The augurs were not good, and for a race I originally had pegged as a PB-hunt due to the flat course and predicted cool-ish conditions. By race day I was looking at it more as a training-run-with-a-medal than a race.
At the Canterbury (England) Half-Marathon five weeks previously I had taken more than three minutes off my PB, albeit in only my third ever half since taking up running 13 months previously. I “left it all out on the course” that day, and then flew back to Cayman without whatever it was that I’d left on the course, and the absence of “it” left me sore-legged and unable to do more than a slow trot for a few miles until about 10 days later. Whatever I left there, I’m pretty sure the hills took it. The ankle sprain put paid to most of the second half of September’s training, so when I arrived in Ocean City on the evening of September 27th, it was with only 70 miles training that month, devoid of speedwork, rather than the planned 130-140.
Knowing how much Canterbury had cost me in resting time, and my priority being to get ready for the Disney World Marathon in January I decided to try and take it easy – kinda – at this race. My friend Tim gave me a derisive, “Yeah right” when I mentioned that was my intention, based on his knowledge of my competitive idiocy…I mean instinct. I was confident – if that’s the right word – that my lack of race-standard fitness would leave me with no choice but to take it relatively easy, although I didn’t like the idea of breaking my streak of consecutive PB’s at two.
This was my largest event so far – over 900 runners. The previous two had only about 300, being as they were hilly and run in -10 degrees and torrentially rainy days respectively. They seemed comprised almost entirely of keen-looking runner types, whereas the Cayman Half and the Ocean City Half both seem to attract a lot of walkers and, “I haven’t trained for this but let’s give this a try” types.
With the 10K-ers having the same start time as us we were cramming the road leaving the 9th Street section of boardwalk. As usual I tried to position myself at the start line in roughly the numerical position I expected to finish, so as not to be too badly held up by slower runners or embarrassed by speedsters in the first mile.
This process involves hunting for people older and fatter than me and standing in front of them, while checking that on no account must I find myself in front of a lurking Mo Farah lookalike, or behind anyone who looks large enough to have their own moon. I did cast a disapproving look at the who had her infant in a pushchair with her and was positioned near the front in great place to cause a massive holdup, or even pileup.
I’ve only run four Half-Marathons, but the starters seem to fall into two broad categories. The first is the “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” type. They love to tell us why they think we’re here, and how great a job they’ve done in making this the greatest race with the best volunteers and the most fabulous supporters in the known world. Then there are those who bring a starter’s pistol to the start line, and at roughly the scheduled start time they fire it. Mercifully this was closer to the second type.
As I watched a 4’6” tall 65-year-old lady leave me for dead in the first 200 metres, I started my systems check, which is what occupies the first 1-3 miles of all my long runs. No twinges in my left hamstring: good. Sprained ankle…not a problem…completely cured actually…that’ll be the adrenaline boost that also meant I needed the bathroom five times in the last half-hour before the race started. Running form…a heel-striking, somewhat heavy, wide-armed but relatively forward-and-back-legged mediocrity, and probably as good as it’s gonna get without giving up my job to train full-time. Check.
Oh darn: I forgot the most crucial pre-race ritual of them all: vaseline on the nipples to prevent chafing. That’ll be fun by mile 10…
Several guys who look five years older than me and with much more grey hair than me, pass and give no indication that they’re pushing it, so I’m unlikely to see them again later. I make a mental note to stand behind guys who look like that at my next start line.
One-and-a-half to two miles in and I’m passed by two younger guys who I’m certain I’ll see again, no matter how badly my race goes. The first one is Biceps Billy: a buff guy with massive upper body who puffs out his chest and long-strides his way past me. He’s starting the race like a lot of body-building types do, who’ve bought into the nonsense that by only running a bunch of sprints you’re good to go for a fast half-marathon. They all start fast, and they’re almost all half-dead by mile eight, which was roughly when I re-passed this guy.
The second was over-pronating Ollie. He had neutral running shoes the biggest over-pronation I’ve ever seen – his ankle rolled in so far it was nearly scraping the road, and not only was he over-pronating like crazy but he must have the heaviest footfall in the western world – I heard that guy pounding away from 20 feet back. I was back past him within two miles and never saw – or heard – him again.
Three miles in was where I gave up any hope of a fast time, because that was when the sun came out. Suddenly we had glorious sunshine, a cloudless sky and a 10 degree jump in temperature that took us into the 70’s and out of my PB-zone. I readjusted my hopes and goals in the race to trying to enjoy it and make sure I finished comfortably inside my half-marathon debut time of 1:55:36.
And I did enjoy it – especially the out-and-back across the road bridge that takes you into Ocean City and afforded great views that we could enjoy because it was relatively early on in the race.The bridge was also where I mercifully passed for good the man doing a passable impression of an asthmatic buffalo running for its life. Every breath a defiant snort of inhuman volume.
The second half of the race though was mainly around the back streets of Ocean City itself, which could really have been the back streets of anywhere. Occasional refreshment-stop folks gave good support, albeit mainly aimed at runners from the local high school football team(s), and coming from their cheer-leading squads.
A few miles into the back-streets section and just over half-way through the race I was disappointed to realise that I’d had enough. I wasn’t feeling fit enough to just enjoy running that kind of distance at a decent pace, and the alternative – running slowly enough so that I wasn’t pushing – would have put me at a slowest-ever time. So I was really running just to avoid being radically slow and hoping to stay fresh enough that I would be able to resume marathon training in two days. And that’s pretty much how I spent miles 8 through 12, excepting a stretch of boardwalk.
When I reached last mile on the boardwalk to the finish line the race was fun again. I was cool with my time, pleased that my pork ropes were holding up just fine, the view of the sea was relaxing and the boardwalk was a lot easier on my legs than the road. The only hiccup was being re-passed by a lady I’d chatted to earlier. She was on her sprint finish in the last 1K, and I wanted to shout “I coulda stayed with you if I wanted to but I’m saving myself for marathon training!” but then I’d have also had to admit I probably didn’t have the legs anyway.
In the end a 1:53:31 was perfectly acceptable and the medal plus the after-race feeling of annihilation and achievement was plenty reward for my efforts.