Belgian Championship Half Marathon
The Belgian Half Marathon Championship last year was my second time running a half marathon. That time I set a PR at 1:16:43. This year the same group was handling the organisation. A flat course and avoiding too many turns. A field of competitors aiming to run fast and limited to those running 80 minutes or faster. What’s not to love?
As described before, I spent the winter building my base. That was almost exclusively calm running to give whatever was causing the hip niggle to pop up from time to time the chance to fully disappear (knock on wood). Meanwhile I was pushing my weekly distance up to 120 km and holding it at that consistently. This also made me add a mid-week (mid-)long run, usually of about 23 km, once I hit 120 km weeks. All singles.
I decided to start reintroducing workouts in the week of 30 Jan-5 Feb, i.e., six weeks before the race (including race week). I will count down in this section. Workouts are described in terms of their goal effort / planned idea. I ran quite some by feel because of the undulating terrain, so that confuses the matter further. Up weeks I aim for 120 km total, long run of 30 km. A usual split over the week would be: 18, 14, 23, 14, 11, 30, and 10 km. All the details and meaningful deviations are mentioned explicitly further down.
Week 6. Monday I planned 2×3k LT, but because of a red light that became 3k, ~1.5k, and ~1.5k. Paces averaged 3:47, 3:42, and 3:52. Heartrate seemed to be high 150s until the final km which was low 160s.
Wednesday I tried Marathon pace, something I had never done before. I was not signed up for a marathon, but was tentatively trying to get into Rotterdam (16 April) still. When I saw Rotterdam had sold out, I realised I was for the first time in my life actually in the mood to try a marathon. Despite being sold out, people can still put their bibs up for sale in case they got injured or something similar. If I managed to at some point get a bib that way, I wanted to at least have given Marathon pace a try beforehand. Wednesday was a first try at that. I set out to do 12 km. Pace wise the calculators put me around a 2h40 marathon (3:47-3:48 per km). I ended up aiming for that as the faster end of a slightly more conservative range: 3:47-3:54. I had no heart rate to aim for and the terrain was still undulating, so feeling wise I settled on “feels easier than LT, but you gotta remember to push harder than regular running”. Splits were: 3:40, :54, :34, :45, :50, :59, 4:13, 3:38, 3:55, 3:57, 4:02, and 3:58. Heart rate apparently hovered around 155-157. I don’t really look at my watch during this. Just vibes. Also am doing Citystrides at the same time (and really for almost all my runs) and it turns out dead ends are not great when you’re pushing the pace some.
Later that week my left hip area felt a bit more tired than I liked, so I decided to do just one workout per week the rest of the weeks, replacing a workout day with strides instead. No point overdoing things when you are coming back to the harder work.
Week 5. Monday I did some strides. I do not really count them any more, I just wing it and hope I will hit something in the 6-8 range. Tends to work out. Wednesday I did 12k Marathon pace again. Again mostly by feel, though I glanced at my watch if I noticed it buzzing. Parts of this workout was on earth frozen into weird angles which I had to navigate a bit carefully to not twist an ankle. Other parts had thawed in the sun and instead had a muddy slippery upper layer. That said, most sections were fine. I tried a gel to see what the stomach would say: it was fine. Splits: 3:42, :59, :47, 4:03, 3:46, :49, :52, 4:03, 3:51, :48, :38, :50. Heart rate in the low 150s, so that was likely not hard enough.
Week 4. I took a down week so that I could do two more up weeks before race week. Two days with strides, a 25 km long run. 96 km total.
Week 3. Monday was strides again. By this point I had actually signed up for the half marathon, so I switched away from Marathon pace and did some LT again on Wednesday. I had planned to do 3×3k, which comes down to about 30 minutes total. Aim for ~2 minute break in-between reps. Seems I went by vibes again. If taking it more seriously on the flat, the goal would probably be about 3:35 per km. Actual split: 3:43, :34, :40, jog, :29, :35, :50, jog, :49, :42, :49. Average: 3:41 per km. As before: undulating and citystrides. Heart rate high 150s, low 160s near the end. I was happy when I neared the end of the workout. I recall back in the day aiming more for like 170 for LT work though, so I might be taking these too easily. The realisation did not bother me. I’m having fun. Felt a bit deflated for Saturday’s long run, like when you run out of carby energy. Not sure what was up with that, don’t think it was related to anything.
Week 2. Monday strides again, Wednesday 3×3k Threshold again. Same caveats. Paces: 3:34, :41, :44, jog, 46, :32, :53, jog, :33, :27, :48. Average: 3:39. HR a bit lower than last time. Was wearing a chest strap and I am not sure whether it connects up perfectly. Eventually reached 160 HR in the last km.
Week 1, race week. Distances for the week: 13-16.5-13.5-13.5-10-6-24. Tuesday I did race pace / threshold. By this I mean I wanted to see what a sub 1:15 half marathon might feel like, so I set out to do 2×2k at 3:33 per km. It was a shitty day raining through the night, morning, and during the lunch workout. Headwind for the stretch I planned to do the workout and there were soooo many puddles everywhere. Sunday was also looking shit, so I saw it as a good test in all manners. Felt a bit out of it in the warmup, but I was not deterred. Splits: 3:31, :34, jog, :35, :31. Average: 3:33 per km. Perfecto. Heart rate settled around 165 bpm. Feels like: maybe just a bit too fast for an entire half marathon. Thursday and Saturday, I threw in some strides to keep the legs on their toes (badumtsj).
Goal and Strategy
My obvious goal was to PR, beating last year’s 1:16:43. I was not sure what shape I was actually in though. I had been running a decent amount, more than ever before, but not much of it fast. What could I run? Eventually I thought “sub 1:15 looks pretty, let’s do that”. Was I capable of it? No clue. Did I mind blowing up trying? Nah, just go for it. A true scientific approach. Note: this is why I did the workout I did the Tuesday before the race, I wanted some feel of the pace.
I had to wake up at 6:00 to get ready and catch my train. Had my usual bowl of muesli with soy milk (150g muesli, 300g soy milk). Did not have time for tea, so just had some water. I took the metro to catch a train and brought a bike along. Once dropped off in Ghent by the train, I biked the last 4 km to the stadium from which the race starts. Could have also taken a bus for that part, but it would have involved more waiting around in the station.
Tried to use the bathroom (and would continue doing that periodically prerace just in case). Grabbed my bib. Went to sit in the cafeteria to pin the bib onto my singlet and the guy on the next table over was mentioning the wind might make this tricky. It did not seem to have bothered him that much in the end… :)
I started some stretches and tried to time my getting ready to not stand around too long. It was around 8C and cloudy. Shorts and singlets would be fine for running, not as much for standing still. Eventually changed and dropped off my bag.
I ran maybe 2 km total as a warmup. Did two strides. They announced the start would be soon so I went on over the start area. The organisation had placed some signs so you knew where to line up: sub 65, 65-70, 70-75, and 75-80 minutes. The signs also said there would be pacers from 75 minutes and faster, spread out around every 2-3 minutes. None of us where I was lined up actually saw the 75 minute pacer though. Oh well. After a bit of an extra wait because the police was still clearing the course, we eventually got ready and waited for the gun.
At the start line I had noticed a younger looking guy, bit taller than me, shirt was for RAAC, another club in Brussels. After the gun, he was in front of me, so I semi-followed him over the first 500 metre as a sort of pacing guide. We were both on the inside of the track so that worked out. Getting out of the track was a bit cramped, but then we were on the streets and things were fine. Everybody is a bit looking for their pace so I just focus on keeping things under control and doing it right™. According to my watch, the pace was a few seconds per km fast, but I figure that is just how these things start.
After about 2-3 km, I found myself at the front of a little group, with another group maybe 10-20 metre ahead of us. The other group did not really pull away and from time to time someone would zoom past me to get to that group. Eventually I looked back, saw maybe 3 or 4 people, so I too decided to bridge the gap. A brief acceleration later, I latched onto the back of my new group of 25(!) people (I counted them afterwards using the official 5 km split). I was happy here and hung at the back of this group for the next several km. The pace kept perhaps a few seconds faster than I wanted for sub-75, but I was not going to let go of this group just yet. The wind picked up along the water and it was interesting to see how we all manoeuvred to try to not get hit too much by it. Did not feel like I was protected much though. At some point along the water I also saw someone lying face forward in the grass along the path. He looked like he might have been one of the elite or pacing African runners. I wondered how you could be so dead so shortly into a half marathon and whether he would be OK.
Around 6-6.5 km, we turn away from the water and shortly after that the path also narrows. Some jostling for position because of that actually saw me move up in the group without intending to. I felt good though and, without changing how the effort felt, seemed to be slowly moving up further in the group. The feeling did not last too long. Around 8.5 km, when passing under a highway bridge, I felt a side stitch developing. It did not hurt yet, but I recognised the signs and reined myself in. I went backwards in the group, sort of hung on for a bit, and then went out the back. But at least I did not have a side stitch.
As I tried to find the right effort again, I noticed I was alongside or in front of a woman. I only mention it because in situations like these she, rightfully so since she was around 10th at that time, gets more attention from the crowd with constant shouts of encouragement for “Elke”. We ran together for a little bit, but by the time I hit the water again (around 10.5 km), I must have gapped her: the shouts were further behind me.
At some point a guy with a shirt that said “Ploegsteert” passed me and I latched on. We ran together for at least the second half of the path along the river. He did most of the work in front, I must admit. When we passed the spot where earlier the runner had been lying face forward, there now were two ambulances on the one-car-wide path. We had to squeeze past them. Now I really wondered what the hell had happened to the guy. Anyway, I had my own suffering to focus on.
Ploegsteert and I left the river path and stuck together. At some point a guy with some fluo yellow patches on his shirt passed us. I had spotted him a few times before as we yoyoed around one another throughout the race. This time I decided to follow. It seemed fine. However.
When we hit the bridge area again, around 16.5 km, I had a side stitch issue again. Now it was straight into pain. I tried to keep myself focused on the pace, but it actually hurt, so I slowed down a little. I had to let fluo yellow go. Soon, the side stitch was gone again. I think it was around the same spot as it had disappeared the round prior. My conclusion: that stretch of road is cursed. (Looking at the GPS splits, I am probably to blame though)
From here on, things are a bit more vague in my mind. I think Ploegsteert passed me again and, feeling better, I decided to hang on to him. I seemed alright again and started looking forward to the finish, breaking down the kms into “just x more minutes of holding on”. We passed RAAC club guy, throughout the race I had seen him up ahead, but had never gotten close to him. I then recall following some guy in a triathlon suit, I assume he passed us and I latched on.
At around 20 km I decided it was time to just squeeze out anything I still had left. I sped up, repeating to myself it was almost over anyway, repeating to myself to just ignore any complaints from the body. Back on the track where we had started, I went into what I choose to describe as a sprint. Any onlookers may disagree with that nomenclature, but this is my story. I was passing other people though. As I came out of the final bend, two people were also sprinting for the line and for a moment there all three of us were abreast, racing our hearts out. It lifted my spirit and I tried my best to outkick them. I failed. They beat me. I crossed the line and had no clue what time I had. In my tunnelvision to sprint to the line and beat those guys, I had not even thought about looking at the clock on the finish line or my watch at any point in the past km.
Once past the line, I did check my watch. Success! I did it, sub-75. Turns out “I’ll go out at sub-75 pace because it looks pretty” is a valid tactic. Official results place me at 1:14:52. There’s also my Strava for gazing at the map and splits.
Assuming I got their names right, the people I specifically mentioned finished as follows. All times chip times. RAAC guy 1:15:01. Ploegsteert 1:14:29, so he really dropped me. Fluo patches 1:15:00. Elke 1:15:46. Ah and of course Bashir Abdi, who set a Belgian national record in 59:51. He told the media afterwards he could have done better if it had not been for the wind. You and me both, Bashir, you and me both.
Of the 25 person group I was in at the 5k point, 12 finished ahead of me, 11 finished behind me, and 1 DNFed.
Splits dump. Since GPS wise the activity ran a little bit longer than a half marathon, all the projections slightly lowball the result. Projections are made from the cumulative time. As you can tell, the start was a little too fast. On a whole, I am satisfied with my race though.
Official splits, though I probably would not trust their distance. Overall position is neat though (includes women and non-Belgians). At least it went the right direction throughout.
Maybe half a year ago, the thought first crept into my mind: maybe it is time to do a marathon. I never cared for them and for a long time used “they can wait till I can run sub-3” as an excuse when people asked me about them. That time has come and gone for a while now though, and I still did not care. Half a year ago, I for the first time considered the idea and had a look at the options. At the time, the Rotterdam marathon seemed like a good candidate. Largely flat, lotta fast people (i.e., people I could run with), relatively close-by. And then I got distracted from the idea again. I did not really care.
Then around the end of January, I thought about the Rotterdam marathon again. I had a look to sign up for it aaaand they were sold out. It was at that moment that I realised: I was slightly disappointed about missing out. So from then on, I tried to have a look at the bib selling platform that Rotterdam offers, a place to get in contact with people that cannot do Rotterdam any more, e.g., because of injury, and are looking to sell their bib. It took a lot more checking than anticipated, but by early March I finally did have a bib.
So that lies in my future. The Rotterdam marathon on 16 April. I am not quite sure yet what time to aim for. Plugging this half marathon time into JD’s vdot calculator makes for a scary sounding 2:36:35. I will probably aim for something more conservative, but how conservative? 2:40? 2:45? I am tempted by the 2:40 or more correctly 2:39:59. This race has shown “because it looks pretty” gets you there. I remain undecided though. My future holds a lot of pondering. And that marathon.