2008-09-14 - Parks Half Marathon Plus

~11 miles @ ~13 min/mi + 13.1 miles @ 12.24 min/mi + ~3.5 miles @ ~13 min/mi

At mile 11.5 on the trail I see a lump of ice almost the size of my head. It's a frozen-together agglomeration of chips. I stomp on it, break it into fragments, and pick up a couple of handfuls. I remember reading about an experimental device that football players put their hands into, to cool the palm and thereby reduce overheating of the body. I offer ice to folks running near me and then grip what I'm still holding tightly. After it melts down a bit I'm inspired by a good friend's story of stuffing ice chips into her sports bra: I put what's left into my shorts. Brrrrrr!


Today's pedestrian excursion begins at 3:35am. I'm a volunteer pacer for the Parks Half Marathon, assigned to run a bit over 12 minutes/mile. My mission is to make steady progress and help people near me beat the 12:36 min/mi official cutoff. (That cutoff isn't strictly enforced, by the way.) In return I get a free entry into the race, a cardboard sign on a stick to wave about and attract attention with before the start, a bright orange singlet that says "12:00+" on the back, and a chance to make some new friends. What a deal!

An audacious running buddy suggests an outrageous plan: instead of driving to Rockville to begin the race and taking the subway back from the Bethesda finish line, I decide to get up ultra-early and jog to the starting line. At 2am I rise, breakfast on coffee and super-salty ramen, grease my feet, gird my loins, and set off from the end of my driveway. I've got an LED flashlight in hand and a bag on my back with dry clothes to change into. The weather is already warm and humid, dew point lodged in the lower 70's, temperatures rising from the upper 70's. Soon I'm thoroughly sweat-soaked.

Ten minutes from home I reach the mile 10 marker for the PHM. A nearly-full moon is setting. Shadows stretch long and spooky across Rock Creek Trail. A pair of mysterious glowing eyes blink at me, then dart away—a were-rabbit? I'm nervous and turn my light on frequently, especially in the dark tunnels through the dense woods of Kensington. Fog scatters the beam back at me. Deer, in pairs and triplets, lurk in open meadows. At intervals of half an hour or so a car drives past.

I take plenty of walk breaks and average ~13 min/mi of comfortable progress. At 0530 with 2 miles to go I turn onto Veirs Mill Rd and see the Cone Truck cruising down with its police escort, marking off a lane for the runners to use. Christina Caravoulias phones me as she heads for the parking lot, and we agree to rendezvous before the race.


The starting line crew is doing set-up in the dark; Lyman Jordan has a small light and is testing out the microphone. I chat with him and tell him I'm thirsty. "Prepare water for Mark Zimmermann!" his voice booms out. I find my "12:00+" sign-on-a-stick in the pile and carry it with me to the check-in area, where Mical Honigfort, 7 months pregnant, is cheerfully managing the chaos of last-minute race packet distribution. "Sorry," she tells a procrastinator, "it's too late to register now!" (Mical runs the race at a relaxed pace and, as at the Comus cross-country event a fortnight ago, beats me by a few minutes.)

I pick up my garish orange pacer singlet. Rather than occupy a porta-john I duck behind a line of bushes shielding the railroad track fence and do a quick-change into dry shorts. Then I sit down again by the parking lot to don the new shirt—photographer Jim Rich catches me in flagrante—and change into dry socks. My shoes are totally wet but there's nothing I can do about that.

CM Manlandro arrives, chanting her mantra-of-the-day: "Start Slow!" (She succeeds, and runs a smart 11 min/mi race to set a new PR for the distance in spite of the heat.) I fill my drop bag with damp gear and the flashlight I no longer need, and turn it in to be carted to the finish area. Christina appears and takes funny photos of CM and me with my pace-group sign. We proceed to the pre-start area where John Noble herds the mass of kittenish racers into the proper wave-start corrals. The leaders sprint away shortly after 7am, followed in turn by slower groups. At 7:07 it's our turn as Lyman announces "Go!"

Race Pace

As the sun rises in our faces the sky is painted with pink-and-blue mare's tails, harbingers of an approaching front. For the first few miles I've got a small cluster of beat-the-sweeper runners near me. Young Simone Kirk has recently started working at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; this is her first half marathon. Eric Thompson, age 66, chats with me about family; we both have kids at the University of Maryland. A psychiatrist and someone who claims to be his patient hear me called "Dr. Zimmermann" by an announcer as we jog by, and ask what kind of doctor I am. That leads to a brief discussion of physics. I warn them how deadly my on-the-run lectures have proven to be to anybody who tries to do a 50 miler with me. (cf. Bull Run Run 2008) They soon slip back, safely out of earshot.

Unlike last year when the weather was kinder, today's PHM is a struggle for most runners to stay hydrated and electrolyte-balanced. Christina begins at ~11 min/mi pace but flags after a few miles; I pass her near the halfway point. I spy an unused energy gel on the ground, pick it up, and suck it down. The salt is welcome, but the strawberry flavor sticks with me for miles. Jim Cavanaugh is guarding the Knowles/Strathmore Rd crossing; I give him a high-five and tell runners near me that he recently finished his first 100 miler. A few miles later a car is parked with doors open and Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days" blaring. I slow to a walk and explain, "We can't run away from The Boss!" Then I see Ken Swab, protecting runners at the Beach Dr crosswalk there; it's his car. We banter, and I trek onward.

As more and more runners falter in the heat I ask those I pass, "How are you? Do you need anything?" An Asian girl asks for a gel. I offer her a choice from the two I carry: "Chocolate, or Apple Pie?" She instantly decides "Chocolate!" and accepts the gift. Simone has fallen back, and now only Eric is with me. My pace fluctuates with the terrain and the presence of aid stations, but I check my watch at every mile marker and manage always to stay within 75 seconds of the ideal time for a 12:15 min/mi runner, a few hundred feet error or less—not too shabby for a novice pacer, or so I tell myself.

When I check the pocket in my shorts I discover that my house key is missing—oops! Then I realize that it's in the soggy pants that left in the drop bag. Whew! In the final miles my metatarsals ache, but not too badly. I encourage Eric to run on ahead while I slow to come in at my goal pace. I cross the finish line half a dozen seconds earlier than I had forecast in the "Predict Your Time" contest. Alas, I forgot to allow for the time delay between starting my watch and crossing the official starting line.


In the runner's corral I give Patty Rich my timing chip, snag a slice of cheese pizza, quaff a small cup of tea and a larger cup of sports drink, pick up my soggy gear, and head for home. I alternate minutes of jogging and walking for a net of ~13 min/mi, carrying my drop bag over my shoulder like a sweaty Santa Claus. Christina is coming in to the finish now and I cheer her, and greet the other runners who accompanied me earlier but had to decelerate. Everyone I see is happy just to have survived the rough conditions. At home I stop my watch and sit down on the front steps to take off my shoes and socks. I immediately get mosquito-bitten on my exposed feet.

Official Result

1873rd place — 52nd out of 59 runners in my age/sex group — 2:47:26 total time — 2:40:22 chip time — 12:14 min/mi average pace

Raw Numbers

time comment time cumulative comment time comment
PrefaceParks Half MarathonPostscript
10:32home to PHM Mile 1012:070:12:07including ~8 sec offset 12:02PHM mile 13 to PHM mile 12
09:45error: missing ~3 min 12:290:25:36Mile 202:59PHM mile 12 to CCT mile 2.0
12:2313:050:37:4106:40CCT 2.0 to CCT 1.5
13:1112:160:49:5713:06CCT 1.5 to CCT 0.5
13:1312:041:02:0012:58CCT 0.5 to home
26:19missed PHM Mile 111:532:01:29
total 2:18:2712:102:13:38
12:382:38:58Mile 13
01:322:40:30Mile 13.1

(cf. Jog Log) - ^z - 2008-09-15

(correlates: HistoricTexasDessert, At My Pace, ProbabilidadDeLluvias, ...)