Thursday, December 24, 2020

Stars at Night Half Marathon Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 14; 1st Edition 
13.1 mile raced in 2020 races
Race: Stars at Night Half
Place: San Antonio, TX
Miles from home: 68
Weather: 50-60 degrees; windy; dark halfway through

A week ago I found out the only marathon I thought I may be able to do to continue my streak of running a Boston Qualifying time for 16 straight years was filled. I was more than a bit miffed. I am not exactly one who celebrates streak unless those streaks are ones that also include a touch of personal excellence. By that I mean, simply running, or racing, just for the sake of doing so to keep some arbitrary streak alive has never been my bag. But to race hard, get a time every runner at least knows about, if not hopes for, well, that is something different entirely.

But with that option out the window, and me refusing to endanger myself or others by needlessly flying or traveling hundreds of miles just to chase even this goal, I was resigned to reality. Hell, far worse things have happened to far many more people this year. So, as I cooled my heels on Monday after a 17.5 mile run, I happened to find this half-marathon in San Antonio just a few days later. While the BQ streak was out the window, lesser streaks of running a race every single year since last century (yep, 1999), running a half-marathon very year since 2004, and winning a race every year for 7 years straight were still up for grabs. The first two were accomplished simply by crossing the finish. The last one would take more effort.

I had been writing a post about how this would be the year with no races. Now I had to scrap that entire thing. But writing it further instilled in me why I race as opposed to why I run. I race to run as fast as I possibly can on that day. I had been listening to a podcast earlier this week when for the eleventy billionth time I heard some pandering person talk about how those at the back of the pack are both
a. working harder than anyone else; and
b. having more fun than anyone else

My simple question is, unless you have been at both the front and the back of the pack, how would you even know? Of course, this is extremely delicate territory. Unless proper genuflection is done, any such opinion is seen at elitist. My point being that very few people are the best, but you can be the best you and that truly is all that matters. I just had to figure out what the best me would be on this day.

Race Day:

First and foremost I could not have been happier that this race started at 5:15 p.m. I am a person whose body clocks skews toward the night. Even being undertrained, overtired, and having not raced in over a year, this start time would help me greatly. I was also very curious how a race would be handled in the COVID-ness of our current society. Without going into a great amount of detail, I feel how the race handled all the precautions was about the best one could possibly hope for in an event of any size over a few people.

It was obvious the entire experience here was a streamlined version of what it normally is and I can see how it would indeed be one fun adventure for racers and spectators alike when it was in full bloom. As it was, it was still a rather festive affair, being held on and around the grounds of the JW Marriott Resort north of San Antonio. It was quite clear that normally this was more raucous occasion but given the circumstances, it was still quite enjoyable.

First Three Miles:

The race started with runners making an immediate right off a dirt path we were corralled in onto a golf cart path which would comprise about 60% of the race's surface. Runners would be sent out in groups of about 20 or so every few seconds to help maintain safety protocols. I wore a mask (I reviewed here) for the first half mile or so until it became quite clear I wouldn’t be around many other racers. I had made an Ocular Patdown of my competition and I guessed I might have 3-4 people who would be vying for the overall win with me. Unfortunately, unless they started in the same 20 people as I did, I wouldn’t know how far back they actually were. I assumed that most trying to run for the win wouldn’t seed themselves back too far but people have done trickier things to win a race.

I passed by the staging area/finish line for the race and a runner passed me. I knew there was half-marathon relay going on at the same time but had no idea who was running in it. If I wanted to win, I had to at least keep this fella in my sights until the exchange.

Running on the golf cart paths for these first few miles we were treated to some rather formidable hills. I passed the first mile right around seven minutes and I was relatively pleased with that given all the things listed above. When I saw a mile marker 10 I remember that this course looped around on itself often so this hilly section is what I had to look forward to in the final 5k. Ooof.

We crested one hill and the setting sun was blinding in our eyes. How odd that this would be a race which would have required sunglasses at one point and would also necessitate a headlight later. Speaking of the latter, I had forgotten it would get dark but luckily the race sold $10 headlights for the forgetful ones like me. It didn’t look the best quality but for ten bucks, can one really complain?

The second mile went by in 6:36 and I had a feeling one of the first two mile markers was off. I have always said that mile markers are neither certified nor are they required. So when they are present it is a nice addition. Unfortunately, while I normally know what my pace is by effort, being so out of racing shape, I was going to have to rely on these to know if I was really tired or just tired as I hadn’t run sustained sub-7 mile pace in quite some time.

As the path twisted and turned, I could see some of my competition behind me. I had a little more breathing room than I had expected but was also surprised to see an older chap nipping at my heels. With a nice long downhill in front of me, I used one of my few running strengths to not only put a little space between us but also close in on the leader, now just about ten seconds in front of me. The third mile had me at a 6:26 on my watch. Could I really be doing this well?

Onto the 10k:

Coming off of the golf course and down into the hotel area, we were greeted by cheers from spectators. An ankle-breaking but visually pleasing jaunt through some Christmas lights and Santa’s sleigh display in the back courtyard of the hotel was followed up by a quick chin-scraper of a hill. Down the other side of that hill, and through the parking lot, with a little bit of dirt trail running popped us out onto the roads surrounding the complex.

I am a road runner. When I get even concrete under my feet, I am happiest. With both lanes of traffic blocked off, I could save the mental energy spent on thinking about my run and switch it all to the quads. I could hear the footsteps of a runner behind me but wasn’t quite ready to let him pass me. The lead runner turned around some cones and I soon followed suit. A few hundred meters later, Chris, the older fella I mentioned earlier, popped up beside me. “I think we can catch him. He is slowing,” he said.
“No, you are just picking up the pace,” I replied.

We stayed together for a few seconds, exchanging a pleasantry here and there but still in racing mode. Another turn on the road had us climbing an incline again on another blocked off two-way street. I let Chris go but fell in not too far behind him. He separated a bit from me and cut the distance between me and the lead runner in two. We all went around the cones to send us the way we came just a few seconds apart. I was surprised to see a younger fella far closer behind me than I expected. I decided to use the downhill here to close the gap on the two guys in front of me and hopefully stop any charge the young fella had in mind.

We turned back onto the road we had come from and it was clear we were going to take it all the way back to the cones again. The sun, having been set for about ten minutes was finally completely extinguished by the hills around us. It was time to grab the headlight.

To Mile Ten:

As Chris passed the leader they both did not do a full turn to head back the way we came but rather were directed down a side path. They plunged into darkness and disappeared. The last thing I saw was both of them reaching to turn on their torches (shout out word to my British readers.) I took my lamp off of my hand (I didn’t trust this on my head the entire way having never worn it on a run), slipped the strap over my head, and pushed down hard on the light to turn it on. I must have had the lamp on upside down as pushing down on the top to turn it on instead completely removed the light from the strap and sent it onto the path below me, shattering into a million pieces.

“Well, crap,” I said except I didn’t say crap and I didn’t just say it. "I best catch up to the guys in front of me," I thought. I could at least kinda sorta use their light to help me see in the dark. I knew this effort  wasn’t going to work very well after the first few steps, however, as the twisting path also undulated at unexpected intervals. 

But I pushed on best I could, as we passed runners still doing the 10k. Luckily some of them were lit up like Christmas trees and I used them to guide me. I next slid into this under-bridge tunnel which, given a rain shower earlier in the day, had some standing water in it. Some runner were mincing around in the few places where it looked dry so I was forced to splash through on the far left and hope there wasn’t a bottomless moat.

Coming out the other side, up a steep embankment, across a little bridge and the up another steep embankment had me right on the heels of the former first place runner. “Ooof, this is a toughie!” he said and I agreed. About a quarter of a mile later, I could tell he was done being in front of me and I slipped on by. I wasn't ready yet to pass him but it was time for that to happen. He looked at my head and I said “dropped and broke my headlamp!” He laughed and replied “Well, go get the other guy and use his light!”

Now completely in the dark, with fortunately, or only, a sliver of moonlight to guide me, I could make out Chris, a bit, in the darkness ahead. He had two different bike guides, which had previously been leading the guy I just passed. Every once in a while I would see him turn off his headlight and as impressed with his racing technique. Earlier I had seen him do the same thing as he was approaching the leader. It was clear he didn’t want to alert him to his presence. Smart tactics. I could tell this guy didn’t just know how to run, but he knew how to race. I guess if anything, not having a headlamp would at least not alert him to my presence. Maybe I could catch him napping.

Up in the dark I saw the leader make a right hand turn at a lighted-up intersection. I had lost my bearings a bit and as such didn't know where on the course we were. But as I passed this same spot I realized we were now back at the starting line heading somewhat in the direction of the golf course. Running by the spectators at the hotel, I heard a few hearty cheers. Then I heard the cheers for me. I ascertained they were cheering for the leader and by the time difference between the two of us I could tell I was a gaining ground. 

But just as quickly as we stepped into the well-lit golf paths, we left them again, Now I was in the dark. I mean, I usually am figuratively but now so literally. As we climbed the hills from earlier , I knew running them in the dark would be that much more difficult.

To The Finish:

For these final three miles I was basically running blind. I could juuust about see the golf path (or the grass or trail we ran on occasionally) but from the previous loop, I knew it had some cracks in it, had tons of little bumps, and was not something I could ignore and simply try to catch the runner in front of me.

And in front of me he stayed. I somewhat closed the gap but was wasting precious energy looking where my feet went for the remainder of the race. Every time I would lose a bit of focus I would do one of those “I thought-there-was-one-more-step-left-on-this-staircase-throw-out-your entire-knee-and-hip"spasm step which would bring me back to the task at hand.

I could see, as we looped around areas we had just ran through, that there was no one behind me unless they too were a fumblefingers fool who broke their headlamp as well. A rather treacherous path in the dark spit me out onto the golf path for the last half of a mile. I shockingly saw the leader runner just a few yards away and then realized I had to do the little out and back on the hotel yard again to catch him. A brief and fleeting thought of perhaps still winning the race gave way to a sad trombone noise in my head.

In the last 100 yards I had to dodge some pedestrians who, even though one runner had just came through, thought there would be no way another runner, here on this race course with lots of runners, might also be coming by. Granted I didn’t have on a headlamp but come on, people.

I slipped on my mask again, made the final turn to the finish and saw the clock ticking away. I was pretty disappointed with the time I lost in the final 5k but accepted that a 1:32:18, in the dark, on a tough course, was a heck of a good comeback race. This was my 105th lifetime half-marathon and my 75th fastest. In addition, since moving to Texas I can think off the top of my head of three marathons, two half marathons, and a 25k in which I have finished second. I think the rest of my life I have only finished 2nd in three other races.  I am almost destined to JUST miss out on the brass ring. Boo hoo, I know, but when you are only moderately fast, the chances of winning are not much better than if you are moderately slow. It only takes one person to beat you and that has happened a great deal in the past few years for me!

The winner, Chris, exchanged elbow bumps with me and I saw he beat my by about 45 seconds. That's close but not really all that close at the same time. He asked me what age group I was in (not sure why, since he won the damn race) and when I told him I was 44 he replied "I'm 61."  (Oh, that's why. A little well-deserved bragging.) Normally I would hang around and congratulate other runners but then I remembered "Pandemic".  Instead, I trudged through the finish, around a lazy river, a pool, through the back yard, across the big ass hotel, down three escalators, through a parking lot and to my car. I toweled off at my brand new Mustang, making it's first drive of any length, and made the hour plus drive back home.

This has obviously been an exceedingly awful year for many of us. As much as I love running and racing, and some of my livelihood is tied to it, I know how mostly unimportant it is for most of us who still enjoy doing it. Having said that, and having had some amazing races that I had planned for the year get cancelled, I had accepted that I might not race for the foreseeable future. I had come to grips with that and didn’t think I missed racing that much.

I was wrong. I miss it intensely, especially when it is a real race, with competitors doing their best to use their skills and racing tactics to one-up their competitors. I have also run so many races lately where I was alone for miles and miles without seeing another soul. Granted that is how the last few miles of this race were and complaining about being at the front where there aren’t a great deal of spectators is rarely going get you much sympathy. Oh, the poor guy winning the race didn’t get lots of cheers. Boo hoo again.

But given everything that had to go into making this race as safe as possible, which the organizers did an excellent job of, it still felt like an actual race. Not a virtual run. Not a fun run. But a race where people were pushing to not only best the clock but best their fellow racers. It felt so good.

After a year of none of this, I definitely didn’t realize how badly I craved it. I can’t wait to get out there again soon and hopefully experience it tenfold in 2021.

Wear a mask, and get the vaccine, people. Then, let's race.

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