Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Tobacco Road Half Marathon Race Recap

With Boston being my primary focus for this season, I knew well in advance that I was going to run a March half marathon as a tune-up.  My choices were Corporate Cup in Charlotte, Tobacco Road in Cary, and Wrightsville Beach near Wilmington.  Tobacco Road happened to fall conveniently at the end of a cut-back week in my training plan, and a bunch of my Davidson area running buddies were going for either the 13.1 or 26.2, so that was that.  After battling an achilles injury this winter, my goals for this race fluctuated over the past few weeks.  My A goal was to break 1:25, which would be possible on an "all-goes-well" day without a nagging injury in the equation.  My B goal was to beat my standing PR of 1:26:16.  Not the softest PR, but still in reach even if not everything went according to plan.  If neither A nor B were in the cards, I was just going to take advantage of the opportunity to book a 13.1 mile workout at anything faster than PR marathon pace.
Since so many DARTers and local friends were going to Tobacco Road, I took advantage of a chance to carpool with Dave (also doing the half) and Chad (doing the full).  11 of us got together for a nice pasta dinner the night before the race, and then Chad, Dave and I nodded off for some fitful rest after watching the USATF Indoor World Qualifiers...you know, to get in that racing mindset.  Even though Daylight Savings Time started that night/early morning, I was still awake an hour before my alarm and staring at the ceiling until it was time to get ready.
Race conditions were not ideal.  The predicted rain in earlier forecasts was going to hold off until well after the race, but the temperature at the start was still in the low 60s with some noticeable humidity.  This would come into play during the half, and it most certainly would throw a wrench into some of the full marathoners' best laid plans.  After a short warm-up run, I politely shouldered my way to the front of the chute.  There were over 3000 runners at this event, and I didn't want to get log-jammed.   Right under the arch was a taped off section where a couple dozen elite runners lined up.  I recognized Charlotte area runner Chase Eckerd among them, who also was racing the half.  At any Charlotte race, Chase would be a threat to win, or certainly place in the top three, but since Tobacco Road is advertised as a fast course and holds the USATF state championships for marathon and half marathon, Chase was going to have a lot of stout competition.  I lined up right behind the elites, alongside Carrie, a local friend of Dave's who was kind enough to let us park at her house.  Carrie was racing the full and looking for a top 5 finish.
At exactly 8:00am, we were off.  I settled into a brisk pace and let the elite field go, as well as a few folks who started near me.  By the time we climbed the first gentle hill out of the USA Baseball Training Complex about a half mile in, I was in about 30th place, right where I expected to be, and among what appeared to be my "pace peers."  The Tobacco Road course is one out-and-back, with the first and last 2.5 miles on rolling, four-lane roads, and the middle 8+ miles on the American Tobacco Trail (ATT), a straight, very finely crushed gravel/cinder path.  Compared to our regular training routes in the Davidson area, the rolling roads along the first two miles were fairly tame, but I still noticed the inclines while trying to maintain a PR half marathon pace.  The first two miles were in the 6:30+ range, which was too slow for a 1:25.  I was already starting to feel the heat, so the necessary negative split to reach my A goal was looking less and less likely.  I was feeling way too out-of-breath for an 85+ minute effort.
About mile 2.5, just before hitting the ATT.  I'm in the white singlet.  I was with a decent pace group, but the elite female runner in the left side of the frame dropped out of the race a few minutes after this.  Photo courtesy of Megan May

When we broke left onto the ATT, I was pleased at how nice the surface felt under foot.  I was a nice, semi-soft reprieve from the hard asphalt, but it was still a fast surface.   A couple minutes into the ATT, I had to stop off to the side and give up 15 or so seconds to relieve myself from over-hydration, but I could still see my pace peers when I set back to running.  I caught up with them without too much wasted effort.  The next 2.5-3 miles were the only stretch during the race where I felt like I had a rhythm.  Much of this had to do with the very gradual downhill that carried me toward the turnaround.  I knew it would turn into a long, gradual uphill once I doubled back, but I had to enjoy the rhythm while I had it.  I fell in with a couple of other runners here and there and we used each other for pacing, but as runners drifted back, I found myself in a no-man's land for much of the race.  After 6 miles, I saw the leaders coming back on the inward leg of the race.  Chase was 9th or 10th and visibly taxed.  A labored smile was about all he could offer me.
A few minutes later, I made it to the turnaround with a net split of 42:38.  If I were to maintain that pace, I would be in the low 1:25s, but the return leg of the course did not favor even splits, much less negative splits.  As soon as I made the 180 degree turn northbound, it was hard for me to turn the legs over for 6:25 pace.  6:35s were more realistic.  My B goal became the priority and I starting digging back towards the rest of the field.  Miles 8-10.5 were one long grind as the course trended gradually uphill back to the road.  I saw many friends along the way, including a PR-paced Allison, a smiling Dave, and a laid-back Allyson and Barrie.  Some other runners shouted my name, but I was so focused on trying to maintain a hard pace and not lose my B-goal that I didn't register everyone who called out.
Me in suffer mode at the 10.5 mile mark, just about to return to the pavement.  There were worse photos of me during this part of the race...  Photo courtesy of Megan May.

Despite the lovely surface of the ATT, I was ready to be back on the road and hoping the change in surface would let me grab back some of the seconds I was losing while I was trying to hang on during those late middle miles.  When I finally hit the asphalt, I had to re-calibrate to the hard surface, but I was able to push my pace a smidgen.  It's not that my legs were sore; my breathing just couldn't keep up.  So, as I ran along the shoulder of the road and into the sun, I closed my eyes and started counting breaths to match a pattern to my strides.  No other runners were within reach, so I had no rabbits to chase.  I just had to watch the clock keep counting up while the last few mile markers went by.  I was behind pace for my B goal after coming off the ATT, and I was just barely on pace once I got to mile marker 12.  I just had one more climb and then a downhill finish into the baseball complex.
On that last climb, I ignored the watch.  I knew I was hemorrhaging seconds and my lungs were toast, so I resisted the urge to check the time until I got to the last turn.  Once I got to that point, which was almost exactly a half mile from the start line, I did the math and figured I could PR if I ran that last 800 in 3:15 (6:30 pace).  The downhill helped, and I could feel my turnover coming back.  When I got to the mile 26 mark for the full marathon, I knew I was within 360 meters--less than a lap around a track--so I gunned it.  A quick glance at my watch confirmed I had a PR in the bag and a chance at sub-1:26, so I gritted my teeth for the last few moments.  I came in at 1:25:53 on the gun clock, with a net chip time of 1:25:50, a 26 second PR.  To boot, I had won 2nd place in my age group, which I did not expect for a race this size with such stiff competition.  I had to fight hard for it though.  That half marathon felt very much like a 13.1 mile 5k!
PR!  Woohoo!  But it hurt!
Dave came through the finish line a little while later and I met up with him after we both had cooled down.  He also had to fall back on his B goal and was very content to barely make it.  Unfortunately, we were pretty much the only folks who came out of that day with an accomplished goal in the books.  Carrie did not fair badly.  She won 6th place overall female with a 3:11, which was just a minute slower than she though she would run in these conditions.  Most of our Davidson friends had to pull the plug on their BQ attempts and just coast it in for the finish.  Training buddies Brian, Derek, Matt, Rachel, and Richard all had respectable times (including PRs for Richard and Rachel), but they were several minutes past their individual goals.  Chad abandoned his goal early and elected to run with Richard, which probably benefited both of them.  The legendary Bobby Aswell finished in 3:24, which is great considering he had just ran Myrtle Beach Marathon the week before.  As Bobby would say, "That's the marathon!"  Sometimes, you do everything right, but some factors just conspire against you.  Tobacco Road was a warm, tough slog, so everyone who ran it--even those who had to drop--got their money's worth that day.
Here is my Strava data for the race.
From left: me, Derek, Chad, Dave, and Matt enjoying some well deserved beers.

No comments:

Post a Comment