The point of this race was to get a gauge on where my fitness is at this point and to have another small race to push me through the winter, if you can even call this a winter. The temperatures at the start were in the low 50’s, which is, admittedly, perfect running weather, so don’t take that as complaining.
This Santa Hustle 1/2 was the first for our city and pre-race discussions questioned the validity of the distance, whether long or short, but no matter as this was just about running hard at the distance and seeing how everything felt as we move ahead.
At the line were a few racers of legitimate talent and competition, evidenced in part by past performances, but also by our choice of race specific clothing instead of the santa coat Tech-T’s, santa hats and beards the race organizers supplied to everyone. Behind us sat a massive river of red while up front only a handful were decked out in various colored singlets.
The MC bellowed through the mic, “5 seconds!” and then 2 seconds later yells, “Go!”, completely catching everyone off guard as we stumble into a rhythm down the wide sidewalk straight away. A small group of 5 instantly moved out front and away from the river of red behind us, at a clip a little faster than I had hoped, but nothing out of control. We made it about 800 meters before taking a 90 degree turn onto a four lane street that would bring us into the center of the city. Already the pack shrunk to 3 as I sat right behind the two leaders, unwilling to push the pace any further than we were already running. We passed the first mile marker and I hit my watch, “5:15”. That felt about right and was about 5 seconds faster than I had hoped to run the first mile, but I also didn’t want to let the two runners in front pull away from me and leave me struggling behind.
One of the leaders motioned me ahead, “Come on, Scott!”, hoping I would join them, but I was content hanging a couple paces off, knowing I would need more strength later in the race and it would be foolish to try and match them so early. And this is how it stayed for a good portion of the distance.
Moving just as swiftly as the first mile, in control, but a touch out of a comfort zone, we passed the 2nd mile marker and I hit my watch again. “5:41”. And instantly my concerns about the course distance, or at least mile markers, was validated. We did NOT run a 5:41 2nd mile, which was proven when I hit my watch on the third mile, “5:05”. From then on I gave up even trying to gauge pace. Now it was just about running within my abilities and seeing how the competition played out further into the course when it really matters.
At this point I wasn’t feeling as at ease or as strong as I had hoped, but I also wasn’t dying. Whatever pace the leaders were running, I was only 4 strides behind them, at most. I also noticed that I would fade ever so slightly on the inclines, but be right back with them when the course flattened, so I wasn’t losing ground. I even found myself moving up and challenging for the lead, but one of the other runners wasn’t giving an inch. If I started to move out, he would kick up the tempo to stay just half a stride in front of me, and I wasn’t interested in playing cat and mouse with our speed. I just wanted to run consistently and have enough to push at the end. So again, I fell back a couple strides and let them cut the wind for me.
The three of us continued to run alone, winding through mostly empty Sunday morning streets as we passed mile marker after mile marker. Then just after halfway we hit a sharp hill that curved to its crest before dropping back down, and although I fell off a couple paces, still not feeling strong in the legs, I moved right back up behind them in no time, giving me the confidence that I had more in my legs than it felt.
We met another rise that started to take its toll on everyone and as the course smoothed out into a couple rollers one of the runners ended up off my back as the leader sat just ahead. We ran past the 8 mile marker starting to feel the beating of the course when out of nowhere another runner pulled up behind us and passed by smoothly. I thought to myself, “Shit! I hope there isn’t a pack behind us.”
He then overtook the leader, but impressively the leader went with him and kept stride as the pace increased, leaving me and the other runner only hoping to hold on. Passing mile 9 there were now the two front runners and myself fighting with the other runner for 3rd, a position I didn’t really want to be in, enough that when the course flattened out I found myself, almost instinctually, pressing into the pavement and forcing myself out ahead, my tempo noticeably increasing as the other runner ever so slowly began dropping off my back further and further.
Needing to really put the nail in that coffin, I kept pushing further out ahead until I couldn’t hear his labored breathing anymore, making sure there wouldn’t be a final mile surge. I passed the mile 11 marker and although hoped I could move on the leaders now, continued to see them get further out ahead, working off each other towards the finish. I was left alone to run out the distance.
And then, well, things got interesting. That sea of red behind us at the start line involved thousands of other runners, mostly 5k’ers whose gun went off 30 minutes after ours. Those 5k’ers ran a good portion of our course before heading off on their own, but eventually routing right back into the very last mile of the 1/2 marthoners race. Now, this happens in a good deal of races, however, when the two courses merge like this, there is USUALLY at least a two lane road that serves as the course, allowing for plenty of passing space for the faster runners.
This was NOT one of those courses. As a matter of fact, this course left the streets and onto a 12 foot (14 at MOST) wide SIDEWALK that was bordered by leaning saplings, and a cement wall on one side and a huge rock wall hiding the Indianapolis Zoo on the other. Basically, 4 runners across take up the ENTIRE sidewalk. And there were THOUSANDS of them.
I didn’t know what to do but stay running in the road until the very last minute, blowing by all the 5k’ers trotting it in. I did this until I had no choice but to jump into that tiny gauntlet of a pathway towards the finish, probably just under a mile away. And then things got dangerous. I was really looking forward to running through this path to the finish, putting all my reserved energy into a fast last mile, but there was NOWHERE TO GO! For as far as you could see there were fake santas blocking the path. I had no choice but to yell out, “Runner back! On your right! Runner back! Coming through the middle! Runner on the left!”, to which no one took heed, nor even had time to take heed.
I shot down the path, darting around runners into the gravel path and ducking trees threatening to swipe at my head, zig-zagging through wayward running kids, turning sideways as I slid between couples, errantly nailing a few swinging elbows and trying my best to yell back, “SORRY! JUST TRYING TO FINISH!” And honestly, I had no idea where the 4th place runner was at this point, very likely coming up behind to snag a podium spot amidst all the jogging Santas. It was a complete logistical disaster for the race finish.
Finally, I busted out from the path onto a wide bridge that allowed for complete breathing room to the finish chute. I was able to FINALLY turn it on for the last 400 and run as hard as I could to the Finish line, where I crossed under the clock that read 1:12:34, solidly in third place and about 30 seconds behind 2nd place.
So, now I know where I stand….sort of…and that was the point of this race. I know I can kick out a fast 1/2 marathon now, and I know I can kick it out MUCH faster than 1:12, given the proper circumstances. I hoped I was in 1:11 or even 1:10 shape and I’d say given the obstacles today, I am there. A few garmins even read the course at 13.20 – 13.25, so take that for what it’s worth. I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t feel as strong as I had hoped earlier in the race and annoyed that I let myself get taken out by the leaders instead of going at my own race, but satisfied that I stayed calm and was able to lay it down and fight at the end when needed.
Being able to run at this pace at the start of winter bodes well if I stay healthy and injury-free, leading into a solid spring marathon, where I will again chase that elusive PR I know is in me. For now, it’s back to training for a nighttime trail marathon in January, again, just to get me through the winter. Till then.