When I registered for the Celebration Half Marathon, I actually viewed it as more of a training run than a goal race. I’m registered for the Gasparilla Half Marathon in late February, and I had registered so early that I believed I could get in a “practice” half marathon and still have time to recover for a real push at Gasparilla. Also – I live in Celebration. It felt like if I were going to be doing a 12 or 13 mile training run in town, I might as well get a medal for it. All indications are that the race is very well run and very runner friendly … so I signed up.
Training went well. I’ve clearly gotten faster, which I attribute largely to endurance gained with Crossfit. My taper was very non-traditional – two weeks before the race I ran most of the actual course, about 12.25 miles by the time I was done. And then I didn’t go for another formal run for those two weeks. I went to Crossfit 6 days a week, and that often included running, but at no time did I go out for a run. For dinner on Saturday night I made a chicken barley soup and homemade bread to carb up, and called it a taper. My prior half marathon PR was 2:36 flat – my stated goal going into this was a PR, my secondary but really no-brainer goal was under 2:30, my stretch goal was under 2:25, and in my wildest dreams I hoped to get under 2:20.
Florida in January is generally a glorious place to be. For the last several weeks the highs have been from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, with lots of sunshine and low(ish) humidity. Winter training here is a completely different thing than winter training in New York. Everything was going great until we started checking the forecast a week or so out – mid to upper 40s and rain. From like 4am to 10am on that Sunday – the exact window that the race was scheduled to run in – Central Florida was going to get rain.
The race expo was at town hall, from 5pm to 9pm on Friday and 10am to 6pm on Saturday. My thought was that I’d get there right around 5 on Friday and beat the rush. Apparently that was a good idea, because by the time I got there the line to pick up bibs was quite long. They moved it along quickly, though, and we got our bibs and a bag full of coupons and headed inside to the expo. We all got very nice steel tumblers as part of our SWAG (very nice), and my bib number won a door prize – which was one of last year’s shirts. The shirts we all got this year are very nice, and there was a small but nice expo with several vendors and local companies. Then I did my best to stay off my feet until Sunday morning.
Race day, I got up 20 minutes earlier than normal, ate my traditional pre-race oatmeal and coffee (got to keep things, well, moving) and prepped up. Because of the rain I had purchased a throw-away rain jacket at BJs for $13, and tried to dress warmly but not too- warmly. The walk down to the start line was a bit over a mile, and about halfway there I passed a parking lot and entered the masses. I’d brought along a coat in a gear check bag, so when I made it downtown I went and checked that at the very neat little area they had set up and then started wandering around trying to stay warm. I knew several people running the race, but never did see any of them before we got started. Of course, there were 2,500 of us milling about between the half and the full, not including family and volunteers, etc.
The corrals were not formal, but there were plenty of signs designating where to start. There were also professional pacers scattered throughout, so there was plenty of signage. Lots of port-a-potties, so I got one last stop in, and then lined up just in front of the pacer with the 11:05 pace sign. National Anthem, 3-2-1 go, and we were off. I dropped my raincoat just on the other side of the start line and the race was on.
Lots of congestion early on. The first mile of the course features several turns through a nice neighborhood, which is lovely when you’re running with a handful of people. When you’re running with several hundred, though, those turns really bog down as people try to run the tangents. Also, and I hate to be negative about this, but there is really no excuse in a start area this well signed for people that are going to be walking within the first mile to have been in front of me. There were a few people running a Galloway-type run-walk program, some even with beepers, but they were all very courteous about stops and starts and stayed over to the side. Other than that, though, if you’re going to be walking that early, line up farther back. <sigh> My first mile was the third slowest, at 11:09.
Right at the first mile marker, two things happened. First, we turned out of that neighborhood and began running a much more straight course, which cleared up much of the congestion. Another, though, was the first of the spectators that was specifically cheering for a group of friends running the race, including me. She and her kids had created a sign with “You Can Do It!” on one side and “Go <insert names here>!” on the other. I could tell I was the first of our group to go by, because I seemed to take her by surprise, and by the time she got the sign turned around I was already by. That kind of support, though, makes a monster difference – it was cool. My second mile settled into very comfortable pace and came in at 10:39.
The third mile is a big out-and-back through a neighborhood called North Village. I don’t like out-and-backs, but I had practiced this particular one several times since I knew I’d be running it. I passed the time on the way out scanning the runners that were coming back, and then vice-versa on the way back. I didn’t recognize anybody, but it sure made the miles go faster. Mile 3 was a 10:38 mile.
This course is very, very flat. Over the whole 13.1 miles, my Garmin only picked up 32 feet of elevation gain, total – and that’s not net, just the number going up. Mile 4 goes through a stretch, though, that I’ve always felt like is slightly downhill. Any time I run that stretch I always feel great going through there, and this time was no different. Nothing remarkable – we wound around near the Water Tower Shoppes and then ran in front of the Disney offices here in town, headed toward the hospital. Only one turn in mile 4, which helped it come in at 10:31. At this point I was feeling very good and knew I had a very good chance to hit my goals, even the stretch or dream goals. The rain had been spitting all morning, and it was chilly, but overall things were going very well.
For mile 5, we wound in around behind the Celebration Hospital, running through their parking lot and access road. Here I should also say that the support on-course was GREAT. There were police and volunteers at every intersection, and water stops with water and Gatorade at very regular intervals. Particularly with the weather like it was, it was great to have that much support. In my practice run two weeks before, I had refueled with a Lara Bar at the end of mile 5. It felt too heavy on my stomach, so this time I brought lighter Nutri-Grain bars. There was a water stop just before the mile marker, so I took my first walk break to eat that bar and wash it down. Because of that little stop, mile 5 was a bit slower at 10:50.
At that point, though, we turned off onto a roughly 2.5 mile stretch of just straight running. They had blocked off a lane on the main road coming into town and we had the whole thing for that stretch. Wide lanes, no turns, just running, leads to good splits, and miles 6 and 7 were my fastest in the race – 10:29 and 10:21, respectively. The marathon organizers had several signs printed up to line this stretch (“You’re running better than the government!” and “Hurry up marathoners, the half-marathoners are eating all the food!”, etc.) There were also a few spectators, including one couple that had a big sign “Free Gatorade for runners!” and a cooler full of 20oz Gatorades. Again, the support means a great deal. These miles seemed to fly by, and I hit the official 10K split in 1:06.44, which is less than 3 minutes off of my 10K PR that I set on Thanksgiving. And I still felt strong.
Just after the mile 7 marker we turned off onto a potentially hazardous stretch. Celebration was basically built on a big swamp, and throughout town there are miles of paths that include boardwalks through some of the old forest. These boardwalks are very nice, and make a lovely stroll or even a run under normal circumstances. They are also very slippery when they get wet – and it was raining. Between that and how narrow they are, we were warned multiple times to be very careful, and to stay right unless passing but don’t even really do that. Most of mile 8 was on a boardwalk, and though I didn’t see any accidents or incidents, I also slowed down to a manageable 10:48 pace. I both wanted to stay safe and also wanted to start conserving energy – my legs were starting to feel the miles, and about mile 9 was when I bonked pretty hard on my long training run. So I throttled back a bit, and in the end this was the right strategy.
At about mile 8.5 we came off of the boardwalk and crossed over a bridge into a neighborhood called Artisan Park for about 1.5 miles. That bridge is the only way in and out of Artisan Park, so that’s where I’d told my wife to be if she wanted to bring the kids to cheer. Both of my kids, but particularly the young one, have been pretty sick lately – and it was raining – so I had told her the night before that if they couldn’t make it I would not have my feelings hurt. It was more important to keep everybody healthy than to get them all wet. So I rounded that corner not knowing what to think – and there they were! Part of my motivation for doing all of this is to be a good role model for my kids – I want them to see their Daddy doing healthy things and making active choices and living that kind of life. And so when they see me and smile and give me fives and act excited – well, there really isn’t anything better. It was awesome. Just past my family I took another walk break to eat my second Nutri-Grain bar. Between stopping to say hi and then eating that bar, mile 9 was by far my slowest at 11:29.
I have a standard loop that I do through Artisan Park … and this course actually cuts that loop off, making it feel like I’m cheating. That helped. I also saw another group of spectators that I knew – some friends live down in Artisan Park, and the wife was also running the race. It is always good to get personalized words of encouragement – in this case a big “Go Hogs!” in reference to the Arkansas Razorbacks pullover I was wearing. This got me through mile 10 in 10:37. We also crossed the 15k mat in Artisan Park – my official 15k split was 1:40.44, which is nearly a 9 minute PR at that distance.
My family was still there when I came back over the bridge – so another round of high fives and smiles later, I had my motivation to finish. The final three miles are always a mental exercise, making sure your mind doesn’t tell your body to stop. At this point I knew that I was going to finish in under 2:25, and what kept me going was the chance at getting under 2:20. But I was also tired, so I started hitting every water stop … and then it was just put your head down and get to the finish. Mile 11 goes through a little neighborhood called Aquila Loop (10:54), Mile 12 is partly in East Village and partly on a very nice path on the back edge of town all the way to Lake Evalyn (11:11), and then at the beginning of Mile 13 the full marathon course turns for its second loop and the half marathoners loop around behind the main lake in town, cross through the original startline, and wind around to the finish right in the middle of downtown. In Mile 13 the rain picked up a little, but it was an 11:00 mile, and that last 0.1 mile I did at a 10:00 pace, to finish in 2:21.52.
Nearly a 15 minute PR!
So, yeah, I was pretty amped up. They’ve got a chute set up to run through at the finish, and they were calling names. Lots of people were cheering, music, a great atmosphere. In the chute we got our medals, a Clif bar, a bottle of water, orange slices, bananas, and a little cover-up from the rain. I inhaled all of that that was edible, probably through a big smile. I went over and retrieved my checked bag so I could put a heavier coat on, and then cheered the other runners until my friends came by. At about 2:40 the winner of the full marathon came through, flying – I saw him coming and thought “Wow, that guy is running fast” before I could see his bib and tell he had run a completely different race. Once everybody around me realized what he was, there was a really big cheer. It is impressive watching somebody do something you can’t.
And at that point I headed to the after-party, which is really really great for a race this size. All of the local restaurants had a tent set up with food. You got a card with all of their logos on it, which entitled you to a sample at their tent. It was awesome. We got two beers at the beer tent, a mimosa at that tent, and the restaurants had awesome food – standouts were the clam chowder from the Tavern, the black beans and rice from the Columbia, and the chili from Market Street diner. Café D’Antonio had big doughy pizza, and Upper Crust had hot rolls. I didn’t make it to all of the tents, but I know Imperium Wine and Avocado’s Mexican were out there, too – as well as Starbucks. Just an awesome perk for the runners.
I could not be happier with that run. My training was good, but at the end of the day my mileage was lower than when I trained for the half marathons I did in the past. I’m convinced that the difference is Crossfit – my cardiovascular endurance, as well as my leg and core strength, are drastically improved from what they were, and I got there without pounding my legs out on all of those miles. To be this much faster than before, AND injury free, is an awesome feeling.
If you’re looking for a small, flat, fast, runner-friendly race, I’m not sure you could possibly do any better than the Celebration Marathon and Half Marathon.
- Everybody on social media is raving about the race, as well they should. Lest I be considered biased, there is one decent complaint – the area where they do the bag check is not covered, and if you didn’t put your stuff inside something waterproof in your bag, your stuff probably got wet. Mine did. That was a bit annoying – to have thought ahead to pack a dry warm coat, and then have it be pretty wet, was not what I was looking for. BUT – it wasn’t all that bad, and I’m going to give them a break. I’m going to bet they haven’t seen weather this crappy since they started this race, and I’ll also bet that the next time it rains on race day they’ll have a solve for this. At the end of the day, this was pretty minor.
- It turns out that I’m not going to be running Gasparilla – the cost and logistics of getting to that area on that day are just prohibitive, and the Crossfit Open starts that weekend. Also, it’ll be nice to take a break from training for a race – though it’ll be a short break, because the next one is not that far out. All of that to say – running this was absolutely the right call, all the way around.
- There is something really odd about running a decently big goal-type race in your own town when you walk to and from the starting line. These are routes I run all the time, and this was just like a training run – except with a couple thousand of my closest friends, and water stops along the way. Kind of surreal, really. I imagine it’ll be even worse the next time I get out there to do a regular run.
- The encouragement I got from my Crossfit box was incredible, and really means a lot. A couple of my fellow athletes also ran (go Nanette, Joanne, and Brooke!) also ran, and I got several texts and other encouragement from others. The community is the best part of Crossfit, and this is just another example of that.
- Also a big congrats to Holly and Elizabeth for killing that race, and thanks to Laura and William for standing out in the rain with a sign. I’ve never lived in a community where friends all root for friends like this. I like it.
- This race is worth it for the food after. Seriously – the beans and rice from the Columbia was absolutely perfect after this. Also, for dinner that evening we came back down to the Tavern and I absolutely crushed a cheeseburger & fries & onion rings & beers & a post-race meal that I’d been planning for several days.
- Back on the wagon on Monday morning, though.
- Speaking of Monday morning – I had a checkup with my doctor the morning after the race. The nurse that took my vitals engaged me in my single favorite medical interaction of all time:
Nurse: Is your pulse always very low?
Me: Oh, uh … I run.
Nurse: Ah – ok.
End of conversation.
(for the record, my resting pulse was 45 bpm) (#running)
- The SWAG was awesome, too – our shirt was organic cotton from RawThreads, and is a shirt I’ll actually wear. The steel tumbler is exceptionally nice, and unlike anything I’ve ever gotten in race SWAG before. And the flyers and coupons included are all for discounts for local restaurants and stores – which is handy, because I actually live here and may use them. There was also a light-up safety arm band and something they called a “buff”, which really saved my ears going to and from the race.
- My next scheduled race is The Dark Side Challenge on April 22nd and 23rd at Disney World. That’s Star Wars Dark Side weekend, and I’ll be running the 10K on Saturday and half marathon on Sunday. Which, in retrospect, was crazy for me to sign up for. May the force be with me.
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