Thursday, March 10, 2016

Race Recap: Pacing the Swamp House Half Marathon

I have been running for almost 2 decades, starting out just running for fitness in my teens, then running my first organized race in my early 20's.  Since then, I have ran almost 50 races including everything from 5k's to full marathons and have even participated in some sprint triathlons!  I have come along way in the past several years, with some big PR's and even finding myself on the podium for several races.  As much as I love to compete with myself and others, I also love to run with friends, make new ones and be there for encouragement and support.  So when I was presented with the opportunity to be a pacer, I felt it would be the perfect opportunity to help other runners with their own goals.  In fact, pacing is something I have been wanting to get into for a while now, and it turns out it was all I could have hoped for and more!  So my race recap for my most recent half will be from a different perspective as I not only get to talk about the event itself, I will also get to recount my first ever official pacing experience!

I actually ran this race last year and I had a huge PR.  I had thought about doing it again because it was such a great experience for me, but since I already have such a full race calendar this Spring, I figured it would be best to sit out on March races to give my body and mind a break.  But, just a few days before the race, I got a call from Jim of, informing me that several pacers had to drop out last minute and he was in need of a pacer for the half on Sunday.  He still had my inquiry from over a year ago and had kept me on the list of reserves for this event.  Fortunately, I had no plans for the weekend and I agreed to help.  I was so excited, a little nervous but mostly excited!  He sent out all the information, informed me I would be pacing the 2:05 group and the next thing I knew, I was registered for the Swamp House Half Marathon in Debary, FL!

As soon as he sent me the information about pacing, I also received an email information from the fine folks at Final Mile Management company with all the information I needed for race day, including my registration, travel, parking and a timeline of the day's events.  Quick and very informative!  Swamp House Half Marathon & 5k also has its very own Facebook page (I received the link the email) with plenty of helpful information on there too.  So needless to say, they did a great job covering all their bases.

Packet pickup was offered on Friday, Saturday and even the morning of the race for everyone's convenience.  I was only able to attend the Saturday time, which was also the time I was to pick up my pacer information, so that worked out perfect.  Having ran in this event the year prior, I knew where I was heading and about what to expect with the "expo."  This is a smaller, more of a local event, so the expo is not really an expo at all.  Rather it is a table in the back of Swamp House Bar & Grill where you receive your packet, including T-shirt (which I will discuss soon) and bib.  Last year, there was a bit more to it and the pacer table was located in doors.  In fact, last year is how I learned about MarathonPacing, and met the pacer who helped me with my big PR.  This year, they were kinda shoved over to a corner outside, so I am not sure how many people actually got to meet the pacers this time around.  Hopefully next year they will organize that a little better like the years past.

With my packet in hand, my family, who joined me for the day, and I headed down to the riverfront to enjoy some sunshine and warm weather, then back up to the restaurant for lunch.  The food was delicious and the restaurant was packed with runners picking up their packets for the race.  It was a lot of fun running into my running friends and making new ones!  It was like one big party just for the race participants and their families.

The night before any race, I like to get everything situated, snap a "flat runner," then pack my bag for race morning.  The bright, lime green singlet was perfect for runners to recognize me as a pacer and of course my large sign should help too, hehe.  I did my best to match up my outfit and of course had to coordinate my two favorite long run essentials including my Tiux compression socks and Headsweats Moms Run This Town visor.

The race was about 35 minutes from me and fairly easy to get to, so I had my alarm set for 4:45am and figured as long as I got out there before 5:45, I should be good to go with the road closures.  The email indicated they would close the road down around 6:30, but I did not want to chance it being closed sooner or the parking lot filling up, so in true Christina fashion, I got there super early.  I wasn't the only one with the same idea, but luckily, it was easy to get to the parking lot and into a spot before it started filling up fast.  It was only about 49 degrees outside, and since I was in my singlet and shorts, I figured I would sit in the car until I needed to head over to meet up with the other pacers.  Around 6am, I figured it was about time I brave the elements and go meet up with everyone.  The air was definitely crisp but with little to no wind, it really wasn't that bad.  I felt a little relieved when I noticed several other people, including fellow pacers, in just tank tops and shorts too.

To the side of the parking lot, was a covered area with several picnic tables.  Here is where they were doing the race day registration, yes that's right, they offered same day registration, as well as packet pickup.  In this area, there was also coffee, water and Gu gels and blocks available.  There were two port-a-poties for volunteers that luckily they allowed us pacers to use as well.  I met the rest of the pacers, saw a few of my Moms Run This Town mamas, then headed over to the starting line.

The sun was coming up at this time, so the air was starting to warm up some too.  I know it would warm up soon enough, so as cold as I was at the time, I would feel good within a few miles.  At the starting line, the music was bumping, there was someone getting people hyped up over the loud speaker and people were socializing, dancing and taking pre-race pics.  The atmosphere was great!  Not too far from the start line were 10+ port-a-johns that hardly had lines for!  Potties this close to the starting line without lines is practically unheard of, so that was a nice amenity!

There were large banners with pace times lining the starting line area, taking you from fastest pace on back.  This was perfect for runners to line up according to pace and keep the start of the race from bottle-necking and slowing things down.  Luckily the pace I was suppose to be at was smack dab in from of where my MRTT chapter was meeting up and also near the bathrooms, so I got to see so many of my running friends.  It was so awesome!

The guy on the loud speaker did a great job announcing the pacers, with our goal time and paces.  We all hoisted out signs up a little higher when he said our names and info, so runners can located us.  About 10-15 minutes before the start of the race I had a corral of about 10 people looking to keep up with me.  I got their names, introduced them to each other and we started chatting about everything from the course specifics, to other races we have run to our jobs and families.  I wanted everyone to feel at ease and like one big family, since we were going to be spending the next 2 hours and 5 minutes of our lives together!

The race got started right at time and since we were a good ways back, it was about a minute or so walk up to the start time.  And then we were off!  Despite having the pace banners for people to line up at, there was still a little bit of congestion with slower paced runners and walkers for about a quarter of a mile, but we were able to get around it and settle into a solid pace before the first mile mark.  Around that came the first of many hills. As a pacer, we run at a slower pace than our average in order to be able to hold onto a steady pace will talking to runners if need be.  So over the course of the next several miles through rolling hills and neighborhoods, I chatted with about 5 of my runners and we were having a good ole time!  I learned that in my group I had a first timer, an ultra runner, a lady who had run 30+ half marathons with no desire to ever run full and a guy who had actually ran a half marathon the day before!  I had people hoping to PR and others just wanting to hold onto a steady pace they are used to and wanted to company. I really didn't know what to expect but about half way through, it has already far exceeded what I could have imaged and I was having an absolute blast!

As far as the course goes, it is definitely hilly for the first 7 miles or so.  We run through a couple of neighborhoods but a good chunk of it is on the main road.  I suppose they could only block so much of the road off so traffic was still whizzing past us as we ran.  On that particular stretch of road, however, there was great crowd support.  People lined up several portions of the streets cheering, playing music, waving signs and giving out high fives.  So that definitely makes the experience much more fun.

Around mile 8ish, we turn a corner and start getting away from the hills and into the shade.  This is also the time the road gets a little rocky.  At this time, about 4 of my runners started lagging behind and a part of me wanted to slow back with them to keep encouraging them and see them through to the finish line.  But I knew my job was to hold a steady pace and help the runners that were keeping that with me.  I periodically would shout back to my girls who were not too far behind me telling them to keep it up, they were doing great and had this!  They shouted thank you's back but eventually I couldn't see them any more, which definitely bummed me out, but I knew they would still finish and that was all that mattered.  Plus it seemed like they had formed a bound throughout the miles and had each other out there, which totally warmed my heart!

Around mile 10 or so I picked up a couple of runners who had fallen back from the 2 hour pace group.   At this time I also noticed a girl who had been in front of me the whole time was now shoulder to shoulder with me and started to slow down even more.  She had her head phones in but when I turned to talk to her, she pulled one out and was more than willing to chat for a minute or two.  It turned out it was only her second half and if she reached this goal time, it 10 minute PR for her.  I told her to stick with me and we would get it.  She put her headphone back in and we went for it!

The pavement was terrible, but fortunately the hills were gone.  The temps had signifcantly come up, so it was getting rather hot out there.  By mile 11, I could tell a lot of my group was starting to struggle, so that's when I went into full peppy Christina mode and all the cheering and encouragement I could muster came out.  We were having ourselves a good ole time as we came up on the rowdy mile 12 aide station.  They were handing out water and Gatorade, as well as beer.  No beer for me but me and my group got a lot of high fives!

At this point they took us on a dirt road for a several yards then through a neighborhood.  This was a new part of the course that I wasn't sure I would like at first but it turned out to be really nice.  There was absolutely no shade but the houses were beautiful and the road was nice and smooth.  We were coming up on the 13th mile when I picked up about 3 runners who had fallen back some.  I did everything I could to convince them how close we are and to just hang in there.  We turned a corner and there it was, the finish line.  I said to my group this was it, let's turn on the jets and finish strong.  I had a handful of my group in front of me, another handful or so behind me and a couple shoulder to shoulder with me as we pushed through that last quarter of a mile through the finish line!

After we crossed the finish line, I checked in on the folks I had spoken with throughout the course.  I got hugs, high fives, thank you's and even a few tears from them!  But what I think excited me the most were the several runners who I hadn't even realized I had helped!  I saw them a few times in front or behind of me periodically but I guess it just didn't click they were using me and my pacing.  These several people, some exhausted, some beaming with pride and some even crying tears of joy thanked me and even hugged me for helping them through.  I found myself getting choked up too!  It was then that I truly realized what pacers do, how important they are and the impact they can have on people and their race experience.  Whether it is to chat up a storm with for 2 hours or to have in their sights, pacers help people reach their goals.  And I was beyond honored, humbled and touched to get to be a part of several people reaching their goals that day!

Swamp House is a great, well organized event, with a fairly nice course and a lot of excitement, but hands down one of my favorite things about this race is the after party!  It is rather small, but it is on the riverfront with bumping music and free beer!  It is like one big party out there and I had an absolute blast hanging out with my MRTT mamas, chatting with the fellow pacers and hanging out with my new runner friends.  I was having so much fun I almost lost track of time!

Well organized with great correspondence
Kicking after party
Sweet gator medal that is also a bottle opener!
Plenty of parking
Same day registration
Fairly inexpensive
Pretty good crowd support
Plenty of aid stations (including beer at mile 12)
Mostly shaded through the final miles
Awesome pacers ;-)
If you run the race in Orlando the day before, you get a double medal

If you're not into hills, you wouldn't like the course too much
The rough pavement through the final miles was a little tough
Easy to get to the event, but kinda off the beaten path (Debary isn't exactly a happening tow)
Lackluster expo
Henious forrest green shirt

My two personal biggest take aways from this experience are 1. I most DEFINITELY want to pace again and 2. I will most CERTAINLY continue to participate in the Swamp House Half Marathon each year!  Here are a couple of the high's and low's specific to the race but all in all it's a super awesome event that I would highly recommend!

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