Monday, August 29, 2011

San Francisco Giants Half-Marathon

Call me Fred.

At least that was my name as I lined up yesterday for the San Francisco Giants Half Marathon. We lined up on Terry Francois Boulevard, on the opposite side of Mission Creek from Pac Bell Park. When I looked down at my left shoe I saw a "D-Tag" plastic-encapsulated timing chip which clearly identified me as Fred.

An offer for the ticket had been posted to a mailing list I read on Thursday. I'd just gotten back from a 20.3 km lunch run, which I'd finished fairly briskly, so by my usual standards I'd not be ready to run again until Sunday. But this was too good to pass up, a "big" race happening less than 2 miles of home, and at a distance longer than I'd raced before on the road.

At the starting line they had three self-selected groups: under 7 minutes, 7 - 9 minutes, and over 9 minutes per mile. I expected to be around 7:10 - 7:15 per mile, or around 4:30/km. On my lunch runs, this had been a fairly good pace, and I'd only done it for a few km at a time, never sustaining for close to this race's 21.1 km distance. So it was fairly clear: I should be in group B.

But then I saw the pacers. There was a guy holding up a sign for "1:40", which is 7.62 minutes per mile (7:37/mile). I initially joined him. That pace I certainly knew I should be able to do, unless my still-tired legs let me down. Up the road a bit was a sign for 1:30. 10 minutes doesn't seem like a big jump, but that corresponds to 6.86 minutes / mile (6:51/mile). That's a huge difference in pacing. So I had the choice: go out a bit harder than I could sustain, slower than I could sustain, or self-pace? I knew self-pacing is tough, and I think the advantage of drafting in running is often underestimated, so I preferred to be in a group. It's very tough to come back from too slow a start, so I finally moved my way through the crowd to the 1:30 group, even if this risked me blowing up. Running with the group would allow me to run and think only about economy, not about speed, which I figured was a considerable advantage. I always had the option of dropping off the pace if it was digging me into a hole.

So there I was with some rather fast-looking people as ten minutes after the start the horn blew and we were off.

Immediately I could feel I was out of my comfort zone. I knew from previous road races, in particular the 10 miler I did with Dolphin, that a brisk start was typically closer to 6:30 than 7:00, and this felt similar. But these pacers know their stuff (I'd had a nice talk with the 1:40 pacer, who'd been meticulous in his preparation, before I promoted myself to the 1:30 group), so it must have been my tired legs.

The first water station came sooner than I anticipated. I guessed this was due to the 5 km runners. Despite having run for only a few minutes, I decided to take a drink; I hadn't drunk since leaving home. The first table was inaccessible due to paper cups littering a wide swath next to the table (who were all these riders up the road drinking this early?) but the second table was clear, so I grabbed my cup and actually managed to get most of the water down my throat. A bit went down my nose, more on my shirt, but overall a success. I was glad I'd watched DC Rainmaker's video tutorial on drinking at races. Despite having handled this fairly well, I still lost time on the pacer, and had to increase my pace yet more to close that gap.

The pace finally subdued a bit, but despite this we hit mile 3 I looked at my watch and saw 20:05. That's a 6:42 per mile pace, well above the 6:51 target which I'd considered a reach. "Is everyone feeling okay?" the pacer asked cheerfully. Err... that's not how it's supposed to work, I thought, but didn't say anything. This was a race, after all: no whining allowed.

"Pick up the pace!" a volunteer called from the side of the road. I laughed.

Water stops followed with remarkable frequency. I drank sports drink at the second: it was a bit too strong but I handled it. I decided to alternate water and sports drink. But for the rest of the race I drank at only two more stops. For a 90 minute effort, with drink cups the size they were using, even with the considerable loss of liquid onto my shirt and into my nose with each drink I was still hydrating ahead of the schedule I normally sustain at trail runs, let alone on training runs. Overdrinking can cause stomach problems, and in the cool morning air dehydration was a diminished concern.

There was still a decently dozen or so together with the pacer when we reached the "climb" on the course, the bump of Fort Mason. I run this hill regularly, so have it fairly dialed, and did my best shuffle-step climbing pace up the hill, letting the pacer, leading the group, gap me a bit. I was later surprised to see I PRed the climb on my Strava record: my previous PR I'd been trying to chase down a cyclist, not worried about maintaining a sustainable effort.

But here's where things went wrong. Following the climb there's a gradual descent back to base elevation, and apparently the pacer wanted to immediately make up for the time lost climbing. He immediately threw open throttle, and I simply couldn't respond to the acceleration without putting myself into the red zone. And the red zone is exactly where I didn't want to be less than halfway into the race.

near turn-around

So now I faced the western run along Marina alone, unfortunate since there was a stiff headwind. I was questioning my decision to let the pacer go, but clearly they were faster than pace at this point, and at some point you've simply got to pull the plug. Another runner soon caught me from behind, however, and after pacing him for a bit, I slowed slightly and pulled over to let him eat the wind for awhile. He complied.

Another runner caught and passed us, causing my partner to pick up his pace as well. This caused more discomfort. But I was able to hold on and get at least some shelter from the wind before the turn-around.

As we turned onto my preferred dirt surface here, and the headwind became a tail, I immediately felt better. Add in I was now running toward the finish rather than away from it, and my spirits clearly notched upward. I as running here with a very fit, fast looking woman who ran with a high cadence and smooth style which was encouraging. Honestly the shuffle of riders which led to this point is lost in the mental haze: my focus was distracted. On this section we needed dodge other runners, walkers, and mountain bikers using the popular path. I'm fairly obsessive about keeping the optimal line so prefer to apex turns if i can.

The woman and I caught and passed a guy whose style was in market contrast: a bounding, bouncing stride with notably slower foot turnover. After I checked to see he had a number on his shirt, I wondered how he'd gotten so far ahead of me running like that. I suppressed the temptation to give him advice: after all he'd been ahead of me for the previous 8 miles. But the woman and I managed to quickly leave him behind.

Fort Mason came and went quickly: in this direction the climb is easier. There was a slight confusion of the exact route due to the increasing morning crowds. As I've noted, I have a neurotic paranoia about going off course, but there were enough runners within sight that I assured myself I was unlikely to make a mistake.

Mile marker 9, the flag in mirror image due to the wind direction. My pace had not surprisingly slipped: I was still ahead of 7-minutes-per-mile but by less than before. I imagined the broom wagon was following at that pace, ready to disqualify and sweep up any unqualified runners who had placed themselves in the first wave.

But I was running well, and only 5 km to go. 5 km is around when it's time to ratchet up the discomfort threshold. Sustaining the pace was no longer much of an issue: it's only around 20 minutes of pain left, then the finish. So my protocol became regular: focus on relaxation to minimize the effort at my present rate of speed (relax the head, relax the shoulders, relax the torso, relax the legs), then increase the rate of speed, repeat. Speed doesn't actually increase, of course, but if I didn't try to keep it increasing it would otherwise start to drop.

Around a half-mile later we hit the 10 km turn-around (the course was longer out than back). This was a bit of a problem, as we were no overtaking more relaxed 10 km'ers, who'd started with us. Many if not most were walking, too many several abreast. Since I viewed every second as precious in this run, I wasn't as patient as I might have been with people taking up a majority of the path, and in one case I threaded a gap between two walk-runners who were cutting an exceptionally wide profile. "EXCUSE me" I heard indignantly as I ran by. For a second, just a second, I thought maybe I was taking myself too seriously, and should have swerved around them rather than taking the straight line between them. But I recovered from this thought quickly: they realized they were in a race on a shared course, and they were clearly giving zero consideration to the faster racers coming through. So I felt I had at worst only recipricated.

The route here was extremely familiar. The Bay Bridge loomed ahead, and I knew the stadium was less than a mile from the bridge. I kept my stride to the bridge, playing my game of relaxation alternating with acceleration. Soon, very soon, I would be on the baseball field. Cool.

Approaching the field, volunteers were everywhere, directing us towards the stadium entrance. I knew this entrance well: it's a spot at field level, separated from the outfield by a fence, where fans can stand and watch the game for free, a nice public relations move by the team. But now there was no fence. I ran among other runners onto the dirt margin of the field. There was a barrier blocking our access to the grass.

The finish wasn't far: between 3rd base and home plate. In contrast to our run, the field seemed puny, miniature. I sprinted as I could first over one tag reader, then over a second which was under the banner.

1:30:56. I could say I'm disappointed to not have broken 1:30, but that would be goal creep of the worst kind. Honestly, I never anticipated I would be able to run that fast, especially with tired legs from a long run two days prior. So that was very encouraging, not only for this day, but also for a Boston-qualifying marathon in my not-too-distant future, perhaps.

After crossing the line things got surrealistic. We were immediately handled medal, then a bottle of drinking water, then a yogurt and a spoon, then a back-pack-like bag. I walked a bit, admiring the hyper-groomed field, looking in the perfectly kept dugout. Looking up at the seats made them seem so very close. What a special experience it must be to play here, I thought.

I stopped to eat my yogurt: my hands were full otherwise. "Keep moving!" someone shouted. I was supposed to move into the stands and walk up some steps.

My shirt was soaked, not only with sweat but also a mixture of sports drink and water from fumbled drinking at aid stations (I'd managed to get most of the liquid down, but there was always significant spillage). I was starting to chill, and wanted my jacket, and I needed to pee.

freezing in the park

But there was more. We were led onto the mezzanine where we were handed a Safeway bag (???), then a T-shirt, then a Giant bobble-head.... somewhere along the line I'd also been given a banana and an apple. I could barely hold it all.

After stopping in a men's room, I continued on. Clif bar samples, coconut juice, some sort of "healthy" chips, a photo with our medals, and booth after booth. There was a booth showing some shoes which looked interesting, but I ignored it: I just wanted my jacket.

Finally I was through the gauntlet. The FedEx trucks which had our drop bags was outside. I got my jacket and sweat pants, now quite cold in the chilly air which not so long ago felt warm, and began the walk back to the start area to pick up the bike I'd locked there. Hopefully it was still there...

When results were posted, I'd scored 6th in age group for Fred. I was glad I hadn't let him down. For the other runners in his age group, I was qualified, so there was no problem with contaminating the results. I'm not sure I'll enter this race again next year. The orgy of swag is a downer. But the support was fantastic, and I'm glad I did the race.

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