The North Carolina Half Marathon – How I Paced a Mountaineer

As I sat in my car in the parking lot of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, as the rain beat against my windshield, as I looked at the little 41 on the dashboard thermometer’s LED readout, I thought, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”  I was here to try to pace my buddy Bill to a sub-2 hour half marathon.  Mother Nature was not cooperating.

2 days earlier, a friend posted on Facebook that he was heading out of the country so couldn’t make the race – being the helpful and generous kinda guy that I am, I offered to take the bib off his hands for free. Bill had been talking about this race for months, and at various times we had discussed how cool it would be if I could pace him, but the entry fee was expensive and so it didn’t seem doable financially.  Until the free entry came through.  I texted Bill and told him I was onboard for some pacing come Sunday morning.

The next day at the expo, as I was picking up the packet, I panicked for a second when the volunteer, a guy who looked to be in his teens, flipped through the bibs and said, “Sorry, it’s not here.”  I thought, “Oh crap, maybe Matt’s trip got delayed.  Maybe he’s running after all, forgot to tell me, and picked up his bib already.”  I froze while I tried to decide the best course of action when the kid laughed and said, “I’m just messing with ya!  Here it is!”  Dork.

I didn’t spend much time at the small expo – there was nothing especially new or exciting.  I wanted to get home and relax and watch some basketball until bedtime – which I did.

Sunday, when my alarm went off at zero-dark-thirty, I could already hear the rain and wind.  It was nasty enough outside that Lucy, Laura’s boxer, refused to go out (later, she would leave me a nice little post-race surprise).  If this was just any long run, I would have bailed.  But this was a big deal for Bill, ever since he barely missed breaking 2-hours at this race a year earlier, he’d been talking about redemption.  I couldn’t leave him hanging.  I dug out some warm gear – tights, long-sleeve compression shirt, hat, gloves, etc. – dressed quickly, and headed out to the speedway.

I arrived at the speedway and as I was pulling in to park, Bill texted me – we were both onsite nearly an hour before post time and neither of us was anxious to leave our cars and face the elements.  It’s one thing to race in cold rain – it’s another thing entirely to stand around in cold rain.  But a few moments later, certain biological needs necessitated that I exit the vehicle.

I ran towards the infield, towards the building that housed the expo, and rushed to get in the restroom line.  By now it was after 7:00, the line was long, and the race was scheduled to start at 7:30.  As I fought the crowd to get in the line, Todd spotted me and called out “Strickland!” and I replied, “Nope” and pointed to the name “Matt” on my bib.  We exchanged a few pleasantries and then I took my place at the back of the line.

The line moved relatively quickly, which was fortunate as the race would be starting any minute.  I finished up and then darted across the infield towards the starting line on the homestretch.  The thousand plus member crowd was already assembled and I scanned it intently in search of Bill.   Todd showed up and helped me search and he spotted Bill pretty quickly.  I lined up beside him as we waited through a long, slow recording of the national anthem.  Some guy snapped, “Please stop talking!” to somebody nearby and it angered me a little.  Quit taking yourself so seriously – I think America will survive a couple of runners chatting during the longest rendition of the national anthem of all time.

Then finally we were running.  It took some supreme willpower on my part to throttle back enough with all the hordes sprinting past, but Bill and I had spoken strategy the day before and he wanted a 9-ish first mile.  My goal was to keep us under 9-minute-mile pace all day which would bring us in at well under 2 hours.  We looped around the Charlotte Motor Speedway, and while really cool (I was amazed at how steep the banks are!), it was diminished a bit by the crowd – we were elbow to elbow with tons of runners – I longed for us to string out.  We finished nearly 2 loops of the track and then hit the infield roads which were a maddening array of curves, loops, and switch-backs.  I was a bit skeptical of trusting Garmin through here, but we were sufficiently under pace so there was no need to worry whether Garmin told the precise truth or not.

Bill had filled me on last year’s race, how psychologically daunting the course had been, and I could see why, even this early in the race.  We traversed some 3 miles before ever leaving the speedway – 3 miles in and it felt like we had gone nowhere.

But just under 9-minute pace is about my typical long run speed so I was comfortable.  I tried to occupy Bill with anecdotes and jokes, etc., attempting to keep his mind preoccupied with anything other than the pain of maintaining half marathon race pace.  Once we left the speedway, the course started to climb.

Driving around/by the speedway many times in the past, I had never, before now, realized how hilly it is around there, but it is.  I told Bill, “Just relax on the climbs.  We can crank on the downhills.”  And that’s exactly what we did, right around or slightly slower than 9-minute pace on the way up, and substantially faster on the way down.  The rain held off – it was barely drizzling early – as we climbed the road behind the stadium.  I was a bit taken aback when we passed a little chubby guy, wearing a Boston qualifier t-shirt, who was walking up the hill.  I wondered if he had actually qualified, and if so, how?  Maybe he had gained a substantial amount of weight after being injured?

We were still well ahead of pace near mile 5, having successfully circumnavigated the outside of the Speedway, up Morehead Road (Harrisburg, not Charlotte, despite the name of the track), when we neared our first of two trips over the covered pedestrian walkways that spanned Highway 29.  Bill had warned me about these – they caused him a lot of trouble last year, and I could easily see how.  The incline of the walkway was significant and as soon as we stepped on, it seemed to sway underneath, freaking me out more than a little because 1) I experienced an earthquake in LA in 1992 and it felt exactly like this and 2) I remembered that one of these things had collapsed before.  Not cool.  But I tried to maintain composure and not sprint across, which if Bill tried to do the same, might have derailed his race.  Be cool.  Be like Fonzie.  Don’t flip out.  We made it across safely and I, normally an atheistic/agnostic kinda guy, said a little prayer of thanks to any deity that might have been looking out for us.

Periodically throughout the race, I would ask Bill, “How you doing?  Feeling alright?” and he would give me the thumbs up, and/or I’d ask “How’s the heartrate?  Look okay?” to which Bill would nod or give the thumbs up.  At mile 5.5, we ran down some crazy steep hill.  At the bottom, some marching band drummers entertained us and Bill imitated them beating the drums and waved to them – I took that to be a good sign since he had enough energy to air drum.  We crossed a timing mat, presumably there to catch/deter any would-be Kip Littons, and then we climbed back out of this valley, Bill looking none the worse for wear.  So far, so good.

We neared the drag strip, across the street from the speedway, and I spotted John Halter in a Charlotte Running Club shirt.  I shouted greetings while he cheered us on.  A gust of wind blew my hat off and I briefly thought about abandoning it, but then I remembered this was Laura’s hat, one I had snagged in haste on my way out this morning.  What if it held sentimental value?  I rushed back and got it and quickly caught back up with Bill.  As we entered the drag strip, nearly half way done, we were well under pace and Bill, albeit clearly working pretty hard, seemed fine.

I saw Todd, nearly a mile ahead of us at this point, on the other side of the safety wall/divider thingie, and he and I reached across and gave each other high fives.  A couple of girls passed Bill and me and I heard one of them say, “We’re well under 2-hour pace.  My goal is to just make it home in time to watch the Ohio State game” so I called out, “If you keep up this pace, you’ll have time to finish, drink a couple of beers, and get home before the game starts.”  She never responded but I noticed she was wearing her bib on the back of her shirt so I dubbed her “Ohio State Rodeo”.

The drag strip was another psychologically tough section of this course.  As you’re going out, hundreds of runners are coming back so you’re constantly asking yourself, “Where’s the turnaround?  When am I going to reach the turnaround?”  And since it’s nearly a mile long, you’re questioning yourself for quite a while.  We finally made the turnaround and started heading back when Bill asked me, “Does this feel like we’re going uphill?” and I answered, “No, feels flat to me.”  It certainly looked flat as a pancake, but Garmin shows an incline of 81 feet, from 589 to 670 feet.  I’m not buying it so can one of you Garmin wizards please explain this to me?

Finished with the drag strip, we headed back toward the speedway.  Bill told me, “This is where I’m really going to need your help”.  The year before, the climb back up the walkway had broken him – well under pace until that point, he pushed it up, apparently tripping the ol’ lactic acid time-bomb, effectively crashing his sub-2-hour race and making the last five miles a struggle.

So this time, we took it nice and easy on the steep hill leading up to the walkway.  Bill even slowed to a fast walk to keep his heart rate from spiking.  We went over the swaying walkway again, me silently whispering atheist prayers, and finally we crested it and cruised down.  I asked him how he felt and Bill said “Fine” so I offered, “You’ve got this.  Piece of cake from here on in.”

We hit the little service road outside the speedway and I picked up the pace to help us recover the time lost during that last, slowest, split of the day and Bill went right with me.  At the 10-mile water stop, all the volunteers called out “Gatorade!  Gatorade!” and Bill asked “Water?” only to find out there was no water at this stop.  Bill may have dropped a curse word or two – I can’t be sure.

We made our way to the backside of the speedway, everything having gone picture perfect until this point.  That was about to change.  Suddenly, the proverbial bottom fell out and it started raining.  Pouring, to be more precise, like enough so that a God-fearing man might have started building an ark.  Puddles formed instantaneously and there was no avoiding them.  Now my shoes were sopping wet.  Now I was freezing cold, gloves and hat rendered useless.  Now I wanted to be done.

We entered the track and I thought, “Almost done”.  I told Bill, through the downpour, “At least there are no more hills” and he corrected me, “Yeah there are.”  And I found out shortly he was right – as we again weaved our way through the infield roads, we climbed a solid little hill.  Where did that come from?

As we meandered around and around, weaving our way by those people reduced to a walk or a super slow jog, I turned to Bill and said, “I see how this got to you last year.  If you enter this speedway and you’re having a bad day, these winding roads will suck away your will to live.”  I hated this infield – you hit the speedway thinking you’re done and you still have 3+ more miles to go.  I can’t imagine being a new runner, sans GPS watch, entering the track thinking you’re nearly done, only to run and run and run some more.  Maddening.

I was freezing my proverbial balls off, like I felt downright hypothermic.  I really started to push the pace to try and drag Bill to finish sooner, so I wouldn’t freeze to death, and he responded pretty well, coming along with me.  My Garmin showed mile 12 as being the fastest split of the day.  We finally hit the track and I encouraged him by saying, “You’ve got this.  Bring it home.” to which he responded, “I’m done” and slowed a bit.  Moments later, he asked, “Will I still make it even at this pace?”  The rain was coming down so hard he was having difficulty seeing his watch.  I answered, “Dude, you could hand the baton to [insert name of old slow person we both know] here and still break 2 hours.”  He incredulously asked, “Really?”  apparently not believing me.  But I knew we were well under 2 hours – we could have walked it in though I didn’t tell him that for fear he might do it and I would freeze to death on the spot.

We rounded the final turn and Bill looked over at me, smiled, and then started sprinting which made me laugh at the “I’m done” statement which had been uttered no more than 2 minutes ago.  Both of us laughed the remainder of the race as I stayed one step back and pretended to lean at the tape.  I tried to make it look like I was grimacing, but it just came out as a cheesy smile.  Feel free to go here and type 21 into the bib number field to see the funny finish line photos.

I would be remiss if I left out the post race happenings, the most dramatic events of the day.  Bill and I made our way to the infield building where they were handing out swag.  I was too cold to take any – my hands were so frozen that they felt unusable.  Some guy who had just completed his first half marathon wanted to hang out and chat with Bill who he had chased for much of the race.  I was too cold for this business and kept easing my way away, hoping Bill would follow.  Then Todd walked up and we all recapped our respective races, even as my blood temperature dropped below 40 or so – I was literally shaking.  Finally, Bill, Todd and his wife Kathy, and I headed out at a leisurely walk when I said, “I am freezing.  I have to run. I’ll see you all later.” and I ran faster than I had all day as I rushed to the warmth of my car.

I panicked a little when I got out of the track (and I felt so sorry for the runners who were making their way back towards the speedway – they still had 3+ miles to go) and realized I wasn’t exactly sure where I had parked – I knew it was in the lot directly behind the giant HDTV board, but there were hundreds of cars directly behind the giant HDTV board.  I could hear the narrator from that TV show I Should Be Dead, “If Allen didn’t find his car soon, he would suffer hypothermia and die.”

I got lucky and spotted my car quickly and darted straight for it.  But when I got there, my hands were so frozen that they were rendered useless.  First, I struggled to untie my shoe lace, where my key was tied under a double knot- this proved to be exceedingly difficult.  My hands felt like lobster claws, ala Dr. Zoidberg.

After much time, all the while with me freezing more and more as I continued to cool down, I finally got the key out.  I managed to get the car door open as I, drenched, fumbled around to find the towel in my gym bag.  Once I got it out, I jumped in the car and shut the door.  I scrambled to get out of my wet clothes, trying to hide under my towel lest I get arrested for indecent exposure.  I was pretty successful at getting out of my shoes and pants, but then the fatal error occurred when I went to remove my long sleeve compression shirt.  I yanked it over my head without remembering to first remove my watch, outside the sleeve on my left arm, and my RoadID bracelet (good thing I had that on so the authorities would know who to call when they found my cold, dead body), outside the sleeve on my right arm.  This left me effectively straight-jacketed with my naked body, except for a towel, fully exposed to the cold.  The I Should Be Dead narrator dramatically declared, “Allen had mere minutes left before succumbing to the extreme cold.”  I felt like Jack in Titanic, but with my hands intertwined in my shirt, I couldn’t even dial Laura to tell her goodbye.  They’d find my corpse in the back of my car at the speedway.  My epitaph would read, “He was just too dumb to live.”

But necessity being the mother of invention, my teeth became my most effective tool and I gradually gnawed my sleeves out from under my watch and RoadID.  Once my hands were freed, I ripped off the soaking wet clothes, toweled off, and put on dry clothes.  Then I hopped in the front and cranked the heat (and the Camry’s heater is powerful) and shook and chattered teeth for a solid 20 minutes.  When I finally thawed out sufficiently, I drove home, having narrowly escaped death at another race.  Heat nearly killed me in Boston in mid-April, and the cold nearly killed me in Charlotte in late March.  Oh, the irony.

But I live to run another day.  I had every intention of giving you 3 race recaps in this post, but have now spent way too much time on the first one.  The other 2 will follow in the next few days.  Stay tuned.

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