State 22: Virginia (2012 Marine Corps Historic Half Marathon)

(left to right): Me, Peter, Elena, Javier, Gabriel

I’ve mentioned before that I’m in the small minority of people who still hang out with their high school friends.  But we don’t just keep in touch, we make real efforts to see each other.  With two of my friends in particular, Javier and Gabriel, we have made it a tradition of sorts to visit each other about twice a year.  In some of these most recent trips, such as Austin in 2011 and Boston in 2010, I managed to squeeze in a half marathon.  So when another member of our adolescent clique asked that we visit her in Virginia, I looked for the opportunity to cross another state off the list.

Elena has lived in Charlottesville, Virginia for the last three years where she’s been attending medical school at the University of Virginia.  One year away from finishing her studies and starting residency, she graciously invited us for a weekend and I suggested May 18 – 21.  Not only would we have a good chance of getting some nice weather, but it would also give me the opportunity to run the Marine Corps Historic Half Marathon in Fredericksburg, an 80-minute drive away.  Prior to arriving, Elena had Type-A’d a host of suggestions for things to do and we ended up choosing a scenic hike up to Crabtree Falls.  Her boyfriend Peter joined us and with his impressively discerning vision spotted three live snakes on the path, one possibly poisonous.  The first one slithered its way right onto the hiking path.  It became a black, slimy divider between us and Gabriel, who had stayed behind, assuring us that he doesn’t fear snakes, he just “respects” them.  A lot.  Fortunately for him, another hiker decided to nonchalantly step over it, which didn’t make the snake happy.  Right as the stranger put his foot down ahead of the serpent, it tried to strike his thighs.  This caused it to slide back down toward the riverbank and allowed Gabriel passage onwards.

Three wild snakes in one hike — definitely a first

That night we ate delicious Mexican food at Mono Loco, one of the many restaurants in Charlottesville’s small but charming downtown area.  I believe this was the first time I’ve ever had Mexican food the night before a race.  And I didn’t have a rice dish or anything that I could spin off as simple carbs – I went for a pork burrito and my share of a mountain of cheesy nachos.  I probably would have been safer eating spicy Indian food or nothing but candy canes, but I had already decided that the next day wasn’t going to be a PR.  So after stuffing our faces with food and the occasional house margarita, we went home.  I slept for a few hours and woke up at 4:15 AM for what would have been a scenic drive had it not been pitch black.  There are no major highways that unite Charlottesville with Fredericksburg, so the quickest path is a winding road through farms and forest.  Streetlights were few and far between; I turned off the car’s headlights for a split second once and saw nothing before me.  I arrived an hour early and parked at a nearby Walmart, ready to join 6,000 other runners on this delightfully cool morning.

They weren’t yet in wall formation when I took this picture

There weren’t many people in the 1:29 – 1:40 corral or the one ahead of it.  So when organizers asked all runners to start moving forward, I found myself right at the front of the field.  There was a line of uniformed marine soldiers in front of the starting gates, forming a fatigued line of intimidation that kept the closest runners about fifty feet from approaching.  I thought it was pretty funny because usually in races everyone is so itching to go that they want to move as close as possible.  It wasn’t until a staff member started waving his hands that we all inched slowly toward the timing mats.

2012 Marine Corps Historic Half Marathon T-Shirt (back) and bib

From the start, you could tell how the race got its name.  All throughout the opening ceremonies, vintage aircraft were flying overhead in formation.  One minute before the start of the race, a townsperson dressed in colonial garb shot a Civil War musket into the air to start off the race.  For the rest of the field, a cannon thundered us out of the gates.  It wasn’t that the race itself was historic (it was only in its fifth year), but that it was paying tribute to our nation’s history by honoring its soldiers both past and present.

This was the first race where I didn’t actively try to start slow.  I may tell myself before every race that I’m not out to PR, but once my shoes are laced and I’ve crossed the start line, all bets are off and I’m out to run as fast as I can.  Plus, my last four half marathons have taught me that I’m capable of fast times in many different conditions.  There was just one big snag.  It wasn’t the 3-hour hike from the day before or the heavy, fatty dinner, or any lingering foot or digestive issues.  All of these could have come together to slow me down considerably, but I was more focused on something else …

Like any good racing fanatic, I checked out the course elevation before lacing up.  Aside from providing a chart and the word “challenging,” the race website is pretty mum on how many hills runners should expect.  As a Chicagoan I’ve come to overinflate course descriptions.  “Flat” means “some hills,” “hilly” usually means “nonstop undulation that will break your legs” and “tough” links me to a pamphlet on life insurance.  However, over the years, I’ve managed to finish some non-flat courses with decent times.  Combine that with actual hill workouts and stair climbs and I’ve learned to no longer be intimidated by hilly races.  All that said, here’s a footnote that I can’t emphasize enough: if you are an ultramarathoner and/or train at altitude, then it’s exactly the opposite.  “Tough” feels like a walk in the clouds, “hilly” is something you tack on as a cool-down, and “flat” is a word you use to describe an unfinished soda from the night before.  In other words, when I say “hills” or “hilly” or any variation of the word in this post, please do your best to avoid snotting out laughter.

Anyway, for someone like me, who likes to keep his races relatively flat, it’s fun every now and then to feel the uphill burn.  You just feel so much faster when you reach the top of a climb, and there’s nothing quite like a gradual downhill to really make you feel like a superhero.  But as I examined the altitude chart for the Marine Corps Historic Half, I realized I’d be facing a completely different challenge.  You’ll notice on the chart to the left that most of these races have one signature hill.  The race starts either flat or downhill and then gives runners that one nasty climb, rewarding them with an easier denouement.  The majority of the time, the uphill happens before the last 1/3 of the race.  The Marine Corps Historic Half’s course, as if paying tribute to the strength and fortitude of its men and women in uniform, does the opposite.  Literally, it flips the elevation profile so that you run downhill for the first nine miles and then undoes the gradual drop in the final three miles in what is called Hospital Hill.  I knew I’d have to think twice about going too hard before reaching that point, but restraint while running downhill is almost as tough as keeping the pace while winded.

The website’s altitude chart is above, my Garmin readout below. Notice how even the downhill miles end up with some challenging uphills, which you wouldn’t guess from their official stats.  Additionally, it makes Hospital Hill look less steep than reality.

And I have proven myself weak on those downhills.  So naturally I charged down them and passed as many people as I could.  The first two miles take us out of a treeless commercial zone full of shopping centers, parking lots and restaurants and towards Fredericksburg’s beautiful residential neighborhoods.  Right at mile 1, I confirmed my suspicion that the race’s elevation chart was oversimplified.  Instead of providing a detailed picture of all changes in altitude, they simply marked the altitude of each mile marker and then drew a straight line between them.  In other words, it doesn’t show all the mini-hills in between.  I soon learned that the entire course would be very hilly, and even on miles with a net downhill change, we’d be charging uphill for short spans.  There was a very surprising rise right before mile 3, celebrated by a few residents who were sitting on their lawn with a big, printed sign that said “Only Four More Houses Until the Downhill.”  I was only three miles in and I could feel my legs start to burn.

There was very little shade in the first & last two miles.

Around mile 4, the Winding Creek Elementary School had come out in full force with a large band.  I couldn’t see all of them but it looked like they were playing folk instruments and not brass or woodwinds.  Not long after that, we reached a water station in another one of Fredericksburg’s gorgeous neighborhoods, the entire street covered in shade.  I stopped to get a cup of Gatorade and walk for a few seconds.  I do this in all races, regardless of how tired I am.  But I hadn’t counted on a soldier yelling in forceful staccato: “Pickitup!Pickitup!Pickitup LET’S GO!”  Jolted back to life, I immediately dropped the cup and darted forward as if running from the dogs of hell.

At this point I was running PR pace, hitting splits in the high 6’s.  It wasn’t warm but I could feel the humidity.  I sometimes gauge how humid it is by how quickly I can soak my entire shirt in sweat.  It’s not the most scientific (or charming) practice but it works.  The sides of my shirt were still dry by mile 5, which was a good sign.  By mile 7, the race cut through downtown Fredericksburg in all its picturesque, New England prettiness.  My effortless running was made even easier by the spectators and narrow streets.  There were more citizens out in colonial dress, dancing and playing flutes.  Before I could get a chance to enjoy it, it was over, and we were back in residential areas.  I was feeling great, keeping my splits from flirting too much with the 7-minute threshold.  But that pattern became a challenge starting around the 15K mark, right when I started seeing the blue H signs, indicating the nearby hospital.

Runners approaching the finish line

At mile 10, the course exits the tree-heavy neighborhoods and onto Jefferson Davis Highway.  As soon as I stepped foot on it, I looked ahead and saw the earth rising quickly.  We wouldn’t be climbing the highway, instead taking a side street, which cuts through Mary Washington Hospital.  The last two miles had crept into the low 7s and Hospital Hill was about to put some serious hurt on my time.  As soon as the road began to rise, I increased my turnover, scurrying up the hill and battling against the lactic acid in my quads.  The sun was out, my upper body was hunched, and the screaming crowds at the top felt so far away.  On the road were pasted several motivational decals with such encouraging words as “Crush the Hill!”  I’m not sure I quite crushed it, unless that involves losing all form and flaying my arms as if playing two-handed ping pong.  Eventually I reached the top and hit mile 11 in just under 8 minutes.

But even though Hospital Hill was behind me, the climb wasn’t over.  There was still the bridge over 95 to scale.  I had powered down it gleefully about an hour ago, and now it was time to face the uphill music.  I remember thinking that it had been a while since I had to struggle so much to keep a decent pace.  I had no idea if I was still running a potential PR pace or if the last two miles had dashed those hopes.  The field had thinned out considerably as well, with only about six runners in any given quarter mile stretch of road.  Once over the bridge, we were back on familiar territory, running the first flat mile back to the finish.  I dug deep and found an emergency well of energy, which allowed me to catch up to a few runners that had scaled Hospital Hill much faster than me.  I ended up sandwiched between two of them, and we would take turns surging only to be caught by the other two.

As we reached the final stretch with the finish line in the distance, I began to speed up.  I reached mile 13 in 6:53 and began to accelerate.  Seconds before the finish, one of the runners in our three-man pack burst by me like a human rocket.  I couldn’t respond and finished behind him in 1:32:01, my second fastest time on any course.  A group of uniformed soldiers were handing out finishers medals, which were large, shiny and flush with patriotic colors.  I took mine, thanked them for their service, and made my way back to Charlottesville.  I left proud, knowing I had done exactly what I set out to do: run irresponsibly fast for the first nine miles, suffer my way up the big hill, and finish my thirtieth half marathon in my twenty-second state.

I very much enjoyed this race, though it wasn’t without its hiccups.  The first mile is very uneventful and the parking situation can get a bit complicated since the event shares its space with a lot of nearby businesses.  But despite these minor complaints, I loved being challenged by Fredericksburg’s hills and helped by its eager volunteers.  I expected superb organization from the Marine Corps and they certainly delivered.  I also learned a very dangerous lesson by running a fast time with a sloppy Mexican dinner lodged in my stomach.

The rest of the weekend was spent sampling wines in Charlottesville’s many bucolic vineyards, sampling beers and playing Bags (or Cornhole as some call it) at the Blue Mountain microbrewery, and visiting Thomas Jefferson’s historic Monticello plantation.  It felt very appropriate to visit the home and grave site of one of this country’s great founders, a man who drafted a revolutionary document that is defended at all costs by our men and women in uniform today.  The weekend united past and present, not only in terms of American history, but also with my friends’ endless cadre of stories and jokes from high school.  I have to give big thanks to Elena for her generous hospitality and for tolerating a long weekend of juvenile behavior and heavy metal.  I hope it didn’t discourage her from having us over again in the future.

And now it’s time to switch over to marathon training mode, as Grandma’s Marathon looms on the horizon, just under a month away.

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