One of my favorite places to run is Clearwater Beach by Pier 60 for a variety of reasons. Its beautiful there. We have a nice 13 mile loop that we run frequently. It lets us do an open water swim right after we run which is a great way to kill 2 birds with 1 stone. And then there’s the part that people probably don’t usually like other than us crazy people – the bridges. There are some truely massive bridges on the route as well as some gently rolling terrain on the back half of our 13 mile loop. Running that route has seriously strenghtened my running. Because I love the area so much, I’ve done 2 of my last 3 races there. This past weekend was the Clearwater Running & Fitness festival. I signed up for the half marathon (which they call a Halfathon) and as my parents were in town, I got my mom to sign up for the 5k fitness walk. My friends were all doing anything from the half to the full.
When I signed up for this race, it was initially a big time A Race for me. I figured with it being 7 weeks after Spacecoast, I’d have enough time to recover fully while still maintaining my high level of fitness from the full marathon. Every since I was within 5 minutes of a 2 hour half marathon, I wanted to break the mark and I really thought this would be a good opportunity. After the marathon, though, I suffered a couple weeks with first some IT band sorness and then PFMS. Neither were serious but my goal at that point was simply to ensure it didn’t turn into something serious. I backed off my training big time for several weeks so when I got back from my ski trip on Jan 4th, my first run was rough. I struggled with a 4 or 5 mile run that first day. At that point I decided it was more important to just slowly make sure I got back into my rythym. There would be plenty more half marathons this year that I could try and break 2 hours. As I did more runs leading up to the race I saw I was getting back to the level I wanted quickly. I did nothing special to prepare the week of the race and in fact ran pretty hard all week.
As the weekend approached though I saw that the weather was going to be amazing. Race start temperatures would be in the 40s and in the 50s by the time I finished. I run very well at those temperatures. But I didn’t want to commit myself to doing something my body couldn’t handle so my plan was to go out and feel it out at first. See what my legs were telling me they could do on Sunday.
Getting to the race was pretty easy. I loaded my mom up at 5:30 and we did the 45 min drive over to Clearwater. Hugo had picked up our packets for us and this did induce some pre-race panic since I couldn’t find him. I had also left my phone in the car so I couldn’t call. Once I went back and got it, it turned out he had had to go move his car which was causing him to be late himself. I got my race number and then went to go pick up my chip. I haven’t been at a race with a non-disposable chip (tris excluded for obvious reasons) in a long time and 3 years since I had to pick it up on the day of the race. That was when we found out that the 5k was untimed so no chip. My mom was a little disappointed about that and I think that was an unfortunate decision on their part.
Once we had our numbers, we lined up in the chute. Since they started all the races at the same time, I was able to stay in the chute with my mom and chat up until the start. The chute was TIGHT. There were 2,000 runners in all and the course would stay pretty jammed the whole time. The roads weren’t full closed which contributed that. It wasn’t a big deal but there was a lot of rubbing elbows with runners on one side and cars on the other. The course was VERY well monitored by police so the cars weren’t a serious hazard but you did have to be mindful.
The start of the race was basically uphill for the first mile. I actually got excited about that fact because that meant that it would also be downhill for last mile. I started a little too fast but I felt really good. I made the decision as I got to the top of the first bridge that it might just be my day. I might have been inspired by the amazing view of the river below and the Gulf of Mexico just ahead with the beach and blue skies. Whatever it was, I decided I was going to race and not just run. By the time I hit the second mile, I was way above a pace I could maintain for 13 miles (around 8:50 or so) but I still felt great. So I decided so slow way down. My goal was to be at 9:15 by the time I hit half way. That meant with the cushion I already had, I could almost take it easy for the next 4.5 miles.
That’s what I did. It was the most relaxed I’ve ever felt in a race. I just made sure that my average pace stayed right where I wanted. This really let me enjoy the view. Running next to the beach with the waves crashing and the wind cooly washing over us was exactly what I wanted. Clearwater Beach is a great little town. Its very Floridian and made running the course just very enjoyable. Of course, having run here often, I know the route. This was important because there were two huge briges that I had to cross twice. I know what these bridges feel like and how long it will take me to get to the top. I wouldn’t usually say a bridge is an advantage since they added some challenge to the course but getting to the top just feels so good and I’m pretty good at descending.
Once I got to the halfway mark though, I was right on point. My watch read 9:16 with a total elapsed time of 1:01 and it was go-time. I had felt pretty relaxed up to that point but the second half of the race I’d need to have a solid negative split of about 3 minutes faster. This was also the point where I told myself if my legs just didn’t have the juice, then I’d just do what I could. But as the miles melted away so did my average pace. By mile 10 I was at 9:11 which is exactly what I’d need to hit 2 hours. So that meant I just needed to run a 5k and keep my pace up. I had just finished my 3rd bridge and had only one left. Of course, the final bridge I also knew would the toughest ascent since it was pretty steep. But when I saw a sign at the bottom that indicated a mile to go, I kicked it in.
That bridge sucked. People were walking up it and since they were ahead of me that meant they had run a pretty quick race to then. But I knew how hard that bridge was going to be and I also knew from the top of the bridge to the finish was entirely downhill. So that meant I put my kick in when I hit the bridge. By the time I got to the top I was gasping but I had passed a lot of people on my way up. The downhill would be my time to cruise. I checked my watch at the top and at the top of the bridge I had maybe 5 minutes left to break the 2 hour mark. It was going to be close. So I let gravity help and started my descent.
At this point I got passed for the first time since the first couple miles when everything was still shaking out. I had been passing everyone for almost 9 straight miles with noone passing me. The girl who passed me was flying downhill and even though I was moving pretty fast I couldnt catch her so I just let her go. I never saw her again…she really was fast. Once I hit the bottom of the bridge and approached the 13 mile sign, my watch ticked over to 1:59. Now, I only had 0.1 miles left which I could definitely do in under a minute but my watch does now show seconds after I go over an hour running. So I was running somewhat blind and just pushed to the end. At that point I didn’t even glance at the watch again. The only thing I could possibly see was that I hadn’t done it so I didn’t need it anymore.
When I crossed and checked my time it looked like I had done it. I was pretty excited since this wasn’t something I had thought I was going to pull off for this race. I was pretty nervous until the official results finally got posted but sure enough, my chip time confirmed what I though. My final time was 1:59:37 which is about 5 minutes faster than my previous PR and importantly, under 2 hours. I felt great doing it too. This takes a lot of pressure off for future races since I want to just enjoy the race and not have this goal hanging over my head all year. Of all the goals I had this one seemed to be both very attainable and very difficult.
I’d definitely do this race again. The course is beautiful and its fairly well managed. The after race party/expo was nicely set up. This is not an easy course because of the bridges. My mom was very sore this morning since even the 5k goes over the bridge twice. The rest is flat and the time of year has a good chance of favorable weather. If I had to pick a race for a PR, I could do much worse than this one.