Monday, October 29, 2007

10/28/07 Miracle Match Marathon

It seems like Jerry Seinfeld's The Bee Movie has been "about to come out" for ages. Between the commercials and those long "Bee Movie Junior" spots on prime-time NBC, the upcoming release has become overexposed. It is annoying, and I just want the movie to hit theaters so all the fake hubbub will go away.

Sunday's Miracle Match Marathon had kind of the same feeling. Certainly not because of anything the organizers did - it was a tiny marathon and I liked it just fine. And not because other people had made a big deal out of this on my behalf. I think only a handful of people even knew/know/care about it being a key race for me. However, I had targeted it several months ago as my probable 52nd marathon and ultra for the year. Because there are 52 weeks in a year, 52 is sort of a magic number when it comes to doing lots of races in exactly one year. Several people, like fiddy2 guy, have created whole self-marketing campaigns around the idea that they were going to run 52 marathons in a year. And good for them.

I had set out with the goal of completing "50+". I purposefully made the goal vague for two reasons... the main one being that real life has a tendency to assert itself, and I wanted to be able to achieve a challenging running goal while also dealing with things that came up along the way. Less importantly, I didn't want to feel locked in to a specific number except the round number of "50". 50's a lot, and 50 is a nice number. Anything beyond that would be gravy. Right?

That sounds good, but it didn't work out that way. 50 is a round number, but that's about all it signifies. 52 really is a solid number. If I can get to 52 and beyond, I will have averaged at least one a week. From a Maniac standpoint, I also will have achieved the top-tier ten star ranking. This is a completely goofy, made-up number that isn't important in real life, but it is kind of cool. The thing is, I've gotten to ten stars before. There are three ways to get ten: 20 countries in one year, 52 races in one year, or 30 races in 30 states in one year. I have no plans on running 20 countries. I did the 30 states version in 2005. As this year progressed, it became important to me to hit 52 so that I could get ten again. I only know of one maniac who has done it twice - Larry Macon. But he did it the same way twice (79 races in one year... twice... WOW). I wanted to do it two different ways so that I could compare the two methods. 30 states is tough because the travel gets really old. There are so many races in the Pacific Northwest that a runner can get 30-40 completed without serious travel. So even though "30" is much smaller than "52", I figured the comparison between the two would be valid.

I completed the Miracle Match Marathon yesterday. 52 for the year. Which method is the harder version of ten stars? Hmmm. I'm actually not sure. Turns out, it is a very individual experience. I traveled a lot to get to 52 even though I didn't need to do that. And the travel itself can be easy... or over-the-top hard depending on weather and other travel issues encountered over the year. One bad weekend of delays gets forgotten quickly, but a whole summer's worth of delays leaves a bad taste.

Anyway, I had built up "52" in my head. As it got closer, I just wanted it to be here so I could get past it. And that brought me to Waco, Texas, and the oddly named Miracle Match Marathon.

This race was created a few years ago as the "Waco Professional Firefighters' Marathon". It seemed rather curious that firefighters would recast their race as something called "Miracle Match". I'll let you fill in your own joke. It turns out that the race is now sponsored by Scott and White Hospital, a gigantic hospital that serves central Texas. The race is a fund raiser for their bone marrow donor matching program - hence, Miracle Match. When I learned that, I put the jokes away.

I knew the race would be tiny. I had a couple people warn me that the race would be "hard". In fact, the race's web site advertised it as the most challenging marathon in Texas. But this is about all I knew... and I really didn't even know what this might mean. One runner's version of "lots of hills" isn't necessarily my version. Besides, most of the Texas courses are fast courses. Houston is fairly flat and very fast. Austin used to be mostly downhill and fast, though they have changed it. Dallas White Rock has the famed "Dolly Parton" hills, but they aren't that bad (in fact, there's only one that I've noticed... and with the name, there should be two), and most of the rest of the race is flat with a downhill finish. The other Dallas marathon, the Big-D Texas Marathon, has a few roly polies, but it is still an easy course. San Antonio? Well, they've changed that course over the years. I don't know. Only Ft Worth's Cowtown Marathon has what I'd consider a somewhat challenging course. Miracle Match could have been harder than all of these and still not qualify as one I'd consider "hard".

The official verdict: it WAS hard. Quite challenging, in fact. Waco is on the edge of what's known as The Texas Hill Country. In this case, the name fits. However, Waco is ALSO on the edge of the "prairie" area of north central Texas... so I suppose it could have been flat. But it wasn't. The Hill Country won.

The course is an unbalanced figure-8. The first loop took runners on a 3 mile tour of Baylor University. After passing the start/finish area, the second loop took everyone on a 23 mile tour of Waco. Full marathoners saw pretty much everything Waco has to offer: the sleepy downtown, the Cotton Lane Castle, the well-kept big houses, the less than well-kept neighborhoods, the fair grounds, the lake, the dam at the end of the lake, the airport, and some amazing parks. Then, we ran across the 137 year old suspension bridge, and that was that. All of Waco. And it was cool.

The half marathon was different... after doing the Baylor loop, half marathoners followed the marathon course through downtown. Then they turned around and went back the other way. This piece of information will become significant later.

A couple days before the race, I asked the race director if I could have the number "52". I figured race numbers had already been assigned, but it never hurts to ask, and... she got back to me right away with an answer: absolutely! Race morning started in the dark and quite chilly. I was there in my pink and my special number 52, but it was all covered up by a throwaway shirt and gloves. This would be one of those days where the thermometer moved a lot. It was 45 at the start, but it was supposed to be 70 at the end with bright blue skies and a bit of a breeze. A great day for throwaway layers. About 10 minutes before the race started, the race director greeted everyone who had come from far away... specifically "all those folks who have joined us from the southern states. We have runners from Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia..."

Er... ok. I didn't really care that she didn't call out Seattle as being a long way from Waco. Besides, I got my special number. But it was one of the only times in my life where I felt like a yankee. And that's pretty funny because I lived in Texas for 30 years and my step-family is native Texan.

The full marathoners and relayers lined up. The half would start a little later. It looked like there were maybe 100 people at the start. It was beginning to get light. And off we went! Number 52! Miracle Match! Waco! Woohoo!

I had a hard time coming up with a firm goal for the race. I ran a 3:39 at Indianapolis last weekend, and I kind of wanted to see if that was just an awesomely perfect day or if my training would support something like that as my current "normal" time (which had been "about 3:50" during the summer). However, I had heard about the difficulty of the course and I didn't want to burn myself to a crisp trying to find out. I compromised. Instead of running an "about 3:50", I decided I'd try an "about 3:45". If the hills turned out to be as challenging as advertised, I'd stick with even-effort miles as opposed to evenly timed splits.

As I wrote above, the first three miles sent us through the Baylor University campus. There were no spectators; aside from the ones running, what college students are going to be awake at 7:30 on a Sunday morning? I know I wasn't ever up. Well, there was ONE spectator. An older dude with no shirt who painted "1 FAN" (not "#1 FAN") on his belly. And this guy was loud. Hee. This loop was flat.

I also noticed that for such a small race, the organizers had been able to convince the city to shut down a lane of traffic for us. And there were police and volunteers at the intersections. That was nice.

We passed near the start/finish area and made a left turn through downtown. Downtown Waco is similar to many small-to-medium towns in Texas. These downtowns were probably big deals back in the 1950s and 1960s. It is obvious that back then, the towns thought they'd continue growing. It didn't work out that way. The fun part now is to try to figure out what the buildings USED TO be. Now, many of them are either boarded up or converted to other uses.

South of downtown, we entered various neighborhoods. Some of these old Texas houses were really neat. Around M5, we started a section that would involve both a flat climb and some roly polies all the way out to the dam at M15. Essentially, it would be 10 miles of climbing with a couple downhills along the way. It was starting to get warm, so I ditched my shirt and pottied at the M7 aid station. We had been told that there would be water stops every mile. For awhile, this was true... so many water stops, and I skipped some. What I didn't know was that there was going to be a...uh... gap later on. I shouldn't have skipped. But I didn't know.

At M7, I also got my first taste of mismarked mile markers. This course was certified, and I assume they utilized the certified course so it was actually 26.2. Along the way, however, some of the mile markers were missing and a few were just not right. This got more and more apparent towards the end of the race.

Somewhere in this section, the half marathoners had hit their turn around and were headed back the other way. Half marathoners had yellow bibs; full marathoners had blue. I saw at least one person in blue headed back with the half marathoners. Uh oh. The race was chip timed... and this explains why the first guy in the full marathon results apparently won the marathon with a 1:41 world record. No. He was the guy I saw coming back; he'd either decided on a whim to switch to the half... or they gave him the wrong bib/chip. Also, the second finisher theoretically ran a 2:25. This is totally possible, I suppose, though I didn't recognize the guy's name. I suspect he was a misplaced halfer too. I hope they took these people out of the official results; they were listed on the results page at the race site though.

At M11, we took a sharp right turn out towards Lake Waco. When I had picked up my packet the previous night, I asked about the course markings. I am full-on paranoid about getting lost in races (and when I do, like at Lake Tahoe, I don't handle it well). I was told that there would be cones and white limestone on the pavement, like they use to mark football fields and baseball diamonds. Although Miracle Match was not the best marked course ever, I followed the limestone and everything was fine. For me. I found out afterwards that at least 7 people missed the sharp turn towards the lake and ran an extra 2-3 miles. All of these people were in front of me before the oops and still in front of me afterwards. I'm not sure what happened there. I made the turn, luckily. I'd probably still be out there otherwise.

At M14, I skipped the aid station because I wasn't thirsty. There had been so many aid stations. We were approaching the top of the hill, and parts were steep. At M15, we started the long trek across the dam. There were no mile markers between M14 and M17... but based on my pace, I knew basically where I was. However, when I finally got to M17, it "felt" wrong... a bit too late. More importantly, we hadn't seen a water stop since M14. And I hadn't had anything since M12. I hit the (mismarked?) M17 at 2:25. Volunteers were just then setting up an aid station. About 45 minutes late. As runners ran by them, they made no attempt to set up more quickly or pour us some water. That was frustrating, especially because I had no idea when the next aid station would be. It wasn't at M18.

Finally, at M19, there was a GREAT aid station. I had my first drink in 7 miles. Blah. At M19.8, there was another one. I guess we were returning to the original "every mile" progression.


The hills up to M15 had been challenging, but not too terrible. I was wondering if that was the hardest part. Ha. No, it wasn't. At M19.8, we entered the Cameron Park area and this race completely earned its reputation for "hardest course in Texas". Up and up we went. The scenery here was amazing in the uniquely Texan way. Houston and Dallas may have the faster courses, but Waco demolishes both races for great scenery.

The mile markers were getting fairly wonky, plus my pace got rather unsteady as I negotiated all the hills. I passed some people. A few people passed me. Some were relay folks, many were not. As I passed M21 around 3:03, I knew I would break 4 but I honestly couldn't tell if I'd be anywhere near my "about 3:45" goal. My split at M20 and M21 showed that I was slowing down... but then again, the hills were the reason.

M21 had been 9:59. M22 was 8:15. Yeah, that marker was off. M23 was 9:50. Yikes. I had no idea whether I was running closer to 8 or closer to 10. It felt like I was sprinting, but I knew I was not.

M24 did a crazy 360-degree turn up onto a bridge and over the Brazos River. I picked up my pace. Or tried. M24 was 10:30! Holy smokes. Either I was completely burned out or that marker was way off.

M25 was 7:38. No. I wasn't running that fast.

I looked for M26. Didn't see it. Then, I was on the suspension bridge. I saw the finish line at the other end of the bridge. My watch read 5:45 for this mile as I navigated the bridge. That must not be the finish at the other end. But it was, and I stumbled across. My last 1.2 miles... 1 point 2... was 6:48. No way, Jose. I kept telling myself "the course is certified". It wasn't short, it just had crazy markers. I did the best I could to speed up at the end, but there is no way that I ran a 7:38/6:48 last 2.2 miles. Huh.

3:46. I think I got announced at the end, but I was too puzzled by my splits to remember for sure. I still kind of am puzzled... though I can see where the middle miles were probably kind of long.

Ah well. At least I didn't get lost. I either came in 24th or 25th overall, depending on whether the 2:25 finisher was real or not. Last year, my 3:46 would have gotten me 2nd in my age group. This year, it looked like I was 5th. I think. Hard to tell. Little races are funny.

(Update: Turns out, I came in 23rd out of 99. Indeed, the original 1st and 2nd place finishers were misplaced half marathoners.)

And after the race, I got a second shirt. Most of the Texas marathons seem to do this... there's a race shirt, and a different finisher's shirt. Both shirts are keepers. I skipped the fried chicken (!?!).

All in all, this is a little marathon that tries to take care of runners. Tons of aid stations. A dedicated running lane with no traffic. Great medal and two shirts. A wonderfully scenic, challenging course. And as a bonus, we had perfect weather.

Now if they'd just fix their mile markers. And maybe remeasure the course just in case :-). And maybe move some of those frequent aid stations from the first few miles to the middle of the race.

Next up: The Autumn Leaves 50k in Oregon on Saturday followed by a small, local marathon (In Unity We Run) on Sunday. See you there. If you are a small, local runner.

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