21 March 2012

Snake River Canyon Half - Race Report

The Snake River Canyon Half is quickly becoming one of the top Eastern Washington early season events. It's a super-flat, often very windy, out and back along the mighty Snake River about 25 miles outside of Pullman. Even when Pullman may be suffering through dreary March winter weather, the river canyon is generally much more mild due to the significantly lower elevation.

The half-marathon is still a racing distance I'm not very familiar with. Up to this point, I've only run two road half-marathons, and both of those were basically for-fun runs the weekends after a 50k. So I was a bit more rested than usual heading into this race, and I wanted to see what kind of effort I had in me for this distance. I predicted that I was probably fit enough to hit a 1:22, and possibly (if I was feeling particularly strong on race day) challenge 1:20.

Wind is always a worry when running down in the canyon. Sustained winds over 25mph isn't uncommon (and not very fun to run in). The weekend before the race, we were seeing gusts over 50mph.  So I bet everyone with a time goal in mind was crossing their fingers in the days leading up to the race. Forecasts called for chance of showers and 10-15mph winds.Well, we didn't get the showers, but the forecast was about right on the winds. Could have been a lot worse.

The gun went off three or four guys sprinted out in front of everyone. Even though this feels like a local race to me, this race attracts a few sub-1:10 guys and a bunch of sub-1:20 folks, so I had no illusions of running with the front of the pack.

I stuck with my friend and masters stud, Doug, for the first couple miles into the headwind. We tried sticking with a large group (15+ strong) to have some protection from the headwind, but when we hit mile two around 12:05 we both knew that that was just a bit faster than we wanted to be running, so we slowed a little bit to play it conservatively. I'm not sure if that was the right move or not, because we very well may have been using more energy battling the wind.

About that time another friend, Knut, caught up with us and another guy from the pack fell back to our pace, so for about half a mile it was four of us working as a team against the wind. But quickly my stomach started turning to knots (pretty bad, actually), I had dropped back about 20 meters, I was fighting the wind by myself, and I even started contemplating dropping way back to a very easy pace so I could just run the rest of it for fun. I was carrying a single GU so I thought I'd suck it down just in case it would help. It did. I'm not sure what was going on with my stomach, but whatever it was, the GU fixed it almost immediately.

I was still off the pace of Doug and Knut (the fourth guy had dropped behind me by now) and had no immediate intention of pushing it to catch up with them. Doug and Knut were taking turns leading into the wind about 30 or 40 meters ahead of me when Doug turned around and yelled to me, "C'mon! We need some help!" So I pushed it to catch up with them (it was around mile five at this point).  We knifed through the wind as a team the next 1.5 miles to the turnaround, where the wind flung us around an orange cone in 41:04, just about dead on for a 1:22 finish time. I felt pretty good about that because I figured we'd get a nice stiff tailwind for most of the way back.

I was feeling pretty good and upbeat, and I started pushing the pace a little. In my mind I was thinking that if I ran a 41:04 into the wind, then maybe it wasn't so unreasonable to run a 38:56 with the wind to hit the 1:20 goal. So for the first three miles back I pushed it and saw the overall pace on my Garmin dropping a couple seconds with each new mile. Doug and Knut had dropped back a bit by this point, and I was slowly picking off a couple runners.

Around mile 10, the wind had shifted and was now in our faces again. Not strong, but the tailwind was noticeably gone now.  I did some quick math and figured I had to run an 18-min 5k to get the 1:20 goal - possible, but I wasn't getting my hopes up.  I focused on trying to keep an even effort and, more importantly, making sure I didn't implode.

About a mile and a half from the finish, we were hit with heavy gusts to our faces. Not sure where they came from, but for about a quarter mile if felt like I was reduced to a near walk. It felt like quicksand. (After the race, a couple runners ahead of me said their Garmin's current pace feature shot up nearly two minutes per mile in this short section).  Then all of the sudden no wind.  It was weird.

I made the turn around the last bend and saw the clock just passing 1:20. I pushed it hard that last quarter of a mile or so and attempted to sneak in under 1:21, but the seconds were moving faster than I was. I crossed the finish line in 1:21:09. Not surprisingly, a big PR.  Also, 15th overall and 3rd AG. (Full results.) Doug and Knut came in just after me.

The half-marathon is no joke. It's an interesting distance -- long enough to require some fitness, and short enough to force a much quicker pace than I'm use to running. And as always, it was great to see all my running friends. I always get good vibes when I'm around a large group of runners. It always seems to refill my motivation cup.

Early in the race.
(Noble Sports)

Last water station, about two miles from the finish.
(Noble Sports)
Last water station, about two miles from the finish.
(Noble Sports)
Just before the finish chute.
(courtesy of Michelle Baker)
Keep running!