Coming out of Chicago Marathon, I wasn’t done yet. As I wrote in the recap, I felt like I still had one more fast race in me – which I honestly thought would be another sub-3:20 attempt at San Sebastian at the end of October. Instead, I used up my fast-card at the Semi de Vincennes this past weekend – and honestly I’m pleased! It’s the only half-marathon I will run this year, so my one and only opportunity to do well. In many ways, my results also validate my performance at Chicago… but we’ll come to that.
It would have been easy to forget I had this race on my calendar, given that I had a grand total of zero emails from the organisers in the three months since signing up. Luckily I’m on top of these things! What I’m not great at is leaving a sufficient time between races. Two weeks probably weren’t quite enough to recover after a marathon PB, and while I spent that time not running and trying to recover, this also caused much stress/panic of ‘can I even run this??!!?!’. I became unnecessarily wound-up about this simple half-marathon.
And here’s why: I’d set out to run sub-3:20 at Chicago and didn’t quite manage it. My training had shown it should have been possible, so I felt like something was missing. On reflection, one issue I identified was that my half-marathon PB was 1:39:57 and yet I was trying to negative-split the marathon. This would have meant running a half-marathon PB in the second half of the marathon… which screwed with my head a bit in the race. If I was going to try for sub-3:20 again, then I’d need to improve my half time to ~1:35. The Semi de Vincennes was the only half I’d signed up to and voila, it became another target race.
The race started at 9:45am, and although I could have picked up my bib the day before, I’d elected not to make the trip across town and instead to get it in the morning. For a race of 5000 I thought that an hour would be sufficient to collect my number, visit the portaloo, drop my bag and get a quick warm-up in. As it turned out, they had a grand total of six toilets for all the participants, which meant that the queue snaked across the entire race village. I was getting anxious watching the time tick down, but after 35mins of waiting finally could do my business and deposit my bag – with a mere 13mins remaining until start time. Phew!
Surprisingly the race started two minutes early (unless my watch is wrong), but it took me that long to get across the start-line. I’d had a chat with Coach Ben the day before where he had told me to just have fun, and to go out slow because that seems to work for me. I’d lined up around the 1:45 mark and we started shuffling towards the start-line – but once we crossed it no-one increased in speed! I was pretty shocked, and started weaving my way forwards. Unfortunately I think I got too caught up in finding people my own speed that I split the first kilometre in 4:35, only a few seconds off goal pace (4:30). Damnit. But the pace felt remarkably easy so I just kept going. At 5km my watch read 22:40, which meant I had found my pace and was on track.
The course stayed entirely within the Bois de Vincennes. I’d been warned by someone who’d run the race before that it was a bit boring and quiet, but I really enjoy running and training in the two Paris forests so I knew this wouldn’t be a problem for me. The first 7km of the course is one little loop back to the start, after which you re-run the first 2-3km and then follow some long straight roads through the park in the second half. As we passed the start-line at 7km I heard a shout for my name; my friend Benjamin from Adidas Odéon was there snapping pictures, so I raised a hand (and then spent the next few hundred metres realising I’d totally covered my face in doing so).
I don’t think I’m the biggest fan of retracing your steps in a race – you’re inevitably reminded about how this section felt last time, and if it was better than this time it can put you in a negative headspace. I certainly wasn’t having as easy a time of it now as I had had during those first few flying kilometres, but I sipped on a gel from 9km which helped a bit. I’d taken one a few minutes before the start too, which had possibly given me some early energy but also some cramping, so was sure to wash this one down with water at the 10km aid station. I passed that mark in 45:18, my fastest 10km for 2018.
In the early kilometres, I’d decided that my plan would be to hold the ~4:30/km pace I’d found until 15km, and then start speeding up in the last 6.1km. Instead I started slowing down from 11-12km onwards, and every kilometre felt longer and longer. The effort still felt similar (or more), but the pace was slowly slipping away. I’d known this would likely happen, and so had written various reasons on my hand as to why I should keep pushing. These ranged from ‘you GET to go for it’ to ‘prove yourself wrong’ and ‘count your kills’ (1 kill = 1 person overtaken, although unfortunately I was the one being killed).
It became a big mental game of bargaining with myself to figure out what the golden nugget was that would get me to maintain the fast pace. Finally I found it: if I PB’d, then this would be my last fast race for the year. I was so done- I didn’t want to go through this again. OK, just hold on. The 1:35 was out of reach now, but there was still wriggle room to improve on last year’s half PB, even just by a few seconds.
After a terrible fake flat (read: very slight incline that goes on forever) from 14-15km, I found a little burst of energy, and then lost it again. Much of the second half was like this, although with a general downward trend. My slowest kilometre was no. 18 at 5:10/km, but I thought it was much worse than that. The course was marked every kilometre and I was frantically trying to do maths to figure out how much time I had in hand despite my brain having turned to mush and my watch no longer being reliable for current pace. Fun times.
Occasionally I’d get a shout-out from a clump of spectators (there weren’t many), and that gave me a little boost because I hadn’t told many people I was doing this race. My friends Genieve & Divya were coming to meet me at the end (Reason #9 to run fast: Genieve and Divya are waiting!), but I kept getting surprised when I heard my name. Do people know me somehow? Nope: after the second or third time I looked down at my pink bib (pink for the women, black for men – of course) to see my name written on the front. Oh – yep. Cool. Not as popular as I’d hoped.
One-ish kilometre to go and I turned on the speed again, but damn it felt like death. I had wanted to stop so many times during this race and avoided it, even when getting water, but none so much as in this last km. It was 4:35/km again, but felt like I was hanging on for dear life. I heard Benjamin again as he yelled ‘Allez Allez Julia, go for it!’ and all I could do was count down the few remaining minutes until the finish line. With 100m to go my watch said 1:38:28 and I knew I could scrape in under 1:39 if I sprinted, so I did. A grunting, give-it-everything kind of sprint: I actually heard a spectator giggle at the noises I was making as I came past. Eh, can’t blame him – but the 3:30/km pace it did its job. 1:38:52, new PB by 1min and 5 seconds.
I collapsed over the line, grateful that my two friends were there to pick me up. I hugged them, unable to speak. Once I’d recovered a little they were wonderful in waiting for me to eat brioche and banana bits (standard French race refreshments), change clothes while my feet cramped (painful) and check the big sheets of unofficial results that had been pinned up. Later I confirmed that I’d come 44th of 1109 females, and 28th of 693 in my SEF age category. Top 5% – moving up in the world!! ?
This race started with dreams of a big improvement and ended up as a smaller PB, but I honestly gave it everything I had. It wasn’t the wisest decision to race again so soon after the marathon, but I needed it mentally to put this season to bed. If I had achieved the 1:35 I wanted, then I would have felt like I’d messed up by not running the 3:20 which should have been in my grasp. But instead, the 1:38 half validates my 3:25 at Chicago. This is the result of my training for this year and I could not have done any more. And that’s fine! It just means that if/when I do want to go faster, there’s work to be done.
Normally at that point I’d finish off with a ‘bring it on’ but nope, the only thing that I’m bringing on right now is a whole lot of rest! It’s been a big season what with Oslo, Chicago and now this half, and I need some downtime. That still includes some events, but I’ll be doing these for fun rather than with any specific goals in mind. And with that, let the off-season… commence!