The Columbia Half Marathon

“Ten!  Nine!  Eight…” shouted the announcer.  Laura and I found the start of the Columbia marathon with mere seconds until gun time.  And we were in the back, the very back, as in there was absolutely no one behind us.  Let the games begin.


I knew we were cutting it pretty close.  It was 6:00 PM and Laura was still packing.  I tried to do the math in my head – Columbia was almost a 2-hour drive, and the expo, and packet pick-up, ended at 9:00 – if we didn’t get going soon, if we ran into any snags on the trip down, we’d arrive too late to get our bibs.  But luckily Laura packed pretty quickly and by 6:30 we were in the car.  Marc Hirschfield sent me a message from Columbia (he was there to run the full), “You in Columbia?” and I responded with “Nope, still in Charlotte! Gotta rush now to make packet pickup.” even as we were backing out of the driveway.

But we made it to Columbia without a hitch, and to our hotel, the downtown Marriot, also site of the expo.  We made straight for the expo and, after fighting off an aggressive salesman who tried to sell us some little magnetized pocket thing (it did look cool as it fastened to your shorts with a magnet, but was way overpriced at $20+), we grabbed our packets.  We ran into race director Dan Hartley who again congratulated Laura – she had won a free room at the hotel, courtesy of Dan, via Theoden.  Which meant I too won a free room at the hotel.  All weekend, I pretended we were elite athletes who had been comped a room.  Ah, so this is what it feels like!

After the expo, we checked in – I was a little concerned we’d get hassled, “I’m sorry, there’s no reservation for any Laura Gray”, but it went amazingly well.  So far, so good.

By this time, I was famished and the quest for food began. Once again, modern technology came to the rescue as Laura found a nearby Italian restaurant, Villa Tronco, thanks to Yelp on her Iphone.

Ah, Villa Tronco, the food was delicious and nearly matched by the ambiance.  According to the Internetz, this restaurant has been operating in the same building for some 75 years and currently run by the owning family’s third generation.  And while the service was a little slow, the food was so good that you overlooked the delays.  By 10:00, we were fat and happy and ready to crash.

Back in the room, the alarms were set and we were fast asleep by 11:00.  I had minimal pre-race jitters since this one was just for fun.  Laura had her free entry and I had been paid in full since way back in July, thanks to this mishap.  Both of us (especially Laura) were pretty beat up and still recovering from the Myrtle Beach marathon, so we were here for fun and neither of us had any delusions about running fast.  This would be a nice, supported, long run, and nothing more.


Around 3:00 AM, I awoke to intense abdominal pain.  It hurt badly enough that at first I thought I might be experiencing appendicitis (I think this seed got planted in my head because a friend’s child had his appendix removed days earlier), but the next 20 minutes in the bathroom dispelled that diagnosis.  I didn’t know if I caught the bug that had hit Laura and her family recently (a bug she was still fighting by the way – she registered a fever before, after, and therefore one can assume, during, the race), or if the delicious Villa Tronco fare had been tainted with some malicious food poisoning.  Regardless, I was in agony for a while as I kept thinking to myself, “Oh thank god this didn’t happen at Myrtle Beach” and “Oh thank god I’m not running a full marathon today”.  I flashed back to my pal Tom who, struggling with near-dysentery, ran the Shamrock marathon, basically running from port-a-john to port-a-john, and I thought, “How the hell did he do it?!?”  I wanted no part of that – if things continued on this way, I’d be DNSing (DNS = “did not start” for those of you not in the know).

But after my 20 minutes in hell, I was finished.  Drained, I chewed on a few Tums before falling back asleep.  When the alarm sounded, I wasn’t exactly refreshed, but I felt exponentially better than I had a few hours earlier.  As we got ready, I sluggishly went through the race-day motions and I tried to drink a lot, afraid that I was dehydrated after last night’s episode.  While I was nowhere near 100%, I was confident I could run and maybe even finish.  DNF?  Maybe.  But at least I’d start.

Finally, near 7:20, we battered warriors left our room and set out in search of the starting line.  This was not as simple as we had hoped.  Immediately upon exiting the hotel, we hit the road and and ran beside the orange cones so we knew we were on the course, but every time we turned the next corner, the starting line was not in sight. Until finally, nearly a mile later, we could hear the announcer and see the throngs of runners gathering in the starting corral. We lined up on the very back row and seconds later the race began.

Laura’s injured – and yet ‘not’: Ryan Danner, Adrienne Anetrini, and others assured her it “wasn’t really injured” – calf, combined with her virus/fever,  prevented her from running much faster than 9-minute miles, but when you line up in the back, even 9-minute miles force you to weave your way through the crowd.  We dodged our way through the first mile, passing hundreds in the process.

Around 1.25 miles, we were greeted by fellow Charlottean Kati Robertson who flashed the following signs.  She was there to cheer on her boyfriend Ben, but once she heard we were running too, she painstakingly created these artistic masterpieces, which made me chuckle:

Kati cheers us on.

Kati cheers us on.

In addition to sign duty, Kati played race photographer and snapped this photo.

In addition to sign duty, Kati played race photographer and snapped this photo.

At about a mile and a half, I grew pretty antsy.  After months of training for marathon pace, my body wanted to run marathon pace.  Laura could sense my growing anxiety and said something along these lines, “I know you want to run faster.  Go.”  I tried to argue, and tried to convince myself, that I was perfectly content to run 9-minute-pace, but after another quarter of a mile or so, I asked, “Are you sure you’ll be okay?” and she confirmed that she would be so I picked things up a bit.

I sped up as much as I could without getting too uncomfortable and without blowing up the heart rate which meant 7:40ish pace, slower uphill and faster downhill.  This was pretty fun since starting in the very back meant I got to pass lots and lots of folks.  I locked in and had a grand time trying to reel in runner after runner.

After the previous night’s distress, I had skipped breakfast.  I brought a couple of Gu’s to compensate, but was too afraid to take them lest I start the problems all over again.  Even Guless and empty-stomached, I started having issues around mile 3 so I backed off the pace. After a touch-and-go slow mile 3, things cleared up and I settled back into my by now usual marathon pace.

I just kind of cruised and enjoyed myself.  I caught various pace groups – 4:15, 4:00.  Around mile 6, I caught up to a guy, running by himself,  whose shirt read “1:50 Pacer”.  I asked him, “So no takers for 1:50 pace?  Where is everybody?”  He explained that he had to take a pit stop so the group went ahead and he added, “I’ll catch them on the hills.”

The hills – I had briefly looked over the elevation chart and knew that we’d be climbing from about mile 8 to about mile 12.  I gathered myself even while I enjoyed the scenic bits through pretty residential neighborhoods and along Lake Katherine.  While enjoying the beauty of the lake, I daydreamed through the fastest, flattest stretch and ran my fastest split of the day.

Then we climbed.  The 4-mile stretch from 8 to 12 was brutal, downright Blue-Ridge-Relayesque – it reminded me of the tougher sections of the Hickory half.  But I was grateful as all I could think was “Oh those poor people running the full” since this was a 2-loop course.  All the poor schmucks running the marathon had to run this twice, so they’d be hitting these hills again at miles 21-25.  The mere thought made me want to puke.  I thought that if I ran the full here, I was almost guaranteed to DNF at the halfway point where it would just be too easy to step off the course – the temptation had been great at Myrtle Beach, I think it might be insurmountable here with those hills looming so large so late in the race.

I was passed once late in the race, during this brutal uphill stretch.  A young thin guy, clad in all black – a ski mask away from being a ninja – easily dropped me uphill and I let him go, with my thought process being I could reel him in once we started going down again.  But I was wrong.  The ninja’s lead grew and grew and I begrudgingly let him go.

As I approached the finish line, I had the opportunity to do the pose I had dreamt of doing at Myrtle Beach but didn’t get to as I had been cutting things a little too close.  This time, I actually did a little muscle man pose, which is admittedly absurd because a) I have minimal muscle mass and b) I was finishing in such a slow time, but it was fun and it afforded me the opportunity to laugh at myself.  I crossed the line, laughing all the way, then grabbed some water and my finisher’s medal, and then turned around to watch for Laura.

As I waited, I cheered on all the folks starting their second loop – I knew I’d want someone to cheer for me at this point.  Everyone’s name was printed on their bib, so I screamed things like “Go Melissa, you’ve got this!” and so on.  I like to think my cheers prevented at least one person from stopping and calling it a day, one lap early.  Ben came through in 1:51, well ahead of pace to break 4:00, and I cheered him on.

After a few minutes, I spotted Laura nearing the finishing chute so I screamed loudly.  I was proud of her tenacity, even while I believed it was probably not the best of ideas to run a half marathon on a sore, gimpy calf, and with a fever.  After she finished, as she iced her ailing calf, she relayed a little bit of her run to me, explaining how she broke down and cried in frustration around mile 8, then got rejuvenated by some folks handing out free beer around mile 9.  In retrospect, her pace chart made me laugh a little, so I really must share:

Laura had 2 walk breaks during her half marathon.

Laura had 2 walk breaks during her half marathon.

I rushed Laura to walk back to the hotel so we could partake in the final part of her prize package – a complimentary breakfast buffet.  Starved, I ate like a king, devouring omelets, waffles, grits, bacon, fruit and more, while poor Laura, still feverish, barely nibbled – somebody had to take advantage of the prize, right?  I think I may have actually lost the calorie battle, even after burning some 1500 of them less than an hour ago.  Then we went back to the room and finished a celebratory post-race beer – I had to help the still ill Laura finish hers since she continued to feel poorly – see how kind and caring I am – and that was it for our Columbia adventure.

The coup de grace...

The coup de grace…

Next up, the Summit Series as I continue to attempt to race my way back into shape.  See you there!


One Response to “The Columbia Half Marathon”

  1. Kati, sign maker extraordinaire/ occasional photographer Says:

    What I lack in running ability, I like to think I make up for in moral support.

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