Race report: The Cleveland Experience

It was the second mile of the course when two teenage boys, wearing long-sleeved cotton t-shirts started slowing down.

“Donte, this was bad, ass idea,” the one kid said.

I couldn’t surpress my laughter. Neither could some of the others in ear shot of the conversation.

“I was thinking the same thing,” said a woman running next to me.

We all were on some level. The start of the Cleveland Marathon brought temperatures around 70 plus 90 percent humidity. It was Florida-type humidity. The only time I’ve ever had that much shin sweat going was when I did the Run4Kay at the Women’s Final Four in Tampa. This half marathon was going to be challenging, even as a training run. But I kept returning to my mantra, “Take what the day brings you.” So let’s break down the race weekend:

Packet pickup/Race Expo

Aside from nearly taking out a cab when making an impromptu left into a parking garage, I arrived in Cleveland with ease. (Which is as it should be. It’s only one road from Buffalo to Cleveland.) Packet pickup was fairly easy, although I would have appreciated some hard-copy information in my race bag. Yes, the maps were online and there were giant posters at the expo, but back at the hotel, it would have been nice to review the the course without having to pull it up on my phone along with other info about bag check, post-race party, etc.

The expo was pretty good with more giveaways from vendors than I’ve seen in recent years plus and some really good deals. (Hey, when you can get a new pair of running kicks for $50 you take the deal.) 

As I was examining one of the deals, a neoprene pocket to stash my phone and keys while running, I ran into Matt Glynn, a fellow Buffalo News reporter, who was running the marathon. Neither of us knew the other would be doing the race. Seriously, how Buffalo is that? 

 Pre-race meal

I checked into my hotel, in a first-ring suburb since I registered for the race too late to get a spot downtown. I took a nap, unpacked and set up my gear for the next day. Meanwhile, I was texting to set up dinner plans.

One of the cool things about my job is that I get to meet some pretty awesome people and Kyle Gibbons of Canisius hockey was one of my all-time favorite college athletes to cover. I’ll spare you the roundabout backstory, but I got to have dinner with Kyle and his girlfriend, Layne, and literally there are few things more fun than stuffing my face with pasta and listening to hockey stories while also solving all of college hockey’s problems. (We recreated the entire Northeast/Great Lakes corridor for the sport. Just ask for details.) It turned into the absolute best way for me to spend the evening before the race.  

Race morning

I woke up ridiculously early, feeling a bit anxious. I let the anxiety run its course as I went about my routine, eating breakfast, getting dressed, checking directions. I knew I’d feel better once I was downtown and parked and so I left as soon as I was ready. Using Parking Panda, my spot was guaranteed and pre-paid at one of downtown hotels. Bonus: I got to use the hotel lobby bathroom and hang out a bit before heading over the start line.

By about 6:15 we were lining up in our corrals, getting ready for the 7 a.m. start. I’ve run big-city marathons which are very strict about your corral assignments. This one, not so much. One of my favorite parts of standing in the corral is eavesdropping. One woman was running her first marathon and her excitement and the support from her friends was really fun to listen to. I heard some people talking with the pace leaders, getting to know the people they counted on to get them to their goal time. No lie, Shane Conacher’s doppelganger line up next to me.  (I see college hockey players everywhere.)

About 20 minutes before the start, it began to pour. It was a brief, hard rain shower which felt miserable while we were standing around. There were no speakers down in my slow-person corral so we heard nothing of what was going on. All of a sudden we heard a cheer and figured the race began.

 The race

The air was heavy. When I finally crossed the start line (about eight minutes after the gun went off) I took it slow. The course wound through downtown streets that first mile and I stayed pretty close to one of the pace groups. But I felt good. Even with the humidity, I felt good. So I let myself get ahead of the pace group as long as I continued to feel comfortable. 

I would take what the day brought me and base my run on how I felt. My goal was to run on the boarder betwen challenging and blowing up. Whatever my pace worked out to be under those conditions, so be it. But based on the pace I’ve been running throughout my training and factoring in the humidity, I had a pretty good idea what my “goal pace” would be.

The first five miles were pretty solid. The course through Cleveland is pretty much like any other course in that region — a mix of gentrified area, industry, residential. It was Cleveland in all its Clevelandness. I thought of my former college teammate Joy, who died way too young. I heard her voice a few times. She would have loved that I was running in her hometown. Cheers, Joy.

My Garmin was about a tenth of a mile off the race course markings, which meant I was running the tangets pretty well. Every time it buzzed, I checked my pace for that mile. Everytime I thought I slowed down considerably, it turned out I hadn’t. “Oh that mile will be slow,” I’d think. Then BOOM! it was right around what the previous mile was.

By the time I hit MIle 6, my goal was to stay consistent. I remembered the conversation I had with my friend Nate before the race. “What’s the big deal about blowing up?” he said to me. “If you blow up, you blow up.” Still, I didn’t want to blow up. I have a marathon in four weeks. But what he said made sense. Challenge yourself. And the challenge at this point was to stay steady.

The rain shower at the starting line gave way to overcast skies and ridiculous humidity. Then the sun came out. Nice if you’re a spectator. Not so much if you’re a runner wondering, for the love of all things holy, why no one in Cleveland waters their lawn so you can jump through the sprinkler.

I took water and sports drink at each stop, walking to take some sips and pour the water over the top of my head. I took gel at about the times I had planned. I was starting to feel tired with the hint of discouragement brewing. “Mile 7. I still have six to go.” Only thing was when I looked down at my Garmin, I was just over eight miles. Yep. I had totally lost track of those middle miles. I surged with new energy. Well “surged” mentally. My pace had slowed a tad, but emotionally I was lifted and went back to challenging myself to stay consistent.

The split for the marathon and half marathon comes after Mile 9. The half course turned to return downtown. As we approached the MIle 10 marker someone yelled “Only 5K to go!” Happy dance. How many times have I run a 5K in training? I’ve so got this.

Then came a few “hills.” They weren’t so much hills as highway ramp inclines which, at that point in the race with that level of humidity, are slightly evil. Mile 10 was slow. That was OK. Mile 11 I was back to my strong pace. Then came Mile 12. With 1.5 miles left I got a side stitch. Really? Are you freaking kidding me? With 1.5 miles left? I walked a little bit to try and work it out. Then started a slow jog. Thankfully it ended up going away and I was in the last mile of the course.

I brought it in strong, but spent. I waited to make my last sprint until the finish line was well in my grasp.

Done.

Postrace

I received my medal and my line of snack goodies (Which are always awkward to carry. You’re sweaty, spent and trying to carry a water, chocolate milk, a banana and a bag of pretzels. I look like an idiot.)

As I sat on a curb, chugged my chocolate milk (not recommended by the way) and checked my Garmin. Remember the “goal pace” I set for myself based on weather and training? Yeah, my average pace was 30 seconds faster than what I had hoped. While well off from my average half marathon time, I still was seven minutes faster than the “goal time” I had in my head. 

I’m in a better place than I thought, which is probably universally true.

The weekend brought me another finisher’s medal (all about the bling) and a solid race peformance. More importantly, it brought me another great experience. Because the race was about so much more than 13.1 miles or my time. It was about challenging myself without regard to the outcome. (The outcome always takes care of itself.) It was about getting out of my comfort zone, laughing at the humor on the course, and taking the opportunity to spend some time with some of my favorite people. Truthfully, it doesn’t get much better than that.