Race Report: McCarthy Half Marathon

After missing my target at Narrabeen (race report here) I decided that I needed another goal race in the early part of the year to have a nearby focus for my training. I decided to target a half marathon since it is a distance that requires minimal recovery time, and my existing PB was run at a pace only barely faster than my marathon PB. My PB of 1:28:11 dated back to November 2011, and was a firm (but not flat out) half marathon run as a confidence booster prior to the PE City Marathon where I set my marathon PB. The last time I had run a flat out half marathon was back in August 2009, when I had broken the 90-minute barrier for the first time. Simply improving on my PB was never going to be difficult so I decided to set myself a more challenging target: I wanted to complete the half marathon at a pace better than 4:00 min/km, requiring a finishing time inside 1:24:24.

Looking at my training plan I started by picking the weekend that could best fit a fast half marathon, deciding upon the first weekend of February. I then looked at the available options for that weekend, and had two choices: the McCarthy Half Marathon in Pretoria on the Saturday or the Alberton City Half Marathon to the south of Joburg on the Sunday. The Alberton area is known for its lack of hills, and the race was written up as being fast and flat. But in the end I decided to run McCarthy, which involves more climbing but has a big turnout and a good vibe at the finish. Last year we had run McCarthy and then hung around until 1PM before leaving the park where the race finished. I discussed my plans with Kirsten and he agreed to come onboard to run with me on race day.

Two weeks prior to the race I went out to run a sub-32 minute 8 km time trial to build some confidence and test out my racing flats, which had not been out of the cupboard since the first half of last year. I completed the time trial in 31:15, and although I had needed to push quite hard to complete it I had run it faster than the target pace for my half marathon. Deciding to take the attempt quite seriously I opted to taper for the 5 days prior to race day. I had however run over 140 km the previous week and my legs weren’t feeling as fresh as I had hoped leading up to race day. I was fairly confident that I could achieve my target but I knew I couldn’t take it for granted and I knew it wouldn’t be easy.

On race day I drove through to the race early with Kirsten, we picked up our race numbers and then set off for a warmup of around 2.5 kilometres. We edged our way close to the start line and ended up with only 3-4 rows of people in front of us when the gun went off. We set off and I started squeezing through gaps and running around people. Despite our proximity to the start line I encountered more people to overtake than made sense, and realised that a considerable number of people had obviously started off to the side of the course in front of the start line and were merging in front of us. But after a few hundred metres we had cleared the traffic and started to settle into pace. We completed the first kilometre in 3:59 and were perfectly on target.

McCarthy Half Marathon - Along the route
McCarthy Half Marathon – Along the route

The course comprised of two laps following a rough rectangular pattern, although there was a variation between the laps with the first lap covering 10 km and the second lap pushing out further to the east and west to cover the additional 1 km. There was an early climb but we held onto the pace before descending to the low point of the first lap just after 3 km, by which time we were 15 seconds ahead of the required pace. I was afraid of pushing too hard and burning out my legs early so I attempted to back off closer to target pace, although we continued to run at 4:00 min/km or better. After a short, sharp climb to the 6-km marker, there was a brief descent before beginning the major climb on the course to reach the highest point. On the first lap the hill climbed for around 2.5 km and I relaxed my pace during the climb, recording kilometres of 4:05 and 4:03.

McCarthy Half Marathon - Route Profile
McCarthy Half Marathon – Route Profile

As we had passed the 8-km marker I pointed out to Kirsten that we were almost 30 seconds ahead of pace. He started talking about the difference being less, which baffled me at first since the maths was very simple when targeting such a round number as 4:00 min/km. It turned out that he was aiming at breaking 1:24:00, which sparked a conversation about selecting meaningful targets. I explained that to my point of view breaking 1:24:24 was important but improving that by 24 seconds to break 1:24:00 seemed a fairly arbitrary improvement to me. I compared it to my running mileage last year, where my yearly total of just over 4800 km equated to an average of over 400 km per month. A few people had commented how close I had come to reaching 5000 km, but my next target would actually have been 5200 km since it would have equated to an average of over 100 km per week. But the arbitrariness of these targets is easily seen by considering these targets in the eyes of a runner from the US. My 2012 mileage of 4808 km fell short of the nice round figure of 3000 miles by slightly over 12 miles, and my 1:24:24 target in the half marathon would result in an average pace better than 6:26.2 min/mile. But despite the arbitrariness of my target it was still important to me, and by the time we finished that discussion we were almost 1 km closer to achieving it.

At around the 9-km marker the course started descending to finish the lap, and as we passed the board indicating 20 km (as that point on the course would be on the second lap) I pointed out that I would be very happy to see that sign on the next lap. We descended toward the 10-km marker and the start of the second lap. After the same early climb as we faced on the first lap we branched off during the descent and reached the lowest point on the course. During the descent I evaluated the state of my legs and knew that I was going to make my target. We climbed and merged back onto the same course as the first lap until we reached the steep climb and short descent that lead to the major climb on the course. On the second lap we would run a different route up to the same high point, resulting in a more gradual but longer climb of over 3.5 km.

I maintained a pace under 4:00 min/km in the steepest section where I had recorded my slowest kilometre earlier in the race, and just after 17 km we turned onto the main road that would lead us back to the park where the race would finish. We had approximately 2.5 km of climbing remaining followed by a 1.5 km downhill to the finish line. I decided to push for a PB time that could hold its place for a while and picked up the pace for the remainder of the climb. I ran my fastest kilometre up until that point of the race while running up the hill, so as I crested the hill I found little energy remaining to pick up the pace further. But as we continued down the hill gravity started to play its role and we increased the pace as we ran down the road, and then turned into the park. We ran briefly along a path through the park, turned off to descend a grassy hillock, and ran across the flat grassy finish to record a time of 1:22:30. Beaming, I turned and thanked Kirsten, who was possibly as happy about my time as I was.

McCarthy Half Marathon - Approaching the finish line
McCarthy Half Marathon – Approaching the finish line

I had achieved an average pace under 3:55 min/km, bettering my target by a time of almost two minutes and an average pace of 0:05 min/km. Sneaking in under a target time is always extremely rewarding. Clearly breaking a target time is also extremely rewarding, but it also makes the next target seem a lot closer. While it may be just another arbitrary number, a sub-1:20:00 half marathon would be quite an achievement. But either luckily or unluckily there is no time for that in the next 6 months, so now to focus on the next target.

McCarthy Half Marathon - Post-Race Smiles
McCarthy Half Marathon – Post-Race Smiles
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