Monday, November 25, 2013

Thunder Road 2013: a Pacer's Recap

I had wanted to be part of Thunder Road for several months.  Ever since fellow Reckless Running brand ambassador Bobby Aswell, Jr. declared that Thunder Road was going to be his 200th marathon, I decided I needed to be there.  However, I was in money-saving mode, and I wasn't sure how competitive I wanted to be.  I thought of opting for the lesser-known 5k and then providing some crowd support, but I think that would have left me with a big case of mileage envy.
[Cue spotlight, stage left]
Enter the pacing opportunity...
The Endurance Magazine Thunder Road Pacing Team.  I'm front row, far right.  Photo courtesy of DC Lucchesi.
The Endurance Magazine Official Thunder Road Pacing Team had yet to acquire pacers for the 3 hour group.  I couldn't run a 3:00 marathon; my very best was a 3:04.  However, they were accepting paired tag teams with runners each doing a 90-minute Half.  I could pull of a 1:30 Half.  Luckily, Claire Naisby was willing to do the other Half.  Boom.  Call us a 3:00 pace team!
There were a lot of pros to this plan: free entry into the race, including the usual swag, and a pacer tech tee to boot, and a chance to cheer on all my running buddies.  However, there were some caveats: I couldn't really "race," or hold an individualized strategy.  I was going to be accountable for other people's paces.  I could make or break someone's PR.  With that in mind, I had to stay healthy and in shape for this effort.
Fast forward to race day.  Claire and I agreed that she would run the first half, and I'd join them at mile marker 12, shortly before the Full/Half split.  I actually started the race with everyone and peeled off after about 3/4 miles to slowly jog over to my rendezvous point.  Spectating friends Dave Munger and Stephanie Mishler came by after a while to cheer on the field from my location.  We watched the scattered leaders of the Half and the Full zip by, with fierce competition evident in both races.
I did a few strides to keep loose for my 14.2 mile heavy half at 6:52 pace.  Soon enough, I saw the telltale orange pacer shirts of Claire and Jason Philbin (another 3:00 pacer, first half only).  There was a good size group around them.  Rather then wait for them to get to the top of the hill (Morehead...bleh), I got excited and ran down about 100 meters to meet them.  Everyone looked to be working pretty steadily, but still have plenty of gas in the tank.  In short order, we passed through the Half split-off, bidding adieu to Jason as he turned to complete the 13.1 mile race.  Claire stuck with the Full group with the intention of dropping out of the pace group and continuing at her own pace for a potential, impromptu debut marathon.  I settled in to a solid 6:52 pace, peeking at the Garmin occasionally, and recording splits on my reliable Timex stopwatch, which had the gun time from the start of the race.
The 3:00 pace group about 100 meters after I joined.  The three orange-clad pacers (left to right) are Claire, Jason, and me.  Photo courtesy of Stephanie Mishler.
Running through Southend is a great stretch for the Full Marathoners to regain their focus.  The course was far less crowded, and much of the "racing" vibe that surrounded the Halfers was all behind us.  Now, everyone seemed to be focused on working together.  Running acquaintance Clayton Venhuizen was sticking with my group, as I expected he would be.  I knew sub-3 was a goal of his, considering his PR had been 3:00 and change.  He and I both talked up the other runners and kept the attitude positive. Clayton asked to draft me, and I was happy to oblige.  After all, I had the freshest legs in the group.
Before we knew it, we were at mile 16 and headed back into Uptown.  After passing by the stadium and running a brief out-and-back (temporary course change for 2013), we were among the skyscrapers and crowds.  We rattled off some fast splits in the mid-high 6:40s, but my group and I were content with that since there were some tougher miles ahead.
At mile 19, we were headed away from town on Caldwell, towards NoDa: my old stomping grounds from when I played music more regularly.  The 6:50s splits came with some effort, but they set Clayton up for a faster mile 22 and 23 (part of his race plan).  For the past few miles, my group had disintegrated.  All that were left were Clayton, and Sean, a young man we had caught who had decided to hang on with us.  Whenever Clayton would fade back to me, I would ease in front of him to allow him to draft.  He took advantage of it whenever I did.  After zigging and zagging in and out of the residential parts of Plaza Midwood, we climbed the last real hill of the course onto Central, which would lead us back into Uptown.  It was great to see a lot of familiar CRC faces at the mile 25 cheering zone.  We ran through the lane of spectators with arms outstretched, catching as many high 5's as we could.
"Autopilot, boys!"  Clayton (white) and Sean (green) looking great at mile 25 as I pace from behind.
Arms outstretched to catch some high-five love from CRC just past mile 25.  Photo courtesy of Sommer Baucom.
When we reached mile marker 25, the gun clock read 2:51:05.  We had nearly nine minutes to run 1.2 miles.  "Alright gents," I said, "it's all autopilot from here!"  Clayton felt invigorated and pulled ahead to seal the deal for the last mile.  Sean did the same but quickly faded back to me.  We crossed over I-277 and bore left on McDowell for the final, flat stretch.  Although there was only half a mile left, it looked a lot longer when staring down cleared city blocks.  Spectators cheered the racers, and some cheered me as pacer, recognizing my conspicuous, orange shirt.  Come to think of it, I was the first of the pace team to come in for the finish of the Full.  We turned right for the final .2, and I knew Clayton would come in well under his 3 hour goal. Seeing the official gun clock at the finish line, I neglected my usual sprinting finish and maintained the same, steady pace through the finish line.  I crossed at 2:59:46.  Clayton PR'd at 2:59:29, and Sean faded back for a 3:00:20.  A few minutes later, he told me that I had pulled him to a 10 minute PR!
Me crossing the finish line with a clock time of 2:59:46.  Now if only I'd run a full marathon in that time...  Photo courtesy of Stephanie Mishler.
I had barely gotten out of the finish chute and met Dave, Steph, and Bryan Massingale, when up came Claire, cruising in for her first marathon finish and smiling wide with a 3:08!  Not only did she finish her first marathon without training specifically for the race, but she snagged second place overall female!
I ran back onto the last mile of the course to see who I could pace in.  Fellow DARTer Matt Williams turned the corner for the final .2 as I passed by him; he scored a solid BQ with a 3:12.  Moments later, I congratulated Bobby Aswell as he was on the homestretch to his 200th marathon finish.  I chatted with Dustin Branham (who ran the half and was awaiting his wife Ashley's finish for the Full) at around mile 25.5 when I saw Sam Mishler cruising up.  I ran alongside him for the rest of his race, providing what I hope was some welcome company for a warm and muggy marathon finish.  Sam finished with a 3:22, beating his previous Thunder Road time.  I peeled off 100 meters before, having decisively aggravated my dodgy achilles tendon.  Unfortunately, the achilles injury sidelined me for a while, but I'm at least content that it happened at an event where my running helped other runners, rather than some random training run.
One thing is for sure, I really loved pacing!  I surely will pace Thunder Road next year, and I will continue to seek out pacing opportunities in the future to give back to my running community.  Until then, I'm on recovery duty.