Thursday, June 7, 2007

National Half Marathon Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 2; 3rd Edition
70.3 miles raced
Race: National Half Marathon
Place: Washington, D.C.
Miles from home: 6
Course Difficulty: 5 out of 10
Course Enjoyability: 0 out of 10
Weather: 50s, slight rain
Finishers' Medal: 2 out of 10 (Huge Corporate Logo. What distance is the Wirefly?)

I will start at the end. What was supposed to be a 13.1 mile race ended up being anywhere from 13.4 to 13.7 miles long. That doesn't sound like much, but running at my pace that is 36 seconds for every .1 of a mile. And when you are trying to not only set a personal best but also garner an automatic qualifying time for the New York City Marathon, every second counts. For that, I have to give this race an enjoyability rating of dead last, flatlining at zero.

That said, I will describe for you what could have been a very good course, if things had been run right.

The Course:

A change was made to both the start of both the half-marathon and the full marathon this year as well as other course changes throughout. Instead of making a boring full loop around the monstrosity which is RFK Stadium before exiting out onto the streets of DC, this year we started in the shadow of the stadium and left it behind us. I think this was a much better start to the race. Few things leave more to be desired than starting 26.2 miles off by running in a circle for a mile to get back where you just were.

In addition, many changes were made to the full marathon itself to eliminate what were an atrocious amount of hills in the last 6 miles of the race last year. It seemed that the race organizers listened to the vast complaints about this section and took it to heart.
Of course, while this section was eliminated I now see there was a massive steep hill at mile 19. Of course, I would rather do one big hill than 6 hard ones much later in the race, so it was probably a welcome change.

But I ran the half on Saturday not the full so I will focus my attention there. For the most part, it was a decent race. The first 8 miles leave very little to be desired as you run on a mostly flat course with just a bump at mile 4 that taxes you a little. You run within viewing distance of the White House and the Washington Monument on a nice little straightaway. However, for as much of a running community as D.C. has, I was a little surprised at the lack of supporters out on the course. But with say 5,000 people running the races, maybe all of the running community had a bib number on!

Then it is up a steep grade from 8-9. You cross a downward sloping bridge (a rarity as most bridges are arched) and then into some rolling hills. Nothing too killer but nothing too runner-friendly either. You finish on a mostly flat straight away until the last half mile which ends going up a rather steep hill. Not unlike the Marine Corps Marathon there must be something about DC where they like to challenge what you are made of in the final minute of the race.
All in all, not a bad course if run properly. Please note the "if".

My race: 1st 4 miles
As I had stated to many of my friends, my goal for this race was to run a 1:23:00. This time would guarantee me an automatic spot to run NYC, if I deemed it something I wished to do. No begging or pleading, no waiting to see if I had won the lottery (and paying $9 for that wonderful honor; non-refundable by the way). To do so I would have to run a 6:19.8 mile pace. A friend suggested a specific running pattern of slightly slower than that for the first 4 miles, hold that pace for the next few and then go with everything I had to the end.
Well, it has been quite sometime since I have even run a half-marathon, (I ran one to kick off Fiddy2 last year by running the half-marathon part of the Goofy Challenge the day before the very first marathon of 2006 for me) let alone "raced" one (you have to go back to the summer of 2005 when I was training for Fiddy2) I was unsure of how to run the pace. I have only a few half-marathons to my credit and with a PR of 1:26:53, there was no question I would break that. Heck I have run just a minute slower in the first HALF of some Marathons! It was a question of how much I would PR by. My body knows what a 6:50 feels like. But does it know a 6:20 pace? Well, apparently not.

My first mile was a 6:01 (after the first half mile where a marker on the course said I ran a 2:35, I should have fretted right there that something was amiss but I let it slide), followed by a 6:14 and a 6:21. I figured that this slight deviation was fine and I would simply slow it down a touch to regulate.

Mile 4 was missing from the course but soon I went up the hill on Virginia Ave and back down it and mile 5 was in sight. I took the average of the two and I was right on schedule (even slightly ahead. Again, having a few seconds in the bank was fine with me).

Miles 5-10:

I felt good for the next two miles and was ecstatic to realize that I was halfway done. These half-marathons rock!! I knew from the race elevation profile there was an elongated hill right after 8 but I did not pay it much attention. I passed or stayed with all of those around me so I felt good. I knew I had less than 5 miles to go and felt great. But a look at my watch made me double clutch. I ran a 6:34 for that mile (or WAY off pace). I began to think that perhaps I wasn't ready just yet for that 1:23:00.

A 6:16 at mile 9 dispelled that notion and a 6:18 at mile 10 furthered it. Right there, when the full marathoners peeled off to the right, I knew I only had to run a 20-minute 5k and I would still be 15-20 seconds under 1:23:00. I knew that time was mine. I could easily run a 20-minute 5k and was beginning to feel stronger.

Miles 11-12:
Going up a hill that I did not recall being on the elevation chart, I held back my reins a little bit. I felt a little queasy in my stomach and knew there was no need to push just yet. Sure a 1:21 high would be great but all I needed today was a 1:23. Nothing more. Save the faster times until AFTER you have the 1:23 I told myself.

So up what I thought was the final hill until the end I went with the mile 11 marker on the downside of that hill. Unfortunately, a few more rollers lay waiting for me. I handled them and passed the only person I had passed in nearly three miles. I may despise uphills but thanks to my daily run that always has me finishing the last mile up a soul crushing 200 foot elevation gain, I handle them pretty well.

A female half runner came into sight. I had my eyes on her for quite some time earlier but now that she was in sight, I gave chase. We ran down the off-ramp onto the final straightaway and passed the blown down sign for mile 12. There was one solo fan there cheering. How she got there or why is beyond me. I had run a 6:19 and a 6:16 for my last two miles. I was simply cruising. My math had me 30 seconds under 1:23:00 at least, even if I did not pick it up. But I had energy to spare and was ready for that final kick.

When the stadium loomed in front of me I knew I was close to home. Well under a mile left and I had 5.5 minutes to traverse the distance. I was writing the recap in my head about the successful attempt to qualify in my first half-marathon in years. I could not wait to call my folks and share the news with my many supporters. Down a ramp we went and I could not see the finishline. I looked and looked. Finally, I saw we made a hairpin left turn and then back up what was the final .2 of a mile.


I only had less than a minute left to go under 1:23. I still hadn't seen the sign for 26 miles to tell me there was .2 of a mile (or approximately 1:25 second left of running.) What the hell was going on?

I finally hit the mile 26 marker with only 15 seconds to spare to make it under 1:23. What in the hell happened?! I am deflated. I am beside myself with confusion followed by rage. I hit the mile 13 mile marker, turn off the hill and sprint the last .1 of a mile. My time: 1:24:22. Almost a full 90 seconds off? I look at my watch. The last 1.1 miles should have taken no more than 6:55 (maybe less because I know the girl who was in front of me who I passed in the last half mile was cruising above the pace we had set earlier) but instead took 8:19. WTF Part Deux!

Livid, I take the medal, give them my chip and steam away. I check with a few other runners who were wearing GPSs and my suspicions were confirmed. I went home and did a google map of the course turn-by-turn and came up with a distance of 13.46. That extra .36 equals just about 2 full minutes of running. Others had the course as long as 13.8. This is absolutely inexcusable. The course is supposed to be certified, we pay top dollar to run this race, and expect it to be correct. How is it possible to be so far off? Who is responsible? If it is the certification company they sure as hell should not be allowed to certify again. If it is the race then they need to issue an apology. If I wanted to run an uncertified course at a fast pace I can do that only my own every day of the week. The worst part is, the majority of the discrepancy comes after the mile 10 turn-off for the full marathoners. Obvioiusly, they care far more about the full marathon than the half-marathon. Simply looking at where the 12 mile mark is on their own map shows how long the last 1.1 is.

In either case, as a result, I end up short of my goal and have to find another half-marathon before May 1st in order to try once again to obtain something I already owned.

Having set up and run my own marathon I know it is a difficult thing to do. I do not envy the logistical job done by race directors. Even when they mess up, for the most part, they are still good people. This report, however, is not a review of the type of people that organized this race. I do not know them personally enough to do so. I do know that I feel robbed. I forced myself to get a good night's sleep, ran a smart hard race and, while my efforts netted me the result I wanted, it will not be official because of course mismanagement. Even if they were to "give" me the time I would have run that would not make things right.

So, I run a marathon next weekend and hope to set a PR in that. Possibly I could try to get the automatic qualifying time for a marathon (2:55) although I feel it is a much more difficult task than the one I was trying to do. Since I did not think I am ready for that right after the race I looked ahead and saw there is a half in nearby Ocean City, MD. Having run their marathon last year I know it is a flat course. If the wind off the ocean is kept at bay I should be able to get what I actually earned on Saturday. We can only see.

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