Monday, March 21, 2011

Pass in the Grass - Tobacco Road Half Marathon Race Report

Better Late Than Never
I hate being late. Absolutely hate it. My alarm was set for 4:40AM which would have given me plenty of time to have a quick breakfast and be in the shuttle parking area by 6:00AM. The race was to start at 7:00AM. The shuttle trip was only 5 miles. Plenty of time, I told myself.

I woke up at 5:50AM and immediately went into full panic mode. My alarm had either not sounded, or I had slept right through it. Not sure which had happened, I cursed myself and my stupid alarm clock as I grabbed a large coffee and my race bag and slipped out of the house into the darkness.

I jetted down the interstate in my turbo charged angry toaster of a car, passing everything in sight, hoping none of the cars I whooshed past were unmarked state troopers. I made it to the entrance of the shuttle parking area at about 6:05AM. There was a long line of cars attempting to make the right turn onto the access road to the parking area (this should have been my first warning of what was to come). Luckily, I was coming from the opposite direction, so one light cycle later and I was headed into the parking lot.

The parking lot was surprisingly full and I was directed towards the far end of the lot. After parking, I broke into a light jog across the lot to the shuttle bus loading area. When I rounded the corner, I was greeted with a massive line of several hundred people waiting for the shuttle, and not one bus in sight. No worries, I thought. The pre-race packet had indicated there would be lots of 55 passenger busses for transport. I stepped into line, confident I would easily make it by 7:00AM. Oh how wrong I was...

One hour and ten minutes later, I stepped off the bus at the start-finish line of the Tobacco Road Half Marathon. The race organizers knew that there were transport problems, so had delayed the race start. The half marathon runners were still in the starting corral. I ran across the parking area and quickly checked my race bag. Then, my morning coffee hit like an atomic bomb in my colon. Great, the port-o-potties were all the way on the opposite side of the giant parking lot that served as the race start/finish area. I sprinted.

As I closed and latched the port-o-potty door, I heard the roar of the crowd sending off the half marathon. I had missed the start, and more importantly I had missed the chance to run with my 2:00 hour pace group which was being led by a great runner and an old friend, Gary Franks. Now, I was pissed.

By the time I made it to the starting line, the full marathoners were lined up and ready to go. I squeezed through their ranks to the front, stepped across the timing sensor and took off. I was nearly 6 minutes behind the half marathon field.

Pass in the Grass
It was odd running along the first mile or so almost by myself. I kept going around turns expected to see the pack in the distance, only to see more empty street. Finally, after what seemed like forever, I hit a long stretch of straight road where I could see the half marathon pack stretched out in front of me. I saw two or three pace group balloons bobbing among the crowd in the distance, but figured my group was long gone. In a mile or so, I caught the 2:40 pace group, but couldn't see the next pace group in the distance. I was still really pissed about missing the start and not being able to run with my pace group, so I decided I would catch them - even if it killed me.

I started passing runners - lots of runners. We were still on the secondary roads leading to the Tobacco Trail, so passing was easy. As we entered the Tobacco trail, the mass of runners squeezed onto the former railroad track and passing became much more difficult.

I honestly think that this race allowed too many entrants. 2500 runners funneled onto a trail the width of an old railroad bed was a recipe for frustration. I was already pissed. Now I was frustrated as well. Passing was very difficult, and simply maintaining a steady pace was nearly impossible. I was speeding up, slowing down, dodging left, dodging right, and all the while I kept passing runners. When I was blessed with an open space on the trail, I practically sprinted across it.

Eventually, I figured the best and most consistent way to pass while maintaining a semi-constant pace was to run on the very edge of the trail, with one foot down the slope of the ditch on the slippery pine straw and grass. In fact, as I caught the 2:30 and then the 2:20 pace group, the *only* way to pass was in the ditch since there was a mass of runners clustered around the pacer, blocking the entire trail. I'm lucky not to have tripped and fallen down the embankment into one of the scummy beaver ponds along the route.

Anger is a Gift
As I approached the turn around at mile 8, I saw Gary leading the 2:00 pace group coming back toward me. I yelled to Gary as he passed, and then saw another old friend from Nortel, Jim Wei running in the same group. They both yelled to me as I passed by. I was probably a mile or so behind them. I pushed harder.

Passing was getting tougher now. Not only because of the crowds, which were still terrible, but also because I was creeping into the faster runners, most of whom did not want to be passed, and some of whom made it intentionally difficult for me to pass.

Around mile 9 I arrived at the aid station with beer! Yuengling is not my favorite beer, but it tasted damn good, even if it was in a very little cup. The guy ahead of me grabbed a cup as well, and toasted me with a friendly "Cheers!" We chatted for a bit as we finished our beers on the run. Turns out he had been trying to catch the 2:00 pace group the whole race as well (again due to a port-o-potty delay). I was running a bit faster, so wished him luck and pulled away (I wish I had asked his name as he seemed like a great guy).

I was more determined than ever to catch the 2:00 pace group, but was in the densest part of the race field now, and was constantly blocked. I became very angry in a near road rage sort of way. I was dodging into the oncoming racers to pass and generally just being an arse. I'm not normally an angry person. In fact, I'm very easy going. The anger I was feeling was uncomfortable. An old saying drifted into my head - "Anger is a gift". Why was I so angry? I was supposed to be running for fun - for joy! The old saying meant that my anger should be righteous. A poorly organized half marathon that I was running for fun, definitely did not deserve the gift of my anger.

I drifted along for a bit and slowly my anger melted away. It was a beautiful, cool Spring morning. In fact, it was the first day of Spring. The trees and flowers were blooming and I was doing something that I loved - running.

As I left the trail for the last 3 miles of secondary paved roads, I ran with joy. I ran with abandon. I passed many more people, but this time for fun.

In the last mile, I could see the 2:00 pace group about a half mile ahead. I wouldn't be catching them. Amazingly, I wasn't really unhappy about this, just slightly disappointed at not being able to run with friends. I crossed the finish line 2 minutes after the 2:00 pace group.

I had started almost 6 minutes late, nearly dead last, and had passed about 1500 people, to finish in 1:56. And I was happy.