Wednesday, June 1, 2011

ODDyssey HM, Philadelphia May 2011

I have mentioned my love of running tourism many times before in this blog, and in the process of planning our latest trip to the USA, I decided to take advantage and turn it into a little running adventure for myself. I had already figured that the easiest way to get ourselves, our children and all our STUFF from Washington DC (where DH's conference was being held) to New York (where much shopping awaited) would be to hire a car, so it was a simple matter to settle on a stopover in Philadelphia, where the ODDyssey half-marathon was going to take place on the very weekend we would be in town.

It's been a while since I have run a HM without being in the midst of a grander scheme (aka marathon training plan) so I had no idea how I would perform - especially given that it was only 6 weeks after the Canberra marathon - but by the time this reality occurred to me I had already registered for the race. Ooops.

The training

See above: no specific training plan for this one. After Canberra I vaguely followed a Pfitzinger recovery plan, gradually easing back into longer runs but always keeping the pace easy. As a result I did no speedwork in between the two races, none whatsoever. My longest run was 12 miles about two weeks earlier, and jet-lag had made for some slow, spaced-out runs after arriving in the US. In short, I was feeling woefully underprepared as race day loomed.

The travel

We were over a week into our travels by the time we arrived in Philadelphia, but even so I was still feeling affected by jet-lag. The first two nights in DC I slept like the dead, but from the 3rd night onwards I was having trouble, which has never happened before.

My body seemed to want to sleep from 2am or so until 9 or 10am if possible; this is so far from my normal sleeping pattern at home that it made me feel very disoriented. I tried to bash my circadian rhythm back into shape, using motrin PM and prescription sleeping tablets in slightly alarming quantities, but all this did was make me feel hungover in the morning and I was still lying awake for hours at night. By the 5th night I had given up and accepted that sleep would elude me until at least 1am, and so I stayed up reading/surfing the internet instead of lying there fuming. Understandably, this was a lot more fun.

This is how I came to be still up past midnight the night before the race, blathering on Facebook and Runners World about how I was going to run sooooo slowly, it would definitely be a new PW (personal worst) time for me, I was just going to do it as a fun run, not racing, definitely not, blah blah blah blah blaaaaah.

In the words of my husband: "Yeah, right".

Race day

Despite the late bedtime I'm awake the second my alarm goes off at 5:45am. I've actually been missing early morning running and I'm kind of excited despite my pessimism about how I'm going to run.

Thanks to our car GPS (how did anyone ever get anywhere before they existed??) I'm out at the starting area with plenty of time to spare. The start line happens to be right outside the Please Touch museum, which is where we stupidly left our travel stroller (a nice Maclaren one) folded on the ground behind our car the day before, so I jog over to look for it, even though DH has already pronounced it gone.

To my delight the stroller is right there, propped up against a tree. I grab it and set off back towards the car. I must look bizarre to the other runners who are now streaming towards the start - I'm moving in the wrong direction, despite being dressed to run with a number pinned to my singlet - with a stroller under my arm and a silly grin on my face. But I really don't care what they think, because I've decided it's officially a Good Omen and that the race is therefore going to go very well for me.

Back at the start I once again find myself right up the front - gotta love these small races - so once the gun goes off it takes mere seconds for me to cross the line. Unfortunately my Garmin has gone to sleep (the start was exactly one minute late) and it takes me around 400m to figure this out and start it properly. Annoying, but I try to shrug it off and focus on the run.

Miles 1-2: 6:49 (average pace in min/mile)
Off we go. The start is not too crowded, but I'm trying not to go too hard so the first mile or so isn't at top speed. After the first split beeps on my Garmin, I realise that my "comfortably hard" pace is actually a decent race pace - especially given my expectations - so I settle in and resolve not to look at the splits from now on, just so I don't freak myself out. Holiday me is apparently easily spooked.

Miles 3-4: 6:41
The course winds, in an undulating fashion, around Fairmount Park and back through the start. I have no idea where it's headed and briefly wonder if we'll be doing 3x4 mile loops through the park: hardly an appealing idea. Right at 4 miles though we head down a steepish hill to the Schuylkill river.

Miles 5-6: 6:39
We head out one way and then back - the perfect opportunity to confirm what I already know: I'm in 4th place and about half a mile behind the 3rd female. Another race seems to be setting up down by the river, so there are water stations everywhere but not all for us. It's confusing. I distract myself by aimlessly wondering how Schuylkill is pronounced. Skull-kill? Shool-kyl? Skyoool-keel?? This pointless exercise keeps my mind happily occupied for quite a while.

Miles 7-8: 6:37
I'm just moseying along by the river, enjoying myself more than I expected to. And I'm slowly making ground on the girl in front, although she's still a long way ahead.

Miles 9-10: 6:44
The "non-compulsory obstacles" that this race supposedly has near the water stations begin to appear. Why anyone would want to take a break from running a half-marathon to scale a jumping castle, or hurdle a barrel? It's mystifying. If you have enough spare energy to do that, then clearly you're not running hard enough. No-one appears to be taking part anyway.

Then, around the mile 10 mark, I see a sign that reads "Heads Up! Water Balloons!" and a couple of dudes hanging around holding small round balloons. I think to myself "Ooooh, they won't, will they?!?" and briefly consider giving them a warning glare, but then decide to use the "I can't see you so you can't see me" treatment I usually give unleashed dogs, and it works perfectly. Phew.

Miles 11-12: 6:51
We're heading back now and somehow we have to get back up to the museum, but I am holding onto the vain hope that the sharp downhill we took to get to the river won't reappear as a horrible uphill at this point. Surely we'll go back some other, less extreme way? Nope, there it is, right as we pass the 12 mile mark. The elevation profile says it all:

Mile 13.1: 7:03
The final mile is uphill?? This is torture. And it's time to try some of the tricks I've read about in Runners World and online: I relax my upper body, lean forward slightly and pump my arms for all I'm worth. I still feel like I'm crawling through quicksand, but eventually the gradient levels out and there's the finish line (not to mention the 3rd woman, whom I have almost caught, but not quite) just up ahead.

I cross the line in 1:28:24, my fastest HM time since 2007 and an official Masters PR!

It's good enough for 4th female overall and 1st place in my AG, which apparently earns me a medal that the organisers promise to send me, since I have to leave fairly promptly in order to pack up the family and get on our way to New York. I'm thrilled that my HM time has benefitted so much from all the marathon training, and what a great way to remember Philadelphia!

Bonus extras

One of the coolest things about being a runner in the 21st century is the internet and the online communities that like-minded people can join. This has been a big thing for me since way back in 2006 (see here for details) and since becoming a regular on the Runners World forums I have many running friends - the vast majority are Americans - whom I have "met" online.

In Philadelphia I was very excited to have the chance to meet two of these imaginary friends for the first time in real life. On Saturday night before the race, my friend Lynn and her husband Steve very generously invited us to their home for dinner, and I was able to use my upcoming race and carbo-loading as an excuse to eat a LOT of very yummy cake. A wonderful evening of food, good company and manic children was had by all - thanks, Lynn and Steve!

And after the race it was a great pleasure to meet another friend for brunch, the inimitable Flo, whose running blog is here. We chatted happily over pancakes and coffee about running, racing, training, Runners' World, more running - while my husband's eyes glazed over and my children made increasingly wild but futile attempts to attract my attention. Once again an almost complete stranger seemed like an old friend - it was great to meet you, Flo!

I'm hoping my next trip to the US will be another running tourism trip - stay tuned!


  1. Aw, I LOVED meeting you and your family, Rachel. It did seem like we've known each other for forever.

    Again, congratulations on such a fantastic race. I love that you thought, "eh, not going to be anything special" only to end up doing your best since 2007 and coming in 4th OA. Inspiring!

    Here's to more future meetings and more zoomy races like that one, too!! :)

  2. Yay! I found your blog. (This is Greenlee from RWOL). Congrats on a very well executed and super fast half marathon. Glad you got to race in a new city!

  3. Dude! Awesome! Congratulations on a speedy race, and YAY for meeting up with the BQ ladies too. Now we just need to get you to Colorado/Utah for a race or three. ;)