To The Lady and me, this race has practically become a mainstay. This is the third year straight we’ve registered for it, and the third time I’ve run it (compare that to my attendance record for the Pittsburgh half: three registrations, but only 1 race to show for it. oh yes, we have a score to settle, but that’s another story for another time). It’s one of our favorites: running + sexy planes + military precision = so much awesome I can’t even.
This race had a lot of moving parts. Bear with me for a bit.
Before Friday, September 20
Following the wild success of Ragnar 2012 and, to a lesser extent, the 2013 Pittsburgh half marathon, The Lady and I once more started laying the groundwork for a group outing to Dayton, OH for what has pretty much become our favorite half marathon: Air Force. We rounded up no fewer than 11 people, 9 of whom were former Ragnar teammates, for the event. Unfortunately, things unraveled quite fast. Two dropped out very quickly due to injury. Another dropped for financial and graduate school reasons. Another due to injury. Two more because of graduate school. We acquired another one of our former Ragnar teammates along the way, but the final count on race day stood at 6 people. Needless to say, we were pretty thrilled that this wasn’t another Ragnar; even so, it was disappointing that so many of our buddies had to drop.
On another front, I’ve been having a lot of problems in the last couple of months with my general endurance. I noticed it for the first time in early August, and while it seemed to be getting a little better, the noted improvement can be attributed to a pullback in both average pace and total weekly mileage. I’m still hitting a wall after a certain amount of time that I simply can’t account for. One particularly bizarre aspect relates to recovery: I have all the worst symptoms during a workout (upset stomach, GI distress, inability to catch my breath), but mere hours later my legs feel perfectly fine, even following the long runs that featured epic meltdowns. It’s been so puzzling–I’m used to occasional downturns, but this has continued at a fairly constant level for such a long time–that I recently went in for some full lab work, and came back with the knowledge that my iron levels are slightly elevated from what would be considered “normal”. It’s unclear if this means anything diagnostically, but I’ll save that discussion for another post.
Oh, and: Keeley and Rose arrived Thursday evening!
Friday, September 20
We cleared out of Pittsburgh early to beat the rush. The Lady hit the road with Keeley and Rose around 10:30, with Devin and myself following suit barely 30 minutes later. Dan was slated to arrive via plane in Dayton in the mid-afternoon, but due to some unforeseen circumstances that we won’t discuss, he missed (cough SLEPT THROUGH cough) his flight and drove to Dayton instead (good thing he lives in St. Louis and not, say, San Francisco).
The evening was spent shmoozing at the expo, shopping for groceries, ogling the house we rented, and stuffing ourselves with pancakes.
Oh, and: they totally had SALTED CARAMEL GU at the Expo. I bought four there (to try), and later in the week when I determined that they were the MOST DELICIOUS THING EVER, I ordered a 24-pack off Amazon.
Oddly, I slept very well that night. Might have something to do with the gargantuan king bed. Mmmmm.
Saturday, September 21
Alarm at 5:30am. Ugggghhhh. But RACE DAY!
We hit the road almost perfectly on time, and ran into the anticipated snarl of traffic entering Wright Patterson. Having done this twice before, we knew the drill and settled in to let the attendants, volunteers, police, and airmen do their jobs.
Our primary concern leading up to race day was weather: ever since Sept 21 appeared in the 10-day forecast, there was a surprisingly high chance of rain during the hours we’d be running. During our grocery shopping the evening prior, it had poured. It was still drizzling in the morning, and while the humidity was almost Atlanta-like, it was cool. If nothing else, I was praying the cloud cover would hold: I do not function well under humid conditions.
Apparently someone heard, because while cloudy and windy, the rain seemed to let up as approached the starting line.
Unfortunately there was no flyover this year; please direct your complaints to your fellow Congressmen, as it is a direct consequence of the sequester. Nevertheless, we had a few majestic flyovers of wings of geese as we saddled up: The Lady, Dan, Rose, and I all grouped with the 1:45 pace team, Devin parked with the 2:10 team, and Keeley and her mom (who just turned 50 and was running her first half!) stayed even further back to run their own pace.
My plan, insofar as racing plans go, was to hang with the 1:45 group for as long as possible. My PR–from March 2012, so it really needs to be shattered one of these days–stands at 1:43, but given my aforementioned running issues I doubted today would be a banner day to crush it. Further, I was in the shadow of my phenomenal race last year when I ran a 1:48 over fourteen miles, due to being sucked into a group of a few hundred that were accidentally directed onto the full marathon course; I knew I didn’t have that kind of speed in me today, either. I figured I’d run with my two best friends–future wife and best man–for as long as I could.
As military precision goes, right at 8:30 the horn sounded and we were off!
The first few miles clicked by remarkably fast. I continued my recent habit of ignoring my watch, pausing only to check how our pace man was doing in terms of sticking to a 1:45 finish. The first few miles were a little crowded, and once I pretty much jumped several feet when claustrophobia set in while three runners on all sides of me spontaneously decided to close inward, but soon enough we cleared the pack and settled in for the long haul.
As we crossed the 7-mile marker (where one of the above pictures were taken), Dan jokingly remarked to me while one step ahead “I’ll make sure to remind you of the time I finished 7 miles before you did!” Little did he know: right around 6 miles was where I could feel the all-too-familiar fatigue setting in. I was glad it’d held off that long, but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stick with the group for much longer. I smiled and informed him of such, which seemed to make him feel terrible, but I laughed and reassured him that I came into this knowing I’d probably have to fall back. Dan and The Lady have been experiencing incredibly speed gains this year, and while it was certainly frustrating that I couldn’t keep up, I absolutely wanted them to demolish their goals.
Mile 10 was where we parted ways. My legs felt like lead at this point, even though I wasn’t breathing terribly hard. As familiar as this bizarre feeling of simultaneously having plenty of energy left but legs that won’t acknowledge that fact has become, it’s been no less frustrating, particularly at my favorite half marathon event. Still, I wanted to push as much as I could in the last 5k without completely blowing up, so I pulled back to a manageable 8:30s pace. I kept trying to test myself as I watched the “1:45” sign move farther ahead, occasionally attempting to catch up, but each time I knew I’d implode if I kept going.
[It’s hard. I know I should be grateful I’m not injured and unable to run at all–and believe me, I am indeed grateful, because I’ve certainly been in that boat numerous times in the last few years–but it’s frustrating that there doesn’t seem to be an identifiable cause as of yet. There’s work stress, potential overtraining, and now this possible metabolic issue, but nothing that overwhelmingly says I AM THE PROBLEM. Back in May, before my IT band went to crap and I was on pace to beat 1:40, I had Air Force in my sights as a sub-1:35 race. I know I could have done it, too. And that knowing, together with this unavoidable obstacle, is probably what is the most frustrating part of this.]
The mental battle was difficult. My body wanted to walk but I knew there was more life to be coaxed from my legs in the final miles. The hardest part is the finish: it’s nearly a full mile straightaway into a hangar, but the hangar (due to its sheer size) never seems to get any closer. At the last second, the course pulls a lazy 180 into the finish chute. I put in whatever I had left for that long finish, and as I crossed the finish my stomach felt ready to unload my breakfast.
Despite everything, I was thrilled to be out there competing and finishing with a pretty solid time. It wasn’t a PR, and even though it was technically a course PR, that was only by virtue of having run a full mile extra in last year’s event; my overall paces this year were slower. But it also wasn’t my worst time or even my 2nd or 3rd worst times (hard to believe I’ve only run 6 half marathons, fully half of which were this very race!). I’d run the best race I possibly could under the conditions, and irrespective of what my mind wants to accept, that’s all I or anyone else can ask.
The Lady had finished in an incredible 1:43:56 (quite literally 5 seconds off my own PR!), and Dan had come in right around 1:45. Keeley and her mom were rock steady, finishing in almost exactly 2:20. Rose was only 3 seconds off a perfect 1:50.
Devin warrants his own paragraph, as he was an interesting and almost catastrophic case. He was our lead-off runner for last year’s Ragnar team, and he’s run a spat of 5K races, but he would never consider himself a serious runner. He signed up for this half marathon on somewhat of a whim, though The Lady exercised her considerable talent in creating training plans to write a very thorough plan for him that involved several weeks of base-building that blended right into a gradual training cycle, with the goal of finishing under 2 hours. However, Devin endured what still seems like an extremely improbable series of setbacks: a summer stint in Germany all but completely nixed his weeks of basebuilding; a piriformis injury almost immediately upon his return knocked out the first several weeks of training; a bad cough that almost turned into pneumonia threw a wrench in things about halfway through; and a foot injury sidelined him during the last two weeks before the race. His longest run was just over 7 miles, and in the two weeks leading up to the race, he’d probably run 2 or 3 miles total. Needless to say, The Lady and I were extremely skeptical that he should even run the race.
He’s an incredibly stubborn guy, though (90% of the time this is a bad thing for him; even in hindsight, I can’t say running this race wouldn’t fall in that set). He decided his goal was just to finish, and he’d do it as slowly as he needed to. He started with the 2:10 (9:55 min/mi) group and felt pretty good…until mile 8, when he said his foot suddenly erupted in pain. He even sat down at one point, unable to move. He was preparing to flag down a volunteer to cart him off when the 2:20 group evidently showed up, and from his description the leader almost sounded like a guardian angel. He managed to coax Devin back on his feet, encouraging him all the way to the finish line, coming in right around 2:20.
This is probably the most incredible part: Devin, the jokester and prankster and social butterfly of my group of Ph.D. buddies, was in tears at the finish line. It was, truly, a moving sight.
That afternoon was one of compression socks, junk food, TV (JACKETS WON!), and napping. Oh, glorious napping. That evening we ordered pizza (nobody wanted to walk out to the car, walk from the car to a table at a restaurant, walk back to the car, etc), broke out the booze and the board games, and had a grand old time.
Sunday, September 22
We dragged ourselves out of bed, some of us more able-bodied than others (I think Devin was yelping every few seconds), cleaned up the house, and made our way to the Air Force Museum.
If you’ve never had a chance to visit, I highly recommend that you do. You can walk right up to some of the coolest aircraft on earth.
The hours flew by; after looking through the WWII, Korean, and Cold War aircraft, it was already time to leave. After a delicious lunch at Chipotle–I basically ordered a bucket of Tabasco sauce with a burrito on the side–we parted ways. Dan drove back to St. Louis, Devin and I piled into his car to go back to Pittsburgh, the The Lady drove herself to Columbus for a brief stop to visit a friend before continuing on to Pittsburgh.
Yeah, it’s disappointing that I couldn’t push as hard or run as fast as I wanted to. It bugs me to an extent even now. But it’s still my favorite race, and all things considered I ran it pretty damn well. Furthermore, the weekend on a whole was spectacular: the six of us made for a pretty tight group even before the festivities got underway. While I would have loved for more of the folks we’d invited to have been able to come, we still had a fantastic time together. We made an informal pact at the end to try to continue the trend of the last two years: find a fall running event that we can all do together. I have to say, I’m pretty excited about that.
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