"Use your glutes, ladies!"
A woman in red arm sleeves screamed this somewhere around mile five Saturday, at approximately the same time that my internal monologue was saying, "Half marathons are bullshit. This sucks. We're never doing this again." She can be forgiven for saying "ladies" because, for most of the race, I was the only man at the back, surrounded on all sides by women.
Mile five was the fifth mile out of six and a half miles of continuous uphill walking. Three times in the first seven miles one of the race volunteers said, "You're past the worst part! It's all flat and downhill from here on out!" Two of those times were lies.
Let's back the story up a little bit, though.
On Thursday, I drove to Asheville to meet up with my friend Bernadatte, so that we could participate in the Asheville Half Marathon at the Biltmore Estate. We signed up for this kind of impulsively last year, at the expo for the Great Smoky Mountains Half Marathon. If you haven't done a big race before, the expo is an event the day before when vendors come, and you pick up your rack pack, and everyone gets really excited. Last year we were so excited to be at a half marathon together that signing up for another before I'd even walked my first one seemed like a great idea, and we registered on the spot.
Our trip didn't get off to the best start. We were supposed to meet up to climb Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in North Carolina and the highest peak in the United States east of the Mississippi River:
but there was a closed road in the middle of the park where the mountain is:
and after three attempts at navigating around it only to have my car redirect me back to the same stretch of closed road I texted Bernadette that I was giving up and going to hang around the hotel. As part of impulsively deciding to do this race, we also decided to stay on the grounds of the Biltmore Estate, which turned out to be a smart choice for two reasons:
First, it was so peaceful and restful. We went for a walk the day before the race, covering a few miles of the course, and everything was very calm:
and really pretty.
We could also walk to the winery, where I purchased enough bottles of wine for them to give me a box to carry them all, because that is a totally normal thing that adults who live alone do.
We walked all of this because the Biltmore was not yet renting bicycles for the season.
"We're trying to have some tomorrow!"
What's there to try? You have a bicycle barn, full of bikes, marked on the map. Unlock it and let the bicycles out, and the problem's solved.
Anyway, the other reason staying on the grounds was a good idea was that we got to wake up in the morning and walk right out to the race a half hour before start time. We had time to have breakfast, pose for photos:
and didn't have to get up at five AM to sit on a shuttle bus and then stand around for an hour.
We got up at five anyway, because we are crazy people.
I went into the race with doubts, because there was no pacer for the time I expected to finish in. The pacer is a person with a sign who is going to finish in the time printed on their sign. You can use them as your guide to figure out if you are keeping your pace, or need to speed up, and in my other half marathon they had them for every fifteen minutes up until 3 hours and 30 minutes. When you start the race, you find your pacer, and that way people who are faster don't have to push their way around you to get going. With that in mind, I went hopefully searching for the 3:00 pacer, but couldn't locate one.
"I'm the last pacer," 2:45 told me.
"There's no one after you?"
"The sweeper, at 3:30."
The sweeper lets you know that you will not finish in time. If the sweeper passes you, you get pulled off the course and you do not receive a medal. I talked about this last time I wrote about a half marathon, but I'll say it again: the sweeper is failure. You must stay ahead of the sweeper.
This filled me with terror. I'm sort of conscious of my own pace, but I know I get slower the longer we go on, because I get tired. That means my pace starts changing, and it's hard for me to tell because I'm mentally fraying at that point. Everybody before 2:45 got to know where they were plus or minus 15 minutes, but 2:45 to 3:30 was a 45 minute no man's land, where you might be on the verge of succeeding or might get swept up by the sag wagon at any moment.
Since we stayed at the hotel, and got to roll into the race right before the start, I only had ten minutes to agonize over this, which may have been to our advantage, because the gun was going off and the race was starting before I could really psych myself out.
Mile three marked the first lie from a race volunteer: "It flattens out right up ahead."
Mile four was where I realized I wasn't replenishing calories fast enough, and jammed three cubes of Shot Bloks into my mouth because I was lightheaded for a second. Personal recommendation: avoid the strawberry flavor, which is distilled not from strawberries but instead from dust and sadness.
Somewhere in that first few uphill miles a table offered us Girl Scout cookies, which was a charming idea. Unfortunately a milkless Girl Scout cookie when you're panting from several miles of uphill walking is petty much like rubbing your tongue with delicious sandpaper.
I mentioned mile five at the beginning of this. At that point I was among a crew of older ladies who all know each other and race together. They wore matching shirts and all walked at more or less the same speed, except for Judy, who was way ahead. One of the ladies explained to the other lady how much she does and doesn't like Judy, who is faster than all of them.
"I've never liked Judy. I don't dislike her. I've just never liked her."
It sure as hell sounds like you don't like her, but I don't know your life.
Just after mile six one of the volunteers told us that we were past the worst of the hills and the rest of the race would be downhill. I believed he was lying, like the two lying liars before him, but it turned out that he was true.
Just before the mile seven mark we were joined on the path by the staff of the Biltmore House, who were walking from the staff parking lots to the house for their workday. They were very nice, and very supportive.
Miles seven to ten are kind of a blur for me. They were very pretty, with waterfalls and shaded paths and such, and mostly downhill. Eventually the course joined the route Bernadette and I had walked the day before, and I was comforted by the familiar.
At mile ten, we were encouraged onward by Lady Biltmore, who I had met the day before at the expo:
and who I saw again at the end of the race:
There was a sign at the water station by her that informed us that anyone passing mile ten later than 2:10 into the race was going to be pulled off the course. No one pulled us off at that point, so I knew I was still faster than 3:30, but I had no idea at that point how fast or slow I was moving.
At mile 11 I fell into some kind of mental fugue. I have no memory whatsoever of seeing the mile 12 marker. Mile 11 is the last one I remember seeing, and then, all of a sudden, when I was coming toward the finish line, I saw the 2:45 pacer directly in front of me.
See that little white square toward the right side of the picture? That's her 2:45 sign. And that's me directly next to her.
My initial thought was that I was hallucinating.
My second thought was that she got tired.
"Are you still on pace?" I loudly demanded. "Are you still 2:45?"
She held up her wrist watch. "Yes."
I have no idea how this happened. I should have stayed with her, but I was exhausted. Even though the finish was downhill and Bernadette was screaming at me to run, I was too dazed. Instead, I became a princess.
I walked that last minute to the finish line giving my best pageant wave and thanking everyone on both sides of the course.
"Thank you! Thank you so much!"
As I crossed the finish line the announcer said my name:
and I screamed, "That's me!"
I may not have won the race, but I sure as hell acted like I did.
I finished at 2:46 clock time, and chip time of 2:44. My chip time on the last half marathon was 3:07. I somehow took over twenty minutes off of my time. That's almost two miles, because the stats also say I was averaging a pace between 12 and 13 minute miles.
I just barely made it out of the bottom fourth of finishers, but I still finished:
and I did it ahead of 300 other people.