there we thought it’d be a great idea to run a race and with the Philadelphia Marathon coming up in less than a month, I thought it would be a great tune-up race.

Well, not so much. But more on that later.

We drove an hour from Chicago to Moraine Hills State Park and (you guessed it) the course was very hilly for the entire race. None were long or too steep but the course was rolling the whole way. When you’re constantly going up or down your legs take a beating – three days later I’m still sore.

I warmed up in my Adizero Aegis trainers and raced in my marathon shoes – the Saucony Grid Fastwitch. They’re under 8 ounces and provide a little more support than a flat. Since they have more support than I’m used to in a racer, my hope is that they don’t over-fatigue me throughout the marathon and prop me up a bit in the latter miles. This was their test run.

Moraine Hills

Splits and the Play by Play

Before the race I did the Standard warm-up and then ran 3 miles with a 1′ surge at about tempo pace and 5 x 20″ at a harder effort. The temperature was around 50° so I did a few strides near the starting line to stay warm.

I raced in shorts and a singlet – my typical racing uniform for any race over 35°. For the marathon, I may wear gloves and a hat in the first half if it’s chilly (and it probably will be).

The interesting thing about this race was that it was an alphabetical wave start with 25 runners in each group. Being in the second wave, I started a minute behind the first group and passed everyone in the first mile. This was hard since the entire race took place on a narrow, winding path.

Passing runners who are running three abreast on a narrow trail is easier said than done!

My pace was consistent for most of the race, especially for a hilly course. During the first 10 miles, there were a few slower miles in the mid-high 5:40’s – those had significant hills. You’ll see below that the last two miles got a lot slower than my average. These things happen in longer races…

Let’s take a look at my mile splits:

Mile 1: 5:38
Mile 2: 5:48 (11:27)
Mile 3: unknown
Mile 4: unknown (11:06 for last 2 miles) (22:33)
Mile 5: 5:40 (28:14)
Mile 6: 5:33 (33:47)
Mile 7: 5:33 (39:21)
Mile 8: 5:47 (45:08)
Mile 9: 5:39 (50:47)
Mile 10: 5:48 (56:36)
Mile 11: 5:42 (62:18)
Mile 12: 6:03 (68:22)
Mile 13: 6:11 (74:33)
Last 1/10th – 34″ (75:07)

At the start I tried to run conservatively in the mid-5:30 range. With a sharp 100°+ turn in the first 20 meters and having to pass 25 people in the first few minutes, I’m surprised the first mile wasn’t even slower.

The real hills started in the second mile but then I had a few solid downhills in the next few miles. While it’s always nice to cruise downhill and run a little faster than your goal, steep downhills (especially on pavement) will rob your legs of any responsiveness later in the race. I learned this the hard way after the 10 mile mark when I was struggling to maintain my pace.

Things got interesting in the 5th mile, as the lead bike that was guiding me along the course misjudged where a turn-around point was and cost me about 10 seconds. I had some choice words with the guy on the bike, but let’s try to keep things PG here. I took a gel just after the 5 mile mark, washed it down with a quick gulp of water, and went on my way.

After mile 6 I was alone when the lead bike dropped off. Not only was I alone, but I was lonely. It’s hard to push yourself when there’s no competition. I felt like I was running a tempo workout…a very long tempo workout. Plus, since the course was in a state park, there were no cheering crowds. Just the sounds of my breathing and footsteps to pass the time.

I kept ticking off consistent miles until the 12th mile when the hills, boredom and loneliness, and the constant turns of the walking path took their toll. I could tell that my pace was slowing, but I decided not to push it too hard because I wanted to save my legs. I also knew that I wouldn’t be running a significant PR so there was no sense in trashing my legs 4 weeks from my goal race.

The last few miles were run with the 10k group so it was a nice change to run with other people. I ran into (ha!) some of the same problems as the beginning of the race with other runners on the course. Tip: stay to the right on a narrow path. Don’t run in a big group with all your friends if you’re taking up the entire path.

Half-MarathonLearn From My Mistakes

1) Don’t underestimate the value of having a successful tune-up race. If your goal is a specific time, make sure you run a race that helps you hit that time goal. Winning isn’t everything – I’d have much rather run 72 minutes and placed 50th than won in over 75 minutes.

2) Schedule your tune-up races on fast courses or those that closely mimic your goal race. In my case, this race was a disaster in terms of preparing me for Philadelphia. The course was slow and wasn’t like Philly at all. I’m not freaking out though! This half was kind of a “vacation race” since I was traveling, so no big deal.

3) Make sure there will be someone to run with! It doesn’t matter if you’re fast, slow, or middle-of-the-pack. Being all alone in a race sucks. You work harder when there’s competition, you have more fun, and you don’t get as bored.

4) If you thrive on cheering crowds, run in a city. Racing in a state park, rural area, or small suburb probably won’t draw the crowds you’re looking for. Instead, choose races in larger cities so you can feed off the encouragement of spectators.

Do your research when picking out your next race. Look at past results to see what the winning time is, how many runners there are in the race, and how many people finished near the time you’re hoping to run. If you just want to get out there and participate that’s great, but it’s more fun when there are crowds to run with and to cheer you on.

Here’s to Philly in 3 weeks!!

Full Results 

Photo Credits

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  1. I’m still new enough to racing that every race is a learning experience. I just ran my first half in Hartford 2 weeks ago, and learned a million lessons. The biggest one is don’t join a pace group that’s too fast for you (I burned out at 8 miles, but I couldn’t find the right pace group, and the one I joined the leader didn’t show up so the others asked me to lead, silly them!). But overall it was a blast, can’t wait for my next one in 2012!

  2. Nice race, Jason! All great points. Wow, I would have had some “choice words” with the lead biker too – ah! A few years back I ran the Maine marathon, and although I wasn’t in the lead (obviously), there were so few people running that I was alone for a good amount of the race – which sucked! I totally agree.
    Didn’t realize you were running Philly – nice!

    • Thanks Kate, it was definitely a challenging race without anybody around and the winding/hilly course. The Philly half and marathon are at the same time so maybe I’ll see you there!

  3. Oh god. Three weeks….

    Hopefully you do just as well in the Commonwealth!

  4. Great result Fitz in spite of the hurdles, sorry I missed your post on this before. I agree on the challenge in running alone, but what could you have really done in that situation? Maybe the mental toughness of having to hold pace on your own is one gain from such an experience. And your experience with the bike wasn’t as bad as one at the 10K that happened in conjunction with the Towpath Marathon – the lead bike turned around way too early, ended up shaving .4 miles off the course. No one could legitimately count a PR that day. Hope the recovery is going OK, looks like you posted a good run today.

    • That sounds awful, I would have been so upset. Good thing I only ran an extra 10 feet! Recovery was going well until that 15 miler last night. Now I’m sore again…

  5. I’m bummed you didn’t have the race you wanted. Did you at least get a nice award for 1st?

  6. Great lessons learned. Congrats—and I cannot BELIEVE how fast you are! Wow!

  7. Jason, I appreciate reading about your experience in the Run for the Hills. As you know, it is a fund raiser to help support this beautiful park. This was our “2nd annual” run for the Hills. Everyone involved in this event is a volunteer, and we could really benefit from some more detailed input from a runner of your caliber. Frustrating as it must have been at the mile 5 turn around, please don’t be too hard on our lead biker – the turn around cone vanished. There are sick jokers everywhere. If you are willing to have an email conversation with me about some other race details, I would really appreciate it. I hope you are recovered fully and have a great time in Philly.