With a couple of races in town every weekend, I’ve only traveled to run a handful of times. Sure, I’ve jumped into a few races on vacation – an addict always has to get his fix – but it’s pretty rare for me to go somewhere specifically to race. The ridiculous production of hydrating/pooping/stretching/warm-up/breakfast is chaotic enough when you’re own home, but its a whole other thing from a hotel.
But Derek Gomez pitched an offer to Team Utopia last month – come run the fastest, net-downhill half marathon in the state and stay at his parent’s unoccupied house in Simpsonville. Intersperse all of the above with beer. I had a hard time giving up my March for Meals (first trophy ever) and Lexington Race Against Hunger (a standard on the racing calendar for 6+ years) but eventually I gave into the offer just 2 weeks from race day.
That being said , I haven’t raced a half marathon since Savannah 2014. That one was a perfect storm of awesomeness – one of my greatest races of all time and a PR by 2 minutes. I almost didn’t want to tarnish the memory. But eventually I had to do another one. This one was to be an experiment of sorts. I have been training for Boston merely to finish and enjoy that race, figuring it to be the pinnacle and perhaps last chapter of my marathon career. So zero speedwork outside of my weekly races. I’ve been religious about the long run, slogging out 16,18,20 milers by myself at 9:30 pace. I’ve somehow cursed all my usual training partners to injury. I had a fair amount of anxiety about this race as I had no idea of what I might be capable. There was just no recent data to go on. I decided to try for a sub 1:30 figuring there would be at least a 50/50 chance of a complete crash and burn.
I drove up to Greenville after work on Friday. For those of you living in Irmo, Chapin and Lexington – I feel your pain. Traffic is a supreme cluster. Accommodations at Chateau de Gomez were superb. He had a pasta dinner waiting for us (Michael Nance, Justin Bishop and Ivanka Tolan) and coffee/breakfast in the morning. You can’t beat that. Oh, and he picked up our packets. We are forever grateful, Derek.
The Swamp Rabbit course is point-to-point, starting at Travelers Rest High School and ending at the TD Bank amphitheatre along the Reedy River in Greenville. After going about a mile north, and running some coned off roads, mile 3 to the finish is basically following the Swamp Rabbit trail – a paved pedestrian/bike path that goes over 30 miles from TR to Simpsonville. The best part is, since its point-to-point, is a net downhill as you follow the natural decline in elevation towards the coast.
We get there way early to be safe. They had shuttles to and from the finish, which sounds nice. However, since it was 30 degrees and no inside place to wait (<cough> high school gym <cough>) everyone from the shuttles were fighting hypothermia. We did the multiple car thing based on Justin’s experience from last year. Hence my butt was overly warm in the heated seats of my Honda Pilot. Nice.
A few from Columbia were on hand. Jeff Godby and Shannon Iriel were there, which I was very happy about, since they would be good pacers with our similar half times. It was nice to see Shawanna White and Rashad Striggles, though both would be in different time zones from me. Michael Jensen was representing for Team Utopia – fresh off a sub 22 PR at Race for the Place.
I lined up close to the start with the narrow trail, but backed off the actual line because there were a ton of lean, singlet types that looked like they do my 5k pace to warm up. I’m sure the 2% body fat crew was wondering why some Sasquatch with an iphone was in their midst, but they were unaware of my X-men mutant power.
After freezing my butt off for a couple of minutes, we were off. The first mile and a half was actually away from Greenville and featured some of the few hills on the course. Nothing too bad. I realized I had absolutely no idea how to pace this. My goal was 6:52/mile and run it as even as possible. Hitting that first split would be crucial. I drafted behind Jeff and Shannon for most of the first mile but surged ahead when things were getting cramped. This race was ridiculously competitive, so I felt completely like a mid-packer. I was able to find a little space and hit the mile marker at 6:46. Whew – this was good. A little fast for the first mile, but pretty close. Second mile started to suck. There were a few inclines and it seemed like I as laboring more than I should. It also always hurts to know you are running away from the finish line in a whole other city. Mile 2 comes back in 6:59 and I am really thinking this is going to turn south in a hurry. We hit a nice downhill but I’ve got some nasty lactic acid building up in my calves. I don’t know whether its being cold or anxious but I better shake this out quick. I was bummed to see Shawanna dropped out near mile 3, but she seemed like she was OK. I got passed by a couple of young guys and Jeff pulled alongside for the next couple of miles. He asked how I was doing and I think I said something vulgar to the effect of NOT GOOD. Shannon said she was going strong, drafting just behind my sizable Saquatchian wake.Despite the crap feeling, I was hitting 6:40’s thanks to two mostly downhill miles back on the trail.
At mile 4 I realized I really needed to change something up because I couldn’t bear 9 more miles feeling like this. I focused on driving from my hips and putting less stress on my calves/ankles, letting them relax as much as possible. I don’t know whether this strategy worked or my legs finally warmed up, but things got much better very quickly. I fell into a good rhythm and just spaced out for awhile. Lots of downhill and flats. I ran by myself for awhile and then ran in tandem with a younger guy who looked to be in way better shape. I think he wasn’t liking some 40 year old beast catching him but we might as well have been holding hands for a good couple of miles. I was nervous about a crash because I had left my GU in my bag in Derek’s car. I was overjoyed at mile 6 when I heard someone shout GU at the end of a water station. I grabbed a water and tried to get the gel but the teen girl was spaced out and I missed the exchange. DOH! I debated about stopping to get it but I didn’t want to break stride from this zone I was in. Oh well, I hadn’t trained with GU so maybe this was a good thing. No one wants a pooptastrophe in a race.
The middle miles were a blur. I lost Mr. Fit and focused on pacing with the trio of young guys who passed me at mile 3. My mind wrestled with the creeping anxiety of an epic bonk and the euphoria of possibly crushing my goal time. Just hit even splits, don’t get crazy. Run in that comfortably hard zone just outside of your lactate threshold. My dream-like state was awakened by another “GU!” shout at the next aid station. This time the exchange was a success and i held a completely random chocolaty flavored accel gel in my hand. Conventional wisdom always says don’t try anything new on race day, but it also says don’t race every weekend and jump into half marathons with no real training. Here goes nothing. The chocolate was thick and kind of gross, but whatever, i figured it had sugar and maybe some caffiene. Took me most of the next mile to finish it, since eating and 6:40 pace don’t really go well together.
Just after mile 9, I had a sudden moment of euphoria. I was still banking time towards my 1:30 goal, and I started to recognize the course. I had done an 8 mile out and back on the swamp rabbit from my hotel in Greenville last April, and here it was – the place I turned around. This memory, and a nice downhill ahead, helped me recover some.The distance was starting to take its toll, and I was no longer in my nice comfy space. The mile 10 marker was a sudden surprise after I was lost in my head for awhile. This is it – 5k to go. I thought I was ramping up the pace, but it was more like ramping up the effort. This far in, it just took more to keep up the same pace. It felt faster though, because the field started coming back to me. First two of the young guys. Then a couple of masters/grandmasters women and men who reminded me how crazy competitive this race is. I finally caught tall dreadocked kid who had left his two buddies and looked back to see a gasping Sasquatch tracking him down. Catching him launched me into full on kick mode around mile 11. The course starts taking some twists and turns with a lot of road crossings, so this was making it tough. Still mostly flat though. I finally caught a kid who looked 15-16 who I saw at the start, with 1:25 goal splits written on his arm. I got excited at this idea but then even my fuzzy mile 11 math calculated he was just having a bad day. With the mile 12 marker I pushed in all the chips. With a 6:41 and still banking time against the 1:30, it dawned on me I was probably closer to flirting with the PR. By this time you can see all of downtown Greenville around you, with the noise of traffic and spectators ramping up. I was begging for the finish by now because the kick I began at mile 10 was running out of steam quickly. Justin came into view, and he was stationed right at the half mile from the finish mark – 800 meters! two loops of the track! go hard at the turn onto the street! Any restraint went out the window at this point. I almost ran over some woman on her Saturday morning jog who refused to yield an inch to someone flailing away at the end of a half. I used some of my precious remaining oxygen to curse her but then I saw the street. I was absolute toast on the little bridge over the Reedy river but by then the street is lined with people screaming. I finally saw the finish chute and gave it everything I had left. Hit the line right at 1:28:32.
Wow, so this was beyond anything I had hoped. I would have been thrilled with anything sub 1:30 and I had come oh so close to bagging the whole thing at mile 4. I was a little disappointed I missed out on the awards (this was only good for 5th in age group) but this is probably the most competitive half I’ve ever done. I think i was top 40 at Savannah, only good for 6oth here. I was also bummed at coming so close to my PR, which I was almost sure was 1:28:22 at Savannah. After the results came online they gave me a 1:28:27 by the chip (which matches the time on my Garmin). After a few beers at the Whistle Stop in TR, I did a quick check of the 2014 Savannah results. HOLY CRAP. It was my marathon time (3:11:22) that had the 22 seconds. My half was 1:28:29. So I got my PR! Two measly seconds. Sure glad I didn’t go back to get that first GU.
Two of my TUS teammates absolutely destroyed their PRs – Michael Nance did a 1:22:51 and Gomez finished just behind him in 1:23 flat. Both their bests by a few minutes. Gomez was able to get 2nd in AG but somehow Nance got nothing (4th) due to the unbelievable field. Speaking of unbelievable, Bishop rocked a 1:15 and got all of 3rd in AG. Insane. Godby got a PR as well, finishing in 1:30:07. Shannon crushed it, clocking a 1:30:53 and capturing 1st in AG. An awesome time after having a very rough injury-ridden year and not racing since last year’s Jailbreak. Ivanka had a tough day with some walksies but still did a very respectable 1:38 (4th in AG). Michael Jensen completed the PR parade with a 1:43:48, breaking his old mark by several minutes. Rashad Striggles went low 1:15 and captured 2nd masters in this brutal field. Erin Suttman was 1st in the 20-24.
In the overall, Brett Morley, our Long Run 15k champ, took the win in 1:07:52. Ladies winner was Victoria Hammersmith in a smoking 1:17:37. Matt Shock was 6th overall in 1:11:52. EA’s Alyssa Bloomquist took 3rd female. Caitlin Batten and Michele Ziegler were the top 2 30-34 women. The ageless Susi Smith took 3rd masters female in 1:29:52 at age 56 – incredible. I heard her support just behind me most of the race.
Amazing times on this super fast course and perfect weather!