First of all, I know you’re all going to scroll down to the bottom to get to the juicy part (since that’s what I do on *your* race reports) so here it is, right up front.
The weather was perfect. I ran a 1:00:35 10k, a PR by over 15 minutes. That means I achieved goal 1, goal 2, and came 35s away from achieving goal 3.
I picked up my number on Friday night. Pretty unremarkable experience for that, so I’ll spare you. The point of mentioning it is that I *always* pick my number up beforehand if I can. I like to know that all I have to do the morning of is cross the start line. Because I don’t ever want to screw that up. Half the reason I do races is so that I can have a totally official record of my exact time, backed up with some serious SCIENCE. Sure, I run to have fun, I run to organize my running goals around something, and the environment of the race is just something totally apart from just ‘running as fast as I can’. Still, one very important aspect for me is having a big list, where I appear somewhere on it, that says my name, and a time that proves that I, according to an objective observer, completed a measured distance over a measured time.
However, it appears the universe wanted to teach me a lesson. I ran the best I could. I started out slow, I ran progressively faster miles, and I hurtled to the finish with a kick to be proud of. I nailed my first goal to beat 1:05:06, my Pittsburgh Half Marathon 10k split. I nailed my second goal to beat a 10:00 mile, with a 9:45 pace. I brushed my fingers achingly close to my stretch goal, to turn out a 1:00:00 or better 10k.
I did all that, but none of it gets to be as clear and as clean as I imagine in my strictly metered, precision engineered idealization. You’ll hear more of why, in the blow-by-blow description below.
I started my day with the every-day-and-race-day-is-no-exception breakfast. A english muffin with peanut butter and a cup of coffee. I drove to the race, arrived with plenty of time, and had the good fortune to park in a parking lot that was under construction. I was lucky because that meant there was a port-a-potty at the parking lot that I used before joining the snaking river of people heading toward the start line from all directions. I didn’t know how lucky I was until I was closer and saw that the whole river of people seemed to have lined up for the 4 port-a-potties near the start.
The start was on the Northville Downs Racetrack, a horse racing track made of crushed gravel that reminded me of the wooded trails in Pittsburgh’s city parks. I warmed up a bit with striders I’m sure I did wrong, stretched a bit against a wall. It was odd to be alone before a race for so long; normally I spend the time with Stephanie, but from the map we knew she wouldn’t be able to catch me at multiple places on the course, so she slept half an hour longer and would meet me at the finish line. The waiting didn’t go on long at all. The clock crawled closer to 7:15 and an announcer, lost somewhere in the milling crowd of runners, got our attention with a microphone for the 10k start. While I knew the drill, I was happy that he had called out that it was the 10k start very specifically, as I am sure that other runners might be confused, and I wouldn’t want to be the 10miler runner who found out at mile 4 that he had taken the wrong start. The invisible announcer jabbered about the stops on the course, thanked the sponsors, apologized that the Start Line arch was not up on account of the wind. Then he gave a variation on ‘ready-get-set-go’ (of which there seem to be an infinite number) and blew an airhorn.
I ambled behind the crowd to the start, content to cross the line late and let chip time give me my time, and content to let the crowd ahead of me start to break up. Plus, it’s always motivating to be passing people during the race, and I’ve grown used to being slow enough to justify starting way near the back. Races normally seem to prefer to start with a long straightaway, to let the crowds thin out as the fast and enthusiastic spread out in front, and the natural pace takes over, without the jam of a corner. Starting on the horse track, as novel as it was, didn’t afford this opportunity. Everyone knew where the shortest path was, and the natural slowing of a turning crowd jammed up the start more than I’d expect from a race with ~900 runners. Once we exited the track, we followed a reasonably rational course out of the parking lot and out onto the roads.
There, I came up against my first assumption, which was that a road race in Michigan was by necessity a flat affair. Not true here in Northville, apparently. It wasn’t a huge hill, but it was definitely a hill, and the crowds thinned out and moved to the side to run it slow. I heard a woman say to her running mates that she was going to walk this one. I remembered advice I’d gotten from Lauren, to always run the hills, and I tucked my head down and ran it, passing people as I went. As we came near the crest of the hill, the 1 mile marker loomed, and around me a chorus of cheeping Garmin’s noted, at different spots, their own interpretation of the location of the first mile marker. That first mile was the slowest of the race, as it should be.
Mile 2 was inspiring. A few people appeared at the ends of their driveway, most memorably a family who all held hands outstretched for a high five, if you ran close enough. We ran along Sheldon Road, and turned into a subdivision, and as we did, at around 1.75 miles, I heard someone shouting my name, cheering for me. Confusion only lasted momentarily as I recognized my co-worker Lauren’s voice. I had invited she and her husband to run the race with me, but they have a 2 year old son, and couldn’t make the logistics work. Instead they had plotted to come cheer me on along the race course! Since I wasn’t expecting any personal cheering until the finish line, I was really inspired by it! I saw Lauren again a couple corners up, as well as her husband and son along the lines cheering for “Mister Sullivan Running!” and it was a huge boost. Big thanks to my friends for coming out and cheering for me on a race day! On Monday, Lauren pointed out the first unusual thing about this race; the second corner she met me at was NOT part of the race course. Either the course was mislabelled, or a mass of runners ignored some critical marking, but we ran like this:
The Way We Ran
And the official course mark looks like this:
- The Right Way
A quick gmap pedometer check shows that this is only shorter by 0.01 miles or so; so 50 feet.
Mile 3 was rolling subdivision time. The major event of note was running alongside a Mustang GT that was being escorted out of the neighborhood by a bike cop at like 4-5mph. I resisted the urge to be one of I presume 200 people yelling “I’m racing a Mustang!” at the driver. I’m glad the cops had it under control, but I would rather not have had to contend with a moving car on the route! After passing the Mustang, I grabbed a cup of water at the water station, and drank it slowly. Unlike a bigger road race, this water station was in a subdivision, so dropping the cup on the floor felt MUCH more like littering than usual, but I didn’t have a choice, because I was nowhere near done nursing it after passing the garbage cans 20 feet away from the tables.
Mile 4 wound its way through an older neighborhood, less of a uniform subdivision and more of a collection of houses. The major feature was a big loop through that area that pinched off at itself just after the 4 mile mark. Somewhere here, I spotted my new race Friend/Nemesis (Frenemesis? Maybe I should leave the portmanteau words to the Hiltons and Kardashians of the world), henceforth referred to as the Green Shirt Girl. She was wearing a distinct color of green, had a somewhat odd arm flail (tightly tucked wrists but her elbows were EVERYWHERE) and running at about the same pace as I. Always pretty much in sight up ahead, I saw her for long enough that I started to ‘lock on’ to her as my pace. Unlike the seriously dressed black guy I had seen earlier, and the singlet wearing skinny guy. Those two had the look, but were either running easy or run walking, such that I passed them and never saw them again. Green Shirt Girl on the other hand was there long enough to not only be seen and noted, but to gain her nickname in my tired brain.
The fluid station at 4.25 was Gu Brew only, and I risked an upset stomach by having a couple sips to wash the Gu I took at mile 4 down. I lucked out in that I didn’t have any adverse reaction, and I know that risking it was silly. It worked out, and I headed through mile 5, which was another generally uphill mile. I chased Green Shirt Girl up this long hill, and she and I passed a ton of folks who slowed down for it. When I started to slow, I realize she was also starting to slow, and picked it up. And of course, all without seeing me, she picked it up too, came around the corner and created more space between us.
When mile 5 finally finished up, and mile 6 came to the fore, I caught up, even passing her briefly, and exchanging the awkward “I’m sorry”/”no don’t worry about it you’re okay” conversation as she stumbled almost into me during the pass. But she took it back before long. Mile 6 was all downhill though, through downtown Northville, through a busy intersection with officers directing traffic (Thank you officers!) and down into Ford Field. A girl in a sports bra interposed herself between me and my target. The hard corner into Ford Field, where the mile 6 sign was perched, slowed all three of us down. I remember seeing that 6 Mile sign and the hard corner and thinking, “No way I’m looking at my watch. I am close to all of my goals, and I’m just going to run this park as fast as I can.” As we came into the park, you could see that we’d be running around the gathered crowd at the finish. Knowing that only 0.2 miles remained, I tried to find something to let me catch her, and at least cross the finish line right on her heels. The girl in the sports bra fell behind after the corner, and as I started running (thinking of it as my first interval, thinking of it as my finish line kick, thinking of it as my race picture pose) I found myself passing Green Shirt Girl quickly. People to the left and right of the path were taking their race medals off and admiring them, cheering. The race announcer must have had a program or some helpers, but he was announcing actual names as people came across the finish! I turned onto the straightaway, where Steph spotted me and start cheering, before her head disappeared behind her SLR for her to snap pictures. I felt my shoelace, traitorous thing, start to come untied! But I burst through the finish line, over the chip timing mat and it was over!
Note the confident stride, the strong arms, the untied shoelace. Truly a runner in peak form.
I got my medal, my lei and a big hug from my wife. Only then did I glance at my Garmin, which proclaimed 1:00… meaning I was SO CLOSE to my goal. I poked through the menu to get the seconds… 1:00:35! Chip time would tell! Or so I thought…
At the results board, my chiptime and clocktime were recorded as the same number: 1:01:27. I held out hope briefly that they had posted in haste (clearly to make sure that the highly competitive bottom fifth of the 30-34 Men’s bracket had by the minute updates, right?) but it soon became clear it wasn’t getting corrected. Stephanie and I hung around a while longer to watch the first 10 milers blaze into the park and across the finish, and to enjoy the really great finish-line-expo the organizers had put together.
At home later, the time was still uncorrected, and reality was that my start time must have been lost. Even though 1:01:27 still beat the same two of my goals, and was pretty close to my chip time, I really wanted that independent and objective truth quality of a chip time I could point to. I chalked it up to experience thinking of something I heard in Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture: “Experience is what you get, when you don’t get what you wanted”.
I told a few folks about the chiptime/clocktime predicament, and Steph’s friend Margreta suggested I contact the timing company and ask. So I e-mailed Gault Race Management, and they e-mailed me back INSANELY promptly on Sunday night at 9pm, and adjusted my time to the 1:00:35 that my Garmin recorded by 11pm that night. I want to thank them for being so helpful; I know that there’s no money on the line, and that the difference between 1:01:27 and 1:00:35 is no skin of their nose, but it was a huge boost to my morale to be able to point at the time I earned.
The festive theme makes me look more celebratory, but no less tired. Rest assured, I'm excited about my time, not just the prospect of a slice of pizza at 9am.
So that’s the story… I timed the race myself, I took a wrong turn. A crowd of other runners made the same turn, and it was a small difference at 60 feet or so, and the time on my Garmin was start-to-finish, so not much different from stopping a watch any other time. All these things still kind of remove the ‘air of authority’ from my race. Thinking about it that way, I’m STILL proud of myself. While the timing mat and the official results and the measured course are certainly appealing, the bottom line is that I KNOW I raced better than I have before. I made a new PR for the 10k, with a sub 10:00 pace, smashing my Turkey Trot ‘PR’ by over 15 minutes. I had a great time on a beautiful morning, and I got a great medal with an adorable running tiki-guy on it.
Doesn't that tiki guy look happy! I bet he's got a ton of body glide on under that grass skirt...
What’s important is that all sources agree, I didn’t break an hour in this race. That’s for next time!