This was better than just a regular race weekend.
I watched more basketball in 4 days than I had in any previous extended stretch of my life. I visited museums, I barcrawled, and I saw a concert at The Fillmore. I made new friends, I reconnected with an old friend I hadn’t seen in over a decade, and I was treated like family by a friend’s parents that I’d only met that weekend. I toured the stomping grounds of Billy Graham, I drove around Charlotte in the lamest rental car I’ve ever been given, I immersed myself in the NASCAR experience, and above all, I just relaxed.
And somewhere in the midst of all that, I found time to set a very unexpected new half-marathon PR.
Last June, friend-of-the-blog Dan Solera convinced me that it would be a good idea to run the NC Half Marathon at Charlotte Motor Speedway in March 2013. On paper, the race sounded looked great — the course had a nice novelty to it (we would run through/around 3 separate race tracks at the Charlotte Motor Speedway complex), it was cheap (early-bird pricing was still sub-$60), and it would give me an excuse to travel to a state that I’d never visited. On July 2nd, 2012, I plunked down my registration fee for the race and barely gave it another thought for the rest of 2012.
As the months went on, though, some of our friends unexpectedly jumped on board. First to commit was Marla, with one half-marathon under her belt, who has family in Raleigh that she could visit that weekend. Next came Ashley, who had never run a half marathon before, but who has recently started running and has family in Charlotte that she wanted to see. Seeing this fearsome foursome already registered, our friend Lindsey from Grand Rapids, MI decided she couldn’t keep away, and our fantastic four grew to a party of five. When my friends Chris and Alexis decided to drive down from Washington, DC that weekend to run the race as well, we found ourselves with a truly magnificent seven.
And speaking of magnificent, the race was to be held on the Sunday of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament’s opening weekend. I jumped at the opportunity to fly down to Charlotte early on Thursday so that I could watch as many games as possible, and I had my butt on a bar stool at Buffalo Wild Wings before noon on March 21st to watch my beloved Michigan State Spartans throttle Valparaiso.
Since everyone else was flying in later on Thursday, after the game ended I spent most of my time tooling around Charlotte on my own, seeing that sights that I wasn’t sure anyone else would be interested in. I walked around the Billy Graham Library, and I paid a visit to both the Mint Museum and the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art (the Mint Museum is way better, in case you’re dying to know). Ashley, Marla, and Lindsey all landed at around the same time later that day, and we closed out our Thursday night by relaxing in the hot tub at Ashley’s family home.
Friday (two days before the race) was wonderfully gluttonous — after an early run through Charlotte’s Freedom Park, we picked up Ashley’s brother Adam and his roommate John and proceeded to go to more bars and drink more beers and watch more basketball. John is a friend that I hadn’t seen since we both attended the same high school in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, and he just happened to now be roommates with Ashley’s brother in Charlotte. It’s a small world, I tell ya.
Ashley, Lindsey, and I broke off from the group mid-day to visit the NASCAR Hall of Fame, where we got to drive all the simulators for free (that feels important). After whetting our NASCAR whistle, we met up again with Adam and John at a bowling alley that was showing all of the tournament games on big screen TVs at the end of each lane. Before long, I received a call from Chris and Alexis to let me know that they had arrived in town. The weekend was really, truly kicking into gear.
Chris and Alexis picked me up downtown and we headed straight to the Fillmore, to go see Minus the Bear play live. The venue was cool, the band was great, the company was excellent, and the post-concert beers were delicious. The day started early and ended late, and for me, reality of running a half-marathon on Sunday hadn’t really sunk in yet.
Saturday morning saw us head to the racetrack to pick up our packets, which went very smoothly (good looks, Charlotte Motor Speedway — I see you). Alexis was very excited that her old car got to experience the unmitigated thrill of driving within the walls of an actual speedway (parking for packet pickup was located in the track’s infield area), and we were excited to let her be excited. After we’d retrieved our packets, it was time to go — you’ll never guess this — drink and watch more basketball!
And after another 5-6 hours of (lightly) drinking and watching sports, we had just enough time to eat dinner and retire to our respective sleeping quarters; we had a big day ahead of us the next day.
PRE-RACE (Sunday, March 24th — 5:30am)
Rain on race day is never fun.
As Chris, Alexis, and I woke up around 5:30am on Sunday, 2 hours before the start of the race, a steady drizzle was noticeable outside our hotel window. The 30-minute drive from our hotel to the speedway passed mostly in silence — Chris was trying to wake up, Alexis was trying to keep the car from sliding off the road, and I was trying not to think about how much it would suck to run 13.1 miles in a deluge.
The weather forecast for Sunday had looked like crap all week, and it didn’t look like we were going to be getting a break.
We parked our car and walked to the pre-race staging area at the infield garage, the same place where packet pickup was held the day before. We quickly found Dan, Ashley, Marla, and Lindsey, and we spent the rest of our time before the race inside that wonderfully warm, dry garage. Do you know what’s GREAT to have available when it’s raining outside? An appropriately large indoor shelter that can fit the entire race field, as well as any spectators. Good looks again, NC Half Marathon at Charlotte Motor Speedway. I see you on that.
After one final rushed bathroom break (JUST MADE IT!), we left the garage and walked to starting line on the racetrack’s oval. Chris and I positioned ourselves close to the front of the starting queue, while Dan lined up even further forward.
Magically, the steady rain that had been falling for hours had eased during the short time we spent in the garage, and it now felt like nothing more than a light mist. Would we be in luck after all?
After re-tying my shoes and suffering through an UNBEARABLY long prerecorded instrumental version of The Star-Spangled Banner (don’t think I didn’t notice that, NC Half Marathon at Charlotte Motor Speedway), the loud revving and squealing tires of an actual stock car signaled the start of the race. With the carnal smell of burnt rubber and exhaust fumes lingering in the air, we were off!
This was my first road race back since I injured my knee last October, and I was’t sure how it would hold up at race pace. My plan was to run at close to a steady 08:00/mile pace throughout the entire race, and hopefully finish with a time around 1:45 — if things went okay and my still-rehabilitating knee didn’t blow up, I would end up running my 2nd- or 3rd-fastest half marathon ever. Really, the only thing that I wanted out of this weekend was was run a fast(ish) road race without anything giving out on me, and anything beyond that would be a bonus.
While Dan would be running off on his own far up ahead (the bastard), Chris decided that he would run at least the first few miles with me. Chris is markedly faster than me when he’s on his game (he ran a 1:35:39 half-marathon in March 2012), but as he was still racing himself into shape for the spring season, he decided that opening up with a few “easy” 8-minute miles would be a good thing before kicking it into another gear.
Chris and I started the race near a beanpole-thin pacer holding a “1:45” pole, and the presence of pacers was a real relief to me. I had ditched my preferred GPS watch for the day because it doesn’t do well in the rain, and so I was just wearing a plain ol’ digital sport-watch around my wrist. I was “running blind,” without my GPS security blanket to give me feedback, and running with a pacer was just what I needed. Chris and I decided to run with our Pace Car for at least the first few miles, at which point we would then reassess our situation mid-race (oh, and that’s another thing — our incredibly polite/congenial gentleman pacer will henceforth be known as “Pace Car” in this entry, because I’m an asshole and I forgot to get his name).
The race began on a straightaway at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, with the initial stretch taking us just below/inside the innermost white line on the track, so as to keep us off the wicked bank of the upper track where the stock cars normally race. Don’t worry, I still went far out of my way to run above the white line anyway, just to say that I ran where the stock cars raced. I nearly fell over because of the steepness of the track, but the important takeaway here is that I pretended to be a race car for a couple seconds, and it was awesome.
After running on the main track for about a mile and a quarter, the course took us off the track and down through Pit Road, which had no bank/camber to speak of. The ensuing mile and a half snaked through the speedway’s winding infield, and after about 2.5 miles, we turned left to exit the speedway. I had no idea just how immensely huge these southern speedways are — I didn’t think it was possible to run almost 3 miles inside of one single architectural structure, but that’s exactly what we did. For a more detailed view of the course, here is Dan’s GPS readout of the course, taken from his recap of the race:
Dan’s race recap will tell you that right outside the main speedway is where we started to experience some hills, but in truth, I barely noticed them. If there were hills, they were firmly in the “rolling” category, at least until we crossed a steep pedestrian bridge taking us over a highway somewhere after Mile 4.
The bridge had some noticeable give/bounce to it, which concerned some people more than it bothered me. It was only after everyone in our 8:00/mile pace group had made across the bridge that Pace Car told us, “Okay, now that everyone is safely over that bridge, I can tell you that it collapsed in the year 2000 because the builder used a crappy concrete mix. It happened on a big race day, and over 100 people tumbled from the bridge to the highway when it happened. It was so bad, people were stacked up on top of one another.” Wait…WHAT?!?
“Oh yeah, I think someone even died in that,” came a comment from the back of the group. Yes, THIS REALLY HAPPENED. Damn, Pace Car, that’s a heavy bit of knowledge to be dropping on us just one-third of the way into the race, but I was glad he said it after we had already crossed.
It was around this time that Chris started to feel some, uh, rumblings in his stomach. I know what that’s like and it’s not fun, so I didn’t even try to talk him out of it when he broke off from our group at Mile 5 to use a Port-o-John. I asked him if I should wait for him or maybe slow down my pace a bit, but he told me to keep on going, and he would catch up to us. It must be nice to be that fast, I thought, and I sped away with Pace Car and the gang.
As we zoomed around the outside boundary of the Dirt Track at Mile 5, Pace Car thoughtfully advised us that we were about to encounter the biggest downhill stretch of the course at Mile 5.5, which we would then have to climb back up immediately after we turned around at the bottom of the hill. I decided to take full advantage of the downhill so that I could then jog the uphill portion at a more casual gait (climbing hills is all about perceived effort, not pace!), and I sped ahead to put some distance between myself and the pace group. The strategy worked like a charm, and my legs felt refreshed and energized when the rest of the group caught up to me at the crest of the hill. Weirdly, though, even though this short stretch of the course was an out-and-back, I hadn’t seen Chris. Had I missed him?
Shortly after Mile 6, we made a right turn and entered the zMAX Dragway, a state-of-the-art four-lane drag strip that was just built in 2008. In April 2012, Spencer Massey set the NHRA national speed record at this strip and became the first Top Fuel pilot to reach 330 mph at the 1,000-foot mark, with a speed of 332.18 mph.
I would be running at a speed of roughly 7.5 mph.
The zMAX Dragway would be another short out-and-back (see Dan’s map again for a refresher on the course), taking us about three-quarters of a mile to the end of the strip before turning around and running back toward the entrance. There was a steady headwind in our faces as we ran out toward the far end of the track, and this is where I first saw Dan, who had already hit the turnaround and was speeding back toward us. I broke off my conversation with Pace Car to shout some encouragement, and Dan grimly nodded back without breaking stride. He looked like he was running fast, but he offered no smile or outward sign that he was enjoying himself.
The turnaround at the end of the strip coincided with the Mile 7 marker, and with the wind now at my back, I felt like I was positively flying. It was a couple minutes after the turnaround where I finally saw Chris — by my estimate, he was now about a half-mile behind me. As we passed on opposite sides of a short concrete barrier, I asked him it he thought he would catch up, and he responded that yes, he would. Sounds good to me, I thought, and I rejoined another conversation with Pace Car and the rest of the 08:00-milers as we exited the zMAX Dragway.
I was grateful for the conversation offered by my temporary race friends, and the miles were melting away. I found time to pick Pace Car’s brain about some of the ultramarathons that he’s running this summer, and to be honest, it didn’t even feel like I was racing at this point. If I hadn’t been wearing a race bib and running next to a guy carrying a pace sign, it would have felt like any other group run, albeit much faster than my normal training pace.
With 8 miles done and 5-ish to go, my legs felt great and I was feeling pretty good about the prospect of hitting a 1:45 mark overall. After we climbed up and over one more steep pedestrian bridge somewhere before Mile 9, Pace Car announced to our ever-dwindling group that we were done with significant elevation changes for the day, and that any future inclines/declines would be of a gradual nature. The course took us in front of the speedway’s gleaming main entrance, and as we passed Mile 9, I started to think about running juuuuust a little faster.
At Mile 10, I felt too good to keep holding back at an 08:00/mile pace. My back felt good, my legs still felt reasonably fresh, and my knee felt great. I said one last goodbye to Pace Car, and upon completion of an awkward white guy fist-bump/high-five mix-up, I took off. The over-saturated cumulonimbus clouds looming overhead finally burst, and steady rain started to fall upon the course at almost the exact moment I peeled out of my comfort zone.
The ensuing 11th mile would be the last mile run almost entirely outside of the main speedway, and I gradually revved my engine (RACING PUNS!) to pick up the pace. As I re-entered the track and hit the ‘lap’ button on my watch at the Mile 11 marker, I saw that I’d run my 11th mile in around 07:20…whoa. That’s fast for me. My watch readout showed a cumulative time of around 1:27:20-ish for 11 miles, and it dawned on me that my half-marathon PR of 1:42:15 that I’d set in April 2012 was suddenly in play. I had about 15 minutes to run 2.1 miles, which is a shade over a 07:00/mile pace. Too fast, I told myself. That’s too fast for me.
And then, out of nowhere, I had my fucking Pre Moment.
Allow me to explain.
On my flight from Chicago to Charlotte, I’d read the April 2013 issue of Runner’s World cover-to-cover. The featured long-form article in that month’s issue was about Steve Prefontaine, creatively titled That Pre Thing. The article itself is a poorly-written, self-serving, pseudo-Gonzo-Journalism piece of crap penned by an author who weirdly kept talking about how fast he was in high school (the author, not Pre), but there was one Pre quote stood out to me: “A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run the race to see who has the most guts.” The author spoke of trying to channel Pre’s spirit, referring to those moments of running clarity as Pre Moments.
I will never be the fastest in any race. I’ll probably never be the guy who runs with the most guts, either. But for these final 2 miles on a racetrack in Charlotte? Well okay, Pre, I can try to leave it all on the track.
And so, as Steve Prefontaine spoke to me from the grave (I swear on the lives of my future children that I’m not making this shit up), I found another gear.
The 12th mile took us through the speedway’s infield and back onto the main oval for one final lap, and I started passing other runners in bunches. As I hit the ‘lap’ button one penultimate time, my split time for my 12th mile started with a ‘6’ instead of a ‘7’ — I’d never run a mile this fast in a half-marathon, but I was doing it here, with one mile to go. By now the rain was pouring down in buckets, but I didn’t care. I vroomed past other runners like they were standing still, splashing through puddles without regard as I maniacally pumped my legs. As I bore down on the final straightaway, I had an embarrassing amount of gas left in the tank (DON’T WORRY, I HAVE RACING ANALOGIES FOR DAYS, EVERYONE), and I pumped my fist victoriously as I crossed the line.
When I stopped my watch about a second after crossing the timing mat, I saw that I’d run my last 1.1 miles in 07:08, which breaks out to about a 06:30/mile pace for that final stretch. My official time of 1:40:43 was good enough for a 92-second PR, on a day where I was just trying to get my legs back as I casually chatted with a pacer for the first 10 miles of the race.
That’ll do, Otter. That’ll do. I quelled a reflex to vomit out of exhaustion, and walked back to the infield garage for the post-race party. I was sopping wet and shivering, but I felt triumphant.
I’d mentioned that it was pouring rain by now, and so I made a beeline for the garage. Chris walked in right behind me; he’d succeeded in catching up with Pace Car shortly after Mile 11, but he never did catch up to me. Chris ran a 1:42:19 on the day, and so without his 4-ish minute bathroom break, he would have crushed me. I saw Dan’s towering figure in the middle of the garage, and as we walked over to take a look at some early results, we learned that his time of 1:31:13 was good enough for 2nd place in his age group.
Out of a field of 1,246 finishers, our individual results went like this: 13th overall for Dan, 65th overall for me, and 84th overall for Chris. All told, not a bad day at the track.
In addition to Dan’s age-group award and my PR, the good news kept coming in as the rest of our friends finished. Lindsey ran a 1:54:17, breaking the 2-hour barrier for the first time (and with plenty of room to spare). Alexis finished in 2:00:31, which was around 10-15 minutes faster than what she’d been hoping for. Marla finished in 2:04:46, a new PR which qualified her for a seeded start corral in the 2013 Chicago Marathon. Rounding out our merry band was Ashley, who finished her first half-marathon in 2:28:25 and beat her goal time of 2:30.
After a shower, a burger, and several pints of local craft beer, it was time to pack our things and close the curtain on an incredibly fun and successful race weekend.
I’m not sure that I see myself flying back to Charlotte to run this race again in 2014, but I’d recommend it to anyone that lives out near the area. Even if I hadn’t had the good fortune of running this race with friends, I can say with confidence that I still would have really enjoyed my time in Charlotte if I’d registered alone. The race was cheap (take advantage of the early-bird pricing if you can!), the course was very unique, and the race swag was pretty impressive. PR or no PR, I’m glad that Dan dragged me along to this one…but I’ll take the PR.