Tuesday, February 21, 2012

My First Win and Realizations About Running In the Front

Like many competitive runners, I’ve convinced myself that at least once I wanted to be able to win a road race outright. To be the first one across the line is the ultimate accomplishment in this whole racing thing, isn’t it? In my mind, if it was ever to happen, it would most likely occur in some short and small local race like a 5k where I might have a really good day and the local speedsters might have stayed away. I never expected it would happen in something like a half marathon, but it did. Yes, for the first time ever (hopefully not the last) I actually won a race. Not just my age group or the overall masters division, but the whole damn race….and it wasn’t a 5k, or even a 10k, it was a half marathon. In many ways, I’m still kind of shocked.

The man in black, heads down around mile 2 of the half marathon.

Here’s how it went down at the Rogue River Half Marathon. I ran this race last year and had a pretty good result, finishing third overall, and running a very satisfying time of 1:17:54 at a time of the year where I had been mostly working on getting in some quality mileage and weekly tempo runs. The course the year before run on the roads along the south side of the Rogue River and was pancake flat on out and back loop with little wind, perfect for running fast times. Also, in 2011, I had some company for the first half of the race with a small pack of guys hanging together at 6:00 per mile pace. After the turn around last year, I took off dropping the guys in the pack and running for home on my own.

This year, everything was a little different. Instead of the flat road course, we ran on the north side of the river mostly on the newly paved bike path that winds along into and through Valley of the Rogues State Park before hopping out onto the roads for the middle four miles of the race. In addition to the somewhat winding nature of the route, we also had a cross country-style stretch (twice as an out and back) across a grassy section of the park. Also, the weather was a bit spottier this year with a chilly breeze from the northwest and patches of sun and rain throughout the day. In fact, it was raining pretty hard on me when I drove to the race, but lucky for us, the sun periodically poked out and it never opened up during the race.

Before the race I spotted last year’s winner Tyler Davis, and commented to my training partner Mercy Ray that there’s today winner. However, in chatting with Tyler and also his father Mike before the race, I learned Tyler wasn’t racing and was recovering from an illness and races from the previous two weekends. Looking around at the rest of the potential “competition” at the start, it was hard to say who might win. As usual there was a good group of quick high schoolers warming up who were probably running the 5k, but I couldn’t be sure. Other than that, nobody I recognized really stood out, so I thought, maybe I could do better than last year’s third place showing. Hmmm, this could be interesting. The one person in the race I knew that could beat me easily was my friend Bob Julian, but on this day he was pacing his friend Scott, so in all likelihood, he wouldn’t be breathing down my neck, or more accurately, someone for me to chase.

From the word go and the first step off the line of the start, I was in the lead. I purposefully went out a little quick since in the past I’ve been too slow of a starter. Plus I wanted to get out ahead of the masses in the first mile where the course is very winding and rolling on the bike path. There were two ladies leading the race on bicycles who surged ahead a good 50-100 meters and pretty much stayed up there for the whole race, which, on one hand was great. Up at the front with them leading the way, there was almost no way to go off course, plus the route was well marked and pretty simple. I thought a few folks might there to run with for the first part of the race as folks settle into their race, but it wasn’t to be. I was alone and was going to stay alone until the finish line.

Heading for home with about a mile and a half to go accompanied by
my trusty pacer and drill instructor Mercy Ray

Well, that is not really true, because I was fortunate to have the company and support of Mercy for the last part of the race. After having raced and won the women’s overall division in the 5k, Mercy ran back to meet me at the 10 mile mark to run in with me for a few miles before going back to run in with her mother Suzanne (who, at age 59 finished as the 2nd female overall in the half marathon). It was great to see Mercy at that time since I was starting to get pretty tired and having been out there for an hour with no one to talk to, I was getting sort of lonely.

That was one of the most unexpected surprises to me, how alone I felt running at the front. Plus, even though I snuck a peak back on some of the tight turns to see where the next runners were, I was still running scared, thinking someone must be coming to catch me. In actuality, I didn’t like leading that way and for that long. I am so accustomed to chasing some body and having someone else to key off, I didn’t really enjoy running up front. Admittedly, it made me nervous and it didn't feel comfortable.

However, one thing that I thought was really neat and I had never experienced before was how supportive the other runners were when I made the turn around and was running back towards the finish. So many folks, up front, in the middle and in the back of the race yelled things like “nice job, way to good, and looking great”. I really was touched and tried to say something back or give then a thumbs up. That was one of the most memorable parts of the race.

Running behind me in second for the entire race was a small group of guys, including John Leuthold, Scott and Bob Julian doing his pacing duties, all a bunch of fellow local masters runners. With about a mile to go in the race, Mercy tried to play head games with me and told me the Bob Julian had made a break from the group and was coming on strong. Aw, crap. She knew that this was probably the one thing that could really scare me at this point. I was tired, but still running well enough, but if Bob was digging deep and close enough he could potentially catch me. But I knew Mercy too, and she’s crafty. I said, “That sure would suck if he caught me. You wouldn’t lie to me would you?” “Oh, of course I wouldn’t” she said, and “he’s breaking away”. “Oh great” I thought, "time to dig in", but I didn’t let myself look back over my shoulder and just kept on plugging away. If he was going to catch me, I was going to make him earn it. Bob was strong than me, but at the very end of longer race coming down to a kick, we might be a good match. Of course, this was all a complete farce and Bob was not breaking away and nobody was closing in to catch me, I had nearly a half a mile lead at that point.

Coming in to the finish I pushed hard up the final hill and ran strong though the line. The crowd was, of course, very small with just under 100 runners in the half marathon and about 75 in the 5k, but they gave me a nice cheer and applause. And I think I finished with a smile on my face, at the very least I was smiling inside, knowing I had accomplished another of my running goals, and in a half marathon no less. Who would have ever predicted that!

As for the stats, my finishing time was 1:19:00, almost 3 minutes ahead of 2nd place with my first and last miles the fastest of the day at 5:55 and most of the miles in the middle run at a very consistent 6:03 to 6:07 mile pace.

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