Tuesday, May 15, 2012

One Half Goofy, Amazing Race Weekend (Part II)

(This is the second of my two-part racing recap from May 5th-6th when I did the Cap City Quarter Marathon and the Pittsburgh Half Marathon on back-to-back days - my own unofficial two-state, half Goofy Challenge)

With the Cap City Quarter Marathon just a few hours behind me, it was time to continue a whirlwind weekend adventure that rivaled anything my favorite reality show "The Amazing Race" could throw at me. As soon as I dropped my wife, Carla, and my daughter, Ashley, off at the house and took a quick shower, I had just enough time to grab the essentials for a quick overnight trip to Pittsburgh for my second race of the weekend. Fortunately, my dad had volunteered to drive me there, so we headed out in the car with the GPS telling us we were going to be cutting it really close to make the 6 p.m. packet pick-up deadline.

As we drove across eastern Ohio, a brief bit of West Virginia, and then into western Pennsylvania, I thought back two months earlier about how entering the Pittsburgh half marathon even came about for me. I had always heard good things about the race, but I had never seriously thought about trying to do it. Then, back in March, I was in Orlando with the MVNU baseball team waiting to fly back to Ohio from the team's annual spring trip. As I scrolled through my Twitter feed, I noticed a message from the Pittsburgh Marathon account that one of my tweeps, Nikki Conroy, had retweeted saying that you could win a free entry if you tweeted a picture of your Toyota (one of the race sponsors). Well, we had just purchased a new Toyota RAV4 in December and I had a picture on my phone and so I tweeted my entry back to them just before boarding the plane to fly back to Ohio.

To be honest, I forgot about the tweet and the contest as I slept most of that flight home and was looking forward to seeing my family after being gone for over a week. You can imagine my surprise when I turned my phone on after we landed and started checking messages that had come in while we were traveling and found this one:

Needless to say, I had to do some quick searching on the internet to see when the race even was and then began to plan ways to make it happen. I thought at first about trying to do the full marathon despite doing a full two weeks earlier, but then after much thought and listening to the advice of some of my running friends I decided to do the half so that I could race it and try my very best. So, I signed up and then started to find out more about the race as I looked forward to this new adventure.

Fast forward back to the car ride to the expo to pick up my race stuff on Saturday evening and time was really starting to be close. As we got within 15 miles of downtown, traffic was really picking up as the Pirates were hosting the Reds that night with a 7 p.m. game. I got more and more nervous that we might not get to the expo in time and that I might not be able to run the race as a legit runner since there was no race day packet pick-up. I began to tweet at the Pittsburgh Marathon account in hopes that someone would take mercy on me and wait around a couple of extra minutes, and my friend Nicki saw my tweets and did too.

We got to within a block of the convention center where the expo was being held and I could see people with packets walking towards me. We were down to just a couple of minutes left until 6 p.m. and we were still moving slowly in traffic. I told my dad to just circle the block and that I would call him to find him, and then I darted out the door and sprinted for the convention center. Once inside and out of breath, I quickly made my way around the expo (which was being torn down as I entered) and found all of my necessary stuff just as time ran out. Whew! I had made it! As I started back to find my dad outside, I saw that the social media person from the Pittsburgh Marathon had sent me her cell number and was working to have my stuff set aside in case I was late. I called her to say thank you and found out that she had taken time away from a dinner out to do this. Talk about great service and once again proving the power of Twitter.

With my race entry secure and since we were already downtown, I talked my dad into going to the Pirates-Reds game. PNC Park (pictured above) is a beautiful park to watch a game at and we were able to get good seats just up from third base. We watched through the bottom of the eighth inning before heading out of the stadium and cross the bridge back to our car with the plan to watch the postgame fireworks display from our parking garage and then beat the traffic out of town. The plan worked to perfection as we enjoyed an awesome display of pyrotechnics and then scurried out of town to find our hotel, the Holiday Inn Express near the airport. (Side note...the benefits of being a Priority Club member paid off on this trip as I had enough points saved up to stay for free and this was a GREAT hotel with GREAT staff that I would highly recommend for anyone staying in the area.)

After setting out all of my race gear (pictured above) for the next day and then setting my alarm AND getting a wakeup call, I called it a night in hopes of getting a little over four hours of sleep after what had been an exhausting day with another one sure to follow. I think I was asleep when my head hit the pillow and the next thing I knew the alarm was going off and it was time to get up. That may have been the best sleep I've ever had the night before a race as I usually toss and turn and toss and turn thinking about it.

Dad and I headed back downtown and parked in the same parking garage as we had figured out that it would provide one of the best routes back out of town after the race since lots of the bridges and roads were closed for the full marathon. We started walking towards the race area and explored the finish line spot and talked about our plan to meet up after the race since I wouldn't have a phone on me and there were 25,000 people doing the race. We didn't want to assume that we would see each other right as I crossed the finish line. Then, we headed to the starting corrals where we bumped into Nicki. We chatted for a few minutes and it was nice to meet her in person. We parted ways and Dad and I also said our farewells as I got ready to hop in my starting corral. First, though, I made a stop by the stage to say hi to Bart Yasso, who is one of my running heroes. It was nice to chat for a minute and he left me with the words "Run a smart race today!". I thanked him for his time and then left to get ready for the start.

As I stood in my starting corral, I realized that I had never really decided how I planned to run this race. Usually, I've spent hours thinking about every detail of a race, studying the course map and elevation guide, and talking to my friends who were running the race with me. Well, with the exception of Nicki who I had never met in person before that day, I knew no one else in the race. And, while I had looked briefly at the elevation guide and the course map, it was more to just have a basic idea of what to expect and not to plan how to race. I had always wanted to run with a pace group and I thought that this might be the perfect time to try it since I would be with them for the first 10 miles before they turned off to do the full marathon. I had attempted this once before at Columbus in the fall in my first marathon, but I abandoned the plan less than five miles into the race. This time, I was determined to stick with the group, but now I needed to decide which pace group to go with. I started out behind the 3:30 group which would yield me a 1:45 half (8:00 pace), but I decided that I needed to push it more than that since I had been training to attempt a 3:15 marathon (7:25 pace). So, I moved up a little further in the corral to the 3:20 pace group (1:40 half). As the start time got closer and closer, I talked myself into running with the 3:10 pace group (1:35 half) and inched forward once more. My thinking was that my half marathon PR was a 1:34 and change and that I could always slow things down at the end if necessary. So, I fist-bumped the guy next to me and said good luck, heard the crack of the gun, and we were off!

First let me say that while I've run a couple of big races (the Columbus Marathon and Cap City) there is nothing like starting with 25,000 people. Since I had moved up in the corral, it took me less than 30 seconds from the time the gun went off until I crossed the starting line and the race had begun! The 3:10 pace group had two guys with signs they were holding up and I kept those signs in sight. They were weaving in and out of people just a bit and I tried not to do that and just held steady as I kept following them. We hit the first mile in 6:56 and then approached mile 2 and the first water stop at 6:59.

As we approached the first water stop, Bart Yasso's words to run a smart race echoed in my head. I have also done a poor job in distance races of drinking enough fluids. In my recent Earth Day Marathon attempt, I paid the price in the second half of the race as my legs cramped up on me and that's been a consistent issue in all my other distance races. On Saturday at Cap City, I had really preached to Ashley about drinking during the race and she did a great job. I figured that it was time for me to practice what I preached, listen to Bart, and just see what happened. So, I took a cup of Gatorade and downed it and then two cups of water and did the same. (I really liked having the Gatorade first AND on both sides of the road so you had easy access and then could wash it down with water which was also on both sides of the road.)

During the third mile, we went up and over the first of what would be five bridges. The first four bridges were probably some of my favorite parts in the race. Each one was packed with people cheering us on and it was just really cool to run over them. Mile 3 came and went in 7:11 and then we dropped back down to a 6:59 for Mile 4. There were a few hills as we wound through the different streets, but the great crowds kept spurring us on. At the second water stop, I once again had one Gatorade and two waters and was feeling great.

During Mile 5, we crossed two more bridges and ran past PNC Park as it ticked off in 7:10. As we approached the water stop in Mile 6, I took a Honey Stinger gel to fuel me for the second half and then grabbed another Gatorade and two waters as I finished the mile in 7:17. We crossed another bridge in Mile 7 and I knew that I was starting to slow down just a bit as that mile was a 7:20. However, I picked things back up and caught back up to the pace group in Mile 8 as I posted a 7:11 AND passed one of the Kenyan runners who had pulled the plug on the race for some reason and was walking at that point. I continued to follow my pattern at the water stop at Mile 8 as well.

Mile 9, Mile 10, and Mile 11 were very consistent at 7:22, 7:21, and 7:21 respectively and then I said good-bye to the 3:10 pace group as they veered to the right as we all headed up the steepest bridge yet. Lots of people were starting to walk at this point and I tried to encourage anyone I passed. I came upon one runner who was starting to struggle just a little and I began to talk to her as we ran. I told her she was doing great and that she still had enough in her to keep going with me. She thanked me and I told her that if she had the energy to pick the pace back up that it would help encourage me just as much and we would try to do the rest of it together. She perked up and before I knew it she was back to full speed and it was all I could do to keep up with her.

As we turned a corner to start Mile 12, I realized that the elevation guide on the Pittsburgh Marathon site was a total fabrication. (This was the only negative to the whole race, but it's not like it really mattered 'cause you still have to climb whatever they throw in front of you.) Anyway, I really let this hill (a little over 150-foot elevation gain in less than a mile) get the best of me, but I forced myself to keep moving as I remembered that my 10-year-old daughter hadn't walked a bit in her longest race ever - a quarter marathon - the day before. I finally crested the top of the hill and started down towards the finish line with an 8:17 for the mile. Mile 13 was a little faster at 7:43 and the guy I had started next to (who was from Bexley, Ohio ironically) when the race began had pulled alongside me. We chatted a little as we made our way to the finish line. As we got to within a quarter of a mile of the finish, I really picked up the pace and then flat out sprinted to the line over the final tenth of a mile as I hit a 4:09 max pace to finish with a 6:30 pace overall for the final .26 of the race. What a fun finish!!!! I ended up finishing 344th overall out of 12,142 half marathon finishers and I was 35th out of 534 men in the 40-44 age group. Not too shabby at all!

While I caught my breath and grabbed my finisher's medal, someone came up and tapped me on the shoulder. It was the girl that I had encouraged on the hill. She had taken off over the final mile when I hit the tough last hill, but she had waited for me at the finish line to say thank you. I thought that was extremely cool! We chatted for a couple of minutes while I caught my breath and I found out that she had just graduated from Penn State the day before. Talk about a fun way to celebrate your college graduation. Anyway, it was just another great example of how running can bring total strangers together in a way that helps both of them out. I thanked her for waiting on me and then headed off to find my dad. He was waiting for me at the end of the food line after I had grabbed a Panera cinnamon crunch bagel and one of the famous Smiley cookies (they are really good) as well as an assortment of other food they had available. The race organizers did a great job of keeping the lines moving and funneling people into the celebration/family reunion area. My dad and I hung around for a couple of minutes there and I got a picture taken at the Dick's Sporting Goods tent (very nice to give each person a free picture that was emailed to them immediately), and then we realized that we still had time to high-tail it back to the Holiday Inn Express in time to catch the free breakfast before it ended at 10 a.m. (Yes, you know I wasn't passing up free food).

After I got cleaned up, we headed for home and I began to check all my messages that had poured in thanks to the live runner tracking system that the race had in place for people to follow via text messages, Facebook postings, or tweets. People from all over had been following my progress and chimed in with encouragement and congratulations. Races that have yet to embrace this technology are really missing out as it's a great way to get the event in front of a lot of people.

I would be remiss if I didn't say a big thank you to Toyota and the Pittsburgh Marathon social media people for making this race possible for me. I would highly recommend this event as a very well-organized, fun race to be a part of. While I'm not sure if I'll come back and attempt the full, I will definitely try to come back and run the half again as it is a challenging but really fun course. Besides, I still have something left to prove to that final hill that surprised me at the end. :) I'm really happy with the way that I ran this race (thanks for the pre-race advice, Bart Yasso), and while this was not a PR for me I feel like I executed a lot of things in this race that will lead to a PR on a flatter course if I follow the same plan. I can't wait to get back out and embark on the next amazing race!


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