Being honest I have mixed feelings about Bluenose Race Weekend. It is by far the largest running event in our region by participation. It is fun to partake in the festivities, either as a participant or a spectator. The volunteer support and logistics have always been excellent, the corporate involvement is always strong, and the overall energy is great.
The drawback for me is the race itself, which has always left me disappointed in my performance. I’ve done the Bluenose half marathon 3 times prior to this year and also the Bluenose 5k once. Up to now, Bluenose has gotten the best of me as I find the courses very difficult.
The 5k is a net downhill race, meaning you finish at a lower elevation point than where you start, but nearly 3km of the race is up-hill without much flat.
The half marathon is generally flat or downhill for the first 2/3 of the race. The last 1/3 of the race is an uphill grind that starts with a steep climb in Point Pleasant Park on a slower gravel surface. In my opinion, it’s a race that is impossible to negative- or even-split due to the elevation profile (if you do, you probably left time on the course). The result is that the last 7km are the hardest and slowest. To the inexperienced runner this can be deflating. My worst performance in the Bluenose half was in 2014 where I bonked after Point Pleasant Park. My finishing time was 1:47:26 and my worst kilometer split was 6:03 on kilometer 20 (South Park and Ahern).
Prior to 2017, courses were not certified. In past years the 5k has been both too short and also too long (depending on the year), both by a notable margin of anywhere from 100-200m. I never noticed the half marathon was short based on GPS data, but with course certification in 2017 additional distance was added by way of a slight diversion on Francklyn Street. A similar modification was made to the 5k course this year. While it’s good that after all these the courses are finally accurate, the course modifications both being slight diversions to run a short out/back is awkward and somewhat of a momentum killer, not to mention the risk of a wrong turn.
In all honesty, I don’t think I ever properly prepared for Bluenose before this year. As a recreational runner with little training knowledge and minimal racing experience, I had zero appreciation for the proper training approach and having the right race plan to make for a good performance.
This year was different and I can comfortably say my performance in the 2017 Bluenose Half Marathon was my most personally rewarding running experience to date.
Why? Preparation that translated to success, including:
Runnin’ them hills – My training block leading up to the Bluenose was full of climbing. In the past I naturally avoided hills, partially because I didn’t like slowing down and partially because I was afraid of an achilles injury. This year I purposely did many runs over hilly terrain including all of my long runs. I specifically made a several trips down to Point Pleasant Park to run the toughest part of the course, sometimes repeating it in the same run.
Working on strength – Ian would say that I don’t do enough strengthening, and he’s right. But I will say I do a lot more than ever before. This includes yoga and home exercises with a focus on my glutes and soleus. I believe this has helped keep me injury free with no loss in training time.
Next level anaerobic work – For me this included longer tempo runs than I’ve done in the past (topping out at 8k), incorporating tempo/race pace work into my long runs, and doing controlled interval training (thanks to Ian). Building speed endurance helped push my body to sustain a faster race pace and push through pain while also building confidence.
Training by heart rate – Since starting to train by heart rate in late 2015, I’ve continued to embrace this approach. While I continue to see progression in my running economy, this was hard to see through the middle of my training block. Following a blood lactate re-test in December 2016 my heart rate zones were adjusted down. For several months I was back to running slower to build my aerobic base in my new zone 1 and 2. While I had been through this once before, it was still a hard adjustment. However, it eventually paid off, as I eventually saw a return to my prior zone 1 and 2 paces with the net effect being I was running faster at a lower average heart rate.
Having a race plan – Since last racing the Bluenose half marathon in 2014, I significantly increased the number of races I did per year. With this, I was able to draw on prior experiences to determine an appropriate race plan. As noted above, the Bluenose Half should not be negative split. Accepting that I was going to slow in the last third of the race, I determined a pacing strategy that revolved around my goal pace. Knowing the course well (including the elevation profile) I planned where I would push the pace, where I would maintain, and where I would accept but minimize a slower pace.
Diverting pressure – Given my history with Bluenose and the progression I’ve made since 2014, I knew I would do a course best. My previous best course time was 1:43 which I had already beaten this year doing the course on a training run. I also knew that a personal record was within reach. But I also was realistic in acknowledging sometime factors come up on race day that are out of my control, including things like illness and sub-optimal weather. Going into Bluenose with realistic expectations allowed me to be confident while minimizing nervousness and stress. It may not something that is easy to replicate, but when it’s there, take it.
I stuck with my race plan and had a great result. I placed 42nd overall out of 1,574 with a chip time of 1:32:01.6. This was a new personal record for me and a significant improvement to my prior half marathon best time of 1:34:44 from last October. To do this on a tough course like Bluenose was especially rewarding. I raced with a goal pace of 4:20/km and came very close, clocking in at 4:22/km. I cracked the top 40 for males (39th overall) and was 8th in my division. My placing throughout the race increased with each mat crossing, from 54th at the first crossing, to 49th at the second, and finishing at 42, meaning I passed others as the race went on and had a relatively stronger finish.
Also fulfilling was to see close friends have similar results. Ian placed 8th overall and set a personal record with a time of 1:21:39.7. Will and Shane also set personal records at 1:37:52.8 and 1:41:51.0 respectively. My wife Stacey destroyed her prior best time by over 5 minutes posting a 1:43:22.2. In addition many other BLT Runners members had great races in other distances with lots of personal records posted.
Having exorcised my prior Bluenose demons, I’m not sure if I will plan to do this race again in the near future. For now I will plan to run a flatter course with my sights on breaking the 1:30 barrier in the fall.
Ian Differential: 1:52 or 29-seconds per kilometre.