Wednesday, June 6, 2018

North Olympic Discovery Half Marathon 2018

After having such an amazing experience in 2011 winning the North Olympic Discovery Marathon (NODM), the Port Angeles NODM races are always high on my list of races to do each year. In 2012 and 2013 I had free entries, and so I ran the 10K and 5K. The 10K race in 2012 was a flat out and back course along the North Olympic Discovery Trail, starting and finishing in Port Angeles in front of the Red Lion. It was not a very competitive race, and I easily won in 37:39. The 5K in 2013 was mostly an out-and-back course from the same start/finish, but it had a nasty uphill and downhill loop thrown in. Up Ennis Street and back down the Rayonier Access Road. It was quite competitive as I ran with a young kid for the first half, but pulled ahead on the downhill to win in 17:25.

I had always planned on coming back and trying to win the half marathon (which is typically a very competitive race) to complete the series. But in 2014 the first of my two kids showed up, and it become harder to travel and train. But finally this year I was able to go back there and race the half marathon. My training wasn't great as I had been sick with minor colds on an off for a month, but I had paid my money for the race and hotel, so off I went.

A little bit of research showed that none of the previous winners were racing this year, so I thought I did have a small chance, and hoped to place top 3 at least. But to give you an idea of how hard it is to win this race - the average winning time in the half marathon is just under 1:15 (with the course record being 1:11:38). Only once in the 15 years had a winner run slower than 1:20! And considering that my PB is 1:19:50 from 5 years ago I didn't think I'd come close to that time or have much chance at winning.

Even though I hadn't done a single run over 18 kilometers in many years, I figured I would still go out at 1:20 pace (3:48/km) and try to hold on. But the course has quite a lot of hills (up and down) in the middle section, so I knew it would be hard to maintain a decent pace.

I hadn't been this excited for a race in many years. And so I put a lot of effort in before the race planning my strategy, memorizing the course and the splits I hoped to achieve. Many people will not bother to learn the course and elevation profile of a race, but I think it's invaluable, especially for longer races.

It was a lot of fun before the race started, I ended up chatting with a nice group of runners from Nanaimo, and then headed out for a 15 minute jog to get warm. The weather was overcast, and very lightly drizzling on and off, and a moderate headwind. Temperature wise it was perfect (~12 C) for racing, but rather chilly for standing around!

When it was nearly 8:30 am, I stood at the start line and sized up my competition. There was one older guy who I thought looked very serious (aka fast), but otherwise everyone looked pretty relaxed and chill. This was especially apparent as we were counting down from 10 and no one bothered to crowd the start line! They all stood back about 10 feet, it was amusing.

As the gun went off, I headed out in front, but soon the other runner caught me and we ran side by side for 500 meters to the first corner where the lead cyclists were waiting.
I was watching my pace to ensure I didn't go out too hard, and saw it was 3:40/km - slightly too fast. So I eased up a touch and the other runner (whose name was Paul) slowly pulled ahead. I suspected at that moment that I was destined for 2nd place, as he looked very fit and comfortable at that pace. And sure enough by the time we got to 5K (in 19 flat for me) he was no longer in sight except on a couple really long straight sections.
The headwind was quite strong, and it was definitely a struggle to maintain that pace. Plus the course is quite hilly from 5-11 km, so it wasn't a big surprise that my splits slowed. But there was also more trees and wind protection in this section so the wind wasn't as much of a problem. By the time I got to 10K I was well off pace (39:13) and not expecting anything much.

But as I said before - it is always a good idea to know the course! And I knew that from 11-13 km there is an out and back along Buchanan Road, so I would be able to see how far ahead Paul was and better estimate my chances (and required effort level!). I always remember that part of the course too because you run down a nasty steep switchback, then across a bridge over Bagely Creek, and back up the other side - and it's really steep. Brutally hard at ~32 km into a marathon! Even at 10.5 km in a half it felt awful. But after that is a nice downhill, so I got my speed back up and turned onto Buchanan Road. This is where the 10K race starts, and so there were still many runners/walkers were coming back the other way. I kept looking for Paul, expecting to see him (and the lead cyclists) coming back towards me. But he wasn't there. I did see one lead cyclist standing on the side of the road. Very weird.

When I got to the turnaround at the bottom of Buchanan the volunteer yelled out
"You've got a HUGE lead!"
I assumed he meant ahead of the 3rd place guy. So I replied
"But there was one guy ahead of me right?"
"No, you're in first place!"
Complete shock. I couldn't believe it. Had I really gotten this lucky? Sure enough by the time I got back to the top of Buchanan Road, the 2 lead cyclists started going again in front of me, yelling
"Lead half marathon runner coming through"
Wow. I was about as ecstatic as could be. That part of the course is also a huge downhill, most of which is actually quite runnable. So I absolutely flew down the hill (putting in a 3:25 km), sometimes pretending to be a plane because why not?!? It was such a wonderful moment. Many of the 10K walkers that I passed yelled out nice words of encouragement, it was amazing. Up and over the Morse Creek Trestle, and from there it is all flat the rest of the way - about 7-8 kilometers along the water. One funny runner yelled out
As my singlet has Victoria, BC, Canada on it. This is one of the reasons I love this race - the timing makes it so you pass a lot of walkers and runners who cheer for you. It is such a great atmosphere.

I assumed that Paul had either pulled out or more likely missed the turn onto Buchanan and gone straight down the hill. Anyway, the lead cyclists continued clearing the way for me, as there were many 10K and 5K walkers/joggers along the trail. By about 10 miles I was definitely running out of gas, but managed to maintain a decent 4 min/km pace the rest of the way. I was pretty sure there was no way the next runner would catch me, but I did shoulder check a few times just in case. When the finish line came in sight I was absolutely giddy, and did a bit of a sprint finishing in a time of 1:22:15. Definitely not as fast as I had hoped, but considering my training (and a 36:30 10K a month ago) it was pretty much what was expected.

After the race it was unfortunately getting colder, windier and rainier, so it wasn't a lot of fun to hang around outside. I did have a few nice chats with the other runners, including with Paul who as I guessed had missed the turn and gone straight down the hill. Really tough luck for him as I'm sure he would have easily won. My best guess is he would have been in the 1:18-1:20 range but it is hard to tell. For a few days the official results had him listed as 1st place in 1:14, but I would assume that was his time without the ~1.4 km section along Buchanan.

I hung around about 15 minutes and was very surprised to the see the lead marathon runner come flying across the line in a course record time of 2:34! After that I quickly checked out of my motel and then hung around the finish line (under cover as it was raining a bit) eating as much food as my stomach could handle! Then I hopped back on the Coho ferry and back to reality.

Not only was I very fortunate with the race, but I was also lucky in that the rest of my family had come down with a nasty 24 hour stomach bug on Saturday afternoon that could have ruined my race. But I just missed it thankfully. For winning I received this lovely metal poster, and a free entry into next year! But what race should I do now?!?

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