Sunday, June 04, 2006

Sunburst Half-Marathon: Race Report

ORN: 13.1 miles, 1:53:22, 8:39/mile

Quick Summary

On a beautiful day, the
Sunburst Half Marathon was a great event. Amazingly, I PRed for the second time in four weeks and had a marvelous experience. It was a profound moment as well, something more than mere running.

All the Gory Details

The theme of this race was “Things did not go as planned and still came out great.” I hope I can convey that here.

I drove the 2+ hours to South Bend on Friday night and deposited myself in the lap of luxury at a Days Inn south of the city. I fell asleep early, reading a good book and listening to the Cubs and the Cardinals. First unexpected result?? The Cubbies won!

I intended to get up at 4:30am, leave by 5 to get downtown South Bend with plenty of time to pick up my bib, chip and T shirt. I stirred in the dark, wondering just how much time I had left to sleep and when I discovered it was 4:45am!! Somehow, I had turned off my trusty alarm on my watch and was already 15 minutes behind. But, I stayed relaxed, knowing I had a time buffer. Out the door at 5:10am or so, with lots of dew on the car. Not seeing clearly in the dark, I then proceeded to drive over a traffic divider I didn’t really see. No damage to the front end, but it did get my heart rate going. Two odd things and I was not even 500 feet from my motel!

The drive in was good, with
Twila Paris on the CD player, the eastern sky only starting to brighten and Venus a bright, morning star out my right window. It took a while to park, though and I was tighter on my schedule than I had hoped to be. Unexpected item #3.

I walked up to get my packet around 6:05am and noticed many of the Marathon runners still hanging around, looking relaxed. Since the marathon was supposed to start at 6, this seemed odd. Asking one of them about this, I found out a major chemical spill had happened on the course overnight, they were still cleaning it up and all the race start times were bumped back by 15-30 minutes! Can you imagine being the race director and getting that news with over 10,000 runners set to run a 5k, 10k, half-marathon and marathon in one morning? Ugh.

However, my lost 15 minutes due to a faulty alarm was made up by this delay. So I now had time to relax a bit more and stretch more deliberately. Which was good, as I didn’t get any safety pins for my bib at registration. But, digging into my race-day stash, I had plenty, so that was minor. I put on my
shirt with my Dad's photo, watched the start of both the marathon and the 5km race, then got ready for the start of the half.

Unexpected result #4. At the lineup of the half, there were no signs for paces. So, I simply had to start asking folks what pace they were going to run at and tried to position myself accordingly. For this engineer who likes to run by the numbers, this was a foretaste of what was to come.

The weather was unexpectedly wonderful. Starting temp of 59, with low humidity, blue skies and a gentle breeze from the northwest. The gun went off and once more, the race was underway.

I quickly found out I was way too back in the pack, unexpected #6. But four of us formed an impromptu running conga-line and, together, we snaked through the slower runners and by a half mile in, we found a reasonable spot in the pack.

My hope for the race was to break 2 hours, as I had not done any speed work recently and didn’t see any great run in the works with some of the late hills on this course. That’s a 9:09/mile pace, so I was surprised to see mile one click in at 8:48. Writing it off as conga-line-fueled over enthusiasm, I backed off a bit. We moved onto a beautiful tree-lined residential street and mile two passed at 8:49. Hmmm. Back it off a bit more, run easy, run fluid. Took some water at the second water stop, walking through it and mile 3 came in at 8:57. Surprising with the walking included. Still felt good, though and the day was spectacular.

And the biggest unexpected event so far became clear. The half-marathon route at this point took three excursions off the marathon route to make all the mileage work out and we discovered that we had no more accurate mile markers. “How far are we?” “Where’s the four mile mark?” “What’s going on?” was the tenor of the pack’s conversation. I had my Garmin on, so knew the elapsed mileage but since I had turned off the automatic lap timer for every mile, preferring instead to hit the lap button when I pass each mile marker, I did not know what any of my splits was.

As a Purdue engineer who runs by the numbers, this was a very unnerving for me and took quite a bit of rethinking. I always run races by the numbers. Hit the marks, adjust, keep hitting them. And I suddenly had no marks to hit, only four miles into the race. By mile 6, I had concluded I had to run this one by feel. And I hoped to sense it well.

Around this time, I happened to fall in with a fellow runner who was struggling with the same slight disorientation. We started talking and that seemed to help. Had a lot in common, the most substantive of which was the subject of raising teenagers. It was one of those wonderful, spontaneous things that happen in races and we found ourselves chatting all the way to mile 11. And I was still running by feel.

My new pal offered several times during the chat to let me go ahead. But I was enjoying the conversation and, shoot, I was running by feel anyway, right?? Around mile 10 (as near as I could tell on my Garmin, which is not perfectly accurate), I looked at the splits for a 2 hour half, which I had written in ink on my left palm (told you I was a numbers guy…). Doing some quick math and projections, I suddenly figured I was in striking distance of beating the 1:56 PR I had set in Indy four weeks ago. Unexpected, big time. Around mile 10.5, my colleague repeated her offer and I told her that if I’d stay put till mile 11 and then maybe I’d open it up.

Which is what I ended up doing. Mile 11, as close I could tell, came at the top of the longest, steepest hill on the course. I felt good, so told Susan I’d see her at the finish line and took off. As near as I could tell from my glances at the pace portion of the Garmin, I dropped from around an 8:45 pace to 8:10 or so. I focused on form, breathing, staying smooth. And it still felt good.

The build up of the last two miles was incredible, emotionally. Running now parallel to and south of the Notre Dame campus, I could see all the familiar buildings to my left. It hit me how symbolic this place was of so many good things that have happened to me in life. Most notably, my Dad’s influence on me, much due to his learning and connection to this place. I also thought of and prayed for his older sister, my aunt Mary Alice, who, even as I was running, was moving to a much higher level care facility. In her mid-90s now, she’s the family historian and the main connection to Elys of days long gone. Her mind is as sharp as ever but the body is failing. As she failed, here I was, able to run hard, with no pain and a clear mind on a beautiful day. It is a truly humbling gift and was deeply moving as I cruised along. The race, the pace, all seemed largely irrelevant.

With a little less than a mile to go, the course turned to the left and headed straight onto campus. I kept digging, at the best pace I could hold and stay aerobic. Notre Dame Stadium loomed on our right as we approached. I just started grinning as I ran, this was so cool. We looped to the north side of the stadium, made a hard right and were into the tunnel, heading down to the field. I couldn’t stand it any more. I just started whooping and yelling as I ran down the tunnel, and charged onto the field, in a dead sprint for the finish at the 50 yard line. Breathless, I stopped my watch and looked: 1:53:22. I looked again, yes there it was, another PR, by nearly 3 minutes over the race from four weeks ago. How did that happen?? I’m still processing it. But very, very unexpected.

Post race is wonderful at this event, as we could simply walk and cool off right on the turf of one of the most famous football fields anywhere. Yes, the grass is perfect and lush, even better than on TV. The highlight, though, was Susan finding me, bringing along a friend of hers, and said “Joe, turn around, we wanna see that picture of your Dad again!” I obliged and then the three of us stood at the 35 yard line of ND stadium talking about my Dad and my small effort to honor him, 13 years after he died and 60 years after he played at ND. Being there, on that turf, remembering Dad and seeing others smile at his story was deeply moving.

The day was a profound one and I’m still processing what happened. It was more than a race. More than a family memory. Much more than a PR. But what, I’m still not quite sure. I’ll write more as I process.

Thanks for persevering with me thought this long missive. It was a great day and you are a friend for reading it!!


Mike said...

Great race Joe, congratulations on another PR. It's good to read about someone finishing strong. Thank you also for your kind comments on my blog, they (along with posts like this) get me back to what's important when it comes to running. Numbers are one thing, but the experiences we have while chasing them are of much more value.

Darrell said...

Joe, sorry it has taken me so long to get here, a business trip without a laptop really throws off the blogging, LOL. This is the 21st century right, how can any compay send someone out into the field without a computer. Oh, well!
Awesome job with this latest half. Continual improvement is such a confidence booster. I could almost imagine your momentary panic when your race by numbers plan didn't work out. Nice job with the backup plan. It is days like this that running truly takes on a more spiritual feel. This one was obviously special to you. Congratulations.

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