Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Milwaukee Running Festival (13.1) Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 10; 22nd Edition 
289 miles run; 16 miles biked; 800 meters swam in 2015 races
Race: Milwaukee Running Festival
Place: Milwaukee, WI
Miles from home: 2063
Weather: 50s; Dry; Sunny

Taking on inaugural events is usually a mixed bag of happenings.  It is exciting to be on-hand for the "first" of a running event.  However, being the guinea pig for something in which you are also testing yourself physically can leave you hung out to dry. I have experienced both the pros and cons of being involved with inaugural races in the past and as such am more selective with those I involve me, and my legs, with these days.

Yet, with this race I knew I would probably be in good hands.  The race director, Chris Ponteri is not only himself a sub-3 hour marathoner but also the RD of the wildly popular Icebreaker Indoor Marathon held in Milwaukee in January.  I have heard rave reviews about this race from trusted friends and assumed that expertise from Chris in that race would carry over to this one as well.

What also intrigued me about this event weekend was the addition of a mile race to be held prior to the expo on Saturday.  Built more as a fun run for kids than a speed race for those looking for a fast mile, it was still nonetheless a mile race. The miles, as an event, used to be the stuff of spectator sport legen.  But it has fallen on hard times. That is why such companies like Bring Back The Mile were needed. which the country is sorely lacking in. A few months ago I wrote about witnessing my first ever sub-4 minute mile and how incredible of an experience that is.  Obviously, on a good day, while I wouldn’t come within 45 seconds of that time, I still love the idea of racing a mile.

I knew going into it would not be a fast race, regard. I told Chris that, as a race director myself, I completely understood the reasoning for the course design as it was. Shaped like a backward C, it ran around the grounds of the Harley Davidson Museum, where the expo took place.  As such, no streets needed to be blocked, no permits were needed, and all the other headaches which come from street racing were set aside. From  the perspective of an event manager, it was a dream.  From a runner’s perspective, making eight 90-degree turns was going to be a nightmare.When the morning of the mile race broke with cold rain, we knew a slick pavement was going to be likely. Like I said, it wasn't going to be fast.

I lined up with the “elites” of the day which was both flattering and laughable for me.  But I fit the criteria for the bill, so I accepted it. I had spent the hour before the race setting up my expo booth at the expo which, I am pretty sure, is not the proper warm-up for a mile. Nevertheless, I was excited to race. I felt on this course a 5:20 would be possible. But with the rain I figured ten seconds should be added to that to account for slowing down. When the gun went off I was briefly in the lead before I realized I am slow and it is almost impossible to convince a marathoner’s legs to run that hard for that long. The governor on my energy level simply is hard to override.  It cannot seem to understand that this will all be over in 5 minutes, not three hours. That said, about halfway through I was able to put a little more of a spurt of energy than expected and came in with a time of 5:36.  Definitely not what I was hoping for but I hadn’t fall and broken any bones on the pavement so let’s call it a win. In addition, there were some stunningly fast time with the winner running a 4:30, so who am I to say what is fast and what is not?!

After a day at the expo, I had a good night’s sleep and felt excellent for the race.  The weather was marvelous with a starting temperature right around 49 degrees.  People kept saying it was perfect to which I have to disagree. It was rather windy in spots and with bright sunshine, that doesn’t make for "perfection."  Do not get me wrong: it was pretty darn good. I just reserve my superlatives for when they should be used. Which is why virtually nothing is “epic.” (Take note, millennials. Your salad is never “epic.”)

My goal for the day was to run right around 6:30 per mile which I felt well within my wheelhouse. I knew there were two long hills and a series of shorter ones in the middle of the race but I felt prepared. I was ready to get underway.

The gun went off and while I felt like I was really running hard, I could tell by using clues of the runner around me, I wasn’t going as fast as I would like. The first mile went by in 6:46 and I was rather perturbed. I thought perhaps I would settle into a groove and recoup some of the time in the next mile.

Apparently, many of the races in Milwaukee make use of this shoreline road, alongside Veteran's Park and a marina near McKinley Park. But for those who don’t race here often, or are from out of town, this was a beautiful setting.  The sun was casting diamonds off the water and it was simply gorgeous.  Then next thing I know there was the sand from Bradford Beach Park and I felt like we were running in Florida. It was
visually stunning.

I ran another 6:46 at mile 2 and realized, with the race barely underway, that race-wise it was probably over for me. As the course continued down this flat stretch, I knew we would just finish the third mile before climbing up the biggest hill of the day. A group I was running with pulled away from me effortlessly. I could only hope they were speeding up but knew that was not the case.  When we passed the third mile and I clocked a 6:56, I felt like the course was breaking up with me but in reverse fashion: “It’s not me, it’s you” it said. I couldn't have asked for a better start to a race and my legs simply were to having none of it.

I mentioned in my Twin Cities Marathon recap that one of the more difficult things about long-distance racing is knowing early on that your goals for the day are shot. You still have an hour (or two or three) more of running and all it will do is end up with you being disappointed anyway.  It shows one’s true character if they can accept that disappointment and just move on the best they can. For me, I felt it would be best to jettison time goals and turn this into a day where I was a running spectator. Obviously, I was not going to be just jogging alone but if it is not your day, well, it is not your day.  That is what makes racing so special. It is not what you "can" do, it is what you actually do. Furthermore, while I know many read my recaps to hear about my experiences, many more read them to learn about the race itself. So, I became a journalist with a 140 pulse rate at this point.

Cresting the big hill at 3.5 miles I was rather surprised that my mile split was just ten seconds slower than the previous mile. I figured it would be far worse. Perhaps accepting the inevitable slowdown had somehow helped me. We turned from Lake Drive to Wahl Ave and were visited by the twin visions of beautiful Lake Michigan on our left and some stunning homes with price tags I am guessing in the millions on our right. Unsurprisingly, there were few spectators here. I have run numerous races through ritzy sections of towns and I can count on one hand the number times the 1% who crawl out of bed in the mornings to cheer on the sweaty masses.  No hate here.  If I had 3000 count sheets it might be hard for me to get out of bed to cheer on runners as well.  No, that's not true. In fact, any time a race goes on near me and I am not racing, you will see me out there trying my best to give back.

As I finally felt human, I thought perhaps the first few miles were an aberration. With a mild downhill section for the next two miles, I might be just able to turn up my speed and salvage this race. However, my next two miles stayed in the same time area of the previous miles in spite of my intense efforts to pick up the pace.  Here is where I knew the full re-evaluation from earlier about this not being my day was spot-on.  As I ran, I laughed as I saw a sign for the Oak Leaf Trail.  This trail was part of a shakeout run I did on Friday morning when I first arrived in town.  However, I noticed the Oak Leaf Trail seems to sprawl all over Milwaukee.  In fact, it doesn’t necessarily seem to be connected to itself yet maintains the same name.  This could definitely lead to some confusion if people were trying to meet on it somewhere. Getting jolted back to the run from the previous day, as I explored some of Milwaukee helped break up a slight pity party for me on my less-than-stellar day.

What was stellar, however, were the beautiful trees surrounding us as we left Back Bay Park and into some of the neighborhoods of town. Here the crowds, hardly teeming but still quite vocal, began to have a presence. One woman loudly clanged on a dinner triangle and shouted “Thank you for coming to Milwaukee and giving us a reason to drink beer at 8 a.m!” I fully felt that she would have gladly toasted the sunrise as a reason to drink but appreciated the enthusiasm nonetheless.

After a couple of rolling hills we crossed underneath the Marsupial Bridge to traverse the Milwaukee River.  If you have read my second book, 138,336 Feet to Pure Bliss you will know about my love of bridges. While there was an ankle-breaking 180-degree turn section here, I loved the footpath we crossed to get over the river.  Some road construction on the other side made things a little tight for a bit here as we forced up onto the sidewalk but it was short-lived. After a couple of quick turns we ran briefly on the Riverwalk, another section I had run on my shakeout run previously. Then we ran through downtown past my hotel and where I had eaten dinner the previous night.  I thought perhaps I should have looked at the map a little closer to see how many places I was going to see twice!

The last big hill around mile nine loomed ahead.  Nothing too high but rather a long sloping tilt brought us out of the heart of downtown and passed numerous architectural treats. Stone buildings which now house banks and buildings of finance but whose outward appearance was that of fortresses were on both sides. Churches and the spires rose above the skyline. The wind picked up here a bit in this little tunnel and I found myself falling in behind a few runners to let them block the wind. I was fully expecting to have continued to slow through this section as my “A” goal was gone for the day. The odd thing was not that I was tired but that my legs simply refused to respond to my yelling at them to go forward. I wasn't out of breath either per se. Simply nothing would fire.  In hindsight, the fact I had run the second highest mile month of the year in October and raced the mile the day previously should have been enough reason to expect a slight slowdown.  However, I wasn’t ready to accept that. I just assumed I could will myself faster. I assumed wrong.

As we closed in on Marquette University, the stone buildings and their ornateness continued. I have only been to Milwaukee a handful of times and I have enjoyed being there every time.  It is one of those cities where you just feel like people are doing things right. Sure they like beer and are mostly Packers fans but I can forgive that. It was also rather coincidental that Al from Happy Days, set in Milwaukee, had just died 48 hours earlier. This has nothing to do with the race or the city per se but it is what was on my mind as I simply
wanted to be at the top of the hill.

I passed a rather exuberant chap wearing a November Project shirt right before the half marathoners split from the marathoners. Someone he knew asked him what he was running that day and he told them he was going the full way. I mentioned I was also going the full way but my “full” was going to take significantly less time than his. There were more than a few people with these November Project shirts on which have become rather cultish in certain cities in the ways those who are involved support the others. This guy seemed to have no fewer than three different people running certain portions of the race with him for a few miles. He had been around me for most of the race so far and I marveled at those who seemed to be supporting him and he supporting them. If that sort of support is what having a team project like this is about then I am all for it. Good for them.

I left Marquette University and headed toward the last 3 miles. I somehow, also, was speeding up.

Mile 10 was hardly a pretty mile but if you run a race in a city not everything is going to be roses. People don't want to say ill of the NYC Marathon which just happened to be run on the same day but a vast majority of that course is hardly "pretty" or easy.  It is the character and organization of the race which allows it to thrive, not the foliage or buildings (although they don't hurt.)  But as non-eye-pleasing as this mile was, I saw it as exactly what it needed to be: a connector mile to have the half marathon join the marathon for the last two miles. When you have done more than just run races, but spent time directing them, designing them and all the nitty-gritty as I have for the past decade, you completely understand why some things are the way they are. I didn't see it as anything other than an opportunity to take on long, flat, straight stretch in which I could really shake out my legs. For the previous few miles, a few runners and I had been duking it out as I seemed to find a second wind. I kept thinking I was surging ahead only to have them get into my peripheral vision again. Here on the bridge however, with no need t think about hills or turns or anything else, I finally began to separate myself from some of them. The "ugliness" here was a thing of beauty to me.

As we left this overland bridge and went onto the surface streets, I have to share a funny story about the volunteers at the aid stations. They were extremely helpful and very vocal so there is no complaints whatsoever from me. Rather, the fact they were telling runners what was in each glass is where the story is.  Some of the tables had water and some had the electrolyte supplement Nuun (pronounced “noon”.)  I am a big supporter of Nuun and have been drinking it for ages. While my partnership with them is currently on hiatus, I still love the drink.  But I digress. As is often the case, the vast majority of tables are on one side of the road. Occasionally in races like this a table will be on the other side, less stocked than others but to be used in case there is a bit of a loggerjam or maybe for left-handed runners, I am never quite sure. While the other tables are set up in a fashion so you know they contain one drink or another the singular table often has both.  One volunteer, wanting to make sure I knew what she had to drink, held up both hands and said:

 “I have water in this hand and None in this!”

It took me a second to realize that she mispronounced “Nuun” before I let out a big laugh.  At first I thought she was just making sure that her one hand had nothing in it.  I told her the correct pronunciation as I passed, grabbed the drink and thanked her for the laugh.

With two miles to go, I began to notice I was still speeding up.  In fact, I was most assuredly going to negative split the race. There was no way I thought this was possible just an hour ago. I was still going to be minutes off my project finish time but at least I hadn’t fallen apart.  I began zeroing in on a few runners behind me and started to reel them in. We turned onto Erie St and I smiled as I always do seeing the name of the biggest town close to my hometown. In quick succession I passed two runners and had two runners pass me. It was a weird juxtaposition of feeling good about having caught two people but feeling bad two others had passed me. I looked at my watch and realized if I picked it up a touch I could salvage a decent day out of what had started so poorly.  I narrowed my eyes, pinned back my ears and gave it all I had.

I crossed the finish in 1:30:52, good enough for 54th place overall in my 84th lifetime marathon. It was only my 55th fastest half-marathon ever but I was pleased with how I bounced back from a horrendous start. I quickly went back to my hotel, showered and came back down to help with the race. I hopped on the announcers mic for a bit and welcomed in runners for 30 minutes or so while talking shop with the organizers. Then I passed out water and finisher's medals to runners for a few hours. Finally a little tired, I called it a day. Both courses seemed to be a little tougher than what people were suspecting from the race but over and over I heard about how well-organized the event was. From my own experience I can only echo those sentiments.  I fully expect to return again next year and can't wait to be back in Milwaukee.

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