Want a PR? Run This Race and Revel In It
“How are you doing?” A fellow runner asked me.
“I’m good!” I paused. “I can’t feel my right foot, my left calf is pulsing, and my right hip hurts. But I’m totally high on caffeinated gels, so I’m good.”
He stared at me. I asked, “How are you?” and politely listened to his reply before passing him. I’d expected this race to be fast--with a descent of 3,146 feet it had to be--and I’d expected to be in pain. Maybe not in as much as I was at that very moment, but I was still determined to push past it.
I’ve chickened out before. I am a conservative runner. I don’t want to get hurt by giving it all in one particular race. If don’t believe I can achieve the pace I set out to run, I often back off. And I miss a lot of time goals as a result. Better safe than sorry, right?
After missing both my time goals in 2018, at the Twin Cities Marathon and the Napa to Sonoma Half, I finally realized that my physical fitness wasn’t holding me back from making new PRs. My attitude was. Luckily, my friends had decided that for our annual trip--where we travel somewhere and run a half marathon--we’d run Revel Mt. Lemmon.
The Revel Race series is designed for runners to PR. When you register for a Revel Race, you’re signing up to run down a mountain. At Revel Mt. Lemmon, eleven of the 13.1 miles I ran were downhill. My friends had chosen it for the scenery and its fast reputation, but as a coach I knew that running downhill can be a challenge. It may sound easy, but it requires a different approach than running uphill or on flat ground. When you’re running downhill, you need to lean forward from the hips, almost like you do when you are alpine skiing. And, as with skiing, you have to get comfortable with going fast and letting gravity do the work.
I only started skiing a few years ago, so I knew from recent experience that I find it hard, mentally, to let myself go fast. I worry that I won’t be able to control my skis, and that I’ll either hurt myself or someone else. Last year on Mt. Bachelor, my friend Erin told me, “You have to scare yourself and go faster than you’re comfortable with in order to be a better skier.” I didn’t do that on Mt. Bachelor, and so I didn’t get any better.
As I walked up to the starting line on Mt. Lemmon, I told myself that today, in this race, I would let myself go fast. Really, really fast. Way faster than I was comfortable with. I was ready to lay everything out on the line, leave everything out on the course. This was the last race of my season; I could get hurt now and everything would be OK. “Don’t chicken out” was my mantra at the start.
Because my PR for a half was 2:08, I started in the corral just ahead of the 2:10 pacer. Sunrise at 5,800 feet is cold, and even though I had gone through my standard warmup I thought my cold legs would need to ease into a faster pace. I assumed that I could make up for a slow start in the later miles.
I was wrong. After a half-mile of repeating to myself don’t chicken out, don’t chicken out, don’t chicken out, I had left not only the 2:10 pacer but also the 2:00 pacer far behind me. It was hard to run any slower than a sub-9-minute pace. I let gravity pull me down, focusing on my form. Cadence--how fast you turn your legs over--is the key to speed, especially downhill, so I tried to keep my stride short and my legs turning, turning, turning. I leaned forward from my hips and made sure my chin was just slightly ahead of my chest and that my arm swing was tight to my ribs and not flailing all over the place.
I looked at my watch in disbelief: 8:30, 8:15, 8:40, 8:25….
After a few miles, I started to worry whether I could maintain the pace. Unlike on normal runs, where I use the Galloway run/walk method, I had decided that I would only walk when I needed water or fuel. The first time I stopped for water, I walked through the whole stop but only slowed my mile pace by twenty seconds. Because I was going so fast, I realized that I didn’t have to eat my first gel until mile 5 (instead of at mile 4). I waited for water and, at mile 6, decided I could stand around at the side of the road to consume both my next gel and another cup of water because I had the time.
In almost ten years of racing, stopping and yet still achieving a PR has literally never happened to me,. I stood on the shoulder of the road for a full minute and I still pulled a 9:13 pace. I felt incredible. I realized that this is how my fast friends feel and was totally blown away. I jogged away feeling invincible.
And then what always happens at my half marathons happened. The pain started to set in around mile 8. A couple of fellow runners chatted with me, maybe to distract themselves or to be friendly or to slow themselves down. One mentioned that the last mile was completely flat. “It blew my PR last year, so I’m telling everyone,” she told me.
“Good to know,” I said, and wished her luck.
At this point, I had run nine miles in roughly 80 minutes. I started to do the mental math. I’d thought in the first mile that my audacious goal of breaking two hours was not only doable, but mine to lose. Running a half marathon in 1:59 or faster requires a 9-minute pace per mile. But every mile on this race was different. Some were very steep downhills, while others had a more gradual descent. My pace varied from 8:15 to 8:45, and I assumed that fighting for a consistent pace would cost me unnecessary energy. My slowest mile, even when run-walking, is between 12 and 13 minutes. If my goal was to finish in 1:59, that’s 119 minutes total. Subtract 13 minutes for the last mile, and I had 106 minutes. With three miles still to go until mile 12, I had 26 minutes to spare. I had to keep up my pace. My PR was close, but not a given. I panicked.
And then I thought: Don’t chicken out. I decided I could accomplish my goal if I told myself that I could and went all out. So I did. I held on, despite the pain and my worry that I had done something bad to my right foot and my left calf. (I hadn’t.) I held on, despite the last mile being not only flat but also really hot, sunny, and on rough pavement. I held on, despite really wanting to walk. I held on, deciding to switch to a 1 minute run - 1 minute walk interval in the last mile because I simply couldn’t do my usual 3:1 ratio.
On the last turn, I told myself, Don’t chicken out. You can do this. You can break two. But let’s do better than that. Let’s see how many minutes I can get below 1:59 by finishing strong, like I always do. I saw the finish. I pushed. I ran faster than I thought I would, and came around another runner so fast that I totally surprised her. (You can see that in the finish line video. With all due respect, I smoked her.)
I was hurting, bad. But I’d expected to hurt.
I was amazed by how fast I felt. But I’d expected to be fast.
What I hadn’t expected were tears. After the finish line, I was sobbing openly, loudly. I just kept saying, “sub 2, sub 2, fuck yeah, sub 2.” I didn’t care what anyone else thought. I had crossed the finish line at Revel Mt. Lemmon in 1 hour, 56 minutes, and 24 seconds. I’d done something I wasn’t sure that I could do. I had achieved my goal with time to spare.
Over the past few years, I’ve made goals but never felt truly driven to reach them. That changed on Saturday, November 3rd, 2018. When I came home, I waited to update my PR chalkboard. I don’t know why, but leaving my old PR, from 2016, up there for a little while felt right. After a few hours, I took down the bib and the medal from that race. and I did the Marie Kondo-inspired thing of thanking these inanimate objects for how accomplishing that goal made me feel back in 2016. I’m still so proud of that race. I put the bib up on my bathroom wall with so many others, and hung the medal on my medal display.
Then I erased my previous PR with a washcloth, slowly. I took out a piece of bright pink chalk, and wrote 1:56:24 with ‘18 next to it. I paused and looked at the ‘15 and ‘16 behind my PR times in the 5K, 10K, and Full. I decided that I’d like to try and change those too.
But this time, I will not be trying to prove anything.
I just want to see if I can.
The Revel Race Series:
If you run a Revel Race, you should train specifically for downhills.
The pain I experienced both during the race and after was the worst I’ve ever felt. Downhill running is hard on your body. Going fast is hard on your body. And this race series combines both. Revel offers their own training programs and tips on their website, but incorporating downhill repeats, and knowing how to adjust your form, is the bare minimum you should do in order to prepare for this race. This half hurt worse than any full marathon I’ve done. And it wasn’t just me: friends I was traveling with, who ran at an easier pace, were also hobbling around for days. When I wrote this blog, it was a week after the race and I was still sore. If you choose to run a downhill race--especially a Revel--make sure to build in extra time for recovery . You’ll probably need it.
That being said, Revel courses are made for PRs. If you’ve plateaued with speed or simply want to see how fast you can run, these races are a great option. And of course, these are great races to chase a qualifying standard. However, if you’re gunning for Boston, you may want to put these races first or last in your season because the recovery is real and necessary (as is a downhill-specific training cycle).
I’ve run a lot of scenic courses, but I simply loved starting the run at sunrise. My wake-up time was 3AM, partly because I take an hour to get ready for a race’ partly because there were three of us in one hotel room; and partly because our hotel was thirty minutes away from where we had to park. Runners also have to take buses from the parking area to the start and from the finish. That being said, everything was totally worth it. The course on Mt. Lemmon is gorgeous; you start in the forest and run down through the desert (with Saguaro Cacti all around). And because you drive up in the dark, you don’t see the course until you’re actually running on it, which avoids the anxiety of seeing the grade before you start. There are no spectators apart from the water stop volunteers and a few groups on the last mile, but that didn’t bother me at all.
Revel Races are very well organized and executed, though the field is small (only 1,000 runners between a half marathon and a full) and the expo tiny (we got through it in fifteen minutes and were trying to spend time there). The benefit is that there were no lines for anything except porta potties at the start and there was plenty of room out on the course after the first mile. The finish line had decent food (pizza and french toast in addition to bananas and water) and every finisher got a beer, which I appreciated. The race also printed out results cards on the spot, which I think is awesome because it means I don’t have to look it up on some random website or wait for it to be posted.
Tucson is cool, too. There’s enough to see that’s worth your time to travel there for a race, but not so much that you feel like you’re missing out by just sitting by the pool at your hotel (like we did after the race).
I highly recommend the Revel Race series if you like to travel for races, are chasing a PR or a qualifying standard, or simply want to do something different to your average local half or big-city race.