Wednesday, March 14, 2012


The 4:30 alarm buzzes and rings. It’s race day. The Inaugural San Diego Half Marathon -- my FIRST half marathon.


Dang! You’d think the nerves and excitement would have me hopping out of bed. But no, because Daylight Saving Time begins today and the idea of getting as much sleep before the big race seems like a better idea at the moment.

Ten minutes later, I’m up making coffee, prepping my pre- and during-race hydration formulas, taking my vitamins, and getting into my running shorts and shirt (bib pre-attached last night). I’ve woken to many a race day morning over the past two years, but until today it’s been all about being the support guy, not the participant. So this is different. Now I’ve got a whole new set of nerves and a constant feeling of having to use the bathroom.

I pack frozen pancakes and sausages into an ice pack, grab a bag for my kids’ clothes and shoes, and toss them in the back of the car. One by one, I carry my three kids from their peaceful slumber to the backseat of the car, and by 5:30 we’re on our way to the babysitter’s house -- the race is at 7:15.

As I give my wife Maria the rundown on all that I’ve packed for the kids for their morning at the sitter’s, she says, “And you have the boys’ glasses...”

Dang! Dang! I turn the car around and head back home.

5:45 and we’re back on the road. It’s still dark and the roads are deserted. Actually, nothing about this road looks familiar. And in the middle of telling Maria how weird it feels being the participant and not the support person--

Dang! Dang! Dang! I missed my turn for the babysitter’s house! I make a u-turn and immediately begin to sweat, my heart rate at an instant 180 bpm. Where’s the high school? Where’s the high school?! C’mon-- yes! There it is. I make the turn I missed, find the house, drop off the kids, their shoes, their clothes, and breakfast and we’re back on the road for the San Diego Half Marathon.

Despite the morning commute’s antics, we arrive at Petco Park and find a parking spot without issue. Now I can breathe and think about the race.

Think about the race… obsess about the race… the 13.1… the course… the hill… the pain… the work… my shoes… my shoelaces… but--

The port-o-potty line is insane. There must be a better way. So we head into Petco Park, and thanks to an unguarded escalator, we make it up to a ghost-townish second level of the stadium and have full use of the empty women’s restroom.

Down by the gear check, we hook up with six others from our BETTER HALFS team for a group photo. The opportunity to talk with others from our team helps set my mind at ease. We’re all a little nervous, but mostly, we’re all excited and can’t wait to get going. Meeting up with Billie (and Joe), Eric, Michele, Cassie, Mark, and Adrienne is the perfect solution to defeat my own nerves and obsessing over my own fears about the morning ahead.

National Anthem. Wave 1 is off. Waves 2 through 6. Here we go. Wave 7.

We march up to the start line. Then, boom, we’re off. Stepping across the timing mat, I start my Garmin. “Just stay with me,” Maria says. “I’m pacing you through this.” How lucky am I to have my own personal pacer? A pacer who’s run seven half marathons and one full marathon over the last two years. Simply incredible.

The first mile through downtown and the Gaslamp are perfect. The weather is cool, in the 50s, and it’s overcast. As we approach the Mile 1 marker we quickly realize that there IS NO Mile 1 marker, just a clothing donation bin to the left and one to the right. Hmmm... is this what “inaugural” means? Nevermind, I’ve got my Garmin. The course heads up Pacific Highway to Ash then along North Harbor Drive to the airport -- classic San Diego Embarcadero training grounds. Before we know it, the Mile 5 marker is here (yes, it’s actually present) and the need to use the restroom is growing. Here is where we make our fateful decision to use the public restrooms at Spanish Landing -- up to this point, the port-o-potties along the course had lines of up to 12 people. Only one guy in line in front of me. No problem.

Tick... tick... tick... tick...

A whopping four minutes later we’re back on the course and Maria still hasn’t used the restroom because her line never moved. Construction around the base of the Nimitz Bridge proves to be a blessing as a solo construction workers’ port-o-potty sits empty for Maria. “You go on ahead. I’ll catch up to you,” she says. So I’m up and over the bridge into the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. By the time she catches back up to me around Mile 6.5, we come upon a bank of 10 port-o-potties -- all completely empty! Grrr...

Running down Barnett Avenue, I can’t help but count my blessings for the cool weather. But seeing the dip in the road ahead (where Barnett briefly goes under Pacific Highway), reminds me that Washington Street Hill is still coming. A quick right-hand loop and a couple zig-zags later I’m met with a surprise -- Noell Street.

We knew about and expected the pain of Washington Street. But what is this?! This isn’t on the elevation chart! The hill is short, but maybe too short, because it looks to be straight up, like there should be stairs or something. I take a deep breath and trudge up until I realize that I can walk it faster than I can run it. So that’s what I do. At the top, I get back into stride. There are some drummers at the top, drumming us toward our destiny with the hill that’s actually ON the elevation chart.

A left turn presents us with what we’d all been waiting for, the course’s only (advertised) challenge, the Washington Street Hill. We take a nice line along the right-side cones and start up the hill at pace -- no instant walk for me today because somehow, last night, I let Maria convince me to run this race continuously as opposed to the 9-1 run-walk I had trained for. Miracle of miracles, somehow I manage to run almost the entire hill up to the point where it becomes even steeper at the top in order to climb a ramp that connects to the University Avenue flyover. That’s right. Not only did we just climb Washington Street, now we’re actually climbing and running OVER it. Nice.

Here the course flattens out in Hillcrest. We expect to have some spectators here, as up to this point, course-side cheering has been minimal. To our disappointment, everyone must be sleeping in this Sunday morning.

Now. Mile 10. Mile 11. Balboa Park. Sixth Avenue. The cursed hill climb to the finish of America’s Finest City Half Marathon is now the blessed Sixth Avenue Hill DESCENT to downtown and the finish line. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for, a final downhill flight to the finish. Just before Laurel Street -- the point where the descent begins -- a runner on the course is hobbling toward the sidewalk, his left foot pointed like a ballerina’s but his calf tied up in a ball. He either pulled something or snapped something. Either way, his race is finished, two downhill miles too soon.

I shake the image from my head and race onward as fast as I can. I see my pace coming down, 1 minute faster, 2 minutes faster. Perfect. But then, pain -- like someone digging their thumbs hard into the center of both my calfs and my right hamstrings. Instantly the image of the man at the top of the hill returns. Oh no, I’m not going down like that! So I slow down. Painfully, I slow down on the descent, not reaping nearly the time benefit I had hoped for to make up for Washington Street. The pains come and go depending on how fast I run. The faster I run, the more the pains come back. So I temper my pace, even walk for 20 seconds to keep things in check. Maria tells me how proud she is of me. She starts to well up, the emotions are high. I say a quick thank-you then refocus my efforts downtown.

Downtown is right there. Soon the buildings are upon us, then on top of us, beside us. The crowds are increasing and soon the street is full of families, friends, and spectators. There it is, Petco Park. There they are, the medals around the necks of runners who finished before us.

“C’mon, let’s go! You’re almost there!” Maria yells, practically skipping down Seventh Avenue. I wish I could skip too, but I’m concentrating on every step, careful to listen to my body, my legs, my calfs and my hamstrings, trying to keep it all together.

We turn into Petco Park, a short, dark tunnel with the glorious light of the ballpark shining at the end. The music is loud. The announcer is louder. The roar of the crowd is rising with each step closer to the finish line. I don’t know how fast I’m actually going -- probably not that fast -- but I feel like an Olympic sprinter crossing the finish line. It is finished!

As I come to a stop, everything from my waist down hurts. It hurts to walk. But I have to keep going if I’m going to pick up my medal. We walk between two lines of military service men and women who drape our medals around our necks. Maria and I stand together for a finish photo.

Amazing. Incredible. When asked if I’m going to do another half marathon, my immediate gut reaction is “NO WAY!” (as my mind flips quickly back to that man at the top of the hill and my own tender calfs and hamstrings). But with each hour that passes, the moment, the race, the experience gets sweeter and sweeter.

Now where’s that new pair of shoes? I’ve got to find another race to run.

EVENT NOTES - This is an instant classic race. Top notch organization from registration to gear check to course support to the beautiful medal. Great job!

1 comment:

Adrienne said...

Wonderful race day recap! What an amazing, unforgettable day. Congrats on your big finish! :)