Sarasota, how I adore you…
Let’s put this in some measure of perspective. The 2013/14 season has been my third race season since I started running, and it has easily been my most crazy-bugfork and wildly inconsistent season ever. It started back in August with the Disneyland Half Marathon. Thanks to a lovely condition I was diagnosed with, I found myself sidelined from training for over a month, easily fatigued, and twenty pounds heavier than I was last season. For someone as active and (mostly) nutrition conscious as I am, the last bit was grossly disturbing. Nothing like working out and training 5-6 days a week and strictly monitoring your caloric intake, only to watch the scale go in the *other* direction. Nonetheless, you keep on going. Never encourage the beast with your own taciturn acquiescence. Anyway, Disneyland took me 2:28, which is more than respectable and I got to run it with a great buddy, but I viewed it as a “bounceback” race. I was coming off illness, and I proved to myself that I could still take on the miles with strength and determination.
Two months later at the Miami Beach Halloween Half, I started pushing it with my new 10:1 intervals… and only managed a 2:25. Were there circumstances that slowed me (and every runner) down? Considerably so. But I’d be lying if I asserted that I wasn’t completely drained and exhausted at the end of the race. The same can be said for 13.1 Fort Lauderdale, which at 2:23 was a two-minute improvement but still far off from my usual 2:07 – 2:15 expected pace. I blamed excessive partying the Friday night before with some old highschool friends. Notice how I seemed to always have something blame, like smoking at the 13.1 Miami Beach (2:24) or the excessive sun and heat at both the Palm Beaches Half Marathon (2:19) and even worse at the Lifetime Miami Half (2:34).
What’s that line about pointing fingers? No matter where you aim, you’ll always have three fingers pointed back at yourself. Bingo.
I’ve come to the conclusion that my first three race seasons are a clear allegory of the original Star Wars trilogy. The first season (A New Hope) was brand new to me, explosive, awesome, unknown, somewhat innocent, and an incredible first-time experience that remained unforgettably thrilling. The second seasion (The Empire Strikes Back) is when my entire running universe opened up (joined FIT), where I explored my boundaries (running with a group), attempted a ton of new experiences (a full marathon, a 100 mile relay, Tough Mudder), was buffeted by an amazing emotional rollercoaster of thrills and chills (PRs, IT band injury, shin splints, the 100 mile relay meltdown), and it ended on a bigtime cliffhanger (would ulcerative colitis keep me from ever running again?). OK a little melodramatic, but work with me here, OK? I was never that great at allegories. Disco haikus and PG-13 limericks, those were always my forte… So this season was my Return of the Jedi. Wildly inconsistent. Easily frustrating. Often despondent. And then awesome moments of triumph that wraps it all up with a great big happy ending that makes you easily forget all the ridiculousness contained therein.
Which takes me to the 2014 First Watch Sarasota Half Marathon…
This was my second time running the event. My first was back in 2012, at which I made a then-PR of 2:12:55 and had an utterly marvelous time doing so. Seriously, I recall absolutely loving that race — everything from the people, the organization, the crowds, the amenities, the course, and more. It left a really strong, really memorable impression on me. I heavily considered returning in 2013, but that was the same weekend as the 2013 Rock ‘N’ Roll USA Half that I was committed to running. Still, I knew I’d return to it at some point, and in late 2013 I signed up to run all five races in the Florida Storm Series, which includes Sarasota as the series’s 5th and final race. So huzzah! I was coming back!
But would it be as positive, fun, and satisfying an experience as I remembered? And would I end my race season on a high note after so many ups and downs in the preceding months?
Yup. On both counts. Sorry for the spoilers, but this race review is a celebration, not a Minute Mystery. Remember Minute Mysteries? GOD I loved them growing up. I remember, back like when I was about 9 or 10, my best friend’s grandfather (or great-uncle, whatever, he was an old dude) had about a zillion of them, and I’d listen in rapt attention, looking for that one big clue to break the case, and I would make this look of utter concentration that my Mom once mistook for kidney pain, so I had to spend the better part of–
— the Race review. Right. Let’s get to that. The Saturday before the race, Boots and I left our house in Sunrise at 6:30 AM and made the drive across Alligator Alley to Fort Myers. We were there as part of Team Awesome, to walk a 5K and raise funds and awareness for the Lustgarten Foundation at the Fort Myers Pancreatic Cancer Research Walk. We joined our friends David and Liz, along with various friends and family, at Lakes Regional Park and walked a 5K route throughout the park. David was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few years back, went through a rigorous and grueling treatment and has been cancer-free for almost two years. It was a really great experience for everyone to walk together in solidarity, raising money to fund new treatments and, sooner rather than later, a cure to this aggressive disease. The day was a beautiful one, sunny and mild with great temperatures and a strong breeze, and the park itself was a really lovely location. After the event we met up at Liz and David’s house for lunch, beers, guitar talk, and general catching up before Boots & I had to mosey on up to Sarasota to make it in time to pick up my registration materials.
The trek up I-75 was uneventful, or at least it was until my tire blew out somewhere around Mile Marker 200. Boots basically asserted herself by not letting me put on the spare, but rather call AAA and have THEM risk their lives on the shoulder of a busy interstate jacking up the car and replacing the shredded monstrosity with a willing doughnut. Listen, I may not be the biggest gearhead on the planet, but I *do* know how to change a tire (and in record time!). I also know when it’s wise not to argue with my smarter, more sensible, and infinitely more attractive better half, too. The delay set us back by about 45 minutes, but we were soon back on our way. While I was still really excited for the race, I was considerably not looking forward to having to spend the following afternoon waiting for hours at a Tires Plus before having to drive three hours back home. But I put it out of my head. For now. The registration pickup was held at the Fit2Run store in Sarasota on University Parkway. We made it there by around 4ish, parked, went into the store and encountered a scene that can be described as controlled chaos… or perhaps energizing entropy? Something along those lines. We were in and out of there in no time, relatively speaking, and I managed to procure some much needed GU gels since I left mine at home. Fit2Run was having a tent sale in the parking lot, where we managed to bump into our buddies Cassandra, Rosa, Julie, and Stephanie. After a few minutes of schmoozing, we high-tailed it to the Holiday Inn by the airport, checked in, and rested up for a bit. Dinner with the FIT gang was scheduled at 5:30 that evening; it was located in the restaurant in our hotel, so we didn’t have to go all that far. We met everyone right on time, took tons of pictures, and helped ourselves to a pasta buffet dinner in order to appropriately carb up for the next day’s festivities.
The next morning Boots & I woke at 4:45 AM, had a quick breakfast consisting of a CLIF bar, beef jerky bites, and Gatorade, and by 5:30 we were out the door and on our way to the start area next to the Van Wezel performing arts center. Traffic was a bit more congested than I remembered from two years previous, but back then there were only 2,100 runners, as opposed to this years’s approximately 3,600. Nonetheless we were able to park reasonably quickly and made our way to the Start Area. It was definitely a cool morning: with the breezes it was somewhere in the 58 to 60 degree range, clear, humidity-free, and perfect. I was actually a little shivery. But no matter; these were perfect running conditions. I immediately braved the Porto-Potty line for the ceremonial PRP and the lined up with the group for some pre-race pics:
After the standard chatting and kibbitzing, we made our way down to the Start Line. I went into this race with no real strategy. I definitely didn’t want to set myself up for disappointment by going all-out for a PR (DEFINITELY not happening), or even for a set time, really. I just wanted to run the best race I could, and hopefully set a PR for the season (which meant beating a 2:19). I lined up with the 2:15 pacers (who were FIT members Veronica and Christy), alongside my friends Sarah, Bruce, Rich, Jose, other Jose, and Katarina. After the National Anthem (shakily but enthusiastically sung by a young performer), the wheelchair athletes took off and soon after by around 7:07 AM, we got the Go-For-Launch and all runners were off and running the 2014 Sarasota Half Marathon!
Here’s the race course, as provided by my Garmin and Google Maps:
It was a beautiful course, for the most part. It took us south on the Tamiami Trail, then eastbound over the Ringling Causeway, around St. Armands Circle, then back west over the Causeway to the Trail, northbound on the Trail (passing the Start/Finish area) for just over 3 miles. Right around the Mile 9 marker we turned east, passing the impeccably architectured Ringling Museum of Art, which then continued with a 3 mile jaunt through the residential Indian Beach/Sapphire Shores neighborhoods. Mile 12 took us back onto the Trail, where we headed south towards the Finish Line, back at the Van Wezel center.
I decided to stick with 5:1 intervals throughout the race, and in retrospect that was a wise decision for me. With the temperature at 60 degrees at race start, cool breezes and low humidity, conditions were extremely comfortable and pleasant. Running at what seemed to be an easygoing, steady pace ended up netting me a 9:48 min/mile on Mile 1. Not particularly speedy, but definitely promising. Even better, race photographers managed to capture most of our group in this stunning Mile Marker 1 picture on the bridge, which I’ll share with you now:
I’m somewhere in that mishegas. See if you can spot me. Also, check out the dudes wailin’ on their bagpipes. Righteous.
The bridge seemed steeper than I remembered, but it was no worse than the 17th St. Causeway bridge we always use for repeats. Still, it took a bit of the wind out my sails, as Mile 2 slowed down to a 10:12. But I still felt strong and energetic, keeping my pace steady and my breathing controlled. Quitting smoking did wonders for me, let me tell you. We reached St. Armands Circle by Mile 3 and my pace improved to a 10:05. I felt like I could have run faster, but I really wanted to conserve energy. We still had to do the bridge again pretty soon, after all. After the turnaround at the circle, it was time to head back to the mainland the same way we came in. We were heading east and the sun was rising in the distance, lending us one hell of a great view. It must have energized me quite a bit: Mile 4 took me 9:25, and it didn’t feel like an effort.
By then, though, it was back to the bridge for another up-and-down, and that slowed me to a 10:15. No matter. I was still doing good time. My 5K split was 31:18, which meant for the first 3.1 miles I was averaging a 10:05 minute mile. For a Half Marathon pace, that was promising enough to make me believe I’d break the 2:19 barrier. Past the Mile 5 marker we went, turning left to head north on the Trail. This was a 3-mile straightaway and arguably the least interesting portion of the race. There wasn’t much in terms of scenery, unless you count Dunkin Donuts, Burger Kings, hotels, motels, local restaurants, etc. Your veritable Main Street, Anywhere stretch, as it were. But it was flat and none-too-crowded. Mostly. There were a few moments of four-runners-running-abreast, but otherwise it was an easy stretch. I ran Mile 6 in 9:40, which is right about when I passed Boots, where she managed to capture yours truly in action:
After some deeply effusive gestures of affection, I put my head down and kept going. My 10K split remained consistent, finishing it in 1:02. That’s actually faster than my last two 10K races (1:05 and 1:04). It was definitely getting warmer now, but it never really felt “hot”. My goal was to just remain steady and focused on my intervals and keeping my breathing constant. It seemed to have worked. Mile 7 took 9:56 and I was feeling pretty positive, although a bit of fatigue was noticeable around the edges. I knew from the start I wouldn’t be able to maintain a sub-10 pace throughout the race, so I wanted to “bank” good mileage as much as I could, as early as possible. I was prepared for my pace to drop into the 10s — Mile 8 was completed in 10:12 — but I wanted to keep it as far away from the 11s as possible. By the time the race turned past the Ringling Art Museum and into the Indian Beach/Sapphire Shores neighborhoods at Mile 9, I was feeling my energy ebb considerably; after hitting a water station during a walk interval, I decided to walk an extra 30 seconds while drinking to get some extra breaths in there. That mile took 10:44, but the extra 30 second break did WONDERS for me.
The scenery didn’t hurt either. We were running through some pretty beautiful neighborhoods, often with extensive tree cover, shade, serenity, and some stunning views of the water. Talk about your proverbial second wind! My pace never dropped that low again. Even stopping for a pee break that sidelined me for about 30 seconds, Mile 10 took me 10:19 to finish. Even at this point, I was really soaking in the scenery, the camaraderie of fellow friendly if unknown runners (I had separated from most of my FIT friends; Jose, Rich, and Katarina had broken off ahead, while others were behind), the breezes, the architecture, the perfectness of that very day… this was why I run in the first place. Well that, the bling, and those tasty yogurt parfaits.
Mile 11 saw my pace drop to 10:24 and Mile 12 to 10:34. I was strictly maintaining my intervals, all the while acknowledging that my pace was slowing. Fatigue was definitely creeping in. No matter; I knew I was going to have my best race of the season if I just kept going and remained strong. I was easily going to beat 2:19. Easily. But that wasn’t enough. I wanted to crack 2:15. Badly. And that goal was definitely in reach, as long as refused to slack off my pace by one iota. Besides, my friends pacing the 2:15 were left behind awhile ago, so I figured I had a solid lock on that goal, right?
Well guess what? Right around Mile 12, as I was in the middle of a walk interval, feeling tired but determined, there was a tap on my arm. I turned and it was Christy, FIT member and 2:15 pacer. There they were, right up there with me. They had caught up. I must have looked pretty beat, because she smiled at me and reassuringly said, “Don’t give up. You got this!” Sometimes that’s all you need. Because that was the end of my intervals for the race. I picked it up, started running, and didn’t stop for walking or anything else on that last mile. We turned south, back on the Trail, and headed for home. I dug deep, found that determination, and piled it on. I wouldn’t say I was going particularly faster — Mile 13 was 10:31, barely 3 seconds ahead of Mile 12 — but I was not only moving, I was staying ahead of the 2:15 pacers. I didn’t even feel fatigue anymore. I just kept going. Determined to stay ahead of the pacers. Boots was there again among the cheering crowd, camera in hand. She was only able to capture this one pic of me (the others were blocked by runners) but I think it captured my attitude and determination pretty convincingly:
By this time the crowd was chanting, clapping, and cheering. Turning into the Van Wezel, the Finish Line was in sight. I felt this wave of pride and strength and all that feel-good chazzerai coursing straight through me. Something that I hadn’t felt in awhile: a measure of triumph approaching the Finish Line. I dug in even harder, my last 0.2 miles averaging a solid 9:42 minute mile. I thrust both hands to the air, pointing to the heavens as I crossed that Finish. This rush of awesomesauce flowing through my veins was so intense, I even forgot to hit my Garmin until a good 15 seconds after I finished the race. No matter. It was done.
What was my Finish Time?
Insert a Snoopy-like dance of joy right about here… This was not only five minutes faster than my best time all season, it was a good 10 minutes ahead of my 13.1 Miami Beach time — which I had just run two weeks ago, to the very day. I felt absolutely elated. I think people could tell, based on the dopey grin I had plastered on my mug as I wandered about the Finish Area. Speaking of which, I snapped out of my Daze of Dopeyness when I realized I had to go collect my Storm Series Category-5 medal. The line wasn’t too long, but that didn’t stop my FIT buddies from crashing it with me. No matter. There were a lot of PRs that day, or in my case, seasonal-PRs, so people were in fine spirits all around:
I was in a great mood, and I only wish I could have stuck around the Finish Area longer. That wasn’t in the cards. While I helped myself to some of the Finish Line amenities — including those inimitable yogurt parfaits (served along side bananas, muffins, bagels, cookies, the usual stuff) — we had to skidaddle quickly. It was after 10 AM by now, and hotel check-out was at 11. No late check-outs were available, and we also had an auto appointment soon afterward to take care of a shredded tire that needed replacing (which really meant all four tires, sigh). So before we returned to the car, two final things needed to be accomplished.
The first was a return to my favorite Sarasota Fishy, seen here in 2012…
and again in 2014:
And finally, since we managed to schlep all the Florida Storm Series medals with us from home, it was time for the Michael Phelps pic:
Well that was that. Another one in the books, my 17th Half Marathon, and a strong finish to my 2013/14 race season. Of course, “seasons” mean nothing. Two days later I was out doing a 6-mile “recovery” run with a buddy, and there will be a few 5 and 10Ks coming up over the next few weeks. And since I’m running the Space Coast Full Marathon in 8 months, I have to start up 26.2-mile training in earnest reasonably soon. So I have to keep moving. This was a great race and a strong finish to the season, but that’s all in the past now. Time to look ahead to the next group of challenges. But for now, a moment of much-needed triumph. Thank you Sarasota, again. For those of you wondering whether or not this is a race worth running, I couldn’t give the First Watch Sarasota Half Marathon a more heartfelt recommendation. Everything about it is pretty freakin’ awesome. OK that 3-mile stretch down the trail could be more scenic, but the remaining 10.1 miles on the course is perfection.
But no matter where you run, no matter how fast or slow, or painful or joyful, always remember to embrace the triumph of crossing that Finish Line, whether you’re running, jogging, walking, crawling, or limping. That’s advice I myself should follow more often. Here’s the video: