Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Miracle of Heart Rate Monitor Training: Really Big Free Half Marathon Review

Some thoughts on the Really Big Free Half Marathon at Lake Mead in Nevada

The Miracle of Heart Rate Monitor Training

I read a book about a middle-aged guy who wanted to get in shape and complete amazing feats of endurance. To build his endurance he started training with a heart rate monitor, keeping his heart rate in the aerobic range. The slowness of his training runs frustrated him. But it worked.

I did a little research on the topic and came across The Big Book of Endurance Training by Phil Maffetone. It talked about building an aerobic base by running with your heart rate in the aerobic zone. I was convinced. It was frustrating at first because I was running 2-3 minutes slower per mile than I was used to. After about a month I couldn’t take it anymore. I was tired of running slow, so I participated in The Boring Runner’s Virtual Sweat Your Thorns Off 5-k. It was in the high 90s and the course was hilly.

I set a pr.

For two months more I ran at my aerobic heart rate. I set another 5-k pr. The question that remained, however, is would it work at longer distances. I had to wait a month to find out. The Really Big Free Half Marathon was coming up.

I set a pr.

The Results

Official Time: 1:49:13
Overall: 85/1119
Men: 63/437
Age Group: 11/67

I’ll put this in perspective. This is the first time I’ve finished in the top half of men and top half of age group. My best overall finish before Saturday was 866 out of 2100.

What I Really Liked about the Experience
  • I passed so many people during the last half of the course. Usually it's the other way around.
  • I felt really good when I finished. Usually, I'm about to implode by mile 13.
  • Did I mention I finished in the top 100. That means I could have gone out with the first wave and not finished in last.
  • I saw some acquaintances and friends. I never run with friends. OK, I don't really have any friends.
The Significance of this PR

I can’t put into words how awesome I feel about this result. On the surface, I only improved my half-marathon pr by 42 seconds, no big deal. Consider, however, the following.

My unofficial pr was exactly 13.1 miles; that is, as soon as the Garmin said 13.1, I stopped. 13.1 at the end of the RBHM was 1:48:22, over a minute-and-a-half better.

This course was tough. My previous pr included only small hills and six miles on a flat surface.

My training was…enjoyable. Most of my training runs were slow and enjoyable. In the four months leading up to the race, I ran “fast” about six times.

The Race

The race began with a steep half-mile incline, one which I’d run many, many times. I knew once I got to the top of the hill and turned right I’d have a nice half-mile downhill. I made darn sure I didn’t overdo it for the first mile. I kept checking my heart rate monitor to make sure that didn’t happen. The next 2.5 miles were hilly—more up then down—and I made sure my heart rate didn’t get out of control. This took patience and discipline. After three miles I was at 26:40, about on pace with what I wanted to run the first half. This was good news insomuch that I hadn’t expended much effort. It was bad news because the most difficult part of the race elevation wise was the next three miles.

By the end of mile five (the steepest and slowest mile of the race), I was at 44:15, an 8:51 pace. I had a decision to make. I had to pick it up for the steep 1.5-mile incline if I were to reach my goal. Because I had run this distance twice in the last month, I knew I could finish. In other words, just finishing didn’t matter. It was time to increase the effort. If I crashed and burned, oh well. I got through mile 6 in just under nine minutes, a good accomplishment considering the elevation increase.

I hit the halfway point in 58:07, seven seconds more than I wanted, but well within reach of a pr and accomplishing my race goal. I turned around and began increasing the intensity. I looked at my watch at the eight-mile mark. I had over forty minutes to finish the last 5.1. I smiled. I celebrated by ticking off a 7-minute mile followed by a 7:35-mile. The last two miles had some nasty uphills but I was so close to reaching my goal, I just powered through.

When I reached the turn at the top of the hill with about a half-mile left, I knew, barring a face plant, I had done it. I sprinted with a smile and crossed the finish line in 1:49:13. I let out a hoot, a whoo, high-fived a stranger, made a complete ass out of myself, and sauntered down to Lake Mead.
Mile Splits: 9:24, 8:40, 8:34, 8:18, 9:15, 8:58, 7:46, 7:53, 7:00, 7:35, 7:58, 8:08, 8:11, 1:29 (.24 miles).

Keys to Success
I’ll make this applicable to the four people who read this. Here’s what allowed me to improve.
  • Heart Rate Monitor Training.
  • Eating Well. Read In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, if you want to improve your diet.
  • Race Specific Training. The course was changed three weeks before the race. I was familiar with the course and aware of its hilly nature. I also knew there was a similar hill I run regularly, so I jogged up it and sprinted down it (about 2.5 miles one way) to figure out how fast I could run down. I used the results to devise a plan, which I executed perfectly.
  • I had a plan and executed it. I didn’t panic because I knew exactly what I had to do to reach my goal.
Race Review

I want to emphasize that the Really Big Free Half Marathon was free. I paid a $50 deposit when I signed up. All I had to do was start the race to get it back.

If you’re into getting a super nice t-shirt and a sensational medal with a bag full of stuff you’ll never use and a half-pound of paper that will never be recycled then you’ll not like this race. If you like spending hundreds of dollars on overpriced merchandise at a race expo, you’ll not like this race. The t-shirts were lame. Did I mention the race was free? The medal was basic. Did I mention the race was free? The food at the end was water, Gatorade, bananas, and oranges. Did I mention the race was free?

I could personally care less about the t-shirt and the medal, and bananas and water is what I normally eat after a race.

If you’re into the camaraderie and motivation that comes with running with others, you’d love this race. If you enjoy running on a beautiful course, you’d love this race.

There were some organizational snafus. The course was changed twice and it started a half-hour late. These are things that the organizers will fix for next year. Did I mention the race was free?


  1. I have heard so much about this heart rate monitor training. I must look into it. Great job on the PR!!

    I wish there was a free half marathon around here.

  2. This rocks!!! I'm so happy for you. And as you know I'm a big believer in HR training now too. In fact, today I had my first mid-week long run (70 minutes) where I ran sub-10 minute miles with my HR below 150. It takes a while...but man, does it take! Congrats again, Trent!

  3. Thanks Jose and Terzah. HRM training is definitely frustrating at first. I was running 10-11 minute miles at first (the heat didn't help) but now I'm almost below nine minutes on the shorter runs. I've also enjoyed training and not gulping ibuprofen every day.

    If you're interested Jose, Google the name Phil Maffetone or Ryan Allen.

  4. I am working the Maffetone into training....after NOT HR training for like 35 years, this is hard for me (of course) so I hope to have some amazing results like yourself (if not, I'll blame you :)). I ran a half marathon yesterday with the first 8 miles at MAF and I couldn't believe how much energy I had at the end ... it was a rush passing everyone at the end! Congratulations on your PR - I hope you have many, many more! :)

    1. Thanks Jill,

      It is nice having some energy left for the finish. I don't mind getting passed by one-legged octagenarians once or twice at the end of a race, but when the figure hits double digits, there's a problem. I've seen very promising results. Part of that's because I stopped eating like a 14-year old. Good luck!

  5. This is great - congrats! Interested in what heart rates you ran at during the race. Did you keep your heart rate in the aerobic zone for the first half and then let it go betond that as you picked up the intensity for the second half. Just getting into training with the heart rate monitor and was curious how you worked it during the actual race. Thanks. - Matt

    1. Hi Matt,

      My aerobic zone is 124-142. I made sure I didn't get above 150 for the first five miles, keeping it as close to the aerobic zone as I could without slowing down too much. At about mile 5, I threw caution to the wind and picked up the pace, still not really exceeding 155 other than for a few minutes. At the halfway point, I turned around and buoyed by a good downhill stretch ran as fast as I could. I could have probably gone a little faster the first five miles and still been OK but only because I'd run this distance a few times the month prior.

      When I run my next marathon, which begins slightly downhill, I plan on staying in the aerobic range for at least the first seven miles before allowing myself to get up to 150. If I train properly, I can turn things up a bit at the halfway point. We'll see. Let me know how things go.

      Keep in mind when you begin running in your aerobic zone, it will seem painfully slow. Keep at it though. Building that aerobic base will allow you to turn it on when you need to.