Avenue of the Giants Half Marathon

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Avenue of the Giants

I’ll be honest: I wasn’t expecting to win this race. Last year’s winning time was a 1:14, about 6 minutes faster than my current PR for the Half Marathon (1:20:02), and after viewing the results from last year I was realistically hoping for a top 5 finish. Plus last week I had raced  a half marathon in Marin that, while not terribly bad given the brutal wind and double hip flare that nailed me at mile 4 and just kept hanging around, was a little disappointing and leaving me a with a case of “Should’ve done betters.” My expectations were understandably lowered for this race. So you can imagine how utter gobbedsmacked I was to actually win it. I mean it’s Thursday as I’m writing this and I’m still stunned by it.

It’s 6am when the alarm in my phone goes off, and I awake in the upper sleeping area of my parent’s RV, which I’ve half-jokingly declared is a 3 inch pad that’s hard as a rock. Yet despite this I’ve slept well, which is astounding enough as I don’t normally sleep well. Climbing down I can hear my Mom’s alarm on the other side of the RV as she gets ready as well. This was my Mom’s idea in the first place, given that she wanted to walk a half marathon with a goal of 4:30, and suggested I race it as well. I dress in my Hoka Cliftons with compression socks, black shorts, my red Forward Motion jersey (which I’ve been referring as my “FMRC classic” look), thermal sleeves, my Rudy Project glasses and FMRC visor. Dressed and ready to roll, my Mom and I head out to my truck Silver and then onward towards 101 North. It’s early, but the road next to our campsite is actually part of the course (around mile 4 and 9 to be exact) and will be closed at 7:30am.

The drive itself is fine, though it’s colder than expected; my breath has it’s own shadow. Dropping off the truck, bibs in hand we hang out at the staging area as the morning rolls on and the marathoners start to get ready for their race (there’s also a 10K). I ask at the info tent about bag-check and find there is one…but it’s the back of a pick-up truck. I decide to carry my keys just in case, but find the gloves I brought are fully needed, and my Mom borrows my back-up pair. As we run into several of my friends from the Brazen Racing circuit which is always good to see familiar faces. I decide to change my regular warm-up. Normally I go jog for 6 minutes, but given I’m trying to conserve my energy I end up just stretching instead. We watch the marathoners depart with cheers (and a marching band) before going back to stretching out. We take pictures and with ten minutes left before the start I massage some Icy Hot into my hips, which I’d been looking into since Marin & figured would be a good test run. Then it’s a quick drop of the bag and heading to the start for the nervous minutes before the starting horn blares.

As we race across the bridge and start down the road, I actually note that I didn’t start as quickly as I normally do, but this is okay given that I’m not trying to blur right out of the gate. Oddly for a park that has so many trails, the course is 100% road, but that’s okay by me as the scenery on both sides of said road is gorgeous with towering trees. Unfortunately said trees are having a nasty affect on my Garmin watch as we catch on the rare major uphill followed by a large downhill further into the forest. The overall timer and mile splits are working fine as I coast with the second pack of runners behind the lead group, but I notice my current pace sensor has gone wacky, jumping from 8 minute pace to 7 to 6 and back again, meaning I can’t trust it.

Those who know me know I hate the phrase “Run by Feel,” which to me 1) Feels like the mating call of the technophobe and 2) Often translates to “Go Slow.” But given the GPS has gone wacky I only have the timer to work with so I don’t have much of an option, though it takes a mile or two to get used to. My first two miles read 6:30 and 6:20, slowly getting to the pace I want to hit as the Undertale song Megalovania rocks in the radio that is my mind (Find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZcoqR9Bwx1Y). The road is more rolling than I was expecting, though not the roller coaster style that I had faced in Marin a week prior but instead a more subtle route, with slight inclines and downgrades that were just enough to catch you off guard. Rocking and rolling I slowly eased to the front of the second pack and made some distance as I whipped around the curves, hitting the aid stations for water, though someone needs to tell the volunteers to stand in front of the tables, not behind them.

It was about 4 miles in when I noticed something about the main groups of five runners ahead of me, they were running 5 wide and had been for some time as I noticed they weren’t going as fast as I would expect the lead group would be. This got me thinking. You normally see the fastest group in long races before breaking as someone makes a move, but no one had done so yet. Either they’re still trying to figure each other out, or no one has the speed to make a move to push the others, I thought as I slowly but surely started to get closer. Hitting the aid station at mile four, and getting a cheer from my Dad and the wonder dog known as Gus, I started game-planning and knew what I had to do: assume the second theory was true & force them to make a move early. So after snagging a water at the aid station I proceeded to push a little, slowly using the downhill to catch up to the lead group and see what chaos I could inflict.

At mile five I finally caught up with the main group, and the effect was almost instantaneous with one person dropping off immediately and the rest of the group starting to spread out some along the redwood bordered road. One older person in gray and a younger runner in blue hung on for about a quarter mile before I passed them as saddled up next to the second place guy, a tall runner with black spandex pants and neon green shirt. My watch beeped a 6:15 mile, which I relayed to him as he asked.  Passing through the shade from the trees as we approached Mile 6, he revealed he had a blister on his heel, which I could only shake my head at. Yes I could feel a blister of my own forming between the ball and arch of my right foot, but I sure as hell wasn’t about to tell him that. You never reveal a weakness if you can avoid it, as a smart foe will take full advantage of it.

I let him hit the turnaround timing mat first, mostly because the turn would’ve been sharp and I didn’t want to chance anything going wrong, but the second I was heading back up the path I made a point to push, knowing full well that blister-on-his-heel would have trouble keeping up, and I was right. Suddenly the radio station in my head changed as I charged slowly but surely after the lead runner; an older but smarter foe who wouldn’t give such an easy clue that there was an issue. Megalovania was replaced by the Undertale song Battle Against a True Hero (Seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWBtpBwzzdM) which was howling in my mind as I charged forth, my hips burning so far not flaring, and I had to hope that they’d stay silent as we careened back the way we came.

Hitting the aid stations and charging onward through the miles I missed my Dad & Gus on the second pass through Mile 9, but this was okay as I had a bit of tunnel vision by that point anyways. I finally caught the lead runner at around Mile 10, a simple “good job” as I passed by, arms pumping in rhythm as we had already started to hit the marathoners and 10K racer heading back on their own way back towards the finish. I spotted my mom shortly after, who gave me a high-five as I passed, though she didn’t realize at the time I was in the lead. And to be fair, I was lost in a moment of music and running and blurring, trying to press on and hoping that my hips wouldn’t ruin the party. It’s like running with a time-bomb, and I don’t know what the timer is. Could be mile four, could be mile 13, might not even go off at all, but as I charged forward that was always in the back of my mind as they burned. I was holding on, but I wasn’t sure how long it would last.

I managed to carry on for several miles, passing 10Kers and nodding to marathoners as they passed the other direction. Due to the other racers, I’m unable to track the other half marathoners behind me as there’s too much background noise, but I press on anyways, music rocking in my mind. It’s at the last mile that I have some trouble as I slow to climb the one big hill in this race, my feet short-stepping but never stopping as I grind my way back to the top, before blissfully gliding down the downhill with a few “on your left!” as I passed. For some reason I figured the last bit before the bridge was steeper than I expected, but with a half mile to go, I can see the daylight and the freeway overpass beyond the bridge and realize it’s not nearly as bad as I thought. It’s here that my intuition flares in my mind, stopping everything else dead cold and switching to RED ALERT.

He saw you struggle on the hill. He’s Going To Make A Move! PUSH YOU DAMN FOOL!

Those who’ve seen me race know I only yell on three occasions: when I’m passing a group, when there’s a hazard…and when I’m about to sprint full bore. “Haaaaaaaaa!” I yell like a 90’s anime character charging his special attack to give myself an adrenalin boost as I sprint the last bit of road, passing walkers with wild abandon. My hips are burning but haven’t flared, and I decide to take the risk; I’ve held onto the lead this long, I’m not going to lose it now! “Haaa!” as I blur across the last bridge passing 10K walkers as people cheer with wild abandon. “HAAAAAAAAA!” as I sprint to the finish and cross the finish tape, breaking it with a yell of triumph. I WON! I’m stunned by it all as I move ever forward grabbing water. It turns out my instincts were right, as the second place guy (Who was 41, but looked 31. Remember: Running makes you look and feel younger) had seen me struggle and was making a move as I suspected was only 15 seconds behind me. I cheer on and congratulate my fellow racers as they finish before grabbing my red bag from the pick up truck.

It got hot sometime during the race, so I immediately head to the shade to try and fruitlessly put on sunblock, before turning my attention to the results table. Soon enough the overall results are announced, and though there’s a bit of confusion as they accidentally give me the female winner medal by mistake (which I totally turned into a joke) it ends up being quite a haul. A State Championship Medal, a large plaque that’s a garden tile, a bottle of wine, a large beer stein glass and a check for $500! It’s the largest prize I’ve ever received for winning a race! I’m beyond humbled as I trek back to my truck to drop off most of the awards before heading back to the finish line, chatting up anyone and everyone who wants to. The sudden increase in heat was worrisome though as I watched and waited to make sure my mom got across the line okay. After waiting and chatting up some ladies in the freeway overpass I finally saw my mom stroll in, gathering “Aw’s” from the group as I broke off and walked with her to the finish line, finishing in a time of 4:29:17! Goal time achieved!

Laughing and grabbing some food and drink, we talked about our respective adventures as we waited for the roads to clear. Eventually we made to way back to my truck Silver and back to camp, with yours truly still flabbergasted by the victory but honestly needing a nap and enjoying the time spent. It ended up being a pretty good vacation after all…

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