Rockin’ ‘n’ rollin’ in Virginia Beach

Sitting in the Hampton Roads Transit bus at 5:44 yesterday morning, a sobering feeling came over me. Glancing around, my fellow runners all had bib numbers in the five digits. More competent looking runners than I bore numbers such as 11256, 18097, 20876. With 6645 plastered across my chest, I felt like a poseur.

In many races, your bib number doesn’t mean much: Usually, it reflects how early you registered. But for yesterday’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in Virginia Beach, the first number on your bib suggests how fast you think you’ll run. Because of the vast number of runners — 20,000 — runners are released in waves, based on their anticipated finish times. We were divided into more than 20 “corrals,” I was in No. 6. based on my estimated finish time of 1 hour, 50 minutes. Yet here I was, with a bunch of lithe runners who were predicting it would take them well over two hours to run the course. Had I grossly overestimated my ability?

To my amazement, once my corral was released at 7:06 a.m., I quickly discovered the opposite was true: most people over estimate — wildly, in some cases — how quickly they can cover 13.1 miles.

It was far from my first moment of amazement at the Virginia Beach Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon.

At Saturday’s check-in at the Virginia Beach Convention Center after picking up our race packets we were herded into a convention hall where vendors were selling everything from running shoes and socks to T-shirts (“Fast Girls Have A Good Time”) to the latest energy drink to compression clothing to neon green Dodge Vipers. Thousands who came to race were suddenly in a pricey runner’s flea market. I — and more importantly, my wallet — escaped unscathed.

Sunday morning, chipper volunteers greeted us at the shuttle buses, drivers apparently unused to driving on empty streets got us to starting line in record time. (“This reminds me of a movie,” the guy next to me said after we took one turn on two wheels.) At the starting area in the vast convention center parking lot, less than an hour before the start, runners stretched, drank water, ate bananas and stood in line for the hundreds of porta potties waiting to serve. A fleet of UPS trucks collected our gear bags to take to the finish. White tents offered water, safety pins (for our bibs), direction and encouragement. Around 6:45 we began reporting to our assigned corrals: a little before 7 the elite runners were sent off, and at 7:06, Corral 6 was dismissed onto the course with a starter’s pistol.

The Virginia Beach course is flat (save for one mild bridge), and for a very long stretch runs down a tree-lined boulevard. It ventures down some two-lane country roads, through Camp Pendleton, back down the four-lane boulevard and for the last two miles snakes through Virginia Beach’s ocean front, the last half mile along the boardwalk. Much of the route was lined with spectators: mostly friends and family of runners, hundreds of volunteers, a dozen bands and virtually every high school and middle school cheerleader in the Hampton Roads area. Though I paid attention at the mile markers to check my pace, the pageantry along the way was wonderful and welcome distraction.

Shortly into the race I realized my assumption that my fellow runners had under estimated their times was wrong. Starting in the back of Corral 6, I figured there were at least 3,000, maybe 4,000 runners ahead of me: I finished in 1,228th place, crossing the finish in 1 hour, 45 minutes and 6 seconds. My time was slightly better than I’d expected, but only because the stars had aligned: The weather was ideal (in the mid-60s at the start), I’d managed to take on water along the way without getting a side stitch and, perhaps, most importantly, nature had called at an appropriate time  before the race. Things couldn’t have gone much better; I’m guessing a lot of PRs were set yesterday morning. (Congratulations to Raleigh’s John Crews, who finished 9th among the elite runners with a time of 1 hour, 6 minutes and 43 seconds and, if I’m reading the results correctly, was the top American finisher.)

The Virginia Beach Rock ‘n’ Roll Half was one of my two goals for the summer. The first was a mountain century bike race, which I did in July. My goal there, based on my spotty training, was simply to finish, and I did. This was my other goal. When I entered my half marathon training program in May, I simply wanted to finish. Then I upped the ante to finishing under two hours, and a couple weeks before the race, to finishing in 1 hour and 50 minutes. It’s been a good summer.

Now to come up with some new goals to make sure it’s a good fall.

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