Sunday, September 25, 2011

Asheville Half Marathon "Race" Report

For some reason, last weekend I ran the Asheville Half Marathon. It was not my finest hour.

This was the longest distance I'd run since fall 2007, when I hurt my back badly enough to force me out of all physical activity for a few months. Before I hurt my back I had been living in California and running fairly regularly. I'd done half and full marathons, and although I was never exactly fast I enjoyed myself pretty well. After my back surgery I'd tried running again and it had hurt, so I'd pretty much given it up for a while.

I had been running some during the summer, and entered this race on a whim. I kind of half-assedly thought I would start training for it, but was pretty overtaken with depression after my dog died. Then I got sidetracked on work projects and stopped riding bikes much at all. My plans to run more didn't really come together in any meaningful way. As the race date got closer I was starting to think about skipping it. Two weeks before the race I ran about 9 miles, slowly, as a test to see what would happen. I did it, though I walked some, and so I determined that I could probably finish a half marathon, although it would definitely be much slower than I had back in the California days. If worse came to worst, I would just walk.

The morning of the race I felt okay so I decided I had no reason not to race. I made it down to the race start in downtown Asheville with plenty of time to spare. Runners seem more stressed out on start lines than mountain bikers. I think because there are so many things in a bike race that are completely out of our control, we have to adopt a somewhat detached view of racing, because we know a couple flats, or a bad turn, or a failed component could end our race. When you start a race knowing it might get fucked through no fault of your own, you get a little detached about it. But in running, everything is inside the racer, from the mental game to the conveyance, so runners get to keep this illusion of total control over the outcome. I think this is why triathletes are wound so tight: they are mostly converted runners, but haven't figured out yet that it is impossible to control everything on their bike. I suspect this is part of why some bike shop employees have something against triathletes. Well, that and that they expect bikes to just maintain themselves.

There are no photos for this race. However, I was wearing these yellow-and-blue cycling arm warmers that I got at Machinery Row Bicycles back in June. Meghan (who once expressed alarm over the fact that her former employer now sold such eyesores): I am here to tell you that over the course of the race about ten different people told me they liked my armwarmers, several asked me where I got them, and many more cast them sidelong glances. Glances of revulsion, maybe. But still. I think they are not too bad.

I also wore a Walz cap and Tifosis, because I think they are good. And yoga knickers. And Swiftwick knee socks. I refuse to buy anything specifically for running, except shoes. You don't need special things for it. Because it is RUNNING. That's the beauty of it, and why it is even able to compete with cycling. The only drawback of cycling, especially mountain biking, is the immense amount of extremely specific stuff you need in order to do it.

Anyway, the race started. I ran and ran. People remarked on the hills. I thought to myself, what did they expect from a race in the mountains? People said this was one of the hardest half marathons in the country. I was definitely finding it hard, but mostly because I had not trained at all. The fun part about any race is the other people, really. It is just great to be in a big group of people all going the same direction for fun.

My knee started hurting and I slowed down some. My digital watch broke a while ago, so I was just wearing a normal analog Timex, and had no real idea what my pace was or anything. The 2:30 pace group caught me from behind, and I decided to stay with them since they were pretty fun people. Unfortunately, they would walk the uphills and run the downhills. I enjoyed running the uphills while my knee pain meant running the downhills was a bad idea. I stuck with them for a while, then on one downhill I took a bad stride trying to keep up with them, felt the pain jolt up into my back, and decided I was going to really hurt myself if I didn't chill out.

I let them go, and ran by myself. It drizzled. A couple fairly old white-haired people passed me, and I was extremely impressed by their solid pace. I felt like asking them how they kept their knees from hurting. The route went through some neighborhoods I'd never been to before, then I realized we were in Woodfin as we turned onto one of my regular cycling routes. Eventually we were running on Riverside, and I felt a pang of jealousy as someone cycled past in the opposite direction, heading out for that fun, mellow river ride. Damn! Riding bikes is so much easier! You get to coast on the downhills!

I ran the entire way up Lookout Drive near the UNCA campus, past quite a few people who were walking it. But as much as the downhill hurt, running the uphills were still fine no matter how steep. As the race route headed through campus I chatted for a while with a couple guys from Birmingham, one of whom was wearing Vibram Five Fingers shoes and the other of whom was remarking on how ridiculous it was to run a half marathon in Vibram Five Fingers shoes.

On the last stretch, heading up Broadway back to downtown, it just got really boring. I walked for a little while and felt sorry for myself. As I passed Moog Music I decided to just run the rest of the way even if it hurt. A couple blocks from the finish the route headed up the ass-kicker of a hill on West Walnut between Lexington and Haywood. My run became a stagger but at the top of that climb I picked it up again for the last few blocks to the finish.

They gave me a medal for a very lousy performance of 2 hours and like 45 minutes or so. Yeah. Everyone's a winner at a running race. I felt pretty bad physically and just wanted to lie down. Just after I finished, though, I got to see a significantly overweight lady using a cane walk across the finish line from the 5k, which had started just after the half marathon. She looked a bit embarrassed by the cheers of the onlookers, but it was a pretty great accomplishment. Running races get part of their vibe from the fact that they are so much more inclusive than bike races. Running doesn't have those hurdles of equipment costs and highly refined technical skills, so there is a bigger range of people at them.

I have always sucked at running but it is a good change of pace after a couple years of fairly dedicated cycling. I am blessed to have never been on a high school team of any sort, and hence to have never had instilled in me any pressure to win or compete. No one ever forced me to run sprints on a track, no one ever threw balls at me and expected me to catch them, no one ever yelled at me while I did drills, or made me feel bad for having a bad day. Because of this, I am able to enjoy the experience of athletic accomplishment as a nerd and a wimp, which is to say I go as fast as I feel like going, but feel no necessity to go any faster than that.

Sometimes it's good to do something you know you will not excel at. It's great to not have the expectations and the pressure of people thinking I can do well. It's refreshing not to have to worry about all the equipment, too, to just slap shoes on my feet and show up. And when it started raining, it didn't result in mud spatter in my eyes or a mucked up derailleur. I much prefer riding bikes, but there is something pretty cool about running too.

I know this blog is about riding bikes (it's right there in the title) but this will not be the last running report I write, if for no other reason than the fact that I am signed up for Ironman Wisconsin next summer. Yes I did. Here you go, the reason you read to the end of the race report: interesting buried info. My goal for Ironman Wisconsin is threefold: first goal is (as always) to finish. Second goal is to have fun all day. Third goal is to spend absolutely no extra money at all on this race beyond the race entry fee. That last one might be tough, but I think I can do it. I want to do this race because it takes place in my hometown and because I am convinced it could be a fun time. Hopefully I am right in suspecting that doing an ironman does not mean you have to become humorless and highstrung, or buy a lot of silly extra "aero" gear, or get completely fixated on training numbers. Fourth goal I just thought of now, but am actually really gonna commit to: drink a PBR at some point during the marathon portion. I will just put it in my special Ironman drop bag. :)

Oh, and it gets way more interesting: the other thing that's coming up is that I am going to do some solo singlespeed bikepacking in Laos in December. What's the good of having S&S couplers on your bike if you never take it anywhere fun? More about that later. Complex planning, to say the least. What a weird world it is, using histories of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to plan my vacation.

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