Race Report: U.S. Air Force Half-Marathon (Sept. 17, 2011)

This was my third half-marathon, and the first race for which I traveled to another city – nigh, another STATE (though Ohio is my home state… shh) – purely for a race. And oh, what an adventure it was! It was seriously the most spectacular race experience I’ve had, beginning to end. With a few minor snags.

Are you ready for this? It’s long.

Friday

I took the entire day off work Friday in anticipation of leaving for Dayton SUPER early. Unfortunately, schedules did not cooperate, and NB had his first stats exam of the semester that day, letting out at 1:20. But I had a blissful sleep in, some lounging and last minute list-checking and packing before I picked him up from campus and drove him back to his place so I could leave my car there and we could grab his stuff. Rob picked us up at about 1:45, and we headed to Mellon to pick up Cas. Traffic was a little messy getting out of the city, but once we were on 79-S, it was fairly smooth sailing. We chatted, snoozed and listened to NPR as we all buzzed with excitement about the race.

We headed straight for the expo, which was held at the Nutter Center at Wright State University (Wright State, wrong college – hey-o! Sorry, like I said – I’m from Ohio), near Wright Patterson Air Force Base. It just so happens that my dear big brother (aka Captain Cyclist, or CC, from the post about Cycle Ops) went to the University of Dayton and was in Air Force ROTC at Wright Patt, so I was doubly excited just for that reason. As we walked from where we (illegally) parked the car in a strip mall parking lot, we saw two F-15s flying overhead, which we were pretty sure was for the 5K that was going on just then. After getting our packets, including bibs and race shirts (they’re RED with big B-1 bombers emblazoned on the back!) we split up and headed out to explore the expo. Unfortunately the Pittsburgh Marathon table had run out of their free gifts for those wearing PGH marathon regalia (luckily they made it up to us at the Great Race expo the next weekend, since we got there MUCH earlier since it was on, you know, a Saturday) but I bought myself a Brooks “Run Happy” shirt that is soft and cuddly and somehow still a technical running shirt.

I had gotten in touch with CC for a dinner recommendation – Italian in particular – and he recommended Spaghetti Warehouse.

If I made one mistake regarding this race weekend, it was this. I had been eating super healthy all week, increasing my carbohydrate intake with lots of wild rice, brown rice pasta and cous cous, and tons and tons and tons of veggies. I ordered vegetarian lasagna, which in retrospect, was really dumb: lasagna has a SHIT TON of cheese, and restaurant lasagna even more so. I only ate about half since it was gargantuan, but I think it still did me in. You’ll see why later on.

Anyway, we still had fun. Service was slow, but the food was tasty and we all gabbed about the race and work and school and guinea pigs (some happy and some sad moments, true) before heading back.

There are few things more amusing that four runners bunking in a hotel room together. When we got back we all pretty much got straight to work prepping for the race: packing energy chews and gels; filling water bottles; pinning on race numbers (timing chips were on the bibs); laying out clothes and triple-checking it was all there; prepping a drop bag for bag check (okay, that one was just me) and obsessing about the weather the next day. It was going to dawn in the low 50s, maybe even high 40s, so we were a little concerned. I brought a throwaway zipup hoodie I’d bought at Target a couple days prior, so I hoped that would be okay. I also waffled on water: it wasn’t going to get that hot, did I really need a fuel belt? But I hadn’t packed my handheld, so I figured I’d just go through with it how I trained.

Lights were out well after ten, and our alarms were set for 4:45 a.m.

Saturday

Pre-race
Nothing is less pleasant than the sound of your alarm clock/ring. But holy mother of heaven, Rob’s ringtone was RIDICULOUS. It scared the absolute shit out of me, and I was UP right away. We all started slinking out of bed at intervals, emptying our bladders and starting to get dressed. I put on most of my running clothes and NB and I headed down for breakfast, Cas and Rob soon to follow. I hadn’t been sure what the breakfast situation would be, but given that it was a Hampton Inn, I figured they’d have coffee makers, so I packed some oatmeal in tupperware containers for both of us and figured I’d add hot water from the room’s coffee maker if necessary. Fortunately, when checking in, the woman at the front desk told us that breakfast started at 5 a.m., just for the race, and it was a really nice spread. They had instant oatmeal, but I stuck with what I packed, since it’s what I always had. Their coffee was just okay, and I had one cup black (with some sugar) as we all shoveled in food, bleary-eyed. By 5:35, we were in the car and on the way, since the marathon start was at 7:30, the race was 25 minutes away from the hotel, and they recommended getting to the site 90 minutes prior.

It was kind of a clusterfuck getting in: we exited the highway and saw a line of cars facing the other direction. We pulled a U-turn and were able to get in line for one of the gates going into the base… and then were somehow driving on grass, we weren’t sure how. It actually went decently fast, and we were parked in pretty short order. It was a pretty decent walk, but there were plenty of sites as we approached, passing the museum and several aircraft they had sitting out near the course. We passed on the first few porta potties, since we had time, and I checked in my bag before we discovered THE most massive porta potty corridor I had ever seen. There were SO MANY. They were decently clean and fully stocked. The lines had maybe one or two people in them at a time. It was incredible.

We spent some time wandering and trying to keep warm, standing under the tent, which blocked the wind, and checking out Boeing’s booth with its models and video of its aircraft before we got too cold again.

Around 7:15, the opening ceremonies for the marathon started, and Rob headed out to the start. He had PR’d a half marathon in 1:29 and change the week before and therefore wasn’t really shooting for a time goal, even though the course was flat and fast. He figured if it happened, it happened.

The ceremony was amazing. They had a young woman – I can’t recall if she was a cadet, an enlistee or an officer – sing the anthem, and she sang it straight (thank you!!) and in a gorgeous alto. I was wiping tears from my eyes the whole time (yes, I took off my hat. OF COURSE). There were some speeches that we could only sometimes hear, and then, there was this. The heartstopping, chest-rattling B-1 flyover. It was the most adrenaline-kicking thing I had ever experienced. I wanted to take off! But it was the marathoners turn, and NB, Cas and I clapped and yelled as they started their race.

B-1 Lancer: "This is the sound of freedom."

We had exactly an hour until our race (and it really was run with complete military precision) and we took the time to walk around, bless the porta potties once more and get nervous. Or maybe that was just me. Fifteen minutes before the start I took a Gu and did some warm ups, including leg-swings, high knees and butt kicks, praying my troublesome knee would behave itself. So far, it felt okay. I was a little chilled when I deposited my sweatshirt inside the tent (I was actually able to get it back later – no one touched it) but knew I’d warm up quickly. The weather was perfect.

The speeches were repeated for our opening ceremonies, and this time, the singer did the Air Force song, and I sang along to the little bit I knew, and looked up to see an Airman parachuting down with a HUGE American flag. A few minutes later, two F-15s flew over in formation. They weren’t as low, and the sound wasn’t as impressive since they were farther away, but it still got me pumped and ready to go. I didn’t really have a time goal, considering my injuries of late, but hoped I could at least better my previous PR (2:09.58 at the ATL half, which was a soft PR – or so I thought until I ran almost 2:12 at Pittsburgh) by even just a few seconds.

F-15s

 

Before I knew it, the gun went off, and the race was on.

The Race

I went out strong, trying to keep my excitement and nerves at bay. I took stock of how I felt: breathing, heart rate, my knee. All felt fine. I kept an eye on my pace, making sure I was breathing easily and not pushing too hard – not yet, maybe not at all. Each time I looked down at my watch, I was surprised: I was managing to keep a sub-9 minute mile pace. The first mile passed quickly with maybe a slight hill, but a second flyover by the F-15s gave me a jolt up the hill and I pressed on with a huge grin on my face. When the first mile beeped at 8:52, I figured it wouldn’t hold, and told myself to just enjoy myself, keeping an even pace.

We started down a path that I recognized as being circuitous to the base, a path I’m fairly certain is the one CC used to cycle (and said was “way too short”) when he was a cadet and later stationed briefly at Wright-Patt. My miles stayed fairly even. Sometimes I felt I was slowing down, that I was struggling, or that it was getting too easy, but they stayed right around 9 minutes. Mile 5 dropped off to 9:17, but I picked right back up for miles 6 and 7 at 8:55 and 9:04, and I had room to spare.

I have to say, the aid stations were fantastic. They were all themed, and the volunteers were very encouraging, shouting out clearly what wares they had, and calling out people by name when they could. I gave them all big smiles, and “thank yous” when I could manage it. They were truly superb.

I kept an eye on my surroundings as we passed in and out of shaded areas of the base, smiling at onlookers and fellow racers. A few of the same people drifted ahead of and behind me at different intervals. At some points I was near the 2 hour pacers, other times ahead, and then they sort of strung out (apparently this pacer wasn’t as solid as the pacer for NB’s group: he hung on with the 1:50 pace group until mile 11).

Can you see me? I'm in the yellow shirt on the left.

It as during mile 7 that I encountered my first problem: I realized I was developing a blister on my left baby toe, a bad one. I tried to ignore it at first, shift my toes around, adjust my stride. I stopped briefly to retie my shoe, which fixed the problem temporarily. I managed mile seven in 9:04, still on pace.

The next mile was when problem number two happened, and I’m fairly certain it was due to an overly rich dinner: I began getting intermittent but bad GI cramps. I was able to just slow at first, adjusting the tightness of my fuel belt, but during the 8th mile I had to stop and walk out a bad cramp. I was frustrated, but didn’t get down on myself, since I knew I was only stopping because I had to; I wasn’t giving up like I had in the Pittsburgh half.

Mile 8 also  happened to have the only cruel hill of the course. It wasn’t bad, especially for being used to training on the hills in Pittsburgh, but it was an overpass, and it was long. I slogged up it, only walking when the blister became bad again and the cramp returned. As the hill finally sloped down, I had to change my gait to a heel strike. I knew I was taking a risk, altering my gait in the middle of the race, but I wanted to press on. The walk breaks made my overall pace suffer, but I was otherwise running at the same clip, so it could have been much worse.

Miles 9 and 10 I got my pace back under 10 minutes, but at the slow end of my easy pace. When i hit mile 10, I was hoping to push the last 5K, but my gut would not cooperate. I power walked as best I could, and pressed on, trying to ignore nagging disappointments: I was on sub-2 hour pace for so long (a 9:09 pace will get you in under 2 hours) and KNEW I had it in me that day to smash my PR. I focused on the positive: I made it so long at that pace, and it felt really, really good. I could do it, and I was still going to get a PR, I knew it.

I look like crap, but kept on rocking

I walked in the last 5K a couple times, which was frustrating, but I walked out one last cramp before I was in hearing distance of the finish, listening to the announcer call out the finishers, so far, yet so cruelly close. I managed mile 13 in 9:09 – back on pace. I came barrelling around the last turn, and the last tenth of a mile seemed to lengthen… and lengthen… and lengthen… and then… there was the mat. There was the banner. There was the clock. I threw up my arms with one last bit of energy, crossing and nearly collapsing, reaching for the “stop” button my Garmin.

Crossing the finish (in yellow)
Stopping my Garmin after the mat

Post-race

My legs felt like jello and I was absolutely wrecked, but THRILLED. My watch read 2:04.19, and I knew then my chip time should be a bit faster, given when I stopped and started my Garmin. I made my way through the finisher’s chute to multiple lines to get my medal from an Air Force officer who, unless I was really that out of it, was a colonel! I thanked him profusely, or tried to in my daze, before making a beeline to the food and water. I grabbed a water, a Gatorade, a banana, crackers, and a piece of pizza I later threw out because I couldn’t stomach even looking at it. As I hunted around for NB, disoriented, I grinned at the various aircraft that kept flying overhead. I was able to pick up my sweatshirt and wandered over to the bag check, eventually finding NB, who had finished in 1:53! Soon after, Rob found us, and he’d qualifed for Boston in 3:08 and change (he applied for the race last week when it was open to all 4:59 and below qualifiers and he got in! He’s going to Boston!), and Cas, too, joined us, also with a PR: 2:30 and change in the half. Four PRs, four runners – what a day! We headed over to the results tent to get our chip time print outs, and I practically squealed: 2:04.14. I had smashed my PR by over five and a half minutes! A sub 2-hour half was officially within striking distance, and who knew what else?

So, what after that?

Well, we went back to the hotel to try to recovery. We intermittently dozed, stretched, elevated our legs, drank, ate, watched crappy TV (someone tried to remake Moby Dick with dragons, which I found really amusing) and eventually muscled up the appetite to get Chipotle at about 3:30 (the race had siphoned all our appetites until then if you can believe it). NB and I hung out at the hotel pool for  a bit, soaking our limbs and kicking ourselves for not packing swimsuits. We got dinner at a place whose name I cannot remember unfortunately, but they had great food and great beer and we stuffed our faces before crashing hard.

Sunday

The next day we took our tired legs to the Air Force Museum, which was just as cool as I remembered, even if I lacked my tour guide brother. NB bought a die cast model of a B-1 and I bought a postcard. Mid-afternoon, we hit the road to head back tot he ‘burgh, thoroughly exhausted… and successful. As we were driving away from the base, we heard the distinct roar of jet engines, and I craned my neck up. Two A-10s flew overhead in formation, a perfect way to end the perfect weekend.

*

My recovery went as well as I think it could have. My knee still seems fine (I raced on it again on Sunday, and that report will come soon). I didn’t work out at all Sunday, Monday, or Wednesday, and only went to pilates on Tuesday. By Thursday, I was able to do a three mile run without a problem. The blister is still an issue, but I’m working on that.

I learned so much from this race: about what NOT to eat the night before (lasagna), about fueling and water (I don’t need a fuel belt for half marathons in cool weather. Seriously), about pacing (sub-9s feel GOOD) and about my own ability and potential. Maybe it was those two 5k PRs. Maybe it was the fact that I went in with lowered expectations. Maybe it was the flyovers. Maybe it was the amazing organization of the race, and the fantastic course: the flat, fast, inspiring Wright-Patt AFB. But I will definitely be doing it again. And not to give away anything, or jinx myself, but it just may be a tune up for something… bigger later next fall.

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