Important lessons learned – Half Marathon Training – Update Four

Today I experienced my first outdoor race in sub-zero temperatures. It was -12 at the start of the race with a windchill of -22. Needless to say, I learned a lot today.

The race in question was part of the Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) series of runs and was a beautiful 10km out and back (twice) course at the shore of Lake Ontario. Which was frozen, I might add. MEC is a members-only store which sells camping and outdoor equipment and run many different events as well as running clubs.

The race started at 9am and I was pleased when I left home shortly before 8am that the sun was already up and it was a clear, crisp winter day and the ground was dry and relatively ice-free. I was also pretty pleased with my running gear and efficient system of layers – even if I was bordering on the Michelin Man side and had everything tucked into the layer below it. Gloves, hat, thick socks, tights under shorts, short-sleeved top, long-sleeved top, running fleece, windbreaker…you get the idea.

Layers upon layers.

Layers upon layers.

After checking in and getting my time chip for my shoe, I was ready to go. It was the smallest group of people I have seen at the start line for a 10k – probably because it was -22 windchill and 9am on a Sunday and there aren’t many people crazy enough to want to do that to themselves. I then began to panic that I would surely come in last amongst this group of clearly dedicated individuals. I was now playing with the big kids. Shit got serious.

The race started and people quickly disappeared into the horizon whilst I was still faffing about with random bits of my race kit and not getting the best start possible. This was the start of the lesson I would be taught during what turned out to be an enjoyable race day overall.

At the time of writing I haven’t been able to access the official timing online to note how I did, but from my calculations I am confident it was my quickest time to date (including treadmill times) and I think it will be about 5 minutes quicker than my last competitive 10km race. And I definitely was not last. So all in all I am pretty happy with how I did, although I did want to shave another few minutes off ideally but I had no idea how the cold would affect me. The main take-aways and achievements for today will certainly be the things I know now that I didn’t know before, rather than running a stonkingly brilliant PB. I knew it was going to be interesting as I’d never run in that temperature before – what I didn’t know was that it was going to be a school day. Here is why;

What I learned 1: Don’t forget your face!

Do not, under any circumstances, forget you have a face. Every other inch of my body was under layers of moisture-wicking materials and snug as a bug in a rug. My face, however, was exposed to -22 winds coming off a frozen lake and there was nothing I could do about it. Being an out and back course, the out part wasn’t so bad as it was a into the sun and the wind was behind, making for a slight gain in speed even. But the back part was running right into the wind and this was not helpful for the last 2km when you are trying to push hard, hard, hard. I saw one fellow runner who had understandably given up and was walking back to the finish line with her gloved-hands over her cheeks. Lesson learned – buy a neck warmer or balaclava for the next one.

What I learned 2: Look after your belongings

As I have done many times before, I zipped my “just incase” debit card and ID into the hidden pocket of my running fleece and went on my merry way. At the start line I did a quick pat down of all my pockets to check I still had everything, which I did. At the end of the race when I was about to head home, I did another pocket-check only to discover that the zip was broken on said pocket and that when I thought I had zipped it up securely, the zip-head had gone up but it hadn’t fastened. Great. This meant that (best case scenario) my cards were now somewhere along the 5km course that I had just painstakingly run. Twice. Worst case scenario, someone was having a shopping spree on me by imitating the scary, chubby mug shot off my driving licence. Lesson learned – don’t trust zips; double, triple check your belongings are safe. Or put them in your bra.

(Turns out a lovely, lovely fellow-runner picked them up and handed them in. For which I am so grateful, especially as stopping to pick them up would no doubt have added a few seconds to your time, lovely person. Lesson learned – there is good in the world!)

What I learned 3: Get prepared

Remember above when I said that at the start of the race, people disappeared off into the distance and I was still faffing about? Well, this is an important lesson I learned. Get prepared to go at the gun. I have been toying with getting the new Fitbit Surge running watch with GPS, heart rate monitor and all that good stuff, and now I think I will just take the financial hit and get one. I am still trying to track the GPS on my iPhone so this means starting the race, waiting to hit the pads at the start line and then turning on the GPS, flicking to music to make sure that is all set up, then putting the phone back in my arm band and trying not to get the headphone wires tangled up or pull them out of my ears, all whilst making sure I am not getting in anyone else’s way or tripping over people/myself. It really is a faff and stops me getting a good start. Similarly, at the end of the race, instead of concentrating on that last push and getting over the finish line as quickly as possible, I am faffing to get the thing back out of the arm band so I can stop the GPS recording as quickly as possible over the finish line to get an accurate time. It would be so much easier with the watch to just be able to press one button and stop it. Plus, I wear a digital watch to keep an eye on timing anyway, albeit a Minnie Mouse one, but whatever.

Now I know there are a lot of people who think that you shouldn’t worry about all that and just run and enjoy it, especially when your chip is timing you anyway and the distance is measured and accurate. But I like to know along the way what my pace is so I know if I should be pushing even harder or if I have gone out too fast and am likely to burn out half way through.

Whilst this lesson wasn’t specific to this race as I have experienced the same issues at previous races, it was amplified today by the fact that I had to take my glove off to use my phone and start the GPS. By the time I was settling in to race with my glove back on, I seriously though for a few minutes that I might have frostbite. My fingers were so cold they were burning, stinging and extremely painful. Turns out, they were just cold and after 5 minutes of running with them tucked inside my many sleeves, they were fine. But lesson learned – buy a Fitbit.

What I learned 4: Tried and tested works

This lesson has annoyed me a bit as I should’ve (and did) know better. I am of the school of thought that it’s not necessarily the best idea to wear the souvenir race shirt for that particular race as you haven’t tried and tested running in it – does it ride up, is it too tight, does it chafe etc? All valid reasons to try before you wear it competitively when you want to be focusing on other things and don’t have the luxury of just chucking it on the floor next to the treadmill if it’s annoying you. So why I didn’t practice what I preach, I’m not sure. Perhaps it is because I have been training in the gym and would’ve looked like a bit of a melon wearing my windbreaker with the hood up to run on the treadmill. Although a guy does lift weights in our gym with a wooly hat on, so maybe not… Whilst the windbreaker (Nike and designed for running, I’d like to add here) was really great at keeping the wind out, the ties around the hood are tipped with metal and kept bouncing and smacking me in the face with each step. A huge design flaw it seems to me and something I would’ve known if I had tried it out before the race. It eventually became a toss-up between potentially losing an eye to one of these flailing pieces of metal or potentially losing a portion of my neck/ears/head to frostbite. Not a particularly easy decision to make. Lesson learned – try everything in a non-race setting first.

All that being said, I had a great morning and love how invigorating an early morning, outdoor run is. It is great for reaffirming my love for running, and the PB wasn’t too shabby either. Plus, tonight’s pie for dinner is totally justified now.

Happy Sunday everyone!

(I would love to hear from any fellow runners on the big things they learned from their competitive runs. Please feel free to comment!)



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