Tag Archives: race report

Jingle Bell 5k

This past Saturday I ran the first race that I’ve ever not ‘raced’. I wasn’t worried about my time at all. Instead, I was fundraising for Arthritis Foundation, and enjoying a great Saturday morning with my friend Sheryl.

I picked her up at 8:00am at her place, and we had what is almost a stereotypical experience. I asked where the venue was, she told me, but said “It’s weird, the front page said 8:30am, not 9:00am for race start…” So we headed out, not knowing if we’d end up rushing in to the start line and catching up from the back.

Luckily when we arrived at 8:20, there was no evidence of the race being imminent, so we were able to get our timing tags on, and I was able to pin on my wearable xmas lights. Yes, that’s right, since I raised $325 for Arthritis Foundation, I bought some battery powered xmas lights and ran the whole race decked out like a sparsely decorated tree.

The photograph doesn’t do the lights justice, but it was pretty amazing.

We lined up near the back, because Sheryl & Diana are still working their way up to a full-running 5k with that very popular couch-to-5k plan. Unfortunately, Diana’s bluetooth headset chirped its last before we got to mile 2, so our breaks became a little bit more random, as the ladies were alternating between that sweet race day adrenaline that makes you want to run extra, and the pain of pushing themselves. That pain is what running is all about! Great job, Diana & Sheryl!

We got near the end, and Diana tragically started lying to poor Sheryl about how much distance we had left. See, we hadn’t crossed the 3 mile line yet, and Diana started saying things like “It’s just a few hundred feet from this corner!” and “the finish is right up there”!

Then when I started reporting the real distance from my Garmin, and getting nasty looks! I’m sorry, Sheryl! But you finished, and with 5 more weeks of C25k, you’ll be running strong the whole way in no time.

The race was well organized with a great, enthusiastic finishing line crowd, and a fun raffle/awards ceremony in the movie theater afterward. My favorite form of comedy was the raffle announcements where we all had tickets from the same spool, so the first 3 of 6 numbers were always the same. Still, people got really excited every time he called out those three numbers, with an audible noise of anticipation through the room. Then you’d hear 200, then 99, then 9 people groan in outrage and agony as they were eliminated as the called the next 3 digits in slow progression. Somehow, this reaction never got old to the MC, and he started drawing out the calls longer and longer.

I had a great time going out and doing a run for the purpose of sharing the day with my friends and helping out a good cause, and can easily see myself doing some more things like this in the future.


Stomp The Grapes Half Marathon Race Report

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.

The Injury

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.

The Preparation

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…

The Start

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.

The Talkers

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.

The Pacer

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!

The Analysis

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.

The Acknowledgments

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.

Stomp The Grapes Half Marathon – 11/5/2011 – Official Time: 2:00:31

Race Report Part 2: The Race!

The Morning:
Anybody who doesn’t wake up naturally at o’dark-thirty knows the trick of setting as many alarms as you have access to. However, because of a slight Stephanie malfunction, the intended last of the three alarms we set went off at 3:33. That momentarily set me into “I can’t believe I slept through two alarms omg omg omg”.

I fell back asleep, but I don’t think Steph did. When the real alarms went off at 4:30, I pulled on all my meticulously stacked up gear, made the call not to bring the armwarmers (it was already 62degrees) and ate the Same Breakfast I Eat Every Morning. We drove down to the parking near the finish line, all chattering excitedly despite the early hour. We parked right near the finish, and walked a mile to the start line.

The Roberto Clemente Bridge

I assure you, this bridge is actually blurry.

We saw the 13 mile marker on the walk over there, and it was thrilling to think of it as my goal; that I would be there (and just a little bit farther) in just a few hours.

At the start line, we ran into two of Annette’s friends who were also running the half. We kept each other company, sitting beneath the overhang of PPG Place.

Before the start, I felt my first real bout of nervousness. My stomach got unsettled and I couldn’t eat the Gu I was planning to eat before the run got started. Instead I just kept laughing and talking, until some kind of energy washed down (all the way into corral E) and people hurried through the porta potty lines and into the corral for the start.

Swem eating Gu

Swem clearly had no trouble eating that pre-race Gu!

The Start:
That same invisible wave (we were too far back to hear the start line announcers) happened 3 or 4 more times, each moving us 10 feet, before the real start happened, and we were off. On the third, I had taken a much needed pit stop at my porta potties of last resort (the ones alongside Corral D!). I hadn’t had much to drink, and my body has never had much problem with nerves or GI distress while running, but I think just the enormity of the day complicated things. That said, as soon as they called for us to get running, and the crowd started to move fluidly, I felt really solid, and pretty much immediately after the start I was able to eat that gu so that I had energy for the run.

At about 0.5miles in, I saw the cheer-squad for the first time, holding up signs that read:

“You’re almost there!” and “<—- That's what she said!"

You could hear laughs, cheers and groans coming up from the crowd as they read the signs. Steph was grinning at me like a maniac, and it really revved me up for the race to come!

The start line shot!

Not just running this! Photobombing it!

The first part of the race was through downtown, which made my Garmin pretty much lose its mind, but that’s fine, because I was trying to hold back to keep myself from turning race day excitement into dead legs in the last mile.

Mile 1 passed like a dream. I couldn’t believe the line of 12 people at the first porta potty, but besides that the whole first mile was spent marvelling at the sea of humanity with a purpose, stretched out behind and before me.

The Strip and the North Shore:
Mile 2 came up through the strip district and to our first turn. The Strip District was home to a guy dressed in a full body lobster costume. If you don’t know why a guy dressed in a full body lobster costume is tremendously motivating, you’ve obviously never seen one cheering for you during a race. Thank you, Rock Lobster Guy.

Mile 3 passed quickly, as I ran through the first water station. My philosophy was that I don’t need water this early, and I certainly don’t need to join all 15,000 participants as they learn how the fluid stations are going to work. I could figure out how it worked by watching rather than walking.

At 3.5 came our second encounter with the cheer squad, this time sans signs. I wasn’t wearing glasses, and I was looking for their yellow umbrella, which resulted in the following excellent photo.

Mile 3.5, too much confusion here...

"There they are!", "Oh, I see them!", "No, here!", "Ya, there!"

From there, it was almost 6 miles before we’d see the girls again at the mile 9 point over in the South Side, so I strapped down to really push myself through this run.

As we left them, before mile 4, we crossed over the first of the four bridges we’d be running that day, the 16th street bridge. There, among the see of people, I saw a girl in a purple UnderArmour Shirt that said “Don’t Be Last” on the back of it. Even though I could see a huge field of people behind me, something about that shirt said “Beat me to the finish line, Donald.”, and it was distinctive enough that I remembered it, until I saw it again.

The first bridge over, and a sizable but not massive hill up into the North Shore. I felt strong, and the race had thinned out from the substantial crowds back on Liberty and Smallman, but was to remain a relatively thick field all the way to the end. The North Shore was amazing, along with another of my favorite course moments. As we came up the incline of East Commons street, we heard one voice, backed by a choir. Swem turned to me and said “I really hope that’s a full choir, and not just a backup track”. Lo and behold, as we came up to the corner, passing a huge section of cheering supporters, we saw the full church choir singing outside the Allegheny Center Alliance Church for encouragement. If anyone in Pittsburgh knows any of those great folks, please give them a hug from me. It put a huge grin on both our faces to hear voices cheering us on through song.

West End and the South Side:
At mile 6, we headed over the West End Bridge, which we’d driven over the prior day. There was a pretty steep rise to this bridge, and I heard people around me yelling encouragement to their partners. I ducked my head down and tried to keep my pace up strong. The good thing about a bridge is that unlike a natural hill, there’s no deceptive double rise, no confusing mid hill curve that gives you more hill. Once you hit the crest, you know it’s pretty much the same downhill as you just went up.

Beyond that, in the West End, we were rewarded with a zen moment of the race. Because the roads out there aren’t very populated, and we were on a closed highway connector, there was almost no sound, except for the sound of feet slapping on pavement, and the breathing of runners. Swem pointed this out to me and then we quietly enjoyed that cadence.

That feeling characterized the entire 6-9mile stretch. At around 8.5 or so, the stored and crowds of the south side started to rise to either side of the road. The familiar sights of East Carson Street were lined with some of the biggest crowds of the race. At mile 9, we saw Steph, Jen and Annette for the penultimate time, this time with their second batch of signs, the inspired “Something Inspirational”, the laser-correct, “Bold, Bald, Brian” and the inside joke, “Run Faster! The fish-bees are chasing you!”. Knowing that this was the last low key passing of the girls, we both stopped to sneak a kiss, and headed on to the half-marathon split.

From here to the end, the crowd support was excellent. Running the high side of the south side, soldiers in BDU’s were waving and cheering the runners. Then, down along Muriel St. a huge crowd featured 3 bands, a high-school cheerleader squad giving high-fives with their pompoms and a guy revving a harley loud as a rocks in a garbage disposal. Swem and I remarked that it was our favorite half mile of the course.

Around the end of the South Side, Brian pulled away to find a porta-potty, and I ran a lot of the remaining race alone, which suited me very well. The crowds and racers were plenty of company. We crossed the third bridge of the course, the Smithfield bridge, and made our way up Smithfield street and through downtown. I was tired, but was still moving at a solid 10:30 pace when mile 12 sprung up on my left. I glanced at my watch and saw 2:07 as I passed that marker. I didn’t have to do much math to know that unless I broke something I was going to blow away my ‘secret’ target of 2:30, and if I gave it a good effort, I could easily beat 2:20!

Knowing this was the last mile, I buckled down to run it hard, but as I did, I passed one of the weirdest bands yet. After 12 miles of up-tempo, uplifting, power guitars, blues on upright bass, and even the odd, but somehow inspiring ambient electronica, I passed a solo female vocalist playing down-tempo coffeehouse folk. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a good female folk vocalist, but it was NOT what I needed as I dug in and prepared to spend my reserves to make my last 1.1 count!

Downtown went by in a blur though, and soon I was running alongside a female runner who was imploring the crowd for support. I joined her with the big hand gestures and we were rewarded with excellent crowd roars as we entered the Roberto Clemente Bridge, and the home stretch to the finish.

The Last Mile:
On the Roberto Clemente, I saw the girl with the Under Armour “Don’t Be Last” shirt, and I told myself I was going to beat her to the finish. That last bridge piled more abuse on to my quads, as was trying to maintain a 9:50 pace for this last stretch. But I did it. I left her behind as I passed the 1/4mile to go sign.

I saw the cheer-squad on the left and threw them a big smile and a fist pump. The huge yellow inflatable finish line was visible up ahead, and my watch read under 2:20 as I crossed over the finish line, my arms raised above my head in triumph.

Pushing into the chute, my eyes clouded with tears, and I actually started to cry. The emotion of finishing, and finishing strong, and finishing faster than I had even imagined I could just completely overwhelmed me. Even thinking back on that moment now, as I reached out to a volunteer to get my medal, I mist up a little. I must have yelled thank you at 50 volunteers as I piled food into my hands, and guzzled 4 or 5 cups of gatorade.

My official time was 2:18:17, a 10:33 pace. Almost a full 12 minutes faster than I thought I could run, and I had polished off the last 1.1 in just about 11 minutes.

The Celebration!:
The reward was our trip to Burgatory, which has been planned for almost as long as the race! I didn’t even realize it wasn’t noon before I finished my first Stone IPA. The second went to wash down my (MASSIVE) bacon, bbq, onion strings burger. The place, despite being distant from the race, was populated by people in the green shirt of the half marathon. We celebrated for an hour or more, chatting with some of the other racers and repeatedly toasting each other with glasses raised. I had a long awaited bourbon & caramel milkshake (which tastes exactly as good as it sounds, and looks, see below) and I got all the details of the girls’ day in the company of great friends.


Food hasn't arrived yet and I'm considering eating Steph

Don't you wish your burger was hot like me?

Dignity is overrated. BBQ sauce is not.

Bourbon Caramel Milkshake

Bourbon Caramel Milkshake; No caption will do it justice, trust me.

I had an amazing experience running this half, so much so that I really can’t wait to sign up for my next. This post took so long to write because I wanted to get it exactly right. I know I’m always going to remember the huge support of the excellent people of Pittsburgh on my journey to do the half.

Big thanks to Annette, Swem, Jen and Stephanie for being there to support me, and to Sherry, Lauren, Paul for showing keen interest via the internet. My time was rocketing its way ’round twitter and facebook a few moments after the race. The love and help you’ve all given me has been huge. I hope that I can repay you all, or pay it forward to someone else. I couldn’t have made it 200 feet without you, never mind 13.1 miles.

I did it! And they gave me this terrible cookie to prove it!

One more thing: This journey isn’t over. I’m already planning out my next race. And I ran 4 miles this morning, in the hills of Ellicott City.

Race Report Part 1: My Half Marathon Weekend

Here’s the full, recorded-for-posterity, race report of my first ever half Marathon, ran this past weekend on 5/15/2011. Please, forgive the length, but I had such a good time that I wanted every detail I could remember plugged up in here. I split it up into parts, starting with the tale of some of the build up!

The Trip:
Steph picked me up at 4:30 on Friday, after a tough day trying to work. With all my excitement about the race, I could barely focus on office work, but I forced myself to clean some things off my desk so that I didn’t come back to too much hanging over my head on Monday. We set out for the drive to Pittsburgh in our new car (we *just* bought a 2011 Ford Edge in late April) and let me tell you, having a car that fit me made all the difference on my comfort for this road trip.

Our only stop was at Panera bread for some dinner. Now I know what you’re thinking; CARBO LOAD! But I restrained myself! While I did have their French Onion Soup in a bread bowl, I didn’t load up with extra carbs above that. And honestly, my race still felt like a distant object at this point. We settled in for the last couple of hours, and drove into Pittsburgh at about 9:45pm.

My original plan was to run a quick 2 miles that night to be my last ‘leg stretch’ before the half, but it was way too late and it was hard to consider strapping on the headlight and the running gear rather than spending some time chatting with Chuck & Annette. So I postponed the warmup to the next morning, tucked in by about 11, and dreamed of swift feet.

The Warmup:
I woke up at 7am, and I think Steph almost clubbed me in the face for it. I get up at about the same 7-8am time every morning, but Steph prefers earlier on weekdays and later on weekends, so my rummaging around for run clothes was very unwelcome! Still, getting some good rest had meant I was up early, and I wanted to get my 2 miles in and get to my first ever race expo.

As the king of worrying, I’m also the king of overpreparing. This is not the same as preparing well, though on a good day they intersect. I had brought my brand of English Muffins (Thomas’ Whole Wheat FOR LIFE), the k-cup of my favorite morning coffee (Coffee People Organic; because it tastes good, not because it’s organic) and a nearly complete duplicate of my race outfit. So I wiggled into the ‘not for the race, but almost’ outfit, including accessories, like armwarmers tucked in the waistband of my pouch, and the quantity of GU I had decided to run with. had the same breakfast I have before every race (and honestly, pretty much every morning). It was overkill, but it was really reassuring to know I had everything I needed, and that nothing was going to fit wrong or be missing a piece for the next morning.

And after all that, I set out the door for 2 miles. Such a short run can make a big difference! Annette gave me the directions up to Schenley park, and I ran out there, and onto the Panther Hollow Lower Trail. It was a picturesque place to psyche myself up for my big run! The road to get there was a hard climb (for a flatlander) that I took slow, but it was good to remind my legs that tomorrow would not be the Midwestern terrain they were used to. Then the trail! Laid out in the city, you get so far from the roads, so quickly, that you feel lost in the woods. The crushed limestone thumped lightly under my feet, and I got to see a part of Pittsburgh I might have only seen once before, on a day walk during college. The trail goes over a footbridge, brick laid by hand so long ago that it all had smoothed together to look like abnormally helpful natural stone, and then along a retaining wall constructed of solid stone blocks, placed long before I was born. The whole thing had a feeling of one-ness, like the city had accepted Panther Hollow and Panther Hollow had accepted the city. Overall it was a very meditative run, and a good prep for the half for body and mind.

I got home, feeling wonderfully refreshed, and we set out to the Expo!

The Expo:
This is when Steph realized that she hadn’t put a CF card into her camera bag, which is why there are no pictures up to this point! She’d grab the CF card during the less hectic afternoon, but until then, you’re stuck letting me try to draw pictures with inadequate words.

The Expo was in the downtown David L. Lawrence Convention Center, and I was unbelievably excited to go. To me, getting the number, and the shirt, and to browse the expo was going to start the process, to make it irrevocable and real. We picked up my number, and there was a twinge of sadness when we picked up Brian’s number, as they offered us Nathan’s as well. Nathan had to cancel running the half so that he could maintain his (Crazy, exciting, cool!) travel plans before starting a PhD in Economics program in the fall, so he wouldn’t be keeping us company on the roads of Pittsburgh. Maybe another year Nathan! Good luck at UT!

Numbers in hand, I then set out to look at every bag, pouch, gizmo-holder in the place! It was a relatively small expo, so it didn’t take long, but I made the girls circle it with me twice while I just enjoyed the feeling, browsing around, surrounded by all the positive energy that anticipation brings. I was demo’d some awfully uncomfortable headphones, which mostly involved being momentarily tethered to a bored salesgirl by an iPod cord. They were guaranteed not to fall out, though after two seconds I wished they would so I could escape!

They had this great stack of temporary tattoos with splits on them that you could put on your forearm. I was all excited to apply one until Annette pointed out I’d have to shave my arm. Disadvantages of being a furball, I guess. Still, we took a few, in case I changed my mind. This is where Annette first confessed to me that she was pretty sure I would run a 2:10-2:15 half. It wasn’t even in my wildest dreams. I had set my goal as a finish, and stubbornly avoided numbers, but in my heart of hearts, I had a 2:30 debut effort in mind. More on that, later.

I was hoping to have my name emblazoned somewhere large enough that people could cheer for me by name along the course, an idea I got from Chase, @ TheChaseProject in her National Marathon Race Recap. At home, before the trip, we had tried to look for iron on numbers (which all seemed to require a hot enough iron to melt polyester) and we found a fabric marker that we really thought was going to work, except it smelled like fish, and I didn’t want to chance huffing seafood flavor for 13.1 miles. So one of my big hopes for the Expo was to find a place that would put my name on my chosen race shirt, but it was not to be! I had heard some places will do it for a fee, or others will sell transparencies intended to be a temporary name, or even have Triathalon style markers to write it on your arm, but nothing like that was in sight.

As far as shopping damage, I managed to only buy two new pouches. My first selection was a water resistant SPIbelt, on my wishlist since I shorted out my Blackberry and killed its battery earlier this year. I also grabbed a bright green Armpocket to try carrying my stuff on my arm rather than my waist. I’d use this more as a wallet for my arm. It seems more accessible and closer at hand if I ever do want to carry my phone for use rather than just emergencies.

Post Expo pictures! Cheesing with my number & my shirt!

Maybe he

Hermes is my race penguin. I got him after the Detroit Zoo 5k.

The shirt!

My shirt! I'm ridiculously excited!

I was very excited to see it was a Half-Marathon shirt, rather than a “Pittsburgh Marathon/Marathon Relay/Half Marathon/Day Before 5k/1 mile Kids Run!” combo shirt. I was *not* looking forward to the following conversation every time I wore it.

Well-Meaning Friend: OMG! You ran the Pittsburgh Marathon!
Me: Well, actually, I ran the half.
Well-Meaning Friend: Oh, just the half? I guess that’s pretty far too.

The Friends:
Expo fun all complete, we had lunch back at Chuck & Annette’s (sandwiches!), Steph obtained a CF card for the camera, and we headed to the airport to retrieve Brian and our third cheer-team member, his bride-to-be, Jen.

When we returned from the airport, a ton of my Pittsburgh friends had started to gather to hang out, tell stories and to split the pasta dinner Steph & Annette had prepared. Along with a Yuengling, that was my indulgence/’carb-load’ before the event. Maybe not strictly necessary from a physiological point of view, but nonetheless an amazing way to spend the evening with my friends. I’m so grateful to everybody who came to hang out that night and see me off, and extra thankful that they didn’t call me lame when I set off for bed at 10pm.

Next Up: The actual race!