Sunday, February 26, 2017

Race Report: 2017 Cowtown Marathon

It’s been three weeks since the Rocky Raccoon 100.  That’s as long as I’m willing to go between marathons, because I used them as my long training runs.  I considered doing the Post Oak Challenge in Tulsa, but that seemed like too much, too soon.  As I looked at easier races, the Cowtown Marathon in Fort Worth, TX quickly became the leading candidate.  I’ve never done this race before, but some of my friends have done it, and they all seem to like it.  (OK, they did have to cancel the race two years ago because of an ice storm, but that was an unusually bad storm.)

It seems like my race schedule for this year is being dictated by airfares.  I’ve had to pass on a few races I really wanted to do, because the airfares were too expensive.  I’ve also booked some unexpected international trips, because I discovered outrageously cheap airfares.  When I priced flights to Dallas/Fort Worth for this weekend, I was pleased to see a nice affordable airfare.  That made the decision easy.

In addition to the marathon, they have a 50K, a half marathon, a 10K, two 5Ks (one for adults, one for children), a half marathon, and a 50K.  Altogether, these races have about 30,000 participants.  I had no idea this was such a large event.

I stayed at a hotel near the medical center, just south of I-30.  I considered staying downtown, but the hotels were more expensive, and I would have to pay for parking.  Where I stayed, there weren’t as many nearby restaurants, but I was only a few miles from where the race started and finished.

The expo was held at the Will Rogers Memorial Center, which was also the start/finish location.  After checking into my hotel, I drove to the expo to pick up my race packet.  There were several parking ramps and lots we could use for free.  I drove to the Western Heritage Garage and found a long line of cars waiting to get in.  Apparently there was another event going on besides the expo, and people were also parking for that.  Once I parked, it was easy to get to the expo, and packet pickup was quick and efficient.  This race gives you two T-shirts.  I got this short sleeved shirt with my race packet.  There was also a long-sleeved shirt that we would get later for finishing.

After the expo, I visited the Fort Worth Stockyards Historic District.  Located about three miles north of downtown, this used to the regional marketplace for cattle, sheep and hogs.  Now it’s a shopping and entertainment district that preserves the image of Fort Worth as “Cowtown.”  In addition to shops, bars and restaurants, it’s home to rodeos and the Texas Cowboy Fall of Fame.  Twice a day, they hold reenactments of cattle drives.  I was there to see them move this small herd of longhorn cattle down Exchange Avenue.

I had dinner at Chimera Brewing Company.  Before a trip, I often use Google maps to scout for pizza places near my hotel.  I knew I found the right one when I read this description on their website:

“We make beer.  That is what we are passionate about.  We are also passionate about our traditional Italian pizza using dough and sauce made in house.  And unicorns.  We love unicorns.”

For my pre-race dinner, I opted for this brie and speck pizza.  I also sampled a few of their beers.  I wore a Boston Marathon shirt, because unicorns.

I was able to get to sleep early, but I only slept for a few hours.  After that, I couldn’t get back to sleep.  At 4:00, I finally gave up on sleeping and started getting ready for the race.  I wanted to park in the Western Heritage Garage again, because it’s right next to the starting line, and I knew I could get in and out without crossing any streets that are blocked off for the race.  After seeing the line of cars to get into this ramp on Saturday, I didn’t want to take any chances.

The race didn’t start until 7:00, but I left the hotel around 5:15. When I got to the parking ramp, there were multiple volunteers directing cars to the closest parking spots.  By 5:30, I was parked.

They had a gear check, but it was more convenient to just leave my warm-up clothes in my car.  First, I needed to make a bathroom stop.  I expected to have to walk over to the start corrals to find port-o-potties.  Instead, there were six of them right outside the exit from the parking ramp.  That could not have been more convenient.

It was 40 degrees at the start, but there was enough wind to make it feel much colder.  I wore tights, gloves, arm warmers, and a warm hat.  Even with all that, I still felt cold when I went outside.  I waited as long as possible before leaving my car to line up for the start.

I was in the second corral.  I could see the 3:45 pace group, but I didn’t want to start that fast.  I wasn’t sure yet if I was going to set a time goal for this race.  If I did, it would be four hours at the fastest.  I saw the 4:00 pace group lined up in corral three.  I couldn’t start with them either.

After the first corral started, my corral started moving into position.  The announcer said he hoped we could have a “clean start” like the first corral did.  I quickly found out what he meant by that.  The spacing between corrals was intended to give us every opportunity to run at our own pace without being slowed down by congestion.  By the time I crossed the starting line, we were already running.  By the end of the first block, everyone could run at their own pace.  That’s a clean start.

I didn’t have a goal pace in mind.  My tentative plan was to keep the pace comfortable for the first half of the race.  I could always set goals later, after seeing how I felt.  I could see the 3:45 group gradually pulling away.  That’s good.  I knew I shouldn’t try to keep up with them.

I mostly ran at the same pace as the people around me.  I was running with the herd.  Every so often, I would ask myself if the pace felt comfortable and sustainable.  For the most part, it did, but I could feel some tightness in my left hamstring. I also noticed that on Saturday, just walking around.  It wasn’t a big deal, but it was something to watch.

The mile markers were low to the ground, and I missed the first five.  When I got to the six mile sign, I checked my watch.  My pace was just under nine minutes per mile.  That put me on pace to break four hours.  For the time being, I felt comfortable with that pace, but I had two long-term concerns.  First, my left hamstring still felt tight.  I had hoped it would feel better as I got warmed up.  I had to be careful not to run too fast.

My other concern was the weather.  It was going to warm up about 10 degrees by the time I finished.  For now, I couldn’t imagine wearing anything less, but I might feel overdressed later in the race.

In the next mile, we ran through the stockyards.  We ran right down Exchange Avenue, which is where I watched the cattle drive on Saturday.  There were quite a few spectators there.  We were a much larger “herd.”  I wonder if we were as interesting to watch.

A section of Exchange Avenue is paved with bricks, but over the years they’ve worn unevenly.  They felt like cobblestones.  Nevertheless, this was my favorite part of the course.

After leaving the stockyards, we ran toward downtown.  I missed two more mile markers, but saw the one for nine miles.  I checked my watch again.  I sped up over the last three miles.  The pace still felt comfortable, but I was still in “wait and see” mode.

There was a long gradual hill just before we got into the downtown area.  After the hill, I felt my hamstring tighten.  It eventually loosened up again, but I noticed the same thing after each hill.

In general, the course wasn’t flat, but it also didn’t strike me as hilly.  There were hills from time to time, but they were all either short or gradual.  There aren’t any “heartbreak” hills on this course.

Downtown, I started to see people walking.  Since the start of the race, the marathon and half marathon had been together.  For runners doing the half marathon, there were only four miles to go.  They were getting into the “tough” miles.

Just before leaving downtown, the two courses split.  At some races, half marathoners vastly outnumber marathoners.  That didn’t seem to be the case here.  After the split, there were still enough runners around me that I could continue to run with the herd.

For a mile or two, I didn’t know where we were.  Then I saw a building I recognized.  It was Chimera Brewing Company, where I had dinner on Saturday.  We were running down Magnolia Avenue.  I started to smell barbecue, and I knew immediately where the smell was coming from.  It was a popular barbecue restaurant I had walked past on my way to and from dinner.  They weren’t open yet, but the meat was already cooking.  You could smell it from a block away.  That got me thinking.  Would my post-race dinner be pizza, or would I have to have barbecue instead?

After two more turns, I noticed the name of the street was Park Place.  Three weeks ago, I did another race in Texas that had boardwalks.  Was I doing the Texas version of Monopoly?

Just before the 13 mile mark, I saw a beer stop.  I’ll typically stop for beer if I don’t care about my time, but I won’t if I’m pressing for a fast time.  I still wasn’t sure if I would try to break four hours.  The cups were small.  They only held about two ounces of beer.  I figured two ounces wouldn’t hurt my race, so I stopped for one.

I reached the halfway mark in 1:56:19.  I was on pace to break four hours by a wide margin.  I reluctantly set a goal of breaking four, but I wouldn’t necessarily run as fast in the second half as I had in the first half.

With each mile marker, my confidence grew.  The remaining distance seemed more and more manageable, but the pace still felt OK.  Subconsciously, I sped up.  I noticed I was starting to pass some of the other runners.  I could also see from my splits that I was getting faster.

With about nine miles to go, I saw another beer stop.  This time, I skipped it.  Now I was in race mode.

The volunteers at this race were excellent.  They were helpful and enthusiastic, and they all seemed to know what they were doing.  The spectators were also good.  The crowds weren’t huge, but they had a lot of enthusiasm.  Our names were on our race bibs, and several people encouraged me by name.

It’s getting more and more common for spectators to hold up amusing signs.  I saw two signs saying “Don’t poop.”  One had a drawing that looked like a poop emoji.  The woman holding that sign saw the name on my bib and yelled, “Go, David.”  I felt like I was getting mixed messages.  She was telling me to go, but her sign was telling me not to “go.”

Every mile, I figured out what pace I needed to break four hours.  With 7.2, miles to go, 10 minutes per mile would be fast enough.  As I got more confident, I picked up my effort.  I was no longer running with the herd.  Now I was gradually passing everyone around me.

I was still noticing my hamstring.  It didn’t hurt, but it was tight from my butt to my knee.  I had to be a little bit careful.

With about five miles to go, I caught up to a runner wearing a green shirt.  He was focused on finishing strong.  I got close to him, but I never passed him.  Then he started to pull away.  I tried to keep him in sight.

At 22 miles, I realized I could break four hours just by running 11 minutes per mile.  If I could run 10 minutes per mile for rest of the way, I would average nine minute miles for the whole race.  Then it occurred to me that I could run negative splits if I sustained my current pace.  I wasn’t sure if I wanted to press that hard.  I was worried about the hamstring.

I passed another beer stop.  This one was the Fort Worth Hash House Harriers.  Their cups were larger and full of beer.  I couldn’t risk it.

At one of the aid stations, a volunteer said “Only 5K to go.”  Could that be right?  Did I miss the 23 sign.  It was a long time before I saw another mile marker.  When I did, it was 24 miles.

During that mile, a spectator yelled. “Don’t back down now.”  I’ve often remarked that spectators don’t know the right things to say to encourage the runners. This one did.  That’s exactly the right thing to say with two or three miles to go.  Unfortunately, my hamstring was giving me a different message.  It was saying, “Maybe it would be smart to back down now.”

I checked my watch again.  My pace over the previous two miles was slower than nine minutes.  At first I was discouraged.  Then I realized I would run negative splits if I finished the last 2.2 miles in 22 minutes.  I might be slowing down, but I knew I could do that.  For the first time, negative splits became a firm goal.

I was still falling behind “green shirt guy,” but as he moved up through the field, I was also passing all the same runners.  If I could keep passing people, I’d be fast enough.

I was starting to get really hot now.  I had already taken off my gloves.  In theory, I could take off my arm warmers, but it’s hard to do that on the run.  I felt sweat under my hat.  I felt sweat under my arm warmers.  I felt sweat under my T-shirt, and it was causing some chaffing on my left side.  I decided to tough it out.

We were running on a bike path that follows a stream.  Then we made a U-turn onto the adjacent street.  Suddenly, I felt the cold wind.  Before, it was at my back.  Now, it was a headwind.  I wasn’t hot any more.

At 25 miles, I knew negative splits was in the bank.  Then I realized I might be able to beat another goal.  My fastest time last year was 3:36:39, but that was on a point-to-point course that was all downhill.  My fastest recent time on a loop course was 3:51:00.  With 1.2 miles to go, breaking 3:51 was definitely doable.

With about one mile to go, I passed the last aid station.  Now that I was no longer hot, I was confident I could skip this one.  In the distance, I could hear someone talking over a loudspeaker.  Could I be close enough to hear the finish area?

I eventually saw a race official in the middle of the street, using the loudspeaker to shout out encouragement.  He said we had about a half mile to go.  After two quick turns, someone else said we had about half a mile to go.  At least one of them was wrong.

I started to pass lots of walkers.  I was moving through the back of the pack of the half marathon. I never noticed where the two courses came together again.

I saw a turn in the distance.  I assumed it was the last turn before the finish line.  I was wrong.  After turning, I saw the 26 mile sign, but I still didn’t see the finish line.  There was one more turn.  I checked my watch.  I was going to break 3:50.

Just before the last turn, I saw the 13 mile sign for the half marathon.  I checked my watch again.  I was definitely going to break 3:50.

I crossed the line in 3:49:33.  It was my fastest time on an honest course in almost two years.  I also ran negative splits by about three minutes.  Maybe waiting until halfway before setting goals is something I should do more often.

As soon as I finished, I looked for a volunteer with a heat shield, so I could wrap myself in it.  Without it, I’d get cold awfully fast.  It was still windy.  Next, I got my finisher medal.  It’s part of a multi-year series.  If you collect medals from enough consecutive years, they can be joined to form a larger design.

I probably won’t come back for enough years to collect the set, but there were a lot of things I liked about this race.  Some of them were right in the finish area.

They had a tent in the finish area where you could get your result.  I knew what time my watch read, but it’s always nice to know what your timing chip said.

In addition to the heat shields, they were handing out light blue jackets made of non-woven polypropylene.  They had long sleeves and hoods, and they zipped in the front.  I’ve seen these types of jackets in Atlanta and Indianapolis.  They’re great for keeping you warm in the finish area.  They’re also good for rain.  They’re intended as throwaway jackets, but if you save them, they make great warm-up jackets for other races.   I think this one will be coming with me to Boston in April.

The post-race food line was indoors.  At the beginning of the line, they handed you a bag.  Then you could collect whatever food you wanted without running out of hands.  It’s a small thing, but it’s one more thing that they did right.

Next, I got my finisher shirt.  I almost forgot I was getting another shirt.  This one had long sleeves, so I could wear it to dinner.

After finishing, my hamstring immediately felt fine.  When I got back to the hotel, I took a hot bath and worked on my hamstrings with a massage stick.  I don’t think anything is torn.  Tight hamstrings have been a chronic problem for me.  I’ll have to be careful about speed work, but otherwise, I should be OK.

This race was a pleasant surprise.  By the end of April, I’d like to qualify for next year’s Boston Marathon.  I’m not ready yet, but I may be closer than I thought.

Now I have to decide what to have for dinner.  Will it be pizza or barbecue?  Maybe I can find a barbecue pizza.

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  3:49:33
Average Pace:  8:45
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  329

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