The USA Half-Marathon Championships took place in Duluth, MN and was part of the Grandma's Marathon weekend. It was my fifth race in six weeks and would serve as my final race of the spring season. I wanted to set a new personal best but most importantly of all, to have fun and mix it up to the best of my ability.
I flew out of Nashville bright and early in the morning, with a connecting flight in Chicago, before reaching the Minneapolis Airport. Because it would save a few bucks, I decided to rent a car and make the 2.5 hour drive to Duluth. When I picked up my car, the guy from Budget tried the classic up-sale and told me my car probably wouldn't have cruise control (which I don't use) or power windows (I can crank a window) but since I drive a 2001 Ford Escort and a now comatose 2003 Honda Civic, anything would be an upgrade. I ended up getting a 2012 Ford Focus, with both cruise control and power windows. It only had about a thousand miles on it, had too many gadgets for my old-self to figure out and when I turned on the ignition, it was so quiet that I couldn't even tell if it was on or not. I think this sub-compact was fine.
While the drive-up was pretty, I realized that Minnesota drivers think driving 65 in the fast lane is acceptable and about half of the drive contained some kind of construction, which resulted in a lot of one-lane interstate driving. I stopped by McDonalds for a McDouble, medium fry and a Smores Pie before completing the rest of the journey. After 11 hours of traveling, I finally made it to the Hampton Inn in Duluth. I had a goody bag clad with some muffins, candy, some fruit and a small bottle of wine, which all served as my dinner that night. While I was sleepy and not feeling like running, I went out for a six mile run along the lake, with a few built-in pick-ups. I then unpacked my bags, watched some TV and was out for the night.
On Friday morning, Kameron Ulmer, whom I met at the Rocket City Marathon in 2010, met me at my hotel and we went for an easy five mile run. We ended up crossing paths with four-time Olympian Abdi Abdirahman, which was pretty cool. We then went to get our packets and my travel stipend. Instead of race numbers, our bibs had our last names on them, which was pretty cool. They had a room set-up stocked with tons of food and drinks, that was pretty much open all-day. I made some lunch and talked with some guys from Wisconsin, who were also running. I then hung out in my hotel for a bit before heading to the athletes meeting.
After the meeting was over, I was able to meet with one of my favorite coaches, Mark Hadley. He gave me some advice and pointers about my training plan for my fall marathon. He found a few holes in my training that I feel will really help me pop out a fast time. While this spring I've been having fun with things, I go into hardcore training when I focus on the marathon, so meeting with Mark will really help me out.
I then killed some more time in my hotel before heading over to the spaghetti dinner. There were hundreds of people inside and I ended up sitting across from Josh Eberly, who ran for Western State in college. I never met him before but he and his wife seemed like really cool people. After he left, I noticed that Ben and Candice Schneider were sitting at the table behind me. I talked to them for a while before heading back to my room. Since the race bus was leaving at 4:45am, I planned on waking up at 3:45am, so I wanted to get a decent amount of sleep.
After waking up, I jumped in the shower and then ate a couple bowls of cereal and my token cup of coffee. I had a small freak out when I couldn't find my watch and spent about 10 minutes frantically searching the room. I really didn't want to run with my Garmin but I threw it in my bag and headed out to catch the bus. I had a hunch to check my car before jumping on the bus and luckily my watch was sitting in the front seat.
We left promptly at 4:45. Since the course was point-to-point, we pretty much drove 13.1 miles down the road. While the bus was packed full of runners, no one really said a word, and I ended up sitting behind Jason Hartmann, who is one of the top marathoners in the country. Besides his insanely long legs, he doesn't look like your typical elite distance runners, but he's a killer.
The bus dropped us off a few blocks down from the start. I waited around the tent for about 20 minutes before seeing Ben and we went out for an easy 15 minute warm-up. I was feeling really good and while the temperature was a nearly perfect 60 degrees, the humidity was near 100%. While this wasn't perfect weather, I felt like the humidity gave me an advantage over the others, which I welcomed. However, I regretted not turning in any water bottles because I knew I would probably need them later.
With about 15 minutes until the gun, I turned in my bag, did a few strides and took a spot on the line before most of the field did. While there were over 100 solid guys in the race, I felt like I had a shot at the top 20, so I didn't want to get a poor starting position. Within a few minutes, everyone was on the line and we were off.
I wanted to run the first mile around 4:50 and I felt really, really good from the get-go. Within a half mile, two distinct packs formed. I positioned myself at the very back of the first pack and was probably around 30th or so. I could see the upcoming mile marker and was really surprised when I crossed in 4:41. Just a week prior, I felt very sluggish going through the mile marker in 4:46 during a 5k, so I didn't understand how this felt so easy. I debated slamming on the brakes but I was already last in the pack and the other pack was nearly 100 meters behind and came through in 4:54. I decided to back off a hair and not make any intentional passes for a while until I found my groove. However, I caught up with Stephen Shay and Jason Ordway, who I both felt were way out of my league, so it was intimidating running with them. I came back with two 4:50s and went through the 5k in 24th place, with 14:51. After the next couple of miles, I ended up forming a four-man pack with Michael Reneau, Joe Moore and Hanson's runner, Jeremy Criscione. We ran together for the next several miles and went through 10k in 30:13. Running with these three other guys was a really cool experience. One guy would force the pace and take the lead, while the rest of us tucked in. After a few minutes, another one of us would take the lead and start to surge again. While it was a painful experience, I really enjoyed the battle of wills and unspoken camaraderie we were building throughout the race.
We made up a lot of ground on the runners in front of us and it looks like we were rapidly running down Jason Hartman. We dropped Jeremy shortly before 10 miles, crossed that marker in 49:18 and I did my best to focus on finishing the last 5k. Within a mile, Michael and Jeremy dropped me and I did my very best to not lot Jeremy catch me. At this point, something was really bugging my allergies and my eyes were burning and it felt like my head was being squeezed together. With two miles to go, I really wanted to be done but I didn't want to lose another spot. It's always been one of my goals to beat a Hanson's runner and I knew I was close to achieving it. At one point, I was letting the pain get the best of me and waited and expected to get passed. I then snapped out of it and told myself that if I got beat by him it was because I allowed it, so I tried to press on again.
Finally I could see the finish line in site and I saw that Zach Hine was in striking distance. I tried to press my foot on the gas but immediately, I hunched over and started to dry heave. I tried to press again and immediately dry heaved. I expected to puke in front of everyone but nothing would come up and I ended up finishing a second behind Zach in 65:02, to finish 15th. That time was frustrating because if I would have broken 65, I would have received an extra $750 instead of the $500 I received. However, I will gladly take the $500!
Abdi ended up with an easy win in 62:46 over Brett Gotcher. Ian Burrell, Michael Eaton and Tim Ritchie also had some awesome races and stamped their tickets as one of the nation's elite and future top marathoners. I feel like one of those three guys will make a run at sub 2:10 in the marathon by the time 2016 rolls around.
I hung around the finish for a bit and met Jake Krong. He is probably the second best looking bald Saucony Hurricane runner and it was kind of funny because we have never met before but both read each other's blogs. I then talked to Ben for a while and since I was feeling really sick, I gimped back to the hotel.
My plan was to take a long nap and then hang out for a while before heading to the athlete's party. However, the rest of the day did not go as planned. I woke up with a killer headache and spent the rest of the day throwing up and in bed. I had to miss the party and to add more salt to the wound, I also missed "Piranaconda" on the SyFy Channel. It was definitely a bad way to end my time in Duluth but I will be back next year. After checking out of the hotel, I drove to Minneapolis and met Candice and Trent Rosenbloom to eat at the Black Sheep before catching my flight back home.
After reflecting on the race, I felt like I was in much better than 65:02 shape. I was a little bit stale from all of the training and races and probably adjusted my training a little bit too much for that 5k at the Distance Carnival. What really slowed down my time was that 4:41 opening mile. I felt like I could have went out in a lower 4:50 and came through 10k just as fast as I did during the race, but feeling much better. However, if everyone ran a smart or ideal race I probably wouldn't have finished 15th overall, so I have to view it as a solid performance. I
was the only guy in the top 20 who didn't run in the Olympic Marathon
Trials. I also beat a handful of sub 2:15 marathoners and even a couple
of 2:12 guys. And nearly all of the guys who beat me don't have two
jobs jobs or a family to take care off. However, I've made some
adjustments in my schedule and will be able to train at a higher level
and work on closing that gap. A year ago, I could have MAYBE run 68:00,
so I feel like I still have a lot of room to improve.
Overall, it was an amazing experience. They took really good care of myself and all of the other runners in the field. I never had to buy any food, was able to get into any of the events I wanted and people would even bring Red Bulls and water to my hotel room.
With the spring racing season complete, it's now time to kick back and relax for a bit before starting my build-up for the fall. And if you are looking for an awesome marathon or half-marathon experience, I strongly suggest coming to this race! The weather is usually really decent, the course is flat and scenic and Duluth is a really cool town.