Monday, October 5, 2015

Balloon Ladies at the Princeton Half Marathon

I ran, well limped through, the 2014 Princeton Half Marathon with the thought "at least I never have to run on Herrontown Road again in my life." We are all familiar with where thoughts like that tend to lead. Mine, of course, lead me back to Herrontown Road for my third Princeton Half Marathon.

I'm a committee member for the Princeton Half Marathon. My role is to talk about how the back-of-the-packers feel, and what our needs are when they differ from those speedy folks who cross the finish line in half the time.

One of my brilliant ideas was the Balloon Lady, modeled after the one at Disney races. After a couple of years of having trouble getting those falling behind the 14 minute pace to stop, Catharine and Michael asked me to be the Balloon Lady. My thoughts ranged from "but I never wanted to do this race ever again" to "only if I can talk a friend into joining me." I immediately thought of Meaghan and how her positive attitude got me to the finish line at the 2014 Caffee Gelato Waffle Cone 10-miler in Newark, NE -- a trail race where it is quite easy to get lost. As I'm thinking "OUCH" she is saying "you can do it!"

Fortunately Meaghan immediately said yes. Even after she broke her toe (not running related) she was willing to stick with me. I hope we were a good team.

While the course was the same, there was one major change. The race moved from the first Sunday in November to the first Sunday in October. That meant one less month for preparing (i.e., training for the runners, but also race prep time for the organizers), as well as a huge difference in sunlight. The November date was the day after "falling back" on our clocks, the October date was dark as we lined up at the start line for the 7 AM race. The other notable difference was the foliage -- most leaves and acorns were on the trees still and not on the trail.

Let me point out the day before the weather had a massive Nor'Easter with strong winds. The forecast was calling for 50 degrees and 14 MPH winds. I'm sure I overdressed with the running tights, but going at the slower pace, they didn't both me in that way. What did "annoy" me that morning was that the tights made a slippery slope for my cute SparkleSkirt and the skirt kept sliding (the tights stayed in place). Princeton is a more serious race than most that I do (hence the 14 minute pace requirement) and the skirt was used to let the sweep van know we are the Balloon Ladies, or as someone else referred to me as "oh, you are Don's wife, he told us about you at our training meeting."

Maintaining a steady 14 minute pace is not as easy as it sounds. My walking pace is about 15. My running pace (for long distances) is more like 12. I already run/walk. Meaghan put a lot more thought into this than I did. She figured out alternating 30 seconds of running/jogging with 40 seconds of "walking with a purpose" would get us to the finish line at the 3:04 mark. A race like this one calls for going faster in the beginning flatter and downhill sections and saving yourself for the hills in the second half of the race, but we were not "pacing" in the traditional sense, we were keeping a steady pace uphill, downhill, and flat. 

Our job was to make it fun for the back of the packers, but still let them know they have to maintain a 14 minute pace or they are done for the day.

Meaghan held a "no person left behind" approach. She firmly believes everyone out there would finish, and could finish within the 3:04 limit. I had a more pessimistic view -- not everyone can do it, nor should everyone do it. Those hills are tough!

The only person to take the sweep van was Tom. By mile 3 he was red-faced and struggling. He is also the person who was shocked to learn at packet pick up the pace was 14 minutes -- which was clearly indicated on the registration form, but easy to forget when registering. By mile 6 Bill, the elliptical cyclist whose role was to follow us, encouraged Tom man-to-man not to attempt the hill at Washington Road. He had a good 75-minute work out and should stop.

Meaghan and I had slipped a little behind at this point (we had a sheet with when we were supposed to pass each mile marker), so we blew through some intervals to catch up with the next stragglers. We ended up one minute ahead at each mile marker, but still behind the last person.

These women were cute. The one in blue is a seasoned half marathoner. She talked her friend (in pink) into doing this race. The friend was struggling, but her buddy would not let her lag. The other woman (the one in grey) was equally determined to finish. 

We made it to the sweep point at 9:10. The stated deal on the official email was if you got to the sweep van by 9:15, you were free to finish the race and would not be swept. As a committee, we need to rethink that timing. It was both mile marker 9.15 and stated time of 9:15. Meaghan did the math. 9:15 had them at a 14:22 pace, with a giant hill (the dreaded Herrontown Road) ahead of them. The three made it to the sweep point at 9:15. The sweepers decided they were good to continue (it was our job to educate, not to pull bibs). At this point, Meaghan and I felt our job was done and we picked up our pace back to the official 14 minute pace (as noted by our cheat sheet). A couple of our quarter mile intervals were in the 10 minute pace. Those behind us could not keep up with that. The police knew we were the tails, and opened the roads behind us. They were encouraged to use the sidewalks.

Meaghan was doing great. I kept up with her for about 3 miles, then lost all steam. It happens. My legs cramped up around the 12.5 mile mark. I knew I could walk it and finish by 3:04, so I did. She kept up with her intervals, and her smiles, and finished at 3:02, but waited until 3:04 to cross the line. I sprinted the last .05 mile to finish at 3:04:59 to a crowd primed to cheer my name to the end, and a hug from the organizer for finishing right on pace.

Here is where things get awkward. What happens to those who made the sweep cut but not the 3:04 finish time? Those within eyesight were easily given medals, but a point came when the roads had to be opened and the timing company wanted to go home. How long is long enough to wait? We passed a couple of guys in the last mile for the first time who ran out of steam at the 11-12 mile mark. We passed one at the 12.25 mile mark with leg cramps -- he came in very late, but after hearing their story he was okay. The three ladies who should have taken the sag wagon at 9.15 kept going. They refused to stop. I get that. Running/walking/exercising/reading/knitting/etc. can be addictive. Despite a long drive home ahead of her, and a busy day as a mom, Meaghan cheered them all to the end. By the time those three ladies made it, the finish line was down, I was heading to my car, and the medals were packed away.

What do we need to do in the future? I hate to add a sweep spot at the 12 mile mark, but ending 25 minutes after the stated finish time is not acceptable, either.

What do we do about people who (for whatever reason) decide to start the race 15-30 minutes late (yes, I encountered that)? They could clearly run a half marathon at the pace, but it is not fair to the race organizers and volunteers to stay at their post past the Balloon Ladies "in case" someone decides to start late.

As stated earlier, Meaghan is the perfect cheerleader. I was more of a realist. I tried to explain Princeton is not an easy course. It is certainly not a first timers course, yet being geographically desirable people sign up for it as their first half marathon. Can we make people give us proof of their time, like they do for Boston? 

Without some change, the police will insist on changing it to a 13 minute pace, which will eliminate me. I'd hate for that to happen, but we are running out of ideas.

<--- Photobombers!

PS: with the high winds and lack of ideas how to attach balloons, we didn't run with balloons.

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