Monday, October 17, 2011

Race Recap: The Bridges Half Marathon by Dave Munger

Here's Dave Munger's report on the Bridges Half Marathon, originally posted on his blog Mungerruns

Last week, when Todd Hartung asked on Facebook if anyone wanted to join him as he headed to Chattanooga to run the 7 Bridges Marathon, he probably didn't think he'd get any takers.

But as it turned out my weekend was clear, and since Todd had already paid for a hotel, it would be a cheap way for me to do a scenic out-of-town race. I opted to run just the half marathon, less because the full was sold out and more because I'm not ready to run a marathon; I have been focusing my efforts on the Richmond Marathon next month.

Todd picked me up on Saturday morning and we headed across the Blue Ridge towards Tennessee. It was a gorgeous 5-hour drive, as these photos I snapped along the way attest:

Fall leaves in the Smokeys

A kayak launch on the Ocoee River

After checking into the hotel in Chattanooga, we headed over to the packet pickup. There wasn't an "expo" to speak of but we were able to get the lay of the land and figure out where the race started. A good omen: I got an awesome race number!


After a good pasta dinner, Todd and I laid out our gear, watched TV and tried to relax before trying to get some rest. Todd set his alarm for 4:00 a.m., while I tried to sleep a little longer. Race time was 7 a.m. and I figured I could get up at 5:30 and be ready to head out the door by 6. In the end, I ended up getting up at 5:00 and we headed out a little early, 5:45.

The scene at the start of the race was a little confusing. We had been told to head to Renaissance Park for the start, but when we arrived we saw lots of runners wandering aimlessly, but no race officials, and nothing marked as a starting line. I couldn't tell if there was going to be a place to check my gear, so I decided to drop it at the car, about a third of a mile away at the finish line and near the packet pickup. There were plenty of race officials there, so I asked if there would be gear check and was told "no." I reluctantly headed the car and stripped down to singlet and shorts in the 46-degree morning. I'd have to shiver for 30 minutes before the race start.

When I got back to the starting area, after 15 minutes or so some race officials showed up and set up a PA system. The first thing they said: "Those red bins over there are for your gear." Sigh.

The reason no one could find the starting line, it turned out, was that there was no starting line. We simply lined up behind a crosswalk in the parking lot in the dark. At about 7:07, a police siren signaled the start and we were off.

Since I had run a 7:13 pace at the Run for Green half marathon, my plan was to try to go even faster this time around. I decided to try to keep every mile under 7 minutes. We ran around the corner and headed across the first bridge. The marathoners would be crossing 7 of them, while the half-marathoners, who started together with the marathoners, would cross four. Here's a photo I found of the first bridge:

It looked just like this, only darker

It was a gradual uphill to cross the bridge, then a slight downhill on the other side. We ran first through quiet downtown streets, then turned onto an arterial heading out of town.

Mile 1: 6:51

The road headed into an industrial area, so perhaps it wasn't such a bad thing that it was still pitch dark out. The police were doing a great job keeping the streets clear, mileage was very well-marked, and water stops were well-staffed. I was laboring a bit for breath, but was determined to keep the pace up.

Mile 2: 6:50

I kept running. The course wound along on an empty four-lane road and there were cones between the lanes going in each direction. Were we supposed to run outside the cones or inside them? Could we use the whole width of the road, or were we supposed to stay to the right? No one told us, so I ran tangents as much as I could. Then I saw the race leaders coming back down the opposite direction and figured it out. We were supposed to stay in the inside lane on the right side of the road -- the outside lanes in each direction were actually open to traffic (although there was none).

Mile 3: 6:44

We reached the turnaround and headed back down the same winding road. There were three or four guys in sight ahead of me, but beyond them I couldn't see any runners ahead. Hundreds of runners were going the opposite direction. I saw Todd running a much more reasonable pace in the marathon and we shouted encouragement to each other. Some runners I didn't know were also shouting words of encouragement in my direction: "You go, girl!" and "Girls rock!"

"There better be a girl behind me," I exclaimed. There was indeed a woman with blond hair in a pony tail running right behind me, and she laughed and asked what time I was shooting for. I said I was on pace to run about 1:30 right now, but I wasn't sure I could keep it up. She said she usually ran 1:29 or so, but this course was a little hilly so she wasn't sure she could do that here. Where I come from, so far this course counted as "flat," but I didn't mention that to her.

Mile 4: 6:52

We were still running along the same industrial road but we were gradually reeling in the guys ahead of us, headed back towards town. We wound through downtown streets, then started climbing the onramp onto bridge number two. Ponytail girl passed me and the last guy ahead of us, and I tried to follow.

Mile 5: 6:41

Now we were on a freeway, crossing the river again. Although cars were whizzing by at high speed, the runners had a full lane and a broad shoulder to themselves, and both the onramp and the offramp we used were completely closed to traffic. As we started down the hill on the back side of the bridge, I followed the bouncing ponytail. Then when we hit the somewhat steeper offramp, I accelerated and passed her.

Here's my exit: Cherokee Blvd

Now there was no one in sight in front of me. We were back on the same side of the river where we started and passed the original starting area as the sun finally peered above the horizon.

Mile 6: 6:41

We ran along a paved running / biking path next to the river, then up some steps and through a parking lot, and finally onto another onramp, for Bridge #3. This one was a fairly nondescript urban viaduct, and I couldn't find a picture of it online. But it was also the toughest bridge because the approach was solid uphill, and the bridge itself was a gradual incline.

Mile 7: 7:00

I was more than halfway done, but I was also beginning to feel exhaustion setting in. Every time I looked at my Garmin, my pace was creeping above 7 minutes, and I had to put extra effort into speeding up. Finally I made it across the bridge and went up an onramp and onto another freeway. This time I was running against traffic, but as before, the runners had a full lane plus a shoulder -- plenty of room since I was basically running alone, with no one in sight ahead. Or was I? I heard footsteps behind me. Was it Ponytail Girl? I didn't want to show weakness by looking back, so I tried to focus on good form and solid running. Then the runner behind me coughed and I could tell it was a man's voice. Possible age-group competition?

Mile 8: 6:43
Mile 9, more of the same: 6:47

Near the end of Mile 10 I could finally see a pair of signs. Could this be where the half-marathon splits off from the full? It could, and it was. But about 20 feet past the turn was a water station, and I needed a drink. I ran to the station and grabbed a cup, and not one but two runners passed me, skipping the station. I followed behind. What could I do, I needed water, right? Then 70 yards later I cursed myself: There was another water station for the half-marathoners.

Mile 10: 7:04

This was my first mile above 7 minutes, but I chalked it up to the water/turnoff episode. I soon passed the woman, who it turned out was not Ponytail girl. Perhaps her older sister? But the man, wearing a long-sleeved tech shirt, proved more elusive. I followed about 20 yards behind as we wound along one of the most scenic sections of the course, a lovely paved path overlooking the river. Finally I passed Long-Sleeve guy again, but again he stayed close on my tail.

Mile 11: 6:58

The next mile was confusing. I could see what must be our final bridge, but every time we seemed to be approaching it, the course would take a turn. While there were plenty of volunteers on the course to point us in the right direction, apparently they hadn't been instructed to actually point in the the direction we should be going as we approached. We couldn't see any runners ahead of us, so we didn't know which way to go. I took to yelling "which way?" as I approached anyone who looked like a volunteer. Sometimes they weren't volunteers, just old ladies out walking their dogs. Hopefully I didn't scare them too much. The course wound across overpasses and around corners, until finally a volunteer pointed sharply to the right. I turned, and faced a steep, block-long downhill. I wasn't ready for it, but Long-Sleeve Guy was, and he took the opportunity to sprint past me as I plodded down.

Mile 12: 7:29

Finally it seemed certain we were headed for the last bridge. Long-Sleeve Guy was about 20 yards ahead, and seemed to be slowing on the uphill approach to the bridge. As I slowly reeled him in, I decided I would pass him with authority. I breezed by as we crested the hill and started down the back side of the bridge, which was a lovely old pedestrian-only bridge with wooden floors.

The final bridge, site of my final conquest

I kicked it as hard as I could and didn't look back. I didn't hear footsteps behind me as I came off the bridge and was directed onto the sidewalk by a volunteer. The sidewalk? Really? There were pedestrians on the sidewalk, and so I decided to take my chances in the street, which was open to traffic but only had a few cars on it.

Mile 13: 6:52

At the point my Garmin showed 13 miles, the official Mile 13 marker was nowhere in sight. The Garmin had been recording the course as long on each mile, so I was getting farther behind the mile markers at each split. I turned into a park and spectators were shouting support: "You're almost there!" But I still couldn't see the finish line. I was directed onto a winding path, and a kid said "You're there!" I still couldn't see it. Finally, I ran past a magnolia tree and could see the finish line and clock. I sprinted in as the clock ticked 1:31:37.

Mile 13.34: 5:47 pace

The Garmin had been off by nearly a quarter-mile, but that's within the margin of error for this distance, and I was extremely pleased with my overall time. Although my watch showed a 6:52 average pace, based on the official 13.1-mile distance it works out to exactly 7 minutes per mile. I'll take it, as it is a PR by more than 2 minutes!

I went over to congratulate Long-Sleeve Guy, who finished right behind me. I thanked him for pushing me so hard at the end of the race. He thanked me too -- a great finish to a great race. Here's a photo of the finisher's medal.

I didn't figure out what the 4 was for until I saw Todd's with a 7. Aha! I crossed 4 bridges!

Then I grabbed a banana and headed back to the car to change. I returned to the finish area and saw that they were bringing pizza in for all the finishers. Awesome! I had a delicious slice, then went to the finish line to watch the half-marathoners and 5Kers finishing their races. It's always neat to see how excited everyone is when they finish their race. Whether you run a 1:05, a 1:31, or a 2:31, it's an impressive achievement to complete a half-marathon! Some moms ran across the line with their kids. Some fathers had clearly run the whole race with their sons or daughters. There were boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives, and best friends holding hands as they crossed the line.

Finally the first marathoner crossed, in about a 2:40 overall time (the clock was off at this point -- more on that later).

First place!

He doesn't look too excited now, but he was absolutely thrilled when he realized he was the overall winner! About 40 minutes later, Todd came across the line, looking strong:

Well done, DART!

Todd's GPS had died at around Mile 15, and so he ran nearly half the race on feel, finishing in 3:22. Amazing! Just behind Todd was the female winner:

Another first place! Couldn't place the shirt but looks like she's on the same team as the male winner.

After a few minutes to recuperate and chat with some of the runners who had talked with Todd on the course, we headed back to the car for the celebratory post-race photo:

A good day for DART

It was about 11 a.m., and we heard the awards would be around 2 p.m., so we decided to go back to the room for a shower, grab lunch, and then catch the awards.

We got back around 1:15, and saw that all was not well. The clock had been shut down because the computers tracking the race had lost power mid-race. A couple of the timing guys were huddled over their laptop, but couldn't make sense of the results. Meanwhile an anxious group of runners was patiently awaiting the results. We waited, and waited, and waited. Finally around 2:15, Todd and I left to buy some souvenirs, hoping things would be sorted out when we returned. When we did finally return, the awards for the full marathon had been given out (very attractive beer mugs). We asked the timer if they had a result for Todd and he had placed fourth in his age group, just out of the beer mugs. Then we asked about my results, and were told that they would have to sort that out overnight. As of now, 4:38 on Monday, they still haven't figured it out.

That's not cool, not for a race that people paid $70 or more to participate in. In my case I'm not overly concerned about the official results (though I'd like one of those mugs if I earned one). But some people may have been attempting to qualify for Boston or New York with this race. If their times are not found, that could spoil months of training and preparation.

Overall, I had a great time at this race, but it's disappointing not to be able to see official results. I'll update this post if the results are ever posted.

Update: The results have finally been posted. Better late than never, but I wish the race directors had been more communicative about the problems. Here's what they should have done:
  • They should have explained to the runners that there was a technical glitch, that they expected to have the full results eventually, but they were going to take the time to get things right. 
  • They should have given the awards to the overall winners right away since that would be easy to sort out.
  • They should have announced they would hold off on the age-group awards, and notify those winners via email when the results could be verified.
  • They should have responded honestly to the many queries on facebook about when the results would be posted.
That said, I'm glad they finally got things sorted out, and that there did appear to be a backup plan.

So, how did I do? Not bad. My time was good for first place in my age group, and (I think) 13th overall and 11th male (there's no overall results listing, just age group listings). That easily puts me in the top 5 percent of finishers, both overall and within gender, which I believe is the best I've done in any race. Very pleased!

Todd finished third in age group, so it looks like both of us our going to receive those handsome beer mugs in the mail. A good day for DART.

You can see my GPS record of the race below.

One note about the elevation profile. As I noted earlier on Mungerruns, Garmin doesn't do a very good job handling bridges, and instead zeros out the elevation to the water level below the bridge. Thus there are four phantom hills in this profile that make it look a lot steeper than it really is. I might try to generate a more-accurate profile in a future post.

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