Saturday, April 3, 2010

Harry's Spring Run-Off 5K Race Report

One of my favorite races of the year, Harry's Spring Run Off goes through the hilly terrain of High Park. While it isn't exactly ideal for setting personal bests (thanks to the 350m long 8.5% grade at the end), the it's a gorgeous route and does a great job of setting the mood for the coming season. Further, a number of friends from University run it as well so it's a good chance to get caught up.

I didn't really know what to expect this time out, as it had been months since I've done any speed or hill work (trying to avoid re-injuring the back). Further, after the group run on Wednesday my left thigh was a bit sore, so I took the last two days off to rest it before the race. It was still a bit tight this morning, but fortunately a few stretches before the race seemed to loosen it up. Either way, my target was to squeeze in somewhere between a fun run and an all-out effort. I didn't want to push it too hard and blow up on the final climb, but I also wanted to test how well my fitness was progressing.

As such, the tentative goal was to aim for a ~4:30/km pace (roughly tempo effort) and then decide what to do as the race unfolded. I lined up about three rows back from the front of the corral ahead of the start. I didn't want to be right up front as I wasn't going to push it, but I also didn't want to be weaving in and out so I didn't go too far back either. Thanks to a slight downhill grade for the first 15 meters or so, people have a tendency to go out way too fast for the first 500m and then start falling back in groves, so it's a bit tricky to position oneself well.

1K 4:14 169bpm

When the starter's horn sounded, as with previous years, the field took off at about a 3:30/km pace so I pulled over to the right side and did what I could to keep my pace within range. After about 300 meters or so, the crowd thinned out a bit and I was able to stabilize my pace to a 4:20/km level. I was feeling great and the thigh wasn't giving me any trouble, so I elected to hold onto that pace and see what happened. My breathing and heart rate were still in the comfortable range, and the legs weren't showing any sign of fatigue.

Nearing the end of the first kilometer was an aide station (positioned more for the 8K race before this one), and at this point I started to pass through the hordes of traffic that had started out too fast and were now falling back. I managed to find a path through without much resistance, so I was able to maintain my pace coming around the corner and starting the descent.

2K 4:04 183bpm

The second kilometer of the race starts with a level section and then proceeds to drop a little more than 100 feet. As such, I took advantage of the descent and accelerated a bit when I hit the downhill segment. Thanks to this, I was able to shave off about 10 seconds from this split while maintaining a relatively stable heart rate. I was still passing a lot of people in this segment, but fortunately the road is still pretty wide at this point so that was relatively easy.

At the 1.9K mark, the steepest part of the descent begins - stretching out for about 400 meters at a -7.6% grade. I've always had trouble with this hill, as it's steep enough that my body wants to brake itself to control the descent speed. Intellectually I know that I should just let gravity take over, but overcoming the instinct takes a lot of effort. Either way, I averaged a 3:55/km pace over this stretch, maxing out at about 3:35 near the top of the hill.

3K 4:16 185bpm

After the big descent, the course levels off so the third kilometer is relatively flat. There are a few small rolling hills, but nothing of significance. As such, I settled back into my 4:20-ish pace and kept going. My heart rate and breathing were remaining rock stable at this point, and the body was feeling great, with no signs of fatigue setting in.

At this point I was well ahead of schedule, but while I was gaining confidence in my speed I still wasn't entirely sure about my ability to scale that final hill without the specific training I'd done in previous years. As I neared the end of the kilometer, I elected to pull back the pace a bit to leave some fuel in the tank for the final push. I hated to do it as I was making great time, but as it didn't seem likely I'd beat my 20:55 PB on this course I felt it was better to do it now than be forced to do it on that hill.

4K 4:28 187bpm

The fourth kilometer has a few more significant rolling hills, and traffic started picking up again as fatigue started to kick in for many runners. I weaved in and out to get through it, but took a conscious effort to keep the pace reduced as per my concerns in the last kilometer. My heart rate picked up a bit on the climbs, however on the flat and downhill segments it was dropping slowly so I was getting a bit of rest in.

In retrospect, that slowdown was a bad decision as I was still well within zone 4 and my breathing wasn't problematic at all. The legs still felt fresh, and while the final hill is definitely challenging I don't know that this bit of rest really did a lot to help. Unfortunately, I wasn't sure what to expect as I hadn't gotten around to testing out my fitness on climbs in recent weeks. While I didn't do any formal hill training, the bike provides similar muscle recruitment so it's obvious that that did the trick.

5K 4:28 190bpm

The final kilometer of this race is always challenging, as the knowledge of the upcoming hill tends to hover over everything else that is happening. For the first 650m or so, I held the same pace as I did in the previous kilometer (4:28) and focused on deep breathing to minimize my heart rate. Fortunately, I was still pretty comfortable at this point so that was relatively easy to do. The heart rate did go up a bit as there is a small positive grade in this section (0.7% overall, 2.1% in the latter half).

With about 350m to go, I turned the corner and started heading up the final climb. The hill has an average grade of 8.5% and includes a 200m stretch at over 10%, which at the end of a race like this can be incredibly painful. When I hit the bottom of the hill I started to lose some speed, but thanks to a friend cheering me on I sucked it up and pushed through managing to average a pace of 4:10 for the final 200m of the climb. While it was draining, when I reached the top and ran the final 15m stretch to the finishing line there was still plenty left in the tank.

In the end, I hit the finish line in 21:35.5s which was a lot better than expected. Had I gone all out and not slowed down after the third kilometer, I may have been able to get close to my personal best. I don't know that it would have been possible to beat it regardless of what I did, but it is obvious that I am in better shape than I had thought. Either way, the intent of getting out today was more to get back into racing mode than hitting any specific time target, so I'm happy with what I achieved.

This particular race is a difficult one to plan, as that big hill at the end makes it a highly strategic course. Short distance runs like this are easier to do by feel, but having to save some energy for that final push means that it needs a bit more foresight than that. If you go out to fast, you implode when you hit that hill and lose a lot of time. If you hold out too much on the initial segment, you've got plenty left in the tank for that hill but you sacrifice time that would have been easy to get. Unfortunately, there's no way to know for sure until you hit the finish line and at that point it's too late to do anything about it ;)

The other tricky part about it is that that final hill always makes me feel like I am moving at a snail's pace. Looking back at the telemetry, it's obvious that it didn't slow me down much - but if you asked me to estimate my pace while I was climbing I likely would have guessed somewhere around 5:30-6:00. I'm not sure if it's just the extreme grade, the other runners fighting alongside me or the lactate messing with my brain but it can be quite deceiving ;) Fortunately, the slower I think I am going the harder I'll push so maybe that's a good thing!

Chip time: 21:35.5 (overall results)
Gun time: 21:36.6
Pace: 4:19K
Place overall: 67/1633 (95.9 percentile)
Place in men: 56/775 (92.8 percentile)
Place in age group: 15/138 (89.1 percentile)

Full Telemetry


  1. nice job with the time. You should be able to beat your PR on a flatter course. Those hills in high park are crazy tough.