Sunday, February 1, 2015

Icebreaker Indoor Half Marathon 2015 Race Report: Spinning My Way To A (Small) PR

The quick and dirty: The weather was perfect, the race was surprisingly not boring, and my result indicates that I can basically pick up training where I left off in November.

How I Chose To Run In Circles

My training for my third marathon, the Cellcom Green Bay Marathon, started on January 12th (woot!). When I was setting up my winter and spring race schedule, I started looking for an early season half-marathon. I planned to use this half as a baseline to set my marathon training paces. I went with the same strategy last year for my first marathon, choosing to run the Chicago Polar Dash 14 Miler in January 2014.  At that race, I surprised myself by setting off at a PR pace, but unfortunately, the flooded-out Lakefront Trail and subsequent detours over snowbanks, puddles and slippery ice derailed my PR chances. This year, my post-traumatic-stress over the Polar Vortex made me distrustful of outdoor winter races for anything other than fun runs.

Yeah, that whole race needed a caution sign (graphic found here)
Further research led me to my homeland of Wisconsin (I'm Cheesy, get it???) and the Icebreaker Indoor Half Marathon. Milwaukee boasts the Pettit National Ice Center, where speed-skating Olympians and Olympic hopefuls train (ever heard of Bonnie Blair, Dan Jansen or Shani Davis?). An indoor track encircles the speed skating rink. I had heard of Milwaukeans' practice of winter running at the Pettitt from other running blogs. This race would provide me with a great environment to see where my fitness lies; almost a time-trial atmosphere. The boredom of the track briefly gave me pause, but one flashback to the Polar Dash made me decide that the tradeoff was worth it.

Training and Preparation

After the Schaumburg Half Marathon, I decided to take December as my "offseason," to ward off injury and burnout. My running became maintenance miles done at a decidedly easy/recovery pace. It was freeing and much needed, after my uber-serious training regimen I had been maintaining since January 2014. Toward the end of the month, I started to read some articles (such as this one) which implied I should have kept at least one tempo run, fartlek, or faster-type session in my plan per week. Oops.

When I hopped back on the speedwork wagon at the end of the month for some mile repeats, you probably heard the "whiffing" sound wherever you live. At the beginning of January, the results were similar. Was it the extra layers of clothing that were the culprit, or perhaps too many holiday treats? My running friends assured me that since I had maintained my base, the speed would surely return within a few weeks. I don't have a few weeks before this race, I muttered to myself.

Marathon training began, and my first tempo run showed a little improvement, but still nothing to write home about. On Wednesday of race week, I knew I needed to nail down an initial race pace to avoid overshooting and bonking. I took great pains not to overdress, drove to my favorite tempo route, and even GU'ed for an extra jolt of energy, like I would before a race. I almost took my workout to the mill that day due to snow in the forecast, but it looked like the precip would hold off until late morning. My first tempo mile was a bit slower than I would like, but halfway decent. Then my second mile ticked off at 7:54, and I couldn't suppress a grin. And then the wind picked up and the snow began to fall, and I didn't see any more miles that started with a "7" for the rest of the run.

Pace Bands...AKA Math Is Hard

Sigh...this left me with a dilemma: What pace do I target in the climate-controlled environment of the half marathon? 7:54? Or slower? The printing of my pace band and the figuring of my goal pace depended on my answer. I wanted to print a pace band for a 1:43:30 finish (7:55 average, and a 31-second PR), but since the website only let me print whole numbers, I decided to print a pace band for a 1:43 finish (7:51 average), just as a guideline. I vowed not to stress if I was slower. I'm just figuring out where I'm at. Pfitz will make me faster as the weeks go on; this is just my starting point.

My husband is the mathematician of the family, so I asked him to figure out how long I should take to complete each lap (each of the 47.7 laps was about .27 miles around the track) if I wanted to hit a 1:43 finish time. He crunched a bunch of numbers in combinations that made no sense to me, and told me that I should try to hit 2:10 per lap. Using that information, I annotated my pace band to let me know how many laps it would take to hit each mile. I hoped to use this for fueling.

My would-have-been-super-unhelpful pace band
The night before the race, I asked my husband to help with laminating my pace band and taping it to my wrist. He took one look at it and told me that it would be way more informative to figure out how much time it should take to hit 5 laps, 10 laps, etc. That way, if I was at lap 25 and I was way off the time of 53:59, that would be good information to have. He opened up Excel and cruised through the calculations.

(Seriously, my head basically exploded with all the math involved in this race. If you are math-impaired and are planning on truly racing this event, make sure you have a math-whiz friend to help you out before you sign up!)

Using his info, I made a new pace band, including the time I was to hit designated lap numbers. I also wrote on my hand the numbers 18 and 35 -- the laps where I was planning on taking my gels. This roughly corresponded to miles 5 and 10, which is my normal half-marathon fueling plan (plus a gel right before the start of the race).

My new-and-improved (and laminated and used) pace band

Let's just say that the outfit choice was easy-breezy, considering that I comfortably wore a singlet and shorts in 35-degree weather for my last half-marathon, and the temperature in the ice arena is 50 degrees. I packed a throwaway fleece and some arm warmers just in case, but I was confident in my choice.

There were two "heats" to the half-marathon. 7 A.M. and 9:30 A.M. Since I am 90 minutes away from the Pettit and still had to pick up my bib before the start, I chose the 9:30 heat to avoid an ungodly-early wakeup time. Even so, I was up by 5:00 A.M., and out the door by 5:40 A.M. On the drive north, I was delayed a bit because I believed a highway sign that said there was a gas station at an exit near Racine. I guess technically there was -- about 5 miles down the road! After a (very necessary) pit stop, the rest of the drive was uneventful.

Parking was easy in the ice arena parking lot, although it was filling up. It was neat to see the figure skaters and speed skaters hanging out in the lobby with their suitcases full of gear. I didn't know their names, but I could tell they were all legit. I went up to the second floor to pick up my bib and timing chip. I put my bib number on a label and stuck it to my water bottle. I chose to use my Ragnar water bottle -- lots of good memories from that race! I peppered the friendly volunteer with questions about the water bottle table and where to put my tote bag of gear. I watched the runners in the first heat for a while, to get the lay of the land. This was going to be fun!

There weren't a lot of people in the second floor "runner's lounge," so I went back out to my car to hang out for a bit, and re-entered the ice arena with about 20 minutes to gun. The first heat was still winding down. I found a spot for my bag along the wall with no problem, and placed my water bottle on the table. I decided to wear my Flipbelt to store my gels. Although I saw people leaving the track to gel during the race, I didn't want to waste that time. However, I decided to leave my phone in my gear bag for the first time ever. Since headphones are not allowed on the course and I'm not a big "selfie on the course" person, there was no reason to have it. I definitely appreciated traveling a bit lighter!

Doing the pre-run selfie, like a good little blogger!
The ice arena was definitely chilly. The spectators on the bleachers were all bundled up in their winter gear. I made small talk with some friendly ladies, and kept my throwaway gear on until the announcer asked us to process to the opposite side of the track. When the cold air hit my arms as I peeled off my jacket, I briefly contemplated some arm warmers, but then I decided to lay off the crack and sucked it up, buttercup!

The Race

Miles 1-5

I lined up toward the front, but in back of the front row of speedy guys. Almost right away, I was running by myself. There was the front pack, me, and then everyone else. Not quite sure how that happened.  For a while I didn't see any other women in front of me and entertained ideas I might somehow be leading, but then I caught a look at the monitor and saw myself in about 20th place with at least three women ahead of me.

Those ladies behind me are about to lap me. Sing it with me...allll byyy myyyyselfffff....
Side Note: The technology in this race was great. Two large monitors (one on one end of the track, and one kind of in the center for the spectators) scrolled through the participants, noting their place in the race and how many laps they had left. I caught my name about every other lap. My favorite monitor, however, was placed just after you crossed the timing mat for a lap -- it showed what lap you had just completed, and the time of that lap. For someone who had a time goal for each lap, this info was gold!

The first 8 laps passed uneventfully, at exactly 2:10 per lap. It seemed as if I had picked the right time goal. I just had to hang on for 40 more laps or so! I was a bit disappointed to find that my accelerometer on my Garmin 220 wasn't tracking me even remotely correctly -- it had me running about 8:30/mile. I dutifully hit the lap button on my Garmin each time I passed the Olympic flag (my self-picked landmark). I then had two opportunities to check my timing on each lap -- when I hit the lap button, and when I crossed the timing mat on the other half of the track. Plus, I checked my pace band every five laps. I definitely had enough data, now I just had to execute!

Feeling good, early in the race.
As I started lapping some of the field more than once, it became difficult to find someone to key off of. The speedy ladies were too speedy for me to hang with, and I wanted to go faster than a lot of the others. I used a lady with pink arm warmers as my rabbit early on. According to the large monitor, she was just one place ahead of me in the standings. Then inexplicably, she stepped off the track toward her gear bag. Nooooo! When she stepped back on the track, we had swapped places in the standings.

To be honest, this lack of close competitors was the toughest mental piece of the puzzle for me. The race rules said to stay on the outside lane unless you wanted to pass. As it turned out, I almost always wanted to pass, so I stayed in the middle lane most of the time, unless I was passing someone in the middle lane. Sometimes when I was in the inside lane, one of the speedy guys or gals said "track!" or "on your left!" and then I moved back to the middle lane. In typical Wisconsin fashion, however, most everyone was very nice and said "thank you" when I moved over.

Miles 5-10

I got in a groove. I stayed in the lap I was in, looked at my timing twice per lap, and gave myself an "atta girl" if I was at or below 2:10. Lap 18 came really quickly, believe it or not, and it was time for my first gel. Since I would want my water bottle at lap 19, I showed the folks at the water table my bib number on Lap 18, and they got my bottle ready. (You could also have a bottle for sports drink if you wanted it, but I didn't bother.) Meanwhile, I ate my Gu as I was circling the track and threw the wrapper in the garbage cans adjacent to the track. Then on Lap 19, I grabbed my bottle like at a regular aid station, and took it with me on the next lap, and then handed it back. It was kind of neat to have a "personal race concierge."

The awesome water table volunteers!
Running with my water bottle allowed me to take more fluid in than I normally would. However, in the future I would only fill my water bottle about half full, as it was *heavy*. I was not surprised to see my lap pace as 2:12 for that lap -- I was surprised it wasn't worse! On the next lap, my pace jumped back up to 2:10, and I jumped around between 2:10-2:12 for the next few miles. So far, so good.

I was a little bit concerned about the musical aspect of the race, as I rely on music during races. The driving beats and motivating lyrics have a measurable impact on my pace. Due to the track atmosphere and people wanting to pass regularly, there were no headphones allowed, on penalty of disqualification. To counter this, when registering for the race, runners were asked for a song request. The announcer told us that the songs playing on the loudspeakers were gathered from those preferences, plus some others. I was a little worried about other people's musical tastes, but the songs tended toward the pop side, which pleased me (and probably annoyed some others).

Some songs were way too slow, however. I tend to download dance mixes of songs if they are available. "Born to Run" seems like an obvious choice for runners and I get it, but the tempo is way too slow for running! I never heard my request, which was my ultimate power song "Can't Hold Us" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, but being able to boogie to "Shake It Off" more than made up for it!

You tell 'em, Taylor. Words to race by!
Miles 10-13.1

Time to gel again at mile 10. My bottle was a little lighter this time, but it was still super-heavy. I was seeing more 2:12s than 2:10s and even a few 2:13s, but I vowed to stay strong. I hit lap 40 at 1:26:53, about 30 seconds off 1:43 pace. I was proud of myself for sticking with the pace this long, but I knew I needed to bring it home if I wanted to PR.

I wanted to play the game of "pick someone up ahead and reel them in," but it was difficult on the track. Suddenly, as if dropped in by a fairy, the lady with pink armwarmers appeared in front of me again! I latched on to my personal pacer angel like glue for two laps, and then she stepped off the track again! She ended up finishing about a lap behind me. Sigh...

Pretty soon I only had five laps to go. They said they may announce this feat over the loudspeakers for each runner, but they didn't for me, because they were busy announcing the first finishers. I concentrated on turning my legs over faster. I didn't want to leave anything out on the course. They did announce when I was on my final lap.  Honest to goodness, I hauled it as fast as I could, and it felt like I was sprinting. Someone said to me "You're a strong runner!" as I passed them, and I said "Thanks!"

Considering how fast I was going, I was a bit disappointed to see 1:43:25 as I made the final turn. I thought I had made up more time than that during the last few laps, but I was happy for the PR.

Final Time: 1:43:36 (25-second PR)
Age Group Place (40-49): 2/16 (although when combined with the first heat's results, I was 6th out of 26, so no bling! Oh well. I was happy to place that high in my heat!)
Gender Place: 6/62 (when combined with first heat: 21/97)
Overall Place: 19/112 (when combined with first heat: 65/199)

The post-race selfie!
What Does It All Mean??

On paper, this race sounds like a nice ego boost. To be in the top 10 women and top 20 overall is a first for me, even if I was in the traditionally-slower second heat of the half marathon. But post-race, I kept dwelling on the fact that I am basically at the same fitness that I was at the time of the Chicago Marathon three months ago. According to Mr. McMillan's pace calculator, this half-marathon time puts me on track for just a 7-second PR in the Green Bay Marathon. That would happily be another BQ, but it shows me that a PR will be tough if I don't work a bit more on my speed.

Yes, amazingly, my brain forgot that I took a deliberate "offseason" to ward off injury and keep my mojo high. Once the post-race fog cleared, I realized there is a lot to hang my hat on here. When I started the race, I wasn't expecting to PR at all. The time I picked on my pace band was based on one mile in a tempo run, and I ended up just 36 seconds shy of hitting it.

Furthermore, my speed did improve by quite a bit during my last experience with the Pfitz training plan, so I'm hoping for similar effects this time. This puts me at a great place to start my marathon training, and I am not even close to starting at square one.

Let's not forget the mental toughness component of an indoor marathon. That had to have built some character, right? No headphones? 48 laps? At my marathon, there will be no boredom to slow me down: I get to run through Lambeau Freaking Field! I got this, right? Let's hope so. Onward and upward!


  1. An indoor half? Very cool. Congrats on the PR!

    1. Thanks, Pete! Actually, there was also an indoor marathon that afternoon (96 laps around)! That's a little too crazy, even for me! :)