Saturday, October 24, 2015

Race Report: Hero Half Marathon - Oct 10, 2015

As it turns out, there are races of distances less than 26.2 miles. Who knew?

After training for long distances exclusively for the last three years, with very little down time in my regimen between events, I decided with Shauna's absence, I had the perfect opportunity to dial it back a little bit and moderate the number of miles I've been putting on my legs and feet each week. It was time to find the joy and the fun in running, not just the satisfaction that comes with completing another marathon and knowing I have the toughness and ability to slog through all of the training miles and then race day, too.

The problem with deciding not to train for a marathon, though, was the absence of a race of any kind on my mental calendar. While I'm generally a pretty motivated person, I do best when I have a goal I'm working toward, a deadline for achievement. Not wanting to spend the travel money usually associated with a race, I looked around and realized the local Fayetteville run scene has grown by leaps and bounds in the last year or two. There are so many options for runs of varying distances, supporting all kinds of different organizations and charities.

Based on good things I'd heard about the annual running in 2014 and in large part because of the new association with the 1LT Tom Martin Foundation, my good buddy Mike and I decided we'd sign up for the Hero Half Marathon right here in town. One of the big benefits of being a runner who is always halfway training for a marathon is the ability to sign up for a half just a couple of weeks before the race.

Looking forward to a distance that wouldn't break me down and a race that was mostly for fun, I met Mike on race morning at the shuttle point to get a ride to the start line of the point to point race. Unfortunately, this race report starts with two negatives: first, just like last year, start time is 10AM. Ten o'clock in the morning. I mean, who does that?! As a morning runner - and I'm talking done long before the sun even comes up, morning runner - I wasn't very excited about the idea of running in the sun and the warmth forecasted for that day. I know the upside is the chance to sleep in, but my concerns about the temperature by the midway point of the race far outweighed any enthusiasm for extra pillow time. Second problem: the 9am shuttle left a little early with a full crowd and rather than looping right back for a second run, apparently just disappeared. Hard to fault the race organizers, as it was a volunteer from another organization who wouldn't answer the phone when they tried to reach him, but it meant an awful lot of standing around and caused the race to start 20 minutes late.

The silver lining in the long wait? A chance to see Sarah and Jeff Hood, taking some great photos while sharing the story of #NeverQuit. I met some new friends, too, thanks to the built-in camaraderie of the wear blue: run to remember organization. Runners are special people, always friendly and easy to talk to, and meeting Melissa and her husband was an unexpected blessing as we waited for our ride.
Taking the good with the bad, the pre-race net result - problem #2 compounded problem #1. Not exactly an auspicious start, but hey, this was a fun run and it was only 13.1 miles, right? No big deal. I'm also a lot more likely to cut a race some slack when it's a small, local race where I feel like I have a personal connection and a vested interest in its success.

Local races are unique for the chance to see people I know at the start line. I ran into several people I've met through work, found my other two Saturday run group friends, and got to both give and receive a lot of good wishes and smiles. There was a nice ceremony honoring firefighters and promoting fire safety week, which would've been better if we weren't already late to the start line, but finally, it was time to go!

I planned on running with Mike and Louise - Fast Jeff was a contender for an overall place, so we just gave him a good luck - and we toed the line waiting for the signal to go. A very cool touch for this race - no air horn, no digital megaphone sound to send the runners on their way. In the tradition of the firehouse, they used a bell to signal step off. With the sun shining and hearts pumping, we headed down the trail for the loop around the lake, intending to take it a little bit easy and have a fun run. If we ran a sub-2:00, we'd be happy, but none of us put any pressure on ourselves for a specific time.

The race route was 100% on the Fayetteville trail system until you turned the last corner up to the firehouse (more to come on that!). Having pounded every inch of that pavement over the last 4+ years, I knew exactly what the twists and turns, elevation changes, bridges and tunnels would be. It also meant I had to suck it up and get over my mental block with running around the lake. No idea why I have such a hard time with that part of the trail, but I've come to loath that particular 5.5 mile stretch of pavement. Mike threw out an off hand "cut the corners" as we were stepping off, and for the first time since I ran the Houston Marathon, I made a deliberate, intentional effort to do just that.

It must have been the secret sauce - I don't know why I haven't done this every single time I run around Lake Fayetteville. It's a very winding path with lots of corners to cut, and it kept my mind focused on just getting to the next corner rather than thinking about the next hill or the interminable stretch on the back side of the lake. I managed to come out the other side and head down the hill in excellent time. My pace to this point was faster than intended, finishing the first five miles at an 8:13 average!

I had outpaced Mike and Louise a few miles in, so with feet pumping and arms swinging, I focused on the trail ahead, cutting the corners as close as possible, and just keeping the forward momentum going. As I headed south, I saw Jeff Hood again, camera in hand. I gave him a genuine smile when he encouraged me, saying I was on a sub-2:00 pace. I felt good, despite the sun rising higher in the sky and the temperature creeping up. I knew in detail what was in front of me, and was prepared to keep putting one foot in front of the other until I got to the end.
The race organizers did a fabulous job making sure there was plenty of support along the course. There were aid stations with water and Gatorade every mile or two, with enthusiastic volunteers yelling for all of the runners as they passed. There wasn't much crowd support, but even as a small race, I was never alone on the trail. I passed a few people, a few passed me, and I kept heading south as the trail slowly rose in front of me.

Around mile ten, it started getting hard. It was hard to try to keep the strong pace as the elevation slowly rose, and as the conditions got hotter. There are countless mantras runners use to motivate themselves through a run; I frequently repeat "constant forward progress" silently to myself. I also draw from my days in uniform, singing cadence to myself in my head, or occasionally hazing myself to stop being a big baby and suck it up. On this day, though, my thoughts were with Lisa Jaster, a West Point Woman who is a Class of 2000 graduate and was in the final phase of Ranger School, trying once again to graduate. She had been through six months of training, accepting recycles and restarts, and I had followed her progress with both pride and awe. When I hit the point where my legs said, "I just can't do it," my heart said "you most certainly can!" as I imagined Lisa humping her heavy ruck sack through swamps and mud and muck.

The reminder that this paled in comparison to other challenges put just enough spring in my step to keep me going. I managed to keep my pace at a run until I encountered the hill leading up to Maple; I took a deep breath, power walked up that bad boy, and then picked it back up as I coasted downhill to Dickson Street.

At this point, I knew I was close, but I was confused because my Garmin splits were off compared to the race mile markers on the course. In fact, by the time I got to the mile 12 marker, I was easily a half mile off. I thought maybe the course was short; maybe it wasn't certified; maybe it was a combination of variations in my Garmin combined with the course markers. Whatever it was, I knew the trail and the route, so I just had to keep going. So I did - until I turned left onto Center Street. Oh, the infamous last quarter mile of the race! It was an unbelievably steep hill - and just as we turned off of the trail, there was Sarah's family and the Never Quit motivation station, yelling and cheering for every one of us as we began our ascent.
Little by little, tiny step by tiny step, I made it up that hill. My pace plummeted until I wondered if I'd be better off walking, but I wasn't about to stop that with the finish line in sight.
I crossed the line, checked my watch, and did a double take at the results: 1:54:33 by my Garmin! Easy sub-2:00 on a day when I was simply out there to have fun. Given the very few official half marathons I've run, this was my new Personal Record for the distance, an exciting accomplishment in and of itself.

As I waited at the finish line for Mike and Louise to finish, I chatted with friends and even ran into a West Point classmate. I loved yelling for the runners digging deep to get up that hill and finish strong. It was a great finish line atmosphere with music and the announcer keeping the crowd updated on everyone who crossed that last timing mat. I eventually made it over to check the official results and delighted to find I'd managed to place first in my age group!

 In all, what a wonderful day for a race. It was certainly gratifying to have run a faster pace than expected and to have earned another age group win. The Hero Half is a very well-run race that exists to raise money for charitable organizations right here in my community, and I'm proud to have been a part of supporting that. One of the neat perks that I'd love to see at a lot more races - the professional photos were free and available the day after the race. It's a fairly difficult course, but in a way that makes you proud to have risen to the challenge.

As I've said countless times, I'm at a point in my journey where I'm simply grateful for the ability to run. To see my friends on a course, feel the sun on my face, and know that my body and spirit are strong enough to see me through to the finish line. Run on, my friends. See you at the next start line.
Louise, Mike, Me and Fast Jeff at the finish


  1. Great write-up! I ran with my friend and we both used the runkeeper app. Her final distance was 13.2, and mine was 12.8(although that was after walking around a little) mile 12, mine was also half a mile off. I wonder if the course is a bit short??? Maybe it was from cutting corners!!! It did lend to a much faster finish time than I anticipated us to run. :)

    1. Thanks! I do think the course distance was correct, since my watch was very close to 13.1 at the finish, but along the way the markers were definitely off!! Glad you had a fast finish - I say, take credit for it, because I'm confident the total distance was right! :)