Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Race Report: Rock N Roll San Jose Half Marathon (& 5K/10K)

***Update: You guys, I just realized that this was my 20th half marathon!!! I'll just be sitting at home awaiting my extra-special bonus medal that I assume someone somewhere will put in the mail to me, since there is apparently one of those for every possible running accomplishment imaginable.***

I've had a super tough time lately getting back to this little corner of the internet, but last week I did manage to post a pre-race update on The Instagrams:

My friends are the best.

ICYMI I had one of the worst races of my life a month ago (Race to the End of Summer 10K), which felt extra-special bad since last year in that same race I was 2nd overall, 1st in my age group, and came within spitting distance of felling a four-year-old PR. My training had been better this year and I thought for sure I'd at least beat last year's time and maybe even PR.

But you know what they say: Never tell the universe your plans!

Even before that, though, 2017 had been one awful race after another in spite of the fact that my training has been going reasonably well. So, there is definitely a part of me that was trying to a) brace myself for an awful RNRSJ and b) figure out what the heck I was going to do with myself emotionally if it happened.

And you know what? That's exhausting.

In the last few weeks I've had some frank conversations about what's up with that. To paraphrase one such conversation:

    Me: "I know I don't have the training right now for 1:35, but I think I'll be happy if I can just PR or maybe even just run sub-1:40."

    Friend: "No you won't. You'll just come up with some other reason why that's not good enough and you should have run sub-1:39 or sub-1:38 or whatever and could have if x/y/z/whatever made-up reasons. There is no magical time out there that will finally make you feel good enough, because newsflash, that feeling is not about race times."

    Me: "That's not true! I was totally happy when I nearly PR'd the 10K last September. I was so happy when I PR'd and BQ'd at CIM that nearly broke a giant bell!"

    Friend: "Yeah, for like, five minutes. And only because you didn't *actually* believe either of those things could possibly happen. And after that you were all, 'Oh, I was so close to a PR, I could have run harder,' and 'Oh, I took it too easy, I should have pushed a little harder and I could have run sub-3:30,' etc. etc."

    Me: "..."

See also:

    Friend: "You think that being hard on yourself and having really high expectations helps you to race better but it doesn't. It just makes you a head case about it, which actually ends up making you race worse."

Probably not untrue. :-/

So, after a little self-examination, I came up with a few resolutions to work on around how I think and talk about my running and racing:

  • (Try to) stop worrying so much about being "exceptional" (because, really, I am not even *remotely* exceptional)
  • (Try to) stop worrying about whether or the extent to which other people are judging me by my race times (because they're not, unless they're just super lame and have *way* too little going on in their lives)
  • (Try to) be nicer to/gentler with myself about running performance
  • (Try to) admit the feelings I have about sucky stuff (say, having a terrible race), even if I don't think I should be having those feelings, rather than thinking, "This is so dumb, it's not even that important, I shouldn't feel this way" or "Come on, you CANNOT be disappointed about this!" Feelings gonna do what feelings gonna do and spending energy on whether or not you "should" be having a certain feeling or not is not going to change it in that moment.

So, yeah. That's the mindset I carried into this race. Really, really wanting a strong race, really really terrified I was going to have an awful one, and trying so, so hard to tell myself, "You have the training you have and you can only control what you can control. Do the best you can under the circumstances and as long as you don't wimp out whatever happens will be good enough."

I thought that maybe maybe maybe I was fit enough to eek out a sub-1:40 or even a PR (sub 1:38:52), but in the spirit of trying to be nicer to myself I didn't set a real goal beyond "Run an honest race, no wussing out". In a half, I usually know by the 5K what sort of pace I can handle (is it a 7:30/mile kind of day or a 8:00+/mile kind of day?), so my plan was to go out around 7:38-7:40 (~1:40 pace) and see if that felt reasonable. If so, I'd hold it for as long as I could, then gradually try picking it up around mile 7/8/9 and see how that felt. It wasn't an overly-ambitious plan, but still left the door open for a potential PR or sub-1:40 if I was having a great day. If it sucked & felt awful after 5K, then I'd reevaluate.

Complicating all of this was the fact that I've been a bit sick with asthma in the past few weeks, thanks to all the construction dust and (I suspect) some remnants of dog dander in the place we're currently staying (I'm allergic to basically all animals). Instead of basically never using my inhaler I've been using it 3-5 times a day, sometimes waking up at night needing it, and usually starting to wheeze & get chest tightness after about an hour of running. I'd gone to the allergist a couple days before and he'd pumped me full of steroids, which he said should do something right away but wouldn't take full effect for a week or two. Sigh.

I got to San Jose later than I wanted (lolol what else is new) but quickly found the expo, food, and my hotel. After a last-minute emergency trip to the Campbell RoadRunner Sports for Accel gels, which I forgot at home (thank you thank you thank you for being open til 7!!), I constructed my bib lady & settled in for a nice, restful half marathon-eve.

Counting the three nearly full boxes I have at home, I now own enough Accel gel to last me approximately until I die. (They only had single packets in chocolate, coffee, and vanilla. NO THANK YOU #fruitflavors4eva)

Along with the ability to easiy shower afterward, the beauty of staying just blocks from the start is getting to sleep in, and I took full advantage. When my alarm went off at 6am, I pulled on sweats and darted across the street to the Starbucks for a leisurely breakfast, sucked down 16 oz of Osmo Pre-load, got dressed, slathered myself in sunscreen, & was out the door by 7:30. I warmed up by jogging a little over a mile from the hotel to various key areas like gear drop and the port-a-potties, then shoved my way into Corral 2 around 7:50 (also, WOW, they need bigger corrals).

I am not a morning runner.

"What's that smell??" #awkwardpreracepics

The "wheels" division started at 7:57, followed by elites & Corral 1 at 8:00, and then at 8:01 the horn sounded and we were off. Be patient, I repeated to myself as we headed down Santa Clara Ave; Let the race come to you.

In my young, carefree early 30s, I ran my fastest half marathons by massively negative split (ie, running the first miles in the 7:45-7:55 range & the last ones in 7:00-7:15), so I really wanted to try for more even splits and see how it felt. It had been so long since I'd raced a half marathon that it took me a while to settle into the effort level, my 10K brain going "Wow, this is really slow," while my marathon brain was going, "Wow, this is really hard." I thought back to a quote I read recently about how a well-paced half marathon feels like holding your hand in a campfire and kind of said to myself, "Right, let's get ready to suffer."

    Mile 1 - 7:40
    Mile 2 - 7:40
    Mile 3 - 7:35

By the 5K I was feeling pretty good about 7:40ish pace. No, it did not feel easy, but I felt I could probably hold it for a while. Holy shit, I thought, am I maybe about to have an actual decent race??

(And then immediately, No jinxing no jinxing no jinxing!!)

Mentally I'd broken the race up into a gel every three miles, then a sprint to the end, which has worked really well for me in marathons. By mile 6 I still felt surprisingly good (y'know, relatively speaking), so I started thinking about trying to pick up the pace juuuust a bit. I felt like it was working, but alas my watch disagreed:

    Mile 4 - 7:42
    Mile 5 - 7:42
    Mile 6 - 7:47

Well, ok, you're just not used to running even half marathon splits, I thought. It's supposed to get harder! But I tried to push on the accelerator just a touch more to see what I had left in the tank. And, it kind of worked.

    Mile 7 - 7:41
    Mile 8 - 7:34

At this point my watch was showing a finishing time of right around 1:40 and I thought, Oh, you've so got this sub-1:40! Just hold onto this pace, then give it a bit more in the last couple of miles!

But my lungs had different ideas. Out of nowhere, around mile 9, I could feel my chest starting to tighten and it got harder and harder to breathe. There were a few little down-and-ups to go under bridges and every time I had to push a little to get up the uphill it felt like my asthma got a little worse. It wasn't so bad that I was afraid I'd have to stop, but it certainly made it a LOT harder to hold my 7:35-7:42 pace. (This was also where we started to get less shade and more direct sun.)

    Mile 9 - 7:54
    Mile 10 - 7:50

I don't remember a whole lot about those last miles, just that it was hard to breathe and it was getting harder and harder to move my legs, but I so, so wanted to see if I could still eek out that 1:39:xx (and of course there was also that whole end-of-the-race, the-faster-you-run-the-sooner-it's-over thing). Every time I found myself thinking, Oh god, I don't think I can do this for another 3/2/1/.5/.1 miles, I'd shoot back NO! Don't you DARE give up! Honest race all the way to the end! It is god damned time to suffer!

And in those last couple of miles I felt like I really did. It sucked and it sucked HARD and by the end I couldn't feel my legs anymore.

    Mile 11 - 7:37
    Mile 12 - 7:47
    Mile 13 - 7:26
    Mile 13.1(7) - 1:12 (7:03 pace)

In retrospect I do think I could have started pushing a little harder around say mile 9, but the asthma really threw kind of a monkey wrench into my groove there. When I've really given it 110% all I've got, I'm usually stumbling around seeing spots and fighting the urge to barf after I finish, and this time there was maybe a little stumbling and gasping but I felt fine again within just a few minutes.

"The Secure Zone," aka, the finish line

In the last mile or so I'd totally been fantasizing about how as soon as I finished I was going to find a nice, cool shaded spot and just lie on the ground for a while. Instead I sort of wandered around in a daze trying to figure out a) where I could get a cool finisher picture taken and b) where was the gear pickup, because I was completely disoriented. I guzzled half a bottle of ice cold water and dumped the rest over my head, then grabbed a second one and did the same. Then I fought with a free bottle of Gatorade for a while until it finally gave up its (much needed) secrets.

    Official: 1:41:07 / 13.1 miles / 7:43 pace
    Garmin: 1:41:08 / 13.17 miles / 7:41 pace

    Overall: 451 / 6,483 (= ~6.9%)
    Women: 89 / 5,453 (= ~1.6%)
    A/G: 20 / 915 (= ~2.2%, and made it onto the first page of results!)

I'll admit to having really mixed feelings about my time in the immediate aftermath. It would be a lie to say that I wasn't really, really hoping for at least a sub-1:40, so yeah, I was disappointed about that because DAMN, four and a half years is a long time, and I couldn't stop wondering what might have happened if I hadn't had asthma problems and managed to run slightly better tangents. (Note to self: Study the course map better next time.)

BUT, at the same time, I was pretty happy. This is still the fastest half marathon I've run since tearing my sartorius in 2013 (and then getting stress fractures in 2014 and 2015), and a 1:38 improvement over my last half a year ago.

One consequence of getting a new watch is PR'ing every distance and every run for a good month lol.

I will take that. I will take it, and I will build on it, hopefully this coming February at the Kaiser Permanente Half in SF.

Please accept this #studpose pic in lieu of my missing finish pic.

Also, I have to say I am pretty pleased with how I executed this race pacing-wise. Sandbagging and then hammering the last few miles for a massive negative split has always felt safe and makes for a dramatic race report, but it's not a very efficient way to run your fastest possible race, and I'm proud of the fact that I went out at a pace I wasn't really sure I could hold, and then more or less held it almost the whole way.

And of course, then there's the best part of any race: bRUNch! It's hard to beat breakfast burritos, pumpkin muffins, and mimosas with wonderful people for topping off the morning. :)

These ladies are awesome. Yes, for working hard & having great races, but mostly for feeding me delicious brunch.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~LOGISTICAL STUFF~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Location: San Jose, CA

Date: Early October (Oct 8, 2017 this year)

Price: Competitor shows only the current price rather than the entire fee schedule and I was not diligent enough to track the various price increases, BUT I can tell you that a) I paid $79.99 + $11.99 transaction fee (!?!) in March, b) the price has risen to $175 for last-minute expo registration, and c) they've been offering a 2018 re-run special this weekend for $59 (a price I consider actually reasonable for a half marathon).

Truthfully, the cost of Rock 'N Roll races makes me a bit ill. It is worth noting, though, that RNR now offers a kind of refund insurance that covers things like illness, injury, pregnancy, etc. that might foil your race (I don't see the amount listed on the website anywhere now, but one assumes it would be less than the cost of the race?), and you can also defer for $45.

Deadlines/sellout factor: I feel like this race has sold out in the past, but as of the day before the race, there were still spots available if you signed up at the expo. (Online registration was closed on Friday, I think.) It makes more sense now why I saw promo codes floating around the internet a few weeks back.

Field Size: Finishers:

  • Half Marathon - 6,483
  • 10K - 2,403
  • 5K - 1,767

Staging, Parking, etc.:

The start is at Santa Clara and Almaden, just a few blocks north-west of Cesar Chavez Plaza, and the finish is pretty much at Cesar Chavez Plaza, so I was quite happy with my decision to stay at the Four Points Sheraton, less than a block from the finish. Yes, it's an additional expense, but for a bigger, longer race, I really prefer not to have to drive and deal with parking or public transit on race morning if I can possibly justify it. (Also, more sleep!)

Here is what the race website had to say about parking as of 7:30pm the night before the race:


When I ran this race back in 2010, I didn't stay within walking distance, and found it very easy to park in municipal public parking within just a few blocks of the start, and it was even free! (The caveat being that since I was driving & am paranoid, I arrived quite early & apparently beat the rush). I'm not sure if it's that easy anymore, but there are definitely a BUNCH of large public garages in downtown San Jose as the staging area is right near the convention center.

If you're staying at hotel near the start (and there are MANY to choose from), you're good; you'll just probably have to pay. (Eg, I stayed at the Four Points Sheraton, a couple blocks from the start, and parking was $29.99/night.)

The Course:

This course is pancake-flat, and actually has relatively few turns for an urban race. (Don't let the elevation graph fool you, look at the scale.)

Both times I've run this race there has been a pretty awesome crowd presence (see: urban races), plus there are the bands if you're into that. (Personally, I'm not. You run by them so fast that you barely catch any of what they're playing, and I don't know about you but when I'm racing I'm a bit too preoccupied to pay attention to that kind of thing anyway.)

Aid stations were sufficient, well organized, staffed by super with-it volunteers, and--be still my beating heart--pouring real actual sports drink with real actual calories in it. Lemon-lime Gatorade 4eva. I carry my own gels but the later stations were handing some out along with maybe shot blocks or something, not totally sure.


Not that I need more of them but I am happy to say that the tech T situation has much improved since 2010! This one actually fits, and doesn't make me feel like I look like a can of Sprite if I wear it in public.

And of course it wouldn't be a Rock 'N Roll race without a goofy rock-themed medal.

(Then again I guess if you run a gimmicky race you can't complain too much about getting a gimmicky medal.)

If you are super speedy, it might be relevant to your interests that there are prizes for male and female overall winners 1st-3rd, plus 1st, 2nd, & 3rd male & female in five-year increments. At 6,000+ runners, including a fair number of elites and pros, though, they were definitely not relevant to mine! (I believe the men's race was won in 1:03:xx & the women's race in 1:12:xx hoooooly Jesus! AND she was in my age group!)

If you decide to run:

  • If you can swing the additional $$ I definitely recommend staying nearby as it is just so easy with the approximately 10 gazillion hotels within a five block radius. It saved me so much time & stress in terms of sheer logistics & variables to manage.
  • The thing about this race is that yes, it's a fall race, but just barely, and it's still in San Jose, so it is unlikely to ever be particularly chilly (though it did rain a bit in 2010). The high this year was forecasted to be 87F, so although it was not super hot during the time I was actually running (8:00am start), it was full sun on asphalt so it felt warmer toward the end of the race than it actually was.
  • Officially there is no race day packet pickup, but I overheard some race staff talking and it seems to me that they will definitely give you your bib on race morning if for some reason you weren't able to get it at the expo, but they don't advertise that fact since they don't want 400 people going, "Pshhh, I'll just be a slug & pick it up in the morning." So be a good person & pick it up at the expo if you can, but don't panic if disaster strikes.

Overall Assessment:

You know, for all that I am not a fan of Competitor Group and some of the Rock 'N Roll races have gotten bad reports in the past, I have to admit that this was a really great, really well-run and convenient race for me. My only complaints are that the website needs to be updated with key information (ie, parking, aid station info, etc.) in a few places and maybe put the trash cans a bit closer to the tangents. All in all, though, it's a pretty great Bay Area option if you're looking to run a fast race, and I can see why so many elites and other super speedy folks run it. No, it is not the cheapest race you could run, but I just took advantage of that $59 2018 re-run deal myself, which I think is pretty fair.


  1. Congratulations on a great race! Your splits are so solid and I'm glad going with even splits worked for you. Your time is really good too considering the issues you've been through and the heat, plus you took a risk by racing it with a different goal of even splits rather than starting out slower and speeding up like you used to. You should be really proud of that time and race.

    I have heard mixed things about Rock and Roll as well, but it sounds like they did a good job with this race and great shirts and medals. I hope you have a good recovery too!

  2. Good job on the race and - as we have come to expect - excellent and informative write-up. Thank you.

    I had to throw away almost a full box of expired Accel gel a month or so back...probably shouldn't have done so given that it is likely impossible for that much sugar to 'expire'. Of course, I now need a handful for CIM so I'll be stockpiling too...

    1. Thanks! Heh, yeah, I'm just going to bank on the sugar not expiring...

    2. Here’s the real question tho...if I can hijack the comments section...if I haven’t taken on a single gel or drop of water in any training run (up to 16 miles thus far) should I even bother during CIM?

    3. Personally I would, just because the research I've read on it seems pretty clear that no matter what you do in training, consuming at least 30g carbs per hour is almost guaranteed to improve your performance. (And there's evidence that if you don't fuel while training, you get even more of a boost as long as you don't have a sensitive stomach that rebels at doing something different.)

      The most helpful resource I found about all that was The New Rules of Marathon & Half-Marathon Nutrition by Matt Fitzgerald (I wrote about some if here - http://sfroadwarrior.blogspot.com/2013/12/carbohydrate-math-or-why-low-calorie.html )

      Hope that helps!

    4. Thanks - great advice; will re-read that blog post for a refresher.

      Of course I still have a few weeks to test-drive and make sure I can stomach it.

  3. Well done. I agree that it's a well-run race. I hope you're taking care of your asthma with all the smoke from the fires.

    1. Thanks! Ironically, asthma has been better these last few days. My only guess is the steroid is finally kicking in.

  4. That's a great race - just a tad fade, picked it back up, took some reasonable risks. You're definitely nearing a PR, just need the right race for it! I agree with a lot of your thoughts about RnR races - yeah, they're all alike, yeah, they're gimmicky, yeah, they try to upsell you on everything - but at the same time, you know what you're getting, and they do at least have experience at what they do. I complain about how the RnR New Orleans race is obviously all about the half and is a dreadful full marathon race every year, but I can never resist that post-race special registration price!

    1. Thanks! Hoping to finally fell that PR in February. 😊