Sunday, September 25, 2011

Winslow Half-Marathon: You don’t need a good time to have a good time

Yes, I did it…I survived the Winslow Half-Marathon, without running a single hill in training. My brother Dave Mows Grass talked me into this—it was to be his first half-marathon, actually his first running race of any sort, and he was willing to let me share in the fun. Thanks to Winslow, I dragged myself out to run four times a week through Houston’s hottest summer on record. Of course, none of those runs involved any hills, so I knew I was totally unprepared for Winslow.

I’d heard from Dave that Arkansas had shared in the summer heat wave that had fried Texas and Oklahoma. I’m sure most runners were hoping for a nice cool day, but I, rather unwisely, wanted a really hot one! I knew that heat and humidity would work to my advantage. If the temperature at the start would have been 70°F, rising to 85°F by 10:30, the results of this race could have been very different. All those Arkansas hill-runners would have been completely disabled by the heat, forced to walk up hills they would have normally sprinted, while I, acclimated to running in a very humid 95-98°F, would have zipped right by them (at least on the downhills), exclaiming, “Wow, what a beautiful day! I love Arkansas weather!” But alas, it was not to be. Driving through Oklahoma the day before the race, the temperature dropped, and dropped, and kept dropping into the 50’s. I realized I had not brought a jacket, or even a long-sleeved T-shirt, with me. So I popped my freezing self into a small-town Wallyworld and splurged on a nice warm OU Sooner shirt. I like it!

It rained all the day before, and quite a bit during the drive to Winslow, but cleared up nicely, or so it seemed. Upon arrival, we dutifully obeyed the friendly race volunteer who directed us to park in the high school’s only handicapped space. (As promised, we did not get a ticket.) Winslow is a neat little town, allegedly the highest incorporated point in Arkansas, and occupies an area of 1.9 very steep square miles.

Knowing my complete lack of readiness for the hills, I implemented my planned strategy of running down the hills and walking up the steepest parts. Nearly everyone passed me during the first mile, but I checked my watch and knew I shouldn’t try to go any faster. I passed some of them later. After 5 miles or so, I was pretty happy with my 11:30 pace, and knew if I could keep it up, I’d be very happy with my race. I was alone much of the time, since there were only 126 runners, far fewer than any other race I’ve done, but it was a nice friendly sort of solitude. All went pretty well until mile 6 or so, when we encountered a long muddy downhill that was so slippery no one without superhuman coordination could run it. I carefully picked my way down the hill, and ran most of the way to the halfway-point turnaround. Just as I began to climb back up the slick muddy hill, the skies let loose. It poured, and thundered, and we were all soaked, muddy and freezing. I was actually pretty happy I had passed the turnaround when the rain came—it was much less discouraging that way. Fortunately, the rain let up after a mile or so, and except for that one hill, the dirt road was runnable—not terribly slick or muddy.

Of course, after poking slowly up and down the big muddy hill, slowing on the other downhills due to iffy footing from the rain, and my flat-trained legs running out of zip, my 11:30 pace was long gone. Though my time expectations had never been high, it had now morphed from a race to a fun run in my mind, and I just couldn’t seem to muster up the motivation to push myself very hard. I looked at the scenery, said hi to the friendly pit bull in the middle of the road, and visited with my neighbors. I ran with someone recovering from an ultra, someone from El Paso trying to run a HM in every state, and with a nice lady named Marj. When I told Marj I was from Houston, she said, “Oh, you must be Dave’s sister—so nice to meet you!” I asked if she was in the kayaking club (all Dave’s other running friends were kayakers). Marj looked very confused and said that no, she had just met Dave during the race. Apparently they had run a few miles together early on, but she has that magic sort of personality that remembers people and their stories and instantly treats them as friends.

I had seen Dave shortly before I reached the turnaround—he was probably a half-mile ahead of me then, and looking good. I could tell he was having a great time. I was having fun too, but doing a bunch more walking than I expected. I was still running down all the hills, and bits of the uphills, but it was slow going. I was looking forward to the last mile—I knew it would be a long steep downhill into Winslow. And sure enough, it was glorious fun running down that hill!! I went just as fast as my tired legs would go, and I passed 3 people going down it…they hollered at me to be careful, but it seemed safer to just lean forward and run than to lean back and brake. I pretended I was on a roller coaster and threw my arms into the air. Neat!

With a race experience like this, who cares about finish times? Mine was the slowest yet, slower than the Austin half-marathon I completed 8 months after I started running. I thought at the time that Austin had hills—now I know better. Austin hills are nothing compared to Winslow. At least Austin was paved and had some long flat stretches. Dave finished about 12 minutes ahead of me, and I’m sure will beat me by an hour next year, thanks to a bunch of natural talent and hours of trail running on hills. The winner finished in 1:18, blazing fast in my book. The amazing thing is that when we saw him coming back after the turnaround, he was smiling and waving, encouraging us back-of-the-packers with a cheerful “Looking good! Keep it up!”, and appeared to be having a great time. I’ve never seen a race winner do that before—they are usually pushing themselves way too hard to say anything or even notice the rest of us. The second-place guy, quite a bit behind him, seemed to be in a lot more pain.

Maybe I should have pushed myself to the point of pain and finished a few minutes faster. Maybe I should have spent my summer getting up at 4:00 a.m. to run up parking garages. Maybe it’s silly to spend a weekend driving across three states and back to do a slow fun run. Or, maybe the exact right thing to do was to concentrate my summer’s time and energy on training for a longer and more difficult endeavor than Winslow (yes, the ever-hanging-over-my-head dissertation). And then maybe the next exact right thing to do was to lay the dissertation proposal aside for a week to share Winslow with my brother.

Wow, what a fun race!

P.S. I didn’t lay the writing/research completely aside. I am happy to say that my 30-minutes-per-day writing streak is still going—it reached 60 days on the night before the Winslow race!


Dave Renfro said...

It was wonderful having you here and I'm glad you had fun. I'm going to cry when they pave that road!

Anonymous said...

I don't live to far from Winslow, but my husband was doing a bike event. They had the 100 mile Big Dam Bridge ride in Little Rock that day (he didn't do the 100 mile ride). Maybe next year.


bulletholes said...

You guys are great!

Jen T said...

Hi Tammy, yes, you should definitely run Winslow next year! It was a really fun race!

Jen T said...

Dave, I agree! Do not let them pave that road! Thanks for reading Steve! It was so much fun to see you both. Steve, you should do the Hottest Half with us next year! Would that be crazy or what?

johnfordfw said...

Glad you had a good time! This year's race will be held on September 22nd. We will have chip timing this year and expanded amenities at the finish line. Hope to see you there!

Jen T said...

Thanks, John! I would love to come back and do it again--hope I can make it!

John Ford said...

We are on again this year for our 3rd Annual on September 14. Lot's of fun activities planned around the finish line as well!