The third half marathon of my life, year, and the last of my first ‘racing season’, was a race definitely worth writing about. After a 2:02:04 performance at the Brooksie Way, I had a shot, on this much flatter course, at brushing by just under 2 hours. That wasn’t to be, this time around but it was quite a memorable race and race weekend.
I should start at the beginning.
3 weeks ago I started a 12 mile run, planning to head to the gym via a route that would take me through the Lower Huron Metropark near my house. Less than a half mile from the house my knee ‘clicked’, whether audibly, physically or mentally I will never know, but it sent me running back to home to readjust my shoes, stretch and seek the pity of my wife and my mother. After stretching and sitting for half an hour, I hit the road again, this time with no pain. I dismissed it as an oddity of running on cold legs and had a great 12 mile run. I had only minor hints of it through another average week of running, that week, culminating in my 14 mile partially-topless show 2 weeks ago. That 14 mile run left me addle-brained and exhausted, but still, no sign of this underlying trouble.
Still, that long run effectively marked the beginning of my taper, and I expected the possibility of things going wrong to be behind me. It reared its head in a six mile stretch of the legs done in Pittsburgh, and seemed to object to me spending ~8 hours in the car that weekend. Still, it was worth it to meet Persephone for the first time (Congrats Chuck & Annette!)
Then the last straw, which is when you started reading about it here. I ran home from the RAC to home, a 5 mile run, and at a mile I felt/heard the knee pop. I was miserable the rest of the run. Not so much physically as mentally, knowing that this could be the end of my goals for a while.
But I got some great advice here, and the huge support of my wife, and I got a crash course in ITBS treatment methods. I foam rolled, I stretched 3-5 times a day, I bought a rubber strap with a bump in it that ITBS sufferers said had cured their ills. I rested so much I started to get fidgety. I ate enough advil that I thought I should start counting their calories. If you had offered to sell me a totem necklace or a magnetic crystal bracelet that would ward off the evil spirits or bad blood that cause ITBS, I would have bought one from you.
Normally, the week before a race is full of different nerves. What should I eat? Will it be too cold for this outfit? Too warm for this other? What pace should I run? How early should I be? Perhaps I should be thankful that an injury made all those things fade into the background. The possibility of being wiped out by my leg made all the unnecessary worries come into perspective. Of course, maybe one or two valid things were forgotten as a result.
Stomp The Grapes is an afternoon race, in Hartville, 3.5 hours away from home. This made for a couple strange things about the prep. First, no longer was dinner the night before my ‘last big meal’ before the race. Second, I would have to spend 3.5 hours in a car before the run. Still, a creature of habit to the last, I had a beer and a spaghetti dinner @ Sticks in Ypsilanti, going out as much to take my mind off of the possibilities of the race as for any other reason. A decent beer, and some lousy service, and some 2 hours later, we headed home by about 10pm. I had to get some sleep before that alarm clock.
Breakfast was a second chance to eat some energy-providing, or at least feel good, food. I gobbled up french toast and eggs at Dimitri’s with the sun still below the horizon. The waitress was good enough to fill up my coffee cup for the road, and we set out.
To solve the possible problem of being stuck in a car, tightening up before the race, Stephanie let me ride in the back, relaxed and in style. I could lay out across the back seat of our Edge and stretch my ITB a few times.
The drive went quickly, and we soon found ourselves crossing through the small town of Hartville, driving along part of the race route, and pulling in to the Maize Valley Winery. True to its great name, and theme, the race gear in my pickup packet was festive and fun, adorned with the unique name. In addition to the obligatory long sleeved tech shirt, there was a great fleece beanie, and I had elected to buy a hooded sweatshirt for wearing around the house during the winter.
The weather was perfect, and getting nicer as we got settled in. Steph was volunteering to help out, because she had fun doing so unplanned at some previous races, so she wandered off to find her assignment while I worked out pinning on my number. Soon, she had the word that she’d be manning one of the late turns, so she could hang out with me until the start, and head out to mile 9 after the gun.
She got her orange race official vest, and hid it under her shirt. I made her wear it for a picture!
Then came the first moment of truth, I put on that snazzy little band on my thigh, and started running slight warmups in the parking lot. Two laps of the parking lot, and Steph could see it on my face. My knee wasn’t hurting, but it also wasn’t invisible. I felt it. There was a huge chance that this was going to end as quick as it started.
Still, I tried to smile, and enjoy the beautiful day. I told Steph that if I didn’t manage to race, I could always come back to the winery and drink away my troubles.
And before you know it, that started to call for relay participants to be gone, and then for racers to head out onto the road for…
We walked out along the road, following a vintage ambulance, the kind that looks uncomfortably like a hearse. I heard more than one runner joke to their friends about that particular ill omen, as we gathered up on Edison Rd to get started.
Shortly after the airhorn, I saw another runner in a Pittsburgh Half Marathon shirt, and I chose to take it as a good omen. I cheered for him, told him to have a good race, and enjoyed the energy of the moving pack. I kept the pace pretty even, and pretty reasonable. I saw 9:30 on the watch at some point, but the average turned out to be 9:16, which was a good ‘above the line’ first pace. I was (metaphorically) holding my breath for that whole first mile, but my leg behaved itself.
Then, when I saw the mile 2 marker, I started to feel like I was going to make it. Something, whether it was foam rolling, frantic stretching or the good wishes and good advice of all my friends, had worked. My next two miles were below 9 minutes, and feeling strong.
The Traffic Problem
In those first two miles, we passed something that was a harbinger of the race to come. A car that had been stopped by the police closing down the road had been rear ended by another car. Pieces of the front end were strewn all over the place as runners passed by in the oncoming lane. That was the only accident I saw, but the traffic control for this race was very problematic. Cars were allowed on to the “oncoming” traffic lane, a few at a time, on several parts of the course. As is to be expected for random cars, had no idea what to do when confronted with a road covered in runners. They sometimes sped past, aggression oozing from their tailpipes. Sometimes they crawled by, sensibly realizing that clipping someone with their mirror at 40mph was not going to get them through the blocked road much faster. And at least once, they got completely baffled and drove down the center of the road, runners streaming around them like water running by a stone. Some of the runners took this well enough, just shaking our heads in silent confusion. Others spat curses or flipped off the drivers, no doubt feeling the bravery to do something they can never do when running alone on the roads at home.
At around mile 5 we passed a timing mat, and I passed a couple of women who were not just chatting, but outright laying some serious life discussion.
Wendy is not talking to her mother. Come on, Wendy. She’s your mother. So, she made a mistake? In 10 years, none of this is going to matter. She can’t take it back, she apologized. Also, it was just hurtful to suggest to your mother that you go to counseling together. When she told you that you needed counselling, she meant that YOU needed it. Not that she needed it. She’s fine. Also, your sister who isn’t talking to her and the one sister that is are just part of a cycle of whatever the hell is going on in your OH MY GOD PLEASE SHUT UP I WOULD RATHER JUST DROP OUT OF THIS RACE AND LAY ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD WEEPING THAN LISTEN TO TEN MORE SECONDS OF YOU GUYS PSYCHOANALYZING YOUR FRIEND WENDY’S RELATIONSHIP WITH HER MOTHER.
Fortunately, after about 5 minutes of that, one of them said to the other, “We are running way too fast.” and they mercifully disappeared in the rear view.
Wendy, call your mother.
As we came around a corner, a volunteer warned us that the cars at that corner were CRAZY, and we should watch out. I shared a fun moment with another runner where we comiserated about how cars are always crazy, and that it wasn’t exactly news. I asked her if she was trying to run a 2 hour half, and she was. She asked me if a girl ahead in a shirt marked “2:02” was an official pacer. I didn’t think so, but I told her that there was only one way to find out.
I ran up the hill to catch up to 2:02, and asked her if she was an official pacer or not. Her response? “Thank you!!”
I’m guessing the headphones up at approximately 300% volume had something to do with that. Oh well, mystery solved, not an official pacer.
I turned around and my new found friend was lost in the crowd behind me, having fallen behind when I chased after the pacer. I took being ahead of someone as a good omen, and went on my way, wishing her the best in my heart.
The Fade & The Finish
The course was not hilly, at least not the way that the Brooksie had been, but there were still climbs, 50ft over a tenth of a mile here and there. A 10% grade is certainly enough to have an effect, even if it can be called at best, rolling hills. I ran a solid start in my opinion, with those first 2 miles right above the 9:10 mark, easy enough to be a responsible start, but not so slow that I’d have to push impossibly hard past the halfway mark.
Then mile 3 finished up and my pace blinked on my watch. 8:59. Under 9 minutes and feeling good. Then I tried to take it easy, be consistent, and reeled in an 8:44 on mile 4. I didn’t need to go that fast, and so I slowed down, started to see the miles with a 9 in front and keep myself steady. Somewhere around 7 or 8, I stopped having to hold back to get 9:0x. By 10 I was struggling to get it. I could try to name culprits, specific hills, the spectating girls who tried to run with their mom and almost piled into me. Nerves from all the nearby, and anxious, traffic. The half mile section of road that was loose, sloped, dirt because a construction crew had torn it up that week. But really, I just didn’t have it in me to run as fast as I needed to.
By mile 10 I had a sense it was going to be hard, but by mile 13 I knew I was right on the razor’s edge. As I got close to the winery, I was still under two hours, and someone said “Turn at the orange cones ahead, that’s your finish!”
Just before the turn, just a few dozen feet from the finish mat, I heard my Garmin beep out it’s fourth half hour chime, signifying that I had missed my goal of 2 hours.
I kept the pedal down, and ran across the finish line. I saw the race clock was between 2:00 and 2:01 as I crossed. I retrieved my medal, a badly needed bottle of water, got interrogated by a guy who seemed concerned that I wouldn’t answer with words, only by nodding my head and staring blankly. After finally regaining/proving my mastery of words by sputtering “I’m fine, just out of breath”, they let me go, and I found myself adrift. It took me about 5 minutes to find the food table, which they had hidden way further way from the ‘finish chute’ than I’ve seen in other races.
I started making phone calls, to let my friends know that I’d gotten my PR, but not my 2 hours!
Or, the part where I try to answer ‘what went wrong’
My time ended up as
- Watch Time: 2:00:35
- Gun Time: 2:00:50
- Chip Time: 2:00:31
My chipped splits came out pretty consistently (I subtracted off my gun time-chip time, to get the ‘chip’ split):
Mile Split Pace 5 0:45:51 0:09:10 9 1:22:52 0:09:12 13.1 2:00:31 0:09:11
Here’s a chart of my mile splits. They’re done by pace, not split time, because sometimes I missed the flag by 50 or more feet, which made the split times look weird, whereas the split paces are still about right.
So, heading by heading, what could have gone wrong?
Head out too fast: I ran the first half in about 59:46, making my 50/50 split, 59:46/1:00:49, about a 60 second difference over 6.625 miles, a difference of about 7 seconds of pace. Those chip splits (above) look even closer than that. So if I went out too fast, it was only barely.
Downhills: I was afraid to run the downhills as hard as I could, because of that IT band. Better to not gain the time, than to blow up at the foot of the hill and regret it.
Loss of Tangents: I ended the 13.1 mile race with 13.25 on the odometer. Counting the slop, I averaged a 9:06, fast enough for a 1:59:12. Trying to stay off of grades meant that I didn’t run tangents as well as I could have. Still, nobody runs perfect tangents, and 13.25 isn’t all that bad.
Unintended Consequences: That bit about not doing or wearing a new thing during a race? I really take it to heart. So the little black strap around my leg was a big departure for me. I could always take it off if it bothered me, right? If my IT band gave out, I wasn’t doing myself any favors, avoiding a new thing. Sure, but I’m pretty sure near the end my left hamstring was reacting to 13.1 miles with an unaccustomed restriction near my knee, I don’t know if it slowed me down much, but with only 31-35s to account for, I didn’t need to account for much.
Lost Workouts: I intended some leg loosening workouts in my final week, and I would have certainly run some of my workouts during this training session a little longer. Hard to second guess it here, and, really, this all just stems from the ITB.
Stress: I did my best to be brave and smiling going in to this race, but I felt the ghost of failure standing on my shoulder right up until mile 2. All that mental stress is no good for the body, and all that worry could have had a very real impact on my ability to dial in the time I wanted.
Final verdict? I can’t be sure which of these really cost me the sub 2. Maybe a little bit of each. I do know that I’m happy with the time, and I don’t feel the need to agonize. Instead I just wanted to categorize these things here for when I look back. Preferably from when I look back from my next PR of 1:xx:xx.
The Good Part
Since I fell short of my goal, it’s easy to look at this race with the jaundiced eye of regret. As fun as self pity is, racing was a lot more fun than just getting that time.
The race was a great race, populated by friendly people, on a beautiful day. I ran an excellent physical race, a 2:00:31 half marathon that I wasn’t sure I could at any speed a year ago. I ran a PR by another minute and a half. I finished my third half marathon.
My injury didn’t take me out of it, and that, in itself, is a huge win.
The Race Logistics
The reason I selected Stomp the Grapes was the time of year, a great theme, and a website that admitted the shortcomings of a previous year. Apparently failure to plan for a 1000+ racer field last year had left the organizers with a course with a bottleneck, a point to point race with not enough busses, and a lot of lessons to learn.
They learned those lessons for this year, and really improved (from all accounts) those factors. The course was all on the roads, with good police support. It was a loop, that ended where it started, which makes the most sense. Unless you’ve got a really spectacular course that only works as a point-to-point, the logistics are just better with a loop. The weather smiled on them this year, but they had preparation like it wasn’t going to, with plenty of friendly fall fire pits, big tents for runners to shelter under, and more bathrooms than I’ve seen for races quite a bit bigger.
They left a few things on the table though. The fun theme and two free glasses of wine would have been better without a 45 minute line to get the two glasses of wine. Post race food for a ~thousand runner race needs to be more than 2 6 foot long tables. Don’t make delirious runners wonder where to go; chutes that end in food tables encourage people to get their food, eat it, and move on. Tables down the hill, open to the public, encourage people to come back for seconds, to take their time, and ultimately to jam up your table without really serving your runners.
Also, photography of racers at the finish line should not end 4 minutes before I hit the finish line. The only photo of me from the race is below. Wobbling away from the finish line, bottle of water in hand. If a race has one photographer, I say keep them photographing the runners. Get your fun party shots after more than just a third of your runners have finished. You’ll get plenty of great promo shots for the web page somehow. Anybody can take the awkward Age Group Award photos. Leave someone with an SLR at the finish line, please.
The After Party
Steph and I were staying in the area, and we had to hang out at the Winery for quite some time. First I had to wait for her to finish her shift, and then we waited for the line to die down so we could get a bite to eat. After that, we sampled a few sips and a glass or two of wine in the Maize Valley Winery (the hosts of the race) and found a *great* bottle of dry red called “Secret Stash” that we’re saving to celebrate with.
Of course once we’d sampled and purchased, the line at the ‘free 2x glasses’ booth had died down, so I got my free glasses of wine. (Including the dry “sinful red”, which wasn’t as good as the Secret Stash from inside, and the sweet, and aptly named Redneck Red table wine, which tasted like grape Kool-Aid).
Once I was appropriately wine-tipsy, we headed to check into the hotel, and seek out a place with a burger. Thankfully there was a place with Yuengling on draft and a decent bacon cheeseburger across the street from the hotel. A little bar/restaurant called the Blue Fig. The service was friendly but forgetful (I mourn the Zucchini Planks that were never delivered), and by the time I’d eaten (and had two beers) I couldn’t think of anything but sleep.
Thanks for reading, or skimming, my Stomp the Grapes Half Marathon Report. My thanks to Paul, Sherry, Brian, Annette, Shelby @ Eat. Drink. Run., Brit @ Duke’s House, and Lauren. Your advice, support and inspiration made me want to go out there and make something of this race, and I really did. Thanks for being there to call, comment, e-mail, question, poke, prod and share.
Thanks a hundred thousand times to my wife of three years, Stephanie, without whom I could not have accomplished any of this. You’re my motivation, and my enabler. Volunteering to contribute to a race 3.5 hours away from home takes a special kind of person, and it takes an even more special one to put up with my moodiness, obsessiveness and to help me agonize over everything from gear choices and race plans to blog pictures and hairstyles. I love you, and happy anniversary.
I want to close this up with the picture from my other blog post of the medal, because, mysteriously, these little hunks of metal that they give to every finisher of every race mean a lot to me. This one is always going to have a lot of memories associated with it.