Saturday, December 11, 2010

Race Recap: The Thunder Road Amica Half Marathon

The setback runners dread more than almost any other is an injury during the week of the race. Some runners even dial back their training to zero during that final week, just in case. I hadn't gone that far, running about 30 miles in the days leading up to the Thunder Road Half Marathon, but I was still trying to be careful. My luck held up until about 6:30 last night, less than 14 hours before the start of the race.

I wasn't running, I was chopping onions, and suddenly the knife seemed to be having a difficult time of it. I looked down and saw that I had sliced off a good tenth of an inch off the tip of my thumb! That's going to hurt, I thought to myself. The injury wasn't quite bad enough to require stitches, but it did take a swaddling of three bandages to stem the bleeding. The thumb throbbed all night, and kept me up with worry that it would distract me from the race.

As it turned out, the only major problem the injury gave me was making it harder to tie my shoes and open gel packs during the race. My alarm rang at 5:45 and I got up and had my usual pre-race meal, which is the same thing I have every day: a bowl of cereal and a glass of V8. Then I headed down to Charlotte to meet up with the other DARTers. I saw Chad Randolph (who was doing the full marathon) and Marc Hirschfield (half marathon) as I was waiting in line for the bathroom at about 7 a.m. The line wasn't moving, so I gave up. Then we tried to hunt down the other runners. We caught up with Josh Schieffer (full marathon) near the entrance to the conference center, and took the opportunity to snap some pictures:

Josh looks positively glowing in his Team Gluten-Free shirt
Marc and Chad are looking a bit unfocused. But maybe that was just the camera
I'm styling with my new race belt loaded with 3 gel packs

Shortly after that, we ran into Mark Ippolito (full marathon) and Jeff McGonnell (who was running as a pacer for the full marathon), but I had already checked the camera at that point.

About 25 minutes before race time, I stalked around the Charlotte Convention Center looking for a bathroom. All the lines looked to be at least 15 minutes long, and I didn't want to cut the start that close. I decided to risk it and head to the starting line without relieving myself -- if I couldn't hold it, I knew there would be porta-johns along the route.

One issue I had with the Thunder Road race the last time I ran it (in 2006) was that the crowd of runners pushed ahead of the designated pacers. So folks who clearly were planning a 10-minute pace were 10 yards back of the start line, while faster runners dutifully lined up where they were supposed to, 30 yards behind. I spent the first two miles swerving back and forth, passing slower runners.

This year, they seemed to have corrected the problem: The pacers were set up much closer to the starting line. My 3:30 marathon pace group (8-minute miles) was probably only 15 yards from the starting line. When the green flag waved signaling the start, everyone in my area seemed to be an honest 8-minute miler.

Mark Ippolito was in my group, but I didn't see any other DARTers during or after the race. Mark and I stayed close to the pacers for the first couple miles. After a fast (7:42) downhill first mile, they settled into a steady 8-minute pace. My goal was a 1:45 half-marathon, but I thought I might be able to do a little better. My plan was to stay at an 8-minute pace for the first 6 miles, then gradually speed up if I felt good.

At the first water-stop, about 2 miles in, I wasn't thirsty, but I made a point of grabbing some water anyways, just to stay hydrated. Normally I just toss my empty cup on the ground (since there are people on site to pick them up), but I spotted a trash can set up to the side of the course, so I ran over to it and did my good deed for the day. Unfortunately, what I didn't see, about 15 feet past the trash can, was a full table of water cups. The scene looked sort of like this:

I noticed the table in time to leap to the side and mostly avoid it, but not in time to avoid the nice woman who was running just behind me. We collided, but neither of us fell, and I apologized profusely. She said she was okay, and I hope she wasn't just being polite. Then I vowed never to throw my cup in the trash during a race again.

As planned, I kept with the pace group for miles 2 through 5: 8:00, 7:48, 7:50, 7:57. I had my second gel pack at mile 4, just after the water stop (I ate the first one 15 minutes before the race). At Spencer Mountain, I carried GU chomps, but I found them hard to chew while running, so for this race I switched to GU gels. They don't taste as good, but they're definitely easier to eat during a race!

I was feeling great at mile 5, so I decided to deviate from my plan and pick up the pace a little early. I ran mile 6 and 7 in 7:39 each. (Times are all according to my Garmin GPS). As I ran, I noticed that my GPS was getting further and further ahead the official mile stations. In the end, Garmin said the course was 13.21 miles versus 13.1 for an official half-marathon. Certainly within the margin of error, and there's no doubt I wasn't running perfect tangents. Mile 8, at 7:46, was a little slower, but had no downhill and 39 feet of uphill. At this point I figured I was well over a minute ahead of my pace goal. I amused myself by attempting to calculate my pace based on the official mile markers, and even with the GPS issues, I was still well ahead of my goal.

The gel at 4 miles had left a nasty aftertaste, so I made a point of eating my next gel just before the 8-mile water station. Mile 9 was 7:45, even with a fair amount of downhill. I was starting to feel tired, but with just 4.1 miles left, I thought I could maintain this aggressive pace.

Miles 10 and 11 went by at 7:48 and 7:50. A little slower than I had been running, but they were also a little hillier. Just 2.1 miles to go!

I knew there was a long, gradual uphill at the end of mile 12 and the beginning of mile 13. If I could keep it up through that hill, I'd be golden. Fortunately, at the bottom of the hill there was a fantastic group of people cheering us on, and a live MC was rapping to a funky beat played on a loudspeaker. I did a couple of fist pumps to the rhythm, and the crowd responded enthusiastically, egging me on. It was just what I needed to make it up the hill. My split on Mile 12 was 7:56. Mile 13, half downhill, with the finish nearly in sight, went faster: 7:41. Only one tenth of a mile to go as we rounded the final corner!  A runner tried to sprint past me, but I kept up with him stride for stride, and we both cruised across the finish line at nearly a 4-minute pace. My pace for what Garmin called the final 0.21 miles was 6:59.

My unofficial time: 1:42:55. That's two minutes below my target pace. It's also my personal best for a half-marathon—my time in 2006 was 1:51:59, so I was over nine minutes better! For 13.1 miles, that corresponds to a pace of 7:51 per mile. The course was far from flat, with a total elevation gain of 551 feet and loss of 622. Here's what I looked like after the race:

As I mentioned, I didn't see any DARTers after the race, but I'll post their results (and my official results) as soon as they are available. A fun run on a perfect day. Even my thumb feels better now!

Update: The results are in! My self-timed 1:42:55 matches quite well with the official chip time of 1:42:56. Officially I was 38th out of 245 men in my division (age 40-44). I was 303rd overall (out of 3,226).

Here are results for other DARTers. Let me know if I missed anyone:
  • Marc Hirschfield (1/2): 2:19:02
  • Mark Ippolito (full): 3:28:23
  • Josh Schieffer (full): 4:12:39
  • Tim Richter (full): 3:14:39
  • Jeff McGonnell (full-pacer): 4:13:15
  • Terry Ake (1/2): 1:50:46
  • Rodney Graham (full): 3:36:33
  • Adam Mayes (1/2): 1:21:51 (12th overall!)
  • Chad Randolph (full): 5:11:48 [Sadly, that is not a typo. I'm checking with Chad to find out what happened]
Congrats to all!

My Garmin plot of the race


  1. Dave's right, that's not a typo. I finished the marathon in 5:11:48, which is a P.R. for me (but not the kind of P.R. I was looking for: sort of a P.R. in reverse). While the first half of the race went well for me, I represented the Davidson Area Limping Team for the second half. After mile 13 my left heel and Achilles issued a cease and desist order. Walking didn't feel too bad and so I decided to keep going, albeit at a much slower pace, dropping from 8 minutes per mile on average to 19.

    The nice thing about walking, I discovered, is that I saw a lot of other runners. Granted, they were all passing me by, but many shouted words of encouragement. Several running acquaintances looked surprised to see me. I felt awkward when spectators gave me kind words, such as "You can finish it!", and "This is the moment you've been training for." Actually, it was more of a slow march to the finish, but I'll take a kind word any day.

    I managed to give a little trot the last few yards to the finish line, received my finisher's medal and a mylar blanket. I grabbed a free cup of coffee and walked slowly to my car.

    On the way home I reflected about my experience. I should never take a run for granted. One seemingly small issue can upset the whole apple cart. Secondly, it's possible to walk a large portion of a marathon while hurt. Finally, runners at the back of the pack (I finished 1,153 out of 1,290) are every bit as determined and enthusiastic as those ahead. Congratulations to the DARTers and everyone else who finished yesterday's 5k, half marathon, and marathon.

  2. Dave, thanks for the excellent commentary. My Garmin GPS measured the full marathon at 26.44 miles. I wonder if that is a measurement error on the part of Garmin (or the TRM folks?), or if the slight extra distance represents the deviation from a straight line as you swerve around slower runners or take turns wide? Could be the subject of a science article.

  3. Rodney,

    My Garmin was 26.43. I felt like I hit the tangents fairly well through the race. I would guess being over by .1 is typical since none of us can run it perfectly, but I think I had the same distance last year too. I read that races often set the course long intentionally to prevent the race from coming in under. Dave, thanks for the great review. Chad, try to enjoy the down time.

  4. Rodney and Mark,

    I've seen that objection before elsewhere; I believe Theoden linked to an extended discussion of the problem on Facebook. I can't find the specific discussion he linked, but this article gets to the heart of the matter.

    Basically any GPS is going to have some error, and on a curvy course it's going to err the long side.

    Chad, thanks for your inspiring comment. You've definitely given me some much-needed perspective—and you ran (and walked) a gutty race.

  5. Nice job everyone! It was a fun event. I happened to have been left out on your results though.

    Adam Mayes

  6. Adam: Fixed it -- Nice job indeed!


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