Nike Women’s Half Marathon Recap: Part 2

Nike Women’s Half Marathon Recap and Race Report: Part 2

3-5 bedlam2

WARNING: Probably my longest recap yet of both a race’s expo and race itself. There were a lot of ups and downs with this race and my overall experience, that I’ve broken this into two parts. This is Part 2, Part 1 is here.

Race: Nike Women’s Half Marathon
Location: National Mall, Tidal Basin, L’Enfant Plaza, Washington, DC
Distance: 21.1 km (13.1 miles)
Date/Start Time: 28 April 2013, 7am
Distance Travelled to Compete: 198 km (123 miles)
Weather conditions: Sunny; temperatures stayed at mid-to-high 60s.
Course conditions: 3-4 inclines along the course. Most noticeable hills were Miles 1 and 10 (up and down the I-395 ramp). By and large it was mostly flat.
Preview: Nike’s first race in the DC area as part of its Women’s Series had a lot of ups and downs from registration to outreach to how the race was run. I always enjoy running in DC, but there’s a few things that could have gone better. Okay there’s MORE than a few things that left me disappointed.

I’ve covered the registration process, the social media experience and the expo happenings in Part 1. Part 2 will focus on the race itself and the aftermath.

THE RACE

Sunday morning. This was it.

I was excited but anxious. I made the decision to stay with family in Friendship Heights, taking the red line to the start line. From there it was about 15 minute shot, no issues with the subway. (A number of locals will complain about WMATA, but personally given all the time I spend there, I think the subway is only a problem during commutes and rush hour.)

They decided they wanted to tag along, which was fine by me, until we started running late. Luckily, because they held onto my stuff, this eliminated the need for me to go through bag check. If I’d gone and stayed in DC by myself, I would have had to allot more time for that, and the starting line was overall bedlam.

3-6 gunoff

After the anthem, we sorted ourselves out. Like that the announcer sounded the call, and the first wave took off.

But it was almost immediately the problems started. The corral enforcement that should have happened, never did, and this caused problems for a lot of runners. Most races will allow 30-60 seconds between waves and I was in the 4th of 7th waves. Further frustrating people was that waves were not even. I am a slower runner, but a shocking number of people entered were running at 10-minute mile paces or worse. This would not have been an issue if corrals had actually been staggered but they were not.

The second more immediate problem was there were TWO layers of fencing to get through and some runners, including myself could not funnel through fast enough the second fence. During the anthem we had been packed in, and it was terrible planning with the layout. I tried at one point to lift one piece’s hooks off another but to no avail. I was forced to wait until most of my area had cleared, but at the same time, slower runners from behind beat me to the main chute before I could clear the start line. This created more problems that I will point out soon.

Mile 1 (L’Enfant Plaza): Almost immediately, the problems started. Once I cleared the second layer of fencing, I managed to get myself on the left side of the crowd to pass as many people possible. A LOT of people started off slow from the gate and overtaking them took out a lot of energy on my end. More than I wanted to expend anyhow.

From Pennsylvania Avenue, we made a right onto 7th St NW and into the tunnel. The surrounding areas were packed with spectators up to the tunnel. Up to that point it was completely flat. The noise echoed like crazy in the tunnel but it was all part of the atmosphere. I was cool with this. Two bands played to the side in the tunnels to keep us going.

Mile 2 (I-395 to Maine Avenue): Once we emerged, we got onto – of all things – the I-395 ramp. Continuing downwards, it was then I saw the Mile 10 marker flipped over which meant one thing: the hill that we’d powered down would be our worst enemy when we returned home. Yikes.

According to my watch) we’d hit Mile 1 in the tunnel. Yes, another key issue is that I did not see ANY mile markers until the 5km marker. By the next mile I was wondering how far we were. Seriously?

We pushed off I-395 to Maine Ave SW, across the Memorial Parks area. This required pushing through two bridges/pathways north of the Tidal Basin. The crowding problems continued as I dodged several runners who were WALKING both on the right and the left sides of the road. It was at this point I was getting annoyed at working more diagonal than straight on the road, even keeping to the middle of the road did not help. It seemed there were a significant number of beginner runners who might have done better to stay in the proper corral (or wait to leave until the slower corrals came along) but clearly that did not happen.

It nearly resulted in my nearly rolling my right ankle avoiding three walkers across, but in a quick reflex, I steadied myself, preventing disaster.

Not a happy camper here.

The end of this mile yielded a glorious view indeed as we ran to the beat of the drums. Our first band was an Asian troupe dancing in a dragon’s costume and nearly half a mile later, we encountered another ethnic group beating drums in a rhythmic fashion.

Mile 3 (Arlington Memorial Bridge): First hairpin turn was at the Lincoln Memorial, where we veered onto the bridge and then looped around the circle in the Arlington Cemetery and back over to the Lincoln Memorial. The bridge heralded an amazing view and as it was nearly half a mile long in of itself, it made that mile go quickly.

I managed to take this shot just as we hit the 5km marker.
3-8 5kmmark

Mile 4 (Rock Creek Parkway northbound): This was our way up to the Watergate building, which somehow I managed to miss. The 5km marker was the only one I’d seen and by my rough guesstimation made me figure we were on Mile 4 or 5 at this point. As I figured, it was a slight inclination, going by another band beating the drums to keep us going. As for my body, I was keeping it nice and slow for now, anticipating the build in the latter stages but also in case my ankles or knees started acting up.

Even then the mass crowding still did not abate, except this time I was dodging both the cones in the middle of the road AND runners who were going WAY too slow. Infuriating. MCM was one thing with the beginners but this was ridiculous. Again, I have no problem with walkers, but wish they had stayed in the proper corral and kept the minimum 15min/mile pace! The fact that this was happening nearly 5 miles in made me more annoyed, if people were going to alternate running and walking, fine but again they should have waited.

Mile 5 (Rock Creek southbound): Hairpin turn and back. Seeing some of the runners behind us further inspired me: one notable runner was an adult male wearing a purple tutu and purple braids made out of yarn raising money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the key beneficiary charity of this race. Inspirational and cute at the same time.

Mile 6 (Tidal Basin): It was at this point we started catching first of many high school and collegiate bands. It took me back to my high school days hearing our band play.

It was then that I also came up on the 10km marker, only the SECOND one that I saw all course. It was then that I had hope, I was timing shockingly well and that’s when it hit me: I had the energy to push for a negative split.

Pick it up a little, I told myself. We were coming into Hains Point. I needed positive thoughts…

Mile 7 (Ohio Dr SW to Hains Point): Incredible. This was my FIRST mile marker that I have sighted on the entire course.

I looked to my right, and there it was, Rosslyn. I recognised many of the corporate buildings. Too many of them in fact from my business travels.

We were headed into the grind of lonely Hains Point. I soon found out I was not the only one who didn’t dig Hains Point even though it was completely flat. We just knew it was a LONG slog.

Miles 8 and 9 (Hains Point): Shoot me now. No seriously, shoot me now. Hains Point is VERY flat. It’s also very long and lonely and isolated, so little to no crowd support here. Nike had placed LOADS of encouraging empowering signs to keep our minds going, and 2-3 bands were lined up along Hains Point.

The Luna Bar station was here, so I grabbed a few of those and started slowly chomping on a few of them for some added energy.

It was also at this point of the race that my stomach felt quite wonky. Which was not a good thing as we neared the end of Mile 9 – underneath the 14th Street Bridge (of doom) and back onto I-395.

Mile 10 (14th Street Bridge to I-395): If there was ever such a critical point in this race, this was it. I recognised the 14th Street Bridge from MCM, the horror that awaited me as Mile 20-21 of that race as I battled it with a badly sprained ankle. Here, we came from underneath it and wrapped around the bridge, curling back onto I-395. It was then I remembered where we came from, the first two miles. My family had apparently seen me and screamed but there was only one thing that mattered to me.

That hill. The I-395 ramp. My muscles were tightening at the worst time.

“Oh God,” I muttered. “Not this. Not now.”

It was then three Leukemia and Lymphoma charity runners – including a coach came up behind me.

“Alright everyone, we have a hill. Lean in and take short strides.” The coach made eye contact with me, and in some stupor, I actually did as she hammered it out.

“Lean in, lean in, lean in. LET’S GO!” she belted as the other charity runners were audibly sucking wind. From the looks of their faces, they were having a more difficult time than I was.

This was something I’d never had done before, I remember the Odyssey hills stopping me in my tracks each of the times I’d have run it, and even that hill in the Philly Marathon would have me walking at least part of it. But this hill was worse than that and I was trucking it with the coach’s words ringing in my head and also with the realization that if I stopped now it would damn near be impossible to continue, especially with the same momentum.

Lean in, short strides. I was surprised this was all it took to conquer that hill. Was it that or was it just the fact I sucked it up?

I was in the zone. The tune of Kesha’s “Die Young” – of all things – was dancing in my head.

And before we knew it, the hill was conquered. Into the tunnel we went.

Mile 11 (I-395 to L’Enfant Plaza): The two bands that were present in the tunnel were still there. Lights blaring on the left hand side, their music kept me going. Facing from the gaps above us were loads of spectators, cheering us on. And soon, we were into Smithsonian territory.

This was it. The easy part. Except seeing runners on the return getting ready to finish didn’t make it any easier for me.

Then on the concourse, it was THAT song that had me moving.

Kesha’s “Die Young.” It would be my rally song for this race.

Mile 12 (National Mall): I tried to take off my focus off the returning runners to my left.

Pick it up, I told myself. My ankles told me to slow down, but not from pain and not from fatigue.

We continued southeast on Pennsylvania Avenue towards the Capitol, and I came upon the final loop. Get past this loop and we were running home free.

To my right, looping at the Capitol, I saw a runner out of commission, having vomited with a towel wrapped around her and medical staff attending to her. Dehydration had been on the back of my mind, but somehow I managed to not need to run to the loo this race. That had helped my time significantly; the queues were ridiculous for all stops at the latrines.

Mile 13 (Archives): Home free, home free. And then the revelation of how well I was doing: the 20km marker and clock. I didn’t believe it at first, but then I failed to realize it was GUN time and not my net. I was doing better than I realised.

Up Pennsylvania Avenue, my muscles continued to scream. NO WALKING, I told myself, unless you pulled something, you weren’t slowing down and there was no sign of pain.

I passed the final mile marker and the incoming runners’ stream disappeared as we passed 9th Street.

This was it, the final stretch. The crowds were getting louder and so was the finish line announcer.

3-9 afterfinish

Finish Line (Freedom Plaza): I kept chanting to myself. It was nearly over. My calves were screaming. I don’t know why. They just were. But I just wanted this last tenth of a mile to end. And then I looked up at the clock and then my watch.

This was nearly two minutes faster than my personal best. No I couldn’t possibly be PRing. No way, not a snowball’s chance in hell.

I crossed the line, and then, records fell.

3-10 man in tux

And then the first thing that appeared were the men in tuxes, handing out the most coveted prize of all.

3-16 box

No further explanation needed.

AFTERMATH

I caught myself in disbelief. I immediately put any thoughts of a PR out of my head, just hours before I was thinking of the possibility of my ankle acting up given the likely PF flares I had been suffering, forcing me off the last two weeks. I feel I keep suffering some setback, be it physical or mental, no matter how hard I train, so I’d become cynical enough to not expect a PR too easily in the best of circumstances.

This race? Scared (okay, paranoid is more like it) of my ankles, I had NO expectations.

Somehow it happened today. The only thing that I could possibly think of was the powering through Mile 10 and how that hill didn’t stop me. In most cases I would have slowed down. Most hills get me to slow down, but that Leukemia and Lymphoma coach was there in the right place at the right time.

After making my way across the red carpet – yes there was red carpet, did I make my way to the men in black, handing out those boxes. Then the refreshments followed: Luna bars, bananas, Dole fruit cups, water, and finally, the finishers’ shirts. A Tiffany green with neon lettering. Quite fitting, figuratively and literally: the Nike shirts run small compared to other brands. I wear smalls in most brands, but needed a medium here.

3-17 shirt

Once we were past the finisher’s exchange, the rest of the area included a Nike shop, Paul Mitchell and bareMinerals stations to get makeovers and haircuts ($15 to benefit the charity).

3-14 shop

3-15 finisharea

My support had spotted me at Mile 10, but they mentioned that my head was facing down and that I was clearly not paying attention to the crowd. I think I might have been in the zone, and that might have been a good thing.

3-20 frontcloseup

OVERALL VERDICT

Regarding my performance, having pulled a PR despite injury scare, this gives me serious hope that I can make some progress with dropping times soon after nearly 3 years of inconsistent times largely due to school. I can only imagine what it would have been like if I had been 100% the whole time, but now I can best rest and re-evaluate the sensible and sustainable steps to keep moving forward. My changes have been paying off and I just have to keep looking up.

Regarding the race itself, I had to rate this on a scale of 1 to 10 SOLELY on the aspects I experienced I would give it a 7/10. I imagine DC locals would have given this race a lower rating based on the Cherry Blossom route and the bedlam with the corral start, especially when compared with other main established races in the area. The social media aspect as well as the inventory availability for the exclusive merchandise would have also been frustrating for those who wanted to pay the money and buy. When you consider how much you have to PAY for this race compared to other races (especially at the regular rate), you would have to wonder if the overall experience was really worth the price. I know the WMATA orange line situation was out of their control, but other aspects were not.

I was willing to forgive organisers for the cramped expo conditions but the corral problems at the start soured my actual race experience. Yes, this is Nike’s first foray into DC, but I also expected more of them as they had organised races in San Francisco.

And yes, I learnt later on, that this race is VERY similar to the Cherry Blossom 10-miler, which I have never run. This disappointed one veteran of that race who wanted a unique experience on course. (Incidentally all three of Philly’s half marathon courses are quite different which I am grateful for!)

However, this is not to take away from those that did work hard to put this race together. In light of the Boston bombings, not once did I feel unsafe. Security was everywhere. Volunteers were everywhere. Stewards were also everywhere on the course. I never felt like I had any problems with any staff. Vendors at the expo were very courteous. I enjoyed getting to meet Becca and chatted with others as we were queued up wherever. The DC atmosphere is electric (except for Hains Point of course) and today proved another reason I will try and run another DC race or two if I can.

The swag was overall awesome and the Tiffany necklace made all the difference for most runners, myself included. I don’t ever see myself buying Tiffany jewellery, but this is one that I will wear proudly for ages.

3-19 Front and back

Finish line area was VERY expansive and WAY more organised than the expo, so props to Nike.

So, the question of now of whether I would repeat this race. At the discounted rate, MAYBE. If their corralling was more clean and efficient, I would have given this race a 9/10. As for the rest of the course, I wasn’t thrilled with the I-395 ramp placement but at least I can train for it. Then again, hills and Hains Point didn’t dampen my MCM experience either. The course elevation wasn’t anywhere close to the biggest issue. Even my lack of sighting the mile markers (I have no issues with km) wasn’t a problem for me, though it would have been for others, especially beginners.

This race didn’t have anywhere near the capacity of MCM but well over 10,000 which warranted corrals. I – a relatively slow runner – was, and finished in the fastest third (!!!) of the pack and somehow I managed to have massive problems overtaking people well into Mile 5.

Something is clearly wrong with this picture. I can understand even the second mile (as is the case in a more packed Philly marathon) but dodging people at Mile 5?

If Nike can learn from their mistakes this year and clean things up for next year, maybe. Distribute a beginner’s info packet maybe to some people? I know MCM have panels specifically for beginners. I wish more races would have something like this. But the corralling falls strictly on Nike here.

Another complaint was the lack of official race photography. There were many complaints from other runners about the lack of finish line photography, although there was a photo stand to do it yourself at the edge of the finish village.

From reading other reviews and blogs though, I – and other runners – are not fully convinced this experience is worth the full rate of $160, particularly when comparing to the other DC races that are held. Hopefully for the sake of future DC and SF runners Nike takes note of the runner feedback. Both beginners and veterans deserve better, I think.

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