Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Great Race Personally, but Not A Great Day to Race

Sunday morning, August 16, 2009, I ran the New York City Half Marathon along with 15,000 others. New York City was having a HEAT WAVE. At the race start, it was 77 degrees and 74% humidity and it only got hotter from there. Along with logistical problems on the part of the race, this made for a bad day to be racing!

Course map link
Elevation Chart link

A Casual Start to the Morning’s Race

The race started at 7 am and was a corral start, which you have to be in by 6:30. The group of us included co-Race Director of Heels and Hills and H&H founder Paula Robertson, Paula’s friend Michelle Gooch from Baton Rouge, and Matt and Sarah Hendrickson (Sarah’s a Heels and Hills Lucky 13 Run Team member and good friend). We left the hotel at 5 am, made it the few stops on the subway, and entered the corral by 5:45ish. The corrals were color-coded and sectioned off in 1000s. There were a ton of portalets and the corrals were spacious for the number of people per section, so there was a nice leisurely mood to the morning. We all sat there sweating under a canopy of trees in Central Park, waiting for the start.

I spotted actress Diane Neal who was also in our corral. She’s the redhead who plays Assistant District Attorney Casey Novak on Law & Order: SVU. I saw her a couple times on the course, and it turns out she finished just a minute after me. Pics of the actress at the race here...

(My first of two celebrity sightings of the trip as it turned out – I walked right by Jimmy Fallon by Central Park on Monday and was proud I played it totally cool, like it was nothing, but admit I was a little starstruck since I never see celebrities.)

As all the runners waited for the start, we all cheered and applauded as they read off names of those elite athletes participating, like Paula Radcliffe, Deena Kastor, and Ryan Hall. The gun went off and we all casually stood there. I have to say I loved this crowd. Everyone was just so leisurely about the whole thing. We quietly, politely walked along, in an orderly fashion. The bib range signs from the original corrals gave us some clue how close we were to the start line. We see bib range 1000-1999 and people start jogging. Everyone jogs for about 30 seconds and then it’s like one collective “oops” giggle erupts from the crowd and we all walk again. Right before the start line and the running begins again. We cross the start line about 8 ½ minutes after the gun start and I start my Garmin GPS’s timer.

The Hard Topic of Race Pace

My PR is at a 12:23 pace for 2:42:13 total. And my New Year’s Resolution for 2009 was to go from my PR at the start of 2009 (2:54 set at White Rock in December) and shave off 24 minutes to break 2 ½ hours in the half in ONE YEAR. I started the summer having taken off 12 minutes from my half marathon time, with PRs set throughout the spring, culminating in the 2:42:13 time at the Big D Half Marathon at the beginning of April. After 2 months of hard training in the Texas summer heat, while I didn’t plan to break 2 ½ at this race (take off the remaining 12 minutes needed to get this goal), I did want to see if I was stronger, and how that 11:30ish pace needed to break 2 ½ hours would feel. So I started the race with the plan to run 11:30 as long as I could and then just pull it back a little, and don’t go from all to nothing like I have sometimes when it’s late in the race and I’m tired and sore.

The First Half of the Course Described

You spend the first half of the race circling through the middle of Central Park. Interestingly enough, the curvy path through the park loops around back to the start corral at mile 6 and then you find yourself repeating the course for mile 6 to 7.5 before breaking out onto the streets of New York. Through Central Park, it’s quiet, not many spectators. Inside this loop, through breaks in the trees, you can see there’s another running path, and this seems to be where the weekend warriors, casual runners, and training program runners are. It’s also more humid here in the shade, and it’s a sweaty crew of runners. Central Park is also non-stop rolling hills along this curving road, and this tires the legs after 7.5 straight miles of it.

Something’s Wrong at the Aid Stations!

1.5 miles in and I reach the first aid station. I hear volunteers yelling “No Gatorade” at the first tables. Everyone’s going from one empty table to the next. Wow, yeah, NO GATORADE! Then we hit the water tables. A row of empty tables. I get down to the end to a volunteer who is grabbing cups out of a sleeve and dunking his hand (note: no glove) into the trash can of water and shoving his hand out to have that water cup disappear into the throng. Everyone, me included, is a mix of polite and “I was here first”. Most of us are semi-queued up and wait until our outstretched hand is the one that’s next and grabs a cup. When a new hand inappropriately pops their hand in from the side, that person is quickly elbowed out of the way, the way is closed to them, at least until those ahead have gotten their cup. It’s mass chaos, but on recollection, it seems like a mostly quiet chaos…

…until at Mile 2.9. Where we hit the next aid station. Again, NO GATORADE. The same thing happens with the water at this aid station. Except the panic is somewhat setting in, with this New York heat wave we all find ourselves racing in. And runners are wary after the problem at the first aid station, and many are running BEHIND the tables to where the garbage cans filled with water are, and are scrambling to find cups they can dunk in the water. Yes, this means hundreds of dirty runner hands as they swipe a cup into that water. Uck. You can actually see people looking around and I have a moment where I recall this story from Chicago – people using other runner’s discarded cups as a cup to get their beverage because there are no more cups. And everyone looks just on the verge of doing that. I’m able to wait for a volunteer to fill a cup and shove it in my hand. The runners are disgruntled. Some are freaking out - “How can this be happening? How can they be so short on water and Gatorade?” one girl asks her friend. I muster up as many confident feelings as I can, telling myself that this is a fluke, that it will be remedied in another mile and a half when I reach the aid station. I do all I can not to think about the option that this will happen at the next aid station… and the next… and the next….

Mile 4.5 aid station is a little better – I manage to get water from a pile at a table, and while they look short on cups, they at least have SOME, so no wait.
At Mile 5.5, it’s aid station time again. This time there is Gatorade, although I have to wait for a volunteer to pour it – but OH, that’s a bright lime color! I take a sip and it’s pure sugar in my mouth. I’ve worked and orchestrated enough aid stations that 2 and 2 immediately come together to make 4. I realize that somewhere with the volunteers, there’s been a huge communication gap. The volunteers are pouring the 1 Gallon Gatorade Endurance Formula concentrate into the cups. The normal mix is like 5 gallons water to 1 gallon concentrate! If they aren’t diluting it, of course they don’t probably have enough for everyone, and no wonder there was no Gatorade at the first two aid stations!

This aid station is still suffering from water supply problems. But luckily I’m able to come across a table with a half sleeve of cups and a couple pitchers of water. So here I am in a race pouring myself water from a pitcher – what is wrong with this picture?!?

So Let’s Review:

Mile 1 - 11:21 (great start)
Mile 2 - 12:16 (major problems at aid station at mile 1.5)
Mile 3 - 12:09 (still problems at aid station at mile 2.9)
Mile 4 - 11:30 (great mile)
Mile 5 - 12:46 (pouring my own water and waiting for Gatorade at aid station at mile 4.5)
Mile 6 - 12:09

A LONG Half Marathon Course… Is that actually possible?

While the aid station problems have me coming to grips with the fact my pace this race day will just not be what I want, I have another issue I’m noticing. With such a big race, I’m trying to be good and conserve energy and not weave through the crowd very much. And the course for the first 7.5 miles is non-stop curving roads, first left, then right, then left, etc. And it’s a banked road, sloping down on each side. I’m aware that courses are marked and certified on the assumption that everyone “runs the tangents” i.e. they take the shortest path, so they cut the curve as close as possible. With 15,000 other runners and a sloping road, you find it’s safest and easiest on the feet to just stay towards the center of the road, regardless of the curve. So obviously not the shortest path, with no curve-cutting happening. So around mile 3, I’m starting to notice the discrepancy on my Garmin. A tenth at first, and then another tenth at the next mile, and so on. By the time we come out from the first 7.5 miles of Central Park, I’m seeing a difference at the mile 8 mile marker of about 0.4 miles. With a direct route for the rest of the race, the discrepancy didn’t really grow, and I ended the race 0.45 miles longer than the actual measured course.

Note the actual measured course is CORRECT and I don’t want anyone to think I’m implying it’s not – it is very hard to always exactly match the course measurement, but this is a curvy course with a large crowd that makes it even harder to get close to the official course measurements!

Entertaining But Over Too Quickly

Miles 7.5 to mile 9 took you straight through Midtown Manhattan, with all the hubbub and flashing billboards and most importantly Times Square! We ran straight down 7th Avenue, which is a HUGE street you realize when you are on it. After almost no spectators in Central Park, there were a lot more people out cheering in this area, with a big quarantined cheering zone at one point too. Times Square was the location of a spectator and runner sing-a-long and it was as awesome as I had hoped it would be. A jumbotron with the words to the song on the screen, music blaring, broadway performers with microphones on a stage leading the whole shebang, and spectators, runners, and ME belting out Joan Jett & the Blackhearts “I Love Rock N Roll” at the top of my lungs. It was a very nice moment, you couldn’t help but smile big. But seconds later it was over! I wished I could have had that moment every mile, or at least had it least for more than 20-30 seconds!

During this the Garmin was definitely having issues with all the tall buildings, and it really freaked me out. All of a sudden my pace is varying from 7-9 minutes per mile (not possible), so it just made it very hard to not run too hard in this nice flat section of terrain with such great crowd support.

So Let’s Review:

Mile 7 - 11:51
Mile 8 - 12:05
Mile 9 - 8:37 (huh? Garmin had issues with the tall buildings)

And Then It Got Really Hot

At Mile 9 you’ve reached the west edge of Manhattan, and you turn and run down West Highway – a straight flat stretch on concrete the rest of the way. No scenery to speak of, just a wide road with the hope of shade behind spatterings of buildings and clusters of trees in the highway’s medians. And when you weren’t in the shade, it had become very very hot.

My nervous stomach all throughout the morning began to strongly dislike this heat. And what had been nagging upset stomach caused me to finally be forced to take a portalet break at Mile 12. I had really hoped to finish without having to stop, and unfortunately know that it’s one more little thing that kept me from a PR.

I spent the last mile getting close to that feeling that I was going to pass out. The last 5 miles or so, each water stop included a half cup of water on top of the head and half cup of water down the front of the shirt. The last few miles they were great at having firehoses out every mile or so as their makeshift “misting station” and I tried to take full advantage. And thank goodness, they had resolved the aid station problems at this point and I had no problem refueling at each one.

So Let’s Review:

Mile 10 - 12:43
Mile 11 - 13:17 (started feeling really sick to my stomach, and it was getting so hot)
Mile 12 - 13:52 (portalet stop)
Mile 13 - 12:06
Mile 13.1 - 11:29 pace
Mile 13:55 - 12:16 pace

Finale … or Maybe Just Finally

I crossed the finish line at 2:43:20. Not below the 2:42:13 PR I would have liked, but with heat, humidity, aid station problems, stomach issues, and a crowd of 15000, this was not the day to have even tried to go out for a PR.

And I have to say that this truly was the first half marathon I RACED, not just RAN. Over the next 20 minutes after the finish, I kept finding myself tearing up. I had proven to myself that I was way stronger than I thought I was. I had pushed through in all those conditions, I had ignored all those excuses to slow down, I had run during those last handful of miles as I passed a lot of people walking, and I had come within a minute of a new Personal Record.

I am so excited to test out this newfound strength at my next half marathon race, hopefully with more optimal conditions to not just PR, but to get even closer to that 2009 New Year’s Resolution to break 2 ½ hours!

Splits Summary

Mile 1 - 11:21
Mile 2 - 12:16
Mile 3 - 12:09
Mile 4 - 11:30
Mile 5 - 12:46
Mile 6 - 12:09
Mile 7 - 11:51
Mile 8 - 12:05
Mile 9 - 8:37
Mile 10 - 12:43
Mile 11 - 13:17
Mile 12 - 13:52
Mile 13 - 12:06
Mile 13.1 - 11:29 pace
Mile 13:55 - 12:16 pace