Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Race Report: Cherry Blossom 10 Miler

Participation in the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler is a coveted opportunity. If you're from the DC Metro area (or maybe beyond), you know all about the famed cherry blossom trees around Washington, DC's Tidal Basin and their associated festival. Cherry blossom watch is a big deal in the area, with local meteorologists devoting part of each broadcast to predictions of when peak blossom time will be during the weeks leading up to the big event. Hoards and hoards of tourists equipped with giant, fancy-looking cameras that they probably don't even know how to operate descend upon DC, getting endlessly confused by the Metro system, standing to the left on the escalators, and then (the horror) having the audacity to pick the cherry blossoms from the trees.

But I digress...

The field for the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler is capped at 18,000 (I think... I'm unable to find the actual number), and you get a spot in the race via a lottery system. Hopefuls sign up for the lottery in December and then wait and see whether they were lucky to nab a spot in what is supposed to be an entirely random selection process. If you are not chosen after 2 years, you are automatically entered in the third. 

This year I figured that I would enter the lottery and get the process started with the idea that I would never get chosen in my first year of entering. 

And then... I got chosen, along with Greg and Sheila.

To be honest, this was the least convenient year for me to run this race. First, it was only 3 weeks after my first half since my injury. Second, one of my very good friends was getting married on the same day. Third, April was already jam packed with other events and this was just one more on top of the pile. Fourth, my last Washington, DC race experience, the 2011 Army 10 Miler (which I still have nightmares about) was hands down THE worst running experience of my life. Yes, even worse than the run during which I broke my foot. 

So I was less than thrilled about the whole situation.

But despite my reluctance, this turned out to be a great race experience. 

Race Day Arrival - A

My least favorite part about racing in DC is relying on the Metro to get me to the race start. It's a nightmare in logistics, but is still a better option than trying to navigate street closures in DC and find parking that costs less than $20. For this race, we stayed in Chevy Chase, Maryland with Sheila's parents who very graciously hosted us all on Saturday night. Luckily, they live just 10 minutes from the Bethesda metro station and have a parking permit for a nearby parking deck, so parking wasn't a problem.

We left the house at 5:45 am and after a small delay (we had to go back because someone :cough: Sheila :cough: forgot to bring the key fob for the parking deck), made our way to the platform where of course we had to wait 17 minutes for the next train. This is what I mean by logistical nightmare - early in the morning, Metro trains in the 'burbs run 17 minutes apart, so you have to build in a lot of extra cushion just in case you just miss a train and have to wait nearly 20 minutes for the next one. 

Anyhow, the train was nice and empty when we got on but quickly filled up as we got further into DC.

Runners crammed into our Metro car
(GB photo)

At the Metro Center stop, we had to change trains. I'd say that the mob scene of runners was unbelievable, but since I've been through this before I wasn't phased.

Typical Metro stupidity: running one down escalator
to the inbound trains on a race day
(GB photo)

Trying to get topside at the race-suggested Metro stop

Despite the masses of people, we arrived at the Smithsonian Metro stop around 7:00 am with enough time to make our way to the start without needing to rush madly.

Once we finally emerged from the Metro, we started to walk toward the start, which was in the shadow of the Washington Monument - easy enough to find.

(GB photo)

(In case you were wondering, the Washington Monument is in scaffolding because damage done during the April 2011 earthquake is still being repaired.)

Starting Area - B-

We arrived in the starting area just as the National Anthem was being sung and the elite wave runners were beginning their race. Greg and I both had dry bags to check, so we needed to get to the bag check ASAP. I also had hopes of hitting the port-a-potties, as of course I had to pee even though I went twice before we left the house. 

Those hopes quickly evaporated as we wandered around the starting area trying to find the baggage check. There was no signage to direct us and it seemed like everyone else was walking around in search of the baggage check too. Eventually we located a volunteer who pointed us in the right direction. 

Once we found the baggage check, it was a quick and easy process to drop off. Everyone had to check in clear plastic bags provided at the race expo and labeled with race numbers. The huge drop off tent was lined with volunteers who manned stations associated with a range of bib numbers. There were only 3 people in front of me in my line, and not many more in front of Greg. 

By this time, volunteers were walking through the area yelling that we needed to be moving to our corrals and I still really wanted to go to the bathroom. There were hundreds or port-o-potties, but the lines were too long, so no bathroom break for me. Instead we took some quick photos before heading to the corrals.

This is where we ran into the only real problem of the race - the corrals. Based on our expected finish time, Greg and I had been place in the Blue corral, but Sheila was one corral behind us in Orange. We wanted to start together, so we tried to work our way into the orange corral. Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be enough entry points into the corrals and we were stuck outside of all of the official corral areas along with hundreds and hundreds of other runners. It was so crowded that it was impossible to work our way through the mob of people and find an entry point and the temporary barriers were way too high to step or jump over, so we kind of just gathered with everyone else and hoped that we'd eventually find our way into our corral. 

Honestly, it was a pretty frustrating experience.

Eventually the first two waves went and the crowd stuck outside of the corrals started to move. We finally worked our way into the interior of the barriers and found that we were all in the very back of the Blue Corral. 

(GB photo)
We continued to move toward the start and I was expecting them to stop us and then do a countdown before starting our wave (that's what usually happens, in my experience)... but then before we knew it we were crossing over the chip readers and we were on our way with no official fanfare.

Course - A

This course was a good solid A and definitely the most delightful  DC course that I have run (previous races included the Marine Corps 10k and Army 10 Miler). It was designed to maximize time in the blossoms, starting at the Washington Monument and then looping past the Lincoln, out and back on the beautiful Memorial Bridge, north toward Georgetown along the Potomac and next to the Kennedy Center, looping back to the Lincoln, then around the Tidal Basin and behind the Jefferson before finishing up back at the Washington Monument. 

It was nice and flat with stunning views that would have been even more amazing had the cherry blossoms decided to actually join us for their honorary race. But thanks to the unseasonably cold weather we have been experiencing in the metro-DC area, for the most part the cherry blossoms had not yet bloomed.

It's a good thing that they cap participation because the course is obviously at capacity. It did not really thin out that much and during the first 4 miles it was especially difficult to make any progress when it comes to passing others. I stepped on someone (sorry!) and was stepped on and got elbowed pretty hard, luckily only in the upper arm. I hate to say it, but I think that they should maybe lower the number of participants even more to make it more enjoyable for everyone.

Sheila, during mile 1

Greg on course sometime during mile 1

Sheila and I coming across the Memorial Bridge and
approaching Lincoln Memorial during mile 2

During mile 8 or 9... imagine how beautiful
this would have been if those trees were
actually blooming!
The course was lined with spectators near the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Tidal Basin, and of course at the Finish. Course support was great - more than enough water/gatorade stops and periodic clusters of port-o-potties (Aside from one cup of water at mile 4, I didn't partake of either).

As we were running on the island south of the Jefferson, we hit really strong headwinds coming in from the over the river and it became very cold and challenging. It reminded Greg, Sheila, and I of the freezing, windy miles on the Army Base at the Shamrock Half. I was so glad when we finally got back across the bridge and off of that island. 

But the island was the one spot where we did take a moment to stop and take some photos of the few trees that actually had blossomed.

Japanese percussion ensemble and one of the few blooming trees

Mid race photo session with some blossoms
Around mile 6

The other DC courses that I've run have included long boring stretches on highway overpasses and bridges. This one had none of those, and was by far the most enjoyable even if the blossoms didn't really come out to play.

The Finish - A

There was a small hill during the last mile that felt a lot harder than it should have, but the energy of the thousands of spectators helped me power through. The organizers had also placed signs along the last mile which counted down the meters to the end, which I kind of hated. To me, marking off every segment just seems to make it last even longer!

After crossing the finish line, we were moved quickly through the chute and eventually received bottles of water from volunteers who seemed to be randomly stationed throughout the chute.

Branded water bottles - so THAT'S what my entry  fee went toward
Once out of the chute (which had actually served as the corrals at the start), we headed toward the porties which now had no lines and also no toilet paper. 

Next stop was post-run food. As is typical, there were mounds and mounds of bananas (YUCK) but also four different muffin options (orange, apple, cherry, and blueberry). Since I hate bananas, I helped myself to two muffins: orange and blueberry. Both were delicious, with my favorite part being the oversized sugar crystals that layered their tops.

After obtaining our food, we began to wander back toward the bag check tent when we randomly ran into a person distributing medals. For this race, you had to PAY EXTRA for a medal, which I thought was utterly ridiculous, but I paid the $12 anyway, as did Sheila and Greg. You could also pay even more to have your medal personalized (crazy). If we hadn't run into the medal distributors, who were hanging out in a no-man's zone between the food and bag check tent, I think we probably would've gotten annoyed trying to track them down.

At least it's pretty.

The line to pick up our bags was decidedly longer than the line was to drop off the bags, but the volunteers were very efficient and we waited only about 5 minutes. Once bags were successfully retrieved, we headed up higher (less crowded) ground to sort ourselves out and take a breather.

Post race area
(GB photo)

Face-timing with Sheila's guy afterwards 

Group Photo - Sheila's roomie, Sheila, myself, and Greg
Once we had recovered, we set about making complete fools of ourselves by taking silly pictures.

Too lazy to take off the extra layer of throwaway pants.

If there's a tree, I'm hugging it.

... because we are VERY serious runners.

Overall Grade - A

Although I had many misgivings about the race, it was a really fabulous time. The only tiny complaint that I would have is the corral situation and the overcrowding along the course. Otherwise, I thought that the race was very well managed, organized, and had a lovely course.

Oh, and just give me a damn medal please.

Personal Performance - A+

Going into this race, Greg and I had decided that we were not really going to "race" this one and instead be "running tourists." We wanted to save ourselves for the Monument Avenue 10k the following weekend, at which we plan to attempt to PR.

That being said, per usual, I displayed my total lack of a pacing chip and ended up running this at quite the clip for a person who was supposed to be playing the part of a tourist.

My old 10 miler PR was only my PR because it's the only official 10 mile race I ever ran. It was such a horrible experience that at the end, I vowed that I would never attempt to run that far again (obviously I broke that vow). That PR was 1:49:31.

Needless to say, it was pretty easy to blow that out of the water. Even with some stops along the way to take photos (and I mean STOPS), a slight reverse to grab an Oreo cookie from a make shift spectator-supported fuel station (it was totally worth it), a lot of weaving and traffic to cut through, and not trying very hard, I ran a 1:26:16, blowing the Army 10 Miler out of the water by 23:15.

Almighty Garmin says:

Greg ran a 1:26:12, barely missing his own PR, and Sheila ran a very respectable 1:29:26 for her debut 10 miler.

I felt awesome during the whole race. I didn't experience my usual mile 3-4 slump. There was no soreness at any time and I was never ever out of breath. When we were finished, I didn't even feel like I had just run 10 miles. I was ready to go again! I'm pretty confident that if I had actually "tried" and not stopped for photos along the way, it may have been possible for me to run this in 1:24:00.

That being said, I still wouldn't have changed a thing. It was a great, relaxing, fun  race. Isn't that what this is all supposed to be about?

So, in the spirit of fun, I'll close this race review with some completely ridiculous jumping pictures. Note that these were post-race, and we somehow had the energy to launch ourselves into the air over and over again to capture the perfect moment. I think it was the adrenaline rush of finishing an awesome race with great friends.

Oh, and by the way... the next day it hit the mid 70s in Washington and all of the darn cherry blossoms burst into bloom.

Hey guys, just a little bit late.

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