The second tune-up race that Pfitzinger calls for in my training for the 20 km door Brussel on 29 May. At first I had my eyes on the 6 km of Woluwe-Saint-Lambert, which was last week, but after some looking around a month ago, my eye fell on this race: the third edition of the Plantentuinjogging Meise. A site straight out of Geocities, a non-senseful distance of 7.2 km (there was also a 13.6 km, but that is a bit too long a race for this point in training), and a start at 13:00 in the middle of May. It was however in the correct week for Pfitz’ plan (unlike the Woluwe race). It was still close enough to where I live to easily get to. It was in a botanical garden you are not normally allowed to run in. Most of all, however, there was a free rice pie at the end, which immediately convinced the girlfriend.
I have been following Pete Pfitzinger’s lowest half marathon plan (12 weeks with up to 76 km per week) with some modifications. Those modifications have of course since been modified again when I decided to do this race instead of Woluwe.
Preparation has gone mostly OK. I had a sick spell and antibiotics in week three and four, but got through that without much harm. Have been having some trouble with the prescribed VO2max workouts though. The first one (and really the first time I did something like it), I started out too fast and paid for it in the later reps of the workout. The second one was in my planned peak distance week, last week, and just failed altogether. I was too tired to get through it in a manner I felt was safe, so abandoned the workout and eventually the run as well. Tired legs because of Uncle Pete, tired body because of some going out that week, and weather that was 15C warmer than what I had gotten used to the past months. Slightly disappointing, but glad I made the safer decision instead of just pushing through things.
Most of the course is in the botanical garden, which is a combination of hills, trail ground, grass ground, and even some shifting gravel. The start and finish at least were on proper roads. I was not really aware of any of this as unlike most of my shortish nearby races, I was not able to run (parts of) the course beforehand.
The start is not really properly defined, it was just “in the street”. You go down the road for about 300 metre and then turn into the park and onto the traily ground. About 100 metre into the park, you start a climb till 1.1 km in. After this, you gradually descend again till you run next to the appropriately named “Castle lake” about 2 km in. It is a lake and there is a castle. Things can be simple sometimes.
You pass by a little stand of drummers about 2.4 km in, just in time to encourage you to start climbing for 400 metre. After that climb you can descend, but first have to suffer a few 100 metre of uneven, mostly untouched, grass ground before you are back on the trail. You keep on descending (and a brief stint on some treacherous gravel) till you reach the drummers again, now in the opposite direction. Again they are ready to encourage you, because you are given another climb. Only 200-300 metre in length, but about 7% with parts up to 12% (dixit Strava). Cresting the hill happens around the 4 km point. You can then descend till 4.7 km, passing the first of two(!) water supply stands.
After this, you are given the first in a series of four climbs that will make you curse at this course. The first one is a not too steep climb, but on grass with some really soft earth below it, sapping your speed. After a quick descent, you are given the second one from 5.2 km onwards. After 100-200 metre, you think you are about to crest it, only to then see it continues further, till 5.6 km. You then mostly go down again, passing the second water stand, and leave the park at 6.2 km in.
Back on real roads, it is easy to be tempted to pick up the speed again. Especially because things start out downhill. This does not last long, you turn to the left and are given another gradual climb. Most definitely unwelcome, you are dying at this point. You also do not see the climb before the turn, it is obscured by the houses on your left. This theme is repeated as you crest this climb. You turn right, thinking, hoping, you are done with the climbing, only to be presented with the final killer. Really short, really steep. After that you are pretty much done and glad things are over.
Goals and Strategy
Looking at last year’s top ten, it looked feasible to try and place in it. I also had a mind of aiming for sub-4:00/km pace, but was not sure how possible that was on this course.
I decided my strategy would be to start out at 4:00/km and see if I could hold it up. Beyond that I would just try my best to be and stay in the top ten. Right before the race I adjusted my pace goal slightly, allowing me more speed at the start since it was downhill.
Morning of the Race
The past months most of my runs were in the 5-10C range. The past two weeks the weather suddenly decided to climb above 20C and I had trouble adjusting. Lucky for me this weekend things dropped back down to a high of 12ish C. Perfect.
For my first time ever, I did not have to get up particularly early for a race. The start was not till 13:00 after all. This did leave me on unfamiliar territories in terms of how to get ready for it. The girlfriend and I decided to eat a bit around 10:30 and bike towards the start of the race (about 7 km of biking) around 11:45. During that ride, my legs were feeling pretty unhappy, giving slight worries for what would be possible in the race. Bib pickup and further preparations were uneventful and after a quick warm up jog, we stood ready around what we thought was the starting line, there was no exact indication. As you can imagine, that also means only gun time would be available.
Since I was aiming for top ten and the girlfriend for first female, we felt it justified enough to start at the front. The guy giving the start signal was kind of standing in the way by standing in the middle of the street, but eventually he moved enough to at least not be in my way. I have a feeling this might not have been the same for everyone. Regardless, off we were.
I immediately fell in line behind a group of four as we chased down the hill, but as we turned into the park I saw on my watch we were going around 3:15/km and decided podium was never going to happen, so I slowed down a bit. Doing so allowed another three people to pass me, leaving me in eighth spot. The seventh guy was struggling a bit, he also started too fast it seems, and we briefly overtook one another a few times. Eventually I had to let him go on a hill though. During the second kilometre, another person passed me, pushing me down to ninth position.
Kilometre one in 3:33, kilometre two in 3:53.
In the third kilometre I managed to get a more constant effort going, which was nice. However, I also felt somebody closing in on me from behind. At the end of the third kilometre, he passed me after we had navigated a few hundred metre of of clumsy grass running. Down to tenth position and I was getting slightly worried about my top ten finish.
At 3.5 km I crossed an area where slower people were still going in the opposite direction and some of them were taking up my side of the road. At least they tried to get out of the way when they noticed me. After making a sharp turn to the right, I could look back to see my competitors for the tenth position. There were two, running together about twenty seconds behind me. I could only spare a quick glance, as right in front of me was a short nasty hill that slowed me down quite a bit. Strava’s flyby tells me I lost about ten seconds of my advantage on that climb.
Kilometre three in 4:23, kilometre four in 4:25.
I got some respite on the following downhill and spotted somebody coming down from the opposite hill. That turned out to be the guy in second position. I turned right and he turned left (my left) before our paths reached one another. I wondered if I would be seeing the girlfriend when I would be coming down that hill. After my right turn was the first water stand. I was passing through alone, but all four of the volunteers were standing ready with a cup. I pointed straight at one of them to avoid confusion, grabbed the cup from her hand, emptied it over my head, and threw it away again.
The next hill was all grass and soft earth below it, making it more challenging than it would have been otherwise. Glad once that was over, though the climb itself lasted another 100-200 metre, during which I definitely heard somebody not too far behind me. When I headed down the hill where I had seen the second in the race go down, I did see a group coming down the hill I had been on before. No girlfriend to be seen though, as it turns out she was already past that point.
Two quick turns further, it was already time to climb again. While climbing up this hill, I really started to hear the guy behind me coming very close. I did not dare to look backwards and give him hope, but going by Strava’s flyby (again), it seems to have been a handful of seconds. I was intent on keeping my tenth spot so decided to speed up right as I was about to crest the hill. Remembering Uncle Pete’s advise of keeping the effort high right after the top of the hill to gain some advantage on others, I transitioned back to sub 4:00 pace right past the top.
Kilometre five in 4:25, kilometre six in 4:41.
During the downhill I saw the second water stand, but did not intend on getting distracted by it, every second counts. However, a little kid was standing ready with a cup, and from what I heard the mother say from afar, it was his first try at handing a cup. Not to disappoint him, I grabbed the cup from his hands and poured it over my head. Nothing special for me, but I heard the kid’s joyful cry behind me. A bit further, I turned out of the park and back on actual streets. Going by the bystanders’ noise behind me, I put my chaser back to about ten seconds again.
I kept up the pace, thinking that being on streets equals being pretty much at the finish, but one turn further that idea was shattered. I had not seen it because of the houses, but it was time for another uphill. Luckily not too steep. I glanced down at my watch and saw I still had about 700-800 metre to go. I turned things down a notch again and tackled the hill, thinking it was the last one. A biker passed by me and said “come on, just the last hill”. I assumed he was talking about this one, so that gave me extra courage. I reached the top, was greeted by the people standing there, turned to the right expecting downhill and am greeted with… more uphill. Much steeper too. Good thing it looked short enough, so I suffered through the last bit. I also listened intently for the people in that turn to greet the next guy, to see how much of an advantage I still had.
Kilometre seven in 4:11.
By the sound of things, I was in the clear. Once I was going down the hill, at about 300 metre to go, I did not bother with any sprinting. With a distance like this, I am not aiming to PR (“Hey, want to hear my 7.2 km PR?”) and I was not going to gain a spot in the rankings any more either, so it did not matter for me. Some kids on the side were cheering me on and I waved back at them, something I never really bother with otherwise, as I am too focused on the race. Right before the final turn, I noticed the clock was almost hitting 30 minutes and decided to throw in a last little kick after all to see whether I could stay under it. I cross the line, happy regardless of breaking 30 minutes.
Which is good, because I did not break 30 minutes. The official results say 30:13, Strava says 30:09. The difference is, I think, due to the less than exact start they had. Either way, not under 30 minutes, not sub-4:00/km, but I did make top ten even if it is just barely. The top three did it quite a bit faster: 25:39, 26:54, and 27:38 respectively. The girlfriend easily won the women’s race in 31:53, over two minutes before the second.
The guy that was always close behind me during the second half of the race came to greet me afterwards. In the end I had been twelve seconds faster than him. We chatted a bit and he mentioned “I only run once a week, for about half an hour. I focus more on the shorter distances you see.” I could not come up with a more useful reply than telling him that that is pretty impressive. I was slightly dumbfounded.
As a cooldown, the girlfriend and I did the entire loop again, though at a much calmer pace this time. After that followed some rice pie and drinks, before we biked home with her gifts and flowers.
I would say I learned two things from this race. First, I think I have gotten too used to taking hills easy. There are plenty of hills near me and as I run by heart rate, I try to slow down quite a bit when going up them. I wonder if this played a part in losing so much time on every uphill. On the other hand, maybe I had blown up if I had not taken them easily. Second, I yearn for a flattish road race. Hilly, traily races are not as useful if you are trying to gauge your improvement.