It all started like they always do, with an alarm in the darkness. I’ve never been a morning person, but I never have a hard time waking up on race days. Two beers the night before and my excitement for the race always gives me the right mix of anticipation and calm for a good night of sleep and a timely rise.
The alarm chimed at 5:00 and I prepared my breakfast. Black coffee, peanut butter on a whole wheat English muffin. While I slowly ate that, Steph worked her way out of bed and took a shower. I toted a banana with me for the ride, and Stephanie and I set out for Rochester Hills, about an hour away, at 5:45.
It was still dark as we got near the race start, Meadowbrook Music Festival on the Oakland University campus, a place I was more used to seeing for concerts. The last time I was there was for a Tori Amos & Ben Folds concert in 2003. Through the pre-dawn dimness, Steph spotted a pair of searchlights lancing upward and tumbling over each other in the sky. We followed that beacon to the parking for the race, guided in by flashlights and pointing parking attendants.
We arrived just before the wave of timely folks, for which I am grateful. As we walked up the road, a river of headlights lined the dark road winding off the campus and south toward the largest highway running through Rochester Hills, I75, which if you follow south far enough dumps you out on the Florida Keys.
We, led and trailed by a trickle of people already parked, headed toward the searchlights. There was hardly anyone around as we checked in for the race, and I selected a new windbreaker branded with the race name. As seems to happen when you pick up your packet on race day, they had run out of XL shirts, so mine would be in the mail.
All the registration complete, I warmed up on a gravel trail alongside the start, stretching, and trying to strike a balance between moving to keep warm and warm up, and avoiding off burning off that magical energy you get at the start line.
Steph kept me company, and shot those dawn-lit photos for a an hour or so, before the 8am start time rolled around. A delay, first 5 minutes, then 15 minutes, was announced. In the start corral, the warmth of the day made it clear that Steph had been right, that while the start would be cold, I would not need anything more than a long sleeve shirt once I got started. Overcoming that feeling was like getting out from under the blankets on a work morning, so I was grateful that the Race Director was hitting the snooze button for me.
The start corral was small, the Brooksie was about 5000 participants, about half running the half-marathon. I was over the start line 2 minutes after ‘on your marks’. I intentionally started forward this time, after spending tons of time (and distance) running around folks in crowded starts. Still, even with my modest guess at a start time, I didn’t have any idea how fast I would end up running this race.
Dawn had broken, but after the first steps off the Oakland University Campus, the course ran into the rising sun. I heard people around me agitating each other over choices to wear or not wear sunglasses. My Tifosi Slip Fototecs (the glasses I bought a few weeks ago in REI) suited the situation well, darkening in the sunlight, I didn’t pay attention to them, which is exactly how they should feel. The first mile came and went before we turned southward and out of the sun. I glanced at my watch, looking for a number in the mid-10’s for the first mile pace. Instead, I saw a 9:40, haunting me.
“Too fast”, I thought. “You *must* slow down. No matter how good you feel now, you will feel awful after 13 miles of this, and you have a big hill to climb.”
So I slowed down.
Except I didn’t. The next mile marker popped in at 9:27. I rationalized, and tried to keep the pedal off the gas. I was going down hill. The second half wasn’t going to be negative splits, and I could have a fast race if I ran it like a flat race now, and like a hilly race later. I am a big believer in negative splits, but unless I was a mountain goat, that wasn’t going to happen. A 2:18 would be easy if I ran a 60 minute first half.
After that, I didn’t think. I just ran at the pace I felt I could sustain. If that doesn’t sound like much of a secret, it didn’t feel like one. There were rest stops every mile, which was a great change from planning out in advance and agonizing over where the next would be. While they weren’t lined up right with the mile markers (the excellently marked and emphasized markers, by the way), they were available within a reasonable distance.
As I was coming up on mile three, a woman I passed spotted my Pittsburgh Half Marathon shirt and called out that she had run the race for years. We exchanged the quick conversation you are capable of during a race, three sentences, at most, but it ended with her saying she had to drop back, that we were faster than her pace. That was a boost, whether she meant it to be or not.
I carried 3 gus with me, and shortly after that conversation, as I ate the first one, I balled up the throwaway gloves and tossed them, into the cup pile after the 3 mile mark. I tried to thank the volunteers at that marker (as well as all the rest of them). While you’ve got to love the guilt free littering of dropping a cup during a race, dropping the gloves felt much weirder, even though I saw a breadcrumb trail of tops, hats and gloves.
The race had a variety of segments after mile 4, moving onto a bike/hike trail through the parks of Rochester Hills. That’s where I first started ‘picking targets’. First was a girl in a pink outfit, who was weaving to pass folks on the trail, next I locked on to a woman in a purple top, her ponytail swaying side to side, then it was a guy in an orange top with an Aquafina water bottle tucked into a pouch on his back. The recognizable colors are the best, because I don’t have to watch them all the time to see them. I kept with the passer, and passed her. I kept with the ponytail, and passed her. I kept with the water guy, and passed him.
One great thing about running without music is that feeling you get when there’s suddenly music on the race course. I didn’t know if Brooksie would have bands along the course, so I got the feeling several times that day. A band playing guitar rock got a huge thumbs up from me, a guy playing drums and singing got a wave (which oddly, the drummer didn’t return!) and a guy singing about being Detroit Steel, and built like a truck inspired me in a completely corny way.
But the most memorable moment was during that last 5k. At Mile 11 there was a woman playing a trumpet. Her entire repertoire seemed to be to repeatedly bleat the recognizable taratantara chaaaaarge. It was effective, it made me laugh and leap at the sound in exultation. 2 miles to go.
The crowd support at this race was amazing, for a modest sized race. Tons of people out cheering or ringing cowbells. People with signs meant for the whole race, not just for a single racer. The volunteers as we got closer to the finish were more and more excited to see you, including the memorable girl at the mile 12 water stop reading names off of bibs. The unofficial refreshment stop at mile 9 was the first time I’ve had a half cup of mid race beer, which I didn’t drink much of, but it made me feel that inspiration and pampering unique to races.
After all these disjoint and amazing experiences, this kaleidoscope of a race report, I came into focus near the end. Coming down Adams road, I didn’t look at my pace. I knew it couldn’t be changed then. The turn onto Walton felt familiar, even though I only saw it once, 2 hours ago. Cheering volunteers increased in intensity, and the road started to roll downhill. The final musical boost was BOOM BOOM POW blaring over the PAs. I surged past that tent, screaming thanks to the volunteers.
That 2 hours that had elapsed had apparently allowed me to forget that the first tenth of a mile had been down a huge hill.
The Finish Line
I couldn’t see the clock, but I could hear the crowd, and I soon saw Stephanie. Gratifyingly, I heard her shout out, “Look at the clock!” as I crested that cruel final hill, and hauled through the finish to the sound of an announcer reading out my name and town. The red digits read out something below 2:05:00. So no matter what I had done, I had beaten my goal for the NEXT race of running 10 minute miles.
I wandered, in a daze. I hunched over and crushed my thighs in my hand. I wasn’t out of breath, which may sound weird to someone who hasn’t run a distance race, but you can’t really run out of breath like you can if you’re sprinting some shorter distance. The end leaves you exhausted, momentarily, but it’s my legs that limit that final kick, and not my lungs. So I gripped my thighs and exhaled sighs of gratitude and excitement. I felt my legs starting to tighten up, so I kept moving, kept walking in a circle, chattering happily at Steph, saying the same thing I would say all the rest of the day. I couldn’t believe it. I honestly could not believe what I had just done, running the race so fast.
I finally looked down at my Garmin, which read 2:02:14 total. Numbers swam in my head. I couldn’t do the math, I couldn’t decide what my time would be. I banished the clock and the Garmin from my head and went to find Stephanie, to see her smile and cheer for me. She incredulously repeated her question, whether I had seen the clock. The hands of a clock spun out of control inside me, fantasizing about what the time could be, would be. The clock at 2:04:xx? The Garmin, with it’s teasing 2:02:14? The finish line results said 2:02:35. I had a PR over Pittsburgh of more than 15 minutes! Then, if you read my brief check in, that afternoon, my time was updated to [b]2:02:04[/b]. It was real.
None of those times would have limited my pride in that race, bursting out of me at the seams. Still it’s pretty great that the fastest one is the final, and that it’s a PR over my prior half marathon time by 16 minutes.
I retrieved my medal and a bagel, though I forewent the energy drinks, because they were NERGIZE. Or maybe INERGIES or ENERGEEEZ; someone mistook bad spelling for good marketing. Seeing that made me glad I hadn’t had what was labelled as gatorade at the water stops! Instead, I had two cups of apple cider, and a disappointing pint of lowfat chocolate milk. There also may have been some leaf shaped cookies. It was kind of a blur!
Afterward, there was a brief celebration and photo session.
And then the real reward. Steph and I sniffed the air (well, we may have seen roadside signs) until we found a Red Robin, where I whined and made begging eyes at the waitress until the stroke of noon. (She may not have heard the begging over the scarfing noises as I ate a burger like a lion on the savannah) Then, patience was rewarded.
The Numbers Part
For those who are interested in those kind of things, here are the splits, and you can click on the image to see the whole gps summary for the event, including HR, pace and elevation data for the run. You can relive that big hill between 7 and 11 with me!
Forgive the 0.99/1.01 miles; I was hitting the Garmin at the aforementioned well done race markers. I wanted to know how much slop I was generating, and to have actual mile splits to compare Garmin distance vs. course distance. I was gratified that so many of them were right around 1.0.
Looking at the total mileage, I’m amazed at how close I was to 13.1. Even if I got favorable Garmin errors, I must have run a really tight race as far as tangents go. I thought about it, but didn’t obsess, and that really seemed to work. Same thing applied to pace, and nutrition/water.
Without going over the splits line by line, you can see that there was really only one slow mile in the whole thing, mile 8. But according to the elevation chart, that was a 130ft gain, with 0 feet lost, meaning it was a purely uphill mile, and the first of the three jagged hills that made up that hard second half.
So, to recap this recap.
- 2:02:04, a new PR, and the confidence to go sub 2 in November at Stomp The Grapes next month.
- Blue laws should be repealed, or at least given a moratorium on race mornings. Waiting for beer until noon is cruel after stepping off the course ready for a cold one at 10:15
- Being early for a race is almost always better than being late. I’d rather be cold than panicked. And those start delays? They were so the Sheriffs could the line of cars trying to park for the race.
- Perfect weather and the support of a perfect wife can make even a challenging course into a PR.