State 8: Arizona (2010 Damascus Bakeries Tucson Half Marathon)

It doesn’t take much to convince Jason Velkavrh to race.  Over the last two years, we’ve run fourteen of the same races with the most recent of which, thanks to Velk’s increase in training, were actual competitive endeavors.  In early November of this year, we finished the Hot Chocolate 15k within 30 seconds of each other at a very fast pace.  Afterward, over some beers at Finn McCool’s, we decided that if we were to train hard in the winter and find a chilly half marathon, we’d destroy our PR’s for sure.  After some internet research, we found that the Tucson Half Marathon was not only run in 40’s temperatures and a dry, desert climate, but also on a mostly downhill course.  So we went for it.

Tom Hines, ladies and gentlemen

After getting into Tucson via Houston, we settled in at a Sheraton on Grant Road using his vast horde of Starwood points.  The next day, we went to the Hilton El Conquistador to pick up our race packets, which had a disappointing cotton shirt but a surprising pair of wicking socks, a few vendors and little else.  While Tom Hines drove down from Tempe, Jason and I ventured into an Italian restaurant and continued our extreme carbo-loading regimen by eating what felt like an entire loaf of garlic bread.  Shortly thereafter, we met up with a very bearded Tom a few blocks away and drove to Fantasy Island, which was not a sex motel as the name suggested.  Instead, it was a series of desert trails, perfect for off-road biking.  After a brief stroll through cactus fields, we hopped back into the car and drove 7,000 feet up the Catalina Mountains, which was spectacular.

This was my first time in any desert climate, so the rising mounts of orange and brown were truly breathtaking.  We eventually made it to Ski Valley, stepped outside into the chilly air, took very deep breaths, and drove back into town.  That night we went out for a sushi dinner before calling it a night.

We were up at 4 AM sharp and out the door by 4:40.  We parked at Canyon del Oro High School and boarded a bus to the start line.  Along the way, we noticed that the shoulder of the highway was lined with traffic cones and that’s when we realized we were driving on the actual race course.  The bus eventually dropped us off on Biosphere road, though you would never have known that because it was still pitch black outside and the only lights came from two spotlights powered by generators, a cluster of heat lamps and the stars above.  With temperatures in the low 40’s and a breeze cutting over the mountains, runners were huddled together like emperor penguins around the heatlamps, conserving as much heat as possible before darting down the desert highway.  Had the speakers not been blaring 80’s power anthems, I would have sworn we had boarded the wrong bus.  There were no large banners with the name of the race, no signage, no tents – just hundreds of shivering runners waiting for 7 AM.

After hearing an a cappella rendition of the national anthem, the race organizers began the event.  I don’t know how this happened, but I remember waiting in the tiny start corral in pitch darkness … and then running in daylight.  The change was that dramatic.  The first hundred yards would set the pace for the rest of the race and that pace was fast.  Given that my half marathon PR was a 7:31 pace, I decided earlier that I would run the first half at 7:30 and then kick it into overdrive in the second half at a 7:10 pace.  But there was one snag to that operation: Jason.  He started running fast, really fast.  I caught up to him and informed him that our first split was a 6:56, hoping he’d slow down.  But he didn’t.  At that point, much like it did at the Hot Chocolate 15k, hubris took over.  As we continued the gradual downhill run, our splits stayed consistent and fast – 6:50, 7:04, 6:44.  Jason wasn’t slowing down.  Since I stop to walk at water stations (he doesn’t) I started falling slightly behind.  I kept up an unhelpful mantra, telling myself that we were going much too fast and that this pace was far from sustainable.  I was running a 10k pace, so how could I possibly keep it up for over twice that distance?  I could feel it in my breathing, but fortunately not in my stride.

I kept running at that unreasonable pace and receding into the distance, so did Jason.  My ever mounting concern about an inevitable 9th mile bonk aside, I managed to take in the scenery around me.  The sun was rising slowly over the Santa Catalina Mountains to my left, giving me an impressive 30 foot shadow that stretched over the highway and into the cactus fields.  I was expecting the heat to climb at this point, but never did I feel remotely warm.  I was definitely sweating – but the morning chill stayed with me.  As I approached mile 9, the gap between Jason and me had narrowed to only a few seconds but with a split of 6:56, the pace had stayed the same.  We crossed mile 10 in just over 1:09 and continued downhill.  For the first time, I was leading and it was looking like finishing with a sub-7-minute pace was possible …

I didn't take pictures of the race course, but this is desert and downhill, so it's the closest I have.

… until we hit mile 11.  Up until this point, the majority of the race had been run on North Oracle Road, a thin desert highway that runs southwest towards the city.  At mile 11, runners turn left onto East Hawser Street, a mile from a residential neighborhood and two from the finish.  We had seen the elevation chart earlier and knew that there was a slight incline around this part but hadn’t expected the sudden rise that it really was.  Under normal conditions, it wasn’t much of a hill.  But since our legs had been doing less work for more speed for over an hour, it felt torturous.  After slogging up to the top, we picked it back up slightly and dashed past subdivisions towards Coronado Middle School and the finish line.  Crossing the finish line in 1:32:06 was a personal best by over six and a half minutes.  Jason, however, improved his record by over ten and a half minutes by finishing in 1:33:37.  We collected our medals, stocked up on free food and took a bus back to our car.

For the next hour we would incredulously reflect on our superhuman accomplishments.  We tried hard not to fool ourselves.  It was obvious that the 1,000-ft descent was 90% responsible for our blazing times, the remaining 10% due to absolutely perfect conditions.  Temperatures were in the upper 40’s, humidity in the low 50’s (surprisingly) and winds at our backs.  But still, our impressive times were now in the books and the trip’s overall goal accomplished – not just to secure a PR, but to obliterate our PR’s.  With a time that I would not consider remotely possible on a regular course, I came home happy and proud.

Illinois (2010 Bank of America Chicago Marathon)

I’m glad I chose 2009 to be my inaugural marathon year.  Leading up to the event, I was afraid of another repeat of 2008 or worse, 2007.  As someone who doesn’t perform well in warm conditions, I was close to praying for cold weather.  Lucky for me and the 35,000+ finishers, the weather on October 11th, 2009 was chilly.  Starting line temperatures were in the mid 30’s, and by the time I finished it was still cold at around 45.  The day was overcast and there was no significant wind in any direction.  My long-sleeve shirt that I planned to remove stayed on the entire time and not once in the race did I find myself sweating.  It was the perfect way to ease someone into running additional marathons.  By teasing you with the easiest possible race, a flat, fast course in near ideal conditions, it was almost impossible to not fall into the trap of signing up for next year.

Mama and I upon finishing the 2009 Marathon, in 40 degree temperatures

Oh, if only we could be so lucky all the time.

This past Sunday was October 10th, the date of the 33rd annual Bank of America Chicago Marathon and, like three of the past four years, the event was held in unseasonably warm weather.  The ten days immediately before the weekend were all picture-perfect marathon days.  But no, for those three days, locals and visitors were treated to aberrant temperatures that cost the majority of the field new PR’s.  All throughout the week I was tracking the weather, watching both the projected Hi and Lo for Sunday slowly creep up like a game of Red Light Green Light.  It just goes to show you that ten-day forecasts are completely useless.  The so-called Hi of 62 that weather.com was predicting ten days out was as baseless as reading tea leaves.  I’ve learned to not put much faith in such canards but it’s so easy to want to believe in these meteorological soothsayers.

I kept a regular mantra throughout the week, repeating certain facts to myself in hopes of mollifying my escalating concerns.  It’s not going to be humid; the Hi will hit around 3 PM and you’ll be done long before that; your nutrition has been great this year so you won’t bonk until very late in the race, etc.  So did any of those hopes help me out in the end?  Let’s see how the day went.

The race began at 7:30 with temperatures neither warm nor cool.  Some estimates said 58, others 67.  I joined a 3:45 pace group and ran with them for the first four miles through the Loop before accelerating my pace around Lincoln Park.  Once in Wrigleyville, the race’s northernmost point, I was feeling great.  There was a constant, refreshing breeze, the shade was ample and the spectators were out in full force.  I saw Steph and my family in Old Town south of Wells & North.  My mom was waving a small Costa Rican flag while my dad taunted runners with a much larger one like a bullfighter.  It was exactly the kind of boost I needed – the sun was beginning to rise and I could feel the temperatures rising.

Somewhere around the financial district (mile 12), my right knee started to hurt as it did back in the spring of 2009.  Feeling it was like running into bad blood after years of avoidance.  I got angry.  But a mile later, it was gone.  I passed the 13.1-mile mark in 1:50, feeling confident and fast.  However, miles 14-17 would prove that my confidence was ephemeral.  By this point, the sun was out, the shade was limited and the breeze had stopped blowing.  I wasn’t going to be able to sustain my pace, so I slowed myself down to 9 minutes per mile.  I was able to keep that for about four miles, where my calves began to cramp just before Pilsen.  I slowed to a walk to relieve them and continued on my way.  Shortly after that, my quads cramped.  By the time I reached Chinatown, I was no longer running consistently.  Instead, I would run until something would seize up, then stop and walk.  After I saw Steph and my dad at the red gate in Chinatown, my right hamstring completely seized up and I had to come to a complete stop to let it settle.

From that point onward, all of my miles were in the high 11:00’s because my legs weren’t letting me run for more than a minute at a time.  At some point in that last 10k, I admitted to myself that a 3:45 time wasn’t in the books, and that a slower time than last year was very likely.  I decided that it was better to finish smiling than to continue to push hard and risk throwing up, fainting or worse.  It wasn’t until I let this sink in that I started to have fun again.  Miles 14 through 19 were painful and difficult because they were the first harbingers of disappointment.  But once I came to terms with the fact that I wasn’t the only one suffering through the rest of the course, I managed to enjoy myself.  There is certainly camaraderie in misery and I felt it.  Everyone around me was struggling, limping or leaning on someone else to placate their legs.

Though I had earned some peace of mind, the race did not get any easier.  By mile 23, the sun was out and the long northward stretch up Michigan Avenue provided no shade.  With my body relegating most of its resources to cool me down, my legs were suffering.  But I kept my pattern of running and walking until suddenly I beheld the Roosevelt Street Bridge.  I had no idea I was so close to the end, so I took off, aches and pains be damned.  With that last-minute surge of energy, I climbed the bridge, whose sidewalks were thick with emphatic spectators, turned onto Columbus Drive and crossed the finish line in 4:05:22.  Even hitting the wall so disastrously, I was only two minutes slower than last year’s time.

Walking through the finish chute, I could feel the sun beating down on my neck.  Temperatures had climbed into the upper 70’s, at least 30 degrees warmer than last year.  Given that huge difference, I wasn’t too disappointed with my time.  I got my medal, banana and cold towel and walked to Buckingham Fountain to meet up with Steph and my family.

Later at home I would check friends’ times to read the exact same story as mine.  Everyone ran quickly and confidently for the first half and then slowed down precipitously in the second half.  Once again, I find myself thinking of those who chose 10.10.10 as their first marathon.  I hope they didn’t cross the finish line thinking, Never again!  Because the experience isn’t about the weather.  If it were, marathons would only take place in the spring and they’d be held in temperate cities with mild, dry climates.  Placing all your hopes of enjoyment on something as uncontrollable as the heat index is foolhardy.  Sure, it’s easy to go home sulking because the sun robbed you of a sub-4:00 time, but that’s not the point of this exercise is it?  Although the weather wasn’t ideal (truth be told, it could have been much, much worse), it was still fun.  I hope the overall slowdown didn’t build up the field’s defenses against the running bug because I plan on continuing this hobby for many years to come.

As for what’s next on the program, there’s the Hot Chocolate 15k on November 6 and then figuring out what 2011 will look like.  I doubt I’ll be able to top this year’s spread, but I’ll definitely keep it interesting.  There’s a possible marathon in Traverse City, a few half marathons to sprinkle throughout the year for good measure, and of course, looking ahead to 10.09.11.  Until then, I’ll be recovering.

Congratulations to all finishers!

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