State 9: Texas (2011 LIVESTRONG Austin Half Marathon)

It’s not every day you get to run a race with Lance Armstrong.  The former competitive cyclist and 7-time winner of the Tour de France recently announced his final retirement from the sport, suggesting a total withdrawal from competitive sports.  However, since Livestrong became the title sponsor for the annual Austin Marathon, I suppose he felt compelled, obligated, or just plain excited to run at least the half marathon distance.

But let’s not get into spoilers just yet.  When I made the decision to run a race in every state, the choice for Texas was obvious.  Not only is Austin a great city with some incredibly zany people and establishments, but my friend Gabriel has lived there for a few years now and loves entertaining guests.  After visiting him for a Labor Day weekend two years ago and enjoying such places as Rudy’s, Mighty Fine Burgers and the Warehouse District, it didn’t take much to convince me to make it happen.  Along the way, I somehow managed to get other Chicago residents excited about the race, namely Jason (the formidable competitor with an axe to grind), Laura (the racing absentee with a fast time goal) and Otter (the perennial participator who is really here to party).

We all arrived late Friday, two nights before the race.  Gabriel picked me up at the airport with Pozo, another friend of mine from high school.  I normally adhere to a strict nutritional regimen in the days leading up to a race (no alcohol, no sweets, cut back on salty foods and basically be an extremely boring person).  However, we went straight out after the airport to a bustling 6th street that looked like a street festival.  With so many people out and having a good time, I too got caught up in the festivities.  It was also nice to be able to walk outside and even visit a rooftop bar in February.

The next day we got lunch at North by Northwest, then drove to the Palmer Convention Center for the Expo, then to Aussie’s bar with Laura for a drink or two (more rule-breaking) and finally to NoRTH, an Italian restaurant in that new sprawling mixed-use complex known as the Domain.  For Chicago residents, this is like Old Orchard times five with apartments on top of the stores.  It was a very interesting outing because of the randomness of the dramatis personae.  I had invited friends from high school, friends from college, friends from Chicago, friends from St. Louis — basically a mixed bag of people from different times in my life.  Even though I only caught the conversation of my half of the table, I’m confident to say it was a fun night out.

(Left to right): Gabriel, Jason, Laura, Otter, Ryan, Steve, Jocelly, Alberto, Zach, Me

That night I stayed at the Sheraton with the rest of the Chicago crew.  I brought Gabriel’s inflatable mattress because sharing a bed with Jason’s massive calves would mean some harsh kicks.  Once midnight, we all fell asleep — but not before hearing Jason’s nefarious plan to replace every song on our iPods with the Hamster dance jingle of old.

Up around 5:15 AM the next morning (give or take thirty minutes), the four of us were ready for glory but with a hint of trepidation.  Temperatures were in the low 60′s and the sky was completely overcast, though the humidity was not budging from the low 90′s.  Combine that with our lack of hill experience and you get a nervous feeling of uncertainty.  Before starting, we met up with fellow Wildcat and marathon veteran Jessie Frey, who was there to conquer the full marathon like an army of one.  With twenty minutes till start, Jason and I made our way to the front of the pack and waited for the gun.

As my entry on the 2010 Tucson Half Marathon relates, Jason has been giving me a run (ha) for my money at the half marathon distance.  The Sunday prior, we went on a 10-mile run and I had to stop a mile early because I couldn’t keep up at his speed.  This made me nervous for my performance in Austin.  However, as the race began, I decided I would run my own race, as fast as I possibly could and wouldn’t try and go too hard in the name of friendly competition (or obdurate bullheadedness, whichever you prefer).  The race starts comfortably downhill, with runners encountering very few hills until mile 3, where the entire course rises for a long, long time.  I started feeling short of breath much too early, which didn’t bode well for my endurance, especially since my first two miles were much, much too fast.

That all changed when I spotted Jason forty feet ahead of me.  It was around mile 4.5 as we ran southwest down Congress Avenue – his Soldier Field 10-Miler shirt gave him away.  I would later learn that he ran to the opposite side of the street at the very start of the race and had dashed ahead of me.  He was hoping I would assume I was ahead of him and would therefore run conservatively.  However, the running gods had led me into his shadow, and that’s where I stayed, running right behind him at a normal pace …

… until mile 6.5.  We had already passed the apex of the race’s grueling climb, when Jason turned to check out his reflection in a storefront window.  He must have seen me trailing right behind him because he suddenly took off, accelerating to a 6:40 pace down 1st Street and not backing down.  Fortunately, the course is mostly downhill from miles 6 through 9, so we were able to keep this backbreaking pace without risking an early death.  However, as we reached the 15K mark at the Livestrong cheer center and the course once again bent upwards, Velk began to flag noticeably.  As I passed him around mile 10 and no longer had someone to chase, I too began to see my split times suffer.  It didn’t help that the steepest hills were yet to come and no amount of cheers or encouraging pats on the back could have dragged me through the rest of the course faster than an 8:30 pace.  Right around the first hill, I was passed by two guys wearing nothing but t-shirts and jockstraps.  Let’s just say that their bare asses weren’t the best rabbits to chase.

But like all races, you eventually reach the end.  As the course re-entered the city, the ups and downs became more erratic, varying everyone’s pace wildly.  But it wasn’t long before the final 0.1-mile stretch was before me.  I found the nearest nameless runner and began a sprint right next to him, provoking him to chase.  Since I never practice sprints and had 13 miles behind me, I couldn’t keep the pace up for long and the random person beat me.  But that last dash (run at a crazy 4:54 pace) allowed me to secure a 1:40:32, just (a few thousand) seconds behind Lance Armstrong’s 1:22 finish.

Jason finished not long after, with a 1:43:35, a PR for him on a non-downhill course.  But the true success story was Laura.  After her close friend finished last year’s Big Sur half marathon in 2:01, Laura was overcome with a competitive fury and vowed to finish a half in under two hours.  However, as she trained, her inspired drive became a whimsical “what if”.  Based on her confidence in both herself and her shins (which had become recently susceptible to splints), few would have predicted her 1:55 finish.  The course’s paucity of clocks at each mile and her lack of a footpod or GPS prevented her from knowing her split times.  As she crossed the finish line, she did the math, albeit shakily, and officially became a sub-2-hour half marathoner.  Three cheers!

However, not everyone was as fortunate.  Running his fourth half marathon, Daniel “Otter” Otto accidentally rolled his ankle on the side of the road near a sewer drain around mile 5.  In a situation that would cause most people to give up and head for a medical station, Otter took the road less traveled and went on to finish the damn race.  Hobbling his way the remaining 8 miles on one functioning ankle, he finished the hilly course in a faster time than most able-bodied finishers: 2:23.  Hail, hail, sir, for you are a true Spartan.

Once showered, the three of them left the hotel to get lunch while I took off to Fredericksburg with my hometown friends for some Texas Wine Country and German cuisine.  After visiting four different vineyards of varying quality, we stopped by the Silver Creek Beer Garden and had a few beers before heading next door for dinner.  Pozo fell asleep in the backseat, which gave Gabriel and me license to blast power metal the rest of the way back to Austin.

I had a great time this weekend, both on the race course and off.  Although I felt absolutely dead upon finishing, my time suggests that all the hill training wasn’t in vain, which is fantastic news because I’ve come to despise hill training and would hate to think it was all for nothing.  However, my hill days aren’t over.  Coming up next is the Publix Georgia Half Marathon in four weeks, and from what I remember, Atlanta isn’t completely flat either.  Onwards!

Florida (2011 ING Miami Half Marathon)

Last year’s ING Miami Half Marathon was my first out-of-state half marathon and it was quite the disaster.  The fun weekend with family aside, I spent most of the weekend with an upset stomach and awoke on Sunday to a 70-degree day with 97% humidity.  By mile 5 I was reaching exhaustion and couldn’t keep up the 8:20 pace I had set out to do.  Needless to say, I did not like my experience.  I finished the race with a 1:57, my slowest half to date, and begrudgingly took my medal home.

So when my cousin Paula told me she wanted to run the race again in 2011, I was a bit apprehensive.  Did I really want to risk a repeat of last year’s swampy mess?  Or would Providence shine brightly in my favor?  Since this entry is about the race, the answers to those questions should be obvious, but I didn’t register without a pinch of trepidation.  After all, running can really suck under terrible conditions.  Regardless, I went back along with my cousin and her family for the weekend in hopes of conquering the 13.1-mile distance with a faster time.  Last year’s race did not adversely affect Paula’s love of running.  She went on to finish the Tamarindo Beach Half Marathon in Guanacaste, Costa Rica in September and later the Rock ‘n Roll Los Angeles Half Marathon the following month.  So while I was out to simply finish with a respectable time, she was looking to improve her PR.

We all arrived Friday evening and set up camp at my grandmother’s apartment on Brickell Avenue.  My mom had recently given the entire unit its first facelift since the Bronze Age and I was happy to receive a tour.  As my aunt showed me around the different rooms, I felt like I was an interested buyer at an open house.  It was a very bittersweet experience.  I’ve been visiting this place since birth and until a few years ago, the space hadn’t ever been changed.  But mom did a spectacular job modernizing it, allowing nostalgic attachments to quickly fade.  Check out the 12-year difference:

The next day, we visited the Expo for our race materials and strolled down Lincoln Road until we found an Italian restaurant for lunch.  Though Paula and I can’t speak for the rest of her family, our meal was great and primed us for the following morning’s race.  With a cab scheduled to pick us up at 4:50 AM, we went to bed feeling energized and ready.

Tío Daniel, Tía Ale, Andy, Paula, Nati

Unfortunately, I picked the most unreliable cab company in history.  Not only did the cab never show up, but the company’s number, which I relentlessly dialed upwards of 30 times, would answer once out of every eleven dials with a nondescript “Hello?” as if I were dialing my friends’ parents at 3 in the morning.  They continued to reassure me that the cab was five minutes away, but all evidence suggested otherwise.  By 5:30, I was an unstable combination of rage and panic, leading us to ask my aunt to drive us as close to the race start as possible.  To our great surprise, there weren’t many cars entering downtown Miami and she dropped us off a short 10-minute walk from our respective corrals.  Because of the last-minute contingency plan, I was denied the privilege of gear check and a pre-race bathroom break but at least I was in Corral E as the national anthem finished.

American Airlines Arena, start of the race

The race began at around 6:20 PM with temperatures in the mid-50′s and humidity hovering around 70% – a colossal improvement over last year’s conditions.  By the time I reached mile 4 and entered South Beach, I was feeling great and not showing any signs of fatigue, which were more than apparent in the previous running.  Because of this good fortune, I was much more aware of the course’s scenic beauty.  I was able to enjoy the palm trees that split up the MacArthur Causeway, the restaurants that line Ocean Drive and the many families of spectators that exit their homes on Meridian Avenue to cheer.  By the time I reached the Cheer Zone at Mile 11 to the sounds of crowds and my family, I was confident and running at a pace reminiscent of my summer half marathons.

The Cheer Zone is crucial in this race.  Though there are always a few spectators to be found at any point in the race except on the Causeways, there is never a large, critical mass of booming shouts until this point.  As more fans show up, they slowly push off the sidewalk and into the street, narrowing the road to only three shoulder lengths.  This makes it look like you’re running faster (and truth be told, the rush of adrenaline does make some people actually run faster), which boosts your confidence, if only for a few hundred feet.  In my case though, as soon as the crowds died down, I began to flag.  It wasn’t a bonk by any means, but for the first time in the race, I felt like I had to try to keep up my pace.

You see, Chicago has been consistently recording temperatures below 20°F for the last month, which has relegated me to the treadmill for 90% of my training.  In fact, my longest run prior to Miami was an 11-mile run at the gym (fortunately, TNT was playing The Dark Knight so I wasn’t bored out of my mind).  Once past the Cheer Zone, conveniently located at mile 11, I entered territory not explored since early December.  But like anyone who has a time goal in mind, I pushed onwards and made it to the finish in a respectable 1:41:42, knocking off fifteen minutes from last year and logging my sixth fastest time on a flat course.  Paula, however, earned top laurels at the event by finishing in 2:05, fourteen minutes faster than her PR.

A few hours after the race, with a medal proudly in her carry-on and muscles glazed with PF Chang’s’ orange peel sauce, Paula left for Costa Rica with her parents and siblings.  She and I are close to making this race an annual tradition.  I don’t need to make a cost-benefit analysis to show that going to Miami in January is a perfectly timed escape from Chicago’s interminable winter – and the free accomodations definitely help.  I don’t know about her, but I already jumped on the early bird special and signed up for 2012.  Anyway, I spent the remainder of the day relaxing before heading back out to Chicago for what meteorologists were calling one of the worst blizzards in the city’s history.  After that, it’ll be just under three weeks until the LIVESTRONG Austin Half Marathon in the Lone Star State.  Onwards!

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