You are never too old to be surprised

Shamrock Half-Marathon, Virginia Beach, March 20 2011

I seem to recall signing up for the Shamrock Half even before I’d finished the Ironman.  I’m undoubtedly mis-remembering that but it was certainly around that time.  I signed up for two main reasons.  The first was because I was paying heed to all my more experienced IronMentors who told me that it was important to have some kind of athletic goal in mind before you finished the Ironman.  That way you wouldn’t be tempted simply to rest on your laurels, but would have an incentive to pick up your training again.  The second reason was because I figured that I’d be able to carry some residual Ironman fitness over into a race where, given the fact that the course is as close to flat as you are ever going to get without venturing into the retirement village hell of Florida, I would have a good chance of setting a PR.  Well, as we know, I did rest comfortably on my laurels and never picked up my training in any meaningful way over the winter.  As a consequence, I gave up on the race.   That isn’t to say that I wouldn’t do it.  But it wasn’t a priority, there was nothing riding on it, and consequently no expectations.

Not training is the new training
When I say I didn’t train that doesn’t mean that I sat on the couch all day and ate bon bons (although my waist line tells a different tale).  I tried to keep myself physically active, so I’ve gone for long runs, bike rides, and even a couple of swims.  But it has all been rather sporadic, missing key elements (strength training?  what is that?  yoga?  Say what?) and hasn’t really added up to training in any meaningful sense of the word.

Which brings us to “taper” week.  Logically, if you haven’t been training, there’s really nothing to taper from.  Or taper toward, for that matter.  So I embarked on my own version of taper week.  Let’s call it “what not to do on taper” week.

A friend generously lent me the use of their place down in the Outer Banks for a few days before the race.  This marked the end of a long, long, loooooong period of intense writing for me, on multiple projects, which has lasted about three months (and that’s one reason why my blogging activity has been sporadic; I’ve only got so much writing in me!).  Therefore the race wasn’t on my mind, taper wasn’t on my mind.  This was a mental health break for me, an opportunity to re-charge, re-focus.

So, what does one do on a “what not to do” taper week?  Eat pizza.  Eat lots of donuts (Duck Donuts, cooked and frosted while you wait!).  Drink beer.  Drink single malt (well, they did say I could help myself to anything in the fridge!).  Sit on my arse and read (gradually working my way through their collection of Hornblower novels).  Stay up late.  Go for a 30-odd mile bike ride (I did a “zone 2” time trial: a distance ride where you keep your cadence really high and try to keep your HR down).  Then I did another 30 mile bike ride, on the day I was driving up to Virginia Beach, two days before the race.

Ocean Views
When I arrived in Virginia Beach, therefore, I was in prime condition to race!  Seriously, I was mostly looking forward to spending time with my team-mates, supporting people as they raced their first ever marathon or half-marathon.  I sure wasn’t looking forward to spending time in Virginia Beach.  Like so many resort towns it is a lively, happening place. . .with absolutely no soul.  Stay there too long, and you can feel your own soul leaving you.  The race course for the half includes all the worst parts of the marathon course: miles that run through residential neighborhoods filled with the overwrought architecture so typical of beach communities.  Then a long three mile pitch through woods unrelieved by any element of visual interest.  A short stint through the desert of Fort Story is fortunately accompanied by some stunning ocean views but all too soon you are back in amongst the anxious wealth of the beach fronts.  There’s a tired sameness about it all.

One of the things that makes beach front architecture so strange is that the value of your house has very little to do with what it looks like and everything to do with how close to the ocean you are.  Therefore, ordinary shacks are worth a fortune, and any home can be outfitted with as many accoutrements and as little taste as you can imagine.  This was certainly true of the swank digs where we were staying for the weekend, a three-story rental with four bathrooms, one master bath as big as the entire upper floor of my house, two sun decks on two different levels, an elevator and a gigantic fish with its scales made out of buttons (quite possibly the most oddly mesmerizing piece of kitsch I have ever seen).  But there was certainly plenty of room for a bunch of Zers to lay out masses of gear and to party.  It also helped to be sharing the house with a fun bunch of people: Tracey and Mike, Alexis and Anne, Nicolas, Theresa and Jen.  Out of all of us, only Nicolas was insane enough to be attempting the marathon (or, as Mike and I began calling it after we decided the half-marathon was the “normal” distance, the “double”); the rest of us were “only” doing the half.

I got a sense of how much Team Z has grown at the pasta dinner the night before.  I met new people and reconnected with a lot of people who seemed to be emerging from the woodwork for the first time.  This seems to be how it goes over winter; people go their own way until the first big team event and then suddenly it is full steam ahead as the actual tri season gets underway.  We ate the restaurant out of house and home; they complained and accused us of having more people there than we actually did and tried to charge us extra.  Unless a restaurant has had the misfortune to have a plague of giant locusts descend upon them, they really have no idea of the biblical amounts of food that triathletes consume en masse.  Then it was back to the fish house for a couple of beers before bed (just to keep up with my “how not to taper” routine).

Deja Vu
Ah, Virginia Beach.  Have I mentioned already how much I love Virginia Beach?  Yes, I believe I did.  Well, I fell even more passionately in love with the place when I stepped outside on race morning.  I had vivid memories of race morning a year ago when I was fronting up for the Shamrock Marathon.   The morning had been bitterly cold and was blowing a gale.  Ed had worked out a deal with the race director that allowed us to take refuge pre-race in the large party tent and then move our stuff outside later.  Alexis had handed out trash bags for everyone to wear in order to keep the paralyzing cold at bay as we walked the several blocks to the start line.

This morning was bitterly cold and it was blowing a gale.  If anything, it was even worse than last year.  As we parked and walked to the tent on the beach I swear I saw small children bowling down the road like small blobs of whiney tumbleweed.  This year, however, my planning was coming to my rescue, even if it wasn’t planning for this event.  I’d taken a ton of cold weather bike gear down to the Outer Banks because you can never really anticipate what the weather is going to do.  In the end it proved to be ridiculously warm so I didn’t need most of it (I found myself on the second ride experiencing the sensation of something being really, really wrong. . .and then figured out that it was because I was only wearing one layer).  As a consequence I was able to press a lot of that gear into service for the run.  I had my winter weight Underarmor on beneath my Team Z singlet and had my winter running skullie and gloves.  I added two more layers to keep me warm pre-race. . .and I still felt as if my man parts were going to fall off.  It was a relief to finally make it to the tent, only to find that we were in the middle of an episode with one of the race coordinators trying to kick us out.  Finally the left hand was able to talk to the right hand and we were allowed to stay.  But the bad memories of last year persisted.  Once again, I went outside to the portaloos and almost froze to the seat.  Once again, Alexis was there handing out trash bags to try and keep us all warm.  The only difference was that the wind was much worse this year.  As Nina and I walked to the race start there were moments where the wind would leap out in ambush from between the buildings, shunting us sideways.  We got there just before the national anthem, and I ditched my plastic bag, wished Nina luck, and headed off to my starting corral.   I found myself next to Nelson, with both of us trying to remember what predicted finish time we had entered in the wildly optimistic days of fall that would have had us starting in the second group.  The horn sounded, the first group went off, the sun came up and, mercifully, just as it had last year, the wind died away a little.  Not a lot, but enough so that you didn’t feel you were being hammered into submission.  Those of us in the second group shuffled forward, began counting down.

Something is really wrong. . .I don’t feel like complete crap
I’m a little ashamed to say that I took off like a bat out of hell and deserted Nelson within about 100 metres.  I knew I was going too fast, but I also was desperately cold and needed to start generating some body heat.

Although I’ve been talking about “only” doing a half that isn’t to say that I didn’t respect the distance.  This is not a 5K that you can crank out at the drop of a hat.  This is a distance that still requires some planning to get through.  And I did have a plan.  I figured that given my condition (ahem), training (ahem ahem) and new found taper strategy (ahem ahem ahem) I would have difficulty breaking 2 hours, let alone getting close to my goal of sustaining a 9 minute pace.  This was important because I’d stripped the data display on my Garmin down to the bare minimum: average lap pace and distance.  I needed the distance so that I would have an idea when water stops were coming up and could time my nutrition.  But I’ve learned that HR doesn’t tend to work for me in race situations; I pay way too much attention to it rather than how I am feeling.  Instead, I hoped that the pace would enable me to keep on track; I also used a trick I learned a while back that has now become standard with me: I set my Garmin to lap every two miles rather than every mile.  This helps to smooth out the lap pace reading and minimizes the number of small pace fluctuations which are an inevitable part of the race.  That in turn minimizes my own tendency to react to those minor pace changes and encourages a steady effort.  From the team track workouts I had a pretty good idea of what my zone 3 pace would look like and what my zone 4 pace would look like.  So I planned to try and run the first part at about a 9:20 pace (zone 3) and, kick it up for the second part into zone 4 (somewhere in the 8:30-8:40) range, and then give it everything I had left for the final mile.

That was the plan.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I looked at my watch and discovered I’d run the first two miles in 17:37, an 8:49 pace.  Moreover, I was feeling really good.  I was breathing regularly, in a good rhythm, and feeling nothing like the strain I thought I should be feeling at that pace.  I knew that we were coming to the steady uphill into Fort Story so it might be advisable to back off a little; yet I’d also guessed that because of those acres of boring forest, this might be one of the few places on the course where we would be relatively sheltered from the wind and it might be possible to run a sustained pace.

As we started the uphill I was feeling good.  I began passing people and saw the first people beginning to walk (at about mile 3).  The race organizers had posted a lot of cheesey Shamrock-themed signs by the side of the road which were a welcome distraction; somewhere on this leg there was also a very good band playing Pogues covers.  The next two miles went by at an 8:48 pace.  I realized I was gradually putting the memory of last year’s marathon behind me; this had been the most difficult part of the race for me, and the point where I’d had to abandon my hope of a marathon PR.  The miles ticked away and I found myself smiling, breathing deeply, feeling great as we hit the 6 mile mark (8:51 pace).

Passing through Fort Story I had another deja vu moment.  Last year I remember quite vividly looking off to my left as we ran through Cape Henry and seeing an enormous container ship passing by, close enough to touch.  This year, exactly the same thing happened.  Mile 8 and an 8:53 pace.

A lot of people were running the long way round the curves, probably for the more even camber of the road; I took the low road (no surprises there!) and gradually inched past people.  Thankfully I also inched away from the woman who spent a couple of miles describing to her partner in excruciating detail how she would do her company’s annual reports if only her boss wasn’t such a control freak and would just trust her. . .had I been her partner I would probably have run off the edge of the Cape long before then.  From my experience last year I was prepared for the fact that the anticipated downhill benefit would never actually materialize so I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t.  I began forcing the pace just a little.  Mile 10 ticked by at an 8:47 pace.

Even though we were now back in the holiday homes from hell stretch there was at least plenty of spectator support.  And the volunteers at the water stations were awesome, offering plenty of encouragement in addition to the drinks.  At one point I saw a garishly dressed Ed and Ryan and a couple of other Zers go past on bikes, managing to cycle with one hand and operate a Vuvuzela with the other.  Things were starting to hurt a little, my legs beginning to feel heavy, but that brought a smile to my face.  Mile 12, 8:44 average.

From the previous year I remembered that the last mile could be tough; you finally reach the boardwalk and can see the finish, but it is much further away than it looks; you run, and run, and it never seems to get any closer.  Plus, the wind that had been buffeting us all the way down from Fort Story was in full force here, blasting in from the side.  I tried to pick up the pace, gradually, until finally, when the line at last seemed to be within a manageable distance, I was sprinting, trying to pick out the people that I wanted to pass.  The final 1.1 miles went past at an 8:13 pace.

As I made my way through the never-ending receiving line (hat, shirt, bananas, pretzels, cookies, water; here as elsewhere on the day the organization was great) I stared at my watch in disbelief.

Final time: 1:55:11.  Average pace of 8:47.  (1544/6869  overall; 973/2620 men, 118/350 in my age group).  Had someone switched watches with me while I wasn’t looking?  I was pleasantly surprised in the aftermath of the race but when I got home and had a chance to look up my old race results (I’d purposely not done this prior to the race) I was ecstatic: a half-marathon PR by almost a minute.  All of this, of course, brings an inevitable set of thoughts to mind.  My previous half-marathon PR had been set on a rolling course, with one monster hill in the middle, at the end of August with temperatures in the 80s.  On the near-flat Shamrock course, in ideal race conditions (except for the wind) if I had been well-conditioned, well-trained and well-tapered for this event I should have been able to go a lot faster, perhaps even breaking 1:50.  But those thoughts were quickly dismissed.  I wouldn’t have traded the blissful, carefree, irresponsible few days in the Outer Banks for anything.  And there wasn’t much I could do about the post-Ironman funk into which I descended; that is the definition of post-Ironman depression: you can’t do much about it.

More to the point, I’d come damn close to running the perfect race.  I’d kept a remarkably consistent pace, I’d achieved a negative split, and I’d nabbed a PR.  Because I’d had nothing to lose with this race, I tried a few different things and they had worked well.  I didn’t wear a fuel belt and instead just carried my nutrition in the side pockets of my tri-shorts, relying on water out on the course.  Perhaps more importantly, I’d taken in less nutrition than I would ordinarily, a little under two packets of Honey Stingers.  My stomach hadn’t cramped, and I’d felt great almost the whole way.

More importantly, this race helped me begin to answer a question that has been plaguing me since crossing the finish line in Madison: what did I really get out of the Ironman?  What does it mean to be Iron, especially when you feel anything but?  Well, you get a day like today.  When I was standing at the line, waiting for the signal to start I felt completely calm.  No nerves at all.  Excitement, certainly, and looking forward to the chance for a real race (I really enjoyed the Red Nose Runs as training exercises, but they didn’t count as real races for me).  I didn’t feel at all confident in my ability to perform (in fact there seemed to be a very real chance that things would go tits up) but I felt confident that whatever happened out there I would be able to react, respond, and meet the challenge.  It wasn’t the fact that I’d done an Ironman so this was “only” a half-marathon: every race is its own kind of hard.  It was just that I knew that both in the race and last year’s training I had been to some bad places, some extreme places, and this day probably wouldn’t be one of them.  But even if it was, I was ready.  I deserved to be there.

I might not finish, but I wouldn’t be defeated.

The Remains of the Day
After the marathon last year it was nearly an hour before I felt like eating or drinking anything.  So one definite benefit of the half was that I was hungry right away!  I wolfed down the salty goodness of the Irish Stew and grabbed an ice-cold Yuengling and then headed for the corner of the tent where Team Z was beginning to gather around the massage tables.  This was the first half for a lot of people and it was great to see the quiet glow of accomplishment that so many of them had, that unmistakable look of “wow, I really did that?!” in their eyes.

After hanging around for a while listening to the first of what proved to be a series of pretty good bands throughout the day, I dug into my pack and threw on every single item of clothing that I could.  Again, I was really glad that I had brought a lot of surplus cycling gear.  I was wearing my tights under my jeans, and a balaclava under my hat.  I’ve learned from the time trials this year that my body temperature plummets really quickly after an event, and this was going to be even more of a problem given that the wind was still blowing quite hard.  I’m sure I looked like a tool but I was a warm tool.

By this point the first of the marathoners were beginning to come in.  I found a place at the finishing chute as the leaders went by and was in time to see the first of our Team Z finishers coming in with times that I could never dream of attaining.  After being joined by Debbie we hung out for the better part of an hour and a half, cheering all the Zers we could identify in time.  It was a little difficult to anticipate times since we learned that for some reason the marathon had started very late (that can’t have been fun, to stand around for all that extra time in those winds).

There was an extraordinary number of people wearing headphones.  Coming from the triathlon world where their use is usually illegal (well, nominally; I’ve yet to see any race directors actually enforce that rule) it is always a shock to come back to the running world.  But the number still seemed unusually high.  We’d heard that on the previous day there had been 9,000 runners in the 8K, and I would estimate that probably 8,500 of them were running with headphones.  It does make you wonder how anyone ever managed to put one foot in front of the other before the invention of the personal stereo.  Mostly I just felt sorry for the oblivious and self-involved.  I thought of all the interesting comments and conversations I’d heard in the race, the wonderful supportive crowd comments, all the sounds that make up the ambience of the race (the crunch of people running over cups, the sound of water hitting the pavement, the patter of hundreds of feet around you).  Buried under headphones you would miss all that.  It made me wonder why people had entered a public race in the first place rather than just running their own half-marathon under headphone at their nearest gym treadmill. Of course you don’t get a medal if you do it yourself; but that just makes the self-absorption worse somehow.

But the people who pissed me off were those who, headphones firmly jammed into their ears, insisted on running down the finishing straight waving their arms around, urging the spectators to cheer them on.  Why do I have to cheer for you when you are more interested in shutting out the world?  Oh, that’s right, I don’t.

After paying another visit to the party tent to congratulate some of the finishers, I joined Theresa, Mike, and Jen congratulating people as they came over the line.  We were coming up on the 5 hour mark by that point and that can be a tough part of a marathon to watch.  We saw a couple of people collapse, lots of staggering, and a more general dazed look in the eyes of people who realized they had got in way over their heads, had somehow managed to finish anyway, and were trying to figure out if it had been worth it.

Unfortunately, I had to start making my way home.  Getting out of Virginia Beach is a pain the arse at the best of times, and driving back up the 95 on a Sunday enhances the general suckiness of the experience.  With class the next day I had a lesson plan to work on and some student writing to read.  So I started walking back to our place.  This was right on the run route (in fact, I learned later that Mike, facing long lines at all the portaloos on the race route, had dodged into our rental to use the bathroom in the middle of the race!).  This actually turned out to be one of the highlights of the day for me.  I got to see a lot of Zers; at the finish line we’d been trying to figure out who was still out there, and there were many more than I’d guessed: Eugene, Oli, Nick, a big happy group consisting of Christy, Fredrik, AJ, Johanna, and Becky.  I walked a little way back towards the finish with each group, tried to encourage them.  But I tried to encourage everyone that I saw.  I couldn’t get over how tired people looked, how utterly spent.  But they were finishing.


2 responses to “You are never too old to be surprised

  1. Okay, Mark! I was reading your race report and preparing to write you a nice supportive post congratulating you on your PR! But now I have another agenda.

    I get it. You don’t like headphones. Fine. I’ve seen you rant about this before but now you’re being a little obnoxious, don’t you think? Just because it isn’t for you doesn’t make it so terribly wrong.

    Not everyone who uses headphones is shutting out the world; nor are they necessarily making themselves oblivious to what is going on around them.

    I enjoy using headphones – for both racing and training. I don’t “need” them, but I like them. What’s the big deal? I won’t try to use them when they’re illegal, but when I can use them, I do so in a way that works for me without harming anyone around me. I dare you to find one person who can offer one instance where I was at all ignorant of my surroundings because of my headphones (my general ignorance does not count).

    Ask anyone who saw me during the race on Sunday and they’ll support the fact that my music was so low that I could hear what was going on around me. In fact, I carried on conversations with Bob while we ran together for several miles without any problem at all. I don’t think he would call me oblivious or self-involved (well, not because of the headphones, at least).

    In fact, I interacted with *you* while I made my way down the finisher’s chute, didn’t I? I appreciated your cheering and could hear it loud and clear.

    I realize that there are many who do fit the profile that so greatly upsets you. They bother me, too. But let’s not condemn all runners who use headphones because of a few who are inconsiderate. I believe that you can listen to music while running and still be safe and respectful.

    Oh, and congrats on your race! I knew you could do it. Maybe there is something to our laid back training plan. Or maybe we’re just awesome because we’re Ironmen and we don’t need to train.

    Love ya!

    P.S. – Oli mentioned to be on Sunday that he really appreciated your support out there. I don’t know what you said, but it helped.

  2. True, that may have been a little obnoxious, but take that as an index of the magnitude of some of the stupid behavior that I saw out there. I appreciate that you keep the volume low; I’m not sure that is true for the majority of people. One thing I didn’t mention in terms of the “ambience” of the race was the constant sound of tinny music that I could hear all around me. Apart from my own pet peeves, however, I think there are some substantive issues here. I always make it a point to warn people when I’m passing them, even when I’m running. There were a couple of instances where I tried to do this in the race, only to have the person step right in front of me because they hadn’t heard me. Another time I tried to warn someone of a gatorade bottle that was rolling under the feet, they didn’t hear me, and they stumbled over the bottle (fortunately they didn’t go down). There is a good reason that headphones are banned in most responsible races for safety reasons. Obviously Shamrock is more geared toward the “fun run” end of the spectrum, although we could probably have a debate about whether that perhaps sits a little oddly with it being a Boston qualifier.

    But that it isn’t all about me. You might, for example, talk with Alexis about what it was like to try and guide a visually impaired athlete through a crowd of oblivious runners. He mentioned that he felt it was an unsafe situation. Again, there is a reason they are banned in most races.

    Obviously, to judge from the evidence of this weekend, I’m completely in the minority. But all the more reason to bring attention to what I feel, fundamentally, is an unsafe practice. Just because a race director takes a step that most other race directors wouldn’t take, doesn’t magically transform an unsafe practice into a safe one.

    See the next post for the downside to the “no training” training plan.

    I’m glad Oli found the pickmeup useful. It was hard to see him hurting out there but it was also really inspiring to see him still soldiering on. One thing that man is not is a quitter. I learn a lot from his example every time I see him compete.

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