Tuesday, April 17, 2012

My Last Hurrah! - Pear Blossom 10 Miler - 2012

The biggest road race of the year in the Rogue Valley came and went last weekend with the 36th running of the Pear Blossom 10 Miler. Hey, why are all the fruit tree flower races 10 miles long? The Cherry Blossom in DC, the Pear Blossom in Medford? Anyway, since this was to be my last race in the valley with my move to Washington coming two weeks later, I wanted to put it out there and feel good about having raced hard and giving it my all, especially in the masters division, for which there was even a cash prize on the line.

Also, my friends Louis LeBlanc and Bria Wetsch were travelling down from Portland to stay with us and for Bria to race. From discussions with Louis, Bria’s coach, and from racing with her in two half-marathons last year, I knew that Bria and I were fairly evenly matched and that we would likely work together for the first part. In my mind, it always helps to have someone there to work with in the early stages of a big and longer race. So, it was important to me that I take this race pretty seriously.

Going into the race we (Bria and I) thought we knew what to expect as far as competition and race conditions. For me, it was a battle of the local masters runners and I would be chasing Bob Julian and Neil Olsen. For Bria, based on the race confirmations, she looked like the favorite. Somewhat surprisingly, last year’s winner Marci Klimek was not listed among the entrants. Imagine our surprise when, as we were doing our final strides, my training partners Mercy Ray (who just won the 5k) and Bree Ray ran up and told us that Marci was here and was running. Alrighty then, there will be a race for the ladies after all.

Start of the Pear Blossom 10 Miler with all the wannabes crowding the starting line.

The gun went off and I settled into my target pace of 5:45-5:50 for the first mile. But for some reason it didn’t feel very comfortable. I kept checking my Garmin to see if it was off, but I was pretty sure it was correct. Oh well, I just worked on staying relaxed. Bria pulled in next to me and we ran along picking off the posers that go out fast and fold up after the first couple of miles. Right away we eyed Marci about 30 meters ahead.

Clicking along, Bria and I slowly worked our way closer to Marci until we were only 10 meters back going up the hill at the turn around for the first time. It was my plan to run relaxed and stay conservative for the first half and then go for broke once I got over the hill on the way back. But as I usually do, I attacked the uphill and leaned into the downhill. As we got over the hill and made the turn around, I surged and got right on Marci’s heels. Unfortunately Bria wasn’t able to go with me.

Bria Wetsch and I working our way up the hill at four and a half miles in.

Up the hill again we were hit with a bit of a head wind as I ran along side Marci for a few strides but kept digging in and moved ahead. Right after passing her she did the smart thing and immediately tucked in behind me. But I was having none of that and surged hard to open it up as I thought to myself, “sorry, but I’m got going to make this easy for you and help you beat my friend.” Marci, if by some odd chance you read this, no hard feelings. I’ve never met you and it’s not personal. It’s just that I protect my friends and want to help and not hinder them when and where I can. I think you’d understand.

I should note that by this time I knew Bob Julian was way ahead and long gone. At the turn around I did the normal thing and surveyed who was close by behind me who I knew was a masters competitor or at least looked like one. I was surprised to see Neil Olsen behind me by around 20 seconds, but he wasn’t that far back and who knows how his race was going, I only knew that he was tough and he was close by and we still had 5 more miles to run.

Coming down the hill the last time I dug in and dropped my pace to around 5:45, passing about 3 guys. Nobody around me was going with me and I was gaining on the bodies in front of me. As much as I wanted to know how the ladies race would unfold, I had my own race to run and I kept pushing harder. With 3 miles to go I closed in on my own personal cheering section with Bree and Mercy Ray screaming loudly from the side of the road. It was like running through Wellesley College at the Boston Marathon. I could hear and see them from 100 meters away. That gave me a great shot of adrenaline and I dug in some more as we curved around for the long 3 mile straightaway into the finish.

I could hear a few folks hanging on behind me, but only one person caught me the last half of the race, and it was Neil Olsen. Neil pulled up next to me with 2 miles to go and then a step or two ahead. I tucked in behind, not so much to draft, since there breeze was minor here, but to get pulled along or more accurately to try and hang on for dear life. Clearly Neil was running faster than me, I was pushing hard and dropping the pace and he caught and passed me, which nobody else did. I hung in that spot for almost a mile until we got to the Black Bird, the infamous icon marking one mile to go in the race. But Neil just pulled away.

The infamous Black Bird, icon of Pear Blossom racing pain.

We both kept gaining on a guy in front of us and passed him with about 400 meters to go, but the gap between Neil and I got bigger. As we came into the thicker spectators near the finish I reminded myself that this was it, this was my last race in the valley. I also said to myself, “dammit, you have speed and you have a kick, use it. It won’t hurt any more, you are already hurting, just flip that damn switch. You know Neil is an ultra-marathoner, he can’t have a kick (I have no idea if he did or not, this is just me talking to myself), you race on the track for god’s sake, sprint!” We rounded the corner with about 150 meters to the finish and Neil was ahead by 30-40 meters. I took off, and I sprinted…..and I sprinted. I was closing the gap but I was going to run out of road, I pushed harder and just made it by half a stride right at the line. As I crossed the line I heard the announcer say my name and something or other, but I don’t know what it was, I was just determined to catch him.

Relief after crossing the finish line with the best sprint I could muster.

Truth be told, I would probably have sprinted that hard regardless of who it was in front of me. It wasn’t just because it was someone who I knew was in my age group and I respected as one of the best masters runners in the Rogue Valley, but that most certainly helped. But one of my new year’s resolutions this year was to never give up at the end of a race and if there was someone to catch or race I had to try to beat them no matter what. Neil just happened to be the target this time.

My final time was 58:31 and I was the 11th runner across the line. I figured I got second in the masters race and was feeling pretty good about that. At the finish I turned and watched to see how the women’s race unfolded. Sure enough Marci came around the corner 1st and won the race with Bria only about 20 seconds behind. I later learned that Bria did catch Marci and run with her for a bit, but in the end Marci was stronger over the last couple of miles.

Later that day, when checking the race results online, I was shocked to learn that I actually finished 12th overall and was the 3rd masters male. It seems that, even though I crossed the finish line ahead of Neil and had a gun time one second faster than his, he had a chip time that was 1:20 faster than me. What? I may not have gotten “chicked” in this race but I got “chipped”! Apparently, Neil missed the start by over a minute and had to run like hell to catch up, which explains why he was behind me at the turn around. I’ll admit that it annoyed me to think that I sprinted my ass off to try and beat someone only to show up behind them in the results because of a difference in chip timing. I mean, come on. I crossed the line ahead of them didn’t I? At first I thought there must be an error with the timing system, but then after reflecting on it, I had to admit that, no, Neil is really that fast (and faster than me) and he had to have absolutely hauled ass running through and past all those people to get back up towards the front. That is simply amazing when you think about it. So, hats off to him for an amazing run.

Now that the race is all over it makes me chuckle that, in a way, I screwed myself out of the $100 for first masters runner, since I informed Bob Julian a couple of days before the race that there was actually $100 being awarded for the first masters runners who were USATF-Oregon members. Apparently Bob had let his membership lapse and with the news of a cash prize smartly renewed that day. And as I expected, Bob ran a fantastic race and went home $100 richer! However, with the age-old conflict in official results for chip time versus gun time, it would have been interesting to see how the USATF-Oregon folks would have handled it if Bob had not renewed his membership. Without Bob in the mix, and based on gun time I would have been the first masters runner, but based on chip time, Neil Olsen would have been first (assuming his USATF membership was up to date too). In the past, USATF has been pretty clear about the rules, stating that races are about competition, and are won by the first person across the line and not necessarily by the person with the fastest time. For this reason, they recommend that race directors clearly state that awards will be given based on gun time, but as we all know, most races and race directors these days (Pear Blossom included) do not clearly articulate such details for the benefit of the participants, nor does USATF-Oregon clearly state that on their Long Distance Running Blog which announces the Grand Prix Series prize money.

I should emphasize that in my writing about this, I in no way harbor any ill feelings towards any of the folks I race against. Bob is a friend and a training partner, and Neil is one of the best masters runners in the valley against which I was always going to try my hardest. For me, it is part of finding the pleasure in running through being competitive. I simply see these guys as my peers and my rivals, in the best sense of those words, and maybe if I really get lucky, one day I will triumph!

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