Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Surf City Half Marathon, 2011

“I was so slow today,” I told Catherine as she leaned into my car window bidding me good-bye after our usual Saturday work-out, She and Elizabeth finished our fifteen-mile work-out at least ten minutes ahead of me.

“Yeah,” Catherine said, “but you have it where it counts. You beat Elizabeth and me both last Sunday.”

Sunday was the Surf City Half Marathon. I am a sixty-seven-yr-old marathoner. My goal for the half was under two hours. My fastest previous half had been a 1:58. I’m the oldest runner in our informal work-out team, old enough to be the mother of some and the much older sister of others.

We carpooled Sunday, me in Jill’s big Chevy SUV. Jill’s a school principal and a member of Jill’s staff gifted her a parking pass which put us right up near the start, the best parking place at the race.

We arrived around 6:30 for a 7:45 start which gave time for one bathroom stop at the beach bathrooms on the boardwalk. Turned out I needed two bathroom stops but we ran out of time.

Runners from two cars got together at 7:30. Elizabeth, Catherine, Jill and I walked to the corral designated for the two hour finishers. What’s our strategy? I asked Catherine, our coach. She pointed to a slender six foot dowel with “1:58” in 4” numbers printed on the flimsy paper taped to the top. My eyes followed the dowel from the top down to a hand. The hand attached to the arm of a short hispanic man who later told another runner he was from Mexico City. He wore a navy blue singlet and had a small spare tire around his middle.

“ Keep that pacer in view,” directed Catherine. We were the third wave. Bad luck, just as I realized I needed to hit the toilets, our horn sounded. The pacer who had SnailsPace Running Club on the singlet started right out at a 9-minute-pace. His relaxed gait spoke to me. I knew he could go faster.

For almost thirteen miles he was my beacon, his flag bouncing in steady counterpoint to his regular step. I did not speak to him but I listened to his banter with others. He said, “Stick with me, you’ll get in at 2:58,” the voice of confidence. I watched him check his Garmin. I gave my race to this man. He cured my habit of going out too fast. Watching him made me forget I had to go to the bathroom. His effortless steady motion tempered my inclination to pick a runner to pass, surge ahead and wear myself out. He was the conductor and I ran to the rhythm of his six foot vertical wand, bobbing over everybody’s head.

We came upon Mile Four (?) where we turned at Sea Cliff and encountered the only steep up-grade of the race. Never breaking pace, my SnailsPace pace-man took the hill. I lost him for seconds but told myself to get my butt in gear. I regained my place in his pack. I heard a runner say to him, “I just want to stay with you for the first five miles.” He answered, “That’s fine, after that five miles, we’ll talk about the next five.” I heard a smile in his voice. I never looked his face. My focus was to listen and keep up.

We came around and down Sea Cliff, a little scream went up from first one runner, then another, and another. I kept running. I’m generally nosy and want to take part in every tiny excitement but this time, I kept my head up and ran. After the race, Catherine told me that a rat ran across the street, stood up on its hind legs and look terrified. I ignored the rodent, happy I did not step on it. The shock of squishing the rodent would have changed the outcome of my race and invited disaster considering my bathroom situation.

We returned to PCH. and I took note of the Marathon Mile Markers. They were high. I kept missing the Half Marathon mile markers which were lower. I asked other runners, what mile are we? When I heard “Seven!” I thought 7+7=14, I’m more than half way done! At some point the pacer took to the bathrooms himself. A young runner ahead of me with a sparkly skirt had been consistently running beside the pacer up until he peeled off . While he was in the bathroom, I watched her skirt. The pacer joined us shortly thus producing proof that he could run much faster than the 1:58. Upon his return, I resumed keeping his “1:58” dowel within easy sight.

I still remember that dowel fondly. I’ve tried to follow pacers before but most have their pace pinned to their shirt. At about 5‘ 2” tall, I loose sight of them if one runner comes between me and the pacer.

We turned at Mile Nine (?) and welcomed the straight run to the finish. I started to get anxious and ask what mile we were in. It was here that the pacer spoke the only words we would exchange. “I’ll get you in at 1:58, don’t worry.” A thought crept into my mind so I asked, “Will you tell me when we’re on our last mile?” “Yes,” he answered. The tiny thought was: I might finally finish a race with enough in the tank to put on a dash at the end.

I was not worn out. All experienced runners told me that for every minute you go out too fast , you give up two minutes at the end of a race. All that Catherine and Caroline cautioned me about my famous surges taking away from my final time made sense. The pacer took my self defeating responsibility away from me. All I had to do was run.

When I saw the 11 mile mark, I took off. I could run the last two miles, full intestine, bubbling along with me. I pulled into the finish at 1:57:21, forty seconds ahead of my pace group. Those few seconds put many runners between me and the 1:58 group. I never saw the pacer again and never got to thank him. I still don’t know his face. I did email Snail’s Pace Runner’s Club to say “thank-you.”

I found a port-o-pottie and celebrated as I sat.

I dedicate this personal best to my generous-hearted pacer. The personal best is the point of running. The fact that at 67, I got a faster time than ever in my running career is important to me.

So, why do I run faster in races than the stronger, younger runners in my group? They finished minutes behind me.

That is a mystery to me. I am not faster in our pre-race work-outs. Elizabeth and Catherine should beat me on race day and when they do, I’ll be satisfied that they deserve to win. For me, the point will still be, did I match or better yet, beat my old record?

I really wish I could take the Snail’s Pace Pacer from Mexico City with me.