Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Race Report: The Bryan-College Station Non-Marathon

In early 2013, I finally did it. I signed up for my first marathon, the Bryan-College Station Marathon, scheduled for December 2013. (Marathon distance = 26 miles and 385 yards). I had toyed with the idea before, but wisely decided I should finish my dissertation first. Now, it was time. The worst-case scenario had me finishing my dissertation in October 2013, and graduating with my Ph.D. in December 2013. It seemed fitting that my first marathon would be the BCS marathon, with a course meandering through and around the Texas A&M University campus. Like the marathon, the Ph.D. is a test of endurance — for me, a particularly long and slow one. If I failed to meet my August graduation target, then my marathon and my graduation would occur during the same week in December. That would actually be pretty cool.

I found a 6-month beginner training plan, counted the weeks backward from race day, and began training in July. My dissertation still wasn’t done (bye-bye, August graduation), so most training runs began after 10:00 p.m., when my favorite writing haunt kicked me out for the night. I stayed mostly on plan until August, when I went back to work. Then I started skipping most of the weekday runs. I persevered with the weekend long runs until September. I completed the scheduled 10-miler, then gave it up. It was simply impossible. My life had already been whittled down to four activities: working, writing, running, and sleeping. I only had hours enough for three out of four, and running lost out. Finishing my dissertation and keeping my job were far more important than running a marathon.

I cheerfully paid $10 to defer my registration to 2014. (Thank you, BCS marathon organizers—most races don’t offer this option.) Good thing, too. The day before the 2013 marathon, much of Texas was hit by ice storms. Race-time temperatures in College Station were below freezing, and I knew the runners were miserable. I was rather glad to be inside. I wrote 10.48 hours that day, divided between my favorite deli/bakery and my favorite coffee shop, all on Chapter 2. (That writing log sure is handy!)

So, 2014 was to be my marathon year. I finally defended my dissertation and graduated in May, leaving me over 6 months to train. Yea! However, my marathon plans were derailed again, by a major midsummer surgery. I had to say goodbye to running for over 8 weeks. I considered switching to the half-marathon (another shout-out to the BCS race organizers, for offering this option). Adding a mile a week to my long run would put me at a 10-miler two weeks before the race, right on par with many training plans. I made it to a long run of 6 miles, and thought better of it. I had nothing to prove, and there was no point risking long-term damage. I considered begging the race organizers for a second one-time deferral, but thought better of it. They had already been more than generous, allowing runners from ice-covered school districts to defer their 2013 registrations to 2014. Nope, I would write off the lost race fee as a dissertation expense, pick up my shirt and goody bag, and happily pay the registration fee next year.

Race day 2013 was frozen misery; race day 2014 was beautiful. The full- and half-marathon courses are both big loops, coinciding for the miles closest to the start and finish lines. My race day challenge was to travel by car from my apartment, just outside the race loop, to a church just inside. I tried breaking through the perimeter at three different points. At the third location, I eventually achieved success. This third choice of traffic jam was ideal, because it let me watch the race. I was westbound on Anderson, and the runners were eastbound. Based on the race’s start time, I was seeing half-marathon runners going about my speed. I was a little wistful — skipping the marathon was undoubtedly the right decision, but with careful pushing of the envelope, maybe I could have been among these runners, gutting my way through mile 12 of the half on a gorgeous morning. I admired the determination on their faces, and tried not to notice their running form. Hmmm, when I am running 11-minute miles (well, when I used to run 11-minute miles….I hope to do so again one day), it feels like I am zipping along at a pretty brisk pace — not world-class, but respectable. It definitely feels like running, not shuffling. Why do my pace peers seem to be shuffling?

My musings were interrupted by an air-horn. And flashing lights. Yea! Here comes a police motorcycle, escorting the marathon leader through the pack of slow half-marathoners. He was definitely not shuffling. I am by no means qualified to evaluate the relative difficulty of various athletic feats, but nothing seems more mind-boggling to me than the times of elite marathon runners. It was a huge deal when the first four-minute mile was recorded. That was ONE mile. How on earth do people run 26.2 miles at a pace below 5:00? In this small-town marathon, the winner’s pace was 5:25 minutes/mile. I have no idea whether that qualifies as elite, but it is downright amazing to me. All the runners and the spectators (both on the ground and in cars) gave him a well-deserved ovation as he sped by. I expected the second-place marathoner to be close behind, but I had to wait a long time. I wondered if I blinked and missed seeing him. After viewing the results, apparently not. The winner finished 9.5 minutes ahead of his nearest rival. Wow.

Of all the times I have been stuck in traffic for 45 minutes, this was by far the most enjoyable. I was sad when an officer finally waved me through a gap between runners. That’s okay, I saw enough to inspire me. Next year, shuffle or no shuffle, those cars will have to wait for me.