Finding My Happy Pace

There is such joy in helping others achieve their goals.  Even if it’s a stranger you’ve never met before.  Even if you don’t feel like you are doing much.

Pacing for a race feels like that.

When I got asked to pace the 2 hour group for the Asheville Half Marathon at the Biltmore Estate, I said yes immediately.  I raced the half once before as a training run for Boston in 2015 and the full marathon was my very first in 2014.

The two hour mark is such a breakthrough goal for many runners that I was excited for the chance to help people get there.

The course is unlike any other: winding roads carve through lush landscaping and climb up to the magnificent house at Mile 6.  Then you weave down through gardens blanketed with daffodils and then cruise along a smooth and flat gravel path along the French Broad River.

It’s simply stunning.

Waiting at the start, my co-pacer Gurmit held our 2:00 sign up high over the crowd and people began to move towards us and introduce themselves.  One runner named Natasha said she hoped to go quite a bit under two but wanted to stick with us through the early hills.  Another woman named Sarah had never broken two and she hoped that today would be her day.  A few others didn’t speak up, but smiled and listened wearing expressions of anticipation.

I explained to the group that we were not planning to pace evenly.  The hills at the beginning are a good place to ruin your race if you take them too fast, so we planned to be more conservative until we hit the flat section at the Biltmore House.  From there, we planned to catch back up.

The gun went off and we headed up the course.

I quickly learned that GPS was not reliable on the course and the mile markers were not precisely placed, so it was a bit of a guessing game on pace, but we kept a smooth and even effort level.

As the hills steepened, the friendly chatter evaporated into the cold morning sky replaced by bellows of hard, rhythmic breathing.  Hundreds of pattering feet slapped on asphalt like a driving rain on a metal roof.

The Biltmore house marks the end of the uphill and once we passed it, Gurmit and I looked around at what was left of our group.  Many of them had moved ahead of us and would stay ahead of us until the finish.

At the 10K mark, we were right on pace and took it easy on the downhill to the river where we reached our first out and back.

As faster racers turned around, we could see how well the people who had gathered at the start with us were doing.  Natasha was well ahead, looking strong and happy.  Sarah was just a few paces behind her and she broke into a smile as I cheered her on.

Unless something unusual happened, both women were going to go well under two hours and it was a thrill to watch them crushing their goals.

About Mile 10, Gurmit and I knew we were pacing a little fast, so we slowed our pace some on the flat sections.  Over my shoulder I heard the labored breathing of a runner working hard to pass me.  I turned to see one of the men we met at the start taking the opportunity to surge ahead.  This was his moment to give it his all.

As we got closer to the finish, I relied on the total time left on my watch rather than mile markers and GPS.  When we had 5 minutes to go, I estimated were less than a half mile to the finish, so I slowed and tried to encourage those around me to use all of the energy they had left to kick it to the end.

I ended up helping one our original pack runners speed across the line, thrilled with his performance.

The most rewarding part was after the race when several of the runners came up to us and thanked us.  One woman who didn’t catch my name yelled across the finishing chute, “Pacer! Hey pacer!” I turned and she happily told me that she beat her goal by three minutes and thanked me for my encouragement.

Sarah found me as I made my way to the food tent and we posed for a picture.  She had obliterated her goal and crossed the line in 1:53.  I had just met her two hours ago and I couldn’t be more happy for her.

Is there a little part of me that would have rather raced instead?  Of course, there always is.  But it’s only a tiny part this time.  I got to fully enjoy the course and help others achieve their best race ever.

Who knows?  Pacing was so rewarding that I may never race this one again.



Plan Your Race Well and You Just Might Surprise Yourself

One of the things that I love about racing is the anticipation. You have no idea how well you are going to do until you cross the finish line.  You could have the best training, the best coach, the best nutrition, the best weather, (or none of those) and your performance capability is still a surprise until the end.

Especially if it’s a distance you’ve never raced before.

How are you supposed to plan for a race that you’ve never done before?  You have no idea of what your body and your brain are capable of!  You can make an educated guess, of course, but sometimes you just have to cross your fingers and hope for the best.

As a coach at Runners Connect, my job is to help plan race strategy for athletes who have never raced before. But if the runner doesn’t know what he is capable of, how on earth am I supposed to figure that out? I’m a coach, not a psychic!

Communication is the key.

Successful coaching happens when there is an open dialogue between the athlete and the coach.  It’s a relationship where both parties work together at a goal and feedback goes both ways.

Let me tell you about Jay.  Jay likes to work hard and isn’t afraid to push himself.  “I tend to be an extremely impulsive person in general,” he said, “and this trait bleeds over strongly into my races.”

Being impulsive in a race can lead to disaster.

Jay had his very first half marathon coming up and he was working on a race strategy.  The race was the Desert Classic in Surprise, AZ and the course was out and back with a long, gradual uphill to the half-way point, followed by a long, gradual downhill in the second half.

That’s pretty much an ideal course because the incline forces you to be slower in the first half and the decline will allow you to fly through the second half to the end.  The elusive negative split.

Here’s what he had to say before the race:  “I want to run under 1:28, closer to 1:27. Under 1:27 would be mind blowing. I’m unlikely to win this race so I want to focus on formulating a race plan and sticking to it.  I know from recent training that 6:45 is a doable pace for me over 6 miles.”

Okay, I’m thinking, a 6:45 pace is a 1:28 half.  He needs to be able to run over twice the distance at that speed to reach his goal.  Which he has never done before.

This was the race plan he came up with:

Goal finish time of 1:27:30 (6:40/mile pace)
Miles 1-3 6:46 pace (uphill)
Miles 4-6 6:42 pace (uphill)
Mile 7 6:40 pace, with the extra 2 seconds being made up on the steepish back half.
Mile 8-12 6:38 pace (downhill)
Mile 13 titrate pace to tunnel vision. Cross finish line just on the edge of blindness.

His drive and determination to succeed through pain is impressive, right?  But he still had concerns.

“My biggest fear is that the field isn’t as competitive as I think it will be and I get baited into an actual race and do something stupid early and bonk hard late.”  Very valid point.  “I’m already mentally preparing myself to let people go and stick to the plan hoping to find them on the last mile.”

The ability to let other people go ahead at the beginning is essential.  Competition is great, but if others around you are going faster than your race pace, you have to just let them.  It’s not easy to do, especially if you are as competitive as Jay is.  I love how he recognized this trait in himself ahead of time and prepared for it!

But I did feel that his plan needed a little work.

“My first thought is that your pace goals seem too rigid,” I told him.  I know from personal experience that if you set a to-the-second time goal and you don’t get it on the dot, it allows space for that negative voice to get louder. “I’d rather see at least a 5 second range so that if you miss something, it doesn’t mentally hurt your race.”

I suggested that he set a “floor” for the first half miles, as in the pace that he should absolutely run no faster. A 6:46 pace is not conservative enough for the first few miles, especially considering it’s uphill. Racing too fast in the beginning consumes energy that will always be stolen from the last few miles.

But, (and here’s the scary part) if he goes too slow at the beginning, the deficit created will be too great to make up in the last half, even going down hill.  It’s a very fine line.

“How much time can you make up on the downhill?” I asked. “Miles 8-12 will need to be closer to 6:30 pace. How long have you been able to keep that pace in training? Especially when you are tired?”

“I can run a 6:30 mile after 6 quick miles,” he replied, “but I have no idea how many more.”

The answer to that would be a surprise until race day.

I had really high hopes for Jay.  But I have to admit that I was anxious as well.  If he succeeded, then I succeeded as well.  But what if he failed because of the advice I gave him?

I just had to keep my fingers crossed.

So how did Jay do?  Let’s look at his splits with my thoughts in italics.

Miles 1-3: 6:50, 6:48, 6:44.  Yes!  He’s being conservative!

Miles 4-6: 6:43, 6:43, 6:47.  Starting to pick up the pace, but staying pretty steady uphill.

Mile 7: 6:33. Really picking up the pace as he heads downhill.

Miles 8-12: 6:23, 6:26, 6:28, 6:36, 6:32. Flying downhill!

Mile 13:  6:30.  Those 6:20-30 pace miles are catching up to him, but still so fast!

Final 0.11: 37 seconds (5:36 pace). What a kick!

13.11 miles: 1:26:47, pace 6:37/mile.  He crushed it!!!!

Jay after crushing his A+ goal

Jay finished a whopping 45 seconds faster than his A goal and even crushed his “mind-blowing” goal!

He was ecstatic.  Jay finished 7th overall and second in his age group.

Here’s what he told the Runners Connect Community about the race:  “Running under 1:27 was absolutely awesome.  Coach Claire and I weren’t sure if I could run 6:30 pace when I was tired. Turns out I can’t. I can run 6:20’s.”  Yes!!!

He credits his success to the plan we worked on together. “Ran a conservative first half (thanks to good insight from Coach Claire) and had a strong finish. Instead of getting caught up trying to run with the lead pack I let them go early and just ran my own race.”

I’m so proud of Jay.  He planned for the ideal race, taking into account what he saw were his weaknesses and stuck to the plan, far surpassing what he ever thought possible.

Such a wonderful surprise.



Leading image credit:

Is it Crazy to Race During Taper?

Tomorrow begins the last full week before the Richmond Marathon.  After two months of dry, warm weather, the forecast for November 12 calls for a 55% chance of rain with a high of 57 degrees during the race.  If I had to be picky, I could do without the rain, but the temperature and cloud cover is pretty close to perfect for racing.

The taper cycle for this marathon is different than any I’ve had so far because I’m racing twice in the last three weeks.  The first was the French Broad Half Marathon and tomorrow is the inaugural Zero 5K happening in flat Carrier Park where I train most days.  I had originally planned to race the Vance Rocket Run 5K tomorrow, but after jogging the course and its SEVEN hills, my coach and I came to the decision that it was not going to be beneficial for Richmond and pounding out those downhills could actually contribute to a little more muscle damage that I’m not willing to risk at this point.

Flat and fast it is.

So why am I racing a 5K a week before my marathon?  Shouldn’t I be tapering and resting and only doing a little marathon-specific work?

Yes and no.  The point of a fast 5K right now is to open up some speed in my legs that I haven’t felt in a while.  The faster speed of a 5K also pushes me into the racing red zone for just a little while, practicing one more time what I will feel like when I am pushing myself harder than I ever have before in the last few miles of the marathon.  Yet the 5K is short enough that I will be fully recovered by race day.

In other words, this is mental strength training.

I do not expect to PR at this 5K since I have not been putting in the kind of speed training specific to the 5K.   But you never know.

My PR is 19:33 (6:17 pace) from the Downhill at Dusk 5K back in June and as the name implies, it was mostly downhill, so I have gravity to partially thank for that time.  I know that I’m am much fitter now, but I have a lot of marathon miles in my legs.

Another nice benefit to racing during taper is that I have something to distract me rather than just getting bogged down by the taper tantrums.  Most marathoners struggle with taper because it is such a shift from our normal running routine.  We feel nervous and cranky and heavy and we miss our runners’ high.  We doubt our training, worry about eating too much and gaining weight.

Having this shorter goal has helped shift my focus to what is right in front of me.

Another nice distraction from taper anxiety has been this week of coaching at Runners Connect. I truly love the community of athletes we are growing and I’m enjoying being a part of so many runners’ journeys.

But I have never sat in front of a computer so much in my life!  I’m still working in real estate and plan to continue doing so for the foreseeable future, but I typically do not spend hours upon hours staring at a screen.  My eyes are tired at the end of a coaching shift and by butt feels suction cupped to my chair.

So today, I  installed my high-tech stand up desk.


My glutes feel better already.


French Broad River Half Race Report

How many races out there promise “flat and fast”?  Not many in the mountains of Western North Carolina. The new French Broad River Half sounded like an ideal tune up race for the Richmond Marathon:  point-to-point gradual downhill along the beautiful French Broad River with a just couple of hills as you enter the the quaint town of Marshall.

Well, the last part of that was right.

The day before the race, the Department of Transportation threatened to cancel the race because they felt the planned rolling closure of just one lane of traffic on the curvy and narrow Riverside Drive would be too dangerous for runners.  The race director worked out a compromise to close the entire road, but for only half the distance, so the point-to-point became and out-and-back.

Meaning the two hills at the end of the race turned into four hills at both the beginning and the end.  Not what I signed up for.

The elevation gain of the new course would be nearly as much as the entire Richmond Marathon!

After stressing out about the course change for a few minutes, I reminded myself that this was not my goal race and it would still be great practice for my race.  Many of my friends and teammates would be out there and I was looking forward to seeing where my fitness was.  I’ve been having a good string of workouts lately, so this was a great opportunity to get a confidence boost.

Jus' Running Maggots at the starting line to the French Broad River Half Marathon
Jus’ Running Maggots at the starting line to the French Broad River Half Marathon

What I wasn’t expecting, however, was that the course change was probably a blessing in disguise.

My plan for the race was to negative split, or run the first half slower than the second.  Negative splitting sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s proven as the most effective strategy for racing anything longer than 800 meters.  If you can save your energy during the first half, you’ll have more left to push when things feel really hard at the end.

At the start, the temperature was about 45 degrees with 9-15mph winds.  The wind was coming up river so it was a tailwind going out from Marshall and a headwind coming back in.  This is where the course changed helped; we only had to fight the wind half the time. Unfortunately it was the second half, but still, better than a headwind for 13.1 miles.

First Half:  6:35, 6:54 (hills), 6:45, 6:43, 6:41, 6:42.  My plan was to keep the pace between 6:35-40 for the first half.  The hill slowed me a little more than I expected, but I felt good for the entire way out.  Solid effort, but even breathing.  I am learning that concentrating on my breath, much like what’s taught in yoga or meditation is the key to hard effort running.  At this pace,  I breathe twice as long on the inhale than the exhale.

The second reason the course change was beneficial was being able to cut the corners off the curvy road, or run the tangents.  With both lanes closed, we were not forced to stick to the edges of the road and could run in the middle, effectively making the course shorter.  Although I learned pretty quickly that due to the steep pitch or camber of the road, running the absolute shortest line between two corners was not ideal, so I stuck closer to the double yellow lines than I would have had it been flat.

Just before the turn-around, I opened a Salted Peanut Butter gel and had about half of it.  I’ve been experimenting with adding less water to make the package smaller and it was far too thick and gooey for me.  Back to the original recipe!  Glad I didn’t find this out in Richmond!

Second Half:  6:30, 6:41, 6:33, 6:32, 6:45, 6:47 (hills), 6:33.  Now it’s time to turn up the effort. Right into the headwind.  I was hoping that I’d be in a pack of runners so that I could use someone to draft off of, but I was almost completely alone for the second half.  I picked up the pace and moved to equal breath in and out.  It was never a panicky, hyper-ventilated breath, but it is a hard, yet controlled effort.  This kind of breathing is what I really want to master.

At mile 8, my music stopped.  Yes, I still run with headphones even though it seems that at every major race, they fail me.  I really enjoy running fast with dance music and I feel like it gives me a boost, but I am really starting to reconsider it.  It’s extra weight to carry and it’s a bummer when it doesn’t work right.  As I focus more on my breathing and the other nuances of racing, I’m starting to think that I should skip them.  I ran both Bostons without music due to malfunctions, so I’m thinking I should not bring them to Richmond.

Maybe I’ll practice on my long run this weekend before I decide.

At the second to last hill, I could hear a steady beat of footsteps coming up from behind.  I thought there was no way anyone that I had passed could have turned up the pace enough to catch me.  I was running such a controlled race that for someone to pass me at this point really didn’t make sense.  I turned to see my very fast friend Stu easily gliding by, giving me a quick, “Good job, Claire,” in his British accent.  At the turn around, I had been astonished to see that he was behind me, jogging easily with a friend.  I learned later that Stu was just using this race as a progression run, running his first mile in 7:27 and his last in 5:48.

Coming into the home stretch
Coming into the home stretch

For the last mile, I really wanted to run hard. It turned out to be my second-fastest mile, but I have to admit, I was hoping for a very solid kick.  Maybe that didn’t exactly happen, but I loved seeing my husband and two kids near the finish.  My 5-year-old daughter cheered when she saw me and ran into the road to hug me.  I managed to dodge the sweet little race bandit and both kids tried to chase me down to the finish.

One day they will be faster than I am.  They have a long way to go.

My official finish time was 1:26:40 or 6:36/mile.  It was a PR of over a minute from my last half on the mostly downhill Swamp Rabbit Half I ran in February.  That was good enough for 5th place female and 1st place Masters.

First Place Masters

I am happy with my effort and I think it was a good indication of my fitness for Richmond.  I am certainly glad that I don’t have to run Richmond as fast as this half, so hopefully that will make the slower pace feel that much easier.

I find that I really enjoy the half marathon distance.  It’s not so short that you feel like you have to redline yourself the entire time, but not so long that you have to spend a week or more recovering.

I’ll be taking it easy for the next few days, gradually getting back into some easy miles and saving speed for the end of the week.

I can say that while the course was not flat, it was certainly fast and I’ll be back next year!

Time for a Tune Up

This Saturday, I’ll be lacing up my racing flats for the inaugural French Broad River Half Marathon.  It is exactly three weeks before my goal marathon and I’ll be racing it as a tune up for Richmond.

The French Broad River
The French Broad River

Three weeks out is not exactly the ideal time to race hard before a marathon, but it’s pretty close.  (Four or five weeks out is probably perfect since there is no question about being able to recover well before taper.)  But because it’s so close, I have to decide whether to race it for a PR or to treat it as a marathon-paced practice.

I have decided.  I’m going to race it.

There are benefits to each strategy.  The last half I ran was the Swamp Rabbit Half in Greenville, SC in February and I chose to run it around goal marathon pace.  It was challenging, but at the end I felt like I could have run the whole thing again.  It taught me that I was in shape for my marathon goal in Boston and was great pace practice for the real thing.  Even though Boston didn’t go as planned, I know it wasn’t because I was not fit enough for the pace.  I got a PR in 1:27 (6:47 pace) for the half, and I know that I’m strong enough now to beat that now with not much more effort.

At the start of the Swamp Rabbit Half with my Jus' Running girls!
At the start of the Swamp Rabbit Half with my Jus’ Running girls!

But racing the half at anywhere between 10-20 seconds per mile faster than goal marathon pace will be a thrilling suffer-fest.  It will be a great benchmark of my fitness and it will be good mental practice for harsh reality of racing  the marathon.  Each time we push ourselves to run very hard without dying, the brain learns that we are not actually dying and allows us to push a little harder or longer next time.  Racing hard will teach my brain not to panic when it’s critical to keep going.  That kind of mental strength training will not happen if I only run marathon pace.

Either way, I will get the benefit of practicing the logistics: waking up early, eating a good breakfast, warming up, proper fueling and hydration, proper pacing, and soaking up the adrenaline from the race.  The course is beautiful and slightly downhill until a few surprise hills at the end (like a mini-Boston!).

I am not tapering for the half to keep a little fatigue in my legs.  I did only one shorter-than-usual speed session on Monday and have been running easy in the days since.  Not tapering will make me not race the half as well as possible, but the ultimate goal is the marathon, not the half, so tapering now would not ideal for marathon training.

I’m really excited about this one.  Wish me luck!