Friday, March 7, 2014

Snake River Canyon Race - 2014

Well, to start with - What a race!

The Snake River Canyon half-marathon takes place along a desolate stretch of road that winds around the steep, rocky hillsides of the Snake River. It is a simple "out and back", with little to look at other than grey-brown hillsides and a flat, wide, grey-brown section of river. The location is twenty minutes outside of Pullman, Washington, which is already in a rolling rural area of the state. The weather is typically much warmer than the surrounding area due to the microclimate along the river canyon. That is a "plus" for a race in March. The flipside is that the race is often windy, and some years people have reported gusty headwinds - in BOTH directions! Despite this the race is sort-of a rite of spring for many runners in our area. I like it because a lot of friendly and fast people show up, and the timing means you can't just slack off through January or February if you want to do well.

I ran Snake River in 2011 while I was training for Ironman Coeur d'Alene. That year I was in fantastic shape, and the conditions for the race were ideal. I finished in about 1:38, which was one of my fastest half-marathons ever. I even placed third in my age group.

This year I was very, very nervous about this race. It feels like it has been forever since I ran Missoula nearly 8 months ago, and despite all my training I really didn't know what race day would bring. Coupled with remembering my glorious 2011 experience, and the threat of wind, snow, ice and frigid temperatures in the forecast, I felt more nervous for this race than anything in recent memory. It may have even cost me a few minutes of sleep last week!

My "ultimate goal" for this race was to run a 1:45, which would mean running 8 minute/mile pace for the whole thing. My long runs lately have been very hilly and with a lot of tempo work, but still rarely approaching that pace. PLUS I missed two weeks of long runs for our trip to Colorado, so I was especially unsure about my fitness level.

At the start of the race I tried to run cautiously, but quickly found myself settled into a 7:40ish pace. This was much to the dismay of my dear friend Brenda, who was under the impression I would be a bit slower! But once I had my legs moving it felt GOOD! And even after a few miles I really felt like it would be ok to stick to that sub-8 pace. Around mile three the wind really started to kick up - and then something amazing happened: I found myself in a drafting group! There were four or five of us running in a straight line, breaking the wind for the person behind us. It was surreal to run that close to a bunch of folks you don't know, and to all work with each other to take turns at the front. There were virtually no words spoken, but it just happened and it was great. The twist, however, was that staying in the draft group meant I was staying that somewhat obnoxious pace of 7:40ish... but made a conscious decision to stick with them until the turn-around at mile 6.5 when we would (hopefully) lose the wind. I figured it was worth it even if I needed to slow down for the second half. It turned out to be a great decision. When we hit the turn around it was eerie to suddenly be without the headwind, and it felt like the temperature went up by 20 degrees. I quickly felt warm and after another mile removed my heavy outer layer. Then I just kept moving - thinking I was going a bit too fast, but feeling mostly great. It was very odd. And so by about mile 8 or 9 I began to accept that maybe - just maybe - this pace was what I was supposed to run! I started to enjoy myself, stretch my legs, and get into my head in a good way. The next thing I knew my pace was dropping... all the way down to 7:28 at mile 10 and 7:30 at mile 11. By mile 12 I felt a little bit of a tweak here or there, but I knew I was going to finish waaaaaaay under my goal. I glided through the last mile at an easy 7:45ish pace to finish in 1:40:23. WOW!! I was totally amazed. And I only became more amazed the more I thought about it. I had a great race! I ran even splits! I didn't feel sick or sore or anything! And more than anything, I didn't really even feel like I was pushing that hard - I felt pretty darn comfortable.

So, needless to say, WHAT A GREAT RACE! And, maybe, just maybe - I'M BACK!

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