First let me apologize for disappearing. I have completed two races since I last posted here. I ran a phenomenal race at Carlsbad (San Diego, CA) and almost broke the 3 hour barrier. I also completed the Columbia Half Marathon this weekend. Please bear with me I will come back and post updates on all the things I’ve been up to but I really need to post this first.
A lot of people visit this blog for advice, curiosity and support. Have you ever wondered if there is a worst case scenario? I just completed a worst-case scenario race. Please, please learn from my mistakes and take note of this race series. These are very poorly run races and are NOT a good idea for inexperienced competitors.
I will also post a number of blogs in the coming month about specific gear and race strategies you can use for your own benefit.
The good news is that I just finished my 5th half marathon. The bad news you can read for yourself:
This race was an unexpected addition to my race schedule. Instead of doing 6 Southern California half marathons as modified long runs preparing for the LA Marathon in mid March I found myself on a five-month contract in Charlotte, NC. The race calendar in the Charlotte area is quite sparse compared to SoCal so I found myself branching out. It turned out Columbia about 2 hours south had an inaugural race which part of what appears to be a newly-formed series. The Columbia is the first race of the USRA Half Marathon Series (USRARaceSeries.com) a 18-city nationwide Half Marathon Series in mid-to-small size markets. It sounded like a good deal to me so I signed up.
I’ll admit I was a little annoyed when the website stated “no race-day packet pickup” but I drove 2 hours to visit the expo hoping to at least see some new gear or something. The expo had 4 tables. One table sold vitamins, another sold a cube display for medals, a third was for the April Palmetto (again Columbia, SC) half marathon I was planning to run and a fourth which was bland enough to not even register on my radar. I was given my bib, shirt and goody bag with flyers for future USRA series races, a discount flyer for a local massage place, a tourist brochure for Columbia and a couple safety pins.
It also, fortuitously, had a course map.
I had driven down with a friend for company and we returned to Charlotte just in time to realize I didn’t have a timing chip. They’d never mentioned a timing chip to me, I hadn’t seen them being passed out, it wasn’t attached to my bib and none of the info I had from the race mentioned where to find it. I’ve run a half dozen races and I’ve never had that problem so I panicked and called the number on the map. That turned out to be the guy who certified the course for the USATF. Oops. Then I emailed the race from the address on the website. No response. Then I called the Hilton hotel (where the expo was being held)
and asked the desk clerk to please take a message to the race director. No response.
I should have taken that as a sign.
My race day began with a car thermometer that told me it was 27 degrees outside. I was more then a little worried about that because I haven’t run outside in Charlotte yet. Still, I began my chilly drive at 5am with plenty of time for an 8am race start. A Google map search led me right to the race start which was fabulous because it wasn’t the same place as the expo (pretty rare for small races). I found parking easily and couldn’t help but notice the huge banner that screamed “TIMING CHIPS.”
I picked up my chip, laced it up and was ready to go. Except I didn’t know where to go. There was a large orange cone behind the timing chip table and I was joking with a friend on instant messenger that it was the “unmarked starting cone.” A bullhorn announcement told us the starting line was at the top of the small hill behind us so we all treked over there. No starting banner. No timing pad or carpet or anything that I saw. No clearly deliniated starting point of any kind that I could see. I saw the usual array of unique characters dressed in a wide array of clothing based on 27 degree temperatures and
walked around a bit to keep warm. When the time came to start the race there was no gun. No, there was a guy who shouted “GO!” really loudly. I would have thought it was a joke but all the runners started moving forward so we were off.
I hit the start button on my Garmin when I realized there really was no timing pad. I must have hit it in the right place because the mileage seemed pretty accurate when compared to mile markers.
I started the race, as always, at a run. I ran a good portion of the first mile. I remember looking down at my Garmin and thinking “wow at this pace I’ll smoke my Carlsbad PR!” I knew I couldn’t maintain that because I hadn’t trained (at all) but I was thrilled that my body felt good and I couldn’t feel shin splints. Initially there were cops EVERYWHERE which was great. Officers were directing traffic at intersections, keeping an eye on runners, etc. Imagine my surprise 1.5 miles in when a cop drove about 10 feet behind me on the street for about 2 tenths of a mile in his patrol vehicle. Was I really the last person in the race? It wouldn’t be the first time but I was shocked that a sub 13 minute mile left me in dead last position.
It hadn’t. After awhile, during which time I was very nervous and kept glancing over my shoulder because the police car was 10 feet behind me emitting exhaust in my direction if nothing else. I saw a handful of women stragglers up ahead so I picked up the pace a bit hoping to at least get near them so the cop car guy could see there were several of us together and not follow so closely. Didn’t matter. The officer finally used his bullhorn to order “If you’re going to walk then you have to use the sidewalk!” The posted course time limit was 4 hours, I was exactly 22 minutes and just over 1.5 miles into the race
and they’re telling me to use sidewalks? This was for a course advertised as walker friendly? WTF!
As we all know if a race advertises a course time limit then the roads are closed for the duration of that time limit unless runners are slower then that time limit. In this case a 4 four hour time limit meant the road should have been open to us unless we were slower then an 18:30 minute mile and I was WAY under that at a sub 13 minute. So here I am moving at a pace fast enough to beat the bridge for the Marine Corps Marathon and I am being redirected to the sidewalk for the walker friendly Columbia Half Marathon. The sidewalks were nothing to write home about either. Basically it was a disaster.
Fortunately or unfortuantely I’d already decided to take the race easy because I was scheduled for a second local half marathon in Charlotte next weekend so I moved to the sidewalk confused, but undeterred. The rest of the racers had sped up and I was about to follow then but I happened to notice one woman walking by herself near me. She looked really worried. A quick conversation later I knew her name was Dee, it was her first half marathon, she’d told her husband she wanted to get more active before they retired and her longest workout to date was 6 miles.
The cop following us in the car had freaked her out (heck it freaked me out and I’m a 5 time half marathon finisher). I told her not to worry she was doing fine and she gave me the a tense smile. At that point my first race played back in my head. If I hadn’t had course buddies there was no way I would have finished that thing. I glanced at her one more time, mentally getissoned my faster pace and and told her I’d be her walking buddy. I actually remember saying “don’t worry, I’ll do the race with you.” I have no idea why I made that promise because I’d spoken with her for about 3 minutes and I had hoped to jog at least some of the course but the whole thing at that point was just so surreal I couldn’t bear to leave her behind. I explained my how my Garmin worked, told her we were making phenomenal time. She relaxed. At that point we were walking a 15:30 mile.
Not too far after that we reached a major intersection in the road. The race course crossed a major boulevard. Imagine our surprise when we found no police at all and had to wait for the little white walking man to light up so we could cross like ordinary pedestrians. One street later there was a little two lane suburban road and there was a policeperson directing traffic at that intersection but the previous boulevard had been unmanned. We hadn’t reached the 3 mile marker yet. Ironically we also hadn’t reached a water stop yet although the website specifically stipulated that there would be a water stop every 2 miles. I was already worried about hydrating every two miles. It turned out the race officials had changed water stops to every three miles without making a note of that anywhere. Thank goodness for my 16oz Camelbak bottle.
We reached the first water stop and I actually stopped moving to refill my water and grab extra and extra cup of water and powerade. Dee took one cup of water but I figured she must have a bottle in the little mini backpack she was carrying. Big mistake. The course continued and went on to mile 4. By mile 5 I couldn’t see mile markers anymore I was relying strictly on my Garmin. Mile 6’s water stop was right next to Mile 13 (the second part of the course looped back on the first). There was no water just a bunch of discarded cups on the street. Dee and I also picked up another friend, also a first time half marathoner.
At that point I remember thinking maybe they moved the water stop forward a bit so the traffic from 13 wouldn’t interfere with 6. I’d never heard of that happening before but it was a race of firsts so who knew? I realized we were sunk before mile 7. At one point the road turned and I saw a lone man dressed in jeans wearing an orange vest with a walkie talkie in his hand about a tenth of a mile away from me. I sprinted up to him and after confirming he was course support I told him we hadn’t
had any water at mile 6, I had one buddy who hadn’t had water in almost 4 miles and asked what was going on.
He told me the police had reported there were no more competitors so they shut down. I told him now he knew this was clearly not true. He told me there would be water at the next water stop. I told him “Look if that’s mile 9 this woman can’t wait for over 2 miles to have a drink. I have a bottle she doesn’t. You need to get water out here. At least bottles or something.” He apologized, said it would be taken care of and we continued. Dee thanked me for speaking up and I apologized on behalf of runners, races and competent race directors everywhere. We also picked up two more walkers a woman and her daughter-in-law. The woman was doing her first half marathon and her DIL was her buddy.
It was a convenient time really because we were about to walk down Klapman, a street that I referred to on Facebook as a “Freeway” because the speed limit was 50 mph and cars were clearly exceeding that. There was one coned lane (we assumed for us but there were no markings suggesting that). That was all that was between us and the cars. We walked the equivalent of two exits and then climbed the exit ramp literally taking our lives into our hands because there were no cones and there was no shoulder on the pavement. We reached 9th street and it was worse then the freeway.
Now we were walking against traffic in a coned lane but cars were driving in the coned lane and honking at us. We would walk on grass, gravel, shoulders, or sidewalks. Whatever was available at the moment. I think the only thing that kept us going at that point was there were five of us together. They all appeared relieved to have someone who had done it before and they were delighted with my Garmin because they knew for sure they were moving at a speed fast enough to make it under 4 hours. They could also ask how many miles we’d gone and get an exact response. Viva Garmin.
I remember asking Dee, my initial walking buddy at one point around mile 8 if she wanted to cut part of the course. This was a woman whose longest walk had been 6 miles pre race day. She’d reached mile 8 with only one cup of water in 2 hours and 30 minutes. The sun was shining, she didn’t have a cap or sunglasses. I’ve never cut a course in my life but I was willing to cut here and there if she needed it. She looked at me and said, “I’ve come this far I’m not cutting now.” I think that’s the best example I could give for why I decided to stay with the newbies. They were truly fabulous people.
So we stuck it out.
At mile 9 there was our second (and last) water stop. That water stop consisted of two guys with SUVs, two tables, two orange gatorade coolers and a half dozen filled cups on the table. They were stunned to see us. Apaprently the cops had told them the race was over and they should pack it up and leave. They stayed, not because the course support guy I spoke with at mile 7 called them, but because they felt like they should. They asked if we knew we were the last runners and we said we didn’t know but we thanked them profusely for sticking it out. If it hadn’t been for them…I don’t want to think about it.
At that point the cones had run out before mile nine and we were relying exclusively on the not to scale course map I’d folded into oragami and jammed into my spibelt. The water renewed our resolve and our enthusiasm. I was able to take my first Gu of the race not because I particularly needed the energy but because I felt like I should. I told anecdotes from friends, my own silly running experiences and random advice. My friend Deb Facebooked me a funny cannibal joke and I shared with the group. We got a good laugh. Other friends sent me inspirational running quotes and high fives. I passed them along.
When the map confused us (the map was cheerfully labeled “not to scale”) we asked local residents directions. In one case I flagged down a car and asked how far away our next turn was. We walked narrow roads with no shoulder and a deep ditch filled with water on the bottom on one side. We crossed busy intersections without any support but a standard traffic light. I cannot conceive of what lunacy inspired the USATF guy to certify this disaster as an official course. I realize he anticipated police presence but wow.
By mile 10 we’d lost our most recent walking buddy and her DIL. They’d stopped for a potty break and were about half a mile behind. The two women with me were in no shape to stop so they could catch up, and Dee was looking particularly grim. The DIL in an inspired moment ran to catch up with me so she could ask if they were still on track for time. I remember saying “You have an hour and ten minutes to finish less then 3 miles. At her current pace she could walk it really slowly and still finish.”
Mile 12 was a major boulevard mostly uphill. About halfway up Dee said “I feel nauseous.” I expected it of course, three dixie cups is nowhere near enough to fuel a four hour walk but it was still scary to hear. At that point I still had 10 or so ounces in my Camelbak so I unscrewed the top and gave her the water bottle. I will never forget the look of shock on her face. She kept saying “are you sure you don’t need it?” She was still gripping the water bottle when we reached mile 13 around 15 minutes later.
At 13 I could see the finish area. The post race area was nothing but empty tables. There were two large vans being packed up. I was so unspeakably angry I shouted “Hey which side is the finish for the half marathon” I had to shout it 3 times before they realized I wasn’t kidding. They had to unroll the timing mat for us. I crossed the mat, received my medal and demanded to speak to the race director. One kid asked me for my timing chip which I had laced into my shoe. While unlacing it I was told (again) that the cops had told them ages ago there were no more runners on the course and they had to close it down. You don’t want to know what I think of the Columbia Police Department of Columbia, South Carolina.
I handed over the timing chip and approached the race director. He had two guys wearing tshirts from the sponsoring running store standing next to him. Suffice it to say I tore him a new one to his shock and amazement. He kept repeating he was sorry over and over and telling us he paid for four hours worth of police time. He couldn’t seem to believe we didn’t have police assistance or escorts or ANYTHING.
Just then Dee and our other walking buddy approached me mid-conversation with the RD and interrupted to say “Jesus brought you to us today. He took care of us by sending you. You were our miracle.”
Now understand I have a big mouth there are very few things that will render me speechless but that did it. The RD, his two buddies from Strictly Running (the running store) and I stood there gaping for a minute at this woman who was so moved by my map reading and Garmin updates and water bottle sharing all of which she should have had free and easy as part of her race entry.
And then the race director asked us where we are from.
Answer #1- Columbia, SC
Answer #2- Columbia, SC
Answer #3- California.
He kept apologizing and telling us this was part of a race series and it’s not supposed to be like this because he paid for four hours. He tells us this absolutely will not happen next year and we were all too tired to give a crap so we said nothing and turned to leave. As I’m walking away he asks where I’m from in CA and I say SoCal. He tells me they’re having a race in Stockton in November if I’m willing to give them another chance.
He took our names (since he would have our info on our registrations) but said nothing about refunds, a free race fee, or anything else.
I then had to walk up a steep hill back to my car since the end looked close to the start on the map but remember, map not to scale.
To top it off at around 5pm after the race yesterday I received an email from Strictly Running threatening me with a $30 fine if I don’t return my timing chip in the next 23 hours. The email listed my address publicly along with the email addy of every other person who didn’t have a timing chip returned. I have no doubt my finishing buddies are on that list. Apparently they’re not technologically advanced enough to understand the wisdom of using blind copies on email. I responded to the email
but received a second reminder this morning. I really want them to charge me so I can sue them in small claims court. It would be my absolute pleasure to take this one to court. They’re lucky we’re not suing the police and the race organizers for reckless endangerment.
I’m not sure why I didn’t call 911. I think in any other situation I would have but the police person in the car following me before mile 3 was so aggressive and threatening I just didn’t really want to feel like that again.
As for the race director. I urge everyone and anyone to become familiar with the USRA race list just so you will know what NOT to run. Maybe the police made an error but you know what? I suspect they were give very poor instructions. Perhaps the RD couldn’t control the cops but there is a BIG difference between water stops every two miles (which is listed on their website) and water stops every three. The four hour limit was a joke. The timing chip issue was a disaster and the course was not marked at all after mile 5. There was exactly ONE first aid station also before mile 5. Nobody communicated with anyone else (walkie talkie guy did nothing to get us water and apparently nobody communicated with the guys at the mile 9 water stop).
I’m just grateful I didn’t need my RoadID although I do find it ironic that Road ID sponsored the bibs.