Race Report: 2017 Tobacco Road Half Marathon

This race was simple. I had two goals. First, finish with two fully functioning ankles. Second, get a PR. I suppose I have those goals for all of my races. (The first one is usually an unspoken goal.) And while I wouldn’t really call it a goal, I went into this race looking for redemption.

So, yeah, I’m going to be talking about last year’s race quite a bit. If you don’t want to read the race report, the short version is that, after a few weeks of intermittent ankle pain, I ran the race, made it to around 9.5 miles, and then my ankle gave out. I managed to finish, and since walking didn’t seem to hurt any less than running, I ran most of the last couple of miles. What wasn’t in the race report (and I detailed it a bit more in this post) is that a few weeks later, a foot specialist diagnosed me with short Achilles tendons, which, when running put pressure on everything connected to the tendons, but the ankles got the worst of it. It was pretty much just a matter of time before something gave out, and for me it just happened to be my left ankle at the 9.5 mile mark of a half marathon. Luckily, the treatment was pretty simple, some custom orthotics, and since then, I’ve had no ankle issues.

I have to say, though, that even if last year’s race was perfectly normal, I’d probably still compare it to this year’s race.

I headed out on Saturday, the day before the race. It was easier to go straight to the expo in Cary before going to my sister’s house. The expo was actually on Friday and Saturday, which is nice. It was pretty much the same as last year. They e-mailed me my bib number in advance. Again, I have to point out that the only races I’ve run that have done this have all been outside the Charlotte area. At least for me, it’s a whole lot easier during packet pickup to say 3819 than to say Smith, and then clarify that my first name is P.J., since I’m almost always not the only Smith in the race.

Anyway, I got my bib, and realized I forgot to bring my own safety pins, so I had to grab some more. I then went over to get my race t-shirt and a pair of free socks from Feetures.

The shirt is a little darker than it looks in that picture. It’s more of a hunter green. It’s my first ever green race t-shirt. As someone who’s Irish every day of the year, it’s always nice to have something to wear on St. Patrick’s Day. Since it took me so long to post this, I had time to wash the socks (Unless it’s an emergency – an out of town race where I left my socks at home – I always wash my running socks before I wear them) and then try them out. They’re not Balega, but they’re not bad. If I’m looking at a bunch of socks and the Feetures are cheaper than the Balega, I might buy them instead, but Balega is still my first choice. I’m still not sure about what color they are, though. The package listed them as navy. They’re definitely not dark enough to be what I consider navy. They’re this weird color that sometimes looks blue, and sometimes looks purple. Considering pretty much every other pair of running socks I own is some combination of white, black, or gray, it’s nice to have a little color in my sock collection, even if I can’t easily name the color.

Back to the expo, I did a quick check of the course map they had posted just to refresh my memory on the aid station placement. It’s a little odd due to most of the course being on the American Tobacco Trail, so where they can set up aid stations is somewhat limited. They basically had them around every mile, except Mile 4 and Mile 9. Those would have been the ideal places for me to take Gu, but I could work around it, and go with Mile 3 and Mile 8 instead.

I was amused that the Charlotte Marathon had a booth at the expo. Even if I wanted to run it, I don’t think I’ll be able to race much of anything 6 days after New York City. I don’t know that I’ll ever do the full, but one of these years I’d like to run the half, since I have some fond memories of the old Thunder Road Half.

I drove from the expo to my sister’s house. My sister was actually out of town, but my brother-in-law was still around, and, most importantly, my nephews were there. Jack (almost 3 years old) was all over the place, and I’m lucky I didn’t wear myself out trying to keep up with him. Quinn (9 months old) crawled around a lot and smiled pretty much all the time. Seriously, he might just be the happiest baby I’ve ever seen. They’re both the best.

We had pizza for dinner, because it was easy for my brother-in-law and it has plenty of carbs.

I had an unusually poor night of sleep. I mean, I usually don’t sleep well before races, but even grading on a curve, this one was pretty bad. My nephews didn’t wake me up, though. I heard them a couple of times, but both times I was already awake. At 4 AM, I got out of bed. I showered, brushed my teeth, applied body glide and band-aids, and got dressed.

I wasn’t sure exactly what the temperature was going to be at the start, so I had packed both long and short sleeved t-shirts, shorts, and a pair of running pants. I figured it was highly unlikely I’d run in the long pants, but I thought I might want them before the race. As it turns out, it was 43 degrees. That’s warm enough for shorts for me, but it’s right on the line between long and short sleeves. I decided that since it was 13.1 miles, and there would eventually be at least some sun to warm things up, I’d go with the t-shirt. I got all my stuff together, got some water for my water bottle, used the bathroom, and headed out. It was about a 30 minute drive from my sister’s house.

Parking near the Start/Finish line is limited. Last year, I parked off site and rode a shuttle to and from the race. This year, I registered early enough (on, uh, April 15 of last year…it didn’t take me long to figure out I needed to take another shot at this race) that I was able to buy a parking pass for $10. They recommended getting to the lot by 5:30 AM, and I pulled in right at 5:21. I sat in my car for a while because it was much warmer in there. I know, 43 isn’t terrible, and I could have handled it easily if I had been wearing jeans and a long sleeved shirt, but shorts and a t-shirt are a different story. I ate a couple of Chocolate Chip Clif Bars while I was waiting, and washed them down with the water I brought.

At around 6:20, I got out of my car, put on some sunscreen, and headed over towards the starting line. I went to the large tent where all the post-race festivities would be. It was slightly warmer in there, I guess because it was partially shielded, and also had several hundred people in close proximity, so that kept things warm. At about 6:40, I wandered over to the starting line.

I looked around and found the 2:20 pacers, and the 2:00 pacers, but I didn’t see the 2:10 pacers at first. So I lined up about halfway in between the other pace groups, and slightly behind the 4:05 full marathon pacers. They were a little late, but the pacers finally arrived. One was a guy whose name I never did catch, but I remember his full marathon PR of 3:05. Now that’s impressive. Of course I mentally referred to him as 3:05 the rest of the way. He was the one who carried the pace group flag. The other pacer was Amy, and she did a good job calling out the time and average pace at each mile marker.

I got a picture of the starting line. It had gotten crowded enough that I couldn’t get behind the pacers to include them in the picture, but they’re there, just to the left of me.

I don’t remember it being this crowded last year, but after looking at last year’s starting line picture, it looks like this year they kept all of us on the left side of the grassy area in the middle, while last year we were spread out on both sides. Also, this year there was a slight breeze, not enough to affect my run, but enough so that they didn’t have the crane with the giant American flag over the start.

The Mayor of Cary said a few words, then the race director spoke, then someone sang the National Anthem. And then, at 7 AM, we were off. It’s the first time I’ve started a race in the dark, although it was close enough to sunrise that it wasn’t too dark.

In the mass of humanity, I lost track of where the 2:10 pacers were. I knew I was ahead of them, but that was OK. I tried to take it easy on the first mile, and I figured they would catch up at some point, and somewhere in the first mile, they did.

Mile 1: 9:57
Mile 2: 9:49

I settled in with the pace group after they caught up. I didn’t say a whole lot, although when someone made a comment about how expensive the New York City Marathon is (which is true), I had to add that it’s totally worth every penny (which is true for me). The pacers kept things fun.

Mile 3: 10:09

The first aid station was around 2.4 miles in, and I slowed down and got some water, but I was able to catch up to the pace group again pretty easily. Then, just after we turned onto the trail, the aid station right before the 3 mile mark came up. I knew I’d want to have my Gu and then wash it down with water. So I slowed down to a walk, took one out of my pocket, went to tear it open…and failed completely. I don’t know what happened, whether it was something wrong with the packet, or just plain user error, but I could not get that thing open. I finally used my teeth to open it. Then I had to find the water (not Gatorade, because I’ve heard that mixing Gu and Gatorade is a very bad idea). After I drank my cup of water, I was careful to make sure I got the empty cup into one of the trashcans, because we were on the trail at this point, and the organizers make a big deal about not littering on the trail. After I got past the last trashcan, I realized I still had an empty Gu packet in my hand. I didn’t want to just stick it in my pocket, so I figured I’d hold on to it. For two miles. It was kind of gross, and holding it tight enough to make sure I didn’t drop it was somewhat uncomfortable, but I survived. It was certainly easier than “running” the last 3+ miles of a race on a bum ankle, so I can’t really complain.

Mile 4: 9:39

Also, as a result of all of this, the pace group had left me behind. I could still see them, but I would have to work to catch up to them. I settled down and sped up a little. I didn’t want to sprint to catch them immediately, because that could come back to haunt me later, but I gradually managed to close the gap, and finally caught up somewhere in Mile 4. Because this was my “catching up” mile, it was a little faster, but it wasn’t ludicrous speed. It helped that there was no aid station on this mile.

Mile 4 was also where we saw the half marathon leader coming back in the other direction.

Mile 5: 9:44
Mile 6: 9:47
Mile 7: 9:55

Things were going pretty smoothly. The pacers kept things fun. I’d never run a race with a pace group before. I don’t think I’ve ever had this combination before at a race, but I had a clear goal, a pace group right around that goal, and I had the training (and race day conditions) to have a good chance of achieving that goal. If my goal had been, say 2:05, I don’t think I would have been able to hang with the 2:00 pace group, and the 2:10 group, as much as I enjoyed them, probably wouldn’t have gotten me to 2:05 unless I sprinted the last 2-3 miles.

The next aid station was right before Mile 6. I got some water, and it went off pretty smoothly. It’s tough to see the stop in my pace graph, and that’s a sign that it went well.

We hit another aid station around the end of Mile 6, and I’m finding it even harder to see exactly where in my pace graph. Not being able to tell the location of an aid station by my pace graph is a good problem to have.

The turnaround was at the exact halfway point, 6.55 miles. My watch said 1:04 something, I can’t remember how many seconds, but it was definitely less than 1:05, half of my goal time, so that’s good. Officially, I ran the first half in 1:04:40.603.

I do think the turnaround caused Mile 7 to be slightly slower than the other miles, since I did have to slow down for the turn.

Mile 8: 9:46

I screwed up at the aid station here. First, I was supposed to wait until the aid station after Mile 8 to have my 2nd Gu, but I had a brain fart and thought this was where I was supposed to eat it. Second, I forgot that we had passed the turnaround. This meant that, instead of water then Gatorade, like the aid stations had been previously, now they had the Gatorade first. That just totally threw me off, and as a result, I also missed the water. (Yeah, I’m still not completely sure how I managed that.) I did somehow get my empty Gu packet into a trash container, but I hadn’t been able to wash down my Gu. I’ve only done that one other time, during a run where I had a Gu, then stopped at a water fountain that turned out to be shut off. It’s not ideal, but I can deal with it.

At several aid stations, they were giving out Gu. I saw Strawberry Banana, my flavor, and also Salted Caramel, which I’ve never had. I tend to not enjoy what I like to call dessert flavored Gu, and prefer fruit flavor (or Vanilla Bean, my usual backup flavor). They may have had some other flavors, but those two were the only ones I saw. As a side note, I have no idea what flavor of Gatorade they were giving out, but they did say it was actually Gatorade, and not Powerade or some other sports drink.

Aid station snafu aside, it was still a decent mile.

Mile 9: 9:57
Mile 10: 9:52

Mile 9 had an aid station, the one where, you know, I should have had my Gu. This time, I actually drank some water. (I’m lucky it was only in the 40’s, so skipping an aid station didn’t really affect me that much.)

During Mile 10, I passed the fateful 9.5 mile mark. Absolutely no ankle issues. Also, I definitely wasn’t laboring like I was last year leading up to this point. Granted, part of that was the fact that it was at least 15 degrees cooler this year, but I do think I was better trained this time around.

Mile 11: 9:56

This ended up being my last mile with the pace group. We hit an aid station early in the mile. I remember one of the other runners in our group warned me she’d be slowing to a walk to get her water, and I told her not to worry, I’d be doing the same thing, since I don’t have the ability to drink water while running, not without either choking, or getting most of the water on my shirt, or both.

I still felt pretty decent. I also noticed that, according to my watch, our overall pace was hovering around 9:52/mile, which is about 3 seconds faster than a 2:10 pace.

At around 10.6 miles, we turned off of the trail and onto the roads leading to the finish.

Mile 12: 9:15

Again, there was a water stop at the beginning of the mile. After that, with the wide road, I decided it was time to make my move, and I left the pace group behind. I still had some energy left in my legs.

The last aid station was near the end of this mile. I had decided to skip it, but as I approached, the guy from the pace group with the 3:05 marathon PR caught up to me. I thought, huh, that’s strange, then I saw him make a beeline to the port-a-potty. I laughed and kept going.

Mile 13: 8:58

It was time for my final push. On the one hand, seeing Mile 13 as my fastest mile of the race is pretty cool. On the other hand, it makes me wonder what I could have done if I had started my push earlier.

Last .16: 8:27/mile pace

There was a slight downhill right before the finish line. This year, it was a lot less painful, although at some point, I realized I wasn’t quite going to get under 2:08, which was slightly disappointing. Still, I finished strong, even when compared to other races where I had two fully functioning ankles when crossing the finish line. And I knew I had a new half marathon PR. According to Garmin, I had run 13.16 miles, which isn’t too terrible.

After crossing the finish, I got a bottle of water and my medal. I walked a little bit away from the finish line, just to get out of the way, then I waited. I wanted to find the 2:10 pacers, Amy and 3:05. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later, I found them. I told them I got my PR, and I thanked them for being great pacers.

After that, I walked up the hill to the finishing area, looking to get my official time. Because there was a long line, a volunteer looked up my bib number on her phone and wrote down my time, 2:08:01. (As it turns out, she rounded it off, my official official time was 2:08:01.250.) I had an official PR.

Tobacco Road is the only race I’ve done where they have a bell at the finish line that you can ring if you get a Boston qualifying time (which is extremely unlikely for me) or if you get a PR. Last year, I had a string of 12 straight races with a PR going into the race, and thanks to my ankle, that streak ended, and I did not get to ring the bell. I hadn’t seen the bell after I crossed the finish line, but I walked back over and found it. Turns out it was on the left side of the finishing area and I had been on the right.

I didn’t get a picture of me ringing it, but I did finally get to ring the bell. I think more than anything else, it was cathartic.

Now it was time to get food and drinks. I got a half banana, an orange slice, some pizza from Papa John’s, chocolate milk, and bread from Great Harvest Bread Company. Also, it was apparently the 100th birthday of the Red Cross, and they were one of the official charities, so they brought a birthday cake, and I got a piece of that as well.

Last year, they had beer from Natty Greene’s in Greensboro. I thought that was odd, because there are a lot of good breweries that are a lot closer than Greensboro. Well, this year, they went even farther away, Appalachian Mountain Brewery in Boone. I had their amber, which was a little more hoppy than I’d like, but it still tastes pretty good after a run, and also, it’s way better than Michelob Ultra.

With all of that out of the way, I needed to take a picture to prove that my car key made it to the finish.

I still can’t believe I used landscape mode instead of portrait. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I was just putting it in this post, but since it was my new half marathon PR, I had to squeeze it into the header banner. I wanted to include some bushes in the background, but in the header, with the cropping you don’t see as much of it.

I hung out for a little bit, then walked over to my car and drove back to my sister’s house. My nephew Jack (the one who’s almost 3) really liked my medal.

Here’s a better shot of the medal, with a Gu packet for scale. It’s pretty freaking big.

Yes, that’s the Red Cross logo in the middle. I like trains, so I’m kind of biased, but I think it’s a pretty cool medal.

So, for the most part, I’m really happy with my race. I got a new PR, I had fun running with a pace group, and I finished the race on two fully functioning ankles. I do wonder if I could have finished a minute or two faster if I hadn’t stuck with the pacers for most of the race, and I have to admit, being 1.250 seconds from being below 2:08 is mildly frustrating. Still, when I think about last year, there’s no comparison.

I had been thinking about that bell for the past year, about what it would be like to ring it if I could get a PR this year. I wasn’t sure exactly how I’d feel, but I have to say, I don’t think catharsis was on my mind. But that’s how it ended up feeling. I guess I was just really relieved more than anything else, like I finally got this monkey off my back. This was no longer the race where I hurt my ankle. It had become my half marathon PR.

I finally got to ring that bell. I found relief, and ultimately, I found the redemption I was looking for.

Vital Stats

Full Name of Race: Feetures! Tobacco Road Half Marathon (There was also a full marathon.)
Location: Thomas Brooks Park, Cary, NC
Date and Time of Race: March 19, 2017, 7:00 AM
Bib Number: 3819
Official Finishing Time: 2:08:01.250 chip time(9:46/mile), 2:09:39.513 gun time. 1,018th of 2288 Overall, 577th of 977 Men, 108th of 178 in Age Group (Male 40-44)

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