Thursday, April 10, 2014

Moonlight Double Feature!

For those that are not familiar with Vac & Dash, it's a combination running retail and vacuum cleaning store in Albemarle, NC.  A bizarre combination to say the least, but Peter Asciutto, the owner, goes the extra mile to ensure that his specialty store hosts a slew of equally quirky and awesome road races throughout Stanly County.  One of these is the Moonlight Half-Marathon, 5k, and Movie, which takes place at the Badin Drive-In on the edge of Albemarle.  Participants can participate in the 5k or the Half; or they can register for the Double Feature and do both races.  I chose the Double Feature.
7pm: The 5k
Although the sun was getting low in the sky, the temperature for the evening 5k was still hotter than I would've liked it to be for any road race.  My plan was to go out hard for the 5k and adopt a Devil-May-Care attitude for my performance in the Half.  I sized up my competition.  There looked to be a couple of quick kids there, but Vac & Dash's young, lanky Seth Utley was my pick to be the ringer.  Having done a short warm-up run on the first mile or so of the course, I knew to expect a flat, fast race, with not much more than the occasional gentle rollers one might find in a residential area.  Casual as ever, Peter gave us the "read-set-go" and we were off.  Seth cruised out into an early, commanding lead, and two of the younger runners shot out ahead of me.  Alicia, who would be the overall female winner, kept pace with me, not wanting me to get out of reach.  Within the first kilometer, the youngbloods had run out of bravado and faded back to me.  I settled into a comfortable but distant 2nd place.  Despite the heat, I maintained a fairly quick 5k pace.  I would not PR, and I had almost no shot at winning, but I certainly would have a respectable time and an almost guaranteed 2nd place.
The course was pretty much out-and-back, so I got to see the whole field on a long straightaway after the turnaround.  Seth had nearly a minute on me, but I had nearly as much time on the 3rd place runner.  I saw fellow DARTer Sarah Ferris on her way to the turnaround, and she looked to be running strong and having fun, despite the fact that she admittedly hates 5k's.  The rest of the race was an exercise in lonely pace keeping.  Still wanting to have a good time, I pushed to negative split the last mile.  As I loomed closer to the last turn, I saw that I had an opportunity to go sub-19, so I poured on the gas for the last couple hundred meters.  Official time: 18:53.  Considering all the racing and hard training I had been doing, I was very happy with that.
Running hard on the last mile of the 5k.

The final stretch of the 5k.  I would be here again 3 hours later...
Sarah made a last mile pass and gained 2nd place female.  I was 2nd place male.  Seth had crushed me by over a minute, and Alicia was not far behind me for 1st place female.
Sarah (2nd overall female) and me (2nd overall male) after the 5k
After finishing the 5k, I had about an hour and 40 minutes before the start of the Half Marathon.  I grabbed some water and food from the car (a Bonk Breaker bar and some mini-bagels) and a change of racing clothes.  I donned a fresh singlet, swapped out my ultra-light 5k racing flats for my marathon racers, and I pulled on some compression calf sleeves.  With the sun having just set, I layered up with my warm-up sweats to keep from getting chilled.  The drive-in was getting crowded and it was starting to get dark.  I made sure I had my headlamp and reflective vest and proceeded to meander around for a while, half watching the movie, half shaking out my legs.  The Half was set to start at 9pm, so I went for a shakeout jog at about 8:40, keeping my hoodie on so that I was good and warm for the start of the race.  After one more pit stop, I rushed over to the Badin Drive-In's main entrance for the start.
9pm: The Half-Marathon
A handful of other runners from the 5k were participating in the double feature.  Sarah and Alicia were among them.  However, there were a few runners who were coming into the Half with fresh legs.  Among them was Rob, who I had met the previous week at the City of The Arts Half-Marathon, though I did not know his name then.  Rob was disappointed at CoTA, and I think he was shooting for a top 3 spot at this race.  There also was an intimidatingly tall runner who had a lean, svelte runner's build who looked to be taking his warm-up drills fairly seriously.  So, there definitely was some competition present.
The course was daunting.  Unlike the 5k, the Half Marathon would be rolling hills the whole way, with a mountain in the middle.  Not to mention the fact that the whole race was in the dark, and the waxing crescent moon provided very little moonlight.  We lined up on the road and waited for an appropriate break in the traffic.  Peter briefed us on the course, which would have very few turns, but also very little civilization.  Then, with the same "on your mark, get set, go," we were off.
Rob shot out like a rocket, and Tall Man was not too far behind him as he breezed by me with long, confident strides.  Alicia stuck by my side for the first mile or so.  We each had planned to keep a respectable pace while going more easily than we would for a usual Half.  That plan was failing.  We were doing a sub-6:40 pace without really thinking about it.  Alicia was the first to tap the brakes.  She gave me an encouraging salutation and settled into a more conservative pace.  I slowed too, but only by about 10 seconds per mile.  Rob and Tall Man were lengthening their lead, and I was finding it difficult to make out the features of their persons in the distance.  I could identify Tall Man by the blinking yellow light he wore on the back of his waistband, and I could see the blue-white glow of Rob's headlamp beyond him.  When I glanced back, aside from Alicia being close astern, the rest of the field was far behind and scattered along Highway 701 leading out of Albemarle.
About 1.5 miles into the race, we turned off of the state highway and onto Morrow Mountain Road...and into the darkness.  From here on out, I could count the number of cars along the course on one hand.  The road was rolling, dark, and silent.  As I rounded each curve, I looked out ahead for the distant blinking yellow light and the soft, blue-white glow ahead of it.  I did not always see it.  I had no visible landmarks for reference, so I had no real idea how far behind the leaders I was.  My best guess was a quarter mile...maybe more.  The next few miles reminded me very much of the night legs of the Blue Ridge Relay.  It's not for everyone, but I can reach down and find exhilaration in running quickly in solitude into a dark, arboreal void.
As I passed through the stone gateway leading into Morrow Mountain State Park, the rolling hills began to trend steadily upward.  I caught glimpses of one or both of the leaders here and there, and although I tried to ignore them and pay attention to my own pace, I could not help but notice that I was seeing more and more of them.  I guessed that I was closing the gap steadily.  Despite the dim moonlight, I could make out the profile of Morrow Mountain ahead of me, and I could tell by my GPS watch that I was approaching the race's halfway point which lay at the summit.  The road switched back and forth as the gradient became steeper and steeper.  I knew Seth Utley was volunteering at a hairpin turn that led to the final, steepest part of the climb.  I saw what must have been Seth's flashlight ahead, and I could spot the lights from both runners ahead of me.  When Rob's light reached Seth's, the headlamp turned left and appeared to go straight up.  Great...
I was not too far behind Tall Man when I made the hairpin turn.  Immediately, I settled into a Littlest-Engine-That-Could style short step to just focus on getting to the top.  My pace slowed dramatically, and with the stagnant air, I felt like I was overheating despite the cool temperature of the evening.  My breath was ragged, but consistent.  When I glanced up, Tall Man was right in front of me and fading back.  I was not trying to pass him--certainly not on this stinker of a climb--but I was overtaking him nonetheless.  When I passed him, he uttered a labored "good job," and I managed a gasping "thanks!"
After another 150 meters, we had reached the aid station at the top, and our running had been reduced to shuffling.  Moments before, we saw Rob coming back towards us, also shuffling.  I grabbed a quick cup of water and turned straight around.  Halfway done.  From here, it would be down the mountain and then back from whence we came.  It took me a good 100 meters for my stride to open back up.  Once I broke out into a full downhill run, I found myself going so fast and hard that I was developing a side stitch.  "Breath, Chas!  Plenty of race left," I told myself.  When Rob came into view, he was making a hard right on the hairpin turn, also running fast.  I could not tell how far Tall Man was behind me, but I was fairly confident I had a firm grip on 2nd place.  I shone my headlamp on the corner of the turn so I could cut the tangent as quickly (and safely) as possible.  "20 seconds," Seth shouted, informing me of the gap between the leader and me.   I shouted a thank you back to him but focused only on the road ahead.  20 seconds...I was still very much in this for the win...
The winding road through the park seemed to go a lot more quickly than on the outbound leg.  Sure, I got to enjoy a little more downhill, but I also got to see the rest of the field and hear their encouraging cheers of "Go get'em," and "Reel him in!"  When I passed Sarah, who looked like a neon Christmas tree with her illumination, she gave me a hearty high-five.
I could see Rob now, and I rarely took my eyes off him.  He was close enough that I could time our gap by whatever landmarks were visible.  I was gaining on him.  I appraised myself; the pace was hard, but I felt like I could sustain it.  As long as I had incentive in the form of a blue-white glow ahead of me, I was going to maintain this pace for as long as it took.
I caught up to Rob at about mile 8.  "I knew you'd catch me," he seemed to lament, "I'll try and keep pace with you for as long as I could."  I didn't speed up or slow down.  I just kept the same, aggressive pace.  I was content to let him tire himself out if that's what it took.  When he said "I'd be ok with 2nd place," I shot back with "C'mon, Rob, there's plenty of race left.  Anything can happen!"  I wanted him to keep pushing, partly to lift his spirits, but also because I didn't want to be a sole front-runner with so much of the race left.  When we reached an aid station at mile 10, I found that I did not need water, so I shot straight past it.  Rob slowed down  to take a cup, yielding sole possession of the lead to me.
3.1 miles left.  Now all I had to do was keep my foot on the gas.  This rolling section had a downhill trend in the beginning of the race, so now it was steadily uphill from here to the finish.  I could not hear footfalls behind me, so I just focused on my own effort, reminding myself that everyone had to run the same hills.  "Sustain the pain," I reminded myself, channeling one of the Reckless Running mottoes.  At 1.5 miles from the finish, I made the left turn off of the park road and back onto 701.  I glanced behind me and saw...something.  It could have been a headlamp, or it could have been a volunteer's light, or it could have been nothing at all.  But I didn't like the look of it, and it was not far enough away for my own comfort, so I dug in for my last 10 minutes of running.  It was not just a straight shot back to where we started.  We had to make a couple more turns off the main road to get to the back side of the drive-in where the previous race had finished.  Each of these turns seemed to add another gentle hill.  I was ready to be done!  When I saw the red glow of the LED lights on the gun clock approaching, I gave one last glance behind me.  There was nothing.  I breathed a sigh of relief...well, actually a gasp of exhaustion, and made a beeline for the finish.  I ripped off my reflective vest on the last dash and threw up my arms in victory!  Official time: 1:31:27, of which I am extremely pleased given the difficulty of the course.  This isn't the first race I've won straight out, but it certainly was the win of which I was the most proud!
The final stretch of the Half Marathon...looking a lot worse for wear than 3 hours earlier.

With my 2nd place in the 5k and my 1st place in the Half, I also was the overall winner for the Double Feature competition, a compilation of times for those who competed in both events.  Alicia was the 1st overall female in the Half and 1st place for the women's Double Feature, and Sarah was 2nd in the Half, earning 2nd in the Double Feature.  Tall Man (who I later found out was named Adam) had overtaken Rob to claim 2nd place in the Half, and Rob finished 90 seconds after him for 3rd.
Now, I have to come back next year to defend my title!

From left: Tall Man Adam (2nd place), me (1st place), and Rob (3rd place).  Usually, the winner is on an elevated pedestal.  Here, it looks as if I'm standing in a hole, but I'm not!

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