Saturday marked the 36th running of the Cooper River Bridge Run in Charleston, SC.
Technically, I suppose the race “takes place” in Mt. Pleasant, SC as I spent just about 2 hours there waiting for the race to start, and a much shorter period of time racing through the streets of the Holy City. But we are already getting way too far ahead of ourselves. But on my final day racing as an “independent” or a self-coached runner, the racing Gods laid down an absolutely picture perfect day for a footrace.
Sunny skies, light winds, although high atop the Cooper River Bridge the breeze was slightly in the face of the runners and slightly from the right side of the course, 48 degree temperatures and 85% humidity. The humidity was a little bit dicey, but that is what you get racing on the coast in April.
The CRBR is the 3rd largest 10 Kilometer race in the United States and the 7th largest in the world.
It is almost like running the Boston or NYC Marathons where you have an early rise to deal with, busses to line up for, a trip out to the starting area, a long wait to corral up, limited room for a proper warm-up and of course, a crowded course to navigate from start to finish.
The Pros: For an amateur runner like most of us – you get the full rock star treatment.
The Cons: For an amateur runner like most of us – there are a lot of variables to deal with which makes running a “great” race a lot tougher.
You have to sacrifice a little time on the clock for the “experience” of running a huge mega-race like the CRBR. One or two of these events a year really can make road racing a lot of fun. But if you are looking to run a PR or a smokin’ fast time. This is not the type of event to do it in.
The other thing about the Cooper River Bridge Run is that it is not for the meek if you are going to really try to race it. There is a famous saying that if a hill has it’s own name, it’s probably a pretty big hill.
Well if a race is named after a bridge. Chances are the bridge is a pretty big one. The Arthur Ravenel Bridge or “The Cooper” as it is referred to locally is a big bridge. The climb from start to finish lasts just a tick over a full mile and rises 187 feet. Yes it is steep, but man, it is long. It is the long that gets to you in my view.
The incline is 4%, which is pretty nasty to do battle with at race pace. But when it takes you a solid 7:00 minutes lets say to get over it, running at 6:00 flat effort it can really take it’s toll on you. You then have the other side to run down, which further taxes your straining quads – and just when your breathing returns to normal and you start to feel a little better about things, you exit the bridge, make the hard 90 degree left turn onto Meeting street for two more miles of flat running. The road may be flat, but it feels anything but when you come off of the downstroke of the bridge. It feels just like yet another hill to climb.
Needless to say that our 37:30 10K PR was more than safe on Saturday morning. I figured that if I added a full minute for the climb, and then :10 seconds a mile to the remaining miles (5) – we would have a 1:50 disadvantage. That gave me a goal of 39:20 – if I could nail that time, I would call this a big win and declare myself “over” my injury from the winter.
My other goals were all pretty arbitrary in nature, but being my last race B.C. (Before Coach Carmen Troncoso) – I wanted to make it a little fun:
1. Break 39:20
2. Break the top 200 Male Finishers.
3. Age Group (finish in the top 5% of my age group up to 25).
4. Be the fastest Texan.
Pre-Race: I set the alarm clock for 4:15 a.m. for the 8:00 a.m. gun. Man, that is early. I got to the bathroom, took care of all the usual tooth brushing and face washing business and decided on a very quick shower to get the muscles loose under some hot water. I decided that by race time shorts and a singlet would be all we would need, and to avoid any post-race complications I would not check a dry bag.
I purchased some sweat pants and a hideous Orange Clemson Sweatshirt at TJ Maxx on Friday to wear to the start that I would discard just prior to the gun and allow the local charity to receive my fresh clothes for those less fortunate. As a South Carolina Graduate it pretty much killed me to be rocking the Clemson Orange, but staying warm was far more important to me and the sweats did the job.
I carried a couple of bagels, a Gatorade and a water with me and would be racing to Charleston with my gloves tucked in the waistband of my shorts. All of this worked out perfectly.
I parked on the west side of the course about 3 blocks from the busses and took a nice leisurely trot up to the staging area downtown. I met a 60 year-old runner named Fred from Hilton Head and we rode to the start together chatting away about running, racing and goals for the day. A 2:40 Marathoner “back in the day” – Fred was still a top age-grouper in the area and I was sure he was going to run a great race on Saturday. We talked a lot about marathoning and working with a coach. He like so many before him said to me, “Joe, you are a sub 3 hour marathoner with your ability to run a sub 1:24 half on multiple occasions, you just need it to all come together for you on race day ….”
One of these days I am going to prove all of these folks right. Hopefully October 13, 2013 at Steamtown.
We hopped off the bus and made the long walk to the corrals. I found a nice quiet picnic table at a small park to sit on and stretch, chatted with a few runners, had breakfast and as the sun rose over Mt. Pleasant, I took a short 1-mile warm-up run 30 minutes before go time.
I hit the porta-potty, stretched some more and with 15 minutes to go and people were starting to fill the corrals I went for another 1/2 mile warm-up with some strides mixed in to mimic ramping up to race pace. I ducked into the Seeded Corral with 800 or so of my new friends, just behind the professionals from Kenya, Russia, S. Africa, Egypt and a handful of top Americans and peeled off my sweats. My legs felt great, I was very relaxed. Maybe a little bit too relaxed and I cozied up behind a group of runners that looked just about “right” for my target pace.
The Start: The announcer counted us down to the start, staged us just behind the mat and with a “Runners, to your marks! Horn!” we were off. We ran under the large start scaffolding and screamed down Coleman Boulevard toward the bridge. I ran the first 400 and settled in nicely, I felt as if I was running just a hair under 6:00 min./mile pace and glanced down at my watch.
Time of day.
I hit the start button as I crossed the mat, but for some reason it was not recording the run. Garmin error. Happens to the best of us. I pressed the satellite portion of the dial and my watch began the process of triangulating my position. I was running blind.
Something that would have bothered me a couple of years ago, I really never batted an eye. I decided I would wait until the first mile sign, press start there and get an accurate picture of the final 5 miles of the race. No big deal, just spin up and run easy. As we approached the first mile sign I was curious to see how our pacing was. I hit the line in 5:53, meaning that I ran an opening split right at 5:51 pace given the :02 it took us to cross the mat +/-. Maybe :04 seconds faster than I had been hoping for, but nothing that was going to harm our race. Dialed in Joe. Go get that bridge.
I backed off the pace just a bit to load up for the climb ahead and ticked off the second mile in 6:05 – solid. we made the slight switch from the right side of the street across three lanes to the left, ran a tangent onto the exit ramp to Mount Pleasant (running against the normal direction of driving traffic) and started to pick our way up the hill. I decided to stay even, no extra effort, but no backing off either. Let the 4% incline slow our pace, but keep the intensity identical. In my view the most economical way to tackle a hill.
I glanced once at my watch and it was tracking us at 7:11 pace up the incline, we were giving away a little bit north of 1 minute per mile pace to the bridge, which had us just about spot on our goal pace. But the incline seemed to be stretching forever. I found a runner to run next two and we stayed lockstep in pace to the top. we finally reached the large crown of the bridge, which lasts a good 200 meters longer than you think it would to reach the absolute apex. We reached the 3-mile flag and I made a conscious effort not to back off. Just stay even and lock back in – you are running perfect I thought to myself.
Half-Way Point: As I passed the 3.1 mile clock the time read 19:53. I needed to run the second half of the race in just a hair under 19:30 and we were home, goal time met by the slimmest of margins. My mind flashed back to the last time I had not broken 19:30 in a stand alone 5K and I could not draw it from my recesses. Finally I had to go back all the way to my first Holland, TX Cornfest 5K in 2009. On a 85 degree hot June morning I ran a 19:43 to take 1st place in my Age Group. All I needed was a 19:30 from here on out. It wasn’t going to be a cake-walk by any means, but it was absolutely something we were capable of. Just keep pushing.
Downtown: we came off of the bridge and made the left turn onto Meeting Street with drums sounding from one of the local High Schools, I decided to grab a quick splash of water to wet my lips and I powered up Meeting Street toward the College of Charleston. My legs were starting to feel very heavy and I knew the bridge had done what it is designed to do. Sap your strength. I focused on form, stopped looking at the road in front of my feet as I had done climbing up the bridge so I wouldn’t be intimidated by how much bridge was left and I fixed my eyes directly on the horizon. Head perfect and still, breathing in rhythm, form smooth, light on my feet and I could barely hear my flats hitting the road. I was still running strong. Just needed to hang on to that last mile.
I can do anything for a mile.
We hit the mile 5 sign and I did some quick math in my head. I was running at 6:18 pace and had not wavered over the last mile+. One more identical mile, hit the left turn on to Wentworth street with 2/10 to go and surge. Hit the left turn back on to Meeting Street and Kick. Race = Over.
I was running alongside a taller, younger runner stride for stride as we took King Street across Calhoun. I looked over at him and said a single word that I knew he would relate to. I simply said, “Hurting”.
He replied with a, “Got This”. and on we went stride for stride.
There is something about race crowds when they see two runners battling it out at the end of a race. No matter how far back they are, the spectators can identify with the very primitive battle of wills taking place. Tall runner vs. short runner, young runner vs. old(er) runner. Who is going to give in first.
As we passed the thickening crowd we were getting shouts from the sidewalk, it fueled us both on and just before the left turn to Wentworth Street I got ready to tangent on the inside and decided to surge just a few strides early. I moved away from the runner on my right and in a moment that makes racing so interesting, he had no response. He was flat out at that point and I had been holding just a little bit back.
It is something that you never know about the runner next to you, ahead of you or immediately behind you. Who has something left? Will it be me today or will it be them? If you ask me the one thing I love most about racing – that is honestly it. In the most basic terms, who is willing to hurt more? On Saturday it was me.
I dropped him on Wentworth, slid past another runner at the turn onto King Street and with 1/10 of a mile left we dipped down to 5:40 pace, a place we had not been for almost 6 miles, but it was nice to see that it was still there. A final kick to the finish and the announcer said to the crowd, “We’ve got some strong closing kicks here to the finish, and all the way from Austin, Texas …. Joe Marruchella”.
Finish: After running a 19:51 first 5 kilometers, we needed a 19:29 to make our time. We ran a 19:27.
Goal time of 39:20. Race time of 39:18.
Goal of finishing in the top 200 Male Runners – Number 179.
Goal of Age Grouping – Met placing 8th among Men 45-49 years old.
Goal of being the fastest Texan - Met by more than :30 seconds.
I would call that a clean sweep of the list we put together prior to the race. To be completely honest I am most proud of being able to run a smart, strategic and well put together race. It may have been one of the 3 or 4 best executed races I have ever run. Not the fastest of course, but we knew that was going to be the case before we ever boarded our flight from Austin to Charleston. But for our final race as a self-coached runner, I am really happy to go out this way. I don’t have a lot of “what if’s” or “I hoped this or that” - I can put this one in the book, place it on the shelf and start a brand new chapter when I get back to Austin.
To coach Carmen, I am fired up, healthy and ready to go. I know that you work with a lot more talented runners than I and that you certainly work with runners who are much faster than I will ever be. But I am ready to work hard, do anything and everything you say and on race day I am willing to put it all on the line for the both of us.
We’re certainly going to have our wins and losses, our ups and downs, that is just the nature of the sport. But put me in a position with a mile to go on October 13th to make it happen and I promise I will not let you down. Let’s get this party started.