Monday, February 9, 2015

Fort Smith (Ark.) Half Marathon Race Report

Here's the problem with putting on a new race in 2015:  You're judged against the best races out there -- and each and every participant's own best race experience.

There's little or no room for error.  It's pretty daunting.

I ran the inaugural Fort Smith (Ark.) Half Marathon today.  I've had this on the radar since it was announced - not from a performance standpoint, but because it is where my good friend, Kevin Taylor, has been a sportswriter at the local newspaper for the last 16 years.

I booked a hotel room when it was announced in August - which turned out to be a good move (finding out there was a Juniors volleyball tournament at the Fort Smith Convention Center next door to the Marriott Courtyard) and waited until the last day, December 31, to pay before the price went up.

The race received a significant amount of pre-race publicity from the local newspaper and television stations.

And before I go where I'm going to go, the community support, volunteers and individuals working traffic control for Sunday's race where incredible.

Some of the absolute best -- in spite of what race management threw them into.

More on that later, first the half marathon course.

I rarely check out a course map before I go race anywhere for the simple fact that I'm not going to have to worry about not being able to follow someone and get lost.

I noticed that both the marathon and half marathon courses were advertised as certified courses, but when I went to check the USATF website, only the marathon course had been.

It had been measured in mid-October.  And the half marathon course used a good bit of the marathon course, except for a portion that went through one of the local golf courses and country clubs.

I inquired with a post to the race's Facebook page on Sunday evening or Monday morning.

Monday evening, registered half marathon participants had the following in their mailboxes:

I just wanted to make you aware of a clarification and important correction to our website regarding the half-marathon course.  Until this morning, the half-marathon description noted that the course is “USATF certified”.  While this is true for the marathon course, certification for the half-marathon course has not been completed.  Based on extensive planning, we do believe the distance you will travel to be a reliable 13.1 miles, but final certification is pending an additional measure.  I apologize for the oversight, and want you to feel free to contact me if this causes you serious concern.

The certifier had 74 courses certified in the state of Arkansas on the USATF website, where they are housed.

I pushed back pretty hard and this was the response that I received:

I appreciate your comments Jon. The error is purely mine, not Bill's. When we placed the descriptions on the website, it was just a few weeks before Bill was coming to certify both courses. The marathon course proved pretty challenging and wound up taking the whole day we had reserved for certifying. The intention was obviously for Bill to come back for the half which we were never able to coordinate. He was not aware it was listed as such on the website. In the interim, I didn't remember either and so the site was never edited. Completely my fault. I feel good about the distance but am embarrassed for the oversight as you can imagine.

I gave the race director a pass until I ran the course on Sunday.

This past week, I had been consulted by a race director about a local entity that may be looking to potentially move some races in their community off the roads.

The question came up as to whether or not a competitive "marathon" had to be on a paved surface.

What I learned (or reinforced what I already knew) is that to qualify for Boston, you must run on a certified course.

What can get certified is completely covered in the USATF's Course Measurement and Certification Manual.

I've always been told that you can't certify a course that's on a trail, but there is some discussion in the manual that you can.  It generally requires using a steel tape to cover those areas where you can't ride a bike with a counter attached to it.

So you certify courses for one of four reasons:

1.)  If it is a marathon, to provide a course that allows a runner to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

2.)  If an American or World record is set on it, whether it is an age-group or a single-age mark.

3.)  Give confidence to a runner that they are going to run the exact distance that the race advertises that they are going to run.

4.)  As marketing, to set yourself from the races that won't invest in the money to certify their course.

So when we made it past mile 5 and on to the cart path of the Hardscrabble Country Club and we covered a trail portion to get to it and to see the incredible terrain that we were running on, I have come to believe that there was never any real intent to cerify the half marathon course.

Why?  Because there was going to be nobody that was going to be able to set any record of any kind on that course.

Additionally, as we finished, you could see the certifier's markings on the asphalt as to where the mile markers were.  However, there were none for the half marathon.

Therefore, it was an extra expense that was unnecessary.

I get that, but to me it is disingenous to promote the race as being run on a certified course when it isn't.

Since the Chevron Houston Marathon added its half marathon 12-13 years ago, I've said that it is where the money is made because in our world of endurance sports it is the most popular distance in running right now.

So not to treat it with all of the same care as a marathon by the race director doesn't sit well with me.

And my post to the Fort Smith Marathon page that got it all started?  It was deleted.

Putting on a race is an incredible financial risk as well.

I've taken it a couple of times, but not to this event's magnitude.

While I understand that there are participants who run for the medal, personally, even though I'm not fast, it is about me pushing myself that day first and foremost.

Therefore, 99% of the medals that I've ever received for finishing a race have meant that much to me.

And while it was a nice medal, especially for a first-year event, all finishers -- marathon, half marathon and marathon relay -- received the same medal, but with just a different ribbon to go around your neck.

Couple of other things - when you're being compared to other events:

There was no invocation.  I understand the reasons for not having one in that you don't want to offend certain faiths or non-believers.

There was also no National Anthem.  You mean to tell me that you couldn't find a high schooler in the two-state area that would have loved the exposure for themselves and their school?

The biggest issue, though, that was kind of serious -- was that the first three to four water stations had either run out of (the very first stop) or were running out of cups.  All of the 5-hour and longer marathons, at those stations, were behind me.

The first station that seemed to be able handle things was the one coming off of the Hardscrabble Country Club grounds.  They had fluid and cups.

The station around the mile 10 marker was low as half marathoners were coming in, but the aid station across from Northside HS on the run to the finish line seemed to be restocked.

"So, Jon, what about the running part?" you ask?

Tough course.  228-foot climb in the first 8.75 miles, according to the map on the race's web site.

And given the fact that the race didn't start until 9 a.m. (actually, 9:05 a.m, because the lead vehicles confirmed my suspicion that the course wasn't buttoned up), it got a little warm as the temperature rose into the mid-60's with a very clear sky.

I ran 2:25:33.  On a hilly course, however, that was 15-20 degrees warmer than last week's half in Minden, I'll take it.

It was my 56th best time out of 104 career half marathons.

It was a race in my 119th city or town outside of Texas and 223rd North American city or town.

The fourth half in 15 days is also the shortest time period to have recorded four half marathons, even though it includes the eighth time that I've done a half on back-to-back days.

My splits were as follows:

Mile 1 - 9:55.96
Mile 2 - 10:30.98
Mile 3 - 11:09.72
Mile 4 - 11:11.65 (had about a 120-foot elevation gain)
Mile 5 - 11:35.64
Mile 6-8 - 34:09.34 (those mile markers didn't exist on the golf course)
Mile 9 - 11:44.82
Mile 10 - 10:23.94 (got back the climb from mile 4)
Mile 11 - 11:08.52
Mile 12 - 11:17.84
Mile 13 - 11:24.59
Last .1 - 1:00.57

Finished 271st out of 510 half marathon finishers.

The only person that I saw there that I knew was San Antonio's Larry Macon, who has run over 1,400 marathons.  I probably saw Larry before we made it the mile one (1) marker.

My friend, Angela Tortorice, from Dallas was there to run it, I found out looking at the post-race results, but she started early to make a 2:30 p.m. flight out of Fort Smith.

Best part of the trip, though, was that I got to see my good friend, Kevin Taylor, who has been in Fort Smith now for about 16 years.

Kevin was the one that gave me the opportunity to string for the Conroe Courier in the late 1980s as well as do high school football radio reports on AM 880 KIKR.

Also got to meet his two sons, Landon and Logan, at the University of Central Oklahoma vs. University of Arkansas-Fort Smith NCAA Division II baseball game after the race.

That is why I made the trip and it was completely worthwhile.

I may have another return trip to Arkansas on Saturday, April 11 to take part in the 2nd annual RussVegas Half Marathon in Russellvile, which is about an hour east of Fort Smith, but word that I received today may change that.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Minden Run For St. Jude Half Marathon Race Report

I've decided in 2015 that I'm going to run a bunch of half marathons, especially here in the spring.

When I've done a lot of announcing, my running will sometimes go to pot because of the time I spend preparing for a race to be at the top of my game in that aspect.

A week after the Chevron Houston Marathon (which is now three weeks ago), I did a pair of half marathons in Benbrook and Waco.  I'll go back and recap all three of these races at some point.

Last Saturday, January 31, I made a trip to Minden, Louisiana for the Minden Run For St. Jude (Children's Hospital).

Not even sure how I first saw the race, but the price certainly caught my eye - $45 for a half.  Reminded me a lot of the Huntsville Half Marathon produced by the Seven Hills Running Club.

I won't go into my thoughts of what I think is an exhorbitant amount for a half marathon.

The other thing that I noticed when I checked out the race's web page is that Mike Hutcheson with No Limits Timing in Louisiana, who times the Texas 10 Series for Willie Fowlkes, was working this event.

He said that he was timing it for the first time in the event's now 7-year history.

I drove up to thre Shreveport area late Friday afternoon and got in town early enough to go see a Red River Athletic Conference men's college basketball game between Huston-Tillotson and LSU-Shreveport.

I love to mix running and other sports up when I put a weekend full of activity together.

I'm not one that loves getting to a race site super early - especially after doing so with all of the events that I announce (and work), but this one paid off by being no more than 100 yards from the start / finish line.

There's something about running a race in a smaller town which has over 1,000 participants.

It is large enough to not be running in a new place totally alone, but enough for the event to have a little buzz to it.

After finding out where our packets were, I sought out and found Hutch.  He as busy, of course, but we enjoyed seeing the other.  I love working with Mike.

When I announce, I help timers at the finish line because I'll notice men that are wearing bibs for females or vice versa.  So it is a win-win situation and I know that Mike appreciates what assistance that I provide him and he puts together a solid reader mat solution for me to really provide the participant a great finish line call.

The biggest thing that surprised me was his finish line setup with a nice inflatable and chute.

Since the races I work with him at doesn't need his equipment, I never have gotten to see his first-class stuff.  And I expected nothing less from Hutch.

With a race start time of 7:30, I noticed that there was no activity going on.  The race day operations part of me was wondering how this was going to come down.

I saw the woman who I believed to be the race director and I told her that if she needed a finish line announcer for next year that I would get Hutch my information.  She responded, "You can announce this year if you'd like."  I told her that I was running it!

However, I did, at 7:15 a.m., grab the microphone and did my normal pre-race announcements - like I can do in my sleep sometimes - and we started to get people queued up in the corral.

Good stuff.

The race got started on-time and I remember in my communications with Mike that the first four miles going out were a little hilly.

I told him as I crossed the start line to not "mess up my time".

The temperature was perfect for me -- in the 42- to 48-degrees range.  That means I can breathe!

At Benbrook the Saturday before, I ran with Ken Johnson from Huntsville the entire way and then Waco the next day at Miracle Match, I didn't run quite as well.  Therefore, I really didn't know what to expect.

The first mile came through at 9:51.79.

A little faster than what I like for a half marathon, but I felt good.  The first water stop was coming up in mile 2 -- and it would be the only one until mile 5.  This was one of the things that I pointed out after the race via Facebook that they needed to correct -- was with a stop in the middle, even if it was a self-service aid station.

Volunteers were incredibly friendly and helpful.

Even given the inclines - as they weren't really hills, but they kept coming, the next two miles checked in at 19:47.07 for a total time of 29:38.86.

I wasn't registering that it was under 10 minutes a mile at that time.

And as you can imagine, I didn't see the mile 2 marker as they weren't really existent.

Past mile 5, we made a right-hand turn on to a road that wasn't closed to traffic as I noticed later that it was the only real east-to-west connecting street on the north part of the community.  Therefore, it would have been tough - in hindsight - to close it completey.

My recommendation was to keep runners in one lane and allow cars to pass in the other with construction zone traffic control.

It was an area that was dangerous to runners as cars drove up the middle of runners that were running to the outsides of their lanes coming and going.

We crossed a major north-south intersection going out without much problem on our way to the turnaround spot.

Without mile markers, I made it from mile three to presumably the 6.55-mile mark in 36:10.75 to bring my time at the half way point to 1:05:49.61.

Since my offset time was 28.75 seconds, it showed as 1:06 on my watch.

I doubled that time and added a minute or two and realized that I could have a pretty good race, just two weeks removed from my first marathon in approximately 14 months.

When we came back through that north-south intersection, the road guard to the right, who wasn't a certified peace officer (or wasn't dressed like one), let a pickup with a trailer through just as I was coming through and he didn't look to see.

I said something that I shouldn't.  And while wearing my Liberty top, it certainly didn't conform to the Liberty Way.

I tried to tank up at the mile 8 aid station because I knew that it was going to be a little bit before I saw another one.  Additionally, they only had water the whole way.  No electrolyte replacement.

The next mile marker I saw was one that indicated it was three miles to the finish.  So from 6.55 to 10.1, my time was 37:10.94 to bring my total time to 1:43:00.55.

Since I knew that we would get a net downhill going back from this point forward, I tried to push as hard on the downhills that I could and then walk the uphills for a breather.

The next two miles were 20:24.94 -- that's a 10:12 per mile late in the race.  Wow.  (Total time - 2:03:25.49.)

And the final mile to the finish, which was setup fairly well even though we were coming in with the back of the 10K and 5K pack, was 9:54.94.

I don't even remember what I saw on the final time clock, but the accumulated time would be 2:13:20.43.

Mike had me down for 2:13:17 so I put that on my ledger (with a 2:13:21 as a note at the end).

Either way, it was my sixth best half marathon time ever -- 28 seconds faster than the half that I ran a year earlier which was on a completely flat course in Mobile.

It was half marathon finish #103 in my 118th city or town outside of Texas.

And with age-grading, it made it my best-ever race at age 48 with an age grade time of 1:59:53.

Now the goal is to try and get down to under two hours.

My PR is 2:09:45, but that's 2:08:45 running time as I stopped to urinate for a minute early in the race in Wisconsin in September 2010.