Sunday, April 26, 2015

Race Report: Pro Football Hall of Fame Marathon

Spoiler Alert! I got my 29th marathon finish and my 61st finish at a race of a marathon or longer. (32 ultra marathon finishes) I'm pooped but super happy. I left everything I had out on that course today and loved it. So the report...

I ran the inaugural running of this event last year and that was my last marathon, actually. I've been sticking to only one official marathon per year, although sometimes I'll be known to just run one on the weekend "just because." Last year was awesome and the race management of this race took the results of it and learned from it, made some tweaks, and brought us a fantastic race this year. The course, from what I could tell, had only one super minor tweak in it around Mile 21 where the last relay hand-off takes place. Outside of that, it appeared to be the same course.

Logistics: At the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there isn't enough parking to host all the runners (marathon, half marathon, and relay runners) without disrupting regular attenders of the Hall itself. Last year, they had everyone park at the Stark County Fairgrounds and shuttle them over. I didn't use that but this year, they moved the parking spot to the huge open parking lot of Belden Village short exit down I-77 from the Hall. We arrived at 6:15am (7am race start) and didn't wait a moment for a bus. The Stark County transit was lined up to take us to the Fawcett Stadium and the start. Easy parking and super quick ride to the start...perfect and it couldn't be better. After the race, it was just as flawless. There were a plethora of buses lined up again so no wait at all. The drivers even had a great attitude, too. :) Upon arrival at the stadium, we walked on in to this view of the finish line and field...and a brilliant sunrise. The curve around the end zone at the bottom left is the sprint to the finish at the 50 yard line.

The Start: Both the half marathon and marathon races begin together just outside Fawcett Stadium and the Hall on the road in between them and I-77. A huge flag was hung over the start (which I especially loved) and easy to find pacers were scattered along the road so runners could seed themselves right where they need to be around others who plan to run around the same pace...very handy for preventing a stampede at the start. Prior to the start, the sun was rising fast, temps were in the 30s (but headed to the 50s) and my wife and I met up with longtime friend, Mindy, at the Hall's sign. This is definitely the most common meet-up spot for runners and for pre-race photos. The start is adjacent to this spot so it's perfect. The race was supposed to start at 7am but it sounds like some of those buses were still transporting runners so the race director decided to hold off on the start for about 10min or so. Once the time came, we were treated to a chorus singing the National Anthem...beautiful. To prove how the race management learned from last year, we couldn't hear a single word last year of the Anthem. This year, speakers were well-positioned and drowned out the chit-chat of the runners when it was time...perfect. THANK YOU! Moments after they finished, we were off...right under Old Glory!

The Course: This course is most easily described in two parts...the first half and the second half. All runners are together for the full and half marathon all the way until right before the half marathoners head back into Fawcett Stadium for their finish. This is pretty great, especially for those who are running with another runner of the opposing distance as I was. It's an easy break-off and easily understood. As for elevation, below is the elevation profile for the entire 26.2. "Rolling gently" is how I'd sum up this course. No big hills as I define them but certainly some rises and falls here and there.
First Half - click on it to enlarge
The first half takes you almost immediately under Interstate 77 and towards downtown Canton. Awesome architecture, tons of runners everywhere, not too much crowd support (or ever, for that matter) and an interesting route. The latter half of the first half takes you into a park setting and then the McKinley Monument and those famous steps...imagine Rocky Balboa in Philly...but many more of them. Tempting to run up...but I thought better of it. :) My plan today was to hang out around the 9min/mile area and the 4hr pace group leader and then if I had more to give later, I would. We moved past that pace group leader early on and maintained around a 8:45-ish pace. I haven't been training at all for this race and haven't done any serious distance since my last race, a 50K in early January. Since then, I think I've run at most 15 or 16 miles at once and only ran 2-3 days a week at the very most. Instead, I've been doing CrossFit five days a week. Today was to be a true litmus test of endurance. I believe I am more fit than ever in my life but when it comes to long distance running, endurance is bound to decrease if the miles aren't put in. Since I have a life outside of my 1hr of CrossFit a day, the running has taken a backseat. Still, though, I love to run and I'd like to run this marathon for as many years as I can without missing one. Usually, I know or have a good gut feeling for what waits for me, based on my prep but I had no idea today. As I approached the halfway point, I felt great...very comfy at my pace. I hung a left as the half marathoners cruised ahead towards their finish and the silence immediately took a hold. Quiet. Total.

The second half is almost entirely residential and takes place west of the southwest of the Hall. If you like turns and having the road all to yourself, this is your cup-o-tea. Now before you think I'm hating on the second half, please understand that I knew this before running it this year...not last year, though. I don't typically like to complain without offering a suggestion for improvement. In this case, I have no idea what I'd suggest. #1: the bulk of runners are finishing the half marathon...way more registrants. You can't do much about that and that's the trend nationwide. #2: Residential is...boring. Unless the residents come out to cheer us on, it's going to be painfully quiet except for the regular water stop and running families waiting for their runner to pass...and cheering others on while they wait. So while the second half is what it is, you just need to be prepared for it. For some, it may be music and if that's you, bring it! Here's the zig-zag second half:
2nd Half - click on it to enlarge
It was probably around the 17 mile point that I knew my time had come and the suffering was coming. By the time Mile 19 rolled around, "suck-it-up-buttercup" mode was fully engaged. From lifts I did in CrossFit last week (felt those in my upper and lower back) to my quads, hammies, and calves yelling (and cussing) at me. This was absolutely no surprise so now it was just a matter of keeping forward movement...and delaying the arrival of the 4hr pace group leader that would catch me...eventually.

One of my favorite (if not my favorite) parts of the course happens in the 20th mile just like last year. The Flags of Freedom put an incredible 1,000 3x5 flags on poles in the ground, one at a time along the course. With the clear blue skies and breeze, every Old Glory waved in a majestic way. This was a great distraction from the sucktastic Mile 20.

As the miles progressed, the discomfort grew and I slowed. It was in the 24th mile that the 4hr pace group leader went on by with only two runners at his side...pretty typical of what happens in a marathon. I told them "great job" and watched them go. There was no keeping up with them. Within about 1/2 mile of the finish, the series of downhills begin as the surrounding neighborhood roads took me back to Fawcett Stadium. If you reference the top photo in this report, all runners enter the stadium at the top left. We all pass over an electronic sensor that lets the finish line announcer know who's coming and as I turned the corner to the finish, I had the finish line all to myself. I heard my name announced and raised my hands as I crossed the finish. DONE. I didn't wear a watch so I had no idea what my time was until a little bit later. The volunteers draped the awesome medal over my neck and I loaded up with some Subway, a banana, some chocolate milk and water. All very appreciated! As promised, my wife was waiting for me in the sun on the 30 yard line and I hit the turf...hard. :) Mission accomplished! A short while later, I logged in the event's website and checked my finish time: 4hrs, ONE minute, 47 seconds. I guess I wasn't as far behind that pace group leader as I thought! :) But seriously...that's awfully close to being UNDER 4 hours. What's cool about running without a watch is the mental decision to leave it all out there on the course and hold nothing back. That's precisely what I did. I don't regret anything because I know I gave it all. Marathon #29 finish!

All in all, this is a GREAT race. Jim Chaney (race director) and his team have done a fantastic job. The ONLY downside is the second half and how lonely and quiet it is but like I said, I don't have a suggestion to fix that. The finish line at the 50 yard line, an uncrammed finish line area to get the medal and food, and wide open field to just crash in the sun is awesome. Then there is that medal. The marathon finishers got a medal that, I kid you not, has battery-powered stadium lights on them that flash. Talk about thinking outside the box!!! The half marathoners got a super-cool medal, too. Both are totally different but equally creative and awesome. I'll certainly be back next year but I think I'll turn on some tunes in the second half. I had them today...I just didn't turn them on. Great race, great organizers, super-awesome volunteers...and I do love Old Glory and it was everywhere today. Do it in 2016! Marathon, half marathon, marathon relay and Gold Jacket 5K on Saturday.

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