I ran my first half marathon in November 2000 in Wilmington, North Carolina and ran my 52nd half marathon in October 2021 in Des Moines, Iowa. Both courses were relatively flat and both had similar temperatures. Of course I was 21 years older when I ran the race in Iowa, well into my 40’s at that point. However, I finished the race in Iowa with my fastest time to date for a half marathon. How is this possible?
I’ve read from different sources that most people reach their peak for running about ten years after they start running. I don’t believe this applies to people like me who ran on my grade school track team; otherwise I would have peaked in my early 20’s. However, I didn’t start training for and running half marathons until 2000. Still, if the 10-year rule applied to me, I would have peaked around 2010.
Looking back at my race times from 2008 through 2010, those were some of my slowest times for a half marathon. I was struggling with anemia for the first time around this point in my life and it went undiagnosed for a long period. When I was finally diagnosed with anemia and started taking iron supplements it took my body over a year to fully recover.
In fact, even though I had run a half marathon before where I finished under 2 hours, I wasn’t able to do that again because of anemia until the Frederick Running Festival Half Marathon in May 2015. I set a PR of 1:55:28 with the next race I ran, Spearfish Canyon Half Marathon in July 2015. Finishing out the year with the Dixville Half Marathon in New Hampshire and another sub-2 hour finish, 2015 was obviously a good year for racing for me.
Beginning in 2016, I had a string of difficult races including one at a relatively high elevation in Colorado, so I didn’t manage another sub-2 hour finish until May 2018 when I ran the Famous Potato Half Marathon in Idaho. Just when I was feeling like I was getting my legs back again, anemia struck once again. A few months before the White River Half Marathon in Arkansas in November 2018 I learned why I had been struggling with my training runs- I was severely anemic so I started taking iron pills immediately. Despite being anemic, I still finished under 2 hours and was fourth in my age group, which makes me wonder just what I could have done had I not been anemic.
Fortunately I was able to get my iron levels back up to normal fairly quickly and by the time of the Seashore Classic Half Marathon in Delaware 2019, I was able to finish second in my age group with a sub-2 hour finish. This was a deceptively tough course too, so I was happy with my performance. At my next race, the Star Valley Half Marathon in Wyoming I finished with another PR, at 1:53. Finishing off the year with the Hot Cider Hustle Half Marathon in Nebraska, I was happy with a 1:54 finish, especially given I had to stop and tie my shoe during this race.
After COVID hit and races everywhere were cancelled indefinitely in 2020 instead of running the three half marathons I was supposed to run in New Mexico, Minnesota, and Iowa, I ran a virtual half marathon as part of a fundraiser for the Australia wildfires. It felt like just another 13.1 miles on the greenways I always run on and I wanted more. I signed up for a virtual 5k and decided to try to really push myself, thinking at the time there were going to be awards given, so I at least had some motivation. That 5k was my fastest by far and it showed me a glimpse into what I was capable of (I Ran My Fastest 5k, but Does It Even Count?).
I began to push myself harder and I ran more in 2020 than I ever had before. This was during the early months of the pandemic, when many businesses including my work place were shut down indefinitely, and I had much more time on my hands. Instead of sitting around watching the depressing news updates or Netflix and gaining the COVID-15, I decided to get outside and do something healthy. I also started going on walks on days when I didn’t run and doing some core work every night. My body felt stronger than it ever had.
When I ran the Circle of Life Half Marathon, Lake City, Minnesota- 48th state I felt ready but the course turned out to be one of the toughest I’ve run because of the gravel road and hills. It was one of those races I was happy to be done and it didn’t really matter what my time was (2 hours even). I have no doubt if I hadn’t been in as good of shape as I was it would have easily taken me another 15 or 20 minutes to finish. This race further emphasizes how much the difficulty of a race course makes on your finish time as well.
I was able to keep up my fitness from the time of the half marathon in Minnesota until my race in Iowa in October. I continued nailing my training workouts. If I was supposed to run 6 miles with a 1 mile warmup followed by 4 miles at tempo pace then a 1 mile cooldown, that’s what I did, no more, no less. If my long run called for 13-14 miles, I ran 14. I also continued doing strength training at the gym twice a week and core work every night. More than anything, I was consistent. I think the bottom line here and key to everything is consistency.
When race day came for the IMT Des Moines Half Marathon, Des Moines, Iowa- 49th state, my plan was to shoot for 8:45 minute miles but ultimately go by feel. Since I was able to go faster than that and still felt great, I went with it and because of my level of fitness I was able to continue at that faster-than-ever-before pace. A lot of times you hear people say you should start slower and gradually speed up or speed up for the last few miles. For me, consistency was once again the key and it worked better for me to have my mile splits be more consistent throughout the race. If I would have started slower my finish time would have been slower because there’s no way I could have run my last few miles faster than what I did even if I would have started out a bit slower.
Really there’s no magic formula when it comes to achieving a PR in a race but there are some things that make a huge difference. One is the course conditions. It’s one thing for a course to be flat and quite another to be flat but have strong winds (Kiawah Island Half Marathon, I’m looking at you). Also, some people don’t do well on flat courses and their bodies actually respond better to some rolling hills. Choose your course wisely.
The second and most important factor in running a PR is to choose a training plan that will work for you, giving you just enough of a challenge but not so difficult that you can’t run the prescribed runs. You don’t want to feel overtrained but you also want to reach your potential by pushing yourself just the right amount. You also need to be consistent with the training plan and not skip workouts or cut them short.
There is a final factor that may sound a bit woo-woo but I absolutely believe in it and that’s the power of the mind. If you don’t truly believe you can run a PR or even run a “good” race (whatever that means to you) then you won’t. However, if you go into it with an open mind and just say, I’m well-trained and I’m just going to do my best and see what happens you might just see some magic happen.
What has worked for you in the past when you ran a PR at a race?