Sunday, April 28, 2013

Chia Laguna Half-Marathon Race Recap

w/u #1: 10 mins. easy
w/u #2: 15 mins. easy + strides
Target: 21.097k @1:20:xx; top three finish
Actual: 1:21:02, third place female
Total: 16-16.5 miles

“That’s the hardest race I’ve ever run of any distance,” said American Meagan Nedlo who finished third in the women’s race in 1:21:02 after walking four times.

Yup. This quote, taken from the article linked above, pretty much sums up my experience at the Chia Laguna Half-Marathon. Intellectually, I knew the race would be difficult. I'd ridden a course tour and spoken with quite a few people who warned me of the challenge ahead. But I would be lying if I didn't admit that a small, stubborn part of me thought: "I'll show them." That 'merican bravado went out the window (or, more accurately, was blown forcefully into the ocean) before the 5k mark. In fact, I remember thinking around 8k that my legs felt more trashed than they'd ever felt at the 8k point of any other race--including an 8k. I honestly questioned my ability to even make it to 10k. Suffice it to say my first international race finish was in jeopardy well before the halfway point.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Race morning, despite not having to toe the starting line (which was located approximately 400 meters from my bed) until 9:30am ("So early!" bemoaned Marcello and the other Italians), I forced myself to put both feet on the floor by 7:00. Thus far, I'd struggled to align my internal clock with the forced time change, so today I wanted to make sure my body was fully awake and ready to go. Within five minutes I was out the door for an easy shakeout jog, solely intended to crack the cobwebs. Already I could tell the conditions were what I'd expected: windy, relatively cool and quite humid. And did I mention windy? After the jog I went to breakfast to grab some water and then headed back to my room just before 8:00. In the courtyard I bumped into Wilson, the Ugandan elite runner. Our exchange went something like this:

Wilson: "Excuse me, do you know what time the race starts?"
Me: "9:30." Then, jokingly, "So you can probably go back to sleep."
Wilson, with no irony: "Actually, yes." 

View from my morning shakeout.

The flags are flying at the finish line! Hoping to find a big, burly Italian man to block the wind for me.

Upon returning to my room I took a hot shower--again, not my standard race morning protocol, but I knew I needed to force my muscles into pliancy--and then busied myself with my normal preparations. Before long it was time to make my way to the starting line on the main road in front of the resort. I was pleasantly surprised to spot Tyler, who had been battling a fever and confined to his bed for the past few days. Originally slated to race the half, I figured he'd either scratch or opt for the 10k. Instead he said he was game to run with me for as long as he could and offered to block the wind on some of the hairiest sections. It was a suggestion I gladly accepted.

Start of the race. Photo credit: Giancarlo Colombo, Chia Laguna Half-Marathon

9:30 came and went, to no surprise. I've come to learn that "Italian time" runs on its own matrix. Then, finally, with a flurry of announcements (of which I understood not a word) and the playing of their national anthem, we were off! For the first, mostly flat kilometer, with the wind at our backs and the sun tucked firmly behind a screen of clouds, I felt okay. Tyler matched me stride for stride, but I could tell his breathing was labored. Having barely eaten (or, for that matter, moved) in the past 36 hours, his body was clearly struggling to understand what the hell was going on. By 3k, I could feel him gradually slipping off the pace. Fortunately, however, I'd picked up a new companion, Deborah Toniolo. I'd met Deborah and her husband, fellow half-marathoner Giovanni Ruggiero, earlier in the week and had actually sat next to them at dinner the night before. Giovanni is a former sub-2:10 marathoner and Deborah posted a 2:28 in 2006. Since then, life intervened, and they'd arrived at Chia Laguna with a baby in tow. As Deborah's first race back, she would just be running the 10k. I knew she would likely pull away as her finish line neared, but I vowed to stay in contact for as long as possible. For the next few kilometers we traded positions, as I powered ahead up the hills and then she charged back into contention on the corresponding downhills. At 5k there was a hairpin turn as the route reversed course, and immediately we were smacked in the face with gale force winds. The next 5k would be some of the most challenging running of my entire life, as I struggled to comprehend the fact that I hadn't yet completed even 1/4 of the race distance. By 8k Deborah pulled away decisively, and I found myself completely alone and being buffeted around like a dollar store kite.

Cast of characters, the invited runners at yesterday's press conference: Deborah (#9), Giovanni (#4), Silvia (#14), Wilson (#7), Valeria (#8),  Daniele (#1). Not sure who let #12 in.

"I'm going to run 1:25," I remember thinking incredulously to myself. "No, 1:30."

And then, it happened. Ladies and gentlemen, I cannot tell a lie: I walked. In the spirit of full disclosure, I walked twice during this uphill stretch. Okay, three times. I am not proud of it, but I feel like I need to put it out there just in case any incriminating photos surface. There were several sections where the grade was so steep, the wind so strong, that I found myself struggling not to hyperventilate. I needed a few seconds to stop, catch my breath, regain my composure and redouble my resolve. I knew if I could just reach the 10k mark at the resort (which was agonizingly close to my own room), everything would be okay. In hindsight, my reasoning process was actually quite humorous. I never once considered dropping out, which is my usual MO when things are going this horribly wrong, but at the same time I didn't feel particularly guilty about walking, which is a course of action that has never before crossed my mind in the early stages of a race.

Regardless, I pressed on. Passing 10k gave me a much-needed boost, as the crowds were thick and raucous and I heard the announcer saying my name. Also, somehow, improbably, I split roughly 38:10 at the 10k mark. This was the first time I'd looked at my watch since the race started, and I was fearing the worst. Given the fact that I was practically walking (and in several instances, literally walking) up the steepest, windiest sections, I was sure my 10k split would be well over 40 minutes. I had resigned myself to that reality. And yet, somehow, things weren't quite as horrific as I'd expected. I also spotted Jane Monti near 11k just as I was about to ascend the last brutal hill, who cheered me on and snapped a photo that I will likely burn if I ever see it. Mentally and aerobically I felt better at this point (possibly because I stopped and walked yet again, this time through a water stop), but my legs were trashed, my quads literally quivering as I pounded down the hill just past 11k. Nonetheless, I allowed myself to tentatively consider the possibility of negative splitting the race and finishing under my goal of 1:20. Given that mere minutes earlier I was hoping to simply just finish, this was a marked improvement in the state of affairs.

Okay, I didn't burn the photo. It's actually not that bad. Credit: Jane Monti

That being said, I wish I could share some inspiring account of the second half of the race, how I turned on my Maserati turbo engines and rallied to a triumphant finish, but you've already seen the result and should know better. To this point I haven't mentioned the other female half-marathon competitors because, quite simply, we were never in the same race. Valeria, the 2:23 marathoner and Italian national record holder, was clipping along at a pace that put most of the men to shame. Silvia, the Kenyan, was almost five minutes behind her but still several in front of me. And despite my Gallowalking tendencies I didn't seem to be in danger of being overtaken by whomever was in fourth place. Instead, I fought to maintain contact with the men in my vicinity, particularly from 13k-17k as we ran (yet again) into the wind and (yet again) uphill. We were rewarded with a gradually downhill, wind-aided final 4k, but by that point I simply wasn't able to capitalize on it. The only thing bolstering my spirits and helping me maintain some semblance of positivity was the support from the other participants. With the course turning back on itself around 16k, this meant that I was passing against a stream of runners coming from the opposite direction. Cheers of "Allez! Allez!" and "Bella!" and "Americana!" and even, from my new buddy Maurizio, "Goooooo, Meagan!" with a vigorous high-five. For a race where I knew virtually no one and didn't speak a lick of the native language, the support and encouragement I felt was overwhelming. With 2k to go, then 1k, I was practically giddy at the prospect of being done. As I rounded the final bend into the resort and to the slight uphill finish (come on, seriously?) I tried to straighten up and muster a smile as the announcer shouted my name and the crowd cheered. I really didn't want all the spectators to go home and say, "Boy, did you see that pitiful American girl stumbling toward the finish? She was really dragging ass, huh?"

"Sweet lord, where is the finish line?!" Photo credit: Giancarlo Colombo, Chia Laguna Half-Marathon

I crossed the finish line just as the clock ticked past 1:21, missing my goal time (due in no small part to my ubiquitous walk breaks) but exceedingly, unironically proud of my finish. In fact, though I haven't raced a half-marathon this slowly in years, I'm actually more pleased with this result than with most of the races I've done all spring. Going into the race, everyone warned me that I should expect to add five minutes to whatever I thought my current fitness level to be. Based on the other competitors' results, I'd say this assessment is pretty accurate. And if that's the case, then I'm actually in decent shape! Regardless, I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunity to compete today, and of ultimately not embarrassing my country with a 1:30 finish time. Despite its difficulty, the Chia Laguna Half-Marathon is one of the most beautiful races I've ever run and is an experience I'm incredibly fortunate to have been part of. I'm already planning to come back and run--no walking!--again next year, ideally with a marginally better grasp of the Italian language. This trip has truly been a once in a lifetime experience, but I wouldn't mind turning it into a tradition! 

Top 10 women at the awards ceremony. Photo credit: Marco Pilia
Fortunately I remembered to pack the most important post-race recovery items not easily found in Italy: Nuun, peanut butter and Bonk Breaker! Cappuccino optional.

Celebrating at dinner with my new friend and biggest Italian fan,  Maurizio!

My post-race treat: a yummy dessert (note the white chocolate spoon) and a glass of wine or six


Anonymous said...

That sounded like excellent Blue Ridge Relay training, even if you did hurt my feelings a little with all the "didn't want to embarrass America with some horrifically slow time like (insert something akin to Allen's PR here)". Great job - what an awesome trip - jealous!

Unknown said...

Damn running 1:21 with the gallo walk is impressive. Proves that it actually may have some benefit! Great work. You'll have even more fun next year!

Anonymous said...

The picture of you near the finish is AWESOME. If you do go next year, feel free to take me along, to show them the vast difference between you/ your running abilities and most other Americans. Hope you enjoyed/ are enjoying the rest of the trip!