But the inaugural RussVegas Half Marathon was yesterday in Russellville, AR. I was blessed and had a blast. It was the first race I've run since Amanda was killed that I didn't wear my Running with Amanda shirt, because I was an "Official Pacer." That's what was emblazoned on the back of the neon Go! Running shirt I wore, "Official Pacer." It's only the second time I've officially paced a race, but last time I was able to wear my shirt. This time, since Go! Running sponsored the pacers and paid for my entry, I was required to wear theirs. Completely understandable, and I am grateful for the opportunity to lead, along with my co-pacer Karen, one of their pace groups.
There are a lot of great things about leading a pace group, but it does deny you the opportunity to take in the scenery and other stuff that I usually use to write detailed race reports. Pacing requires a near total focus on two things, your pace and the runners in your group. Karen and I were pacing the 2:20 group, leading folks who wanted to finish under 2 hours and 20 minutes. That meant we needed to maintain a 10:41 pace per mile, and that we had to encourage and motivate the runners who set that as their goal and chose to run with us. So this post will include a lot more details about interacting with the pace group than the course and the race itself.
At the start, it's almost impossible to tell which runners are in your group. There were ~1200 runners packed into the start corrals and it takes a little while for the crowd to thin. Within a half mile or so, the road seemed to open ahead of us as the faster runners moved on. It looked like we were going to have a pretty good-sized group. So this is when I chose to shout out the strategy Karen and I had planned for the race, to let everyone know what to expect as we traveled 13.1 miles together on the roads of Russellville.
Because mile markers on the race course never seem to match perfectly with our GPS watches, and our watches usually show the course a little longer than the official distance, and because the finish time of a runner is figured by the race clock without regard to what our GPS watches say, we planned to run a little faster than the 10:41 pace required to meet our goal. We decided to try and clock every mile, according to our watches, between a 10:30 and a 10:40 pace. Because almost every half marathon runner has a GPS watch these days, and because every one with a goal time involved has looked up the pace required to meet that goal, we had to explain early on exactly what and why we planned to run the race.
My watch clocked our first mile at a 10:37 pace and was off from the race Mile 1 marker by just a few yards. All was going according to plan. It was still really nice weather and everyone with us seemed in pretty good shape. I asked the group if there were any first time half marathoners with us and...crickets. Either nobody with us was doing their first, or they didn't want to admit it, or they had earphones in and couldn't hear me. But one of the guys with us told me this was his second Half. He'd run his first three weeks earlier in Fairview, TX.
We finished Mile 2 a little hot, clocking it at a 10:27 pace. The first half of this mile was going uphill and I think we picked up a little too much speed on the other side. It wasn't much of a downhill, but we might have let gravity do a little too much of the work and picked up three seconds we didn't really want. Still, it was early in the race and we still had a fair-sized group of runners.
Mile 3 got us back on track, coming in at 10:36. It was somewhere along here we started talking more. Karen and I began swapping running stories, and that led to others joining in the conversation. This is also an important part of pacing. Some people may think it sounds like boasting, but there's a purpose behind it. First, is to give your runners confidence that you know what you're doing. I let them know that I paced Soaring Wings last year. When asked how many Half Marathons I'd done, I told them I didn't know. I'd lost count of the halves after I started running marathons. I let them know my goal this year was to run 2014 miles and this month I'd go over 700 logged miles for the year. This does sound a lot like boasting, but a big part of leading a pace group is to encourage and motivate runners to achieve their goal. To accomplish that, they have to believe you know enough to get them through. Sharing all of this wasn't meant as a boast, but to make sure they knew that we were confident and capable of helping them achieve what they set out to achieve when they crossed that start line.
I'm not sure why, but we slowed a little on Mile 4, logging that one at 10:46. We weren't too worried about it though. We'd logged three good miles and could spare the 6 seconds as long as we didn't make a habit of it. This part of the course was almost completely flat so the terrain didn't slow us down. Maybe the story-telling distracted us, or maybe it was something else. No matter. No permanent damage was done. We just had to refocus.
Mile 5 came in at 10:35. We were back on track, and mile 6 followed at 10:37. At the water station between these two mile markers, I was blessed to be handed water by a former student of mine. As I came through, I heard, "Mr. Allison!" and looked up to see Faith's smiling face as she handed me that cup of water. I told her I'd give her a hug, but that I was sweaty and she let me know there was no need. :) I'd learn later on Facebook that another former student, Mason, had been at the Mile 4 water stop, but somehow we'd missed seeing each other. And at the finish line, another former student was working as a volunteer for the race.
Let me interrupt the race recap to give a shout out to all the volunteers at the races we run. Your value is immeasurable and our thanks are inadequate for the service you provide. These races most certainly could not happen without your presence. We appreciate all of you, but it's especially rewarding to see my former students out there making these races, in this sport I love, possible. So thank you to all the volunteers, on the course and behind the scenes that allow us to get out and do this.
We crossed the 10K point, marked by a huge flag, and the halfway point, according to my watch. Mile 7 came in at 10:45...again, I have no idea how we lost that 5 seconds. I don't remember even noticing this when the watch sounded, so I must have been distracted by the story telling duties and falling down on keeping track of my pace. By this time, I'd learned the guy running his second half marathon was also a teacher. So, we were probably swapping teaching stories or something. It was also around here, I learned that a father-son pair who were running with us had a brother/uncle who ran the Boston Marathon last week. I'm guessing it was these conversations that took my attention away from the pace during Mile 7. Again, no harm done, and the story swapping can be as important as the pace watching in the middle of an endurance race.
WA left turn on Phoenix not long after the Mile 7 marker and we began to see a few faster runners coming the other way. There weren't many, and the ones we saw were pretty spaced out. No tight bunches battling for position. Seeing those faster runners can affect different runners in different ways. Some are inspired, recognizing that in a little while, it will be them others are watching heading for the finish. Some are depressed, thinking those folks are almost finished and I still have almost half the race to run. So, here's where a pace group leader has to exploit the feelings of the optimist to encourage and motivate the pessimists. More stories!
We logged Mile 8 in 10:36, back on track again. Not long after passing the marker, we came in sight of the Arkansas Tech University campus. The course made a loop around the campus and headed back the way we'd just come. Now we saw a steady stream of runners headed back our way and I told our runners we were close to the turnaround. Out came the pessimists again. "I think that's a BIG loop!" someone said. Turns out it was, but I needed them thinking positive.
Out onto Arkansas Avenue we turned, where not much more than the shoulder was reserved for runners. The course lane was probably about six feet wide on this part of the race. By now, we were passing a considerable number of runners, and passing wasn't easy on such a narrow part of the course. We finished Mile 9 in 10:35. It was around here someone said, "Just think. Some people are already finished." It's easy to get down late in an endurance race, and again, it's our duty as pacers to tamp down those negative thoughts. So I told them that we were getting more for our money than those faster runners. Everyone seemed to get a kick out of that. They might not have really bought it, but they did get a kick out of it.
When we reached the end of the campus, we turned right to continue skirting the perimeter of ATU. After passing the football stadium, we turned right and headed right through the heart of the college grounds. Mile 10 we finished in 10:40 and we had a 5K left. Or, as a couple of our runners were pointing out, a little more than a 5K left. For quite some time, my watch was marking the miles about 50 yards short of the official mile markers on the course. This is the reason we had to go a little faster than our target pace. And here we were, still on track after 10 miles.
As we left the campus, we came to a big pasture on our left. One of the guys in the group said, "If we could just cut that barbed wire, we could but across that field." That reminded me of an old joke I told to lighten the late-in-a-half-marathon mood. We made the left turn leaving the campus and were finally meeting the walkers heading TO the ATU campus. Mile 11 we finished in 10:34. I stopped at the mile marker and waved my 2:20 sign to offer encouragement to those behind us. "2.1 miles from right here!" I yelled, then headed off to resume my duties. Only 2 miles to go, of the 13.1 we started with. At this point, most everyone is regaining confidence they can finish the race. From here on in, it's all about keeping them on pace.
Like clockwork at this point, my watch sounded about 50 yards before the official 12 Mile Marker. 10:31 is what it read, with only a little more than 1.1 miles to go. Everyone's starting to feel really good now. At this point, I was figuring the course would be 13.2 miles on my watch. We reached the the official marker and we had a little over 12 minutes to finish. Right on schedule.
Then, after 8 or so pretty flat miles...really flat miles in fact, the steepest ascent of the course, like nothing we'd hit so far, rose from the ground. We were a couple hundred yards away and could see runners ahead of us struggling up the steep railroad overpass. Struggling. You could see it from that far away. And it looked like a monster! As we approached, the complaints started coming, before we even started up. So I told them just stay with me. Not to look at the top of the hill. Look right in front of your feet and don't fall back!
We actually picked up speed going up the hill. My only goal here was to not let them slow down. Speeding up was better than slowing down, and pushing hard meant spending less time struggling up the hill. To walk up the hill would slow us down enough that we'd likely not make our time goal. Karen maintained a steady pace and stayed with those who didn't charge the hill with me. As we pushed up the hill, I told them over and over, it will get easy when we get to the top, look at your feet, don't look up! And we reached the top of the hill. Then it really did get easy going down!
Now we were less than a mile from the finish. At the bottom of the hill, I figured we had 8/10 of a mile to go, including the extra 1/10 according to my watch. We had just under 10 minutes to make it. I didn't slow down now. I had total faith in Karen to maintain the pace. Now I wanted to get as many in as we could under 2:20. I picked it up to about a 10:15 pace, passing several, letting them know as I passed how far they had to go and how long they had to get there and still beat the 2:20 time. My watch told me the 13th mile we ran in 10:21. Not too much faster than we'd planned. I told the men running with me, who had been with us all along, that I was going to stop at the 13 Mile Marker and rally others in. I wished them well, and told them to finish strong.
When I stopped at the 13 mile marker, I turned around and began yelling out how much time there was to finish under 2:20. Only 1/10 of a mile to go...for real...with a minute and 55 seconds to get there. Most of them within earshot picked up the pace as I called out times. When the last runner who had a shot at making the cutoff came by me, I turned and trotted toward the finish. As I made the left turn from Main St. toward the finish chute, I glanced back one last time to see if there was anyone else with a chance to make the time goal. None.
As I ran through the chute, another former student of mine, Taryn, shouted, "Mr. Allison!" I waved but she was on the other side of the barrier. I crossed the mat as the race clock read just a few seconds longer than 2:20. I stopped my watch after crossing the line and it read 2:19:44. Success! By the grace of God, we made our goal and helped several others reach theirs.
3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. ~ Philippians 2:3-4
This was only my second opportunity to be an official pacer. Last October at Soaring Wings was my first. I have to say, this is a far more rewarding than breaking two hours or even getting a PR. It's just a lot of fun running at a comfortable pace and helping others reach their goal. My co-pacer, Karen, was a fantastic partner and I'd be proud to pace any race with her in the future. Several of the runners who finished with us were extremely grateful, one even wanting a picture with us. :)
I want to thank God and Go! Running for the opportunity to do this, and to thank the folks who organized this race. It was a fabulous experience that I hope to repeat next year. (And next year, I'll know about that hill before I see it!)
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