Sunday, April 27, 2014

Race Report: Inaugural Pro Football Hall of Fame Marathon

Last year, a running friend of mine and fellow Brooks athlete, Jim Chaney, launched a new marathon, the Pro Football Hall of Fame Marathon in Canton, OH. Typically, I'm pretty skeptical of new races because year 1 is often where the problems are discovered and kinks worked out...or not. However, I have the utmost respect for Jim and his character so without hesitation, I registered. It didn't hurt that there was a clear focus on veterans, too...a trait not too common pretty much anywhere. As the months progressed, the organization and announcements just kept getting better. Things like finishing on the 50 yard line of Fawcett Stadium, finisher medals that were super cool and even textured like a football (and produced by the same company who makes the Boston Marathon medals), a race shirt like I've never seen before (and awesome!), a course that really showcases the city of Canton while staying fast and relatively flat, and my personal favorite, a display of 1000 (yes, 1000!) full size American Flags late in the race along the course, sponsored by Flags of Freedom. As a currently serving Navy Officer of 16+ years, this struck home.

The forecast was pristine. Starting temperature of 37F under clear skies at 7am with a forecast to reach into the upper 50s without a cloud in the sky. Before that, though, the race expo took place the day prior and included admission to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Unlike other expos, the vendors were scattered throughout the Hall. After spending as little or as much time as runners wanted in there, they headed on over to Fawcett Stadium where a walk by the Finish Line is included. I have rules...one rule is never to cross the finish line prior to the race and the other is never to wear the race shirt to the very race it's for. Gotta earn it first! Bib and shirt pickup was in the end zone and was seamless. A special treat waited for us veterans...a big flag sticker on the bib. Jim told me a little bit later that many weren't noticing this touch but I sure did. Thank you! Afterwards, I headed on home and rested for race day.

Photo provided by Race Management of the Finish Line at 3:30am race morning.
Thanks to Team RWB (Red White Blue), I had some awesome parking and didn't have to take advantage of the super convenient parking at the fairgrounds and shuttling buses. Before the start happened, a few of the Team RWB runners got together at the start for a quick meet-n-greet and photo op. A little bit later, I stood in Corral B (corrals were assigned based on predicted finishing time to prevent the "Running of the Bulls" effect after the start) and waited for the start. The sun was rising, stars were fading, and I was ready. The only snafu I observed during the day happened here...zero sound. The National Anthem was scheduled for 6:50am and pre-race announcements but not a peep could be heard...and the crowd wasn't really loud at all. Either a malfunction or simply no speakers down outside the stadium. Ahead, the HUGE American Flag was hanging over the start. Again...I loved it! It reminded me of how those who have given the ultimate sacrifice are honored during their funeral when fire trucks do that....it kinda looked like that. (sorry, I didn't snap a photo)
At 7:02am, the race began! The easiest way to describe the course if you were looking at an overhead map of Canton, OH, is that the first half of the race is east of I-77 and the 2nd half is west of I-77. The Hall of Fame is super close (on the west side) to the interstate. The first half is also filled with more city streets and the 2nd half is more residential. As for elevation change, the marathon boasts a super modest 364 feet climb, net, over the 26.2 miles. My observation? Hardly any hills to speak of in the first half. Honestly, from where I train around home every day, there were no REAL hills ever. But, in terms of a fast course, there were rises and falls here and there but certainly more in the 2nd half...no doubt about that.

These days, I'm more of an ultra runner with a rare "official" marathon. I'm known to just run marathons or greater "for fun" but don't toe the line with a bib on too often. There was a day prior to trail running and ultra running where I did several per year. So in preparation for this event...well, I didn't really have any unless you call a 6-day taper prep. No speed work, no schedule, just a 100K and 50K over the past 6 or 7 weeks. But, I set a very wide target for today. I didn't want to just go on a joy run since I rarely run a marathon, I wanted to give it an earnest attempt and see what I had. So, I  decided a finish between 3:30 and 3:45 would keep me honest. A 3:40 marathon is an 8:23 average pace...enough info in my head to tell me where I stood when I took splits with my Garmin. Early on in the race, I started to click off miles around 8:05 to 8:10. I "thought" I was trying to slow a bit but I didn't. They just kept on going and never slowing. The course was pleasant, traffic control was perfect, and water stops were very well staffed with plenty of smiling volunteers. Several miles in, I told a fellow Navy sailor who I began running with "Either I'm going to eventually blow up because of this pace OR I'm going to have the best race in a VERY long time." Because the miles kept clicking off and I felt good, I decided to go with it. Smart? Well, that's debatable depending on what marathoner you talk to. I was able to keep my form good, breathing in check, and it just felt "comfy." Who knows? Maybe I could carry it all the way.

At mile 12.4, just outside the Hall, the half marathoners headed on towards the finish and the marathoners hang a 90 degree left to head west into the neighborhoods. It went from lots of chatter and runners everywhere to very, very few runners around. The registered runners for the half marathon event far eclipsed that of the marathon. 593 runners ended up finishing the marathon amongst the average 3000 runners on the course. I will also mention that at the 10K, 20K, and 30K, they had timing mats to capture pace. My pace was dead on the same for ALL three of those. 8:10 solid all the way through. While I was bouncing around the upper 8min spectrum, it all averaged out exactly the same. As the loneliness set in during the 2nd half, I just focused on doing what I had been doing and NOT stopping for anything. I didn't want to lose the mojo I had going. Finally, around mile 19, I did jump in a port-a-pottie (which were plentiful all day long) to prevent a bladder explosion. Even with that stop, I clocked an 8:45 mile at the next marker. (winning!!!)

The next part totally made the hairs stand up on my neck. I had heard about the Flags of Freedom in Mile 21 but they were earlier than publicized. At mile 19.2, they began. 3' x 5' flags on silver poles along the left side of the road...just a few feet into the grass. One at a time, several feet apart, they waved in the breeze. I stopped watching the road and just looked at every flag. Every one. All the way to Mile 19.8 they stood. Just prior to the end, we weaved through the Perry High School parking lot (where the flags continued) and a mock "wall" was set up to simulate smashing through the 20 mile wall marathoners often hit around now. Crossing mile 20, it was 10K to go.

As I turned a corner, the marker for 35K stood...or mile 21.7. I walked. Wall found. I was holding strong but just ran out of gas. I didn't walk long..maybe a minute, but I did and the pace greatly slowed. Now, for the final 4.5 miles, it was going to be a slugfest. It wasn't going to be easy, pretty, or contain much joy but it was going to happen. I knew with my great pace thus far, I still could meet my goal and "maybe" go under 3:40. My legs felt like they were filled with cement but I just kept on going and took advantage of any downhill I was offered to open up. The course kept rolling. As I passed on by mile 24 and 25, my math told me there was no messing around if I wanted a sub 3:40. I had no idea where in 28 marathons that would land me but I wanted it...just because. Within the last mile, I received a gift...a long winding downhill. I opened it up and just pushed it in with all I had. As I made the last turn towards Fawcett Stadium and entered, I passed through a timing pad which notified the finish line announcer of incoming runners. I passed on by the end zone then turned upfield and heard my name and hometown. I kept on running with all I had then held my arms high as I crossed the finish line at the 50 yard line. You see...I've learned my lesson. Tendency is to stop my Garmin which makes me look down at the line. BUT, there are photographers on ladders to capture the finish and heck, the chip on my bib will capture my time for me so why not go for the million-dollar finish line photo?! Right?! So I did and finished in 3 hours, 39 minutes, 47 seconds....good enough for my 5th fastest ever. I got my sweet finisher medal, a lush finisher's fleece blanket, a bottle of water, a small Subway turkey sub, and a few bananas. DONE! Here are some photos and my final comments follow (official race photos not yet published):


The medal really is awesome. When you hold it up to the light, the light shines through the green "glass" like a sun catcher. The texture on the football feels like a football!
Final stats with overall place, male place, age group, and master. (gulp! MASTER?! oh geez...)
Overall, I can't say enough good about this race. They just nailed it...or perhaps saying they threw a game-winning touchdown would be more appropriate. I've seen so many races and can't help but be critical...so with that critical eye, this race was awesome and I highly recommend it. I'll also say how impressed I was with the local law enforcement. There were MANY municipalities involved to keep the course closed on a busy Sunday morning in Canton. I paid close attention by reading the logos on the police cars as I ran and that's what clued me in to the huge logistical and cooperative success this was. Sure, there were disgruntled citizens who didn't like the road closures but all-in-all, the communities were great and many set up their lawn chairs in their front yards to cheer us on...and even a few served orange slices which I graciously accepted...gotta get that potassium to prevent post-race cramping! So "Job Well Done, Canton and surrounding communities!!!! Thank you so much for providing a safe and enjoyable event and returning my thanks over and over again with a "You're welcome." Many thanks, too, to Jim Chaney and his team. You flipped the notion of avoiding first-time events on its head and proved it wrong...at least in your case. First class event all the way! THANK YOU!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree. I was coming in from out of town and the communication was spot on. I knew exactly where to park for the expo and the race shuttle. The course was well marked and the volunteers were fantastic. I will tell everyone I know about the fantastic job done by this race team.