Apr 18, 2011

2011 Hook Mountain Half Marathon: 2:12:55 (PR)

On April 10th, I ran the Hook Mountain Half Marathon for the third time, and finished in a Personal Record time of 2:12:55. This was my fourth PR in as many weeks.

I really can't write about this year's race without referring to last year's. I've never worked in a race so hard as I did last year at this race. For some reason, that day I was able to dig deeper than I ever had and pull out the kind of performance that was more guts than training. My time, 2:17, was a dramatic PR and I was left tired for a couple of weeks afterward.

Going into this year's race, several factors were in play:
  • I was in better shape
  • I had just run a 50M the week prior, and another 50M three weeks prior
  • I could not afford to be tired for a week or two after this race, so..
  • .. I would not "kill myself" in this race.
Quick Synopsis
I went out feeling comfortable but was concerned about my pace which was very fast for me, especially on the hills from miles 4-6.  To compensate, I took walk breaks on a couple of the later hills, but it was too little too late and I had to get out of my comfort zone to maintain reasonably even splits for the balance of the race.

The course
This half marathon is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a trail run because of the hills and the fact that it's not all asphalt. This course is all roads. The hills are relatively steep for being roads, but not so much that your Honda would have a problem ascending them. If this were a real trail race, the steepest longest hill would be rather mild. And there is nothing remotely technical on any part of the course.

The Course
I break the course itself into three sections: The first section, which is four miles, are completely flat, and include most of a lap around Rockland Lake plus a mile on the auto road. The second section, miles four to nine, continue on the rolling hills of the auto road south and then east of the lake until going through a col and steeply descending down to the Hudson River. This Hudson River portion is the only non-paved part of the race, and includes 1.25 miles of completely flat dirt road ending with a not-so-subtle paved hill to a turnaround, where you return down the hill, back on the 1.25 miles of flat, and then steeply back up to the col. This steep hill is the race's namesake and it's what everyone talks about in the post-race tent. The third section descends the rolling hills with a couple of short but steep rollers back to the lake, where runners finish with two miles of completely flat asphalt again.

The course is thus about 60% flat, 40% hills, and 75% asphalt, 25% dirt. Most people don't consider it a PR course.

My race
My goal time for the race was simply to beat last year and run even splits. I knew I was in better shape and could match last year's time without exhausting myself. My goal was to thus set a new PR and figured the race would be a success if I could run even splits at the end as at the beginning.

Splits taken from my Garmin

Section 1 - too fast
There is a concurrent 5K run and walk that starts at the same time as the half. The start is thus very crowded and difficult to navigate. It spread out sufficiently after a mile, so I settled into a groove and tried to maintain 10 minutes per mile, which was easy - too easy. I was alarmed when, in my third mile, I found myself running sub-9:30. I tried to ease off the pace but still had a 9:39 split for that mile. Mile 4 was still a tad too fast at 9:50.

Section 2 - still too fast, paying for it
In mile 5 the hills started and I still went too fast on the harder terrain, getting a 9:45 split. I was concerned to find myself quickly passing people when going up hill. Because of the kind of training I've been doing lately, I expected to be strong on the hills, but not like this. I didn't expect to be so dramatically stronger than the flat-terrain sub-10 runners, and took it as a warning sign. Mile 6 is where we descend Hook Mountain, which is a half-mile long and very steep, so I wasn't surprised or concerned to do it in 9:16. My aggressive hill pace caught up to me on the flat section by the river, however, and found myself struggling to maintain a 10-minute per mile pace. In particular, the hill at the turn around nearly reduced me to a shuffle, but I managed to stay strong and run these three miles in 10:00, 10:06, and 9:50. But by the time I returned to the steep hill, I was ready for the walk break.

The hill at Hook Mountain can be broken up into two parts, divided by a caretaker's house. The lower portion has a hill that ascends sharply from the river but flattens out for a few hundred meters until getting to the house. The upper portion is just as steep as the lower but without any flat, so it can start to get real long towards the top. Feeling like I needed to pay the piper for the early-race speed, I took a walk break on the hill (but not the flat) of the lower portion, which allowed me to recover enough to run the entire upper portion, albeit slowly. I clicked off mile 10 right at the summit of the hill, having done it in 11:48.

Section 3 - holding it together
Continuing to run after the top and after catching my breath on a brief downhill, I returned to the rollers of the auto road and just tried to stay as comfortable as possible. I didn't feel like I was going to be able to maintain 10 minute miles at this point. I was pretty tired, however, and never could get back into that easy groove I had early. I even took a brief walk break on one of the rollers, which again made me feel a lot better. Mile 11 was 10:20, the slowest mile of my day (not counting the Hook itself.)

Mile 12 is all either downhill or flat. I did it in 10:01. By now there didn't seem to be anything in between "Pushing The Pace" and a walk break. I would have liked to slow down to 10:30 or 11:00 but for some reason I wasn't able to. Mile 13 was more of the same, and I did it in 10:05. I would have liked to walk some of these last sections but, with the end so close, I figured I'd just keep going.

About to Finish with Caden and Joey. Photo by Carl Cox.
The first time I saw the finish line clock, it read 2:12:30. I pushed hard to the finish to get in under 2:13. According to my Garmin, my pace after mile 13 was sub-9:00.


This was a great race for me. I accomplished everything I wanted. I pushed hard and felt it the next day, but not so hard that I'll feel it in a week. I beat my time last year by about 5 minutes. I came home with a PR. And, every one of my miles (up and down Hook notwithstanding) were within 21 seconds of 10 minutes, which is about all I can ask for. I did pay for my early enthusiasm, but the numbers indicate that even the mile where I took a brief walk break was only 42 seconds slower than my fastest (again, not counting the Hook itself.) If I could change anything, I would try to keep the splits even more even. I wonder if I kept my pace in miles 3-6 at around 9:55, if I could have kept the pace after 10 at around that pace as well.

By the way

I had the pleasure of running this race with a few dozen of my coworkers. In fact my company paid our entry fee and gave a nice tech shirt to all of us. It also gave a decent-sized donation to the race's charity. The vast majority of my coworkers did the 5K, and a couple of them came in the top 20. Four of us did the half-marathon. It was great fun!

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