Thunder Road

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been in a running funk. 

After a 3:34 marathon and a 43:36 10K last month, both good enough for PR’s, I felt like I was finally beginning to run the way I was a few years ago before I had knee surgery. 

But almost immediately after the 10K, my running seemingly, and inexplicably, appeared to start unraveling.  Suddenly all my runs had that dreamlike running-in-quicksand feeling.  I bailed on runs early.  I didn’t run farther than 7 miles.  I had difficulty working in runs as long days at work started and ended with cold and darkness, two things I’m not particularly fond of running in. 

Instead, I slogged out runs on the Y treadmill.  I looked forward to the weekends when I could finally run outside, in the daylight.  The weekends came but so did rain. I’m perfectly fine running in the rain during the spring and summer, but in the winter, not so much.  I forced myself to get out there, but my scheduled 8-milers would become 6-milers.  And I continued feeling slow and lethargic.  So going into Saturday’s Thunder Road Half Marathon, I was seriously concerned about how well I’d perform.

Concerns mounted moments before the start.  I kissed Laura, wished her and Ken good luck in the 5K, and then stepped from the comfort and warmth of the Charlotte Convention Center into the frigid cold.  I felt a tiny twinge of panic as I surveyed the starting area.  The starting corrals were packed with runners and I could find no way in.  I finally spotted some openings into the corral gates, but hordes of runners had already queued up to funnel in.  I had 2 choices – get in one of these lines or start all the way at the back.  I had no desire to spend the first few miles weaving through crowds so I begrudgingly got into one of the lines feeding into a corral opening towards the front.

After what seemed like an eternity waiting in the freezing cold, the starter, sticking to the NASCAR theme,  yelled ‘Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!’ and then signalled the beginning of the race.  The runners in the front took off.  As they filtered out, our queue slowly began working its way into the corral.  After a minute or so I eventually made my way into the corral and ever so slowly worked from a slow walk to a jog.  I continued to gradually pick up the pace as I dodged and weaved my wave through runners like a tailback through defenders.

Less than a quarter mile in, as I made the turn from College onto 3rd, I somehow managed to step into the only pothole in all of uptown.  Pain shot up my left leg as I twisted my ankle.  Weeks of slogging through bad runs and now a horrible start to the race pushed me to curse out loud.  But I’ve played enough basketball and twisted enough ankles to know, after a few steps, that this sprain wasn’t serious.  Every tenth step or so resulted in another shot of pain, but after about a half mile, except for an occasional ‘wrong’ step and subsequent pain, I forgot about the ankle.  By the time we reached the first mile marker, I no longer felt any pain and, even better, the crowd had thinned enough where I could stride normally. 

Even with the last couple of crappy weeks of training, I entered the race thinking that I should be in good enough shape to at least challenge my PR (1:38 or 7:30/mile pace) so that had become the goal.  When I came through the first mile in 7:40, after all the dodging and weaving, I knew I had a good shot.  I ran faster than I had in weeks.  I settled into a sub-7:30 pace and felt perfectly comfortable doing it. 

I took in the surroundings.  I passed a girl wearing a costume from the movie The Incredibles.  I said ‘Awesome costume!’ and gave her the thumbs up.  I couldn’t believe how comfortable I felt.  I was amazed at how relatively low my heartrate (high 150’s – low 160’s) seemed for the pace I was running.  I ran a 7:24 second mile and it felt slow, so I picked things up a bit.  I clicked off a 7:01 and 7:07 respectively for the third and fourth miles. 

Even though I felt great, having crashed hard on numerous occasions in the past, I got a little fearful and backed off some.  Barring a complete disaster, a PR felt inevitable so I decided to play it safe and stay just under 7:30.  I came through mile 5 in 7:25.

This race felt surreal.  A month earlir, while running the marathon in Richmond, my heartrate kept spiking, often hitting in the high 170’s (beats per minute), while I strained to maintain a 7:39 pace.  Saturday, I was cruising along at 7:20 pace and faster, and my heartrate consistently hovered around the low 160’s.  It seemed bizarre, pleasantly bizarre, to me.

Around mile 8 or so, Aaron Linz (chairman of the Charlotte Running Club), donning a Santa hat, came along on a bike.  He shouted out words of encouragement and then zipped ahead to cheer on various other CRC members (and everybody else for that matter).   It was about this time that I spotted another CRC guy just ahead. 

Those who know me well know that, although I’m no longer able churn out the kind of performances that once earned me a spot on the University of North Carolina track team, I’m still fiercely competitive.  The Charlotte Running Club puts out a weekly newsletter in which they post the times of all the club members in the prior week’s races. Week after week, my race times have been near or at the bottom of the list.  I was growing a little tired of being at the bottom of that list.  This looked like an opportunity to maybe finish ahead of at least one guy.  So caution be damned, I sped up. 

Around mile 11, I caught  and eased up beside my Charlotte Running Club teammate.  I turned to him and said, ‘Hey man.  You running the half or the full?’ and he responded, ‘Hey, the full.’  Damn, not only was I not going to beat him today, he was running the same pace as me while going twice as far! 

Now that the competition was gone, I just chatted.  ‘So what’s your goal?’  He answered, ‘To finish!  I already ran the course once  this morning so I’m at about mile 38.  I’m beginning to tighten up a little.’  DAMN!  He was going four times as far as me and yet running the same pace!  I said ‘I’m running the half so I’m going to pick it up for these last 2.’  Pride made me speed up here – I doubt I would have picked it up as much as I did had I not encountered my fellow CRC member.  We wished each other luck and I took off, accelerating significantly.  I figured I could gut it out for 2 miles. 

I was a little worried going into the last mile – I knew we would head up Morehead.  Running the Corporate Cup half marathon in March, I died in the last mile while running this same stretch, the dreaded incline that is Morehead.  I braced myself for pain.

But as I headed up the hill, I spotted Aaron again, standing there and cheering everyone on.  He yelled ‘Go Allen!  Love the hat by the way!’ (I was wearing a Carolina stocking cap – both Aaron and I are UNC alums.) Bolstered by his encouragement, I sped up for the homestretch –  less than a mile to go.

Just ahead of me, runners turned left into a parking lot for what I assumed was the finish.  A guy I had been tracking for miles was maybe 20 yards ahead of me so I sprinted to catch him.  I caught and passed him mere steps after turning into the parking lot.  I continued to speed up for a strong finish – my Garmin watch showed the pace to be 4:44/mile.  But looking ahead I noticed there was no finish line banner.  Then I saw the runners in front heading back towards the road.  Uh-oh.  I felt spent and we weren’t done yet.  I slowed down, realizing I couldn’t maintain this mad dash for very long.  I guessed this little parking lot excursion had been added to the course at some point to get that tenth of a mile for the 13.1 distance.

Back on the road, as I spied the actual finish line another quarter of a mile or so ahead, I tried to conserve some energy for a moment before speeding up again for my second, and hopefully final, sprint to the end.  I glanced back and noticed the guy I had passed moments earlier had considerably closed the gap between us, so I unleashed the kick.  Again.  I somehow managed to hold him off.

Ultimately, I finished with a chip time of 1:35:36, nearly 3 minutes faster than my half marathon PR.  I was stoked since, despite the weeks of poor training, I somehow continued to improve.  Mere days after the race, I signed up for the Shamrock Marathon, a marathon that by all counts is flat and fast – a great place to take another shot at qualifying for Boston.  I recently started a serious marathon training regimen designed by renowned running coach Brad Hudson.  After the Thunder Road half, a hilly course where I comfortably ran a 7:18 per mile pace, suddenly qualifying for Boston no longer seems like an impossible dream.

AFTERWORD:

After perusing the race results, I found out that the guy I passed at the finish was also a Charlotte Running Club member.  My excitement over beating a CRC guy soon faded when I discovered that his chip time was faster than mine.  D’oh!  That’s the second time that’s happened (Lungstrong 15K back in September).

How some of my friends fared:  Theoden crushed his marathon PR (set only a month ago in New York) by some 7 minutes, running a 3:42.  Todd, coming off a serious back injury, continued his comeback by finishing the marathon in 4:16 .  Christi, in her usual role as pacer, cruised to a 3:42.  My mentor Ken took second in his age group in the 5k.   Laura had a strong showing, completing the 5k in 30:17.

Also, anyone reading this blog is welcome to join my marathon team at Shamrock – the team name is ‘1st Annual Dunder Mifflin Running Club’ (I’m a fan of The Office), and the password is “michaelscott”.

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