I was standing to the right of the finishing chute with my hands on my knees as my fast-clench muscles calmed. A voice from behind me asked, "Are you OK?" For the life of me, I couldn't find a single regret about the race I had just run. What a perverse feeling.
Sunday was the Buckeye Half Marthon, a small local road race with about 430 racers at the starting line. A race that tore me apart last year. The half marathon course is set in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, on two main roads (Riverview and Akron-Peninsula) and two crossing roads (Bath and Bolanz). This year the route changed from a loop to a double loop because the village of Peninsula would not agree to support the race anymore. By cutting out Peninsula, the race became significantly flatter. Generally, I don't like double loops, but this wasn't too bad. It allowed for better spectator support, which was a nice boost (thank you).
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My faith-based race strategy started with the lessons I learned last year. I woke up and ate a light breakfast about two hours before the race start. I taped my nipples with two-inch strips of cloth medical tape (very reliable). I double-knotted my shoes. And I remembered I'm not fast.
Martini wanted to line up with the 1:30 pacers. He almost had me. "You can start here and drop back," he said. "Dropping back is easy. You just slow down." I stood with him for some of the announcements, considering his boozy logic, and then I wished him luck and said, "I'm going back there." I lined up with the 1:45 pacers to avoid too much jostling and jockeying for the first mile and waited for the 1:50 pace leader to pass me.
I've never used a pacer before. I decided to try it when a friend of mine, who BQ-ed at the Cleveland Marathon, said he would sign up as the 1:50 pacer. That idea, unfortunately, fell through. Nevertheless, I stuck with my plan. (Coincidentally, Runner's World seems to have its finger on the pulse--my pulse--as the latest issue has an article about pace teams, which of course I can't seem to find online.)
I tucked myself behind the pace leader for the first 10 miles with about seven other runners orbiting around me. One man always seemed to show up at my side. (And you know how I like to pick a mark for each race.) He reminded me of Cecil Turtle, with his bulbous, shaved head and loping stride.
My strategy was to pick up the pace after 10 miles. I actually started to surge during the ninth mile because I felt like the pace team was slowing down. They had banked about 20 seconds. I got ahead of the pack, but had some trouble distancing myself. When the 10-mile marker appeared, I heard the pace leader shout out the split and encourage the runners still with him. It was the extra boost I needed.
I slowly pulled away. About 50 yards ahead of me was a woman at the back of the next cluster of runners. I tried to reel her in as if she were my new pace leader. I was alone, but not for long. Soon another man from the 1:50 group appeared at my side. We overtook the woman and he soon pulled ahead without me. Alone again, but again not for long. I heard footsteps at my heels, and then I saw him bouncing at my right elbow, Cecil. We passed the 11th mile.
Cecil and I ran together in near silence. It started to drizzle. We overtook another runner as we turned onto a cross road (Bolanz) that would take us back toward the finish. "We've got it now," he said with a sleepy, Midwestern drawl, which might as well have been supplied by Mel Blanc, to go along with his appearance.
We approached the only mean hill on the course, about a half mile from the finish. We gained on a group of runners as one of the race volunteers shouted, "That's it! Now someone pull ahead and show the way in!"
I tried to be that someone. I know I can finish strong, but the last, let's call it, 0.2 miles of the race are a bit tricky. We turned right off the road onto a gravel path, crossed a set of railroad tracks onto a dirt and grass path, passed the 13-mile marker just before a sharp left turn on what was now all grass, and with the rain we had to be careful. I got a little stuck behind two of the guys Cecil and I had caught. I broke outside and passed them, kicking as best I could and looking ahead to the clock. It read, 1:48:something. I had it!
I crossed the finish at 1:49:09, breaking my previous PR by five minutes and 40 seconds. My mind went blank. My stomach tingled and heaved. Get me out of this chute! I handed over my bib tag and stumbled away from the crowd, choking back any digestive insurgents. Without any disappointments, I almost didn't know how to feel. I just stood there, hunched over and swallowing with my hands on my knees.
"Are you OK?" a voice said.
It was Cecil.
"Yeah, I just need some water," I said.
"Thanks for carrying me there," he said, putting out his hand. "I needed that."
I shook his hand and thanked him for the same. I didn't tell him he was my mark.
As you may have noticed, I haven't mentioned my leg. No news is good news, right? Yes, I noticed it. There were some times when it hurt. But for the most part it wasn't a factor. The final three miles when I picked up my pace were the worst. And I didn't feel like I had all of my finishing kick. It hurt afterward, but with some post-race stretching, self-massage, ice and naproxen, it's not too bad today. I have a feeling this injury will be with me until after the marathon, but it's manageable. It was good to see how my leg responded to in-race stress.
The post-race celebration involved some beers and lots of food. First, there was breakfast: two eggs over corned beef hash with a pint of Guiness at a little spot called Gasoline Alley.
From there, it was to a birthday celebration where I ate pizza with the works, birthday cake and turtle cheesecake (Cecil?!). Mind you, this was only about an hour after breakfast.
And then a football gathering to watch the Dallas Cowboys season opener at Cleveland while the Browns apparently decided to skip the game. Dinner there was sloppy joes, cheesy potatoes, a chocalate chip cookie and apple crisp, accompanied by some Sierra Nevada Porter. That pretty much sent me into a food coma. And here I thought I was blimping from not running!