Saturday, May 5, 2012

Earth Day Half Marathon, St. Cloud, MN

My first race report! Don't get your hopes up, folks, there are no car chases, nude scenes, or excessive drug use, but there may be occasional signs of rock n' roll.

Anyway, it's taken me two weeks now to get this done, as life has been moving as steadily as the race, and just now do I have time to sit down and contemplate my longest race yet, so here goes...

The wife and I drove up to St. Cloud on Friday afternoon so that we would have time to relax, get a good night's sleep, and be close to the race start in the morning. We went straight to the St. Cloud State campus to get our race packets and check out the expo in the main gym of the field house/rec center. It was nothing to write home about, but I finally got the chance to see what zumba was. Not impressed frankly, and more importantly, it was the dinner hour, and there's no better excuse to eat ginormous burgers than to fuel for a race the next day, so we made our way to Granite City Food and Brewery, a small chain restaurant that started in St. Cloud aka Granite City (there's a huge quarry there). Although the beer brewed in-house looked incredibly tempting, we decided to abstain for prudent reasons, but concluded that we would return after the race for more delicious meat comas that would include beer.

Our hotel was surprisingly nice. We had a quaint little apartment-style room at the Grand Residence Inn, complete with kitchenette! Initially, two of Anna's friends were going to crash with us to help us all save on costs, but one of them DNS'ed due to an injury, and the other decided to drive up the morning of. I won't complain, because it was awesome having a quiet room to ourselves to just chill out and relax. A little Animal Planet on the boob tube (a rare occurrence for me), and an extended session of foam rolling put me right with the world, and provided for an awesome night's sleep.

In the week leading up to the race, I had felt really anxious and nervous, mostly due to one factor - the weather! Although I had been training consistently, it still didn't prepare me well enough for race day attire. The forecast was predicting high 30's/low 40's at race start and a high of only around 50, but also a 70% chance of rain. Never having run 13 miles before, it was hard to gauge how I might feel in 40-degree rain. Come race morning, it was cloudy and cold as predicted, but no rain yet. I decided on my Under Armour short sleeve with a lightweight synthetic long-sleeve and my windpants. As soon as I got out of the car on campus, however, I decided that I needed shorts. Nylon windpants get really annoying when sweaty and/or wet against the skin. That turned out to be a good decision. I was on the fence about ditching the short sleeve shirt, but kept it on in my pre-race indecision. In all of my obsessing about clothing, however, I still failed, as you'll find out later.

We hung out a bit before the start inside the rec center entrance, where we ran into the wonderful Andrew E., one of Anna's college friends. I had run in to him at the race last year when I was cheering for Anna and he was cheering for his sister. We were all back again this year, only that my role changed from cheer squad to racer. It was nice to know that we'd have at least one person out there rooting for us.

With about ten minutes to start, we made our way outside to toe the line. The start was on the road, just before the bridge that crosses the Mississippi. There are huge concrete walls on either side as it carves through the campus, with a footbridge above it connecting one side of the chasm with the other. The bridge and fenceline along the walls were packed with spectators, and there was an almost gladiator-like feeling being on the road below, walled in by concrete and spectators who were all waiting for carnage (ok, so I'm overly dramatic here, but it sounds cool). I found my place at the start, in between the pacer signs for 7:45 and 8:00 minute mile times. I wanted to start conservatively and run consistently, gaining speed if possible. My goal was simply to finish at an 8min mile pace or under. As I did a few skips to get loosened up, I noticed a few people staring at me and pointing me out to their friends. Yup, I'm the weird guy in "those toe shoes." Since I had done all my training in Five Fingers, it just made sense to do the race in them. Frankly, I was excited for the adventure and the challenge. After the stress of the week, I was calm and relaxed, and ready to enjoy the morning exploring new territory.

We were off! It wasn't terribly crowded, but people weren't too fast to get out. One guy next to me was having some serious phlegm issues, which he turned into an over-exaggerated joke that goaded his three buddies to chime in with perfect loogie-hawking harmony. Another guy next to me said, "Ok, only 13 more miles to go!" I smiled, knowing that I was feeling good, the weather was solid for racing, and I was totally ready for the adventure. I ran an easy pace, focusing on settling in with good form, and I noticed that I was passing a fair number of runners. It appeared that I started a little too far back. I kept myself in check, to make sure that I wasn't going out too fast. Heart rate? Good. Breathing? Relaxed. Cool.

The course, albeit mostly flat, was decently diverse. The first 3 miles were along the road in an open area, with the river on one side and residential neighborhood on the other, before dropping down a short steep grassy hill through a park to cross back under the river bridge. On the hill, I rolled up next to a guy whose stride I can only describe as peppy and bopping. He noticed my shoes and said in a Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure voice; "Hey, you're wearing those toe shoes! Cool!" We had a decent chat, and he seemed to be having a total blast. We then hit the first water station, where I suddenly realized that I suck at drinking and running at the same time! How do you drink from a paper cup and keep running? I slowed a little to get a few gulps in, as I wanted to maintain good hydration at the start so that I could hit it harder in the second half. Bill and Ted Guy was gone, chatting up the next nearest runner, although just a few steps later I saw Andrew. In fine dork fashion, I gave him my best exaggerated wave, and he managed to snap this picture (and no, my gait doesn't normally look like this).
Hi everybody!

The next part of the course was beautiful, heading along the river in the other direction. Lined with lush green trees and various gardens, the crisp smell of spring was invigorating, although by this point (mile 4) I was totally roasting and needed to remove a layer. Since my number was attached to my long sleeve, I decided to remove the t-shirt underneath. It was still cold enough to want long sleeves at times anyway. As we were filtered up into the neighborhood, I began my undertaking. I managed to get the t-shirt off without totally removing the long sleeve, but draping the tee over my fuel belt in the back proved to be more of a chore. I wanted to make sure it wouldn't fall out, and with partially numb hands (it always happens when I run in cooler weather, even with gloves), it took me way too much effort to attach it so that it would stay and so that I was comfortable. We were coming upon the bridge once again to cross back over the river, and I was hoping that Andrew would have made it up top to meet us, but alas, he was still underneath waiting for his sister. No deposit of the problem shirt!

 Fantastic hair - Bozo the Clown or guy from Prodigy?

Crossing the bridge, the course winds up and through campus proper - a complete change of scenery from the first five miles. After looping out and around, passing a few groups of guys on their front porches watching the race and enjoying an early morning bit of "liquid bread," and finally heading back under the bridge on the campus side, I caught up to - and passed - the 7:38 mile pacer! I was a little surprised, but I was feeling good, and didn't feel that I was overdoing it, so off I went. Down the hill and past the stadium and it was into the woods for me! The next stretch was the longest, along a paved trail in the woods skirting the river. It was lovely and secluded, but the pavement was rather rough, and it was starting to take a toll on my feet. There wasn't much in the way of a soft shoulder as with many trails, so I simply had to tough it out. The rain also kicked in here, although not so heavy that it was noticeable. It was around mile seven when I noticed a pack of people starting to pass me. I was definitely slowing down. I felt no specific pain, but the legs weren't turning over as quickly, and it became clear that I needed some fuel. By the time I had decided that I needed gel soon, I passed an AS where people were handing them out. The only flavor I heard mentioned from the volunteers, however, was peanut butter. Yech! I love peanut butter, but not during a race, and certainly not in gel form. I decided to forego this round and just took water. I had two gels with me in my fuel belt, one of which I planned to consume in between this previous AS and the next, just in time to get water to wash it down. With aid stations every two miles, it wasn't long to wait, and yet once the thought of gel entered my mind, waiting seemed impossible and my body starting screaming for it. I downed one, and only after that did I notice that I still had at least a mile to go until water. Thankfully, it didn't give me the "Papa John's arid factor" that I had expected, but actually tasted quite nice.

Ye ol' legs started to relax a bit and feel strong again, just as we headed out of the woods and back onto the road into the neighborhood. I was initially under the impression that this was going to be an out-and-back along the river, but the stretch into the neighborhood took forever! It was here that the 7:38 pacer guy and his small entourage passed me up, and quite quickly at that. Apparently I wasn't feeling as good as I thought. I ran mostly by myself for the first part, focusing on getting myself back in form and rolling smoothly to prepare for the last three miles. Somewhere in the middle of the neighborhood, a racer passed me who I had remembered passing right at the start: white running tank with a t-shirt underneath, beanie, and gloves. I decided to try and hang on with the guy and see if I could "draft" for a bit. As we hit spectators again, everyone started cheering for him. "Go Lisa, you're doing great!" Oh, he is a she. Oops. Because she had short hair and a rather masculine physique, I had mistaken her for a guy. In any case, she became my short-term goal, rival, and new best friend. I passed her up and zoomed on ahead for a bit, then she passed me again, and we continued this pattern a few more times. I could tell that she had used me as a goal as well.  So that's how it's gonna be, huh? Let's do this!

We FINALLY got out of that damn neighborhood, climbing one of maybe three hills in the whole race and then hooked right onto the road. I caught up with Lisa again, and decided to roll with her for a while. "You're quite popular," I said, hoping to start a conversation and enjoy our little running reparté, as it were. "It's from the River Runner's Club," she retorted in a somewhat annoyed tone. Clearly she had no interest in chit chat, and seemed annoyed that her competition would be so friendly to her. Ultimately she just seemed rather shy, so I decided to just run alongside her without speaking, just to see what she would do.

Shortly after turning onto the road, we hit the ten mile sign. Something inside of me snapped and I took off - not at a sprint, mind you, but at a "brisk" pace. I had decided early on that once I hit ten miles, regardless of how I felt, I would hit the last three with reckless abandon. "BFF Lisa" held pace with me, which inspired me even more. Intimate competition! We hit the last AS where she took water and I decided to just bomb through. Why take water with one mile left? Shortly after this I broke away from her, not to see her again until after the finish, and really started hammering. The course diverted from the main road and dipped down toward campus once again, and all I could see was that 7:38 pacer guy taunting me with his little blue sign and bounce in his step. I had to pass him! Reeling him in ever so slowly, I slid by him with about a quarter mile to go. Woohoo! At this point, I just wanted to finish strong and knew that whatever my time, it was well above my expectations. There was a girl up ahead who had passed me a while back after I had passed her at the start, and I made her my last goal of the race. She was kickin it to the finish with a decent pace and solid form. Her hot pink shorts also acted like a bright beacon in my delirium. Hammering as hard as I could, we rounded the corner and hooked sharply left into the stadium. At a dead sprint I passed her with about 5 yards to go, crossing the finish line on the artificial turf with a finish time of 1:39:00 even. Perhaps it was a dick thing to do to her right at the finish, but hey, it's a race.

I picked up my finishers medal and a couple bottles of water and did some mild stretching outside, watching the finishers come in. About 20 seconds behind me, Lisa crossed the line. I made a point to shake her hand and congratulate her, thanking her for the pacing challenge. She smiled a half-smile and had no other words besides thanks. Maybe she was sour because the weird toe-shoe guy beat her. C'est la vie.

Making my way into the field house, the pain set in. My right foot was quite sore, and the calves were a bit tight as well, so I sat down for just a few minutes and people-watched. An older female racer approached me and asked me about the shoes, and actually seemed both interested and appreciative of the online resources I recommended. Sitting felt really good, even on a hard plastic surface. Eventually I found a nice open spot in the corner of the gym to stretch. Keeping a close eye on my watch and guesstimating Anna's finish, I made my way back outside, hoping that I hadn't missed her. Holy crap was it cold out there! I had completely cooled down inside, and had gotten used to the nice indoor temperature. Waiting in the wings of the entry tunnel, shivering, I heard Anna's name called. I dashed out to meet her and see how it went. Both she and her running partner had done a flying superman across the finish, beating their goal time as well. We had our pic taken, and then I had to get back inside, because I was freezing!

We grabbed some post-race snackies, cleaned up, and headed for lunch. Back to Granite City for burgers and brew! My right foot was hurting more now, especially since I had crammed it into a narrow-toed tennis shoe, but the beer more than made up for it. With enough juicy meat magic and starchy fries goodness to counteract the beer, we headed home pleased. Because I sometimes geek out with interesting statistics, I'll show you the rundown of my first major race...

The Aftermath

I woke up the next morning with severe pain in my right foot. After a bit of prodding, I noticed that it was a small localized area in the middle of my 4th metatarsal - not a good thing. It hurt to walk on, and the pain continued throughout the day. In fact, it continued for a few days, causing me to worry that I had a stress fracture. It was certainly possible after 13 miles with only 3mm of rubber underfoot, but it would mean that I couldn't run the 25km on the Superior Hiking Trail in May, which is my main running goal for the season and the race I'm most excited for. With the day off, I saw the doc that Friday, and his orders were what I had feared. No running for at least three weeks, which was the exact amount of time before the 25km. There was no use in doing any scan, because nothing would prove a stress fracture except for an MRI, and that's too expensive, seeing as it wouldn't change the diagnosis.

Strangely, however, the next morning it felt great. The little bit of "massaging" the doc did as he checked things over seemed to help. That evening I took to my foot with a tennis ball, and it improved even more. Perhaps it's just a really messed-up muscle? I've given it a full two weeks now, with only one light bouldering session and a bike ride on Tuesday, and it's feeling good. It's not normal by any means, but I'm planning on some light trail running (no more pavement!) over the weekend to test it out. I haven't given up hope of actually racing the 25km, so keep your fingers crossed!

All things considered, my official evaluation is as follows: I still need to focus on my form more, especially when tired, I need to fuel up sooner (around 5-6 miles), but my mental toughness was solid and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole race, and my fitness was right where I wanted it to be. Overall I'm nothing but pleased, but have a few goals to work on, which will keep me motivated. That's everything one could hope for, isn't it?


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