Sunday, June 28, 2009

Race Report: Seattle's Inaugural Rock 'n Roll Marathon

I wasn't sure what to expect for this race. I mean, it seemed like the folks who put on these Rock 'n Roll marathons nationwide would be a lot more organized and well-prepared than the previous Seafair marathons. But I couldn't imagine how tough it'd be to close down several major thoroughfares--not only downtown, but the Viaduct that runs north and south, along the waterfront--on a Saturday, no less. Not to mention, this marathon had sold out in April and there were roughly 25,000 registrants.

So, I guess, in reality, my expectations were pretty low. But I was pleasantly surprised by how well, on the whole, the race was organized. I saw that even at the Health and Fitness Expo the day prior, as I was working our Pace Team booth. On race day, it was clear that the organizers delivered a unique, entertaining race that seemed to run like a well-oiled machine.

Since the race started in an office park in Tukwila, a mini "village" was set up where the racers congregated in the early morning hours. No one was allowed to park in the immediate area, and complementary shuttle buses (school buses, actually!) took people 15 miles from the finish area to the start. I got on one of those buses at 5:00 a.m. when the crowds were just starting to thicken. By 6:00 a.m., the marathon village was packed with people--nibbling on free fruit or bagels, sipping water or Cytomax, or waiting in line for that one last chance to use a Porta Potty.

I thought the bag drop idea was the best yet: the organizers hired 20 UPS trucks and organized them alphabetically for folks to drop their gear. I've never been one to schlep a lot of stuff to a race, but this time I actually packed another shirt and my UGG boots, along with a bottle of Gatorade, and a Balance Bar.

Since it was so early, it was still pretty cold outside. My team uniform was a tank top and shorts. I wore a pullover to the village but since the pacers had to meet at the starting line at 6:15, I had to check it with the rest of my gear I was pretty chilled.

By 6:40, everyone had to be inside their assigned corrals--another new concept for me. Upon registration, each participant was required to jot down a projected finish time, which is then used to group people together according to that time. There were 35 or so corrals, starting with the elite and ending with those finishing over five hours. Since I was a pacer for the two hour, twenty-two minute (2:22) half marathon finishers, my corral was #21. Since I came into the corral with my 2:22 sign, many folks around me introduced themselves and asked me how I'd take us to the finish on time without burning everyone out. I told them I'd start off conservatively since I had run the course before, and knew what to expect elevation-wise. So for me, running negative splits was the way to go. Many people asked me if I had to carry the wooden sign throughout the race to which I replied "yes". Honestly, it wasn't that big of a deal. I'd carried far worse. The Seattle Marathon, for instance, had signs made out of PVC tubing which was a lot thicker around than the little wooden sign I held yesterday. Besides, I had trained holding a water bottle so I was used to holding something for long periods of time.

A lot of my corral mates were newbies, and it was a lot of fun to see their enthusiasm and excitement. It also reinforced the fact that I had to start out slow to conserve energy and that, no matter what, these folks needed to finish by 2:22.

The elite athletes began at gun time and then each corral was released two minutes apart. This meant my corral started 34 minutes AFTER gun time. I was pretty cold, even though the sun was up and the skies were cloudless. I think a lot of my teeth chattering, too, was pre-race jitters (which, no matter how many of these I've done, I still get) and the awesome responsibility of finishing ON TIME. Since we were all being clocked by chip time, our own "clock" didn't begin until after we crossed the starting mat--and that's where I started my Garmin.

The cool thing about the Rock 'n Roll Marathon was that there were local bands playing along the route. There were bands at every mile for the first few miles and then it thinned out as we made our approach to the Express Lanes of I90. But for the most part, the bands and the neighbors along the way provided a party-like atmosphere.

I started out 30 seconds per mile slower than my targeted pace time (a 2:22 finish means 10:50 minutes per mile). I knew I'd be able to close the gap once we finished climbing the hills around the Mt. Baker neighborhood and headed down to Seward Park and Lake Washington. At each passing mile, I'd close the gap by one second. This worked out perfectly because there were a few hills that proved pretty challenging for everyone and I didn't want too many people getting burned out so early on--a common mistake everyone makes, myself included. Besides, this was a super comfortable pace and it felt good and it gave me enough energy to look at our surroundings.

There were a lot of people who stayed with me throughout the race and when I saw someone speeding up, I'd yell: "Pacer back! 2:22 Finishers, be conservative. There are more hills ahead. Just because you feel good now doesn't mean it's gonna last!" A lot of people laughed--many slowed down and thanked me for giving them the advice. These were the people who, once they got all the hills out of the way, made their goal time (some even finished slightly earlier!)

Once we made it down to Seward Park, I let everyone know that we'd have about 4 miles of flat terrain. I cautioned that we can speed up, but only slightly since we had hills climbing up to the I90 Express Lanes ahead. This was where I closed my gap by 20 seconds--keeping my average pace around 11:01. It was there, along Lake Washington, that we spotted a majestic Eagle perched atop a tree branch next to the water. He was only about 50 feet up from us, so we could see how big he was. He looked as if he was enjoying the view of the race from up there. Just beyond the perched Eagle, several others soared around us. It was truly a beautiful sight.

We couldn't have asked for more perfect weather, either. The sky remained cloudless and the temperatures climbed slowly so I never once felt too hot or too cold. It was great, too, because I only slowed for water a few times.

Once we began our ascent to the I90 Express Lanes, at around mile 9, I stopped dropping to my hill climb pace. It's not to say I took off like a bandit up the hills, but I kept a close eye out to maintain my speed. If I dropped down too far, I'd have to make up for it between miles 9-13 and I didn't want to take that risk for fear that fatigue would set in. The group kept up with me--indicating how beneficial it was to start off slow. These hill climbs were short but pretty steep, and the last one wound around to the entrance of the freeway's tunnel.

As we made our way to the tunnel, people cheered loudly--their echoes bouncing off the walls. Everyone knew this was the last leg of the race and that understanding gave everyone extra energy to keep going strong. I felt great too until I glanced at my watch and realized that since I was in the tunnel, I'd lost my GPS reception. I panicked. How far was the tunnel? How long would it be without knowing my pace? Would this completely screw up my average pace? Would my watch adjust itself once I got outside of the tunnel? I think I sped up a little too much in panic. All I wanted to do was get out of the tunnel.

Four minutes later, we emerged. My watch began working again and much to my great joy, it adjusted itself--adding the four minutes and half mile I'd lost while inside. I was pretty stoked.

It was fun to see the runners around me open up their energy reserves and head downtown, even with the last steep hill climb before making out descent toward Qwest Field. I started getting pretty tired. I think I burned too much energy with my panic attack inside of the tunnel! By Mile 11, I just wanted it to end. I was still a little scared I'd bring us in either too early or too late.

The last part of the course was frustrating. Even though we rounded 4th Avenue south, which, if we had made a left turn onto Jackson, we would have run right into Qwest Field, we forged ahead. At the 12 Mile marker, we made a left and then...rather than making another left and doubling back toward Qwest Field, we were led to the Viaduct on ramp. I let out an "ARGH!" I loathe running on the Viaduct--and even though I only had 1.1 miles to go, I knew it'd be a long 1.1 mile. We wound around the viaduct and exited at 1st Avenue. Running PAST Qwest Field again and FINALLY making a left onto Royal Brougham. We made another left again, passing the WaMu Theater and the Expo center when we hit the 13 Mile marker saw the finish line ahead. I opened it up once I saw my watch was at 2:21. I was going to nail 2:22 if it killed me.

I crossed the mat and shut off my watch at 2:22 (official time was 2:22:04!) A woman came up to me and thanked me for keeping her motivated. She said her goal was 2:25 so she was delighted with the extra three minutes.

After I cooled down, I grabbed my stuff from the UPS truck and changed out of my sweaty, drenched top. I felt so much better. I sipped some Cytomax and ate an orange and some Fritos. I ran into a friend of mine--a fellow pacer who did half of the whole marathon and missed her handoff somehow (someone waiting for her to come and step in as a pacer for the second half). She was pretty bummed. This happened to me last year, too, so I knew the feeling.

All things considered, I had a great time. It's always nice to hear positive feedback from people and I'm glad my conservative strategy worked! It was nice to be in a comfortable pace, so I'm not too sore today. I look forward to pacing again in November for the Seattle Marathon!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Keeping the Pace

Tomorrow is the Inaugural Seattle Rock 'n Roll Marathon -- a race in which 25,000 participants will fill the streets of Tukwila and Seattle, running either 13.1 or 26.2 miles.

I'll be a pacer for the half marathon, which essentially means that I'll be carrying a sign and running at a steady pace and finishing at a set time. For those who have a goal to finish at that same time, they'll see me and follow me to the finish.

There are two dozen pacers for the race--one for each projected finish time for the half and the full marathon. We're there to keep people motivated and to stay on pace so that they can achieve their goal.

It's great fun to pace--I've been doing it for a year now, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of helping people achieve their goals. It's also lots of fun because it takes the pressure off of me to compete. I'm not a hugely competitive person, but I love being around people and the thrill of the crowd during races.

Don't get me wrong--I still love running in races and still do that a few times a year. The last half marathon I did was the Mercer Island Half and this year, I was chosen in the lottery to run the Nike Women's Marathon in October. I'll be running the half there, too. The big payoff for that race is the sterling silver necklace from Tiffany that each finisher receives! But after running 10 or so half marathons, I've found that pacing keeps me motivated as a runner. It helps me to remember what it was like starting out and it recaptures the joy and thrill. Many of the people who'll be running with me will likely be newbies to running, and most of those--about 70 percent--will be women.

It's also quite a challenge to stay on pace at all times, since my inclination is to always start out too fast! The key as a pacer is to expend equal amounts of energy throughout the race.

I'll be manning our "pacer booth" later today at the Health and Fitness Expo at Qwest Field. Later on, I'll be on hand at our pacer clinic, to answer questions and meet up with people who might run with me tomorrow. And then, tomorrow morning, I'll be getting out of bed at 4:00 a.m. to make it to the 5:00 a.m. shuttle that'll bring me to the Starter Village in Tukwila for our 7:00 a.m. gun time.

For those of you running tomorrow, good luck and have a great time! For those of you NOT running tomorrow, do yourselves a favor and don't try and drive anywhere. This tiny race is sure to snarl traffic everywhere.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Random ramblings: making sense of the viral spread of Neda's video

When NPR posted a link to the infamous "Neda" video on You Tube, my stomach twisted. I saw the still of Neda's fixed gaze and a halo of blood pooling around her, and I couldn't believe they would actually provide a post of the video. Initially, I was outraged by the audacity of such a wonderful, CREDIBLE news organization to stoop so low as to link to one of the most horrifying videos imaginable. Yet, as I read the piece, and found no direct link to one of the thousands of videos in cyberspace, I was relieved. In my opinion, death--even violent death--is so personal that I almost feel like I'm violating a code of ethics by watching it. It's as if this world has gotten so out of touch with preserving the last shred of human dignity in favor of our voyeuristic tendencies.

Yet, I understand why the person taking the footage did so. The people on the streets of Tehran are fighting for their rights and because this was such a violent murder, and journalists can barely capture the essence of what is really happening, the person using his video feature on his cell phone felt compelled to show the rest of the world the reality in his country--the reality of what he and all of the citizens in Iran endure. But once that video becomes popular domain in cyberspace, the original intention becomes clouded, the footage has gone from public outcry to public morbidity. I guarantee CNN didn't run the footage to educate the world. They ran it, and continue to run it, because it's a ratings boost.

Don't get me wrong: Neda's story needed to be told--there's no question in my mind about that. But I think showing a still image of her last moments would have been powerful enough for the media outlets to use, rather than using the video footage as B-roll on a daily basis. Think about past photographic images that captured horrifying events. Today, those images of the Kent State shooting, the liberation of the concentration camps, and the execution of a Vietcong prisoner still provide intense, valuable lessons.

I don't fault the witnesses who captured the moment, either. I fault the people here, half a world away, looking on as if the video was something out of Candid Camera. Americans love car crashes, and our "reality shows" give the rest of the world some sort of indication as to how banal and insignificant life can be. Just look at the things we watch here: flipping over tables on Desperate Housewives of New Jersey; divorce on Jon & Kate Plus 8. I feel like we're too reckless and irresponsible to watch what is really going on in the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, I don't see any solution to this problem. I don't believe in censorship, but I just wish there were some sort of way people could contribute or turn morbid curiosities into something more useful. Can anything good come from watching Neda's dying moments? Can we reach out to help in exchange for watching the video? That, I guess, would imply capitalizing on her death.

I'm not a praying person, but the people in Iran are in my thoughts. I'm saddened by Neda's tragic, untimely death and I hope that my wish for something good coming out of this situation is not in vain.