The Charleston Half, aka 1:30 is the new 3:20

Nothing too fancy about this one, just flat and fast


I was really looking forward to this one.  Things were finally starting to thaw out around the South and it looked like we’d have nearly perfect conditions to run a half marathon in Charleston.

I headed out early so I could tool around the city that Pat Conroy loves so much.  I had a perfectly pleasant drive down, the surreal sight of snow-covered South Carolina palm trees notwithstanding, and some 4 hours after leaving Cornelius, I pulled into the parking lot of the Hyatt in North Charleston.

The lady manning the front desk was gracious enough, not hesitating to allow me to check in early.  I was glad to learn that she was well-versed on the pending race, unlike the knuckleheads at the Towpath host hotel back in October.  Things were going marvelously well right up until I asked her what time the shuttles would be departing for the starting line in the morning.  “Oh, there is no shuttle to the race”, she matter-of-factly informed me.  Really?  The host hotel, some 10 miles from the starting line, had no shuttle?  So the host hotel has no relationship to the race other than the word “host” and the fact that its employees were aware of the race.  Okay, lesson learned – I’ll do more research next time. In their defense, it was a really nice hotel.  Here’s a pic I stole from their website.  This room is virtually identical to my room except I had 2 beds:

Lovely hotel, albeit sans shuttles and far, far away from the starting line

I got settled in and then headed over to the expo which was held in a tent.  Yes, a tent.  Granted, it was a big tent, but one that clearly had held livestock at some point as the dirt floor was covered with hay and the smell of cattle was in the air.  Okay, not the first time I’ve been in a livestock tent (I grew up in Concord after all) so it wasn’t the end of the world, just a little odd.  I spotted B-Mac at the pacing tent and when he finally finished flirting with some pretty young ladies asking him about the race, I snapped this pic:

Brian McMahon, answering questions about the course he's never seen.

After discovering that the pasta dinner was served in the tent, I decided I’d rather not eat here (I’m not a big fan of eating pasta, or any food for that matter, while the smell of cattle wafts about).  Instead, Brian and I decided to venture out in search of pasta in Charleston.

I drove which meant that Brian soon learned firsthand just how directionally challenged I am and how that whenever I’m in an unfamiliar city my car is inextricably drawn to those parts of town that contain burned-out buildings, check cashing businesses, bail bondsmen, and crime scene tape.  But he didn’t seem to mind as both of us had plenty of time to kill.  We eventually stumbled upon a Carraba’s where, after standing around for about an hour, we were able to eat some spaghetti, my preferred pre-race meal.  Afterward, we spent another hour again driving through those parts of Charleston that the chamber of commerce prefer tourists not see.  We finally stumbled upon the expo again where Brian’s car awaited him.  I dropped him off and made my way back to the hotel, miraculously without getting lost this time, and I fell asleep watching Friday Night Fights (I woke up when the announcer started screaming about this.)

The Race

I was up bright and early on race morning – I wanted to give myself plenty of time to overcome any logistical issues that might arise and I did expect them to arise because they always do.  If you’re new to this blog and/or you don’t know me very well, logistics problems often derail, or at least hamper, my plans.  If I give myself enough time, I can stay ahead of them.

First problem of the morning – I had forgotten to bring my pre-race breakfast, usually a bagel and peanut butter.  Luckily, the hotel  had free continental breakfast so I grabbed a bagel on my way out.  It was during this breakfast run that I encountered my second Charlottean of the weekend, Lauren Robbins, who was in town to pace the 2:15 half-marathoners.

I had done my research and learned that there was free parking for competitors at the South Carolina aquarium, near the starting line.  I made it to the parking deck and parked without incident.  I was even fortunate enough to find 2 hidden port-a-johns near the parking deck.  Things were looking good at this point.

I grabbed my ever-present-on-race-day neon-orange backpack and set out to find the bag check.  It was a brisk 29 degrees so I was wearing warm-ups that I hoped to shed, dump in the backpack, and check just before the race start.  I really wanted these dry clothes to change into after the race.

I spotted a bunch of runners milling around inside a building and figured that must be the bag check so I rolled inside.  There I spotted yet another Charlottean, Adam Mayes.  It turned out this was the race-day packet pick-up site.  Adam grabbed his packet and we set out in search of the start and bag check.

We, along with quite a few others, headed in the direction of the start when we encountered a wave of runners coming towards us.  Chaos was suddenly taking charge of the day.  We asked a runner walking towards us if he knew where the start was.  “It’s supposed to be right there, but there’s some guy putting down red tape and he told us to head towards the Gaillard.”  That was where we’d just come from but we headed that way since everyone else was – by the time we got there, Adam and I had basically traversed a city block.

At a park square next to the Gaillard, a man with a mic stood and gave out instructions.  I yelled to him, “Where’s the bag check?”  To which he said into the mic, “I don’t know where the bag check is.  If anyone knows where it is, please let me know.”  I was not getting a warm and fuzzy.  It was now approaching 7:30 and the race started at 8:00.

I spotted an old friend of mine, Jeff Monts, that I didn’t realize was a runner.  We chatted for a moment – it turns out he had moved to Charleston a few years earlier and was training for a triathlon and needed to get some marathon practice in.  Then a group of Adam’s friends showed up and we had introductions all the way around.

At about 7:40, still with no clue as to where the bag check might be, we all set off back towards the starting line.  Finally we spotted the truck with desperate runners gathering around and tossing bags up to a lone worker.  I grabbed a sharpie and hastily defaced my bag by writing my name and bib number directly on my backpack.  Would a tear-away bag check slip on the bib have been useful?  Yes, yes it would, but there was none.

I found Michael Kahn , another runner from Charlotte (every Charlotte runner I’ve mentioned is also a member of the Charlotte Running Club, by the way).  Adam had been looking for him since they’re right in the same wheelhouse and Adam was hoping they could run together.  As soon as Adam got his bag checked, I pointed out Kahn and the 3 of us took off for a warm-up run.

With all the logistics out of the way, I relaxed.  I felt great on our little warm-up jog and I narrowly averted catastrophe when I slipped on a little patch of ice but quickly recovered my balance.  We made it back to the start, worked our way into the crowd and near some of the other Charlotte runners already lined up. I saw Jinnie Austin (I could see the 3:30 balloon of her pacing hubbie Stan back a ways, but I never saw him), and Todd Patterson.  I saw Chase Eckard in the front – he’s a really fast guy, formerly a runner at UNCC if I’m not mistaken.  I thought he might win this thing.

Finally someone signaled the start.  I knew I was going too fast as I was tucked in right behind Adam and Michael.  I briefly entertained delusions of grandeur, thinking of trying to stay with them, but I knew better and backed off.  Todd came by and I thought about hanging with him but I wasn’t sure of what he was capable of and he looked to be moving pretty well too.  This was beginning to feel a lot like Richmond, another half-marathon in an adjacent state where I was the slowest Charlottean to make the trip.

I felt great as we ran down Bay Street, along the ocean, through the battery.  The sun had just risen and the Atlantic was beautiful on this crisp January morning.  I was supremely confident, coming through the first mile in 6:25, some 26 seconds faster than goal pace.  Again, I briefly entertained the idea of trying to maintain 6:25 pace, but I have learned my lesson the hard way too many times.  “Don’t get greedy.  Throttle back to goal pace, dummy”, I told myself.  I listened to my bossy self and ran mile 2 in 6:46 – perfect.  2 miles in and I had banked a 30 second cushion.  Lock in at this pace and you will qualify for New York.  In my head, I sang “Start spreading the news…”

Everything went perfectly according to plan for the next few miles as I ran splits of 6:51, 6:47, 6:51, and 6:52.  But goal pace was beginning to feel labored.  A guy passed me just before mile 6 and I tried to lock on and go with him.  I glanced at my watch and noticed we were going 6:55 pace and I was having difficulty keeping up.  Uh-oh.

This race had a neat little audio clock at each mile split.  A robotic voice called out your time.  As I ran past the 6 mile marker, the little robot called out “40 minutes.  46, 47, 48, 49.  40 minutes.  50, 51…”  I knew on-pace was right at 41.  I was still ahead of pace, but slipping.  “Hang on!”, I told myself.

I borrowed a little mantra from my friend Nathan Stanford.  “Relaxed, not fast.”  Don’t struggle, glide.  Focus on form, quit tensing up.  But I was fading.  My mile 7 split was in 7:01 – not good.

I was well aware that my pace was slipping but there didn’t seem to be anything I could do about it.  Every time I looked at my pace, it was slower than the time before.  I tried to speed up as my banked time cushion slipped through my fingers like sand.  I felt powerless to do anything about it, even as I pushed harder and harder.  I was walking that dangerous tightrope – push too hard and I’d crash and burn completely, but don’t push enough and I’d miss the goal.  Mile 8 was 6:56 – faster than the last mile, but not fast enough.  The wheels hadn’t fallen off completely, but I’d lost a few lug nuts and things were getting wobbly.

Normally in a half, I try to run the first 8 miles rather conservatively and then really pick things up for the last 5.  Today was just the opposite.  I was petering out.  I started feeling like I was in the marathon bonk past mile 20.  This was rapidly turning into a Bataan death march.  Mile 9, 7:05.  Mile 10, 7:06.  My bank of time was gone.  I had to get back to 6:50 pace.  But telling yourself this and actually doing this are 2 entirely different things.  My body told my mind to f**k off.

Miles 10 through 12 were 7:06, 7:12, and 7:20 respectively.  I knew I was done.  Now I was running on pride alone.  Try to make this thing respectable.  I ran as hard as I could and only managed a 7:07 mile 13.  The crowd at the finish (I heard Adam screaming for me) buoyed me in but I finished in 1:31:38, a minute and 39 seconds slower than my goal.

Post-Race (aka Hanging with the Big Kahunas)

Michael waited for me at the finish and kindly put my ribbon around my neck.  I tried to hide my dejection.  We went for a little cool-down jog with Todd Patterson.  Michael told Todd’s girlfriend, “We’re only going for a mile or so.  We’ll be back in 7 or 8 minutes.” and I said, “Or 9.  Or 10.”  I was only partially joking – I was spent.

The cool-down was tough because Michael and Todd were both stoked after big PR’s and I was a little depressed.  This was just like Richmond where everybody, except me, crushed their goals.  But I wasn’t particularly upset at Richmond since I still ran a solid PR.  I was a little frustrated on this day because I entered with so much confidence – if I had run a 1:30:40 on a hilly Richmond course, surely I would break 1:30 on a flat Charleston course.  Well it turns out that things don’t always work like that.

Thank god for good post-race setups.  These guys had shrimp and grits and it was delicious.  And their free beer was the good stuff, Fat Tire.  So this helped cheer me up, at least until the wait for the bus ride back to the starting line.

The hour long wait for the bus back to the start (this was a point-to-point race) was excruciating.  I was tight.  I was fatigued.  I was a little depressed.  There were only 2 buses running, school buses at that.  Please Charleston, more buses next year.  And it would be cool if the buses were designed for adults – I had to sit sideways to keep my knees from jamming into the seat in front of me.

But I eventually made it back to the hotel.  I showered, iced, and napped before Adam called me.  He and his girlfriend Audra were meeting friends at the Windjammer, a bar/restaurant on the Isle of Palms, and he invited me.

The post-race was by far the funnest part of the weekend.  I met Coach, aka Chris Spano, the coach/organizer of the Hood to Coast team, the Big Kahunas, and many of the team members, including Kathy Rink, a fellow just-north-of-Charlotte runner who I can’t believe I hadn’t met before now.  I had a blast hanging with the Big Kahunas at Windjammer and later at the house they’d rented for the weekend.  I hope I didn’t anger Coach too much as I incessantly pestered him to put me on the waiting list for his Hood to Coast team.

Post-Post Race

I spent the drive back on Sunday trying to figure out what went wrong with my race.  I’d had a great training week 2 weeks earlier,  but 3 weeks before the race, I had been particularly ill and had missed nearly an entire week of training.  Then the week before the race, I sat around and ate junk food and missed more days than I would have liked due to all the snow, ice, and brutally cold temperatures (for the South anyway).  So maybe those factors all played a part in my less than stellar performance.

I have until March 15 to break 1:30 in order to qualify for the New York marathon.  Today I’ll email Coach Hadley and ask for advice.  I’m confident that I have a sub-1:30 in me, but can I do it before the cut-off?  We’ll see.


The pictures are out!

The best part of this picture is that I’m blocking the clock.  I think it said 1:09:40.


This picture might actually be cool if I was running faster than like an half an hour per mile pace.

6 Responses to “The Charleston Half, aka 1:30 is the new 3:20”

  1. Michael Kahn Says:

    Great recap, bummer bummed out bum time but they can’t all be PRs. Funny thing happened before the race.. a guy asked me where the bus would be after the race and I said, “I don’t know.” He immediately responded, “get this guy a yellow volunteer shirt! His answer qualifies him to be part of that team.” 🙂

  2. meagan Says:

    dude, you’re way too hard on yourself. think of all the progress you’ve made in the past year or two. not every race is going to be a PR, even if the conditions are “perfect” for it. i’m no expert, but the few times i’ve run exceptional (for me) races were the times when i hadn’t even set the bar that high. in fact, never once have i run my fastest time while going into the race thinking, “come hell or high water, i will not step off this track/road/course without setting a PR.” instead, those breakthroughs have come when i was relaxed and simply focused on running my best–whatever my best was at the time–instead of obsessing about pace. be patient; it will happen.

  3. JSK Says:

    Did I read that correctly!? “Dump in the backpack…”

    Wow. That’s great. I haven’t even finished the rest of the post. I had to comment immediately.

  4. Allen Strickland Says:

    Quite a few people read this post and the only 1 (I’m willing to bet) with an Ivy League education pounces on “dump in the backpack”. We live in bizarre times.

  5. Brian McMahon Says:

    Ivy Leaguers are chumps

  6. Bill Says:

    Awesome write up…again. Manfredo clip was fantastic. Shrimp & Grits and Fat Tire?? I am running this one next year. And it wont be close to 1:30. 🙂

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