It needs to be pointed out that the idea of having walking participants in long-distance events is a product of bona fide genius. The benefits of the motivation of community support in an event atmosphere for the personal fitness of average people must not be underestimated. Unfortunately, it apparently still is—but more on that in a moment.
Since the Surfside event was sort of open-ended, and I missed the Houston event, I felt like I needed to end the season with a timed half marathon under the four-hour time limit. This event was held in the Clear Lake area, which also made it extremely convenient. This was the inaugural year for the event, so some “teething problems” were to be expected. The most publicized of the problems was that a critical mistake in the layout of the first leg of the course resulted in the overall distance being 13.5 (I heard some rumors of 13.62) miles long instead of the official 13.1 miles for a half marathon.
We gathered in pre-dawn darkness in cool, clear weather. Perhaps the first sign of organizational miscues was the incredible line near the start for the inadequate number of portable toilets. There were about 500 participants, and about eight toilets. Since most of these people presumably traveled some distance to the event, this wasn’t very thoughtful. Many people had to simply abandon the effort to use the facilities when the line was still at least this long as the race approached start time (I’m still working on the low-light function of the 10MP Casio camera. I will probably have to reduce the resolution to make it work right without the flash, which is not strong enough at this distance. This picture was actually taken in fairly dark conditions, at about ISO800. I didn’t reduce the resolution or get the stabilization on, and most of these shots were too blurry to use.).
This was my first experience with chip timing, the use of RFID shoe tags:
…together with special sensing mats to gather start and finish times for individual participants.
Participants were grouped into “corrals” according to expected speed, to keep people from being trampled at the start line. (There is a problem with using a flash around hundreds of people wearing reflectors)
Here we have the first runners coming back from the turnaround point on the first leg. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was where the serious troubles began. This runner should have been about at the 1 mile marker in this photo. Instead the marker was on the wrong side of the road, adding almost half a mile to the distance.
This also shows the traffic cones used to safely secure lanes on the streets for the event. That didn’t last, either.
Most of the walkers in our class are expected to finish the 13.1 mile distance between around 3:20 and 3:50. We were welcomed to participate in the event by organizers who had been supportive of walking participation in the past, and told that we would have the course limit of 4 hours to complete the event. The aid stations were there for us the entire time, “themed” in some cases, and highly supportive. The course support, on the other hand, was an entirely different matter.
Starting at about mile 4, just as my tendons began to relax so that I could move easily, a yellow Rider truck eased past me on Red Bluff Road, picking up the traffic cones, and telling me that I would have to continue on the sidewalk. I was easily ahead of the pace needed to finish on time. They continued about a quarter- to a half-mile ahead of me for most of the rest of the course, picking up the traffic cones. I was told that the police covering the lane closures for the event had ordered them to begin opening the lanes.
As I approached the seven-mile marker on NASA Rd. 1, they picked that up, too. Neither I nor any of the people behind me on the course would have any way to estimate our mile times for the duration.
Aid stations continued to support us, cheering and checking on our condition, and in some cases performing some kind of Jimmy-Buffet-themed ritual with hula costumes. Unfortunately, in spite of the evident good will and support, my most vivid memory of the event will always be this:
The yellow Rider truck is continuing to pick up the lane protection and mile markers, while the other truck is packing up the last of only two portable toilets I saw on the course, perhaps a tenth of a mile before I got there. I didn’t need it, but there were a number of people behind me who might have. The police had also left by this time, so that all those remaining on the course were forced to cross at least three major intersections, in heavy traffic, without protection.
Traffic protection was absent until the last mile, which probably had to be left for us only because this section had no sidewalk. The last leg of the course was definitely welcome in any case, although one of the coaches came out to tell me about the distance error at this point:
They had moved the finish line and timing mats around the corner into the parking lot. I finished, according to my watch, in about 3:51, which was reasonable considering the extra distance on the course. I don’t know my official time, because it wasn’t reported in the official results, which only appear to go to about 3:10 finish times. One group of walkers failed to finish under the time limit, and didn’t receive their medals—I am still wondering if they could have made it if the course had been the right length. We’ll never know, because the timing mats had all been stowed by the time they got there.
There are probably some reasonable explanations for some of the miscues and misunderstandings we encountered in the event—I hope so. In spite of the various problems, I accomplished my individual goal, and got another nice finisher’s medal to add to the collection:
The breakdown in course support—whether due to local law enforcement or course organizers—is confusing and frustrating, and above all, incredibly short-sighted. Support for fitness among average citizens who aren’t highly optimized running machines is vital to the welfare of the community, and walking participation is distance events is an important contribution to it.
Addendum: I want to express my appreciation for the radio-equipped official who came by regularly on a bicycle to check up on me—and presumably the other late finishers—throughout the event. I didn’t mean to minimize his effort in any way in my earlier tirade.
Update: The rest of the results have been posted. My times, 3:51:45 chip and 3:52:22 gun time, were posted under the name of some hapless 23-year-old named “Roberts”. Probably not the pirate, though….
After two months and several notifications, my results are still posted under a fictitious name. My participation in the event has been effectively “airbrushed” out of the records. I can’t say that the maturity level of the race organizer is up to the responsibility of such a major event.