Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"First Half" Half-Marathon

On Sunday, I ran the "First Half" half-marathon, right here in Vancouver. It's probably one of the best road races in the Lower Mainland. Admittedly, I'm a little biased, as it's put on by Pacific Road Runners, one of the two running clubs that I belong to - a nice side-effect of this is that I never ran more than a few hundred metres of this race without someone shouting out my name. Nevertheless, it sells out over 2,000 spots within hours of registration opening, always draws a very strong field and donates around $50,000 to Variety every year. Pretty cool, right? People often talk about the beautiful course, too, but frankly I've always been in far too much pain to really notice.

I also had probably my best ever race here last year when I ran a freak 1:18:08, a feat which baffles me to this day. I was under no illusions of a repeat performance this year. I'd switched my focus to running up and down mountains all day, and as a result I'd lost a bit of speed. And I was perhaps still recovering a touch from the previous weekend's 50 km trail race. Still, I'd run a couple of 8k races recently and done some speed-work, so I was hoping that my body wasn't going to completely reject the idea of running fast and that I could run a respectable time. Of course, I was being deliberately cagey about what that might be. Somewhere around 1:20 I'd mutter to anyone that asked.

We were blessed with perfect conditions for the race. While cool, it was uncharacteristically dry for a winter's day in Vancouver and there was little wind. Arriving at the Roundhouse Community Centre to a scene of bustling efficiency I bumped into a number of my fellow runners from VFAC, including my FITS Socks Co. team-mate Alex.
Hint: I'm not the one wearing tights.

After wandering around chatting to the various superstars of PRR who had been hard at work since 4 am, I decided it would probably be a good idea to do some kind of warm-up. I spotted Ellie Greenwood, who despite being better known as The World's Greatest Trail Runner, is pretty handy on the roads too, having won this race in 2011 and also the Vancouver Marathon last year. She confided that she really wasn't sure if she had any speed in her, but she had taken a couple of days off to taper; an ominous sign and an indication that this was a race she was taking seriously.

Before long we found ourselves at the start line, eager to get moving. The gun went off, and we surged forward, as usual everyone trying to find themselves a bit of space and attempting to settle into some kind of rhythm. I had an idea that the elite women might be running at a pretty good pace for me - probably a little fast, but I thought I should be able to keep them in sight for a while. In addition to Ellie, two of my good friends from VFAC, Catherine Watkins and Anne-Marie Madden were also in serious contention. Some uncharitable types have suggested that I just like chasing women.
A bunch of super-fast people.

The initial pace seemed aggressive, and within moments Ellie had pulled several metres ahead with Catrin Jones (who I narrowly beat at the 2012 Victoria Marathon, but the MC only talked about her because she was the third place woman or something, while about twenty guys had beaten me, not that I'm bitter or anything) and Lisa Harvey all battling it out at the front. I checked my Garmin as we passed the first kilometre marker. 3:36. Yep, that's fast, I thought. Not stupidly fast, but not sustainable, either. We passed the one mile mark, and coach John Hill barked out "5:53!". I shrugged the indifferent shrug of someone who has embraced the metric system. As we completed the 2 km loop around the stadiums that returned us to the start area, the field started to spread out a little. It was nice to get a mention from my friend David Parker who was on announcing duties and also to find out that Nick was close behind me, no doubt keen to redeem himself after a disappointing race at the Orcas Island 50k the previous weekend. David also mentioned that Nick was running backwards. I later found out that this was momentarily true. Oh to be so relaxed...

As we dropped down on to the sea wall heading towards English Bay, I gradually started to gain on Ellie, who'd dropped off from the lead pack slightly. We hit the 5k mark together in 18:30. It felt about right - a hard effort, but manageable. I didn't feel like I wanted to throw up just yet. Encouraging. As we cut past lost lagoon I was joined by Roy, another of my VFAC cronies. We ran together for a few kilometres, Ellie having fallen back slightly. I was still feeling pretty strong, so pushed the pace a little harder, pulling ahead of Roy. The miles clicked by. This was going okay. I hit 10k in 37:15, so okay, the pace had slowed slightly, but that's fine considering how hard we'd gone out intially.

A few minutes later a voice behind me yelled: "She's coming after you!". I glanced over my shoulder and recognized Ellie's distinctive powder-blue outfit bearing down on me. Before long, she'd caught up, and as she passed me I saw the look of fierce determination in her eyes. It was prertty scary. I want no part of this, I told myself, and backed off. I offered what I thought would be some encouragement: "You've still got 5 miles to catch them!", but as I found out afterwards, the thought of running another 5 miles at that kind of pace wasn't exactly inspiring. Oops. Still, I had an excellent vantage point to watch as she hunted down Lisa, who despite putting up a brave fight, couldn't keep up.

Somewhere around 15 km things started to become hard. I wasn't having fun any more. I was running on my own, and lacking motivation other than wanting it all to be over. The pace was definitely slackening off. Roy caught and passed me, and then Catherine, who I'd not seen since the start of the race. But I was pleased to be dropped by her - she was having a superb run and clearly had her sights on taking down Lisa in the battle for the Master's race. As she disappeared off into the distance with Roy, I just focused on grinding away the last few kilometres. Katie, part of the VFAC cheer squad, reminded me to "Pound It Out!". So I did. Sort of.

After leaving the sea wall, there's an ugly little climb past the Aquatic Centre. It was horrible. Still, I consoled myself, now that I'd got that unpleasant section out of the way, it's all flat and downhill from here. Until I arrived at the other nasty incline underneath the Granville Bridge that I'd somehow forgotten about. I swore inwardly but tried to outwardly project some kind of appreciation to the cheering crowds. I doubt it worked. I grimaced and pushed on.
Photo credit: Rita Ivanauskas
Emerging back on to the road I finally hit the last few hundred metres that gently sloped down towards the finish line. As the clock came into view I could see I was going to be in under 1:20 and allowed myself a somewhat over-the-top celebration as I crossed the line.
All done.
Chip time was 1:19:28, 37th overall and 5th in my age group. I was happy with my time, happy that the pain was over and happy that my friends had had such fantastic races. Ellie finished in second place with a 5-second PB. Catherine was third (first Master) with a huge PB, smashing the VFAC master's club record. There were many more PBs and podium placings. I celebrated with beer, wine, and at least five different kinds of pizza.

Massive thanks and respect to everyone in Pacific Road Runners that puts in countless hours to make this event happen. You're all amazing.

Global TV news item featuring a brief embarrassing appearance by yours truly.
Full results.
My Strava entry for the race.

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