Saturday, August 20, 2011

Somerset Stampede Half Marathon 2011

One of these races I’m going to get a good night’s sleep, just not this one. I would have thought with the Somerset Stampede Half Marathon basically in my backyard that I’d have plenty o’ time to get up and get over, yet somehow I managed to wake up at two in the morning thinking I’d overslept. This happened to me two years ago with this race, so I guess I’m reliving old anxieties. Anyway, I’m wide awake at four in the morning. Well, ok, I’ll get a good meditation session in, then take a shower to refresh and have wet hair to keep me cool later.

After a breakfast and time to even play my guitar a little, I decide to get on the road, so I can be sure to hit an ATM to be able to register for this race. That’s one thing I like about the low-key-ness of the Stampede: the cost is basically the same registering that day of.

And, with a free night last night, did I bother to fill up my gas tank? Nope. Ok, good thing I left early. Now to find a gas station open at five on a Saturday morning. Fortunately my brain seems to have been working otherwise, because I seem to have all my essentials: Amphipod water bottle, extra truck key, water to sip on the way, and a Lara Bar. The weather is still warm here in Michigan, though thankfully not the godawful heat we’ve had all summer. Still, I’m comfy in my shorts and wicking t-shirt, with my ‘shell’ jacket on just for the ride down.

This is the third time I’m running this race. The course is up to half gravel road, so I’ll be needing some kind of minimalist footwear, no way I could do this barefoot. I’m opting for my Luna huaraches, like last year. After I get to the start and register (twenty-five bucks! a deal these days!) I walk and jog around in them a bit, since, as they get older and very worn in, the leather straps seem to loosen, especially in the loops around the back, across my ankles. Though, this could be my imagination. Anyways, I’m glad I work out the bugs. My left one I have to re-tie twice to get a good snug feel.

No familiar faces this year. Dan isn’t here, nor is Rob. I’m wandering around by my lonesome, with people looking at me and my footwear a little oddly. They’re a little behind the times down here in Somerset Center. I’m not sure they even know what VFFs are (though I wore my pair the first time I ran this!).

I’m looking both to redeem myself a bit and maintain my reputation. Redeem in the sense that this is my first race after my DNF at the Burning River 100. I want to make sure I do a good job, give a good effort, and I kinda feel like if I can run 70 miles I should be able to push my speed a little on these shorter races. Also, I have to maintain my reputation since last year I came in first for my age category, at (I think) 1:39-ish.

Thing is, I’ve just been feeling slow all summer. My main long route, from Jackson out to Concord and back, on the Falling Waters Trail, seem to be taking me over five hours when I’d swear last year it took me four. But maybe I’ve been smoking crack. Or, maybe with my focus being on distance all summer I really haven’t concentrated on speed at all. This is my first half of the year. I missed the Dexter-Ann Arbor Half in July. Still, again, I feel like if I can run a hug long distance I should be able to give more on shorter spurts. But maybe it’s not that easy....

There are about 200 people, though I’m a bad judge of numbers. There’s also a 5K, so those folks are mixed in at the start. A ha! There’s a guy wearing VFFs at the front of the line! Minimalists unite!

Since this race is sponsored by a Christian camp (? I think? But the U of M band is practicing here too? Not sure) one of the organizers leads everyone in a prayer. I kinda roll my eyes and wonder what the Flying Spaghetti Monster would do, and then end with a South Park ‘Hail Satan!’.

And then we all count down, and we’re off! Starting off in the gravel parking lot of the camp, and already I’m hearing the comments: Some woman behind me has seen my footwear and says, “Wow, that’s really running barefoot!” Oh my dear, if you only knew.

We circle out of the camp and onto paved roads, though a quiet neighborhood. The crowd is spreading out quickly, no real bottlenecking. A guy, who parked next to me in the parking lot, just now notices my huaraches and says, “Doesn’t that hurt your feet?”

I want to go into some Italian Mafia routine and say something like, “Do I look stupid?” but instead I just say, “I wouldn’t do it if it hurt.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s true. Have a good race!”

Sidenote: His wife is kind of my hero for the day, because when I pulled in next to them earlier, she got out of the car smoking a cigarette, and she’s running the half. That just takes a certain amount of cojones. Plus she looks like a marine, very angry and willing to beat me up. I mean that in an attractive way.

Anyways, onward: We’re running on one side of a paved country road, with houses, both old and new scattered about, but with plenty of green space, and some sandhill cranes squawking off in the trees. Good! They’re my power animal!

The 5Kers has split off to the right, leaving the field very dispersed, where we’re all starting to see who we’re going to be running with for most of the race. Some guy comes up behind me and positions himself right to my right. He doesn’t want to talk, he’s got an iPod going, but he seems to have fixated on me as someone to keep pace with. I tend to be defensive about this, thinking that people do it because I’m the long-haired hippie dude in the sandals, and it really distracts me. I know I shouldn’t let it, but...I just would never do that to another runner. I might focus on people ahead of me and mentally start to reel them in (which I’ve started to do) but I wouldn’t hang out right next to or behind someone, breathing down their back.

But, well, it is a certain motivation. I’m not going to slow down for him, so I try to speed up when I can, which is possible running minimalist/barefoot, on hills especially since I can use the Barefoot KenBob technique of just bending the legs, leaning forward and letting gravity take control, just trying to keep the feets lifting fast enough. The shod-heads tend go slow on the downhills, I think because they don’t want to slam down with their foot strikes. But, the dude is persistent, I’ll give him that, catching me on the uphills, though we’re both passing others. I just wish if he was going to go, he’d go, and pass me and get it over with.

Seems to be a quieter crowd this year. The previous two years it seemed like people would cluster up in pairs or groups and chat as they ran, but everyone around me seems pretty focused. Might be because it feels like I’m going balls out. That is, my pace is such that I wouldn’t be able to talk if I wanted to. I believe that means I’m up in the anaerobic level? Gotta refresh myself on that stuff.

The Lunas are ok. I kinda sorta don’t like running minimalist on level paved routes. Even the huaraches, but especially my VFFs tend to desensitize my feets a little too much such that I feel I’m ‘striking’ a little harder, though thankfully not on my heel! This is probably the fastest I’ve run all summer. I need to do this more. Hard to motivate myself to do it on my own, which is why I like races: other people help me push myself.

I like having the Amphipod water bottle in hand. I breeze through the first two water stations, though really there’s not that much of a slow-down at these stations: this isn’t Detroit. But I do grab some Gatorades, still a little paranoid about lack of potassium causing my cramping on the Burning River. Wondering too if I start being a little more careful about nutrition even on shorter races if that will stop me from ‘bottoming out’ at the ends a little.

I’m staying mostly around the same group of folks, guys mostly, for the first nine miles. Eventually, that guy that was pacing off me seems to fall back, which gives me a little psychological boost. But then I get passed by a couple people coming on strong in the second half, though I’m keeping them in sight. Really though, it seems that there isn’t a lot of position changing, not like on other halfs (halves?). We’re all just going at a pretty good oxygen-sucking pace. That is, until I check my watch at the half-way point: 54 minutes. Youch! That does not feel right at all. That’s way slower than last year. And yet, I feel like I’m working harder this time. Last year I ran the whole thing with Rob, and I remember talking with him the whole time. What gives?

To top that off, we’ve moved into gravel roads. In fact, at one point there’s like paved road with gravel laid over the top of it? What is that? The regular gravel isn’t super bad, but some sections do slow me down just a bit. Just too much little chunkies hitting my feets. But, I still feel strong, and mentally I’m just plowing through the rocks, being less careful, which will probably hurt later on. In fact, I feel like I’ve almost shifting back into shod style running in that I’m not just ‘lifting’ my legs, but am reaching out my legs a bit to get a wider running gate (is that the right word?). Not that I’m heel striking, but maybe pushing off with the feet instead of just lifting. Hard to explain, and I’m not sure it’s “wrong,” doesn’t feel so anyways, but different than how I normally run. Seems to be working with my adrenaline rush anyways.

I catch up to those two people who passed me before, and another guy that we all passed now gets a burst of energy and passes all of us as we turn off on another dirt road. Then I surprise myself by pulling away from that group, over gravel even. Can I keep it up? No, I hit some rougher gravel and have to slow down a bit and they all pass me. Grr. Not mad at them, they’re doing great, just frustrated. Damn the gravel!

It still feels like we’re all hauling ass. I still feel like I’ve never run this fast before, and yet this is my slowest half pace yet. Crazy. Still, things could be worse, like when one of the guys ahead of me trips and does a complete and total face dive into the gravel. I mean like his whole body hits at the same time. Amazingly, he just right be up, brushing himself off, and claims he’s ok, but he soon falls behind. I’m not so sure he isn’t really hurt, actually. Fortunately we round the corner where some volunteers and two Somerset Center cop cars are hanging out, so if he’s really bad, they can get him to help.

More gravel more gravel. A short steep hill just wollops me. I should be able to sprint up this futhermucker, but no, legs starting to feel it a little. But, once I get back on flat road I’m able to keep up the fast pace. Keeping my sites on those two folks that passed me back there.

Then, finally, we shoot off to the left onto trail for the last mile and a half or so. And, it’s good trail: Nice and sandy and grassy. No more gravel. Yes! I get a little energized just looking forward to running this section!

People are starting to bog out: We pass a guy I haven’t seen before. He must have been going at a good clip but seems to have pushed a little too soon. I give him a ‘good job’ and encourage him to keep it up.

When the trail breaks out into the camping area, maybe a half mile of dirt road again, I pass the first of the two that passed me. He’s slowed way down. And, another new person, walking, burnt out. I make my goal to get close enough to the woman ahead of me that in the home stretch I might be able to sprint and get her, but actually the roads go a little longer than either of us expect, and I catch her on a little downhill a la the KenBob technique. Again, I feel strong. I feel like I’m staying strong for the end, but a quick look at the clock at the finish line tells me I’m not anywhere close to wear I’d like to be.

Still, here it is, the home stretch. I take the last turn and a guy there claps and gives me encouragement: “Alright me, swing those arms and finish strong!” Which helps somehow, and I take off, hearing yell behind me.

It’s a long sprint. There’s nobody ahead that I could even attempt to catch, but I do it anyways. Gotta leave it all out on the course. Gotta finish strong, no matter what the time. People at the finish start to clap and yell, which helps, and voila, I’m over!

Check the time: 1:52 and some change. Wow. Yucko. Almost fifteen minutes slower than last year?! And yet, I feel like I gave my best. So, ok. I gave my best. That’s what counts.

I grab some water and watch other runners come in. The woman I passed comes in a half minute behind me. He give each other ‘good jobs’. There’s a 14 year old boy that comes in at 2:05. He’s my hero. Also, I’m standing right next to a family, a mom and two daughters, who do a cute dance as their dad comes in, which is awesome. Turns out he’s the guy that was shadowing me the first half. I feel like an ass when he comes up to me to check and see how I did. It’s his first half even. And here I was being a selfish jerk. Plus, his youngest daughter walks around carrying a giant stuffed penguin. How cool is that?

They have a tentative chart with top finishers in each age category. There’s only two guys in my range listed, two and four minutes ahead of me. Hm, could it be possible? I stick around for the (very) informal awards ceremony, which is actually interesting, just to see who won what. Lots o’ youngsters. The top woman finisher is like college age. That 14 year old boy is the only one in his age category, so he gets a gold medal. Deserved, in my opinion. His mom is very proud. Also, there’s like one guy in the 60+ category, and he beat my time by four minutes! I want to be like him when I grow up.

Alas, no medal for me. There’s another guy that came in a couple minutes ahead for the third place spot. I guess I don’t really feel like I deserve one, with that time. But, like I said, I did my best. I’ll have to work on speed more on my own. I’m hoping to PR in the Detroit Marathon this Fall, but now I’m wondering if I can. Next week, the Merrill Barefoot 5K over in Grand Rapids, so another chance to work on speed, with other runners there to push me!