Shamrock Half Marathon 2014

Sherpa. The word specifically refers to the ethnic people of Nepal. It evolved to refer to the mountaineers who act as guides for people climbing mountains in the Himalayas. They go up the mountain first and make a way for those ambitious and less experienced people to make their way to the top. Among runners, you will hear it used as slang for the person who takes care of you so you can go race.

Byram is my sherpa. The week of a race, he takes care of logistics, planning, organizing, and communication. The night before a race, he takes childcare duties, and leaves me all to myself if that is what I want. The day of the race would never happen if not for my sherpa. He gets me to my starting line and is with me in spirit the whole way. When I get done with a race, he is there to greet me, schlepping all my post-race necessities along with him so I don’t have to worry about checking a bag or anything.

He makes a way for me to achieve my goals. I couldn’t do it without him.

It has been a crummy winter. The Winter That Won’t Die. It’s snowing like crazy, right now, on St. Patrick’s day. I have known I have a race on the calendar since January 7th. Did I really train for it? Sorta. I only got serious about it in the last 4 weeks. And every other week has been snowy and icy; treadmills have been in short supply and sidewalks have been essentially nonexistent for long stretches at a time.

The Shamrock Half was a gift, and it was one I treated a little shabbily in the weeks leading up to it. We went down to Virginia Beach on Saturday afternoon; it was a beautiful day and we spent several hours at the beach after packet pick-up and seeing the expo. We got a really good deal on compression socks, so I broke a cardinal rule (never try something new on race day) and put my new green socks into the clothing plan for the next day.

I had requested phở for my pre-race dinner and we got a recommendation for a place not far from the oceanfront. After a bit of confusion, we lucked into finding it, and I can say without reservation that Phở 79 has truly excellent broth. We made our way to the home of our friends Rich and Genie and Ian, and we settled in for a wonderful evening of catching up and reminiscing about the old days. The kids played until very late in the night, and the grown-up sat up chatting until very early in the morning. We trundled off to bed around 2am; it was a great evening but it set up a rough start when the alarms (I set 2!) went off at 4:30. Duane let me sleep as long as he could, but he wasn’t going to let me off the hook for a race just because I chose to stay up all hours of the night. I love him for that.

He got us to the oceanfront with no drama and we found a parking spot right off of the interstate and in a spot that would allow us to get right back on the interstate to leave with only two left turns. I didn’t mind the mile and a half walk but I felt bad for Byram. The weather was crystal clear; we started under the full moon as just before sunrise. The change in lighting was so gradual, I was startled when I realized the sun was up and we were running in full daylight.

The Shamrock Half route is very very simple. You start at Atlantic and 42nd Street and you follow Atlantic until you turn north west onto Shore Drive. Shore Drive is trees and swamp; not especially inspiring. Around mile 5.5 you turn right into Fort Story back on Atlantic Avenue and you officially “inbound”. I have been on Fort Story before a couple of times, but I didn’t remember it being such a bleak and stark place; particularly the northern end. Maybe it was partly because of the harsh winter we have suffered, or maybe I just went there later in the year when things were greener, but Fort Story as it appeared yesterday seemed to have all of the color drained from it. Everything was beige. It felt like we were running through a relic of another time, like World War II hadn’t quite ended for this place. It didn’t help that in the Fort, all of the intersections were guarded by mostly unsmiling, uniformed soldiers. I always try and smile and wave and say thank you to race volunteers, but the soldiers didn’t really respond. It felt a touch unfriendly and after a while, I just gave up on them. Thinking back on it, they probably weren’t “volunteers” in the traditional sense. They were on duty. At work. On a beautiful Sunday morning.

The sight I had looked forward to the most was in Fort Story though, which made unsmiling soldiers worth it. I got to see the two Cape Henry lights. There was a sundog in the sky and the morning was beautiful and clear, and the lights were there, solid and strong as ever. I have climbed the 1792 Light twice. I love it. The lights are at Mile Marker 8, and I was feeling great at that point. I was drinking water at every station, I had taken a gel around the 5 mile point, and all was well.

We continued on through Fort Story for another mile, which was a slightly less depressing section; there was some base housing, a few spectators, a few new and really expensive homes (clearly for top brass types), and after Mile Marker 9, we exited through the gates where I got the only friendly experience with any of the military types. The MP at the gate was smiling and giving out high fives to anyone in reach. I got one. I needed to see a smiling face and to shake the depressing dust of Fort Story from my heels.

Back into Virginia Beach proper, we completed the “loop” around the base and were back among the civilians. There weren’t lots of spectators, but those who were out were enthusiastic, several of whom had set up beer stations. It is always amusing to see beer being offered along a race course, amusing to see who chooses to take the offerings, and what the offerings are. The highest class of beer I saw being passed out was cans of Rolling Rock. It wasn’t even up to Pabst Blue Ribbon standards. No thanks.

I made a terrible mental mistake while we were running back to the ocean front. I noted the street number when we first got back in to Civilian Virginia Beach. We were at 89th Street. And I also knew that the finish line was at 30th Street.

I started doing math.

With 4 miles to go.

This was NOT the best idea ever. All of the sudden, in my mind, I knew I had almost 60 full blocks to still run and I started counting them down. This was BAD for me. I started tuning out my music and tuning into numbers. I was not disassociating from the normal late-race aches anymore. A few blocks from Mile Marker 11, at 67th Street, I heeled up for a one block walk break. I took another one block walk break between 50 and 49th Streets. After that, I was afraid if I walked anymore, I wouldn’t start up again. Seeing Mile Marker 12 cleared my head a lot. I plugged back into my music and told myself I had maybe 12 minutes left to go. It was better.

When we veered left on Atlantic where it splits from Pacific, we turned right into heavy and frigid winds. The wind gusts between intersections were spectacularly powerful and cold. I had stopped counting street numbers, so that was a good thing. I knew we were almost there because I could hear cheering.

The cheering was at 37th Street; a huge group of LiveStrong folks were set up where we turned off Atlantic and onto the Boardwalk. At the same time, we were turning into some hardcore wind and people were cheering and there were encouraging messages written in chalk on the sidewalk, and I was very tired and a little emotional. The wind was so strong and cold it literally took your breath away. Also, as I got around the corner and onto the boardwalk, I saw how far away the finish line still was (7 more blocks, but I didn’t know that number at the time). I got a bit teary for reasons I still don’t quite grasp. Fortunately, Thrift Shop by Macklemore came on my iPod and that song just cracks me up.

I know it wasn’t that far, but that boardwalk stretched on for what seemed like an eternity. The concrete hurt to run on. I was freezing and all I wanted to do was get through that finish line. As I approached Neptune, I took off my hat and gave him a little salute and plowed on through the finish line. I noted the clock time, knew it was not my chip time, and didn’t have any feelings about it one way or the other. I was just happy to be done. I felt like I had run a really good race despite a couple of rough miles near the end (they always happen, I think).

Taking off the hat was a mistake. Byram was looking for that hat, not wet red hair, and so he missed me when I passed him (I didn’t see him either). The chute stretched on a whole block and it was not easily navigable. I got my enormous medal from the most unenthusiastic volunteer ever, which felt odd. A long walk brought me to a station where they were handing out hats, then another long walk to water and Gatorade, then another long walk to the beach towels, then a granola bar stop; I mean it just went on forever. Then there was this enormous crowd of people coming and going to the beer tent up a fairly narrow set of stairs to the beach. I wanted nothing to do with the beer tent, I just wanted to go meet my husband at the arranged location.

Our reunion got all dorked up because I don’t carry my phone with me and he hadn’t seen me cross the finish. But that was just a sidebar to everything.

Shamrock was a really awesome and fun race with a touch of odd and awkward. Logistically, it was not easy, but like the other 30,000 participants, we managed. The course was fast and flat, and that was a nice change from moderately hilly Richmond, and the trail terrain of Instant Classic. The atmosphere of the party at the end would have been awesome if it had not been so bitterly cold that it felt like all 30,000 people were crammed into the beer tent. It did not have that friendly, whole town turns out vibe that Richmond does, but then I think the race must be an enormous PITA for the people who actually live in the area. It definitely lacked the mutual goodwill between spectators and runners of Richmond. It was cool to run along the beach. It was a great weekend to be with my family and play at the water’s edge too.

I keep getting asked if I would run it again and today my answer is I don’t know. If my March race choices come down to Instant Classic and Shamrock, it is tough to call between them. IC is 15 minutes from home, inexpensive, low key, calm and small. Shamrock is the opposite of all of those things, but Shamrock comes with the Big Race amenities like portajohns and freebies and swag bags and such. Not so with IC. Shamrock is flat and fast. IC is, well, not. Shamrock is pavement and concrete (to say, hurty), and IC is a trail (less hurty).

I don’t know and right now, it doesn’t matter. I am going to register for the Crawlin Crab half marathon in Hampton, running the first weekend of October. For that race, I am chasing down the King Crab challenge and will do the 5K with Byram on Saturday and the Half on Sunday.

Thank you to my best friend, love of my life, and sherpa, Byram, for making a weekend of incredible memories for our family.

One final note, added post script. As an indication of how much I just ran this race for the fun of it, I forgot to mention my final time. I shaved 2 minutes off of my last PR in November. 2:33:48. #ShamrockOn

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