The Sunset Beach Half Marathon

As Laura and I positioned ourselves at the very front of the starting corral of the Sunset Beach Half Marathon, I looked over the crowd in search of the fast kids. I could find none of the usual suspects. I dared to dream that I had a shot at winning this thing. The person I feared the most was standing directly to my left and had dropped me in no less than three workouts in the last two weeks – I didn’t know if I’d be able to hold her off.

Here I am kissing who I believed to my chief competition. (PDA - how embarrassing!) But seconds later, Laura pointed out Dreadlocks, one row back to our left, and the race was on for second place.

Here I am kissing who I believed to be my chief competition. (PDA – how embarrassing!) But seconds later, Laura pointed out Dreadlocks (not in this pic) and the race was on for second place.

Then Laura tapped me and pointed a row back. “Dreadlocks.” Damn it – there stood a fit kid in singlet, split shorts, and racing flats. “Maybe he’s just one of those guys that looks fit.” One can dream.

The race director counted down from ten. After he called out one, Laura and I bolted off the line about a beat before the air horn fired. False start, but as everyone came with us, no way anybody was putting that cat back in the bag. We were off and racing along flat Main Street.

Two steps in, Dreadlocks effortlessly jetted past. A quarter mile in and he was a dot on the horizon. Oh well, second place would be nice.

As always, I was struggling to throttle back. I thought a sub-1:30, 6:50 pace, was an outside possibility, but I needed to ease into it to have any kind of shot. So I was desperately trying to pull on the reins and cruise the first mile in around 7:30. But Dreadlocks blazed out, then a chubby guy in Vibram FiveFingers sprinted by, along with a little guy wearing the dreaded water belt. While I was about 99% sure Dreadlocks, no pun intended, was a lock to win, I was equally confident that I’d see Vibram FiveFingers again. The oddmakers in Vegas had Waterbelt versus me as a pickem. But I had to bite my tongue to prevent from cursing out loud when a kid in a backwards baseball cap and a cotton tee, a fit-looking masters guy,  and then a lady with some hitch in her stride all passed me. We passed the mile one mark and I was already in seventh place. “Patience”, I told myself, as I started ratcheting up the effort. I decided early on to base things on heart rate – I paid good money for that damned monitor and I was wearing it, so why not use it? So I locked in around the high 150’s beats per minute and tried to hang on.

Shortly after the third mile, we started climbing the Sunset Beach bridge. It looked quite intimidating but at only a half mile long, we only climbed for a quarter of a mile – nothing compared to some recent hills I’d run. See Heartbreak, Senator Royall, Kimberly in Davidson – all much tougher. But apparently the lady with the hitch had not trained on any of these – she came back to me quickly and I thought “Roadkill!” in Blue Ridge and Hood to Coast relay parlance – as I blew by her.

On the way down, I starting cranking in earnest. As we neared the end of the bridge, towards the base where the bridge ran parallel to a golf course, I noticed Backwards Cap up ahead. Suddenly, he hopped the guard rail. I wasn’t sure what was going on but I guessed that he was most likely making a “pit stop”. But having driven the course yesterday, I knew that he could also be pulling a Kip Litton and cutting miles off the course. I made a mental note to count places – I was working way too hard to let some kid cut ahead.

Coming off the bridge, I looked up and noticed that I was rapidly closing in on fourth place, the masters guy who passed me earlier apparently struggling a bit coming off the hill. I don’t know how much of my gaining was due to me speeding up versus him slowing down, but I didn’t really care either. I focused on reeling him in while keeping an occasional eye on the ol’ heart rate. By the time we turned onto Highway 179, around mile six, I was right on his heels. I took a deep breath then surged by – if you’re gonna pass somebody, do it with authority.

With Masters in my rear view, I focused my attention on FiveFingers and Waterbelt – they seemed to have quite the battle going on some sixty or seventy meters ahead as they kept taking turns passing each other. But their pace looked to be slowing precipitously as I was just picking up steam. It had taken me eight miles but once I passed them, gauging their level of effort as I went past, I was confident they wouldn’t come with me.

And just like that, I was in second place. With Dreadlocks long, long gone ahead, and with FiveFingers and WaterBelt falling off the back, I found myself in No Man’s Land, entering the Sea Trail Golf Course. Here the course was winding, but shady, and still ever flat. Now I was having fun and dipping into my arcane bag of cross country racing tricks. Every time I rounded a curve, I would surge a little – if somebody was behind me and trying to reel me in, I wanted the lead to be bigger every time they lost, then regained, sight of me. It’s a game that, if played effectively, can break the will of the runner trying to gain ground.

I tried to play tricks on myself, too. After mile eight, I said, “Just run a five mile tempo and you’ve got second place”, and so on. When I ran by course volunteers, I asked, “How far back is the next runner?”, pointing behind me, and for the next few miles, the answer was repeatedly “I can’t see them.” I told myself not to get complacent – keep working. And I still had an outside shot at a sub-1:30 and an outside-outside shot at a PR. I just had to keep up the effort.

Around mile 11, just as I was about to climb the bridge again on the way back, I asked a volunteer, “Can you see the next runner?” and he said, “Yeah, but you got him!” This let me know that someone was gaining. Time to do a little hill work.

Thanks to the DART Kimberly Hill Strava challenge, I had done some very recent hard hill work. “Run it just like Kimberly,” I told myself as I headed up the bridge. With only two miles and change to go, I didn’t overly worry about the heart rate, but I did watch it. I let the heart rate hover around 170 before backing off a smidge – now was not the time to blow up.

Just like before, I crested the bridge apex and cut loose as I sprinted down. Gravity is your friend on the downhills – don’t fight it.

As I turned onto North Shore Drive with less than two miles to go, I thought I heard footsteps. Shit, the hunter had become the hunted. I resolved to make life hard for whoever this was (and I’ll admit it – my greatest fear was that it was Laura). North Shore rolls a little and actually the little hills were a welcomed relief after so many miles of flat. I made a concerted effort to speed up from here to the end. Mile 12 was a 6:38 – my fastest mile split of the race, up to this point. And still I heard footsteps – they were distinct now. If there was doubt before, now there was none. Somebody was gunning for me. I sped up.

We turned onto Main Street for the last half mile or so and were greeted by a horde of 5K finishers (they started an hour after us). With some unknown runner bearing down on me, I looked at 5Kers as potential picks. I continued to pick up pace as I brushed by 5K finisher after 5K finisher, cutting it very close and hoping that the runner behind me would have to take a wider berth, just like a pick in basketball. I ran mile 13 in 6:17 – my fastest half marathon split ever. And still I heard steps.

I was one notch away from an all-out sprint – I held that ace in my pocket, just in case I needed to play it at the last second. I ran the final stretch at 5:03/mile pace and luckily that was enough. I finished second overall, barely holding off a speeding Mike Adams. According to the results, we had the exact same chip time, 1:31:51. But the tie goes to the gun time.

It took my fastest finishing mile ever, but I kicked across the line to barely hang on to second place.

It took my fastest half marathon finishing mile ever, but I kicked across the line to barely hang onto second place.

Mere moments later, Laura finished to win the women’s race, and in a PR time of 1:36:19. We didn’t quite pull off my dream finish of first and second overall, but at second and seventh, we came pretty damn close.

A few hours later, the awards ceremony was held at the post-race party. And while Laura won a pretty nice Garmin VivoFit for the overall win, I was forced to settle for an age-group certificate:

allens gift certificate

This is me doing a really poor job of hiding my disdain over being awarded a word doc with hand writing for my highest finish ever in a race longer than a 5K.

Despite my pitiful award, the race itself was incredibly fun, hands down the funnest half I’ve ever run. I’m pretty sure Laura and I will run this one again.


From left to right, Connor, her mom Kristy (Kristy and Connor ran the 5K), women's winner Laura, and me.

From left to right, Connor, her mom Kristy (Kristy and Connor ran the 5K), women’s winner Laura, and me.




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