I went in to the LA County Holiday Half Marathon unsure of what to expect and doubting my abilities. Could I best my PR? Would my one long run of 10 miles be enough? Could I sustain a 9 minute pace on a hilly course?
Less than two hours later, I had my answers.
Yes. I ran the half in 1:53:10 (8:38 pace), a 5+ minute PR.
I don’t think so. I struggled in miles 9-12.
And yes. I actually enjoyed the hills.
Sean and I arrived at the LA County Fairplex around seven. I had plenty of time to get my bib, do my business in the bathrooms (no port-a-potties), go back to my car to leave stuff there, and do a super short warmup.
While waiting for the bathroom, I bumped in to Marlene, a friend and Students Run LA coach.
“You gonna PR?” she asked.
“I don’t know. How hilly is it?”
“Pretty hilly. I actually tell my students to go out fast on the speedway. The course will tire your legs by the end.”
I kept her advice in mind as we lined up shortly before eight. I gave Sean my sweater. It was still cold, but I figured I’d be fine with my $1 gloves and makeshift arm warmers. They were just old Christmas socks. I was trying to be festive.
I felt good going out. Rather than worry about pacing, going out too fast, and the upcoming hills, I just listened to several songs from The Muppets soundtrack. That set the mood for a good morning and happy running.
I avoided checking my watch much. When I did, I wasn’t concerned that my pace was well under goal pace. I wanted to hang on as long as possible to mid-8 minute miles and take advantage of the relative flatness of the vast Fairplex parking lot and Pomona Raceway (running on that was pretty cool, you can see what it looks like here). Might as well bank some time.
Around mile 3 we entered Bonelli Regional Park, also known as the hilly part of the course. I loved this portion of the race. Bonelli reminded me of Schabarum Park in Rowland Heights, near my family’s home. It’s also an LA County regional park. It’s hilly and large like Bonelli, but doesn’t have a lake in the middle. We ran alongside Puddingstone Reservoir and through picnic areas on the shady paved footpaths.
The lovely scenery distracted me from the hills. I liked the rollers and didn’t find them too taxing — at least initially — like the hills in my neighborhood. They were short and not too steep. I slowed down a little through Bonelli, but was still comfortably under sub-9 pace. For the first time ever, I ran 7 miles in an hour flat. I was pretty proud of myself. I definitely can’t run sub-9 around the hilly park in my neighborhood.
The toughest part of the course was through miles 6-9, a big loop south of the reservoir. It was less hilly than previous sections, but it wasn’t as shady and it was starting to get warmer. Plus, I was starting to get passed up by speedy teenagers. The SRLA kids, about 3,000 of them, started in a 2nd wave 15 minutes after everyone else. As I saw the guys (mainly) in white t-shirts or neon yellow singlets pass me up I felt a little discouraged. They were flying past me, and I had a 15 minute head start. (I even got passed up by SRLA kids at the finish line.)
I threw away my arm warmers (I had already tucked my gloves in to my waist band at mile 3) and made sure to stay hydrated with water or Powerade from every aid station. I grabbed an orange from an SRLA parent volunteer too for some extra sugar since I only took one gel at mile 5.
Shortly after mile 10 we approached the steepest hill on the course, at least it seemed that way. I wanted to walk, but told myself to run it since it was still short. As soon as I crested, I tried to pick it up on the final downhill, but my legs were spent after seven hilly miles. Plus, I was getting side stitches despite drinking water and Powerade at each aid station.
I slowed down a little and ran my slowest miles in the last section through the park and back on the streets leading back to the Fairplex. If not for The Muppets’ “Life’s A Happy Song” and Matt & Kim’s “Don’t Slow Down”, I would have slowed down more. There’s a reason that song is on my running mix.
Even though I was slowing down, I knew I was well within reach of a PR, even if my last 5K was very slow. As we entered the raceway again, I got excited. I was on pace to finish under 1:55 and pushed through the discomfort of side stitches and tiredness in my legs to get it.
A few minutes later as I neared mile 12, I realized I had miscalculated. I could actually finish under 1:53. That motivated me even more and I kicked with everything I had left. I felt energized by the spectators nearing the finish line and King Changó’s “I Don’t Care” and a mariachi version of “Las Bodas de Luis Alonso”. I also thought about the chocolate milk Sean was saving for me at the finish line. Instant motivation. Mile 13 was my fastest mile.
As I turned a corner and caught sight of the finish line, I could see the clock: 1:52:5X. I was about 100 meters out. I knew I wasn’t within reach, but that was okay.
I crossed the finish line and turned off my Garmin.
1:53:10, an 8:38 pace. I’d just run a 5 minute PR and shattered my goal. A volunteer gave me a heat blanket (so necessary as it was still chilly), another gave me the cute snowflake medal. I walked ahead and got water, a banana and some granola bars.
And then I told myself not to cry. I felt a little emotional. Did I just do that?
Yes. Crazy. My running legs really had returned.
I loved this race. I came off of it with a runner’s high and gushed to Sean about running through the park. I’m not sure I could have asked for a better race experience.
Even if I hadn’t PRed, I’d still recommend this race to other Southern California runners. The Holiday Half is small and well-organized. Run Racing, the same company that organizes the Long Beach Marathon, offers same day pick-up for bibs and t-shirts so there’s no need to drive out to Pomona twice. They have a small expo on Saturday too. The expo also serves as a donation site for used running shoes and Toys for Tots. Many runners get in the holiday spirit and wear a costume or festive socks. There’s water every two miles and Powerade (or another electrolyte drink) at a few stations. I saw 3 medical tents and EMTs (I think) driving golf carts from the local sponsoring hospital. I don’t know how many carts were on the course, but I saw them twice around mile 3.5 and 10. There are few spectators on the course except at the start/finish. However, the scenic views make up for that. You might even forget about the hills.
One gripe: you have to pay $9 for parking at the Fairplex.