Florida (2012 ING Miami Half Marathon)

Represent!

I signed up for the 2012 ING Miami Half Marathon two days after running the 2011 race.  They got me with their registration blitz, where prices are ludicrously low for the first 500 registrants.  Plus, my cousin Paula and I had decided to make it into a little annual family tradition.  So it’s been on my calendar for an entire year, and the threepeat had finally come.  Would it be uncommonly cool?  Perhaps we’d get a repeat of 2010’s oppressive humidity?  Maybe it would finally rain?  With these uncertainties in my mind, I flew down to meet up with my mom, my aunt, cousin, and running compatriot Otter, whose medal addiction had drawn him to sunny Miami for the race’s famous spinning palm.

We were in the starting chute just minutes before race start.  We had gotten emails telling us that security would be “tight” in the corrals, but that turned out to be mostly hot air.  It seems no race can truly solve the problem of runners not sorting themselves correctly during the start.  There are never just one or two people who settle themselves into the first corrals and walk the race.  But this race, for some reason, elevates this discrepancy to an art form.  No matter where you are sorted, you’ll end up weaving sideways for the first two miles, dodging fast runners and skipping past walkers.

Third time's the charm

The first mile, as usual, is mostly uphill as runners tackle the MacArthur Bridge.  As I climbed upward, I felt a bit concerned.  The humidity wasn’t as punishing as it was two years ago, but it certainly wasn’t as deliciously crisp as it was in 2011.  Since I was expecting a slow first mile, I wasn’t surprised when I clocked an 8:27.  I was somewhat relieved when I felt a heavenly breeze cutting across the top of the crest.  It would accompany us for the rest of the eastward run toward Miami Beach, with palm trees to our left, enormous city-ships anchored on the right.  The morning sun had yet to make its appearance, but dim shades of blue were emerging from a distant cluster of baleful rainclouds.

The Miami Skyline from the Rickenbacker Causeway, picture courtesy of Otter

As I ran down the causeway, I was a bit nervous.  I was definitely sweating more than usual and I could feel the heaviness of the air as I slipped through it.  It didn’t help that my second mile was an 8:08.  I thought I had perfected the art of running a particular pace without the aid of a watch, but Miami’s conditions had thrown off my talent.  I thought I was running a 7:40, not an 8:08.  It’s rarely comforting when your perceived exertion is much higher than your actual output.  It instantly puts doubts in your mind and the psychosomatic effects can compound.

In spite of that moment of frustration, I still felt motivated to pick up the pace.  Once I reached the first water station around mile 3, I logged a validating 7:32 split.  But I was almost completely drenched in sweat, which is not a good sign so early in the race.  At that point, I knew I had to make a choice.  Do I scale it back and run more slowly to avoid an ugly finish, or be an idiot and keep running like this until I blow up?  I knew what could happen when the humidity climbs and hubris takes over.  But the soaking wet shirt aside, I felt great.  Should I abandon all conservatism and just go hard to test my limits, or play it safe and just enjoy the race?  The next two splits would answer these questions.

Mile 4: 7:47
Mile 5: 6:56

(Left to right): Mama, Me, Otter, Paula, Tía

Despite water stations being too crowded and chaotic, I blazed through South Beach.  It definitely helped that I started singing Yellowcard’s “Ocean Avenue” along Ocean Drive.  I remembered, with little fondness, the first time I ran down this particular section of the race.  As iconic and beautiful as it is, I couldn’t enjoy it because I was already heaving and struggling to move forward.  But even my daring confidence wasn’t enough to keep my pace consistent after I saw that 6:56 split.  I made a conscious decision then to slow down a bit because no amount of determination would keep that suicidal pace for another seven miles.

And so the game was on.  In most races, there is always a tacit fear of bonking, but you don’t entertain it until it’s inevitable.  This time, I was almost embracing the bonk, expecting it to show its dreadful face.  I therefore had to put in enough punishment early on to give myself a cushion at the end.  Ask any long distance runner and they will tell you that is a terrible idea.  Negative splits are the building blocks of a successful race strategy, not going hard at the beginning.  But there was a stranger running in my stead today, and he didn’t care.  The new mantra was, Can I run another mile at this pace?  Just one more mile?

Mile 6: 7:35
Mile 7: 7:29

Ready to "Run Famous" (whatever that means)

Alright, I thought.  I can still do this for awhile.  I was having to brush sweat off my eyebrows more often than I would like, but I somehow kept up the pace.  Water stations were no longer as messy as the first three were, mostly because the pack had thinned considerably.  Now that the race had ballooned to over 20,000 runners, it was imperative that the organization improve their early water stations.  Since the course is a circuit, runners are usually making left turns, so they’re mostly on the left side of the street.  However, the first two water stations were on the right side.  It’s therefore expected that everyone will dash right, get water, and then dash back left.  This could be solved by adding an extra water station on the left side, which is common in most races of this size.

Runners dashing for the finish line

But once on the Venetian Causeway, this was no longer an issue.  With the ocean on both sides of us, there was little obstructing the wind’s path.  That perfect breeze that cooled us down at the top of MacArthur was back, keeping me moving at a consistent pace without overheating.  I kept asking myself: is this the mile where it all falls apart?  Is this the beginning of that slow, painful crawl?  Is this where everyone else starts patting me on the back and saying “You can do this, buddy” or “Hang in there”?

Mile 8: 7:30
Mile 9: 7:36
Mile 10: 7:49

Though mile 10 was showing signs of decline, I still kept my head up.  I kept wondering, Am I really doing this?  Am I winning this game of chicken between me and the elements?  Since the last three miles are always the toughest, I couldn’t yet declare a victory.  But still, the thought that I could somehow finish under 1:40 in Miami was tantalizing.  I always discard fast times in warm temperatures because I believe I sweat more than the average person.  Over distance, the heat drains me of energy, which is why I high five Mother Nature when the mercury dips below 50 on race day.  But today it was almost 70, with the dew point around 68 degrees.

Mile 11: 7:26
Mile 12: 7:36

I was back in the game.  This was actually happening.  And once the course enters the mainland and passes the ING Cheer Zone, we’re almost at the finish line.  The last two miles cut through downtown Miami before turning back north into the finishing chutes.  Even last year, where the race was blessed with cool conditions, I started losing energy here.  But today I was unstoppable.  Even though I felt like I was leaving puddles with every footstep, I kept pounding the pavement to the tune of a 7:14 mile.  A sub 1:40 time was possible and I would have thrown my arms in the air triumphantly at this point were it not for one technical detail.

Javier Becerra rocking his debut half marathon

To explain it, I want to talk about a slight pet peeve I have.  I read a lot of race recaps because I enjoy hearing about different people’s experiences over the distance and what goes on in their heads as they tackle their running goals.  But it seems like a lot of them, mostly those who run with Garmins or other GPS-tracking watches, end up saying some variation of this sentence:

“My Garmin said I ran 13.23 miles, so I actually ran MORE than a half marathon!”

Most of the time, this statement isn’t true.  Unless you’re running in a small community race that doesn’t attract a sizable crowd and has lax standards for event production, you’re most likely running a standard distance course.  Races are measured very meticulously to meet USATF rules.  They wouldn’t just ballpark 13.1 miles and expect everyone to round down, especially not one with over 20,000 runners, a decent international elite field and considerable prize money.  Additionally, Garmins aren’t exactingly precise.  Although I love my Forerunner and am a slave to it, if I run near a building over four stories, it will interfere with satellites and alter my stats ever so slightly.  It’s meant to give you a pretty accurate picture of your pace and distance, but the numbers on it shouldn’t be read as gospel.  So while it may say “13.18″ or “26.42,” unless you consistently ran on the outside of the course or zigzagged the entire way, you didn’t run that much extra.

Paula, focus!

But I will temporarily forget this pet peeve and hypocritically declare that the last 1/10 of a mile of this race was unequivocally NOT 1/10 of a mile.  I’ve run this race three times now and every single time, the distance between that thirteenth mile marker and the finish is considerably more than the required 0.1 miles left to finish a half marathon.  I typically run that last stretch in between 30 and 50 seconds, depending on how much snarl I have left in my game face.  So is it merely coincidental that I’ve run this race’s last dash in over 80 seconds all three times?

And that, my friends, is why I did not conquer the 2012 ING Miami Half Marathon in less than 1:40, but instead, settled for 1:40:26.  But truthfully, I don’t care in the least.  Though I did feel a tiny bit of disappointment as I saw the clock creep past 1:40, it was fleeting and instantly forgotten (that is, until this recap).  I had managed to throw down what was for me a fast performance in the face of questionable conditions and proudly earned the commemorative 10th anniversary spinning palm medal.  My cousin Paula, whose training was left by the wayside to make room for business school applications, finished her third Miami Half Marathon in 2:15 (and also got into an MBA program, so she was doubly successful).  Finally, Otter’s story for this race is one so steeped in disaster that I will not ruin it by telling it myself.  Though I doubt even he will sit down to relate it, as it seems that he’s almost abandoned his own racing blog.

With this race done, I am ramping up my distance in preparation for the Little Rock Marathon on March 4 and the blister I developed on my right foot during Miami will certainly do its best to stop me.

Illinois (2012 Polar Dash Half Marathon)

And we pay money to do these?

New Year’s Eve was approaching in Chicago and the winter was being wacky.  There had yet to be any significant snowfall, it was not uncommon to have days in the 50′s and frankly, everyone was loving it.  But with such strange weather comes a sense of foreboding: any minute now, it’s going to get bad.  Really bad.

The Buildup

But January 1st came and went and the warm spell stayed.  Chicago wasn’t alone – large swaths of the Rocky Mountains found themselves completely dry, many ski resorts covered in artificial snow, the real thing having forgotten to make its grand entrance.  So when the forecasted Hi is in the 50′s and a new half marathon rolls into town, you sign up and gleefully anticipate a fast time.  Team Ortho, a Minneapolis-based group that promotes health through research and organizing races, brought their Monster Dash Half Marathon to Chicago in 2010, and in 2012 brought their winter-themed Polar Dash Half Marathon.  I saw an ad for it, caved, and signed up for the first race of 2012, scheduled for January 14.

And then, right as I received my confirmation email, winter was released from its frosty prison and rushed into the area with its chilly embrace.  Weather stations and channels everywhere were reporting an imminent snowstorm, winds ravaging rural areas and creating enormous snowdrifts, traffic and highways being crippled and scrolling capital letters skating on the bottom of television screens.  The worst of it happened about two days before the race.

With this unwanted reminder that January in Chicago is supposed to be awful, the Chicago Police Department asked that Team Ortho cancel the running event.  Instead, they postponed it to the following weekend, January 21.  The response on their Facebook page was vitriolic.  But at least they postponed it.  It’s standard practice to allow races to cancel for weather-related reasons and their responsibility towards runners is nothing when it comes to refunds or consolations.  But given that it was the inaugural Chicago race, I’m sure they felt obligated to do everything possible to make it happen, hopefully for a date with weather that doesn’t threaten lives.

But as the week went on, it was becoming apparent that the new date was going to be exactly the same, if not a bit worse than the original one.  Another large snowstorm slammed the Midwest and Rust Belt on Friday, covering the Windy City in as much as 6 inches of snow.  There were no notices of cancellation, so I assumed the race was still on.

Race Day

Ready for some cold business.

It had been a while since I had woken up at a normal time to race.  I was up by 7 and spent about an hour putting myself together.  I had never put on so many layers to go for even a training run, let alone a race.  But the phone was telling me that it “Felt Like” 6 degrees Fahrenheit, and I wasn’t in the mood to die.  I put on a compression layer, a tech shirt on top and a windbreaker to keep my torso and arms warm.  My legs were also triple layered and I chose to opt out of wearing long tights because they get really uncomfortable after 7 miles.  A black compression balaclava completed the outfit and I was out the door by 8:30, the start about thirty minutes away.

There was a crowd already huddled around the start area, almost everyone shuffling back and forth to keep blood flowing.  I noticed only three other runners in shorts, and I made sure to point them out and high-five them.  Contrary to weather reports, it was still snowing and there was a noticeable wind coming off the lake and scraping our limited patches of exposed skin.  After trudging through snow to get to gear check and then the warming tents, my shoes were already a bit wet.  Organizers had posted on their page the night before that paths were being cleared, but with snow still falling, I was skeptical.  There was no way this would be a pleasant experience.

“$&%# this stupid idea,” Otter’s text read that morning.

The first two miles would further confirm his sentiment.  I could barely feel my toes despite my wool running socks and my fingers, which were padded by two layers of gloves, were frozen.  For about a half mile, I actually ran with my hands in my jacket pockets to try and warm them up.  But that didn’t last long, as it was messing with my balance.  Every step around Grant Park up until we reached Shedd Aquarium was covered in a thin layer of slush, which added a hint of trepidation to every footfall and slowed me down.  There were also parts during these miles where we were running almost single-file with the person in front of you kicking snow into your shoes.    Finally, winds coming off the lake were blowing snow into every runner, frosting everyone’s left side with a thin sheet of silver.  Sometime during this struggle, as I discovered that Lake Michigan had been replaced by an endless sheet of wrinkled ice and snow, I found myself thinking, why am I doing this?

Wading through snow at the hot chocolate tent

Once at mile 2, the course has made its way to the lakefront running path, which had been decently cleared, but was still very narrow.  Passing runners was a game of speeding up and getting back in line.  A large chunk of them was running the 10k distance and I was looking forward to their turnaround point to give me some more elbow room.  However we soon learned, much to our dismay, that we wouldn’t be so lucky.  I should have noticed it earlier when the mile marker flags were “off” somehow, but it was made completely apparent when everyone made a U-turn around mile 3.5.  My guess was that they didn’t clear a path far enough down the lakefront because too much snow had accumulated.  So, at the last minute, the organizers had turned the half marathon into a two-loop course.

I’m not a huge fan of that.  My first ever half marathon was a two-loop race and even without the knowledge of what other races could be like, I found myself wishing it weren’t.  There’s something about retracing your steps but with more fatigued legs that can be psychologically challenging.  You know what’s coming and how much you have left because you’ve already done it.  The tiny corridor that we had around Shedd Aquarium would have to be passed not twice, but four times now.  It wasn’t the most heartening news but what choice did we have?

Start / Finish

At the 10k mark, I crossed the finish line, ran under the blue “Polar Dash” banner, past the frozen volunteers holding medals and started the second loop.  There were much fewer people this time around and fortunately, I didn’t come up against the back of the pack runners at all, except for a few 10k walkers, but they were easy to sidestep.  That said, the path was still slushy and the wind still sliced through us.  The good news was that my fingers and toes were now warm.  However, the water stations weren’t handing out cups, but rather small bottles.  Not wanting to be wasteful, I held onto the bottle for the rest of the race and took sips whenever I felt like it.  But I did notice that whatever hand was holding the bottle would get colder, as it wasn’t curled into a fist.

By the turnaround at mile 10, I was feeling fine.  The three layers of clothing were keeping me warm but not suffocatingly so.  It wasn’t a PR day by a long shot, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t get a decent time.  I started picking it up slightly, or so I thought, and after throwing my water bottle in a trashcan, started my dash to the finish.  Once back in Grant Park, the race goes under Lake Shore Drive and then rolls uphill for the final 0.1 miles.  Feeling relieved, I ran under the blue banner for the third time that day, finishing in 1:41:56.

2012 Chicago Polar Dash Medal

After getting my bag I went to the race’s warming tents and changed into dry clothes.  I didn’t feel like I had just run a half marathon – in fact, my legs felt fine.  I have two reasons that might explain this.  The first is that the snow and wind made me a more cautious runner and the resulting slowdown kept me from overdoing it.  The second reason is that maybe the arctic temperatures acted like an ice bath on my legs, providing an almost therapeutic post-race polar massage.  I’m not putting any money on it, but who knows, it’s a possibility.

And so went the first race of 2012 — cold, damp, full of hiccups but ultimately successful.  Next week we’re shocking the body by running alongside Miami’s palm trees in 70-degrees.  Onwards!

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