Friday, May 2, 2008

Country Music Half Marathon report

Way back in December when I decided to run the half as an excuse to visit my sis in Nashville, I was under the impression that it would be just another race, a piece of cake in a full marathon training season. I convinced my sis and bro-in-law to join me on the run; she's done 2 halfs but he's never gone that far in a race. Sandy decided to come along since she needed Tennessee in her 50 state quest; it would be just one of many spring full marathons for her too.

Fast forward to late April. I had no way of knowing that I would spend the entire first quarter of the year trying (only partially successfully) to rehab my painful knee ailments. My bro-in-law was sick in January and February and then developed a bad case of something that manifested as Achilles problems. He would hardly walk a block and didn't run at all. My sis didn't get in training because of a busy work schedule. Sandy's training was pretty slack too; she had shin issues going back to her first run of the season over 10 miles. Her longest training run was in the mid-teens. Sandy and I decided that we were doing our races no matter what; my sis decided to sleep in and my bro-in-law became our chauffeur.

We went to the expo on Friday. It was located at the Nashville Convention Center, which we had to find. Neither sis nor bro-in-law have done much exploring so this was an adventure in itself. We had to drive around several blocks before finding a parking lot with an empty space.

We picked up our race numbers and chips and shirts. The tee shirt was was one of Elite Racing's trademark cheap 100% white cotton shirts. The designs weren't bad, but the shirt is pretty crappy compared to most of the shirts provided at races of this size and cost. Different shirts were provided for each race, with designs on the front and back:
Pickup went quickly and we were herded into the official race merchandise section. There's a pretty impressive selection of branded stuff and if this had been my first (or even maybe my 21st) race I might have bought bunches of stuff. But I have a few Rock 'n' Roll hats (and these looked the same except for the race name), I have a RnR jacket, a RnR mug, a RnR bear, etc. Been there, bought that. I didn't find anything else to buy and headed to the greater expo.

It was good, a varied selection of sports clothing, foods, Saturn (thank you, I already have one), other races. I had been looking to buy a couple of pairs of shorts but the vendor who provides the ones I like wasn't there. In an unprecedented move, I bought not one damn thing at the entire expo. How weird is that? I had plenty of free samples but there was nothing I needed or wanted to spend money on.

The goodie bag was loaded with the usual ads and promotions and coupons but not much else. There was a training log from their local grocery which I kept (who knows when you'll need a new log), some chips, I think an energy bar, and that was it.

Early Saturday morning I was woken by the sound of thunder and bright flashes of lightning. Uh oh. From about 1am I lay in bed for a couple of hours, resting and listening as the storm moved in and then out. At 4am I heard Sandy showering and realized that I had prepared for this race the way I normally do, with no sleep the night before.

At about 5am, after showering, dressing and eating we headed out toward the start area. My bro-in-law hadn't been there before, but he was pretty sure of where we were going, if not the exact place we needed to end up. It was still raining and windy but the thunder and lightning had moved on. We found the start without too much difficulty and were able to park on a nearby street and wait in the car while the sky started to lighten. Finally we decided to find the sweat check trucks and sent my bro-in-law on his way. The trucks were easy to find and we dropped off our bags. After waiting in line at a portapotty, we headed out to the street to find our corrals.

We'd been informed that there would be staggered starts, each corral waiting about 1-2 minutes until the previous one was out of the way. In theory a good idea, but I was in corral 24! Sandy and I split up since she was in 20 and I didn't think she needed to be waiting back with me. I had put my finish time down as 2:35 (hahaha) but there were tons of walkers in that corral too. Not the race walkers, who are pretty much indistinguishable from runners, but the people with seventeen layers of clothing, backpacks, coffee, newspapers and chairs (maybe not those last couple of items). I had my doubts that they'd be going sub-11:30 miles, but people misjudge me too so I kept my mouth shut.
The gun went off at 7:00 and we stood there. Slowly, oh so slowly, we inched forward. The rain had stopped but the wind was brisk, most people were shivering. It took almost 55 minutes before I finally crossed the start line, and my legs were already cold and tight. Sure enough, there were very slow walkers mixed in with the runners. I found my pace to be very comparable to most of the people running around me and only had to dodge the walkers. Some people were passing me, but very few at that point.

My race strategy was something like "just finish before the race is over in 4 hours and don't need surgery." Good plan, hmm? I set my watch at 4:1 intervals, intending to ignore the middle beeps and run:walk a 9:1 for as long as I could. Since I hadn't trained with any real hills, I didn't know how my knee would react. Judging by walking stairs, I was worried that downhills would be my nemesis in this race.

The hills started immediately and continued for most of the race. I remember lots of ups and downs, a few flats, and very few grades. I started out walking up and gingerly running down. That was mostly because my breathing sucked (heh heh - pun not intended). I had three really good miles with no pain, but that was it.

Water stops were plentiful and the volunteers were great. There was water and some electrolyte drink that I was ignoring in favor of my own Ultima, and gels handed out mid-way. There was one point where fruit was being distributed (I think the stop was sponsored by a store adjacent to the route) and that was tough. Picture 500 people eating orange slices and throwing the peels on the ground. Then 500 more people run over those peels, throwing down their own in turn. This leaves a fine, slippery layer of peel/pulp for the next group, which then throws down their apple cores and banana peels for someone else to run over. By the time I came through 20,000 people later, the ground was treacherous. I'm amazed there weren't people skidding through on their faces.

The weather steadily cleared and warmed up. I was glad I had decided on shorts and a short sleeved shirt, and could almost have worn a tank top. I continued with my 9:1 pattern and walked through the water stops. If I walked up or down a hill, I skipped the next walk break and ran instead. My knee was getting increasingly sore and I pretty much whined in my head while continuing to run.

More hills, more pretty neighborhoods, more scenic places. Honestly, I couldn't tell you half of the places we ran by or through. I was watching the crowds, running around people, concentrating on foot placement so that my knee wouldn't get worse. The full marathoners split off after about 11 miles but it didn't make too much difference since there were mostly people running the half (about 25,000 to 5,000).

Long past the point where I had thought I'd be strolling toward the finish in a slow walk, I was still running. Part of that was it hurt a little more to walk on the flats than to run, part of that was I was noticing that I just very possibly could break 3 hours if I didn't totally fall apart. That became my new goal.

I was amazed at how many people were just walking the last few miles, just given up. I think people just aren't training for these big music marathon/half marathon races, thinking that anyone can go 13 miles. They realize their mistake at about 8 miles, keep going on hope for another 2, then still have a few to go before they're done. [I actually heard a couple of women after the end saying "ok, I can cross that off my list, what's next" and thought it sad that they hadn't gotten anything else out of the experience.] I really enjoyed running past all these people, thinking what wusses they were, while my knee was killing me.

Mile 12 was unfriendly, a very big hill when I didn't want one. I ran most of it, only walking when I was breathing so hard I thought my eyeballs would pop out of my head. I kept running, feeling remarkably well (except for the ol' knee). I crossed the line and was astounded to see that I had finished in 2:52ish, right in the range where I normally finish.

I was handed my medal (nobody was draping them around necks) and handed a bottle of water. Chip removal was next. I stopped at their very small medical tent and said I needed to ice my knee. The woman ducked into the tent, came back out with a small baggie of ice, and handed that to me. Now I just needed a place to sit down! I saw people with space blankets and towels but couldn't find where they were being distributed. I think they were just being handed to the full marathoners, but I wanted a towel to help with icing. I finally saw a few in the full marathon secured zone and while he wouldn't let me in, a guard walked over and grabbed one for me.
The rest of the secured zone had food: little plain bagels, muffins, cookies, fresh fruit and fruit cups, more water, bottles of electrolyte drinks, pretzels and chips. Nothing, of course, to carry any of this stuff with. I juggled my towel and ice and some food and kept walking out of the zone where huge crowds awaited. It was hard to tell what was where and signage was nonexistant. I wanted to get my gear, which had my sunglasses and sweatshirt, before sitting down to ice.

It took another 20 minutes before I could find the trucks with sweats, and in that time I didn't see where they had the free beer (although I saw where they were selling it). There was nowhere else to sit except the ground, so I plopped myself down at what turned out to be the 26 mile marker. Finally, about a half hour after I finished the race, I was able to ice my knee which by this point was in severe pain.

I sat, I iced, I drank water, I ate some food, I watched the full marathoners passing 26 miles, I iced some more. I knew I had about 2 hours before Sandy would finish, even if she was having a good day (and she wasn't planning on setting any speed records). After a while I decided to track down the beer tent that had been promised. After wandering around for a while I found the tables distributing small cups of warmish lite beer. Yum? It's the principle - if they offer a beer tent ya gotta go, right? I wandered some more, called my sis to see when they were coming ("after lunch"), wandered more, sat a bit, wandered more.

One very cute sight: a group of young people (why yes, I am 83 years old thank you) who had finished the race were sitting and standing around, congratulating themselves and talking and laughing. One couple was talking when the guy reached into his pocket, pulled out a little case and dropped down to one knee. Dude! You just finished a marathon and you can drop down to one knee to propose? Bravo! While his girlfriend looked on in stunned amazement, their friends started whooping and hollering (with one wag yelling out "Hey! He went to Jared!"). She must have said yes because it ended in a tight clinch of smoochies. Awwwww.

The crowd was starting to thin out and sis and bro-in-law finally arrived. We watched Sandy run up past the 26 mile marker (and almost missed her since she was passing a crowd). They walked to the end to meet her while I sat in the sun getting toasty.

By then there was no problem leaving the lot or the area. Traffic wasn't an issue. I wanted a shower, some food and some ibuprofen, stat. Then a nap. Then some wine and more food. My sis graciously provided all of those.

So to wrap up this long report. Elite puts on a good race, normally remembering to dot the i's and cross the t's. The crowds are enormous and except for the ridiculously delayed staggered starts, were handled well. Good course and finish line support. Nice medals, different for the half and the full. Crappy shirt. The route was hilly but for the half at least, mostly scenic and not horribly crowded.

Knowing that I probably would not cause any permanent damage I ran harder than I perhaps should have, but that turns out to have been the right decision (have to love hindsight). I can't describe how thrilled I was to have been able to be out there racing again. A couple of times I just thought to myself how damn lucky I was to be able to be there. A couple of times I also thought to myself that I wouldn't be doing any long races again very soon because it hurt like hell! But those turned out to be just normal highs and lows of running. I can't wait for my next race!

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