Spartan Race

Monday, February 15, 2010

Mercedes Half Marathon

In the Running Quack household, we've started a tradition. Mrs. Running Quack and I have decided that Valentine's Day weekend is an excellent time for a race. It's long enough after Disney for recovery, but not so long that one gets tremendously out of shape. Last year we made a short as-the-crow-flies, but infuriatingly long-as-the-car-rolls trip to Myrtle Beach, where I proceeded to run the single worst half marathon of my running career, but we still had a nice weekend. This year, we decided to make the longer trip to Birmingham, Alabama for the Mercedes Half Marathon.

Why this particular half marathon? It was well within driving distance, and the swag seemed really cool - I mean, come on, a medal shaped like a Mercedes hood ornament? Who wouldn't want that? It's like combining Flava Flav and Ryan Hall (in a good way). Little did we know that this particular weekend would host the largest snow storm the South has seen in years. We drove through the heart of it on Friday, and other than having a small SUV hit a patch of ice and turn a full 720 in front of us on I-20 (Mrs. Running Quack deftly avoiding T-boning them with my Honda Ridgeline, which would have been bad), we saw few ill effects from the weather.

The city of Birmingham proved an excellent host for a running event. We stayed at the official hotel, which was immediately adjacent to the expo, which was a few blocks from the race start and finish. We parked the car Friday night, and didn't move it until we left Sunday after the race. It was the single best set up I have seen as far as convenience goes. The expo was fairly small, but the volunteers were enthusiastic, as were the exhibitors, and we actually stayed for a fairly long period of time. We then took a little reconnaissance trip around Birmingham and easily found the start line a block away (we also found out that most of the restaurants in downtown Birmingham cater the the weekday business luncher rather than the weekend tourist, the exception being the Roly Poly Sandwich shop, which opened this weekend solely because it was Marathon Weekend. Try the number #38). On a side note, the delightfully quirky Birmingham Museum of Art is located right next to the expo and worth a trip.

We elected to eat in the hotel restaurant that night for our pre-race meal because they were having a special pasta night pre-marathon. The food was good, and because the Black Eyed Peas also happened to be having a concert in Birmingham that evening, the people watching was too (for the record, tech shirt=runner, sequins=concert goer, nice retired couple with 3 year old grandchild = confused). Also for the record, if you want to psyche out a race crowd, put on a red and green jacket with "Kenya" stencilled on the back in big letters- the guy wearing it may have been from Tuscaloosa for all I know, but everyone was staring at him. My wife wants to have one made before her next race.

Checking the weather for Sunday morning, at race time it was supposed to be partially cloudy and about 30 degrees. Thinking back to the Goofy, we garbed ourselves in long sleeve shirts, short sleeve shirts, zap jackets, throwaway clothes, and space blankets. At the last minute, I left my throwaway clothes in the room. Thirty minutes before race time, we hopped on the elevator and exited into a lobby full of shivering runners. We steeled ourselves against the cold and walked outside... into a beautiful day.

The sun was already coming up and the anti-twilight was cool, but not cold. Furthermore, because of the convenience of the hotel to the race course, we only had to stand outside for about fifteen minutes, and most of that was in a corral with plenty of crowd generated heat. We shed our space blankets and my wife dumped her $3 hoodie almost immediately. Marathon and half marathon participants were all lumped into one big corral, with no discernible mechanism for determining the speed of those around you. We thought we were in the middle of the pack, which seemed appropriate given our middle of the pack runner status, but when the starter yelled "GO" (no pistol, no fireworks), it took us a good two and a half minutes to cross the start.

Mrs. Running Quack and I decided to run our respective races today, so I took off. Or at least I tried to take off. Apparently, the corral had been a much more heterogeneous mix of folks than I had anticipated. I soon found myself dodging groups walking six or eight abreast while some, who were running faster than I was, were trying to run around me. If I have a criticism of this race, it's this - next year have people line up in the corral by pace.

I was a little nervous, because this is the first race I've actually tried to run with a mid-foot style, and my furthest training run in my Newtons had been eight miles. When I started running, though, I felt great. By the time the crowd thinned out a bit around mile 3, I knew that I was going to run a good race. The first couple of miles are slightly downhill, and make a lot of twists and turns through downtown Birmingham. Personally, I like turns, they break up the monotony of long straight stretches and give you a short term goal on which to focus. They also tend to hide things like hills, which is important in this race. Around miles five or so, also due to the lack of line-up-by-speed in the corral, I caught several marathon pace groups who were running decidedly slower than my pace. Around that time, I also encountered, for the first time ,an observer yelling "Great job, just one more mile" for reasons that I don't quite understand. Under blue skies with minimal wind, I got hot enough that I had to unzip my trusty Sugoi Zap jacket.

Somewhere around mile 5.5, this race hits the University of Alabama-Birmingham Campus and also starts a long, slow, generally uphill climb that lasts about the next fours miles. Usually, I don't like this kind of steady climb, but the crowd support was great, the run was again, really twisty, and it offered some nice views of the downtown on occasion. I was also feeling really good, and decided that it was a good day for a personal record. I honestly was concentrating so hard that I really only remember three details about the climb - first, I saw what appeared to be a stately old mansion, but turned out to be a new law firm; second, a Presbyterian Church was giving out gummy bears and much appreciated peppermints that really gave me a boost; and third, I miscalculated distance and had to walk through a water stop in order to be able to use a Roctane and wash it down with liquid (I'm somewhat proud of my ability to run and drink at the same time and usually have my gel downed by the time I hit the appropriate stop).

What goes up must come down, and this course starts going for the most part in that direction around mile 9.5 or so. I checked my pacetat and realized I was only a few seconds off my goal time, despite having the uphill out of the way. I took off downhill. I have to say, I think midfoot running really gives an advantage here. With heel striking, I usually end up slowing myself down because I seem to over stride and don't have any control. With the midfoot, the faster I went, the more energy return I seemed to get from my shoes with no loss of control.

Oddly enough, the same "just one more mile" guy showed up around mile 10, as did enthusiastic, though somewhat widely spaced, support from the community from here on out. One could also see the skyscraper of downtown Birmingham beckoning one towards the finish line. Checking my Garmin, I realized that I had dropped off on the speed, and made a conscious effort to pick it up. It was one of those "I only have to keep this up for two miles" kind of efforts. At mile 12, Mr. "only one more mile" showed up again, and this time it was true. By that time, my calves were both hurting, as was my left foot, but I knew it wasn't anything to really worry about, so pressed on through.

I do have to admit, I was glad to be heading towards the finish line rather than out to do the same loop again when the full marathoners peeled off right before the finish line. I loved this course, but I wouldn't have liked to climb those hills second time. As it was, when I hit Linn Park, made a sharp left towards city hall, and then a 90 degree right towards the finish line, I had enough left in me to kick it out. For once, I remembered to hit the stop button on my Garmin. Unofficially, it was a PR.

I collected my finisher shirt and waited for my wife to finish. I had just enough time to cool off and realize that I was soaking wet in about 38 degree weather. The post race party happened to be inside, and I was glad to warm up. Both the beer and the barbecue were good, as was the band. All in all, this is a great half marathon. It's well organized, the terrain is varied, and while I wouldn't characterize it as anywhere near flat, I did PR on it, so it must be pretty fast.

Geographically, everything is close together, which makes it great for out of towners. The swag is good - Mercedes Hood Ornament style medal, running hat, cup, and finishers shirt and a post race party that featured Budwiser and Jim N Nicks barbecue -which go great together after running. I'd definitely run it again. And, cruising down I-20 a few hours later after the dust settled, I checked the official results. I had broken my 13 month old PR by 1 minute and 35 seconds. Mu.

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