Race report: Buffalo Half Marathon

It wasn’t until early in the week when the idea really started to take hold. The training plan called for a 15-mile long run on Sunday. The Buffalo Marathon and Half Marathon was being held that day. Hmm. What if I combined the two? And so I checked in with my coach who wanted me to answer two questions:

  1. What pace would I normally run this long, easy training run at?
  2. Would I be able to run more than 10 seconds faster per mile during the half marathon?

If I could do adhere to those conditions, the half marathon would be a great training opportunity for me. With that, I made a pro-con list which went something like this:

Pros:

  • I won’t have to come up with a 15-mile course on my own.
  • There will be water stops. (No need to figure out where to plant water.)
  • I will be around people and energy.
  • I will be done early.
  • I will get a medal on my birthday.

Cons:

  • The entry fee.
  • Since I would be running for training and not for racing, my time would have a different meaning. People would see my results and judge me.

The pros outweighed the cons and confident I could execute a training run during a race, I went ahead and registered two two days before the half marathon. Mark, who also needed a long run, decided to register for the half, too. And so my birthday would start with about 5,000 people on the streets of downtown Buffalo.

There is a certain relief when you are participating rather than racing. I woke up excited rather than nervous. I cared about the run, but suddenly had no judgements. It was the most relaxed I ever felt on a race day. Perhaps this is the feeling I need to bottle for the rest of the summer.

Since my long run was 15 miles and completing two extra after the half marathon was completed sounded completely horrible, I parked my car about two miles from the start and ran over. At 6:15 a.m. it was already getting warm and the humidity was horribly high. This marked the first sunny, warm and humid days we’ve had in Buffalo this year. No one in Western New York has trained in these types of conditions meaning it was going to be a challenging weather day for a long run.

Just minutes before the start, I was lined up in the corral near the back of the pack, ready to trot my next 13.1 miles when I felt someone pinch my rear end. Luckily it was Mark, who said he learned his own valuable lesson — there is great benefit in getting to a race start early, rather than cutting it close and creating extra anxiety for yourself. I saw him for the two minutes it took for us to walk up to the starting mats and then he was gone.

Closing in on the finish

My goal was to look at Garmin often to make sure I was running my pace. One of the most dangerous times to blow my pace is the beginning of a race, when I feel good and get caught up in the energy of the crowd. Of course, in certain areas of downtown, my Garmin had to battle interference from buildings, giving me false pace readings. Luckily, I knew this and just worked to keep a nice easy jog until the satellite readings became more accurate and consistent. At Mile 3 the course turns into LaSalle Park where there is some ugly construction and lots of narrow paths. Not the best setup for 5,000 runners. I jogged through the turn, knowing that my first water station was up ahead. Already feeling the effects of the heat and humidity I mixed Gatorade and water and started back up running. Until, that is, I spotted my friend Suzanne walking her dog Yodel along the Niagara River path, cheering on the runners. I went over to say hello, receive birthday wishes and pet Yodel. Heck, I wasn’t racing. I was out for a fun, long run. And this was exactly the type of thing to keep my focused on the goal at hand. Another action which kept me in the spirit of the day — crossing the road after the 10K mark to high-five my parents.

It is around Mile 8 that the scenic nature of the course ends and the tour of abandoned areas of  Buffalo begins. This is the place where industry once thrived, but long ago left the area. It is not a charming neighborhood. It is not a place to showcase the best of the city (which most marathons attempt to do) and frankly, with construction and renovation completed along the outer harbor of Buffalo’s waterfront, it is time to rethink the marathon route to show off the best of the city. (Civic pride rant now over.)

The worst part about this section comes in the form of overpasses. Before the race, Mark was skeptical. How bad can a few overpasses be? But there are four of them which come in quick succession, leaving a runner saying, “SERIOUSLY?!?” several times over. He understood my hatred for this part of the course in a new light after the race. There was a bonus during this section though. The course passed a Catholic Church, which had a small cheering section and one of the friars standing in the middle of the road giving out high fives. I crossed to the middle to get a high five. I can use all the blessings I can get.

Keeping a close eye on my Garmin, I kept my pace in check. At several points I had to slow myself down. Yep. I had to force myself to run a bit slower. And that made me smile. Displaying current pace and average pace, I was able to keep pretty good track of where I was at and keep myself in check. Of course, I was also careful not to mention anything outloud about distance. The majority of the field at this event is comprised of half marathoners. The marathon field is small and lonely. I know. I’ve been there. This was the first marathon I rank three years ago. And the hardest thing to hear is a bunch of half marathoners psyching themselves up for the last three miles when you have 16.2 left to run. I respected the marathoners around me and kept my own race to myself while offering encouragement to anyone and everyone around me.

Hot and humid but feeling good, I give Mark a big wave just before the finish line.

The last four miles were hard. The heat and humidity were draining. I was starting to feel heavy legs and tired. My pace was dropping without a conscious effort by me. But negative thoughts were quickly kicked aside. If I was running these 15 miles as a training run out in the parks, I would still be hurting at this point. This bit of information made me smile. I was still right on target with my average pace. I had run smart for the first 11 miles and had plenty of energy left to get to the finish line. As the route returned to downtown Buffalo, my smile grew. My parents were out on the course again, getting high fives from me. Time to bring it in where (mercifully) I would be able to suck down water and Gatorade to my heart’s content.

With the finish line in sight I heard a voice call to me from the right. It was Mark, already changed and wearing his finisher’s medal. I waved and smiled, so happy I wanted to stop and show him my Garmin. I picked it up a bit to cross the line and could not have been happier. Seriously, I don’t know if I would be this happy if I PRd a race. I ran controlled. I ran with joy. I executed my plan.

I had one of the best long training runs ever complete. I had a medal. And it was my birthday. Time for some cake.

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