Hills, Spills & Thrills: Runner’s World Heartbreak Hill Half recap

Hills  – that’s really the point of the event, to run on the infamous Newton hills….here’s the course profile according to my Garmin:

Heartbreak Hill Half course profile

Heartbreak Hill Half course profile per my Garmin

Spills – well, only one – we’ll get to that, but if you follow me @readeatwriterun you know what I’m talking about

Thrills – finishing strong AND under my goal time (and not far off my half PR) despite a challenging course (especially for a flatlander), heat, humidity, not perfect food or rest the day before AND the spill….and getting to run part of the Boston Marathon course before April. It was a terrific opportunity!

AND my pace wasn’t all over the place, despite my lack of pacing experience, the hills, the heat, etc. You can see one problem water stop though – it was more of a pace hit than the fall!

Heartbreak Hill Half pace top faster x axis zero

Heartbreak Hill Half pace top faster pace, x axis zero

Quick take: Good race, well-organized especially for the first year (but I’d expect nothing less from RW and Dave McGillivray). The hills were hills, but – dare I say this, knocking wood – not as terrifyingly hard as I’d thought they’d be or I made them out to be in my mind. That said, they weren’t coming in the last 8 miles of a marathon, so I’m not taking them lightly and plan to continue hill training.

Though it’s much later in the year than I normally race (I don’t like heat), I’d do the half again. I also find myself vaguely tempted by the Hat Trick (5k & 10k Sat, half Sun). So many people did it, but I know at least one who’s going to only do the half next year to focus on it. So we’ll see what next year brings.

Now on to the details! (get a cup of coffee/tea and a snack, this is a long one)

Saturday – the race-related parts (more on the expo/festival in a later post)

Up at 3am to get in a warmup and 2 mile shakeout run before a snack, tea and heading to the airport for a 7am flight. All went fine at the airport and on the flight, and had a really nice flight attendant.

Grabbed a cab after my flight landed around 830, not realizing I’d be approaching campus while the 10k was still going on. The road closures caused traffic backups and detours which gave me plenty of views of the lovely houses of Newton (yowza, and what landscaping), and a cab fare that was more expensive than I’d planned. I got in a little extra walking as a cop at one of the detours told the cabbie it’d be easier to let me walk. Cabbie kept driving around for a bit after then gave up and took me back to the cop. So I walked a block (me and my backpack of food, race gear, etc.) and then walked along the 10k course, probably the last 0.5miles or so, clapping once in a while. At about 930, it was over 80 and sunny, and walking up the hill toward BC, I thought, “this is not gonna be good tomorrow!”

Saturday on fast forward: expo; seminars; lots of eating the food I had brought throughout the day – was so hungry I ate about every hour;  a failed attempt to get to my hotel mid-afternoon which had me walking almost an hour and a half with my backpack on in the heat/sun; dinner of food I’d packed and convenience store purchases at tables outside the building where the pasta dinner was being held; listening to Sarah Reinertsen’s amazing story

I finally got to my hotel via cab around 845pm. The cabbie was so nice – when I mentioned my struggles to find a cab earlier and find food I could eat, he insisted I take one of his two bananas. The hotel couldn’t find my gel for the race which I’d shipped ahead though they’d confirmed receipt via phone multiple times. I went up to the room and they brought it up within a few minutes. (Turned out to be the pattern with this hotel – I encounter some minor problem, but they solve it quickly.)

I started “unpacking”, pulling everything out of the backpack I’d been lugging all day. I knew I had to get race prepped and then get as much sleep as possible. I put a bath towel down on the couch and laid out my full race kit on it including ipod, Garmin, and loaded fuel belt. I find the white background of the towel helps draw my eye to remember to look there and makes the items stand out. I made a list of the things that HAD to come with me to the race in the morning – I don’t trust myself to remember. Then I set up my post race (hot pink, from Eukanuba at the expo) bag with Ultragen, bottled water, empty water bottle, sportlegs and a few other items. I’d been crashing and feeling sleepy but getting everything laid out and the bib pinned on – with emergency info on the back, of course –  woke me up. I made some hot water in the coffeemaker (didn’t drink much because it tasted like coffee) and read a little before trying to go to sleep around 1015. I don’t think I slept much between then and 1am when I had to get up briefly, but I slept pretty well between 1 and 4am….

Sunday – race day!


I woke just before my 4am alarm in the hotel room and turned off the alarm. I thought perhaps I could get a bit more sleep before the next alarm went off at 445, but nope, so I got up around 420. I’d actually set 3 alarms: my usual 4, then 445 and 5 as backups. Given that the charming & gracious Alana Bonner @alanadbonner was picking me up at 6, I wanted to be sure to be ready! I got up and started puttering around, taking my usual pre-race (and pre-long-run supplements, including my BeetElite).

It felt awfully quiet in the hotel room and I knew it would be easy for me to get distracted and lose track of time, so I listened to an old Endurance Planet podcast episode I have stored on my iphone. It helped keep me moving, kind of like background music (but endurance sport focused) and it was one where Tawnee mentioned my BQ, so that helped pump me up. (thanks Tawnee & Lucho!) Also sent some tweets, DMs and IMs to various folks while I was getting ready. I so appreciate everyone’s support and encouragement – it helped to know you were thinking of me!

Slathered on lots of sunscreen, then added a bit more, recalling the full sun of Saturday. The RiteAid sport version I got (it came in a travel size) smells just like Coppertone sunscreen from my teenage years. I got lucky that my skin tolerated it okay as I hadn’t tested it before – I know, violating the rule. Heck, at this point with my eating and hydration on Saturday, I was pretty far past the “nothing new or different” rule. Got dressed and still had plenty of time, so back onto twitter for a bit. Alana was right on schedule, and down I went.

It’s a lovely gift from the universe when you meet someone you’ve only corresponded with and they’re just as nice and cool and interesting and fun as you hoped/thought, as well as generous and thoughtful. That’s Alana! So glad we got to meet, looking forward to our next time together!

We very quickly got to campus (thanks googlemaps! weird to hear distances in k, for my Canadienne driver) and parked. Alana had done the 5k & 10k the day before, so she was more familiar with the athlete’s village and start areas. She graciously offered to grab my bag from the car after the race – since she’d finish ahead of me – and bring it to me at our designated meeting point, building steps in sight of the finish. (see what I mean?) She put on some sunscreen and we threw stuff in the trunk.

My Garmin made its usual pre-race dive for the concrete in the garage but I caught it this time. At least it wasn’t at the start like it was at Shamrock and the Parkway 10 miler, where it picked up a ding on the edge.

Re the Garmin: The problem is the plastic band broke, and I replaced it with a Garmin velcro band, but my wrist is so small only a little of the velcro loops meet. It’s very easy to knock it apart if you hit the end of the strap, which sticks out – I’ve even done it on the treadmill. The watch face (610) is bigger than my wrist as well, so the watch always moves around. I think perhaps this third time was the charm and I’m really going to get the 620 before my next race, sooner if possible so I can train with it. (the question is white or black – I’m leaning white like Meb!) I’m also thinking of selling my 610 with HRM and footpad on ebay. Hey, why not?

We strolled toward the start, with a stop at the outdoor facilities, chatting and having fun. We stopped by the water table for a while and met up with a friend of hers (whose name escapes me, sorry!) and talked some more. I should note that at this point, I was comfortable in a super lightweight tank, running bra and shorts, especially if I was in the sun. So….I knew it was going to be a warm one. (my Garmin says 70 and sunny with 69% humidity at the start) Alana’s Garmin didn’t want to play and apparently died. Fortunately, she had a different Garmin in the car, albeit with less charge, so she went back to get it. I headed back to the portajohns but happily discovered there were campus buildings (with indoor bathrooms!) open. That just rocked. (not sure if it was intentional, but much much appreciated)

I headed back to the water table. I wasn’t going to take any, but decided to take a 2nd dose of Endurolytes (had one at the hotel) just in case. Swigged a little water with it, stuck an Energy Surge tablet in my mouth and went to find the pace group I was going to run with. The pacer was an energetic woman, tiny (didn’t come up to my shoulder!) and very experienced. She explained we’d try to run even effort not even pace, she’d take water at every stop and suggested we do too, and said she’d talk during the race and hold the pace sign the entire way. (helpful because of her size, but that’s gotta be tough) A little chat within the pace group about races we’d run, times, goals, nerves and all the fun stuff that comes up when you pack runners in corrals, and then it was time for the National Anthem. You could hear the silence roll back through the corrals as the notes carried on the warm air. It was a lovely rendition. Then the front pack was off, and shortly thereafter, so were we!

The Race 

The start was quite crowded and of course everyone wanted to stay close to the pacer. So there was a fair amount of jostling, weaving and bumping. I remember turning right after heading out the gates, and running down a road I’d walked yesterday, then heading toward a downhill and thinking, “don’t go out too fast” (echoes of Dave McGillivray in the strategy seminar). I did remember to start my iPod but couldn’t really hear it until we had gotten on the road. I kept turning it down to hear the pacer or a conversation or up to try to get the music in my head.

There were so many people it wasn’t really possible to get into your own rhythm/head and just run your own race in the early miles. It would have been almost dangerous to do so given we were limited to half the road in many places, so if – like me – you tend to run in the middle of the road, you need to sidestep the cones meant to keep you to your half. (I need to get better at this, the lateral motion is wasted energy.) Runners needed to pay attention to the hills, to manhole covers and occasional poor pavement (spoiler alert!) and to where everyone else was. I know I bumped into one runner trying to pass and though I apologized, saw from her shadow behind me that I’d unbalanced her momentarily and felt horrible about it. I was grateful it was on a flat section, not on a downhill.

According to the pacer, we were doing well on our pace even with the hills. The road we were on had some trees on it so there were little patches of shade, but not much. It was mostly full sun.

The Spill

Somewhere around mile 4, perhaps a little before, I was running uphill and caught the toe of my right shoe on something in the road. Not sure if it was a manhole cover edge (they’re recessed, so there’s an asphalt lip) or some other pavement oddity, but whatever it was, it was enough. I felt the catch and realized I was going down, and got my hands out in front of me. I slammed hard into the pavement on the heels of my hands and my knees (especially the R knee) and my right shin (road rash & bruise). Thoughts flashed through my mind about runners being “trampled” after a fall, and I moved my body to look behind me. All I saw were legs from about shorts’ end down coming at me, and I was scared. Then I heard two female voices saying “are you ok?!” and saw hands reaching down. I grabbed the hands and they pulled me up. We almost immediately turned forward and started running again.

My rescuers were two women – one whose name I didn’t get, a blonde in a blue sparkle skirt over shorts, and Runner’s World editor Meghan Loftus. (note to David Willey – having the staff in shirts so they could be identified was a terrific idea) I was a little bit shocky – first the adrenaline rush, then the pain, then the feeling shaky and like you’re going to cry, all typical after such an incident – but I didn’t want to stop. I’d been so nervous about the race, and had the stress of travel and food worries the day before – now I was running it and I didn’t want to DNF, couldn’t stand the thought. My saviors asked me repeatedly if I wanted to stop, if I was ok, told me the medical tent wasn’t far, and offered to go get medical personnel.

As we were running, I looked at the palms of my hands and saw red, so figured I’d scraped them up. I couldn’t really see much of what happened to my knees/legs given the angle, but I didn’t see blood running down. I asked them how bad it was, and Meghan ran ahead, looked back and said, “not too bad”. She wasn’t totally convincing; the look on her face conflicted a little with what she said, so I figured she was trying to give me the choice to keep going. The places I’d met the road hurt, but not in a way that suggested an injury that would affect my running (though my right VMO twinged for a minute or two, making me think ‘uh oh, the chiro’s going to have to fix that’). I didn’t feel like my gait was different. Every step just hurt my knees in a new and different way, but I didn’t think I’d be doing myself long-term damage, so I said again that I didn’t want to go to the medical tent. (I figured they’d just clean me up, but it would take a while to clean me up and then my race would be over and that was unacceptable.)

I realized after the race that I had these clots/scabs of blood on my right knee, lots of red on my right shin and a red spot on my left knee. 

legs after RW HHHalf 06-08-2014

legs after RW HHHalf 06-08-2014

Explains why the medical personnel at every aid station looked at me carefully as I passed. Very pale runner with blood on her leg? You’d be keeping an eye on her too. I can’t wait to see the on-course photos. I really want one of me that shows the injuries.

We were chatting a little, trying to get my head back into the race. Having a water stop at 4.5 (soon after the fall) helped, I had to focus on that. I knew it was hotter and more humid than any conditions I’d run in since last summer, and since I’m not an outside runner by any stretch, I thought I was probably at higher risk of dehydration. I think just prior to this station I took a swig of my gel, figuring the sugar would help not only energy but my mental recovery from the injury. I swallowed the water I could and kept going. I lost the blue sparkle skirt runner pretty soon after, but Meghan and I stayed sort of together or in the same area for a while longer.

Water stops seemed to collect bunches of runners more than they usually do – you had to be careful where you stepped and to not knock into anyone. There were plenty of stops – about every 1.5 miles – and except for one, they were well stocked. Everyone seemed to be using caution and taking water or Gatorade (offered at all stops but the first), and I saw some people carrying liquid in belts, handhelds and even a few Camelbaks – good day to do that. I don’t remember if the stops were consistent about whether water was first or Gatorade, my recall is they weren’t and if that’s the case, that could be improved. Shamrock had a water table, Gatorade table, water table order at every stop, and they publicized that pre-race, worked great.

For the rest of the race, I remember snapshots or moments over the rest of the race, and where certain things happened may be mixed up, which seems to happen to me when I try to go back through the miles:

  • starting to dump water on myself, down my back – first time ever – at the mile 6 water stop, and every time I took water after that
  • hearing the pacer, shortly after the 10k mark saying “halfway there!”
  • the water stop at 7.5 (I thought it was 9, but my Garmin thinks otherwise) that was overwhelmed – I kept yelling “water” and got to the last table, had to keep going, stopped and turned back trying to get water only to be handed about an ounce of Gatorade by a frantic young woman; I tossed it, knowing it was only 1.5mi to the next stop – I really was thinking water stop to water stop, and then “only x miles to the finish” at each one
  • lovely flower scent wafting from some of the beautiful yards on the course
  • patches of shade from leafy trees that were so much cooler everyone tried to run in them, and one breeze for about 10 seconds in the last 3 miles
  • the nice houses and yards in the neighborhoods
  • seeing the Heartbreak Bill gorilla high-fiving runners and the HHRC Newton store on a corner on the course
  • a few spectators out on the course with signs or dogs – not that many and in some places none, but there were enough runners to keep the energy up
  • the famous Newton fire station (mile 17.5 on the marathon course I think) with its Boston Strong sign up – I waved to the firefighters out front but got no response
  • the “frontage” road we ran on alongside Commonwealth for the last few miles – the pedestrian crosswalks had a foot-wide strip of concrete, maybe 8-10 rows of flat cobble-like bricks and another strip of concrete; I was already trying to be really attentive to anything in the asphalt that could be a problem like manhole covers, holes, overfills, dips, and then got the added concern of these crosswalks as I figured the bricks might be overly smooth
  • appreciating that I’d had to walk the last bit of my trek to campus on Saturday, because I recognized when we were getting fairly close to campus and paused my iPod – I even high-fived one guy I’d seen the day before (who I swear I know but I can’t place him) and another woman
  • turning into the gates of campus, then heading toward toward the finish and everyone speeding up, like when a jet surges just before you land
  • speeding up myself, seeing the long straight line to the finish, and moving to the left to try to not be behind anyone but not necessarily pass anyone
  • the announcer (not Bart) announcing my first name, pausing (my last name isn’t easy) and just moving on to the next runner
  • realizing too late that I was stopping my Garmin right in front of the finish line photographer, then double checking I’d actually stopped it
  • getting my medal a few steps later, then seeing photographers who asked if I wanted a picture with my medal (yes), then heading to the food tent and the steps to meet Alana

Post-race, Alana continued to be a terrific running buddy. She kept asking if I wanted to go to the medical tent, and I said maybe I would but after I got my drink in me, found a bathroom, etc. She went and got a security guard, who looked at my legs as I sat on the steps and said he’d get medical. Apparently in addition to all the medical support people on the course and at the medical tent at the end, they had roving medical staff too (big kudos to the race organizers, best med support I’ve ever seen). A guy came over with a bag and checked me out. He sprayed something on my right knee to clean it (guess in addition to the blood there were little pavement stones in the skin/blood) but it didn’t hurt too badly. He didn’t work on it a lot since he said it had stopped bleeding and clotted nicely. He saw things were bruising and suggested I go get ice and told me to clean it well back at the hotel. I said I’d ice it back at the hotel too. (I still haven’t iced it, and it’s Tuesday – just didn’t feel like I needed it)

Alana took this photo to share our triumph over the heat, hills and humidity (triple H threat – hey, HHHalf)

HHHalf medals shoes photo courtesy Alana Bonner

HHHalf medals & shoes photo courtesy of Alana Bonner

What I don’t remember but wish I did: the Johnny Kelley statue. I’ve seen photos of it and the course description as well as the strategy session mentioned it. I don’t remember seeing it AT ALL.

Music – I don’t recall hearing that many of my songs. I could probably only say for sure I heard less than 10 of them, identifying them in my mind with particular snapshots of road and sun. I think had the volume pretty low. I felt like the course had enough people that I needed to be paying attention and be able to hear runners around me whether or not I was talking to them. Given that we ran near a hospital with ambulances going in, and at once point a fire truck & ambulance were brought onto the course, I think it was the right decision. I prefer to take the “change the volume” approach rather than go completely without a player, that way I can make the decision real-time and the music is there if I need/want it. No song reached the 5x pinnacle of Wild Wild West in Shamrock, but I do recall playing Tusk twice – good beat for the uphill section I was on – and Raise Your Glass twice, mouthing along with the words.

Thanks for reading! To come, probably Friday – my thoughts on the festival (expo, seminars).

Read on if you want info on my race kit and lots of detail on my fueling.

Race kit
Brooks Adrenaline GTS13 with custom orthotic
Feetures socks
The North Face Better than Naked shorts
The North Face Stow-n-Go bra (iphone in ziploc)
The North Face Better than Naked tank
UltrAspire Quantum fuel belt
Garmin 620
ipod shuffle with yurbuds
The North Face visor
lots of sunscreen!

Race day fueling & hydration
Pre:  The usual supplements – Hammer Endurolytes, Endurance Amino, and Anti-Fatigue Caps, Wobenzym, Acid-Ease, glutamine, MAP.  2 FRS chews and 1 packet BeetElite (mixed with about 6oz of SmartWater). Also made sure to take my regular meds (4a), my Prevacid and my Allegra. Just before race start, I took 2 more Endurolytes with a sip of water, and a Hammer Energy Surge.

During: I think this went well. I took water at all but one stop though I wasn’t really ever thirsty. I think I got down probably 14oz of water total. I am better at drinking from a cup on the run now! Calorie-wise I took EFS First Endurance Liquid Shot (vanilla) at 4.5, 7.5 or 9 (I think, whichever stop I missed water at because I remember thinking how glad I was that it goes down ok without water) and maybe 10.5. I was trying to make sure the fall didn’t mess with my energy too much and keep up on electrolytes which the gel has. So though I didn’t feel like I desperately needed it, I made sure to take it regularly and wound up taking the whole 400calorie/5serving flask. (BTW, I don’t like the new flask tops but the new shape is ok. I’ll still use Hammer flasks at home though.) During the race I wasn’t really thirsty, I wasn’t hungry – my stomach did “re-announce” a few of the water/gel inputs but that’s fairly normal for me so I wasn’t concerned. I wasn’t queasy and my stomach wasn’t rebelling. All good.

Post: I think this went well also. I grabbed a bottle of water at the post-race food setup and took a few sips. I wasn’t really that thirsty but knew I should drink. Alana was incredibly nice and grabbed my gear bag from the car after she finished so that she could meet me and I could have my recovery drink immediately. I think it was less than 10 minutes after I finished the race when I started mixing it. I used a full 2scoops (travel packet) of EFS Ultragen cappuccino (only for races, at home I use 1-1.5 scoops) and about 12 ounces of water and swigged it down in maybe 5 minutes along with 3 sportlegs. I had a few sips of plain water as well.

When we got back to the car to head to my hotel, I opened the 11 oz bottle of Zico coconut water I’d put in the gear bag. It was warm but not hot, and still palatable, so I sipped at it and eventually finished it back in the hotel room. I got back to the hotel and took 5 MAP and 2 more Endurolytes. I brewed about 12oz of tea using SmartWater. I drank the tea, finished the Zico and ate the rest of my last JSP with salt. I had a second Zico, which I opened and started drinking; I wound up taking it in the cab and finishing in the airport. I filled up my 12oz Klean Kanteen with water from a drinking fountain for the flight. On the flight I ate a Quest bar (protein/fiber). I really think having the Ultragen immediately and taking in so much fluid made a big difference in how I felt and recovered (well) and that my Saturday hydration and eating helped as well.

Saturday fueling – different than usual so thought I’d log it since the race went well
Pre-flight – 12oz tea, 2oz chicken breast
Flight – Quest bar (protein/fiber), JSP with sunflower seed butter, 12oz matcha tea
At expo – 12oz water from fountain, coconut bread sandwich with almond butter, dried bananas, a bite of a JSP
After first seminar – half an Epic bison bar, half an apple/mango fruit bar, more water
After second seminar – other half of bison bar, more water then
1.5hours walking outside carrying my backpack looking for a cab and finding a convenience store, followed by half of 11oz of Zico coconut water, serving of kale greenola, more dried bananas before last seminar
Dinner (530pm, after second trip to convenience store, sitting outside) – Muscle Milk (vanilla), second serving of kale greenola, remainder of JSP and salt, 3/4 of a (6 serving) bag of Terra crinkle cut sweet potato chips, dried bananas, rest of the Zico, probably some more water
Hotel before bed – maybe 4oz hot water with stevia
I felt REALLY hydrated and somewhat overly carbed, but I had been getting hungry about every hour, really hungry, so I just went with it. I probably ate 1000 calories over what I’d normally eat or had planned, but it sure seemed to work out for me on race day!