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Blown Away

November 1, 2011

388029_1992971475022_1565485545_31504550_2060115277_n2011 Halloween Half

October 30, 2011
Bib Number: 579
Overall Placement: 98/387 (25.3%)
Age Group Placement (7/46 (15%)
Gender Placement 39/255 (15%)
Clock Time: 2:02:02.9
Garmin Time: 2:00:20.9

The weather in our neck of the woods, as in so many parts of the country of late, has been lousy. It had rained several days leading up to this race, leaving Little G and I wondering what race day would bring. The race takes place about thirty miles north of us, and that’s far enough that conditions can vary quite a bit from our location to the race site. We did our very best to be prepared, including heading out for runs on days that looked cloudy, we were thankful to note that the forecasts seemed to agree the rain would be well out of the way by Sunday, the day of the half; though race day would be warm, as it was last year, at least we wouldn’t get wet. In spite of this happy news, we packed for every possible scenario, having learned during our years of running that forecasts can and often are wrong.

Gun time was set for six o’clock for runners, so Little G was at my door about fifteen minutes after 4 for the long trek north. I had already had some peanut butter toast and was ready to go. During the drive up we had time to talk about the course changes since last year. In 2010, the race began on the eastern side, at a park with little light. It made for a little bit of a dreary start, though we did get the first of two bridges over with early in the race. This year, the race directors made the decision to move the start to a park on the western side of the course, which was much better lit, had more parking, and more bathrooms. We were very pleased about that change, but were unsure what this would mean as far as course layout—where would the bridges, and more importantly, would they slow us down at a bad time?

As soon as we’d picked up our bibs and chips we grabbed race maps and studied what the new course looked like. We noticed that with the changes, we’d now be hitting the first bridge at mile 5, and the second at about mile 10. Unfortunately, we also noticed that it was extremely windy, and had visions of what that wind would be like on the course, which is mostly waterfront—first on the intracoastal waterway, and then on the beach—and then what it would do to us as we went over those bridges. We ditched our hats. Though we’d both brought sunglasses since the sun would rise while we were on the course, we decided to leave those behind, too. We knew it was a gamble—I’d forgotten sunglasses on day one of the Gasparilla challenge, and paid for it with a horrific headache—but sometimes on race day you have to make difficult choices.

We pinned our bibs, got our fuel belts ready, and readied our Garmins. We tried to make it back to the bathrooms one more time, but the line was around the corner, and we knew we wouldn’t make it before the gun. So we took note of the porta-potty location on the map (mile 7.1) and lined up. The pack looked small and straggly—much less organized and less intense than many of the races we’ve done. We’d also passed the walkers heading out as we were driving into the park (they had started at 5), so we knew we’d eventually be catching up with some others along the route.

The gun went off and we started south, along a the darkened road. As expected, I went out faster than Little G—I always do—at about 8:45 pace. I eventually settled into 9-minute pace, which is what I figured I could probably carry on a windy day, and mile 1 came in at 9:02. Though I hadn’t wanted to say it out loud, even to myself, my shins had been giving me trouble in the last week, and since the windy conditions had made it clear I wasn’t going to be setting any personal or course records this day, I’d already decided not to risk injury by making any bold moves. Instead, I figured if I could keep a 9-minute pace, I could use this is as a long tempo run, still finish sub-2, and be satisfied.

Little G caught up with me just past the first mile marker, and we were both feeling well enough to talk—but that wouldn’t last long. We finished mile 2 together in 9:01, but not long after that, I had to tell her to leave me so I could stretch out my right leg—incredibly, usually the leg that DOESN’T give me trouble. I knew if I didn’t stop and stretch it out I’d eventually be completely unable to run at all. I pulled out of the stream of traffic and stretched as well as I could, trying not to worry about the clock, and then resumed running. Mile 3 came in at 9:20.

Mile 4 had us running through a residential neighborhood, coincidentally the same neighborhood that hosts one of my favorite 5k races on Memorial Day each year. It’s a beautiful neighborhood both in landscaping and architecture—neither of which I got to see during this race as it was pitch dark. The only illumination was the occasional blinking light of the runner ahead of me. With only 387 people on the course, we got incredibly spread out, as you can imagine, and there were blinking red lights moving through the winding streets of this beautiful neighborhood as we struggled against the gusting winds. Between the winds and the turns on this part of the course, I clocked a 9:10 mile 4. As we looked up, it seemed as though the sky would open up after all, despite the clear forecast, and we despaired of our chances of making it back to the park dry, but we ran on, knowing we still had two bridges to get over.

I hit the water station at mile 5, taking my first gel just as I began the incline of the bridge and got slammed by the winds, which I would later find out were steady at 18-20 miles per hour and gusting to 28-30. I don’t know if anyone did better than I, but I made the mistake of not going up the bridge with anyone to draft with, and I was alone fighting that wicked wind. My pace plummeted to a 10:15, possibly the slowest mile I’ve ever notched in any race save the marathon. But, getting off the bridge was a relief, as I looked forward to getting some shelter from the wind. I didn’t realize how little shelter I would get as we started running on state road 1A. We were now essentially running on the small strip of land that separates the intracoastal from the ocean, and getting buffeted, it seemed, by the wind from both sides. There was sand and salt in the air, and light was nonexistent. There was one point during the race at which I thought I might have gotten lost because I could see no other runners at all, save one distant blinking red light that could just as easily have been a mailbox or traffic signal. However, I knew I couldn’t have missed the causeway, so I kept running, trying not to fall too far off pace, and was overjoyed when by some miracle I saw the porta potties which were almost completely shrouded in darkness. My miles for this stretch of lonely road are unimpressive: mile 6 at 9:23, 7 at 9:34, 8 at 8:57.

Now, I knew the bridge was coming up, though in my fuzzy-headed brain, with all the blood going to my legs, I thought it was getting closer than it actually was. We had gotten all strung out on this stretch of road again, and I knew I was at risk of ending up by myself on the bridge again. As we ran mile 9, therefore, I began to try to make up some of the distance between me and the pack in front of me, hoping that when the time came to start climbing the causeway, I’d be able to tuck into the group and draft with them. The mile 9 marker came on the corner, as we turned to head west, just as I caught the pack, finishing mile 9 in 9:15.

Unfortunately, as we started to climb, I realized I would not be able to draft with that pack. They were struggling to get up the causeway, and I ended up passing them before too long. I felt good, going up over that bridge, like all those hill repeats on the bridge, while the bridgetender laughed at us, had been worth it, if only for the privilege of feeling like I was the only one still running strong while going up, up, up. But at the same time I knew I was being wind-aided; for the first time all day the wind was at our backs. When I finally crested the bridge I resisted the urge to celebrate with outstretched arms like some of the runners I was catching, because I didn’t want to expend the extra energy. Instead, I turned my attention to concentrating on my form, allowing gravity to help me going down the hill, and finished mile 10 in 8:56. On my way down, I ran into someone wearing the distinctive jersey from World Vision, and struck up a conversation with him about the charity, the NYC marathon, which he will be running Sunday, and the church in general.

Thus running with my new friend, I started to steadily but forcefully pick up the pace for the remaining miles. After all, we were now into the last stretch, and I knew that I’d been running fairly conservatively for my training; though I’d been struggling against the wind, my legs hadn’t really been pushing the 8:30-8:15 pace they’d been planning to run, so I felt like I could probably at least salvage a few miles at sub-9 pace. We ran hard, passing runners who were spent and tired, but we were still talking—and finished mile 11 in 9:10. Following this, we would gradually cease conversation and push the pace, clocking 8:33 in mile 12 and finishing the race at 8:10 pace. Like a true gentleman, he ran me all the way into the windy, crazy last tenth of a mile that the race director designed in this year’s course and allowed me to cross the finish line first.

In the hours immediately following the race, I was incredibly disappointed with my time. I’ve only clocked a few half marathons over two hours, and I hate it each time. It feels sub-standard to me. I know I can do better, and as an athlete, I hate to perform at less than my best.

In the days since the race, however, I’ve absorbed and processed the race and have become satisfied with my performance, overall. I made a clinical decision about this race. As an athlete, I chose to run this race at a certain level of effort. I decided to do that so that I could perform at my best at the 13.1 Fort Lauderdale in two weeks. That was a choice I made as an athlete, and it’s immature to complain once I executed my decision perfectly.

I have to trust that it was the right choice, all things considered. My legs weren’t in good shape, and course conditions weren’t ideal. If all things come together for the Fort Lauderdale race, then I can set out to try to set a new personal best. But it made no sense to sacrifice my A race on a day that I had little chance of achieving my goal.

And, as a wise friend pointed out, they don’t hand out finisher’s medals to spectators. I ran that race—all brutal, tough, 13.1 miles of it. Did I enjoy it? To be honest, no. I wanted to quit at mile 2—the absolute earliest I’ve ever wanted to bail in a race. But I ran on, and I gutted it out all the way to the end, running all the way. So as I look at that medal, hanging in line with the others, it no longer represents the failure to achieve a time goal. Instead, it represents the failure to quit.

Wind and all.

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