Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A chip on my shoulder

You hear about it happening to other people, but you never think it can happen to you.

Until it does.

I'm referring, of course, to races where the chip records only the finish time, not the start time. What is the point of this, people? Who cares if you can almost instantaneously look up your finish time on a printout if it is the exact same time that you saw on the clock as you crossed the line? Especially if you were already thinking, "Gee, there was at least a 30 second delay before I crossed the starting line, so my chip time should be really good!" (Well, "somewhat better.")

Then you go over to the printout and as you search for your name your finger inches down the page... and down... until you finally get to the exact same time that you already knew. What a letdown.

But that was really my only complaint about the Fairhaven Waterfront 15K on Saturday, September 13. Otherwise it was a great event.

This was my second time running this race, and I almost didn't sign up for it because I thought it was on the weekend I was going to be in Maine. But a few weeks ago I realized I had the date wrong, and it was in fact on the 13th rather than the 20th, so I could do it after all. Last year I spent the whole weekend up in Bellingham, but this time I just drove up early on Saturday morning so I could get home early in the afternoon as well.

Fairhaven is a picturesque historic section of Bellingham, about 60 miles north of Everett where I live. I wanted to get up there by 7:00, so that meant a 5;30 a.m. start (to accommodate the usual Starbucks stop along the way). Not so horrible, considering that I read all the time about people getting up at 4:30 or so to catch race shuttles. But horrible enough.

We arrived around 7, and easily found a parking space near the starting area by the Fairhaven Village Green. That made it easy for me to zip back and forth from the car to the check-in, back to the car, to the porta-potties, etc. (Also quick and easy to get away afterward.) I attached the chip strap to my ankle, noting with some dismay that I had to fasten it on the last hole. Did I have the biggest ankles in Bellingham?

A bit later I heard an announcement directing us to attach the timing chip around a wrist. Aha! I removed it from my ankle and reattached it to my wrist.

Since the race didn't actually start until 8:30, I had plenty of time on my hands. Still, before I knew it, it was past 7:45 and I needed to get out and do a warm-up, if I was going to. I jogged down to the ferry terminal and back up past the Village Green in a loop. Then I figured I'd better get in line for the porta-potties in case there was a wait. The announcer was exhorting everyone to hurry up and use the porta-potties before it was too late and the lines were growing.

After a few more blocks of warm-up, it was almost 8:30 and time to gather at the start, a block up from the Village Green at the corner of 11th and Harris Avenue. I squeezed myself into the crowd and made sure my Garmin and iPod were ready to go. Then the race director announced that only persons planning to run a 5-minute mile should be standing in the crosswalk near the starting line. There was a backwards surge as the crowd stepped away from the start. Next thing I knew he was walking through the crowd designating pace categories. I found myself in the general area of the 9-minute pace, which seemed good enough.

Since I have the Maine Coast Half Marathon coming up next week, I didn't have a huge agenda for this run. I generally thought I wanted to run about a 9-minute pace. Last year there were pace setters (which I didn't realize until I passed the 9-minute person, who never passed me back, although I still finished with a 9-minute average time). I considered running with the 9-minute group, if there was one this year, but there wasn't. So I was on my own.

My other concurrent objective was to see how my pace would come out if I ran comfortably, without over-exerting myself. I wanted to save something for the half-marathon! As it turned out, that worked out to slightly under a 9-minute pace (which would have been a bit more under if we'd had 100% chip timing, instead of 50%).

The fastest runners started first, followed by the rest of us.

Here you can just about see me in the middle of the picture in a white hat.
I started my Garmin when we crossed the starting line, and I could have sworn there was a mat there too. But apparently I imagined it.

Even after passing the start line, the crowd was thick and it took a while for me to set my pace. That probably explains why my first mile time was 9:15. But after the crowd thinned a bit, I picked up the pace a little bit and the next mile was under nine minutes. All the rest of my splits were around 8:50, give or take, except for one that was 9 minutes. That mile either included some uphills (the flip side of the downhills that gave me 8:38 in mile 3), or it was the part that had a long chunky gravel stretch, where I could just feel myself going slower.

I have finally determined, based on recent 5K's and 10K's and long, slow runs, that I can't really gauge how fast I am going by my legs. Sometimes I really do feel like my legs are flying or they are like lead, but most of the time they don't give me a good sense of fast or slow. What really seems to distinguish the fast 5K pace from a much slower run is the effect on my breathing. If I am running a 10:30 pace or slower (yeah, that's what I do a lot of the time), I don't really feel that my breathing is accelerated at all. It probably is, I just don't notice it. But the faster I am running, the harder I am breathing. At 8:45 to 9-minute pace, I breathe deeply (I can hear myself breathing even over the iPod) but without difficulty. When I get under 8:30, especially the closer I am to 8-minutes or below, the more likely I am to be sucking air.

This also leads me to conclude that in order to work on running faster, I need to not just work on the running, but also engage in some intense cardio that really works my heart and lungs. It's great to be in good enough shape that I can do a lot of stuff without undue exertion, but I think I need to find a way to push those limits a bit more.

Of course, that's why I do a lot of races. They are one opportunity to force myself to run beyond my easy capacity, to push my body a little harder than my lazy self might always like.

From its start in Fairhaven, the race course moved northward into Bellingham on a street route before turning back and returning on the paths that parallel the waterfront. The final portion of the run is on the Taylor Dock, an elevated walkway above Bellingham Bay. The water, mountain, and island views are superb the whole way.

Here is a photo from last year of the winner coming in on Taylor Dock, about half a mile from the finish.

The end of the dock turns sharply and climbs uphill, quite steeply, back into Fairhaven. Shockingly, the race photographer decided to set up his photo op in the middle of that hill. It was quite awful to be plugging up the hill, trying to maintain a decent pace, and then see the "photo ahead" sign! I did notice, in browsing the photo site looking for my pictures, that almost everyone looked quite wrecked in that uphill shot. But here I am, going up the hill toward the finish. (I did order the pictures, so I think I am entitled to use a copy of the proofs.)

At the top of the hill, the path leveled out and I attempted to speed up toward the finish. But for some reason, perhaps because I was still recovering from the hill, this surge sent me to the puke threshhold. I actually heaved a couple of times (but nothing came out) before I got myself back together. That sort of put a damper on a fast finish, though.

The finish line area was confusing, because there appeared to be a finish mat about half a block before the actual finish. I kept running until I saw the clock, though. The time said 1:23:20. Unfortunately I forgot to stop my Garmin for several seconds—I'm not sure how long—so I don't have a time that's any more precise than the "official" time. (Which turned out to be 1:23:21—I have no idea where that extra second came from. My mother later suggested that since the chip was on my wrist, I should have stuck my arm out as far as I could as I came in, to make sure the chip crossed the finish mat as quickly as possible!)

After I was done, and grabbed myself some water and delicious cranberry bread from the food stands, I sat on a bench for a bit and watched some of the later runners finishing (these 15-20 minutes after me). At least twice I saw someone cross the first mat, then stop, thinking they were done, as the announcer shouted, "Keep running!"

After I helped myself to a few more goodies for the car ride home (a local bakery had provided the delicious cranberry bread, as well as several other kinds of breads; I stuck to the one bread, plus some fruit—and a cookie), we headed out. I didn't have a lot of time to spare, because I had pickling plans!

Everyone in my office had gathered with bushels of cucumbers and quart jars to make dill pickles (followed by lasagne and chocolate cake, which attracted even the non-pickle makers). It was great fun, and I have 14 jars of pickles (8 of them with jalapeno peppers) to show for it. (Although as of yesterday, four had not sealed, and I'm a little concerned about that.) That's the end of my Fairhaven and pickle story, but there are a few more updates. Tomorrow (Wednesday) I am leaving for Maine. I am traveling with my brand new teeny-tiny laptop, and hope to do some blogging, but I'm not sure of the internet access where I'll be. So stories of Maine and the half-marathon may be timely, or delayed till my return. Or somewhere in between.

This morning, in one of those "day before the trip" crisis incidents, I lost my Garmin and iControl watch (for the iPod), presumably at the Y. I don't know if I dropped them (they were in a ziploc bag in my backpack) or they were stolen (but really, what kind of electronics thieves hang out at the Y before 6 a.m.?). Anyhow, I have not received any calls that they were turned into the front desk, and there's no time to wait around and see what happens. So I've already been to Target for a new watch, and plan to hit Best Buy this afternoon for a replacement Garmin. I am a little bit bemused about forking out all this money again, (and I bought a new carry-on bag at Target while I was at it), but I feel like I would just be grouchy and discontented if I tried to get by without my electronic security blanket. If they turn up, I guess I have some really good gifts to give this Christmas. (And if someone did take them—or find them and not turn them in—how much good is the Garmin without the charger?)

Believe it or not, I am less traumatized by the loss of my stuff than I was by the chip timing situation. "Things" can be replaced, but those seconds are gone forever! (That just shows how sick I really am!)

UPDATE: Before heading to Best Buy I stopped at the Y to check again, and my stuff has been found! Thank goodness; certainly could hardly spare the time or the money for a new Garmin.

SUPPLEMENTAL UPDATE: I am told that the strange behavior of the pickle jars is not a sealing failure, but rather part of the pickling process. So... fermentation or botulism? Only time will tell.

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