Sunday was going to be an awesome day.
On a personal level, I was going to race for the first time since June. I feel as if I am in the best shape of my life right now, that I am stronger than I have been because of how much I've been running lately and I was anxious to test myself.
But I had to suppress those feelings somewhat because I was going to be running next to a first-timer, someone who had never run more than 12 miles in his life and was looking forward to making the Mission Inn Half Marathon his first 13.1 challenge.
Turned out, the day was memorable but not all of them were positive.
I met up with Dean before the race and he was as anxious as I'd seen him. He said he had problems sleeping the night before and I told him that meant he was ready for race day. Pre-race jitters are typical and not being able to sleep is a good sign. Finally the gun went off and we took off running. My original plan was to go out strong and pick up the pace around Mile 3, where the course spilled onto a bike path. We hit a nice downhill early on and we took advantage of it. We were going strong and I could tell we were going to finish in under two hours.
That was one of my hesitations. I wondered if I should push him a bit and have him knock out a sub-two from the start or if we should just run an easier pace, finish at 2:xx:xx and then have him knock that hurdle down on his own. But Dean's a speedy guy and his comfortable race pace, it turns out, was enough to finish in under two hours.
Splits: Mile 1 - 9:00, Mile 2 - 8:49, Mile 3 - 8:42
We got out to the bike path and settled into a comfortable rhythm. I know this bike path by heart now. I run it about once a week, usually longer runs, 6-10 miles, and I have started at different spots. I knew when the turnaround was going to be, what the scenery looks like at certain places and how much distance there is between certain landmarks. I knew this would be the time to settle into a strong pace, and we did.
But it didn't happen right away. The bike path was a bit more crowded than I'd hoped, and since it's narrow it was difficult to meander around runners at times.
Splits: Mile 4 - 8:28, Mile 5 - 9:07, Mile 6 - 9:01
We started seeing other runners now, going in the opposite direction, so we could feel that the turnaround was close. It was awesome seeing the lead runner holding such a strong pace and seeing the first female runner doing the same, and all the other speedburners churning and working hard. Dean commented on the faster runners several times so I know we were both a bit in awe.
Maybe that was contagious. Or maybe that, once we finally hit the turnaround, we both could sense that a major hurdle was scaled. Whatever the case, we were going strong and hitting our stride at just the right time.
Splits: Mile 7 - 8:39, Mile 8 - 8:43, Mile 9 - 8:20
I wondered, though, about the last part of the course. The turnaround was nice but it was a lot closer on the path than it had been last year. I hadn't paid much attention to the course map but had heard that the course was a bit different than last year. We did run a different way during Mile 2, hadn't run through a neighborhood like we had last year but rather around another bike path that leads in and out of a large park that itself was part of the course. I knew we would hit the turnoff into the park at about Mile 10 but last year it was at about Mile 11 when we did that.
I wondered where we would make up that extra mile. I hoped that early downhill we hit that was not supposed to be part of the way back was indeed not part of the way back. In retrospect, I wish it would have been.
Splits: Mile 10 - 8:43, Mile 11 - 8:20
We hit Mile 11 and we just had two miles to go. Our time was in the 1:30s so a sub-2 was ours, barring some unfortunate collapse. I wondered where the course would veer off. It seemed eerily similar to last year's final stretch but it couldn't be the same since we still had quite a bit of distance to run.
I saw the next mile marker. My stomach dropped. Mile 12 was before us, even though we had just hit Mile 11.
There would be no veering off this course. There would be no new part of the final stretch of the course. I wasn't pacing someone to their first half-marathon finish but rather pacing someone to their first 12-mile race finish. I felt bad for Dean, who had worked so hard and built up this day for so long (literally our third Lopers meeting he asked me if I would pace him, and that was in early September) only for this to happen.
A runner next to me asked what was going on. I looked at my phone and the miCoach app read 11.20 miles. I told him and he said he had the same distance on his Garmin. I shook my head. It kind of took the wind out of my sails a bit. That and a hill that I didn't quite handle properly separated me from Dean. He was ahead and motioned to me but I told him to finish strong and go for it.
Mile 12: 9:05
Now, I had wanted Dean to taste glory on his own, to finish the race strong and alone. I was honored to have paced him for the race but I did want him to have that moment to himself. I don't know that I would have tainted it for him necessarily but I just felt it was important to keep myself out of his spotlight. But I had figured on that happening as we neared the finish, like maybe at the 12.75 mile mark for instance.
So the hill and the realization did the favor for me and sped that process up. I saw Dean way up ahead and another runner from our pace group ran past me and gave me some encouraging words. I thought "Man, I must look like hell." I picked up the pace. I didn't catch Dean but I was running strong when I rounded the second-to-last street.
I hit top gear as I got close to the finish line.
Mile 12.33 - 7:44 pace
I saw Dean once I got through the finish and after I collected my medal. I told him congratulations on the race and told him he did a great job. We mentioned the shorter distance but in the end I said that he handled the race greatly which he did and it wasn't our fault the distance was short. He said thanks, gave me a hearty handshake and we parted ways.
I was quite happy to have seen him so proud of himself. He would have finished his first half marathon in about 1:53, a tremendous effort for someone who had never run more than six miles just a couple of months ago.
Mission Inn shortchanged us, and for that reason alone I won't run their race next year (although I might run it as a bandit just because...), but the real travesty was what they did to people like Dean and the countless others who were going for goal times or trying to finish their first half and tackling the 13.1-mile challenge head on. That's what's been gnawing at me since, but it certainly doesn't diminish Dean's efforts nor will it taint my own memories of the day. I refuse to let the race organizers shortchange me on that.