Monday, June 20, 2011

Illinois' Toughest 15k? Bring it!

Since I began this blog nearly a year and a half ago, I have written many times about the wonder and torture of the Hill of Death. I have run many a training run up and down its steep and unforgiving slopes, and even though it hurts like hell every time, I'm pretty sure it has made me a stronger runner. For this reason, deep down, I love the Hill of Death. However, I have never said to myself "Self, wouldn't it be fun to run a race that includes the Hill of Death... twice???"

Until now.

After five years in a row of running the Steamboat Classic 4 mile race ("The World's Fastest 4 Mile Race"), I decided it was time to take on a new challenge. And what better way to take on a new challenge than by running "Illinois' Toughest 15k" which takes runners up the Hill of Death not once, but twice?

This was a welcome change for several reasons. First, I really prefer longer distance races to shorter ones. Second, I have never raced the 15k distance before so it would be an instant PR. And third, and most importantly, finishers of the 15k event receive a shiny medal.

I'm a sucker for a shiny medal... even if it means running the Hill of Death twice.

I have run the race course several times before as a training run with my beloved Stashies and I felt pretty comfortable with it. As a training run, it actually isn't too difficult. Yes, the hills are tough, but for every uphill there is a downhill. I have found that I rather enjoy the variety of this course, with its fast flats and undulating hills, and bustling city segments and tranquil park segments. I knew my opinion would probably change when I attempted to race it though.

Based on my training runs, I thought a reasonable goal for this hot, humid and hilly race would be under 1:30. (Steamboat is always hot and humid; I'm pretty sure it's in the official race rules that the weather be as miserably summery as possible.) Yes, that's even slower than my half-marathon pace, but I had to take course and weather conditions into account in my goal-setting.

The elevation profile for the Steamboat 15k. Ouch.

And so when race morning finally arrived, I set my sights on 1:30. The weather was hot and humid, as expected, but thankfully, it was cloudy. I felt good. My coaches had me do a short taper in the week leading up to Steamboat, and although I suffered a bit of taper madness from running so few miles, my legs felt fresh for race day.

Runners lined up at the start and ready to run!

The gun went off (I didn't actually hear a gun, but everyone had started running, so I just assumed...) and away I went. The first two miles are flat, so I used this to my advantage to bank some time. I ran about a 9:00 pace for those two miles, which was faster than goal pace, but not so fast that I wouldn't have any energy left to tackle the hilly miles (miles 3 - 7). When I finally reached the Hill of Death (the first of several hills), I felt great. I climbed the hill at a relaxed pace, rather than trying to attack it, so that I would be able to take back a fast pace as soon as I reached the top. This was my strategy for all of the hills and it worked great.

As I made my way around the first loop of Glen Oak Park I was joined by fellow FASTie, Anna. We had a nice chat about marathons and beer and race hydration strategies. Anna told me about her idea for margaritas made with Gatorade instead of margarita mix. They would be called Gatoritas. This is beyond brilliant, and I hope the idea catches on with marathon race directors. At Mile 22 of a marathon, nothing would be more refreshing!

When I came around for my second loop through Glen Oak park, I picked up my pace a little bit, because I knew I was almost done with the hills. Before I knew it, I was running down the last downhill, out of Glen Oak Park, and into the home stretch. The last two miles of the race are pretty much flat, with a nice downhill segment in the last 1/4 mile. It was time to kick it up a notch.

I really had no idea what my pace had been during the race. As I typically do during races, I ran entirely by feel, and I rarely looked at my Garmin. Based on the race clock at the 10k mark, I knew I was on track for sub-1:30, but I really didn't know by how much. (My computational skills during races leave a lot to be desired.)

So imagine my surprise as I surged down the final downhill, around the corner, and toward the finish line, when I saw the race clock at exactly 1:25:00. Suddenly, a man came flying past me in his sprint to the finish line. Not wanting to be outdone, I kicked with all I had and passed him with 20 feet to spare, crossing the finish as the clock struck 1:25:08. Knowing it had taken me at least 30 seconds to cross the starting line of the race after the gun was fired, I knew my chip time should be well under 1:25. I was ecstatic!

After collecting my shiny medal and high-fiving my fellow FASTies and Stashies who had already finished, I proceeded to the post-race party where I enjoyed the optimal recovery fuels of bagels, orange slices, and beer with my friends. Many of us celebrated PR's, and several even won awards.

Me and fellow FASTie, Cathy, both celebrating PR's!

When chip times were finally posted (36 hours after the race - talk about slow!), I was very pleased to see my time was 1:24:34 (9:04 pace). I do believe I properly earned this shiny medal:

I love that it says right on the ribbon "Illinois' Toughest 15k" - damn right!

Coach Brad has always said that there's really only one race at Steamboat: the 15k. After having raced both the 4 mile and the 15k, I can now understand his logic. The 15k is far more fun (even with the Hill of Death), the pace is more comfortable, the course is more shaded and less crowded, and there's a shiny medal at the finish. It may be Steamboat's best kept secret. So many more runners opt to do the 4 mile because it promises to be "flat and fast". But I think if they gave the 15k a chance, they'd realize that flat and fast isn't always better.

I will be back again next year for the 15k. And now I have a time to beat. Look out!

Peace. Love. Train.

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