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.

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