Race Report – Freedom Run Half Marathon on my birthday

After the race – me (left, Sar (middle) and Eric (right)

Today is my birthday. I’ve had a near perfect day. With good wishes from friends old and new, and family of course, the day only got better!

I was up early today. After my usual race-morning routine (which included half a cup of cold coffee this morning), I left the house at 5AM. It was already in the 80s. It would be a hot run but that’s what you get for racing in central-Arizona in September. As I stepped outside, the first thing I noticed was Venus above the eastern horizon. It was brilliant above the McDowell mountains. I couldn’t help staring at its simple beauty for a few seconds before getting into my car to drive to the race.

As I drove towards the race, I noticed road signs that reminded me that there is a sniper on the loose in Phoenix. Apparently, there have been 11 shootings so far with minor damage to cars. Fortunately, only one person has been hurt by glass shards. There’s apparently a vigilante group dressed up in full combat gear out to get the sniper. It’s the wild west out here in Arizona!

I reached the Rio Vista Community Park in Peoria, AZ at around 5:40AM. The place was already buzzing with activity and nervous energy of the imminent race. There were three races in the works; a 5k a 10k and a half marathon. I got my bib (number 218) and made smalltalk with random folks as i stretched for the race. With the impending heat and no cloud cover, the race would be more about pacing than racing.

From top to bottom, I had my Santa Barbara visor on, a simple blue shirt and blue shorts (both Lululemon), my Sugoi compression socks and Boston Marathon yellow Saucony shoes. I was carrying 6 Gatorade Endurance gels and my iPod. Just before the race I ran into Eric and Sar. Both are training for the Arizona Ironman. It’s always good to run into old friends!

The Race State and the First 2 Miles: At precisely 6:30AM, the race started. About ten minutes before the start of the race, I had consumed 2 gels. The first couple of miles go south and are slightly downhill. My goal was to temper my pace and not get carried away. The entire race was run on a relatively narrow bike/run path. As the race started, I saw 6 runners taking off at a brisk pace. They were all decidedly faster than me. I ran alongside a girl in blue who was also just a bit faster than me. I decided to let her pull ahead instead of using up all my energy. A couple of Asian guys passed me to catch up to the girl in blue. The three of them ran on together as we passed the 1-mile mark and the first water station. I picked up an entire bottle of cold water. My goal was to slowly drink it over the next half-a-mile to stay cool. I passed about a dozen runners who had started off too fast. A guy in green and a guy with a reverse Ironman visor passed me at the 1.5 mile mark. I thought about running with them but I was afraid of overheating too soon. It would turn out to be a wise decision. At the 2-mile mark, we turned around, crossed the river and started running back north and slightly uphill. For the first couple of miles, my pace averaged under 8 minutes per mile.

Miles 3, 4, 5 and 6: The two Asian guys and the girl in blue were far ahead of me and nowhere in sight. The guy in green had also disappeared. I counted in my head where I stood. Ahead of me were 6 elite runners, 2 Asian guys, 1 girl in blue, 1 guy in green and a guy with a reverse Ironman visor. I was in 12th place. I kept the Ironman guy in my sights. He was running about 20 seconds in front of me. My pace was just a bit slower in this slight uphill section but I felt good. There were slight undulations on the course when we went under bridges. It would go downhill for about 100 feet, flatten out and then go back uphill for about 100 feet. At around mile 4, I could see the finish line on the other side of the river. As I ate 2 gels, I caught up with the 10k and 5k runners who had started running straight north but a few minutes after the half marathon start. I passed countless runners and walkers. The sun was beaming down directly at us from the east. There was scant tree cover. It was hot and getting hotter by the minute.

I calculated that the turnaround point would be around 4.5 miles ahead. If I could keep my pace until the turnaround, I could pick up pace coming back because it is slightly downhill. At mile 5, there was a water station. Everyone was stopping for a drink. I could see the Ironman guy had stopped and was slowing down. I caught up with him and started running right behind him step-for-step. My cadence was faster and my rhythm felt smoother than his. We ran together for about a mile. At mile 6, I passed him. Now I was in 11th place and had the two Asian guys in my sights.

Miles 7 and the turnaround: At mile 7, there was another water station. Right before the water station, I saw the guy in green running back towards me. There was no way he could have caught up with the elites and passed them. I wondered about him. The course was not well marked. He was definitely off course. He would probably be DQ’d. I was now in 10th place. At the 8-mile mark, I ate 2 more gels and could see the two Asian guys running slowly a hundred feet ahead. Just before I saw the turnaround tent, I passed them. They had nothing left and were jogging slowly. The heat and their pacing had caught up to them. 2 more down. I was now in 8th place. At the turnaround, I swallowed two whole cups of water and poured another one on my head. I needed to keep cool. I had seen the girl in blue running towards me before the turnaround. She was a good distance ahead but she didn’t look good. I wondered if she could hold on. I was hot but still had firepower in my legs!

Mile 9, 10, 11, 12: The girl in blue was up ahead in the distance. I estimated that she was 30 seconds ahead. The course was all downhill now. I needed to run about 10 seconds per mile faster than her to make up the distance in the final 3 miles. I needed to pace myself and not sprint to catch up to her. As I ran on, I could sense that I was slowly catching up to her. She had no idea I was coming. I played the game of counting the seconds it would take me to reach a spot she had just passed. 20 seconds, 17 seconds, 14 seconds. She was ahead but I was closing in. At the water station, she stopped for a moment and saw me approaching. She took off and picked up her pace. I too stopped at the water station and ate my final 2 gels and continued my hot pursuit. By mile 12, she had nothing left. I passed her effortlessly.

The final mile and the finish: I was now in 7th place and had no chance of catching the elites. With less than a mile to go, I looked back once and saw the girl in blue a good distance back. She had probably overheated or run out of energy. I was getting hotter by the second but had the finish line in my sights. As I crossed the bridge and approached the finish line, I was hot and exhausted but also happy with my pacing and performance. In the end, I finished with an official time of 1:42:52 to win my age division and come in 7th overall. Not bad for a birthday run! In the picture above, the first two finisher in my age group are goofing around. The third place finisher had already left!

From the race, I went directly to a Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) function for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona half marathon that I have signed up for. I was still sweaty and wet but met with some old friends from the LLS group. Good peeps!

I went home to a really nice gift from Binita. She had framed my Ironman medal, photo and bib. I’ve been meaning to do that for the past year but have been procrastinating. Now it will hang on the wall upstairs!

For dinner, we went out to Indian food. All in all, a great day! Happy Birthday Me!

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