Monday, July 24, 2017

July Half: Rock 'n' Roll Chicago

July's Half-Marathon... Chicago's Rock 'n' Roll Half.

After a string on races close to home, I wanted to hit the road.

The idea was to drag my youngest along, head up Saturday, hit the expo, play in the city a bit, have a nice dinner, run early Sunday, brunch it up, and get home. Good plan!

Yeah, not so much.

The boy had a thing pop-up that ate up Saturday, so we got to the city about 9pm... just in time for a movie and bed.

I woke to a humid, but remarkably temperate, and not-so-windy city.

And, to a shit-ton of people. I had no idea this was such a big race.

Luckily, it was insanely well run.

For example... let's consider about the start:
  • Super helpful and cheerful people to help runners who arrive too late for the expo and have to pick up their number at the start.
  • Plenty of well marked corals
  • Lots of room to get to your coral - too many races neglect that detail and get traffic jams on sidewalks between shrubs and fencing as people try to get to their spot
  • Extra space in the corals so you don't spend those last few minutes crotch to butt
  • Wave starts just a minute a part - runDisney space the waves 10 minutes apart, so the last wave stood around for an hour... I know, because I was in that last wave.
  • Decent sound system with not-really-annoying-at-all MC keeping us entertained
All of this produced a relaxed, easy, uncrowded, and timely start.

Once running, my GPS warned me that my pace over the first few miles was a kinda quick, too quick for a guy trying to take things easy, so I made a point to pull in the reins and slow down.

Hold that thought...

Some may remember from my February post, that I don't generally trust mile markers in races. These markers were way-the-hell off... by a tenth or more. WTF RnR?!?

Well... umm... Turns out, in the big city, where you can barely see the sky and the satellite signals bounce around the tall buildings, you can't really trust your GPS, either.

Yeah... GPS was, in fact the one that was way-the-hell off. Sorry about the outburst RnR.

So, I wasn't going nearly as fast as I'd thought in those early miles. That means that when I'd "backed off so I don't set some kind of record by accident", I was actually going from kinda slow to really slow...some might call it pokey.

But, as it turned out, may have been for the best anyway.

The miles clicked off, and I felt really good. Especially considering the disaster of last month. So I just kept poking along.

Me, poking along.

I saw two Elvises... Elvi... running with each other. One was barefoot, and carried a blow-up guitar.

We also crossed the river, once via one of the draw bridges that is just steel grate... so you could see through it... to the river... why the fuck down there. Some people freaked out and jumped to the sidewalk. I freaked out too, but decided to lean into it.

The race was just crowded enough that I always had lots of people around me, but roomy enough that I never felt crowded. It was like going to a movie and having just enough people to make it feel like a big deal, but not so many that you couldn't have an empty buffer-seat next to you for your jacket.

At mile 8.5 came the only knock I have on the whole race... the half-mile up, half-mile back U-turn. As someone who as designed a course or two, I know they are sometimes a necessary evil to get the distant right in a world of actual streets and neighborhoods and physics, but... for fuck's sake... a 1-mile U-turn is just not cool.

I forgot and forgave pretty quick because just after the end of that shitty mile was the 10-mile mark, and the turn north, toward the finish, along the Lakeshore.

Three lightly rolling miles over overpasses and on on-ramps, and the apparently obligatory trip under McCormick Place, we were in sight of the finish.

Eventually, I crossed it.

I say eventually because I was slow. Really slow... second slowest half ever for me.

But... I did finish. And not only did I finish, but I enjoyed the tiniest sweet redemption from last month's debacle... I didn't walk a single damn step.

Heat? Humidity? Woefully underwhelming training? Not a problem... as long as you don't mind this taking a while...

There was free (crappy) beer...
They gave out what seemed to be
water in these clever Michelob Ultra cans.
The medal is great.

The medal has the "Bean" on it. Pretty cool!

There was even a festival with a funk band, but I opted for the short walk to the hotel, to wake up my son, and head to a lovely brunch.

I've come to accept that these summer halfs are gonna be slow. Hopefully they'll make me faster in the fall.

Real quick... I have to comment on the Rock 'n' Roll series. I remember their first event 20 years ago, in San Diego I think. As I recall, it didn't go great. Since then, I'd always considered them as "Facebook events" - overpriced, underwhelming, big medal, no class.

I was dead wrong. These guys put on a fantastic event. I've run many big races and I've never seen one more smoothly and professionally run. And the staff was probably the best I've ever seen... friendly, well-trained, enthusiastic, genuine. RnR is as good as runDisney at about half the price. I'm a convert, and a fan.

If you'd like to catch up on the year in halfs so far, here are links:
  1. Jan: runDisney StarWars half at Disneyland
  2. Feb: Gasparilla Half in Tampa FL
  3. Mar: Sam Costa Half in Carmel IN
  4. Apr: Carmel Half in Carmel IN
  5. May: Geist Half in Fishers IN
  6. Jun: Zionsville Half in Zionsville, IN
Next month I hit the trails in Muncie, IN.

Good running!

Monday, June 19, 2017

June Half: The Punishments of Zionsville

June's edition of my 2017 Half Marathon a month quest was a small race in Zionsville, IN.

It's an old school race with nice low key vibe. It starts and ends on Main Street, the bricked street in the insanely quite downtown. Normally, Zionsville is relaxing and pleasant. But not so much this day...

And the word for this day was "punishment".

I was punished for a number of running sins on this otherwise lovely Sunday.

Sin #1, Sloth - Since the May half (write-up link below if you're curious), I'd run exactly one day...June 7th,  Global Running Day. Yep, it took a global proclamation to get me out for a run... a 4 miler. Had it not been for that holiday, I might not have run at all.

I can blame work, or the weekend lost to the Indianapolis 500 (a day bigger than Christmas in our family), but in reality, I've been lazy. Slothy.

Turns out, to run a half a month you need to train a little. In the back of my head I think I was counting on the races to keep me in shape. Didn't exactly go down that way.

So on race day I was lethargic. The legs had no pop. I knew right away it was going to be a slow day.

Sin #2, Disrespect for Ra - Not only had I not trained, but that lack of training meant I hadn't acclimated even a tiny bit to the warmer temperatures or bright, warm sun.

Sometime, when you're out running on a sunny day with a heart-rate monitor, check your heart rate in the sun versus in the shade. In the sun, it'll jump right up, without picking up the pace or any perceived additional excursion.

What happens is you're circulatory system kicks into double duty, not only feeding your muscles, but cooling your body. Your heart starts beating more to send extra blood to the capillaries in your skin to help cool it. That's blood that's NOT feeding your muscles. You can quickly start to feel fatigued.

The only way to avoid that feeling is to slow down, or to acclimate. Given a 2-4 weeks of training in the warmer temps and sun, your body will adapt. More capillaries are built near the surface of your skin to make cooling more efficient, your sweat glads expand to hold more water, which also helps with cooling, and your legs will develop more capillaries, too, so they can get their fuel more efficiently.

So, after a few weeks, you'll be more or less adapted to the heat. And the real bonus comes in the fall, when your body is all geared up for heat, and the temps fall. It's like having a jet engine in your butt!

Sin #3, Hubris - I spent most of Saturday, the day before the race, resting and drinking lots of water.

Just kidding! I spent Saturday representing my company and many friends in the Pride parade in Indianapolis, and then hanging out at the festival after. It was super fun, but it left me dehydrated and leg weary.

The course for this race was well configured to punish me for all of these sins. The two-loop course was demoralizing...  coming through a hard section on the first loop, you knew you'd have to face it again with another 6 miles on your legs.

About a third of the loop was in bright sunshine. That same third had the toughest hills. That's a one-two punch that is bad enough to face once. Twice is just no fun at all.

Another third of the loop was flat rail-trail with shade. That came as a welcome respite... just enough to make me think that the second loop wouldn't kill me.

The rest was a little rolly, a little sunny, somewhere between the extremes of the other thirds.

The first loop was reasonable, but slow. The second loop started pretty positively, but that didn't last long.

I managed 9.5 miles before the wheels fell off.

This wasn't a mental break, or lack of toughness. Oh, for sure, I've had plenty of those. But this was a problem of physiology. My body wasn't ready for this race, these conditions, and it was throwing in the towel.

So, against every command from my brain, my body decided we were going to walk.

We were in the bright sun, past the worst  of the hills, but my systems were all in the red zone. I knew that if I didn't listen to my body, I was going to turn a slow day into a very bad day. So, walk I did.

To my great surprise and relief, a good friend was along the course spectating with his family. (Apparently there isn't much to do in Zionsville on a Sunday morning.) He gave me a bottle of water, a bottle of water that I desperately needed. Did I mention that the water stops were handing out water in those tiny Dixie cups that could pass as thimbles?

I drank the water, made it to the shade, and after about 2 miles of walk-jog that was mostly walk, I recovered enough to cruise it in.

Slowest. Half. Ever... at least for me.

At the finish, I was a mess. Hand on knees, sweating but cold, not thinking or talking very well.

Thankfully, Jeni, my GF, was there at the finish. She tended to me, fetched me water, held my banana (hey now... I mean an actual banana). She knew when not to ask me questions... let me stop mid-babble without asking if I was ok... found me some salt... and generally kept me company. Without here I probably would have found a shady corner to cry in.

After maybe 45 minutes, I was ok enough to head home.

So, lessons learned... re-learned, like we so often have to do.

  • You need to stay hydrated, so if they are giving you water an ounce at a time, stop and drink a few.
  • Acclimate to the conditions you live in. Be patient and let your body adjust.
  • You should probably run a few training runs before a half-marathon.
  • Find yourself someone awesome to keep you safe if/when you forget these lessons.
Half way through the year. I hope these get easier, like the miles seem a little easier after you're past halfway in a race... unless you bonk.

Next up for July, Rock-n-Roll Half in Chicago. I promise I will get some runs in, runs in the sun.

One good thing, if I'd fallen over upside-down,
my number would have been the same.

If you'd like to catch up on the year in halfs so far, here are links:
  1. Jan: runDisney StarWars half at Disneyland
  2. Feb: Gasparilla Half in Tampa FL
  3. Mar: Sam Costa Half in Carmel IN
  4. Apr: Carmel Half in Carmel IN
  5. May: Geist Half in Fishers IN
Good Running!

Monday, May 29, 2017

May Half: Geist Half-marathon

For number 5 in my half-marathon-a-month quest, I selected the 10th Geist Half-Marathon in Noblesville, IN, completing the Hamilton Country Trifecta that I just made up (Sam Costa, Carmel, Geist).

"Why Geist?" you may ask. "Why not the Mini*?"

I've done the mini... so many times. I'd never done Geist.

Besides, Geist was on my birthday!

So began a series of poor decisions that led to my second slowest half so far this year.

Running a half on my birthday really did seem like a good idea, a great way to celebrate a life well lived, and to kick-off yet another great year.

Problem was, I didn't think it through.

Had I thought it through I would have realized that to run this particular half on my birthday, I would have to get up up at 5:30am... on my birthday.

So I signed up. And I got up. At 5:30. That was after staying up, playing Mario Cart, waiting for my son to get off work... you know, the usual way to kick off a birthday weekend.

Once up, though seriously too soon, I slipped into my race duds, pulled on my shoes, and lumbered out the door for the 30 minute drive to the race.

Parking for Geist is, uhm... how can I put this delicately?... a pain in the ass.

There's zero parking near the start. As I got into the area, with cars darting all over the place looking for a spot, I dove into the first open place I saw.

As I got out, and pinned on my number, I looked around for some sign of the start. There wasn't one, nothing, other than a thin stream of people in shorts all walking in the same direction, like ants to some unseen discarded apple core.

Turned out to be just under a mile, a chilly, overcast, windy mile, from the start. Great conditions for running, not so great for walking, especially when dressed for, you know, a run.

Having joined the parade, trekking to where I had to assume the start was, I saw dozens of parking spots WAY closer than a mile from the start. I didn't so much mind the walk, that walk, but it filled me with a bit of dread thinking about walking all this way back after the race, sweaty, cold, and tired.

With the start finally in sight, I thought it'd be good to jog a bit, get the blood flowing.

The first step of that jog made it was clear I'd made yet another poor decision, this one 2 days earlier.

While in Palo Alto for work, I got to cover one of the classic Silicon Valley running routes, the Stanford Radio Telescope loop, and by loop, I mean steep, punishing, long climb and brutal descent. My quads, and my glutes, were fried after the run, and not much better this race morning.

Stanford Radio Telescope, and me. I'm on the right
Immediately, seriously... at that very moment, I knew that running under 2 hours on this hilly (for Central Indiana) course, was not gonna happen. I did not have the legs for it. Those legs were back in Palo Alto.

And I was ok with that... I would easily trade a meaningless goal for an epic, gorgeous run, any time.

View of Palo Alto from the tippy top.
So it was clear... this race was not gonna be a race, it was gonna be a training run. Cool by me.

One thing I did get right was fluids. I drank a good amount of water on the way to the race, so I was topped off. Actually a bit overflowing. So I had to hit the "Blue Brigade"... the row of porta-potties. A short line, quick whiz, and I was set.

I found my corral, tried to stretched my quads. They laughed at me. Before I knew it the race was on.

About a mile in, I realized the last, and perhaps my biggest mistake in preparing for this race.

Those paying very close attention may know what that mistake was. Here are a couple hints:
- I woke up at 5:30a, threw on my clothes and left...
- I popped into the porta-john for a quick whiz...

See anything missing?...

It was very apparent at mile uno that I should have taken time for a "numero dos".

I had 12.1 miles head of me with lots of rolling hills, and just as much cheek clinching. "At least it would be a good glute workout", I thought.

The course was lovely... rolling, scenic, with 4 crossings of the Geist Reservoir. And so many beautiful homes.

Trudging up one hill there was a gorgeous stone house, big without looking huge, perfect lawn and landscaping. "I wonder what kind of people live in a house like this", I thought to myself. And then, there they were... the family, who lives there, in their driveway, cheering us on. Turns out, the kind of people who live there are portly and not terribly attractive, but very supportive. Damn nice house, too.

Throughout the race, my fellow runners were quiet. Like really quiet. Back in the old days when I was fast, it was quiet, panting not chatting. But now that I'm further back in the pack, I've grown accustomed to a little small talk. Not today. Maybe it was the hills.

Despite my poor training, ridiculous run just 2 days before, and extra ballast on board, I was running smooth and consistent. My splits: 5K 9:22 pace, 10K 9:22, 10-mile 9:24

With the last hills behind me, stepping onto the last bridge, the finish in sight - not super close, but in sight - I cruised in, feeling pretty damn good. I smiled for a photographer, flashing him a 5 on one hand a 2 on the other... 52 and running (reasonably) strong!

Flashing 52 at the finish.
Turns out, I thought, it was a great way to start my birthday.

Finishing in 2:02:44, average pace 9:23, it wasn't a great race. But it was a pretty damn good training run, so I'll take it.

But, there was one last poor decision about to become apparent... after getting my medal, banana, and water. My biggest mistake was leaving my ID and cash in my car, a good mile walk from the beer tent.

Next up, Zionsville Half... a 2-lapper. Should be interesting. Hopefully I'll get up a couple minutes earlier to accommodate my "system".

Nice medal, sailboats on the ribbon.
If you'd like to catch up on the year in halfs so far, here are links:
  1. Jan: runDisney StarWars half at Disneyland
  2. Feb: Gasparilla Half in Tampa FL
  3. Mar: Sam Costa Half in Carmel IN
  4. Apr: Carmel Half in Carmel IN
Good running,

* The Mini, for those not from Central Indiana, is the 500 Festival Mini-marathon, at one time the largest half in the country.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

April Half: Carmel Half-marathon

You: Why on earth did you pick a half marathon in Carmel Indiana of all places for the April slot in your nutty 2017 Half-a-Month quest?

Me: Didn't you hear? Carmel Indiana was just declared the Best place to live in America.

You: Bullshit.

Me: No seriously... click that link up there. Or this one.

You: What the hell is And how much did Carmel pay

Me: Wow... you're cranky today.

Besides, Carmel Half Marathon (run in conjunction with the equally great Carmel Marathon) is a fantastic event. It has a big-time race experience but in a small town.

And not just any town... my town. The course wraps around my neighborhood.

And even better, I walked to the start... in 7 minutes. How often do you get to have a start and finish a race just a short walk from your front door? Some people walked farther that I did just to get to their car, and still had to drive home.

The day was perfect... 40s at the start (and finish), overcast, light winds. I just doesn't get any better.

And the course is a nice one... rolling, flowing. The kind of course that, unlike last month's course, let's you find a groove and cruise. When that happens, when things are feeling better, just generally going better, when you aren't full of dread of the hundred tight turns to come, your mind can wonder. And that can be entertaining.

In the first couple miles, I invented toss-a-way long sleeve shirts for those races, like this one, when it's a little chilly standing around the start, and for the first mile or two. You'd pick one up at the expo for $3, wear it until you got warm enough, and then toss it to the side of the course. Later, the vendor could sweep the course, retrieve the shirts, and donate them.

By mile four I realized that that is what old race shirts are for... but still, the gears were turning!

A little later I came up behind a guy wearing a shirt he got from the expo, one that has every runner who entered the race printed on the back.

I asked him if he'd mind holding still for a minute so I could find my name.

He didn't think that was nearly as funny as I did. Like not at all. I guess he wasn't having as good of a day as I was.

When I got to the 8-mile mark, I was on very familiar ground. I'd run this part of the course, the last 5 miles of the half, a few times already this season for training. The last time, just 2 weeks before the race, it didn't go so well. In fact, it was pretty much a disaster.

That day, for the first time since September, I aborted a training run. And for no good reason. I just quit. I wasn't feeling particularly bad, nothing hurt, and I wasn't sick. I just failed mentally.

My brain, actually my mind, not my brain, just shut the whole thing down.

It wasn't a good day.

But race day was.

I felt way better at mile 8 than I did at any time during that aborted training run. In fact, I was having fun!

Looking pretty happy on the
trail between miles 8 and 9

A short time after, as I was scaling the longest hill* on the course, a quote, from a corporate wellness program of all things, came to mind:
Exercise should be a celebration of what your body can do, not punishment for what you ate.
That started a new train of thoughts...

No shit! Look what my body can do! Sure, I'm not as fast as I used to be, but this bag of water and protein has been kicking around this rock for half a century, and it can still cruise a half marathon... a half marathon every damn month. Pretty remarkable!

Then I thought how ironic it would be if I'd dropped dead right then.

And how sad it would be that only I'd get the joke.

Up that last "hill", just passed 11 miles, I passed a woman. Her phone rang, or sang, some pop tune. As she fumbled for it in her little gear pouch, I semi-scolded her, "Don't you dare answer that, you're kinda busy."

"It might be a cheerer-onner", she said.

After a few more seconds of probing her pouch, slowing, but not breaking stride, she found the wailing little thing, "Nope. Uhg! I don't even recognize the number... and I broke a damn nail."

Just past the Fountain Round-a-Bout

We passed 12 miles on Main street. I don't if I subconsciously read it on a sign board or if it simply popped into my oxygen-deprived brain, but I started to wonder why "Quesadilla" wasn't spanish for "What's the deal?"

Then, the last turn, and the finish. 1:56:15

I've been faster, way faster, back in the day, but it's been a while. And, I haven't had that much fun in a half for a long time.

The finish area was filled with, and I promise I am not making this up, teen beauty contests. With sashes!

They were cold, but they were cheery, and smiling, and genuinely nice. Only in Carmel, IN... best place to live in America!

I got a really nice medal from one pageant teen, a space blanket from another, and from another a serious bounty in an easy to carry, pre-packed goodie bag. Perfect for a fumble-free, short walk home.

Nice haul from the goodie bag

But, before I walked home, I hung out at the finish line for a bit to watch other finishers. My favorite was Janice. It was Janice's 100th half-marathon. She had a support crew, some on the sidelines and some running by her side as she trotted in, arms raised, fists pumping, with a smile that warmed the whole finish shoot.

"Look what her body can do!", I thought, "Celebrate that shit, Janice!"

You: Good for her! That's pretty awesome. Are you gonna do 100 halfs?

Me: Easy cowboy... one quest at a time. Next month, Geist Half-marathon.

If you'd like to catch up on the year in halfs so far, here are links:

  1. Jan: runDisney StarWars half at Disneyland
  2. Feb: Gasparilla Half in Tampa FL
  3. Mar: Sam Costa Half in Carmel IN
Good running,

*Carmel Indiana doesn't have any real hills. We flat-landers call any incline more than a degree or two a "hill".

Friday, March 31, 2017

March Half: Sam Costa

If you like the twists and turns of running on suburban neighborhood streets, you'd love the Sam Costa Half... and, there is something seriously wrong with you.

For my March half, 3rd of twelve planned for the year, I chose one close to home, and dear to my local running community: The 48th Sam Costa Half Marathon.

This race has been around for ever, a staple of Central Indiana running. It's named in memory of a Chicago Police Department detective who used to drive 200 miles to train with his Carmel, IN based running buddies. (You can read a more complete history here.)

The Costa is well run, has a nice local feel, is not too big, and not too small. Big enough that you feel like you're running a half marathon, small enough you can find a parking spot 20 minutes before the start.

Given that the race is traditionally late winter or early spring, the weather can be hit or miss, but this year, it was 50-ish, and the threatened rain never showed.

The only thing not great about the Sam Costa... is the course.

(Click to see the course in a new window.)

The course makes extensive use of nearby (lovely) neighborhoods. The first 3 miles is typical Indiana suburbia with lots of tight turns, some "multi-use trail", which is essentially a double-wide asphalt sidewalk, and some short stretches of decent road. With just 470 finishers, it wasn't crowded, but negotiating the turns and the transitions from trail to street and back kept you on your toes.

Miles 3 through 8 are the only miles not in suburbia. There were some decent stretches where you could get into a groove. Unfortunately, this year, those stretches seemed to always be dead into the wind. The northern most extent of the course was especially brutal... a long, straight, rolling beat into a stiff wind on a road frequented by gravel trucks and the accompanying ultra-fine dust sand-blasting your eyeballs.

From mile 8 to the finish, it was all twisty, turny neighborhood streets.  I felt like I was constantly turning, or preparing to turn.

On tired legs, 5 miles from the finish, you don't want to think about tangents and curbs and manholes and sewer inlets... you want your mind to drift off to a happy place, you want to fall into a groove and let those miles pass.

It might not seem like a big deal, but with every change in direction, you lose forward momentum. I'm not making that up, it's physics. And with every turn you have to work to regain that lost momentum. And there were so... many... turns.

Somewhere between miles 9 and 11, I questioned why on earth I'm running these stupid half marathons. I was not having fun.

Eventually we popped out of one of the anonymous neighborhoods into the street that lead to the church, the church perched high on a hill, the same hill where the finish line was. Finally, the end was imaginable.

Coming toward me, taking the course the wrong way, presumably on a cool down (uhg, I hate it when people trot by on their cool down when I haven't finished yet, especially when they are young, and thin, and have great hair), was a young man who urged me on, "looking good, just 200 meters".

I wished I'd stopped right there, turned around, and officially declared bullshit, right to his face. We were AT LEAST 600 meters out. Probably 800. This young, fast, thin dude with great hair was either being WAY too patronizing to those of us still running, thinking somehow that if we thought we were only 200m out  it was going to keep us from quitting. Or, maybe he was EXCEPTIONALLY bad at judging distance. Or perhaps both. To survive what must have been 23,000 turns and sand-blasted retinas only to be insulted and/or unfathomably misled by all that hair... it was just too much.

Fueled by self-righteous disdain I trudged up the stupid twisty (of course) hill to the stupid church parking lot and crossed the stupid finish line: 1:59:33. Again, inconsequentially under 2 stupid hours.

And then... I started to dry heave.

I was dry heaving as if it were the second phase of some disturbing duathlon, one in which I'd given up A LOT of ground in the 13 mile run leg and was determined to make it all up in the dry heave leg.

I haven't horked up nothing like this is ages. No idea why, but it was happening, and it was happening violently. So much so that twice... in two separate heaving episodes times just a few seconds apart... I was pretty sure I was going to pass out, because, you know, I was vomiting air, not inhaling it. This was some serious heaving.

Eventually, miraculously, it stopped... the tunnel vision cleared... I was ok to walk. I forced down a banana and a cookie, got my medal, and drove just 10 minutes home.

I love the idea of the Sam Costa. It's local running at its best. It's inexpensive, it's close to my home, the people are fantastic, the hosting church is a perfect venue, and hell, they even have actual Gatorade at the water stops. I'm glad I ran it again. But it'll be awhile before I'm back. I'll have to be in the kind of shape where I'm not counting miles-to-go in my head, when I can just run, and flow carelessly around all those stupid corners.

Next up, Carmel Half.

If you'd like to catch up on the year in halfs so far, here are links:

  1. Jan: runDisney StarWars half at Disneyland
  2. Feb: Gasparilla Half in Tampa FL
Good running,

Thursday, March 2, 2017

February Half: Gasparilla in Tampa

The take-away from half-marathon 2 of 12 for the year, the Gasparilla Half Marathon in Tampa: Mile markers are big fat liars. Always.

6,482 humans joined me in the dark early morning for the 6am start, wandering the streets of downtown Tampa, toward the starting line. And, is usually the case around a bunch of runners, these were super nice humans… everyone I saw was happy and cheerful and glad to be awake and walking around in the dark.
Sleepy? Maybe a little hungover?
The real question is why were the
photogs taking pictures this early

When the audio for the national anthem failed, the participants, unprompted, totally organically, started singing the anthem a cappella. It was NOT a particularly beautiful rendition, especially at that super high “rocket's red glare” bit, but insanely cool nonetheless. That’s the kind of people I was hanging around with. In the dark.

Once started, I could tell I was going out a bit fast. I was within myself, but it sure felt like I was going out a bit too fast.

Maybe it’s just me, but have you ever noticed that running in the dark feels A LOT faster than it really is? When my GPS blipped the Mile 1 alarm, I was WAY slow. S’ok, I thought, no worries… first mile is always a little wonky. Mile 2 will be better.

But it wasn’t. Still slow.

It was a little crowded. It was dark, really dark, like can’t-see-the-road-under-your-feet dark in some places. I’d flown in just the afternoon before, had a few margarita’s the night before. All or any of those could be slowing me down. Or maybe it just wasn’t my best day.

I saw the GF, who braved chilly* winds to watch for me at the only spot that had any spectators to speak of, just after the 5-mile mark. While collecting my high-five from her, and told her “I’m slow today.”

By then I was pretty much resigned to the fact that I wasn’t going to run under 2-hours (my soft-goal for these races this year). Just not my day. I settled into a groove and tried to enjoy the scenery.

With some fuzzy recall of the course map and a little math, I realized that the rest of the race was 4 miles out, 4 miles back. I’m not a fan of out and back, but this one, along Bayshore, which (no surprise) was along the shore, of the bay, was gorgeous, especially at sunrise.

I saw Meb Keflezighi, US distance stud and 2004 Olympic Marathon silver medalist fly by, heading the other way on the back side of the out-and-back, in 3rd place. I yelled “Go Meb”, but he didn’t seem to notice. He did continue to go, though, so, who knows.

Key revelation: I’d hit every water stop up to 8 miles, and there had been a water stop pretty much every mile. If I kept this up, I was definitely going to pee my pants.

After the U-turn at 9 miles, I started back with the math, counting back from 2-hours, dividing my miles left. And, critically, I started doubting my GPS, which seemed to always think it was at a mile mark before the mile marker.

Ok, I know… mile markers are notoriously inaccurate, but these weren’t just dropped off from a truck that morning. There were lines painted on the street. Real lines, with labels. It REALLY looked like someone had actually measured this time, taken care to be accurate.

Plus, there have been plenty of times when my GPS watch has gone off the rails, seeming to be way long, or way short. (I usually blame it on a satellite signal bounce off a building.)

So, I started discounting the mile-by-mile alerts from the GPS and focusing on the markers. As you'll see, not my smartest move. Maybe it was the margaritas...

This lady did NOT want my photo taken

Those mile markers were telling me consistently that I wasn’t going to beat 2hrs . At 9 miles. And at 10 miles. And 11. I was running a decent pace, but I wasn’t going to make up the time I’d lost in those first few miles without pressing the pace.

And, I just wasn’t going to press. I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t, not until I was strong enough to survive a “race” without injury. So, I cruised.

The scenery got even better on the return leg as the city was in view across the bay, and more importantly, was getting closer.

A little more math, because what else did I have to do, and I figured that if I was at mile 12 with 10 minutes to spare, I’d have a chance.

Mile 12 marker came... nope, 30 seconds over. Oh well… now I know for sure.

So, I just kept cruising, feeling just a little superior for not getting sucked into racing to a time.

Mile 13 marker: 1:59:00

Wait, what?!? I had a minute to cover 1/10th of a mile. How can that be?

Easy… Mile markers are big fat liars. Always.

I picked up the pace just a touch. Barely pressing, just a tad, for the last 60 seconds.

Checked the watch about half way… no problem… three quarters… yep, I can even back off a bit…

Don't you hate when they
get you checking your watch?

At the line I stopped my watch…. 1:59:58...

You’d think I’d thrust a fist into the air in triumph, right? After all, I’d just pulled "victory" from the clutches of defeat.

Nope, no fist in the air, not even a fist pump, nor a self-congratulatory "yes"... I started to laugh. I’m not talking a little chuckle to myself, I laughed out loud. People heard me. People looked at me.

I suppose I should have been thrilled, but I just wasn’t. Why?

Because in that exact moment it was clear to me how ridiculous that time was.

I beat 2 hours, my cruise-pace, minimum soft-goal, by 2 seconds.

Big fucking deal.

Don’t get me wrong… there are time barriers that are super important to us, that take us out of our comfort zones, that push us to new levels of fitness and confidence. For many, finishing a half in 2 hours is a huge accomplishment, and I get that.

People train hard and race hard to meet times, and that’s important to them. But let’s be real here… that’s not what this was. This was a cruise, and bad mile markers, and a slight change of pace over 58 seconds. For what? What does 2 seconds, over 2 hrs, finishing in the middle of the pack, mean?

If I’d finished in 2:00:02, would that have been any different? Really? Would it have been easier? Would I be less sore the next day?

If I’d had one less margarita on Saturday night, would I have run 1:59:56? Would that have felt different?

If someone had stumbled and I’d stopped to help, would a 2:00:15 be a bad result?

Race times are interesting, and, when looked at with a firm fuzzy-vision-inducing squint, can give you a rough idea as to how you are progressing, but let’s not obsess. Plus or minus two seconds, ten seconds, 30 seconds, over 13 miles, they’re all pretty much the same thing.

Post race snacks were plentiful. The GF walked me back to the room. We went to the post-race party, scarfed some BBQ. There were maybe 15 people there. I’m sure it filled out, but we had a beach, and more margaritas, to get to.

Next up, an oldie but a goodie, and close to home, the Sam Costa Half.

If you'd like to catch up on the year in halfs so far, here are links:

  1. Jan: runDisney StarWars half at Disneyland
Good running,

*”Chilly” is relative… it was way colder in Indiana

Indy top, Tampa bottom... duh...

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

January Half: runDisney and Star Wars

RunDisney may be a cult. That may not be a bad thing, but it definitely may be a thing.

StarWars? Definitely a cult. My membership card says so, right on the back.*

For those unaware, runDisney organizes several Disney themed events, often entire weekends, all focused on running. It brings many, and by “many” I mean metric shit loads, of people to Disney properties for various runs, all of which include running within the Disney parks for some of the race.

I chose, for my first of 12 half-marathons in 2017, the StarWars Half Marathon - The Light Side at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA. I wanted 1) a big event to kick off my year and 2) a race that  I could get excited about, and would stay excited about, as I trained for my first half in years.

I certainly got a race I could be excited about. Being a typical, almost trite example of a StarWars fan, I loved the theme. And, thanks to the custom of costumes in RunDisney events, I got to pretend to be Luke Skywalker, in training on Dagobah, with Yoda. In public.

"Uncanny" is the word you're looking for, pretty sure.

I also got a big event. The half on Sunday had 12,400 finishers. The weekend also included a 5K on Friday and a Saturday 10K as well as the “Rebel’s Challenge”, which requires runners to complete the 10K and the Half. For this accomplishment, they get a special medal, along with medals from the individual races. And that might be where the problems start...

Before I get too philosophical, let me state straight up… the StarWars Half-Marathon was a great event. There were some Disney touches, Disney moments that I’d just never get anywhere else.

The expo was decent sized with the usual suspects of vendors selling an equal mix of necessities and crappy gizmos, and there was an equal-sized Disney/StarWars area, complete with an official merchandise store that itself had managed, minded, down-and back-and-down again Disney-style queues, marked with masking tape on the floor, going in (to manage how many people were in the official merchandise area), and coming out (so you could wait in line to pay for your official merchandise).

The race-custom bib came with pins, of course… 4 pins… in their own tiny zip-lock bag. Somewhere there was a room full of people sealing up exactly 4 safety pins into individual zip-lock bags. Super nice, though wholly unnecessary, touch. But runDisney doesn’t shy away from unnecessary touches.
Bib, with the zip-lock bag with exactly 4 pins.

On race morning, I walked from my lovely, though a bit farther away than I’d thought, AirBnB to the race, costumed up like a boss...

Starting in Corral J, the last, and largest corral, coupled with use of wave starts, my race didn’t actually start until 6:30. So I wasn’t in a big hurry to get to the race right at the scheduled 5:30 start. When I got on Disney property, I was practically alone, looking a little lost most of the time. At one point, a Disney cast member directed me “Right this way Master Skywalker”.

(long awkward pause while your blogger composes himself)

That was a moment… it raised goosebumps on my arms, sent a tingle down my spine. Go ahead, call me a dork, I don’t care. It was awesome. But that’s what Disney does. They give you those moments, moments that take you out of your normal life, just for a second, and into a magical life. And you kinda love them for it. They’re pretty brilliant that way.

I turned to look back at the cast member after getting my shit together, “Hey man, thanks. And you can call me Luke.”

Anything Disney generally means lots and lots of people, and that leads to people management. RunDisney has a very strict policy toward corral assignment (which seeing the number of people running, and how narrow the course is in the park, I totally get), and, this being my first race longer than 5K in many months, I didn’t have a qualifying “seeding” race. So, that “J” on my bib meant I had to start at the back... the way back… the back of the bus… the back of the last bus kind of back, of lots of lots of people. (Picture to right is from the front of Corral J which vanishes in the distance.) Still, it was a gorgeous morning in southern California with a mass of StarWars geeks and runners… my kinda people.

After a good half-mile walk, I had plenty of opportunity to get to know my corral-mates. The vast majority of people in Corral J were young (20s), lots of couples, lots of family groups, well over half in costume. These folks weren’t the normal last corral people who would be walking the 13.1 miles, perhaps stopping for a coffee along the race course. Most of these were people like me who didn’t have a seed time.
Yoda was pretty chill in Corral J.

Disney rarely leaves you bored, and, as nature abhors a vacuum, Disney abhors silence. The hour until my start passed quickly thanks to the video screens and constant narration/interviews/hype-you-up talk from a couple of MCs. And as every wave took off, it was to the StarWars fanfare. Can you hear the StarWars fanfare too many times? For me, no... It made me smile every time.

Short video of the show before Corral J start

The start was, unsurprisingly, crowded. The route went almost immediately into the park, where the course was narrow. As we wound this way and that, I dodged scores of walkers. There was one group of 5-7 girls who thought it would be a good idea to walk side-by-side holding hands, I guess so they wouldn’t lose each other.  I suppose it worked, but they created a monstrous traffic jam behind them.

The first 4.5 miles was in and around the parks, often behind the scenes (“back stage”). The first real park scene we saw was the spectacular Cars venue Radiator Springs, in California Adventure. The perfectly scaled faux red rock with the backdrop of a just-blue sky from a not-quite-risen sun, was gorgeous. I knew it was fake, but still… it was jaw-dropping.

Radiotor Springs

The rest of the park section was ok. Super crowded, super slow. Lots of convenient restrooms was a huge bonus to which I availed myself (It was a long wait, after all). At several points I passed runners that had stopped and queued up to get a photo taken with a character. You don’t get that a other races. I’ve seen people stop for photos during races… “Yard of Bricks” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Mini, one popular example, but waiting in line… during a race?!? Only at Disney. Oh, and super bonus... I managed to fake out the course marshals to snag a fountain, in Disneyland, during the race!
Mickey's Fountain in Toontown

Exiting the park, it was like any other big city race. City streets blocked off, masses of people moving along them. I was able to speed up a bit, but there seemed to always be people to dodge. And the crowd was quiet… to quiet. I’ve spent time at the back of the pack in large races before, and found lots of chatter and laughs and fun people there. Not this day, though. Not sure why.

My favorite bit of entertainment along the course was a group of Cos-players, people in serious costumes (think Comic-Con) lining the course at about the 8-mile mark. There were a couple dozen Stormtroopers, rebel pilots, a Darth Vader, some Jedi, and a couple cars that had been decked out to look like X-wing fighters.

Once back on Disney property, the finish line was way better than average, and the last quarter-mile or so was again scored by the StarWars theme. Still wasn’t sick of it. At the finish you got your insanely high-quality medal, water, Powerade, and another first for me, an individual, sealed snack box. Somewhere there was a room full of people, mayube next to the room with the safety pin people, packing and sealing an ass-load of snack boxes with excellent post-run snacks.

The post-race entertainment consisting of long lines for more photo ops, and a screen showing the finish line cam, I opted for an early exit, only to find myself having been funneled to the entrance to the parks. Again, Disney is NOT stupid.
I gave Yoda the medal... he earned it.
Back on track, exiting the Disney properties, I heard someone say “Congratulations, Luke!” Glancing over my shoulder, I recognized that that had come from the same cast member who’d made my day by calling me “Master Skywalker” a few hours earlier. Again, Disney deals in moments… moments that make you feel connected, moments that you remember, “magical moments” I would imagine they call them.

It took me a good 15 minutes to find my way back out and on a course to my AirBnB. A shower, and a walk back to the park, and I was happy to pay $119 for a day at Disney. What I didn’t know was that it was a “peak” day at Disney, in no small part thanks to the aforementioned ass-load of runners. The park was packed, claustrophobic at times. Between 11:30a and 5:30p, I made it to 4 rides. I’d hoped to grab some dinner and a beer (celebrating a post-race drinkation from Dryuary), but every restaurant had a long line, every bar was standing room only. With 2 Fast-passes in hand for 9:30p, knowing that, as tired as I was, I’d have no chance making it that late, I walked back to the AirBnB, a little less happy that I’d paid $119… for 4 rides.

Still, a great first half for the year. Disney doesn't mess around. They don’t screw up. But, you pay for all of that attention to detail, maybe more than it’s worth. The registration for the half, including all fees) was $197.21… for a half-marathon. The most expensive half I’ve ever seen, by a factor of 2x. On top of that was air, lodging, food. (Just FYI, my AirBnB, a lovely private suite, was $80/night. I don’t think you can get towels for that in a Disney property hotel).

So... back to runDisney.

These folks put on great events. Unique events that offer experiences you can’t get anywhere else. These events, coupled with the millions of Disney fans, attract countless new runners to our community. But at a tremendous price, monetary and perhaps physically.

RunDisney, like the rest of Disney, is fantastic at creating demand out of thin air. They create a sense of “must have” like no one else. For runDisney, they offer challenges that pair- or triple- or quad-up events. By registering for and completing challenges, you get additional, special medals.

These medals are the “crack” that runDisney deals.

2016 StarWars Half Light Side medals
Early registration for next year’s StarWars half (before fees and taxes) is $185. The 10K is $120. The aforementioned Rebel Challenge, which includes both the half and the 10K, is $330. You pay an ADDITIONAL $25 to complete in two events. I’ve been racing a long time, and I’ve never seen fees higher for combined events than when priced separately. The medal is nice, but not worth $25. And this is the tip of the iceberg.

There is a Coast-to-Coast medal for people who run events in Florida and California, and a special Kessel Run medal (a badass Millennium Falcon) for those who run both StarWars halfs (Light Side and Dark Side), again, in Florida and California. At Disney World there’s the Goofy (Half and Full marathon back-to-back) for $360 and the Dopey (5K, 10K, half, full on consecutive days) for $500. Let that sink in… $500 in race fees is a busy year’s worth of races. (Note also that these events have full sponsorship, meaning more money in the runDisney cash drawer)

2017 Disney Marathon Weekend early registration fees.

People are doing these. People are paying these fees. I saw lots of people wearing multiple medals. And, as these events span nights, many people are spending nights in (expensive) Disney resorts. Again, Disney's really good at generating revenue.

But, there's also this... in the short time I hung around the finish area after the 10K, I saw several people with Rebel Challenge bibs walking with ice on both knees. These same people were very likely on the starting line for the half the next day. They had no business running a half if they were icing knees the day before. They were being driven by a challenge they weren’t prepared for, and by a reward that they were overcharged for, but felt compelled to possess. Disney casts a spell, creates a desire to possess, regardless of cost, like no one else.

I love that runDisney has brought more people into our running community.

I don’t like that they charge insane prices for these events, but they have LOTS of people paying those prices, so who am I to judge them, or begrudge their success.

More importantly, though, I don’t like that runDisney lures these newbie runners into events that could be harmful to their running career. These new runners are entranced by the bling, thanks to the Disney spell, but they don’t know that they aren’t prepared for the challenges.

RunDisney isn’t going anywhere, it’s way too successful, and, frankly, it's doing way more good than ill for our community of runners. Still, a little advice...

To those new runners who have started with runDisney... first, welcome! We're glad to have you as a part of our community. Second, I ask you to run (and volunteer at) some races in your area. Experience the “magic” of your local running community. Further, consider running challenges with great caution. Remember, you get to run in the parks even if you only run one event. And sound knees, and hips, and feet are way more valuable than any medal.

To runDisney, thank you for expanding our running community, but please do so responsibly. I ask that you post cautionary warnings on challenges with recommended weekly training mileage minimums and training programs specific for the challenges. And if a medic is putting ice on a challenge runner’s knees, maybe they advise them to sit out the rest of the challenge.

And, runDisney, as a member of our community, I’d love to see you give back to it. It would be great if you would donate a reasonable portion of your more than ample proceeds to youth running programs, like Girls On The Run. Donating to Back on My Feet, and other running related non-profits would be a nice move, too. Or better yet, use some Disney magic to create a Disney youth running foundation that takes running programs into underserved neighborhoods.

Finally, to not-so-new members of our running community, give runDisney a shot, once. It’s expensive. It’s crowded. It’s fun. It’s extremely well run. And it’ll be the highest quality medal in your collection. But, don’t get addicted to the crack. It’s still just a race. Oh, and be damn sure to have a seed time.

Next up, Gasparilla in Tampa, FL.

Good running,

* In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a Star Wars fanboy. I am not a Disney fan, but not a hater either. I get what they do, it's just not something that gets me excited, or even interested, really. Nothing against Disney, or Disney fans... props to The Mouse.