Sunday, November 28, 2010

2010 Life Without Limits Half Marathon

Now a few days after this race, I solidly believe that while it was not a perfect race, it may have been the best race I have run in my lifetime.

Dial the clock back to the fall of 2008; Lady Gaga was new on the charts, a Democrat took the White House, Jimmie Johnson won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and I was in the physical condition of my life. I was logging hundred mile weeks in preparation for a sub 3-hour effort at Rocket City Marathon and was ripping personal bests nearly every weekend. On November 8th of that year I ran what I thought was the best race of my lifetime with a 1:16:38 personal best at the Huntsville Half Marathon. I had cut 6 minutes off of my previous time and finished 5th overall, shocking many runners who didn't think that I could do it.  I finally felt like I had arrived as a serious runner.

Fast forward to the fall of 2010; Lady Gaga is still on the charts, the Republicans took over the House of Representatives and Jimmie Johnson is about to do it again.  On the running front, I am finally back into road racing shape, given the dozens of ultra-distance events I ran in the previous two years. Despite being two years old, it is like a flashback to 2008 as I have had a quite a few podium finishes lately and even some personal best times; something I thought would never happen again.

The goal race for the season is California International Marathon, which was to be used as a qualifier for Comrades in Durban, South Africa, but due some changes in my personal life, will have to wait for another year.  As part of this, I targeted the Life Without Limits Half Marathon in Florence, Alabama as a test of my conditioning.

All of the key factors were in place for a fast race; the weather was in the upper 30's with no wind and light sunshine. The course was a modified Dam-Bridge 10,000 meter course with an additional out and back section before crossing the bridge on the way back to the finish. Dam Bridge was the location of my fastest 10km race, just two years earlier where I clocked a 34:45, losing that day to Lucas Sieb from Scottsboro, who was half of my age.

From the moment the gun sounded to the second that I stopped my watch at the finish line I was running with an "all or nothing" attitude. Despite being matched up against the stellar Hirbo D. Hirbo, I had confidence in my training and abilities to stay with him and if everything came together, I had a chance to win. Coming off of a personal best 16:36 at Liz Hurley 5km the week before, I had a new projected race pace and the plan was to at under 5:50 per mile from beginning to end.

From the start of this race, it quickly turned into a two man competition; Heath White and Nike Fleet Feet Racing team mate Tim Vinson were also in the field, but I hadn't lost to Heath in awhile and Tim was most likely using it as a training run for his upcoming marathon. Before we completed the full loop around the convention center, Hirbo had caught up and together we ran out of the parking lot and onto the road couse leaving most others behind.

Running south over the Wilson Dam on a slight downhill toward the first mile split, we were striding at just over 5:30 pace. This was a little fast for the first mile and I knew that I may pay for it late, but I wasn't about to let him go that early.

By the time we crossed the dam, he had a slight lead on me of a few meters as we passed a few spectators who cheered for Hirbo, the hew hometown hero. Thinking back to 2008 was the last time that I had lead a race against Hirbo, but he clipped me in the final tenth of a mile at the Da Doo Run Run, pushing me into 3rd place. Ironically that was the first and last time that I ever beat Josh Whitehead. Ever since then both Hirbo and Josh had unleashed their abilities on the running world and dominated across the entire southeast. Now just about everyone in Florence knew Hirbo and they cheered him on in groves on this day.

On the far end of the dam near the pump house, we split the second mile just a second and a half slower than the first mile, at 5:37. As we made the tight two-turn combination from the road to the parking lot to the paved path, I caught a glimpse of the younger runner who I didn't know, but I was too focused on staying with Hirbo that I never thought about anyone else behind me after that point.

I made a short push heading into the woods to close the gap and draft along with Hirbo, thinking that maybe he could drag me along for a few miles. As soon as I got close, he slowed down a little and the pace drifted toward a high five. Knowing that this was slower than I wanted to run, I made another short push and swung out besid him, running side by side, then surging forward for a dozen steps. Hirbo has the same "refuse to lose" attitude that I have and he quickly covered my surge. As the path winded through the trees, I made several attempts to push the pace forward, and each time he would cover the distance, or immediately step up the pace along with me. While he was not surging to put any seperation on me, he was doing what he had to do to stay in the lead. These back and forth tactics went on, almost humorously through miles 3 and 4, which we split at 5:43 and 5:36. I say humorously because it was clear that any early stage tactics were utterly futile and this race would be won in the last 5km.

By the time we got into the 5th mile, I decided that I would just stick with him, drafting step for step, but watch the pace and make sure that it didn't slow too much. When it did, I would swing out to the side and we would run beside, but as the course would turn or wind, I would duck back behind along the tangent and preserve energy. There was a slight climb in the middle of the 5th mile, which produced our slowest split to that point in the race, but at 5:47, it was still faster than I had intended to run.

The next two miles were run almost the same as mile 5, but at a faster pace, but over similar rolling hills. To be honest, other than looking back at the elevation profile, I wouldn't really know where the hills were as I wasn't feeling them at all on this day. I was in a head to head battle with a collegiate athlete capable of running a sub 4:30 mile and the defending champion of the race, and I was not going to back down. The first time that we really said anything to each other during the race was around the 10km mark when he asked how I was doing; I said that I felt great. I wasn't quite sure how to interpret this; was he telling me that he was struggling and trying to gauge if I felt similar or was he running so easy that he could engage in covnersation while running well under six-minute pace? Regradless, miles 6 and 7 were split at 5:41, putting us at an even 40 minutes through 7 miles for an average of 5:43 pace.

Miles 8, 9 and 10 were running the backside of the lollipop section where we began to see runners still on the way out.  Despite many cheers for Hirbo, I used that as my motivation to stay with him through these rolling miles.  There was no longer any jockeying for position as I had settled into chase mode, drafting close behind him.  We reeled off some impressive splits of 5:48, 5:38 and 5:49, putting us at 57:17 through 10 miles (which would be my 10 mile personal best by minutes).  I was starting to believe that I had a chance at a personal best and was doing the math in my head as we ran back on the bike path toward the bridge, and the final 5km.

As we crested the final hill before the bridge approach, we snaked through an aid station, making two tight turns.  Coming out of the turns, Hirbo immediately dropped the pace and started to run a low 5-minute pace on the straight away to the north.  I tried to stay with him, but he slowly pulled away and by the middle of the bridge and mile 11, he had put 30 seconds on me.  I was still thinking that he might come back to me in the final two miles, but as I crossed the bridge to the north shore, I was running just under 6-minute miles and knew that unless a miracle happened, I was now running against the clock.

The final two miles to the finish were rolling eastward and the shivering local high school cheerleaders were shouting and screaming us on.  There cheers were motivating as I tried to focus on leg turnover and keeping it under 6-minute pace, as Hirbo remained in my sights, but as I neared the convention center and final turn into the parking lot, he had already crossed the line.  I kicked with what I had left and crossed the line in 1:15:32.

With all of the later-starting 5km runners hanging around the finish line, it was barely even noticeable that I was the second finisher. I took a few staggering steps before shaking Hirbo's hand on a job well done. He admitted that in the last 5km he too was hanging on and the margin of victory (30 seconds) was what he put on me in the 11th mile. I made my way over to change shoes before jogging back out onto the course so I could root for other runners and friends on the final stretch from the bridge to the convention center.

My performance on this day helped to provide the confidence that I was looking before as I head toward Sacramento. Topping my old personal best by 66 seconds still amazes me to this day. My 1:16:38 in 2008 was up until Florence, what I considered to be my best performance at any distance, on any terrain. Now I am clearly in uncharted waters with a sub 1:16 and hope that I can dig deep at the marathon and earn a time like this.

Thanks so much to the good folks at United Cerebral Palsy of Northwest Alabama for putting such a great event and to the many people who were out there volunteering and cheering on the runners. Your help and support did not go unnoticed by this runner.