Sunday, June 6, 2010

Dexter Ann Arbor Half-Marathon: Race Report

It's early. Again. These early races are killing me. Even though this race it right in my home town, Ann Arbor, and the finish line is three blocks from my house, I still had to get up at 5:30. Since the race starts in Dexter, a small town northwest-ish from Ann Arbor, and follows the Huron River all the way back, the organizers have, thoughtfully, provided buses from Ann Arbor. To make sure I arrive in time for a bus, I decided to get there early, which is an example of how being the good boy gets you nowhere, since we were dropped off at an elementary school in Dexter and waited around an hour, watching later buses come in.

This is sort of a goodbye race for me, since I'll be leaving Ann Arbor by the end of the summer, in a few months. And, it's a fitting route, both because it was my regular bike route when I first moved here three years ago, and because it's a gorgeous scenic road going back and forth to the to the different sides of the river, which itself is huge and wide and quiet. The leaves are out on the trees, everything lush. A little sunlight would be nice, but even with the cloudy sky, should be a quiet tranquil run. Ok, not tranquil with 2600 people, but there won't be a lot of spectators until we hit Ann Arbor proper.

The weather is colder and rainier than predicted. I am only wearing short and a t-shirt, and my plan was to take the t-shirt off for the race, but I don't think that will be necessary.

I am barefoot. Again. I feel ok about this half-marathon, since I ran the Pinckney Trail Marathon only six weeks ago. A half marathon is my normal Sunday morning run, though at a slightly faster pace. I am interested in the pace I can keep while barefoot. I ran the Sumerset Stampede Half Marathon last summer, in my Vibram Five Fingers (VFFs), my first competitive race ever since I'd started running barefoot and was able to run again after two years off due to the dreaded plantar fasciitus, and I was pleasantly surprised at my time: 1:42, about an eight minute mile. I'm wondering if I can sustain/duplicate that.

Since there was a huge thunderstorm last night, right when we're living up to start, the race is delayed a half hour, due to there being a tree down across the road. Which doesn't seem like a big deal to me—we're not in cars after all. Climbing over a tree sounds like fun. Primal. But that gives everyone a chance to run back to the porta-potties and pee one more time.

Finally, the tree gets cleared apparently, and we line up for a 9:00 start. I decide to line up around the ten minute mile folks (we have some pacers holding signs) not all the way in back, but slower than I plan on running, in order to just warm up, and experiment with a strategy Barefoot Ken Bob shared with me, to start in back, so for most of the race I'll be passing people. A psychological boost.

The start is not too high tech. No bells or whistles, just someone up front with a cap gun, and everyone surges forward...and stops. And starts walking. Fortunately, but the time I actually cross the start line there's room to trot. I just want to warm up for a bit, so that's fine. My main concern is keeping a space in front of me so I can see the road and any rocks and pebbles I might step on, since right here in Dexter there seems to be a few.

We loop around through downtown Dexter. With the overcast sky, I'm actually not sure what in direction we started running, though we seem to be making a circle, until finally there's the corner store where Huron River Drive begins, and when I 'd usually turn around on my bike rides. And, there's the river. One of these days I should figure out where the Huron starts and end up, since I've spend a lot of time on its banks these past three years. Strange: I've met people in Ann Arbor who have never even been down to it at all.

And now that we're running, the comments begin: “Barefoot?!” “Hey, look at that guy, he's barefoot!” “Wow that's hardcore.” “Ouch!”

A young woman comes up to me, calling me “sir,” which both is hilarious and makes me feel old. She says she's seen me running around Kerry Town (a neighborhood near my apartment) lots of times. “I just want to say how much I admire you.”

I tell her thank you. She says a friend of hers tried running barefoot for about two months but hurt her hips some how, so stopped. That's a new one, and seems odd. I wonder why that would be, or if the running was really the cause, but I still suggest to her that she should try it herself, for three weeks, just to see. She says maybe, and then we don't have time to talk, she has to get back to her friends. This is where my friend Melissa would be like, 'did you get her number?' Well, no, we're running a race, just two human beings talking about a mutual interest. And then Melissa would shake her head. Well, she was cute. But, 'sir'?

I think I'm the only barefoot runner, though I've seen a couple VFFers. One guy and I, before the race, were comparing how we attached our race 'chips,' or 'bands,' since they're designed to loop through shoe laces. He had his hanging from one of the back heels. Me, I wrapped mine in duct tape, then taped it around my right ankle. I'm telling you, you can do anything with duct tape!

Have I said enough about the beauty and sexiness of female runners? Can enough ever be said? The firm sleek bodies, the disciplined personalities. But what's the deal with those skorts? Why have a skirt, when there are shorts underneath? Don't they realize that the skirt part covers up their asses so that us men can't stare at them? What fun is that?

Fortunately, there are others who take their job of pleasing men seriously, wearing tight black lycra things that just look....amazing. I pass one, and there's another, and so I pass the race, like life, going from one beautiful woman to another.

And, rain. A light drizzle. We pavement tends to tear up my feet more. Or, rather, the water cause my calluses to soften. Not sure how I'd do in a full marathon in the rain, on pavement, but I'm ok for this distance, though perhaps I'm running a little slower, a little more sensitive to the pebbles, though really, over all, the road is ok. No real rough spots, or if there are, we have both lanes and I can scoot over to the other side.

The rockier parts are at intersection, where cars tend to track in dirt and debris, and where the pavement breaks up a little more. Also, there are dirt roads feeding out onto Huron Drive, and with the rain last night, some of them have become mini-rivers.

I'm setting a fast pace for myself. Still finding myself wanting to do the long-legged shod shuffle, which would be very bad for my heels. Instead, I am taking shorter strides, faster, less action from the things (or so it feels) and more from the knees and calves, trying to keep my feet relaxed, which is hard when trying to force myself to go fast. but if my feet aren't relaxed, I feel myself stat to land more on the heel. If anything, my ideal stride feels more like I'm 'pulling' myself along with the front portion of my feet, the ball and toes.

But, I'm trying to keep a pace where I'm just slightly winded. I'm passing people chatting up a storm, thinking, if you can talk, you can run faster. But hey, it's all good. I like this pace. For a marathon, I'd be going slower, planning for the long haul. For a half, I know I can push myself. I'm not going to be physically exhausted at the end, so I can push myself harder right from the beginning. Ideally, if I were more serious, or took running seriously, instead of for fun, I'd love to be able to run this pace for a full marathon. Alas, no.

Another woman comes up to ask about barefoot running. I explain my history with it.

“Well, you must have amazing feet. I could never do that. My feet are too sensitive.”

Is she implying that I'm insensitive? But I just tell her she could do it, to try it for three weeks.

“Well, ok....”

I know. Two years ago I would've said it's crazy. In fact, I did. Out in Arizona, working at a wildland firefighter, I heard rumours of guys running barefoot and in moccasins, and I thought, wow, that's cool, they're hardcore, but never did I ever consider it until out of desperation, of of a sense of, 'it's either this, or never run again.' I wish I could convince people to try it before they get injured. And, I'm convinced that with today's running shoes, getting injured is a matter of when, not if.

Digital clocks are set up along the routes, and suddenly we're fifty minutes in, then an hour. Man, this goes quick. I'm over halfway done. I realize that there haven't been any mile markers at all, which I kind of like. No excuse to mentally psych myself out.

I'm still passing people, more slowly now, but it does feel good, I cannot tell a lie. Like I have an edge. So, starting at the back has it's benefits. But, the gasps of “Barefoot?!” get a little old. Can't blame them, I'd do the same. Some people though, just don't seem to realize that when I'm twenty feet in front of them I can still hear them talk about me, like the guy who goes into a long story to his friend: “I tried that back when I was in college and wanted to prove how tough I was. You know, looking in the National Geographic and seeing pictures of guys from Kenya running barefoot. So I tired it, until I stepped on a rock and it hurt. That was enough. My dad was a doctor, and when I came limping home, he didn't even have to say anything, just gave me that dad look, like I was a dumbass.”

He kept talking, but I finally sped up enough to get out of hearing range, though I wanted to run around and ask, “Are you calling me a dumbass? You're the sissy that couldn't take a rock. Did you continue to always do what your daddy approved of?”

And so on and so forth yadda yadda yadda. At least I can take satisfaction in knowing I'm going to beat him.

Ah, nothing like a little friendly competition to motivate folks. Well, really, I'm trying to see if I can beat myself, since my barefoot paces, in the two marathons I've run, have been slower than my previous shod paces. Though, there are other factors, like that I'm five years older. But no, never surrender!

Anyways, there are other folks who are kind enough to say things like, “Dude, good job.” Likewise, good job to them. Everyone out here came to do two things, kick ass and chew bubblegum, and they're all out of bubblegum.

There's actually a band for this race! Excellent. And they're rocking out to Johnny B. Goode. Ha! A good sign.

And have I mentioned the women? There have been a couple just wearing super short-shorts and just a sports bra. My god. Are those even real running shorts? Do they really make running shorts that short? it's a blessing, really. They have blessed me.

We reach the section of road that I've run before, and that really rough part, which yes, is still rough. But that's the worst. After this, there's brand new pavement on into town. And, since there was a 10K earlier, which started in Ann Arbor, came out here, then turned around, there are still orange cones running down the middle of the road, and for some reason, everyone is bunching up in the right lane, leaving the left one entirely open. All that space in front of me, calling me. Running with people is a good motivator, but when I'm tired, I can get tempted to just lock into the general pace of everyone around me. Plus, passing is easier, I don't have to duck and weave. Not that I'm passing that fast anymore. And, to be honest, I'm getting passed too. I wasn't the only lurker in the back.

We reach the turnoff onto Main Street, and one of the spectators yells that we only have a mile to go. Whew, I'm winded. I couldn't talk if I tried, and neither can anybody around me. But I keep up the pace, remembering biking down this road on Saturday mornings in the Fall, when cars filled with Wolverine fans were locked bumper to bumper. And how much of a pleasure it was to pass them.

And, I'd forgotten, Main Street goes uphill into town. Ugh. Well, hills are my specialty, and just by maintaining my pace, I'm passing people again because they're slowing down. Thank you Four Corner states for showing me what a hill really looks like!

Now we're getting more spectators, and as we get into downtown proper, the finish line in sight, the sidewalks are crowded, and for some reason, I'm really visible or something, because people are seeing me and yelling “Go barefoot runner!” and word seems to spread ahead of me. How embarrassing and weird. But right now I have locked in on 'finishing strong mode.' Once I can see the end, I try to push myself, deplete my reserves, feet scrambling, pumping my arms, jaw set, passing more folks, who seem if anything to be slowing down. Briefly, the thought comes that I might try smiling at this point, this is fun after all. But—


Whew. Catching my breath, but I feel good. Strong. I ran as strong as I could, consistently, the whole time. My time is around 1:50ish, I think, so, a little slower than last year, but ok. Still respectable. I filter down the chute, grab a bottle of water and my cheaply-made medal. The best part? I can now just walk three blocks back to my apartment and a hot shower.