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Montreal Hypothermic Half Marathon 2015 Race Report

Disclaimer: Yes, I have been slacking again. We went on vacation, had lots of fun and somewhere in the sun, the race report was forgotten. Here it is, with a promise of not slacking again on the blog. As usual, red font are Diana’s thoughts.

The clichés: Canada, winter, cold, freezing our asses off for 12 months (at least according to the rest of the planet), igloos, polar bears. Well, to prove we’re really Canadians, Running Room makes a series of half marathon races across Canada in February and March. To me, it’s the perfect proverbial carrot to keep me running while it’s -20 Celsius outside and I’d rather do something else. I have considered buying a treadmill this winter. I also considered moving to Florida, but that’s another issue. This race has kept me from splurging on a treadmill, got me to wear those neon green trail shoes week after week and go out running in the snow cold frozen hellhole awesome winter weather of 2015 (/sarcasm). I did the race for the first time last year. We ran a few loops around the Ste-Hélène and Notre-Dame islands with part of the race on the Grand Prix tracks. We can wait until gun time in the aquatic complex, so we’re not freezing all the time (this would be horrible AFTER the race when we stop moving and our clothes are partly wet from sweating – yes, we still sweat even at -20!). It is well organized, good animation and there is an included brunch after the race. Plus the medals are great. After the Oka race, I jumped into a marathon training plan. Since I had nothing else planned until this race, it would be a perfect time to increase my volume and would prepare me adequately for the race.

In November and December, we were gifted with warm temperatures (for the season anyway) and barely any snow. I ran my little heart out, did my intervals, pyramids, short runs and long runs all according to plan. That plan hit a wall early January. First, we got a nice rain early January, then instant deep cold which froze that rain on the ground as a solid ice patch (which actually caused us to have an accident with our car…). Intervals were stopped – there was no way I would risk my safety by sprinting on the ice with cars around. So I resorted to do unstructured runs just to keep the volume high. I did have some good runs (my first 30km in bitterly cold weather) but I wasn’t sure where I stood in terms of training… when you follow a plan and you can nail all the intervals, you kinda know you’re on the right track… with no intervals, I was left blind. I felt good, but I wasn’t 100% certain.

The week before the race, Diana decided to join the fun. She kept diligently track of the weather – it was supposed to be moderately cold, and nothing more. That changed to morbidly cold and very windy until the very last minute. But the main thing I dreaded was a dump of fresh snow, which would mean we would be trudging in 3-4 inches of powder. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. So with the knowledge of no fresh snow during the week and cold weather, I fixed myself a goal: I wanted to be on the first page of the results (aka, top 40). This would be a huge boost from last year, but I felt it was doable. I needed to run at about 4:45/km, slightly slower than my last half marathon time, which seemed highly doable in the snow.

It took me a long time to decide to run the Hypothermic Half-Marathon. Did I really need to risk hurting myself a few days before our Florida vacation? However, I figured that I do currently run in Winter regularly, so why not do it when it counts (and for a pretty shiny spinny medal)? And racing in the snow makes for terrific training. 

When I registered the week before, the weather prediction was for –14C (feels like -21) which are perfectly agreeable conditions. Then that changed to ‘’feels like -28’’ with strong winds. The reflex is to think ‘’this will be a rough one’’. However, I woke up at 4am the morning of the race with a thought that popped in my mind: ‘’We’re going on an adventure’’. We don’t know what to expect, some parts will be better and some may be worse than we can imagine. Doesn’t matter, a 21.1km race through the snow in freezing conditions is still special. And isn’t that a more positive thought than ‘’why are we doing this?’’?

When it comes to cold though, I’m a wuss. I am always cold and freezing. It takes me ages to warm up while running. My main weaknesses are my hands: I’m always freezing there. So I decided to go all the way and buy the warmest windproof gloves I could find at the store for the race: I would not be cold. The other issue in the winter is nutrition: it’s hard to keep gels fluid, drinks liquid (they tend to freeze in the bottles after 10-15minutes) and anything you would like to chew gets rock hard. Well, I thought I had resolved that: keep the drink in a backpack, under my jacket and my new gloves were large enough that I could store a few gels in them, next to my hands so they wouldn’t freeze.

We had our Saturday pre race dinner (pasta), we left the kids in good hands with grand-maman Lynne and headed back home for a good night of sleep. On Sunday morning, we had our first good news: the winds would be much less than anticipated. This is fairly significant considering that the Grand Prix track is wide open. After my race morning ritual (oatmeal and beet juice), we headed toward Ste-Hélène island to get ourselves on the line. Rémi joined us over there about 10 minutes before gun time. My strategy was quite simple: it’s a flat race with a small hill at the end of the loop (which we do twice), so I was going to follow the race bunny of 1:45:00 for 2-3km and then accelerate a little once I had got used to the terrain. Placed myself near the front of the runners and off we went.

After one kilometer I felt very good already. The snow was well packed and I felt I could accelerate already, leaving the bunny behind me. Going south, we had a nice breeze in our back. Going north, we had that breeze in our face. It was quite brutal especially near the GP paddocks. I lost speed, but looking at my stats, it wasn’t that bad. At least, those new mittens were working great! Too great, actually… I was quite hot, sweaty but the gels at least were very fluid. I told myself I’d rather be too hot than too cold, and to suck it up. I made one mistake though: I decided no to drink until 4km (I always dread having to pee during a race), and that proved a mistake… the tip of the hydration backpack had frozen by then, and I never was able to thaw it. I was therefore carrying 1L of a very salty energy drink for nothing, and I had to drink from the tables on course. Which is all fine in summer, but a different ordeal in winter. I let myself get passed by a few people in the early kilometers, I knew I would catch them all in the second half. Many runners are terrible at pacing themselves. I’m usually pretty good at keeping a constant pace or getting slightly faster in the second half (negative split), and I could tell by the way they were breathing that they were pushing themselves a tad too hard.

For September 2014’s Montreal Half-Marathon, I closely followed a training plan, knew the high end of what I could accomplish, and it worked.

I don’t have a Winter racing benchmark, so it was hard to estimate what could be my race time. I do know that running in the snow does affect my speed. I knew my pace would be slower than my Montreal time of 5.32min/km (1:56:24) but hard to evaluate by how much. Looking on my Winter workouts and knowing this was a race, I estimated a finish time of around 2:00-2:06 (i.e around 6min/km). I believed that this was an optimistically realistic objective. I was able to maintain this very well for a long time and quite suddenly at km16, I felt something was wrong. I thought… ‘’Is it my hurting hip flexors?’’. No.. ‘’Do I need a gel or salt?’’. No.. Something’s wrong but I don’t know what. I now think that what was wrong was my oxygen supply, because as soon as the race was over, I had strong bronchospasm. This has never happened to me before, but I am pre-disposed to asthma and I do know that cold air is a trigger. As I later analyzed my race splits, I could see that I was doing pretty nicely (right on goal), until km16 where my pace suddenly dropped. I know this wasn’t a result of starting too fast, it’s just the way my body reacted that day. Like I said, it was an adventure. I know I couldn’t have given any more that day. And I know something more about myself now (bring Ventolin on long cold winter runs).

NOTE: A good tip for preventing water from freezing is to keep bottles in a pocket with HotPaw. HotPaws can also be kept in gloves if hands tend to get cold, which for me, contrarily to Guillaume, is not the case. After 1km, I took off my doubles (held them for 20km) and kept my very thin fall-weathered gloves on my hands.

I finished the first half (10.6km) in 49:30. It was now time to reel people in and accelerate a little. In retrospect, I didn’t go that much faster in the second half (49:20 – constant!). However, I was able to maintain pace while clearly most of the people were hurting and falling back. I would constantly pass small clumps of people, and would never be worried about seeing them passing me again. At the end, I had plenty of juice left in the legs, pushed to 4:00:/km, tried to catch one last person and finished the race with an official time of 1:38:50 (1:38:52 from gun time).

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Me arriving at the line
(unfortunately, they didn’t film when Diana arrived)

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Exactly the same time within a few seconds as the summer Montreal half-marathon. That felt awesome! What does that mean for me? I finished 32nd (out of 444 men). First page of results! 30th man, 11th in my age group. A 15 minutes improvement from last year (although the course was slightly harder last year). But a better comparison is my jump in rankings: from 190 to 32; 165 to 30 and 65 to 11. After the race, we had our well deserved brunch. This bodes very well for the 2015 Montreal Marathon in September… We’ll definitely be doing it again next year!

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(is it me or my plate looks huge? I’m a pig…)

My average race pace result was 6:09min/km (2:09:26 over 21.1km). I admit I was initially disenchanted with the result, but after the dust settled, I realized this is a pretty good winter time and I’m now quite proud of it. My standing is107/361 Women; 33/109 F30-39 (both top 30%) and 363/806 Overall. I really did enjoy the experience and the challenge and I now have a benchmark for next year. And that medal really is purrrty!

Next post: Vacation recap!!!

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