Analysis of the 2023 Austin Half Marathon

As I was 3/4 of the way into training for the Austin Distance Challenge, I read a quote in a running industry email newsletter that I subscribe to. The quote was something like: “stop trying to make it happen, and just let it happen instead.”

I was training hard to win the series overall, to the point of exhaustion, injury, and burning myself out overall. I bought into the “let it happen” prior to the 3M Half Marathon, which was the fifth of the six races. I’d still set a big goal for a Person Record at 3M and I pushed for it. I went out hard and knew there was a probability that I might blow up somewhere later in the race. I checked in with myself at the 5k split and thought to myself, “let’s just see what happens.”

I PR’d my half marathon time at 3M and beat my A goal by 2 minutes.

I’ll admit that I didn’t consciously tell myself to stop trying to make it happen at the Austin Half this past Sunday. I knew that I wanted to have fun, and not do anything to completely blow up and jeopardize the lead I’d been maintaining in the Distance Challenge.

I did set goals for Austin because if you don’t set goals for a race, then why sign up and pay for race registration?

Goal A: 1:22:19
Goal B: 1:25:00
Goal C: 1:29:00

Goals B and C were arbitrary. Just numbers to chase in case Goal A became out of reach. Goal B was to best my time at the Decker Challenge Half Marathon, an equally challenging race in terms of hills.

I toed the line five rows back at Sunday’s Austin Half Marathon. The gun went off and I set out. I don’t recall the last time I’d constantly checked in with myself during a race, but that’s what I did yesterday. And while I wasn’t consciously doing it at the time, in hindsight, and after checking my splits a few hours after finishing the race, I think I just let it happen. I used perceived effort (not pace) and the hills to settle into a flow and make adjustments as I’d continue to check in with myself whenever my brain told me it was time to check in. I didn’t check in every mile or at certain kilometer splits. I just checked in whenever the notion popped into my head. I let it happen on its own.

And I found my splits interesting because, as I reflect, I can see where I was checking in with myself and how I adjusted at different points on the course.

Here is my recollection and analysis of the race by mile split:

MILE 1: The first mile was exercise getting past the start line, finding space, navigating through the crowd, and making sure I kept things reigned in by not going out too hot and having to pay for it later. In order to hit 1:22 I knew I’d want to stay around a 6:15 pace. I did look at my watch a couple of times just to try to settle into a cadence and not start too fast. I knew I’d be okay with a 6:20 split in the first mile, and probably the subsequent few since they were all uphill.

MILE 2: While still in a big crowd, I had ample room around me. Mile 2 is a good 100+ climb. It’s not steep, but it’s steady. I’m strong on hills, so I used that as an advantage and as an opportunity to give myself some more room and put people behind me. I moved way to the left of the crowd and slowly crawled over bodies. I found a good pace but knew that I was pushing what I wanted to be my average pace going up a hill. In checking in with myself, I figured that would be okay because, with perceived effort on the downhill in a couple of miles up ahead, I could bank some time. That was a bit of a gamble because as I checked in, I was wondering if I was healthy. Mara had been sick the past couple of days and I was really wondering if I’d caught her cold, flu, or whatever it was she had. Breathing was a little tough too. I told myself that I hadn’t warmed up and settled in quite yet, and the humidity was high yesterday morning. Again I had that thought, “let’s just see what happens.”

MILE 3: Still a bit of a climb but I was good and warmed up at this point and my lungs were finally primed. I’d been slowly passing people and put my sites on a team of green singlets ahead of me, so I gradually crawled up to them. I checked in and my effort felt fine and sustainable. I did a bit of a literal gut check too. I wanted to make sure the GI tract was doing okay as I knew there were bathrooms at the corner of Ben White and First Street if I needed them. All systems were safe and I was clear to keep pressing on.

MILE 4: I settled in behind a group of six who, I think, were part of the UA Flow team. They were all wearing matching green singlets and, after checking Instagram late yesterday, looked like the same singlets the UA team was wearing. I didn’t look at their shoes so I don’t know if they were part of the Under Armour team, but, whatever. They were definitely part of some team and they were good to settle in with. They were serious and they were keeping an even clip, so I tucked in and we all ran the last of the long hill down Congress Ave. to Ben White. They were pushing the pace a bit, and I stayed in with them on the uphill access road to First Street. First Street is where the good downhills are and I knew I wanted to use gravity to my advantage and bank some time. I took the inside at the turn onto First and put myself ahead of the team. After the turn onto First and at mile 3.5, I started opening up my stride and put more distance between me and the UA team.

MILE 5: Big downhill on First Street. I checked in to make sure I wasn’t going to burn up my quads. The UA team was well behind me and crept up to a couple of new guys that looked strong. We hit the mile 5 split and my new British friend asked me what the split time was. I actually happened to look at my watch and saw 5:5X. I only looked at my watch because I wanted to see where I was pacing on the downhill. I knew if I’d dipped into the 5’s that I’d probably be okay when the course flatted out in another mile, and then I could dial it back a bit and regroup and recover for the Enfield hills. I told him “5:50.” He said, “Okay, thanks,” and then he started dialing it back a bit so I slowly crept past him.

MILE 6: Found myself pretty much alone at this point. There’s the good and steep downhill right at the apartment complex as you’re coming back into downtown. I sped up the cadence to try to brake a bit and to keep my feet from slapping. The course starts flattening out after the big downhill, so I started dialing it back a notch to start recovering and let up on the effort a bit.

MILE 7: The course flattens out as you cross Barton Springs and Riverside. I caught up with a fast lady and thought about settling in with her through downtown, but she looked like she might’ve gone out too hot and she was slowing down. I quickly passed her at Riverside and then I was on the First Street bridge. There was a big crowd on the bridge and I was by myself. If I’m being honest, there was a bit of performance anxiety in front of that big crowd. I sped up a little bit on the bridge and at the turn onto Cesar Chavez. The noise from the crowd was nice and motivating. Lots of “love the beard!” and “fear the beard” yells. I smiled. Smiling is always a good distraction and a way to keep your head in a positive place.

MILE 8: I think this is when I started to let it happen. The First Street downhill was well behind me and I knew the course would be flat for a bit, so slowed the pace. The previous four miles had been in the 5:50s and I knew there was no way I could hang on to that and have a fun remainder of the race. Cesar Chavez was lonely. I had two guys a ways ahead of me, so I dialed into them and just maintained effort at my slowed pace and eventually caught them and hung a few paces behind. The two guys were running for some kind of team. They were wearing matching race kits and seemed like they had some kind of plan. I checked my watch and we were hanging perfectly at around a 6:12 pace. I knew I’d banked some time on First Street and I could dial down even more. I think they had a similar plan and they both dropped down on pace a little more than I was comfortable with so I slowly passed them by the track at Austin High.

MILE 9: I slowed down and took some strides to resettle into a pace, regroup, and mentally prepare for the turn onto Enfield and the hills. I was all by myself on Lake Austin Blvd. and just focused on breathing and shaking things out. I could really feel the hot spot on the second toe on my right foot. I was pretty confident that it wouldn’t hurt any more than it already did, so I told myself to ignore it and that I could deal with it after the race. I also started doing the math and knew that I only had 4-something miles to go. I try not to do too much math during a race. But this was an opportune time to do a check-in and see how I was feeling with 4 miles to go and some hills to contend with.

MILE 10: I was feeling fine. No signs of fatigue. I checked in a gave myself a bit of a confidence boost that, unless I came unraveled and bonked, I would still maintain my lead in the distance challenge. I did another literal gut check. Even if I had to duck into a portapotty and lose some minutes, I’d still be fine. I checked on my legs and they were still totally fine and ready for the hills. I kept a steady pace at the effort I wanted to maintain. I slowly caught up to a lonely runner and just as we were getting to the end of the golf course, a friend of his jumped onto the course and asked, “how are you feeling?!” His response was, “like shit. Hahahahaha.” So I took that as my queue and stayed with him until we crested the big hill at the corner of Lake Austin and Enfield. I think that zapped him, so I maintained effort after the hill and let him fall back. That was the last I saw of him. I still felt really good after a couple of rollers on Enfield. I’d gone a few long runs on Enfield in the past couple of months, so I knew what I was up against and how to approach each hill. They’re not killer hills, but they’re hills at mile 10 in a half marathon. You have to be ready and have something left in the tank for hills in the later stages of a run or a race. I was prepared.

MILE 11: I was by myself and saw one lonely guy way ahead of me as we both went up and down the rollers. There were some sparse spectators on the course. I heard a quiet “go Josh.” I looked to my left and saw Gary Perez. I excitedly said, “Hey Gary!” I checked in and was still feeling fine. I did math again and knew I didn’t have much further to go. Downtown was just a couple miles ahead and it was time to start digging, pressing on, powering through, and maintaining a steady clip.

MILE 12: A big hill crawling up Enfield under Mopac. I was still by myself and kept strong. I focused on form, keeping my feet underneath me, shortening the stride, and really pumping my arms to distribute the load and take some weight off of my legs. Then there was the big downhill where Enfield splits off onto 15th Street. I still had my sights on the guy in front of me and I was slowly gaining ground on him. He also used the big hill to his advantage and boogied down. I knew the crowds were coming up and the course was going to split for the half and the full. I checked in and knew I still had something left in the tank. So far I’d run a smart race and I could pick it up after the big hill up West Street.

MILE 13: The last mile starts with a climb up the last big hill. The big hill on 15th Street up to West Street. I’ve run that hill many times, and I knew it was time to just drop into a lower gear, think of the legs as pistons in an engine, pump the arms, and power through it. I’d finally caught up to the guy ahead of me and we went stride for stride at the start of the hill, but he let it slow him down. I’m strong on hills so I used that to my advantage and kept an even clip up the incline and left him behind me. Once I crested the hill I just maintained the same effort and picked up the pace. I had one more guy ahead of me, but I knew he was too far ahead to catch up to, so I just kept him in my sights so I wouldn’t back down on the pace. I just gutted it out and focused on my form so I didn’t get sloppy this late in the race and hurt myself. I’d forgotten about the little climb on 13th Street up to Lavaca and to the Capital. That little climb sucked. And that’s when my stomach made a couple of grumbles. There was a fleeting moment when I thought, “well this is a great time to have to duck off to find a toilet.” I just chalked it up to nerves and excitement and lengthened my stride on Colorado Street.

LEFT ON 11TH, RIGHT ON CONGRESS: I emptied the tank. The short section of 11th in front of the Capital was kind of quiet. There were a lot of people standing behind the barricades, but there wasn’t much noise. It was that or maybe I’d just tuned out the noise. When I turned right onto Congress is when I did one last quick check-in and opened it up. I looked at my watch, but I have no idea what I was looking at. I think I looked to see if I was going to hit 1:22. I honestly don’t remember. I just knew that I had to put my left arm back out into rhythm on the side of my body if I was going to keep up the final sprint. I stayed next to the crowds on the right and hammered the last block and a half until I could hear Elise. I heard her somewhere around 10th street and craned my neck to find her. I saw her just as I was passing her and Maly. I pointed and kept going. There was no one behind me. No one to race. I didn’t even look at the clock. I just gunned it across the finish line and smiled before I stopped my watch and put my hands on my knees for a few moments.

I think this was one of my smartest and best races. Again, while I didn’t remind myself before the race to do it, I wound up just letting it happen. I didn’t check my watch as much as I have in other races. I ran more by perceived effort and I used the slope and terrain to dictate that effort and whatever pace I was currently in.

I came in at 1:20:20. One minute and 59 seconds ahead of Goal A. I’m really happy with how I approached the race and will work to repeat that approach in future races.

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