December 18, 2010 7 Comments
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.
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 …
… 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.