Thunder Road 2010

What a difference a year makes.  Shortly after this race last year, I looked online and saw the 2009 winner was a runner from Charlotte named Jordan Kinley and I thought to myself,  “Who the @#$! is Jordan Kinley?”  This year,  I hung out with him and a slew of other runners at the Charlotte Running Club booth at the expo.

The differences don’t stop there.  At last year’s race, I was in a slump and hoping to use the Thunder Road half to break out of it.  This year, I was coming off arguably my greatest running triumph and was only running this race for 2 reasons: 1) I had already paid the entry fee and 2) I wanted a front row seat to all the action while hanging out with my buddies.  No crazy dreams of a PR.  In fact, I went into the race with really no game plan at all.  It would be nice to break my time from last year, but I had no real expectations of being able to do that a week after racing a marathon.  I would be completely playing it by ear – on this day, I’d let fate formulate my game plan.

The morning began around 6:30 when I pulled into the Dowd Y parking lot.  I then made the less-than-a-mile walk down to the Charlotte Convention Center.  I wasn’t inside the Convention Center for 5 minutes when I ran into my pal Théoden.  I didn’t realize at the time how color-coordinated we were, down to the shoes, until I later saw this photo that Karin Helmbrecht snapped:

Had there been a prize for best non-planned color coordination, TJ and I would have won, hands down.

 I chatted with various friends, including Karin, Théoden, Joel Thomas (my pacing pal from the  Shamrock marathon), and others, before I took off to wander aimlessly around,  looking for more running buddies.

 It didn’t take long to find more friends.  Moments later I stumbled upon Kevin, Leonard, and Adam Mayes.  Leonard and Adam were planning on running the half together.  But this particular day really belonged to Kevin – it was his big day, his first marathon.  He was planning on running with Danielle, the both of them shooting to break 3:00.

During the conversation, it was discovered that I had forgotten my chip.  Everybody playfully ribbed me for this oversight, but I didn’t care as I knew I wasn’t really racing (but secretly I worried I’d somehow break 1:30 and still not got into New York as my time would be unofficial without the chip).  It was also pointed out to me that I had no gloves either but luckily Leonard graciously offered me a pair.  He bailed Kevin out too as Kevin had been freaking out for the last 24 hours or so at not being able to locate his running sleeves – Leonard lent him a pair.

A few moments later, Tom Ricks showed up and we had our entire running entourage (minus Danielle who would catch up with us at the start later)  ready to roll.  We trotted onto College St. only to nearly be run over by traffic – the road was not blocked off like we originally thought.

The Pikermi team of Leonard and Adam headed in one direction while I convinced Kevin to run with Tom and I straight over to the starting line.  I told him he’d need to conserve his energy.  He’d have 20+ miles to get warmed up.

We made our way to the front of the corral (and yes, I’m well aware of the hypocrisy of this move since I’m always bitching about slower runners lining up front).  I’ve been told that Aaron actually asks folks up front what their PR’s are and if they’re too slow, he kindly suggests that they move back.  Had someone done that to me, I would have (granted, begrudgingly) moved back a few rows.  But my intent was to hang with Danielle and Kevin early, if for no other reason than to be a spectator.

With mere minutes until the start and a local girl singing the national anthem (when she sang”for the ramparts we watched”  instead of “o’er the ramparts we watched” – thought you snuck that by us, huh?  Nope, busted.), a murmur of “Where’s Jordan?” spread through the front.  Suddenly I spotted him, leaping over the starting corral gate as  I thought to myself, “How bad would it suck if he twisted his ankle right now?”  The reigning champ finally got in the corral and, thanks to a helping hand from Leonard, struggled out of his sweats just in the nick of time. 

Tim Rhodes yelled, “Gentlemen, start your engines!” as a race car revved its motor and a bunch of folks in front bolted.  “Wait, wait, wait!” cried Tim and everybody came back.  That was rather interesting – I’d never seen a false start in a marathon before.  Luckily no one was disqualified.  Everybody got a do-over and seconds later we began in earnest.

Jordan, Leonard, and Adam were instantly out of sight.  I hung out with Kevin and Tom just as Danielle showed up.  My watch was freaking out,  beeping for a new lap (normally automatically set up to alert at each mile) every 2 seconds.  “What the?!”  I fumbled around with my watch which didn’t work properly for the first 4 minutes or so.  No chip, jacked up watch – thank god this wasn’t an important race for me or I would have been freaking the @#$! out big time.  As it was, I just sighed and locked in a step behind Danielle and Kevin.

We were cruising at about 6:45 pace and miraculously I felt fine (about a month earlier, I struggled to lock into 6:50 pace on a flatter Richmond course).   About a mile in, Tom (running with a friend, Steve, I think) picked up the pace and asked me how I was feeling, “I’m okay, you go ahead though”.  He and his pal took off while I hung back with D & K.

Kevin was excited.  He was cheering and waving.  Danielle was stoic and quiet.  I eased up beside them and asked Kevin, “How ya feeling?” 


“That’s good.  It should feel slow, too slow.  You want to feel like you should be going faster.  But don’t.” 

Right about this time, Kevin saw someone he knew and he yelled a greeting and enthusiastically waved to them so I added, “Easy man, conserve that energy – you’re going to need it later.” 

Kevin responded with “That’s just me.  It wouldn’t be me if I was quiet.”  I felt like a d**k for dampening his enthusiasm.  But I also knew how a marathon sucks every last ounce of energy out of you.  Every smidgeon of energy conserved directly translates into seconds saved during the bonk.

Just over 4 miles in, my calves began to betray me – they were fried from the marathon only 6 days earlier.  Aerobically, I felt fine, relaxed, even comfortable.  But muscularly, the 6:45 pace was simply too much.  I hung on for another mile before I dropped back and let my 2 pals continue on their quest, sans Allen.

And then I was alone.  I thought to myself how cool it would be to beat my time from last year.  I knew I was well ahead of schedule to accomplish that goal.  All I needed to do was relax, settle into something around a 7:20 pace, and I should best last year’s mark.

So that’s what I did.  Nearing the 10K mark, a big crowd of runners absorbed me – it was the 3:00 pace group, led by none other than BMac, Brian McMahon, himself.  We exchanged some pleasantries and then he and his entourage pulled away.  I have to admit, I was a little bit in awe.  You have to be pretty fast and pretty confident in order to pace the 3-hour group.  I gotta think you need to be able to run a 2:40 to confidently pace a 3:00 group.  Pretty impressive stuff.  I knew D&K were still in good shape early on as they were a good minute or 2 ahead of these guys.

I continued cruising along but I kept easing back some because the calves felt like they were on the edge of cramping/seizing up.  Chad Crockford (Danielle’s husband for the one guy/girl reading my blog that doesn’t already know that) rolled by on his bike and I called out to him.  “Hey, how’s Danielle doing?” 

“She looks great, but it’s early, very early.  You know how that goes.”

“Oh yeah, I know.  What about Kevin, he still with her?”

“Yeah, he looks good too.”

We talked for a few more seconds before Chad zipped ahead to check on his bride again.  I ran along, still in no man’s land.

There were a few more interesting sites along the way, like this lady:

This lady was awfully cheerful on such a chilly morning. (photo courtesy Marc Hirschfield)

She gave me a few words of encouragement and I was grateful as things were starting to get rather painful.

Shortly after mile 8, Todd Capitano cruised by, looking fresh as a daisy.  He didn’t recognize me as he was zipping past so I yelled, “Hey Todd!”  We exchanged a high five and he contiued on his a way to a 3-minute PR.

After Todd passed, I was back in no-man’s land.  I continued backing off as various leg muscles complained, emphatically.  I slowed to the point where I was starting to get chilly.  Luckily, friends were strategically placed around the course.  Aaron, Jay, and Chad, all on bikes, popped up at various points, and it seemed that every time I was about to fade to the point of no return, one of them suddenly appeared and cheered me on.  The cheering section of Emily, Jade, Katie, and Dalida kept showing up at different spots too and helped tremendously with their cheers.  Then, just before the dreaded Morehead climb, Joey Church stood in the middle of the road and gave me a high five as I trotted past.

An older guy (50’s) passed me so I locked onto him and fell into his pace.  I had a first class seat on the pain train now and there was nothing left to do but ride it out.  I was pretty confident that I was going to beat last year’s time, but I had slowed considerably and felt like it was going to be close.  Then again, I didn’t really know as today my watch had mostly been a big worthless trinket on my wrist.

We pushed up the final stretch along MLK and ran that stupid  little section through a parking lot before finishing.  I could see the clock ahead and pushed a bit at the end, just enough so I could finish in under 1:33, crushing last year’s 1:35.  This gives me much confidence – running a sub-1:33, on a hilly course, only a week after a marathon, leads me to believe that I can break 1:30 on a fast course and thereby qualify for New York.  (I have until March 15 to accomplish this.  Please forward your recommendations for fast half-marathons between now and March 15!)

Had I worn my chip, I would have been been listed in the results in just under 1:33 (photo courtesy Karin Helmbrecht)

 Mingling around the finish line, I spotted Leonard, Adam, and Alex Wernikoff.  We rehashed our races a little then Leonard, his girlfriend Evonne (to whom I’m grateful for watching my backpack, saving me the hassle of the bag check – thanks again Evonne!),  and I headed back to just past mile 25 of the marathon to cheer on friends.  There, we encountered Caitlin, her boyfriend Garrett, Meagan, and John Compton.  We merged to make quite a formidable cheering section.

Jordan, as expected, had an insurmountable lead when he approached.  I yelled “Push it!  Get that course record!” and then threw in a “Nice Karhus!” just to add some levity.  One needs some levity in the last stages of the marathon.

Billy came by on his way to a 2:41, big PR.  A few minutes later came the last remnants of the 3:00 pace group which now consisted of BMac and Danielle.  I was a bit concerned when I didn’t see Kevin with them.

But only a few minutes later, Kevin showed up.  He was clearly hurting and had dropped off pace, but he was still on his way to a very impressive marathon debut.  I screamed “NOW is the time to pick it up!  Go!  Nut up or shut up, Buttercup!”  But I don’t think any of it registered – he was ears deep in the bonk and therefore couldn’t make out my words of encouragement.  I recognized this because I’ve been there quite a few times myself.

Pictures of various running pals finishing their respective races  (thanks Karin for letting me steal, er, use some of your pics here):

Jordan, defending his crown, barely misses the course record

Danielle killing 2 birds with one stone (or as Ricky likes to say, "Getting 2 birds stoned"), namely breaking 3:00 and winning

Kevin, aka The Gypsy Kid, finishes a very impressive debut marathon

After the race, I went to the beer truck to grab my complimentary brews.  When the lady asked to see my bib, I had to drop my sweatpants to reveal the bib pinned to my shorts.  “Wow”, the beer lady said, “I’ve done a lot of these and I can honestly say that’s the first time I’ve ever been flashed by a guy.”  Flash is a bit of hyperbole, but whatever, I got my free beer.

I loved catching Thunder Road race recaps from different perspectives.  Here are a few:

Jordan – the marathon winner’s perspective.

Théoden –  a 3:20-something-guy’s, and a journalist’s, perspective.

Marc Hirschfield – a half-marathoner’s perspective.

Brian McMahon – a 3:00 pacer’s perspective.

After chatting with all my buddies, I made my way to the second big Charlotte race of the day (highly annoyed that both races were on the same day.  Really?  Arguably the 2 biggest running events on the Charlotte calendar and they take place on the same day?  Bogus!), the USATF XC Club Championships at McAlpine Park.  I know I’m too slow to have helped the Charlotte Running Club’s masters team, but I would have loved to have tried. 

There were quite a few serious runners at this thing – very serious runners.  The field was absolutely loaded!  How loaded?  In the open race, this guy, a 3-time NCAA champ, came in fourth place.  Here’s a stat that really puts it in perspective: Bert Rodriguez, one of Charlotte’s (until he relocated to DC) elite runners, the winner of this year’s Turkey Trot , came in 110th!  That is not a typo my friends, one-hundred-and-tenth place!  Hard core!

It was simply incredible to watch these folks fly around McAlpine!  Friend Andrew Swistak (the guy I pegged as my chief competion in the 1K Beer Run)  took some great snapshots of the race.  Allow me to share some here:

The start. Anybody run cross-country meets here back in the day? Remember this mad dash for position? I got spiked here in '84 and finished the race looking like someone had shot me in the leg.


Look at this guy go!

Bite your tongue, John Compton!

All-in-all, it was one hell of a cool running day in Charlotte!  I hope we have many more like this in the not-so-distant future!

2 Responses to “Thunder Road 2010”

  1. JSK Says:

    So the pic at the bottom — the one with Johnny Compton… Well, take a look at the guy behind him in the white uniform. That’s Jonathan Riley who was a stud at Stanford and Olympian:

  2. Aaron Says:

    A great day indeed it was!!!

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