Monday, February 4, 2013

LO HICE! San Blas Half Marathon: Take 2.

I love the San Blas Half Marathon in Coamo, PR.  LOVE it.  If I had the resources to make an annual trip to PR in February each year after this one, I probably would, just for this race.  The crowd and festive atmosphere in Coamo make running the race so enjoyable and worth it.

Let’s backtrack a bit, before I get into my experience yesterday. 
Last year, I went into the medio maratón unprepared for what I was about to face.  This year, I was determined to train hard and intelligently and come out with a better time.  I resolved to follow an actual training program (rather than running 3-4 days a week with one long run, as I did last year), and I made sure my long rungs included as big a hill as I could manage in Guayama.  At the end of November, training was going great.  In the two races I ran in the fall (a 5K and a 5 mile), I set personal records.  I was on top of the world, sure that not only would I beat last year’s time, maybe I could even break 2 hours. 
And then, I started to hurt myself.  First it was my Achilles tendon.  So I cut way back for about three weeks to give that a chance to heal.  Then my ankles gave me trouble, as well as my feet.  By the time I came back to Puerto Rico after Christmas, I had 3 weeks left to train, but I was feeling healthy again. 
So of course, I increased distance too fast and gave myself “Runner’s Knee.”  Nine days before the race.  I cut back, gave my knee some rest, while still going on short, easy runs to keep my form (icing after each).  But when a 2 mile run 2 days before the race was painful, I was really, really nervous to attempt 13 miles in the mountains. 

But I’d signed up and prepared for months, and there was no way I wasn’t going to at least try.  So, with visions of myself finishing the race in the back of an ambulance in my mind, we set off for the race.

This year’s race experience was different from last year’s for multiple reasons.  First, rather than staying in Coamo the night before, we drove up the day of.  We knew traffic would be intense, so we left Guayama before 9am, even though the race didn’t start until 4pm.  We got to Coamo a little bit before 10, and were able to find a good parking spot and relax for a few hours.  Second, the group that went was different.  This year I had someone to run with!  I actually only met Lucy a few weeks ago, when we were introduced by a teacher at school.  She was interested in running San Blas, so she came along with us.  Also, the experience was different for my supporters.  Kelsey and Kezia came, as well as two of Kezia’s brothers.  They had a canopy to sit under and pass the day enjoying the crowds and party atmosphere of the race. 

Lucy and I, pre-race

I, meanwhile, spent the afternoon waiting.  Lucy and I sat inside the basketball stadium, where many of the athletes waited.  We ate free pasta for lunch and then relaxed in the air conditioning.  Lucy spotted Alejandro Garcia Padilla, the new governor of Puerto Rico, and after blowing him kisses across the court, when he came over near where we were sitting, she was able to run down and get a picture with him.  

At 2:00, we boarded the school buses that would take us to the starting line.  As our driver navigated up the route, laying on the horn the entire way, I felt like I was living out the scene in The Hunger Games in which Katniss and Peeta arrive by train to the Capitol, to multitudes cheering for them just outside the windows.  Athletes are the celebrities of the day in Coamo, no matter who you are or whether people know you. 
We got to the park at the starting line and…waited some more.  Through a string of Lucy’s connections (she had a friend, who had a friend, who had 2 more friends) before the start of the race, we ended up in a circle of about 12 people who thought they’d have about the same pace and thought they might more or less stay together.  What a feeling of camaraderie!  Again, it was a completely different experience from last year’s race.

Of course, when the race began, most of the 12 took off at a much faster pace than I was comfortable with, so I hung back and started slow and steady.  Even so, checking the time on my watch as I passed each kilometer marker, I thought maybe I’d started too fast.  But I felt good, and my knee wasn’t hurting at all, so I kept with it. 

Lucy speeding by at kilometer 5

As I began the climb of the Ajoguillo Slope (the highest and most challenging climb of the route) my knee still felt good, and I was still on pace to run the race in my goal time.  By that time—at Kilometer 10/11, I had passed most of the people from our starting circle.  As I approached Kilometer 12 (at which point I again chose to walk up the steepest part of the climb, just as I did last year), I saw Lucy in the distance, also walking.  We both started running again, and I almost caught her at about Kilometer 14.  But then the route sloped downhill, she sped up, and my knee started aching for the first time in the race.  I gritted my teeth, slowed down, and actually hoped for the uphill climbs I knew were still coming.  When they did come, my knee felt better, and I surprisingly gained back time climbing them. 

And through it all, the crowds were cheering.  I’m quite sure I ran faster each time I passed a particularely enthusiastic group, cheering “Dale, dale!  Vaya!”  My favorite cheers, though, were calls like, “Para las mujeres!”  and “Dale nieve, dale!”  (Go, snow, go!)  They always brought a smile to my face and gave me the energy to keep going. 

What gave me the boost of adrenaline needed to pass Lucy at Kilometer 18, though, what when I saw one of my 8th grade students.  We made eye contact, and I honestly don’t know which of us was more excited to see the other.  I think we both squealed and waved.  I powered past my student, and closed in on Lucy.  She actually paused to give some energy gel to a runner who had stopped with a cramp at the exact moment I passed her…so her good Samaritan act was more likely the reason I ended just ahead of her rather than my endurance. 

This year’s race ended on the baseball field, and I ran around the outfield with good energy left in my legs.  I finished strong, with an ending time of 2:10:22. 
For me, that’s AWESOME!! 
1)      It’s just under a 10 minute mile pace for the entire race.  This was my goal.
2)      It is a full FIFTEEN minutes faster than my finish time last year. 

Rounding the final corner and climbing one last hill before the
finish line.  At least there's a smile on my face!

I can only imagine what I could have achieved if not for all those pesky over-training injuries. 
If only I could come back next year. 

Until then, I’m going to give my knee some time to recover.  And if it’s feeling good in a few weeks…there’s a half marathon in Utuado, PR coming up in 6 weeks that Lucy and I have our eyes on…si Dios lo permite.    

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