Race Review: 2013 Rock ‘N’ Roll USA Half Marathon (03/16/2013), or: “Over the hills where the spirits fly…”

rnrusa_logoSo last weekend we traveled up to Washington, DC for the Rock ‘n’ Roll USA Marathon event. This race was of particular interest to me for a variety of reasons. First off, it was a trip to Washington for a few days, and I hadn’t been to Washington as a tourist or for non-business reasons since I was 16 and protesting the treatment of Soviet Jewry during a Gorbachev visit.

I actually made none of that up. That really happened in 1987. I even wrote my college essay about the experience. Hmm…

This town was Cute Redhead Central. I swear...

This town was Cute Redhead Central. I swear…

Moving on, I was also excited for the trip because I was traveling with my Friends In Training running group buddies, who I’ve discovered to be an awesomely fun group of folks who somehow put up with my particular brand of oddness… even when it’s not a for a few short hours every Saturday morning. Thanks guys. And let’s face it, running a race in  new territory is always an adventure (especially out of your home city/state/country) but this was going to be in WASHINGTON! The scenery! The sights! The monuments! The weather! The St. Paddy’s celebrations! The unbelievable population of redheads! What a time!!

Finally, I was very curious to experience a race in the Rock ‘n’ Roll series. They have a few dozen races around the country and world every year, and as one of the Big Guns in the racing world, they’ve always been on my radar. I wanted to experience one of their races and compare it to other series (big and small) I’ve been through, like Florida Storm or Disney. And believe you me, we’ll get to THAT soon enough.

bensFor the sake of brevity, I’m not going to go over ever last bit of our Washington adventures. Needless to say, we did a lot of touristy fun things. Monuments, museums, restaurants, parks, good times with great people, catching up with family and the awesomeness of public transportation that is quick, easy, convenient, and takes you where you need to go made for an incredibly enjoyable trip. I am going to give a special shout-out to the landmark DC restaurant Ben’s Chili Bowl, for having a Half-Smoke chili dog so unbelievably damn good, is was so worth waiting in line nearly 30 minutes for one, even if I possibly got pickpocketed (they got absolutely nothing of value; I’ve traveled enough to keep all my valuables safe at all times).

OK, so let’s get to the race itself, which was on Saturday the 16th. On Friday we hopped a shuttle to the race expo, which was held at the D.C. Armory. Picking up my bib, shirt, and swag pretty much took no time at all. Nonetheless, it seemed my line had about a dozen people waiting in it, whereas every other one maybe had one or two… if they had any at all. This is how my life operates, my friends! Nonetheless, it was a pretty upbeat experience. The PA was blasting 80s hair metal from Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, and the like, and the convention hall seemed very spacious and spread out. I didn’t get that ULTRA CRAMPED vibe that has plagued almost every other pre-race expo I’ve experienced before. After picking up all my swag, Boots & I browsed the merch (I ended up purchasing a tech shirt and pin), scurried about the vendors, and made a hasty retreat from the building. After some lunch and sightseeing, we made it back to the hotel for a quick rest before meeting the FIT peeps for an early pasta dinner at a clubhouse in a friend of Marcela’s building. Finally it was back to the hotel, pinning of the bib onto my race shirt, laying out the gear, hitting the Xanax, and I was out like a light by about 9:30 PM.

Race Day

The alarm chimed out its usual Samsung-y melody at 5:15 AM, and I was up. After doing my steadfast round of IT band stretches and the ceremonial application of Body Glide, it was time to gear up. Race day temperatures were looking to be overcast, rainy (70% chance, they said), and in the upper 30s at the Start Line. Now I love cold weather — LOVE IT! — but having lived in South Florida the vast majority of my life, I am a Creature of the Tropics. Hell, I’m practically half-iguana at this point in my life. Cold-blooded and overly susceptible to temperatures under 65 degrees. So I wasn’t messing around. My race attire consisted of a black coldgear shirt, black compression tights, black gloves with yellow stripes over the ring and middle fingers that made me look like I had Dayglo claws, a black knit cap, black compression calf sleeves, blue Saucony Mirage 2 kicks, and my yellow long-sleeved FIT shirt on top. Plus I wore my hoodie for the trip up to the Start Line, which I would then hand to Boots to hold for me until after the race.

Overkill? Maybe. But man did I keep toasty!

Overkill? Maybe. But man did I keep toasty!

After posing for some FIT team pictures in the Courtyard Marriott lobby, we boarded a shuttle and embarked on our journey to the Start Line. The closest the shuttle could get us was a few blocks away, in the shadow of the Washington Monument, but it was an enjoyable walk. The streets weren’t too crowded even though upwards of 30 thousand runners were making their way there. The Start Line itself was on Constitution Ave and 14th Street, adjacent to the Smithsonian American History museum. I was in Corral 20, along with many of my buddies from FIT. We were there early enough for the nearly half-hour Porto-Potty wait to be endurable. Afterward, I posed for pictures and chatted with Brett, Marcela, Ilene, Tori, Rosa, Marci, Sandy, Audrey, and others. I forgot how awesome it is to have buddies at the Start Line. Usually I’m doing my loner thing in the corner. Yes folks, I am an introvert. I swear. Don’t believe otherwise, even when I’m babbling endlessly among large groups of amused or perhaps bemused onlookers.

Part of our Start Line gang!

Part of our Start Line Gang!

More of our Start Line Gang!

More of our Start Line Gang!

Finally the National Anthem began, and I got hit with a strong wave of idealized patriotism. I always talk about covering my heart (and in this case, also removing my hat) when I hear The Star Spangled Banner. For all the pragmatic cynicism and progressive skepticism I feel about government and history, I still believe in the most of the ideals that created this country. Hearing the national anthem, IN our nation’s capital? That was a most amazing feeling. Almost brought a tear to my eye.

I was now pumped and ready to run this race! Sunrise had broken, temperatures had gone up just a little bit (it was probably around 40 degrees), and we were pretty psyched to run. At 7:30 the disabled runners took off, followed by the elites, and we slowly found ourselves walking up to the Start Line. I was taking pictures with my phone around this point, when I accidentally elbowed some poor girl in the head! She seemed to brush it off, but man, I got to watch the whole “flailing arms akimbo” pre-race calisthenics thing. *sigh* Anyway, soon after the headphones came in, the sunglasses slipped on, and I was off on my 13.1 mile journey.

"Get outta my shot, lady!" Running past the Lincoln Memorial.

“Get outta my shot, lady!” Running past the Lincoln Memorial.

I’m not going to do a detailed, mile-by-mile description of the entire race. Instead I’ll give you some general thoughts about the experience, and why I only had one disappointment with it… albeit a MAJOR one.

The start of the race was pretty magical. I mean, our start corrals were next to the Smithsonian museums, and right as you pass the Start Line you find yourself sandwiched between the Washington Monument on your left and the White House (slightly in the distance) on your right. That’s pretty much the strongest start-line scenery I’ve ever experienced. For the first four miles, it’s nothing but famous monuments and beautiful scenery. You’re going past the west side of the National Mall (which houses the Washington Monument, Constitutional Gardens, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and Reflecting Pool), a brief northerly turn through city streets before returning back to Constitution Ave. Then you’re heading south towards (and next to) the Lincoln Memorial, crossing Arlington Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River, around the roundabout and back over the bridge again, then north past the Kennedy Center on the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway.

You honestly can’t ask for a better background than that, really. Plus it’s nice and cold too (for a South Floridian, anyhow), although the running was considerably warming me up. I notice that I’m not running particularly fast or slow. Just kind of enjoying the view, which was fine. I definitely was NOT out to PR this race. And that’s a good thing. Because I didn’t. Not even CLOSE. More on that later.

Leaving the Arlington Memorial Bridge...

Leaving the Arlington Memorial Bridge…

As we left the fantastic monuments and awe-inspiring views behind, we continued for about three miles on the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway. It was a nice run alongside the river, then through a more woodsy area, but a minor bit of a letdown after the first 3.5 miles of awesomesauce. Oh well. It can’t all be chocolate cake. Besides, it was a pleasant run with great conditions. And NO RAIN! Take that, weather people! At each mile stop, there was a band playing on a small stage. My favorites — by which I mean the only ones I actually remember — included a kids band performing Nirvana’s “In Bloom” and an awesome pasty-looking brass/tuba band playing who knows what. Otherwise… meh. Nice to have bands and live music playing, but it’s not like you’re going to stop and actually listen to any of them. If runners don’t already have their own audio on headphones, most of them are way too concentrated on their own thing to really get into live music. They didn’t take me “out of the zone”. A completely anecdotal observation, but there you have it.

After the race started, Boots hopped the Metro to around the Mile 5 stop to snap some pictures of me trucking up the parkway. It was pretty crowded out there but at least I was able to spot her and attempt to maneuver into photographic positioning. It’s really hard to stop and pose in such a narrow, crowded, constantly-moving area but all things considered, not too shabby.

Here’s me discovering Boots on the side of the road:

Who dat over dere??

Who dat over dere??

Trying to work my way over:

Dude! I'm smacking you in the head for getting in my picture!!

Dude! I’m smacking you in the head for getting in my picture!!

And finally the “Hey, dig me!” moment:



Well anyway…

Now so far, I’m really cool with the race. I’m not tearing it up, but I’m going at an even clip and having a good time. Then, just past Mile 6, is when it hits us. What the locals call “Kill Hill”. Where the Parkway turns straight up into Shoreham Drive and intersects with Calvert Street, where the course turns eastbound. HOLY CRAP. This hill seemed to go straight up for about 200 yards. Now folks, if I haven’t mentioned it a few trillion times already, I’m from South Florida. We have no hills. ZERO. None. Flat as flat can be. I regularly train up and down bridges as part of my weekly long run, but that can’t even compare. A bridge run is a quick and easy up and down, even on the 17th Street Causeway. I have no real training with long, slow inclines, or even long steep ones like Kill Hill. And that sapped my Mojo. What sapped my Mojo even more was the realization that my slower-than-usual pace was caused by these inclines. I’m used to fast and flat. Hills? Not so much.

Running with such variants in elevation is a new experience for me in a long-run situation. I had felt more of my calves and quads carrying the load than before, and I was still cognizant of my IT band issues. I didn’t want to risk blowing out my knees and, quite frankly, I don’t think I would have been able to put on that kind of speed anyhow. So I kept it slow and steady for the second half of the race, which was by far more challenging than the first.

It was also a whole lot less interesting. The second half of the race was basically an episode “The Streets of Commercial/Residential Washington”, which was fine and pleasant and a bit of a letdown after the more exciting first half. There were plenty of residents out cheering with the usual cliched signs that we’ve only seen a few dozen times before (“Run like you stole something!” “Worst parade ever!” “You’ve got stamina; call me!” etc. etc.) My personal favorite was a dopey looking guy holding up a poster which read: “This is a poster!”. Upside-down. Awesome.

But a comparatively boring second-half wasn’t my problem with this race. Nor were the hills. OK, I need more hill training, but no biggie. I was going much slower than normal, but I was enjoying myself, for the most part. Even bumped into Denise and Gus’s family around Mile 12 and got some pictures and high-fives with them.

Making my way to the Finish Line...

Making my way to the Finish Line…

I finally crossed the Finish Line with a time of 2:23:38, which is my slowest time since ING Miami in January 2012. In comparison, I ran the A1A Half Marathon a month previous to this race, and did it in 2:07:51. That’s sixteen minutes during which those hills slammed me down. But if I was going to beat myself up over my time, I didn’t feel it then. I certainly don’t feel it now. It was a challenge, not a humbling one, but a reminder that everything we do, there’s always a conflict of which you’re not aware, and how you rise to meet that challenge, that’s where your mettle and determination is truly tested.

So no. I have no problem with my time. Or the hills. Or the less-than-awesome scenery of the last 7 miles. Or the spectators. All of that was fine and enjoyable, and I overall really liked the race a lot… with one HUGE exception. A problem that needs to be rectified.



My problem with the race were the abominable water stations.

The water stations were severely under-staffed, which resulted in bottlenecks at almost every stop. Usually you have volunteers who step out with cups of water or Gatorade to hand to runners. If there weren’t enough volunteers to hand-deliver the much-needed hydration, the staff would generally fill up as many cups as they could and leave them on the table for you to grab them yourself. And that’s fine too; I don’t expect hand-delivery all of the time.

But there were times that you had to stop and pour your own cup of water from a hose-like nozzle. This was really annoying, and slowed everyone down considerably. But even THAT wasn’t even the worst of it.

The WORST of it was when the Gatorade station had NO volunteers. Just a big open tub of Gatorade. And a pile of cups. And people grabbing cups and dipping them into the Gatorade. WITH THEIR BARE HANDS. Utterly nasty. I was in need of electrolytes and skipped that tub like a bad habit.

Have they learned NOTHING since the disaster of Vegas, 2011?

I’ve now run eight half-marathons and one Full, as well as various 5 and 10Ks, and I’ve never seen anything as nasty, poorly organized, or badly managed as these water stations. ING Miami and the Disney runs had just as many runners (if not more) and not a one of them had problems like these. The Rock ‘n’ Roll needs to get their act together and eliminate these issues ASAFP before I’d consider running another one.

OK… I got that off my chest. Don’t let that WELL-deserved criticism bring you down, because otherwise I had a really fun race experience. 🙂

Piece of cake!

Piece of cake!

OK, so the race bling was smaller and less impressive than expected… big deal!! The general conditions were really about as great as they could have been. The forecast rain we had been so repeatedly warned about never appeared. The weather was cool (43 degrees average, according to my capricious Garmin) and cloudy, which meant no sun bearing down on us. And being able to run past all those magnificent structures and historical monuments, being able to hang out with my friends in the wee hours before daybreak, even spending the days before and after the race, we had a great time in Washington, and I enjoyed the race quite a bit. We even got to catch some snow the day we left back to Fort Lauderdale! OK they were just flurries, but I’ll take them. Awesome.

So overall, this was a mostly positive race experience with a SERIOUS water-station issue that Rock ‘n’ Roll needs to address IMMEDIATELY. There’s too much money going into these races to treat something as crucially important as hydration as an afterthought. Because otherwise, they’re leaving a nasty stain on an otherwise enjoyable experience. Here’s the video:

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