Monday, December 15, 2014

A Score to Settle: Huntersville Half Recap

"Revenge is a dish best served cold"
-Old Klingon proverb

It was a cold morning on race day for the Huntersville Half.  Good.  The chilly air would keep the senses sharp and the risk of overheating low.  I was on a mission this day, and I woke up with a fiery determination that I only bring to the most serious races.  This was my last focus race of the year, and even though I had accomplished many running goals this year, this race arguably was the most important.  My mission was to vindicate myself for the humbling defeat I suffered at the hands of my Nemesis, Sam Mishler, at The Scream! Half Marathon this Summer.  The air was cold, but the fire in my veins was burning hot.  
The Nemesis and I saw one another before the race and did a few warm-up miles together.  The mood was friendly and lighthearted; the real business would not begin until race time.  Dozens of our running friends had shown up, some to run the race, others to bear witness to the legendary face-off that was to ensue.  Had this been a pay-per-view event, we might have rivaled the latest Mayweather fight for viewers.
My custom made "BEAT SAM" shirt.

Electricity was in the air as Nemesis and I toed the line.  Other training partners--Dennis Livesay, Jeremy Alsop, Matt Cline--and very fast Charlotte area runners were up at the front with us.  As RD Bear Robinson blasted the air horn, we took off too fast.  At least a dozen runners were ahead of us, and the natural reaction was to keep them in reach, but the rational thing to do was to let them go and focus on our own race.  So we backed off, but not by much.  Nemesis was in front of me, but I was running in his pocket.  I was close enough to tap him on the shoulder, but I chose to stay right behind him, let him set the pace for the time being, and make sure he could hear the proximity of my footfalls.  I consciously monitored my breathing to make sure it was smooth and rhythmic.  Again, this was for Nemesis to hear; I wanted him to think I was running effortlessly.  
My plan for the race was simple.  There were three main elements.  First, I wanted to get in Sam's head and stay there.  Anytime he could see me, hear me, or be aware of me, I had to make it appear as if I had more in the tank than he.  Second, I had to avoid making the race about the hills.  Sam is a strong hill runner, and the course was hilly, so I had to keep us from playing to his strong suit.  The third part was the tricky part.  After the Scream!, Sam had mentioned that the downhill course had battered his body, but it wasn't overly taxing on the cardio.  So for this race, I had to find that sweet-spot of a pace that was just uncomfortable enough to be beyond his reach for 13.1 miles.  If I locked in on that, I just had to outlast him. 
We passed through the first mile at around 6:18, which was too fast.  "That was stupid," said Nemesis.  I agreed.  From time to time, I would pull up alongside him or drift in front.  Usually, he would quick-step and get back in front of me.  I was content to let this happen.  That was more energy he was using.  When we passed through the mile 2 mark at 13 minutes on the dot, I heard Sam mutter something to the effect of "right on" under his breath.  I smiled.  "Uh-oh," he said, "did I just give away my plan?"  So that's how it was going to be...if I had to run 6:30 pace for 13 miles, so be it.  I was ready.  Was he?
Dennis caught up to us and overtook us shortly after the 2nd mile mark.  "You guys shot off like a rocket," he remarked.  Nemesis and I exchange tacit looks.  We both knew that if it took Dennis--who was markedly faster that either of us--this long to catch us, than we were going to fast.  At around mile 2.5, we approached the first really challenging hill of the course.  I slipped behind Sam to see how he was going to play this hill.  Both he and Dennis turned over for a decently quick climbing cadence, and I stayed right in their wake.  Sam wasn't making his move on this hill, so I moved on ahead of him after the top of the hill.  Now, with a couple of reasonably flat miles, I would set the pace. 
 For a mile of Ranson Road, some residential streets, and a nice stretch of greenway that led us South of Gilead Road, I did my best to lock in on a 6:30ish pace and maintain my rhythm.  Sam was behind me, but he was close.  I could hear his footfalls, and I could glimpse his orange shirt in my peripheral vision on turns.  Dennis was a great visual cue ahead of me.  Without him to occupy my focus, Sam's pursuit would be the only thing in my head.  Sam's footfalls became quieter and quieter as we neared the end of the greenway.  I knew the following couple of miles on Wynfield Creek Parkway would be a rolling (but mostly uphill) slog, so I had to capitalize on my separation.  Upon reaching the top of the first real hill emerging from the greenway, I surged down the back side to put more distance between Sam and me before he reached the top.  Hopefully, he would see the gaining lead and get demoralized.  I continued like this for a couple of miles, surging after cresting hills and rounding the corners of blind turns.  In doing so, I was keeping within respectable reach of Dennis and maintaining an overall pace that was matching my PR.  At just over halfway through, there was a question as to whether I could maintain it.  Any lead I had on my Nemesis could dissolve if I blew up badly enough.  
The Hugh Torrence/Hugh McAuley section of the course (miles 7.5-10) was the most rolling.  On one section, the course plunged down a 400 meter hill only to round the block at the bottom and come straight back up the same hill on the other side of the block.  As I made the climb back up this section, I peered over the grassy knolls and between the trees to try and get a glimpse of my Nemesis.  Instead I saw Matt Cline, who also spotted me and shouted cheers in my direction.  I didn't think Matt had passed Sam yet, so I surmised that Sam was somewhere down at the bottom of that segment, out of view but still in play.  After crossing a side street from Hugh Torrence to Hugh McAuley, there was a long downhill to a little "lollipop" around a block, and then a climb back uphill on the next block over.  I opened the throttle on the downhill and let the momentum take me into a quick turn around the lollipop.  Before turning left up the hill, I glanced to the right and saw the orange shirt of my Nemesis, who was just starting the block-loop of the lollipop.  I estimated that we was a little over a minute behind me.  There came Matt tearing up the asphalt down the hill with a big smile on his face and cheering me on once again.  Matt was not far behind my Nemesis.  Could he be a Dark Horse in this contest?
For the rest of the McAuley section and in the rolling streets leading back towards Devonshire, there was little company of note.  I stayed 10-15 seconds behind Dennis, sometimes gaining, sometimes losing ground, but always in sight.  At this point, with every mile that passed by, the possibility of a PR was becoming more and more real.  My thoughts became less centered on my Nemesis, and more geared toward beating my best time from two years ago.  I ditched my homemade "Beat Sam" shirt and would run the rest of the race in my singlet and arm sleeves.  Again, the coolness of the air renewed my vigor.  I welcomed cheers from several of my running friends--and several people I didn't know, but who apparently knew me.  When I reached the base of the mile-long hill on Brentfield near mile marker 11, I knew it would be my last big challenge.  I was still locked in and waiting for the moment when my legs would protest and refuse to keep the mid-6:30s pace I had been maintaining from the start.  I half expected to slow down to 7s on this long hill, but the gradient was just steep enough to keep the legs turning over quickly without reducing me to a crawl.  Yeah, it hurt, but as they say, pain is temporary and all that.  
Me near mile 11.  Photo courtesy of Cliff Weston.

The mile 12 marker was not far beyond the top of the hill.  I checked my watch.  I had just over 7 minutes to run 1.1 miles in order to set a new PR.  It was going to be close, but I was hoping the largely downhill last mile would help.  I found another gear and locked in.  The minutes flew by as I raced down Birkdale Commons Parkway towards the finish.  Dennis was locked in too.  I would not catch him, but I was just surprised to stay with him for the duration of the race.  When I got within a quarter mile, I knew I was going to get a PR, but I had to push the whole way to follow through.  The last 0.1 miles did a half-loop around the large parking lot of the finish area, so spectators got an extended view of finishing runners.  I was pumped!  I ran alongside the crowd of friends with an outstretched hand for high fives and I pumped my fists into the air as I crossed the finish line.  With an official time of 1:26:13, I had set a 25 second PR!
PR...and victory...well, over my Nemesis at least.

I relished in the rush of the finish and then looked toward the driveway from whence the finishers would approach.  I looked for Sam's orange shirt, but I first saw Matt--still ecstatic--blazing into the finishing area.  Not only had his Dark Horse passed my Nemesis, but he ran an 8+ minute PR!  Sam came through shortly thereafter, also overjoyed with a 90+ second PR.  I greeted him a the finish line and he congratulated me.  The feud was over...the score, settled.  All was right in the world. 
My Suunto GPS data can be seen here.
In other news, several DARTers and CRC members became world record holders for most runners tethered together to finish a 5k, so that's cool too. 
From left: Me (2nd AG 30-34), Matt (1st AG 35-39), and Sam (3rd AG 40-44).  Not pictured is Dennis, who won the 40-44 AG.

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