The Sub-2 Half Marathon.
For us steadfast middle-of-the-pack runners, the Sub-2 Half represents a significant Holy Grail. It’s the golden ring on the carousel. The Pick of Destiny. The Maltese Falcon (except not a fake). Detective Comics #27. Hank Mobley’s 1957 Blue Note 1568 LP in mint condition. And a whole bunch of other metaphors that I’m not going to get into right now, because I’m starting to bore myself and quite frankly there’s a ton of excitement to get to, so let’s get the gettin’ got!
But before I get into my review of the 2016 Best Damn Race Safety Harbor Half Marathon, it behooves me to point out that I am somewhat affiliated with Best Damn Race as one of their proud, dedicated, and fiercely attractive Race Ambassadors. So what does that mean? Well, for starters I received absolutely zero compensation or payment for my participation in this event or this race review; I paid for my own race entry registration, these words are mine and mine only, and as you’ve come to expect from our proud tradition of flapping our gums about running and races here at Hokeyblog, any review here will always be a “warts and all” approach. As an Ambassador, I simply just try to spread the gospel about Best Damn Race and why I think they’re absolutely worth your time seeking out (if you’re a Florida runner, or happen to visiting in or near the area). The only recompense I’ve received from BDR is a bunch of new buddies and a few beers (and weeping lamentations over the Miami Dolphins) with Nick last August.
So now that the disclaimers have been safely… disclaimed, let’s get on to the race itself. Safety Harbor is a quaint, scenic town on the west coast of Tampa Bay, which made it appealing enough for me to give it a go, as I’ve never run in that area of Florida before. As far as I’m concerned, the more new race experiences, the better (as I continue to race Disney, Space Coast, and A1A a bazillion times), so on Friday night Boots and I embarked on the trek through The Everglades across Alligator Alley and north up I-75 for the 3+ hour trip. I wanted to go up earlier and pick up my registration Friday afternoon, but work commitments precluded that from happening. Thankfully Best Damn Race offers race-day packet pickup.
BDR also offered three distinct race events on the morning of Saturday, February 6, 2016: a 5K, 10K, and Half Marathon. Anyone who ran the 5K and the 10K also earned a bonus challenge medal, but I was content with “just” running the Half. Meanwhile, Boots decided to up her game and registered for the 10K. She had already walked a bunch of 5Ks but had spent the better part of the past two months adding mileage to her weekend sojourns. Her goal was to get in there and go the distance.
Did I have any goals for the Half? Not particularly. On the other hand, I’m not going to BS you either and be all demure and coy with sadly predictable false-modesty waving its arms akimbo and all that. I was definitely there to run and do my best, but I wasn’t priming the psychological PR pump either. Oh sure, those of you who read my review of the 2015 Best Damn Race Orlando Half Marathon will surely remember this particular scene:
At that race I missed my PR by over 40 seconds and didn’t get to ring the legendary PR Bell. I wasn’t particularly bummed — all right, maybe a little — but for some reason I was absolutely driven to return and ring that bell someday. If not there, than at another Best Damn Race, or at another race entirely (ringing the bell in absentia, or something like that).
So yeah… while I “only” wanted to “enjoy the race” and “check out the race course” and “use quotation marks excessively”, I was also there to run. I mean, RUN, run. REALLY RUN, run.
And run I did.
Let’s jump forward to race day. Saturday morning, February 6th, in Safety Harbor. It was a COLD morning (Florida cold, of course) when we left the Hampton Inn, with temps in the upper 40s. While the 10K was starting at 6:45 AM and the Half at 7:15, Boots and I still had to pick up our registration packets. Same-day packet pickup opened at 5:30 and we wanted to be there as early as possible, so we were parked at the Safety Harbor Library lot at just after 5 AM. We were thankful to get a spot there, as the library was literally just across the street from the Start Line. We killed time in the warm car listening to Lithium on Sirius/XM, because I’m a great big iguana-sissy when it comes to colder weather. I was geared up in my usual neck-to-shins compression wear, even with the running cap covering my head. I’m sure it was overkill. I didn’t care.
As we were leaving the library parking lot, we happened to catch these three kind of hanging around, not doing much of anything:
If that’s not a fine omen to start the day with, I don’t know what is.
The packet pickup was located in the Staging Area behind the Safety Harbor Resort & Spa. I’m glad we arrived early, as by the time we got to the pickup desk there was barely anybody waiting in line. It was a smooth, easy process to pick up our bibs, shirts, and race swag. It was an absolutely clear and beautiful pre-dawn morning, cold and stunning with just enough wolflight blue beginning to light up the horizon:
Afterward we had to return to the car to drop off our bags and pin on our bibs. I am *not* a fan of pinning a bib onto a shirt I am currently wearing, because I’m a klutz and a dingbat. Boots was able to pin hers on the shirt she was wearing without any problems. Because that’s how she rolls. Me, not so much…
We had a bit of time to kill, so we decided to head down to the Start Line to kill some time. There we bumped into another Star Wars cosplayer, so I grabbed this nervous pic with Boba Fett:
An affable fellow, he wished me good luck on my race. Another fine omen!
As Boots’s start time was approaching, I suddenly felt the urge of nature’s call, so I smooched her for luck and congratulated her on embarking on her first 10K. I was super-proud of her!
She then worked her way to the Start Line while I worked my way to the line of Porto-Johns. The wait was only a few minutes, but I was doing The Dance the entire time. Thankfully, the PRP was accomplished and I was feeling mighty pleased with myself. Listen, you do enough races, you appreciate the sanctity of the PRP. It is not a force to be reckoned with!
I returned to the Start Line, which was already crowded with runners anxious to get started. I couldn’t find Boots anywhere, so I parked myself by the Start Line and enjoyed watching them take off.
After they took off, I parked my heinie in the 9:30 min/mile pace area and waited for my race to begin. There I randomly came across my buddy (and fellow BDR ambassador) Haley, so it was nice to have a familiar face to chat with for a few minutes. Anyway here are some views from the corral:
Plus your usual Start Line Selfie (sigh):
The time was rapidly approaching. After a beautiful-sung National Anthem (courtesy of BDR Ambassador Jen, who knocked it well out of the park), our game was on. My earbuds went in, I dialed up Zombies, Run! mission “I Crush Everything”, and at 7:21 AM (in 48 degree temps) I crossed the Start Line to begin the 2016 Best Damn Race Safety Harbor Half Marathon!
Let’s take a look at the course (shall we?), courtesy of Google Maps and my stalwart Garmin 920XT:
The course started next to the Safety Harbor Resort & Spa, heading north on Bayshore overlooking the Bay on our right hand side. A few turns through local neighborhoods brought us to the Phillippe Parkway, turning north until we reached Phillippe Park. Two miles were spent running through the scenic, shaded streets throughout the park, affording us more views of the water. Exiting the park just after Mile 4, we turned south on Phillippe, finding ourselves back near the Start Area where Phillippe meets up with Bayshore. South on Bayshore we continued, turning west on 7th St to begin a 2.5 mile winding loop throughout the local neighborhoods there. After returning to Bayshore just past Mile 9, we continued south until San Pedro St, where we made a loop through a neighborhood there as well, returning back on San Mateo to Bayshore. The course ran south to a turnaround, which meant about 2.5 miles remained to reach the Finish Line at the Safety Harbor Resort.
I didn’t want to tire myself out during the race, but I really wanted to see what I was capable of doing. I settled on doing Run 1-Mile/Walk 1-minute intervals, figuring if that would tire me out or slow me down, I could drop back to my regular 7:1 half-marathon intervals. I also made a concerted effort to monitor my power output; if the pace felt too strenuous, I would ease off the throttle a bit and drop it down. Anyway, that was the plan, and I have to say it worked in my favor, because not only did I stick with 1-Mile intervals for the entire race (and ran the last two miles straight through with no breaks), I ran the very last mile faster than the first.
But enough about me (a subject I can never tire of); let’s talk about the RACE itself. First of all, the weather provided absolutely perfect running conditions. Overcast but no rain, cool but low humidity, breezy but not windy, and temperatures starting at 48 and ending around 53. Yes please. Because my blood is so thin from living in a swamp for so many years, I found myself a bit shivery at the start, but once I was off and running, everything felt fantastic. I noticed that the street seemed to be cobblestone right at the race start, which gave me a moment’s pause that footing might be sketchy for a while. Thankfully that portion ended almost as quickly as it started, and it was flat, smooth pavement for the rest of the race.
Up until Phillippe Park, the course took us through local, well-to-do-neighborhoods. The first mile was reminiscent of the Space Coast Marathon for me, with the nice homes on one side and the water on the other. Speaking of the first mile, here’s a quick shout-out to the girl whose shoe came flying off her foot right before the Mile 1 marker. That had to be a problematic retrieval process.
You could best describe the topographical layout of the course as “gentle rolling hills”. While it was definitely hilly-er than my local South Florida training routes, there wasn’t anything on that course that I found especially problematic. There were some definite inclines for which you had to adjust your running form to maintain pace (lean forward, shorten stride) but they also came with blessed downhills as well. Speaking of which, here comes my second shout-out of the review, to my favorite spectator of the day: a dark-haired woman in sunglasses, situated right on the uphill portion of 4th St, holding up a sign that read something along the lines of: “Welcome To Mt. Safety Harbor. Elevation: 42″. I got a huge kick in the pants outta that one.
The two-mile sojourn throughout Phillippe Park was probably the most scenic portion of the race. While we definitely faced some hilly terrain in there, we also found ourselves surrounded by trees, foliage, and views of the bay. It was also during this process that I found an irresistible urge to pee. Great. Right before Mile 4 I found some bushes and took care of business, but I was cursing the entire near-minute it took to complete the transaction. After I was done, I spent a good four minutes running in a power sprint to make up for lost time. My pee break at the Star Wars Half Marathon last month might have cost me a PR. Maybe. I was starting to get over-analytical and paranoid about my time, but then I settled back into my rhythm and made a decision to focus on just running and running ONLY, and to not even think about pace or time or PRs.
Meanwhile, you got to give it up for the race volunteers. Every hydration stop had plenty of staff with both water and Nuun electrolyte drinks ready for us, with energy gels handed out as well at one stop. I make a habit of thanking every last volunteer for their time at every race I do. It’s the little things, folks. Spectators were extremely slim; they were mostly gathered around the Finish Line and spilling out onto Bayshore. It’s a good spot to cheer, as you get to see your runner pass you three times. A handful of locals were out mostly to enjoy the morning festivities, as multitudes of runners past by their driveways and lawns. Again, given that this is a smaller race through local neighborhoods, you can’t be expecting roaring hordes of the Chicago Marathon.
Speaking of raging hordes, my next shout-out goes to a red-headed runner, who looked all of about FULL-TERM PREGNANT (I thought she could have popped at any time). She was wearing next to nothing in the cold and was beating up that course like it owed her money. As I ran by her I told her that when I get a little indigestion, I don’t bother running that day, but there she was. This woman was the epitome of dedication and determination. Righteous.
So between all the gentle rolling hills, the views of the Bay, the well-manicured neighborhoods, along with the energy of all our fellow runners, I found myself moving along at a faster pace than I’d ever managed during a Half. I tried to keep things just around a 9:00 minute/mile pace, and by Mile 10 my elapsed time was at the 1:31 mark. I was easily on the road to a PR, and I still found myself with plenty of energy left in the tank. All I had to do was maintain and a PR was assured. If I didn’t flag at all, I might even make that elusive Sub-2!
I was too close to give up; I had to try. Who knew if I’d ever get that close again? I took my last walk break for forty seconds at Mile 11 and made a fast break for the Finish Line two miles away. I started to obsessively check my Garmin to see where my pace was, frowning at anything above a 9:05. Now wasn’t the time to slack. I ran the twelfth mile in 9:09, and by the time I reached The Last Mile I was near megalomaniacally obsessed. A PR wasn’t good enough. I needed a sub-2 or else the entire run would have been a waste of time and energy.
More spectators lined Bayshore as I pounded hard towards the Finish Line, their cheers most welcome as I kept running and checking my Garmin. The minutes began to creep by: 1:55, 1:56, 1:57… I could see the Mile 13 marker now, right before the right turn onto Veterans Memorial Lane that led to the Finish Line (with my watch just past the 1:58 mark). I saw Boots cheering and snapping photos, like this one she captured of me:
“I’m at 1:58!!” I cried out happily, knowing she would get the implication of the announcement.
“I finished!” she replied, celebrating her own awesome 10K achievement.
The rest was just pure joy as I tore off towards the rapidly approaching Finish Line. I heard my name being called out by the announcer as I reached those last few steps, crossing the mat in triumph and finally checking my watch to see if it were indeed really happening.
Official Chip Time: 1:59:20
In the immortal words of Cyborg, the intrepid Teen Titan extraordinaire, as he jumped out of a mechanical cow: MOOYAH!!
I couldn’t believe it had just happened. Sure, I just achieved my longtime running goal of a sub-2 half, but I also beaten my previous PR by nearly seven minutes. That was an upgrade I certainly hadn’t been expecting. This is no false modesty, gang. I really didn’t think I had it in me. But there it was. Everything had aligned perfectly that day. Even with the accursed pee break, everything else felt perfect: great weather, a fine course, plenty of hydration, lack of crowding, conscientious, respectful runners who totally understood race etiquette, and my own energy levels that never sagged for the duration of the entire race.
Yeah I was feeling pretty goshdarn peachy. After receiving my medal — a beautiful piece of bling in the form of a stained-glass paddleboard with images of dolphins, manatees, and other sea life etched into the glass — I did what any other self-respecting runner would do: took a selfie and immediately posted it to Facebook to gloat.
Yup, it was pretty, pretty, pretty pleased with myself. Pretty pleased. I found Boots and we both gleefully celebrated our victories. I was eyeing the finishers when I spotted my buddy Beth (also a BDR Ambassador, we’re about as omnipresent as carbon atoms) handing out medals for the 5K finishers. I walked over to say hi to my buddy, and she immediately drafted me into assisting her handing out medals. As I tend to cower in fear and fold like a house of cards arranged on the roof of a moving Haitian jitney around bossy women, I jumped right to it.
For the next ten minutes I was handing out medals and trying to make a stand-up comedy routine out of it. “I hereby Christen thee the Fourth Earl of Lichtenstein,” I announced to one runner as I placed the medal around his neck, and he shot me a quizzical glare. “Hey what’s got two aching feet and just kicked some major ass at her 5K? THAT GAL!!” I said to another as I handed a medal to her, my pronouncement greeted with a quizzical glare. “C! H! I-C-O! GOOOOOOOOOOO CHICO!!” I said to a younger runner as I handed him his medal, the quizzical glare I received in return not entirely unexpected. And so forth.
Eventually the next shift came in and I was relieved of my duties. You can’t take me anywhere, I’m afraid…
I met up with Boots again and we hightailed into the Post-Race festivities. First stop: THE BEER TRUCK. They were serving both Michelob Ultra and Hard Root Beer. I double fisted the beers, then put one down to try the root beer. Not bad, but not my thing either. All good. Then we sampled some Bloody Marys at a tent next door, before I begged Boots to snap this pic of me right here:
Then it was chow time. The Food Tent had plenty of hot Pollo Tropical, affording runners beans, rice, and chicken for their yearning tummies. There were also brownie bites and bite-sized candy bars as well, along with fruit and other healthy alternatives. Later on they provide Jimmy Johns and pizzas as a bonus for the back-of-the-packers. We chowed down on our repast and then, upon finishing, I realized that I still needed to go ring the PR bell. Which I did. Even if the woman in front of me broke it, to the jeers of everybody in line! Well, we improvise:
We grabbed some more beers from the truck then headed to the podium, where the awards ceremonies were going down. We bumped into Haley again and chatted for a while, and then all of a sudden this happened:
Yup, they got married… right after running a Half! Pretty cool. We even spotted our buddy Nick (not just an ambassador, he’s the goshdarn BDR CEO!) onstage with them for a photo-op, but since he spent most of the day running around like a crazed madman on a mission, making sure everything about the day was perfect, he quickly vamoosed before we could say hey. No biggie. We had our beers, our bling, and our successes of the day.
The Post-Race Festivities:
It’s easy to rave and wax ecstatically about a race event when the weather is perfect and everything clicks and you PR, hitting a time goal you’ve been desperately chasing for the last five running seasons. So let’s remove all that from the equation and pose this simple query: is the Best Damn Race Safety Harbor Half Marathon worth your time? Very, very much so. The race fees are shockingly low, and you get a lot for your investment: a great course, well-staffed hydration tables with lots of volunteers, cool race swag, and a buttkickin’ after-party with free hot food, beer, massages, desserts, snacks, plus all kinds of entertainment and even a wedding? Who knew? Florida runners really should make a beeline to the next Best Damn Race in or near their area (they are held four times a year in Safety Harbor, Orlando, Jacksonville, and Cape Coral). Safety Harbor might rival Sarasota as my favorite Florida half marathon. I’ll be able to make a better judgment when I return next year. Hope you’ll join me there. In the meantime, I’m gonna celebrate my Sub-2 by putting together a new race goal. Time and tide. Here’s the video: