Friends, fun, and f**kery: volunteering at the Austin Marathon

My Vivofit said I walked 23,855 steps Sunday, but I think half of those came from shaking my cowbell at the bottom of the hill just before the mile 26 mark.

I don’t know who came up with this course change, but wow, putting a steep hill at the end of the marathon was just mean.

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Next to the traffic light at the top of the hill was a sign for .25 to go

The rest of that step count came from volunteering at the half-marathon finish line.

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So, now that I’ve gotten the pictures out of the way, let’s talk about volunteering.

I love volunteering at races, whether it’s filling cups at a water station, giving out bibs and shirts at packet pickup, or handing out medals. It’s fun to be able to participate in a race I’m not running, so when I got an email from the 3M/Austin organizers inviting me to apply to be a race ambassador (perk: free race entry if I worked two shifts at the expos), I jumped at it. My friend got a response, but when I didn’t hear anything I figured I wasn’t selected. No biggie. But then maybe a week before 3M I got an email asking if I was still able to participate. So yay! I made sure I was scheduled for the same expo shifts as my friend, and we worked the 3M expo together, mostly sitting at the Austin Marathon booth answering questions about the race and signing up a few people.

But when we got to the Palmer Events Center for the Austin expo, we were assigned to the picture-taking station, where runners and families could stand in front of an Austin Marathon backdrop and have their pictures taken with their own phones. It was a lot more work than sitting at a booth talking up the race! Most people were really nice, and if they were alone, had cute kids, or it was their first race I took several pics from different angles. The big families who wanted pictures with every person’s phone (pro tip: take one and text it around) or who required multiple retakes so they could jump in the air just right… well, that was less fun.

Three observations: one, I am surprised at how many people don’t have cases on their phones. I was terrified I’d drop one of those slippery suckers. Two, a high number of people waited in line for 10 or 15 minutes, only digging around in their backpacks to retrieve phones and crumpled bibs when it was finally their turn. And three, cluelessness abounds. A bunch of folks wandered in front of cameras as we were taking pictures. Others came up from the side and asked us to take their pictures, completely oblivious to the line. And one guy asked me whether we were emailing pictures or how did that work?

After several hours of standing on concrete and leaning this way and that to take pictures, my back was sore! We also never saw the guy who checked us in at the 3M expo and told us he’d have information for us after we completed the second shift at this one, so I hope we’re still good for that free race entry. Especially considering traffic on Barton Springs was a nightmare, parking was chaotic, and I ended up parking about half a mile away just to avoid most of it.

Which brings us to the morning of the race. We left my house just after 6am and made the drive downtown–we had to check in at 7. We parked at a free garage and walked however many blocks to the volunteer tent at 8th and Congress. We signed in and picked up shirts, then were asked to leave our belongings (think small string backpacks) behind before heading to the finish line area to organize the medals. It would have been handy if they had mentioned “no bags” in the (otherwise informative) email we received a couple of days before, but alas they did not. They did give us a claim ticket, basically like bag check, so it wasn’t total anarchy.

When we got to the finisher area, about half the volunteers carried bags and string backpacks, so clearly that request was inconsistently enforced. Anyway, we had about eleventy-thousand medals to unpack, so there wasn’t a lot of time to dwell on it.

The medals came in boxes of sixty: six bricks wrapped in bubble wrap and sealed with packing tape. Each box had to be sliced open, then the tape had to come off each brick. Inside? A stapled bag of ten medals. Each medal was individually wrapped with plastic stapled shut. It was not a fast process, and plastic packaging collected at our feet like snowfall.

Race organizers had provided us with three or four metal medal racks (say that three times fast) probably six feet high with three rows of arms. Each rack had wide metal feet to keep it steady. After we’d unpacked about half of the medals, the area captain told us to stop hanging medals on the racks–so they wouldn’t be too heavy or fall over–and just pile them on the tables (which were your basic wooden folding tables). After one of the tables began to bow in the middle, volunteers started draping the medals over the boxes from which they’d come. It was a rather inefficient and ridiculous system, especially considering those racks were probably built to hold a lot of weight–more than they held, for sure–while the tables were not.

About this time, the first half-marathon finishers came through (I think the winner’s time was 1:04 and some change–yowza). As finisher traffic picked up, a group of us took armloads of medals to hand to runners as they finished. Other volunteers brought more medals out to us so only a few people were running back and forth to the racks and tables. This was helpful during that huge pack of finishers running between 1:45 and 2:30.

It was less helpful when the area captain told volunteers to stop unpacking medals (dozens of unopened boxes remained) since “there’s only an hour left,” as if the medals wouldn’t be needed. Then scrambling to get more unpacked because, oddly, those of us handing out medals needed more to, you know, give to finishers. This happened multiple times. Efficiency also would have improved had the medal racks been placed near the area they wanted us to stand and hand out medals rather than requiring volunteers to dart in front of the runners to collect more medals as others frantically unpacked them.

The fun part was handing medals to a bunch of Rogue friends (at least one of whom PR’d), the mom of one of my students, and so many others. I loved congratulating people on their accomplishments. Smiles, tears, exhaustion, all of it. One runner identified my friend as the person who had taken her picture at the expo. “You told me I could do it, and during the race I thought about you and that you said I could do it.” My arms were tired from holding so many heavy medals, but these things made it worthwhile.

Can we talk a little about finisher medals?

YOU ONLY GET ONE.

You do not get one for your spouse. And you sure don’t get yours PLUS FOUR more for each of your children. 

And if you registered for the full but dropped down to the half, it’s really crappy of you to cross over to the marathon side of the chute and collect a full marathon medal. 

Our shift ended at 11:00, but a few finishers were still trickling in so we stayed a while longer to make sure they had someone to congratulate them too. In a lot of ways, it takes more to finish a half in four hours than it does in 90 minutes, you know?

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When we couldn’t see anyone else coming down that last half-marathon stretch, we decided it was okay to leave. We walked a few blocks to the aforementioned hill at Red River and 11th Street where we found some more Rogues, including our coaches.

Our friend who had PR’d the half earlier held a neon pink sign that said “F**k Yeah!” and we shook cowbells, yelling and cheering for the next hour and a half. I admit I started to get grumpy though–I hadn’t eaten anything except a package of Oreo Thins (really, thins? The icing is the best part!) since the protein bar I had for breakfast. But eventually the stream of runners dropped to a trickle, and we walked up the hill with one last guy.

The finish line was between us and the car, so on the way back we stopped by the race’s gear store. The guy said he’d give us the VIP discount so he’d have less to pack up, and I helped him out. I’m nice like that. 😉

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And then it was time for Mexican food. I mean, 23,855 steps race volunteering with friends totally deserves Mexican food.

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“I promise to be careful.”

That’s how Coach Bill starts Vern’s No-Frills 5K the third Saturday of every month. The first time I ran this race, I expected more to the pledge, but no, that’s it. I laugh every time.

I left my house wearing short sleeves and capris, but before the race started I got rained on twice, the wind picked up, and the temperature dropped into the mid-40s. I changed into a long-sleeved shirt and dug my gloves out of my bag a few minutes before paying my dollar and making the above-mentioned pledge to safety.

I ran the first half-mile with my friend who was taking it easy, recovering from shin splints. Yeah, her “easy” pace was close to my race pace. But after we weaved and dodged around a bunch of folks, I sped up to pass someone else on the narrow sidewalk and this time she didn’t follow.

When my watch ticked off my first mile at a respectable but not anywhere near my best pace, I realized that I probably wouldn’t get a 40-degree race morning again anytime soon and I should take advantage of it. So I sped up.

After I made the first turnaround I could see another friend up ahead of me. By the time my watch informed me that I’d run my second mile :23 faster, I knew I was closing the gap on him. I picked it up again, and a half-mile or so later, just after the second turnaround, I passed him.

Adjusting to Tuesday-Thursday workouts has left me with some leg fatigue the last few weeks, but this time I felt like I was running strong the whole way. I started to think that maybe I had a chance at a PR, so I cranked up my music and pushed pretty hard down the last stretch. I hit three miles (:18 faster than mile two) and made the turnoff to the finish, the final .1 on a crushed granite path.

I crossed the finish line (literally a line drawn in the dirt) pretty pleased with my effort. But here’s the funny part: I couldn’t remember what my PR actually was. In my defense, I ran it back in 2016, at the Shiner 5K which is downhill the whole second half. So I opened up my Garmin app to search for it, but it turns out that wasn’t necessary. Garmin asked me if I wanted to accept today’s time as my new PR, so that answered that. Still, I was curious about how close it was and whether the official time would hold up as a PR. See, Vern’s is timed, but everyone starts with the gun time and they hand-time the finish. It’s a small race and I didn’t think I was more than a second or three behind the gun time, but I wasn’t sure.

Since I’d accepted this as my new Garmin PR, I had to do some searching to find that old Shiner time. Eventually I calculated that I’d PR’d by eight seconds, at least according to Garmin. I’d also run a spiffy negative split. My friends urged me to go ring the PR bell, and I figured what the hell. Overall PR or not, it was my fastest Vern’s so ringing it was legit.

After the race, 12 or 15 of us went out to breakfast. Mexican food, of course. And coffee. Later in the day Coach Bill texted me to confirm that my official time held up and I have a new 5K PR. On a day I didn’t expect it, wham.

I know eight seconds for a 3.1-mile race doesn’t sound like a lot. But since that Shiner race I’ve suffered through two injuries and a lot of lost training time. Knowing I’m eight seconds ahead of where I was pre-injury makes me happy, and it reminded me that the hard work I’ve been putting in is worth it.

Catching up

After 3M I took a little bit of downtime for recovery–I felt like I had run my first half-marathon, not my 16th–but was back to more or less normal training runs about ten days post-race. And my toenails are, remarkably, still intact.

This past week, though, I was just so tired. Tuesday’s (5.7 miles) and Thursday’s (7 miles) workouts were tough–hilly and longer than my usual mid-week runs, but I did nothing on Monday or Wednesday. I have no good excuse for Monday–core class is on hiatus so I easily could have come home from work and run a couple of miles before dark. But I didn’t. Wednesday, I still felt a little sore from Tuesday night’s effort and decided to rest knowing Thursday’s workout would be on the same hilly route. It didn’t help much–a seven-mile speed workout on a weeknight turned my legs to jello.

Friday (M’s birthday) was a staff development day at work–no students–and we spent most of the day sitting in meetings. Which was fine because my hip was still sore from the night before. My only exertion came when we walked the dog after birthday dinner Friday night.

I knew Saturday’s 12-miler would not feel good. But the thing is, I have a half-marathon on March 10–five Saturdays away. Which sounds like a lot as far as preparation time, except February 17th we’re doing my coach’s 5K then volunteering at the Austin Marathon expo, and the 24th I’ll be in Washington, D.C. with my 8th-graders. That leaves one more Saturday before the race, and while my shorter-run paces have been pretty good, I feel like my endurance isn’t quite there and I didn’t want to cut it that closely. So that left this weekend.

It was 60* and eleventy-billion percent humidity when we set out on the route we hate the most. Hills, then long, straight stretches of sidewalk? Of course.

Two miles in, my hip was no better but no worse, and my legs ached. Not the best indicator of success with ten miles still to go. Just before four miles we ran down a long hill, and all I could think of was how much it was gonna suck on the way back. To illustrate the difference between me and my BRF: at the same time I was dreading that hill on the return, she said, “Coming back up, I’m going to have to count or some other mental thing to get myself up that hill.” I called it wimping out when I walked half of another hill to take it easy on my hip, while she called it persevering to run half of it. She’s all positive-affirming mantras, and I’m Ugggggh….

We got a short rest crossing through three pedestrian signals, then ran another long stretch of sidewalk past two Mexican restaurants, two fast-food places, Costco, Starbucks, and Whole Foods. At the last water stop, just before turning down another long stretch of sidewalk, we were at 5.25 miles; she cheerfully observed that we just had to go 3/4-mile, not very far, before turning around. But as we made the turn I could see, waaaay off in the distance, the traffic light that marked our turnaround. This did nothing for my “we’re almost there” confidence.

On the way back, my phone made an unauthorized phone call and I had not one but two close calls with cars who would have mowed me over if I hadn’t been paying attention. I ran about 1/3 of the way up that awful hill (BRF ran up it like NBD) before my hip yelled at me, and I played “run to the next fire hydrant” game between miles 8-10. Considering my legs felt fatigued almost from the start, the fact that I ran halfway up the last hill–at mile 11.5–was something of an achievement, albeit minor.

As always, the best part of my run was being finished with it, then having coffee and breakfast with friends.

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Of course a cold front blew in as we sat at the coffee shop, and this morning it’s 30* and windy. Guess I need to get to work on that recovery run. We’re almost at the end of Austin’s “cold-weather” running season, so I guess I should enjoy it while it lasts.

A souvenir from 3M

I’ve been running since 2011.

Sunday’s 3M half was my sixteenth half-marathon.

I’ve run in snow, ice, rain, humidity that might as well be rain, and the Texas heat.

The last seven years I’ve run literally thousands of miles, and I’ve not once experienced any kind of blister. Until Sunday.

And because I don’t do things halfway…. this blister appeared under my toenail.

Actually I have issues with two of them–the second toe on each foot–but the left one is worse than the right. Both were a little tender right after the race, and after my shower I realized the nail was a little long, so I trimmed them back, but the left one still felt painful on Monday. Then Tuesday morning I noticed part of a clear blister poking out from underneath the nail.

Since I could see it, rather than having the whole thing trapped under the nail, I figured it’d be safe to poke it and drain the fluid. Yuck, but okay. Then I slathered it with Neosporin and covered it with a Band-Aid (which I had conveniently gotten in my 3M bag) and by lunchtime I definitely noticed an improvement.

The right one may or may not have a blister under the nail–I can’t really tell, so that in itself tells me it’s not as bad, but it still hurts a little. The left one … is gonna be a problem. Even with the original blister gone, the nail pokes up at a weird angle, kind of like a tectonic plate pushed it upward. Which I guess it had, more or less. So I’m starting to accept that at some point, I will lose this toenail.

I don’t know why I ended up with blisters for the first time. Yeah the weather was humid and gross, but I’ve run in that before. No new socks, my shoes have 100 miles on them. The only thing I can think of is that because the roads were wet, I ran differently as kind of an anti-slip measure, which jammed my toes into the front of my shoes. And because the nail was a little too long, it created friction that doesn’t usually happen.

So now I’m at the To Band-Aid, or Not To Band-Aid stage. Wearing Converse at work, my toe felt fine, but halfway through my seven-miler this morning, I had to stop and remove the Band-Aid because it was uncomfortable. Then again, it didn’t feel great with no cushion against my sock, either.

But since it’s the weekend, I don’t really have to be anywhere. I can hang out on the couch with my dog and my book and call it recovery. And some quality time with my toenail before it vacates the premises. 😀

3M Half Marathon: A Tale of Two Cities

On Tuesday, schools in the Austin area were closed due to icy road conditions that, oddly, got worse as you went south. Temps were in the 20s and a couple hundred people cracked up their cars trying to drive in it Tuesday morning. Rogue canceled official workouts so I ran a couple of miles on my own–my street was fine–but otherwise kicked back and read my book in front of the fireplace. It was the best of times.

Wednesday morning, it was ice-free but 15* at my house. Fifteen degrees. We had a two-hour school delay but it finally made it above freezing at some point.

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But check out the forecasted temps for overnight Saturday. Wait, what? Yeah, we had a sudden warm-up THE NIGHT BEFORE THE 3M HALF MARATHON. Looking at a 10-day forecast, literally the only warm morning was … race day.

And it turned out even warmer than they predicted. It was 64* when I got up this morning, and about one million percent humidity.

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At the same time I was worried about being way too warm, I saw an alarming number of runners wearing long tights, jackets, layers of shirts. I couldn’t wrap my brain around wearing that many clothes to race in these conditions. I felt kind of overdressed in short sleeves and capris.

So yeah. Conditions were less than ideal, but I lived denial–maybe it would rain, maybe it would be okay as long as the sun didn’t come out, maybe there’d be a breeze.

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Yeah. No.

Despite the heavy, warm air I felt pretty good the first half. I was on-pace and trying to be optimistic. But coming down Great Northern past the 10K mats, I started to feel increasing fatigue in my legs. Spoiler alert: that’s not an ideal situation less than halfway through a distance race.

M and B were at the Far West bridge and I stopped briefly for some encouragement. By mile eight I’d had to take some walk breaks, but I was trying to make up for it each time I started running again. The hilly section on 45th from Shoal Creek to Burnet took a toll, and I found myself walking more frequently. It also didn’t help that my playlist was taunting me with songs like “Long Long Way to Go” and “Hold on Forever.” Not to mention “Cuts Like a Knife.” Yes, yes it did.

I saw the guys again near North Lamar, around mile 9.5ish, which was a welcome surprise. At that point I was pretty sure my goals had slipped away, although I kept telling myself maybe I could make it up coming down Duval and through the UT campus.

Spoiler alert: I did not.

It was a lot like my last half–I was on-pace through seven-ish miles, but I couldn’t hold on. Unlike my last half, though, the rain picked up a bit the last three miles, and that helped. Barely.

I got a brief energy boost on Duval, where a huge group of Rogues started screaming like crazy when they saw me. Some people running around me were probably like, Why does this girl have an enormous cheering section? It felt pretty good.

For about five minutes.

I rode the last downhill before Duval turned onto San Jacinto–and this time runners did not have to stop for traffic. But ironically, at this point I wouldn’t have minded a brief respite from trudging along on tired legs.

Since about the halfway point, I’d been passing/getting passed by a woman in a Team Beef shirt who was run-walking, but I lost her the last mile or so. I have no idea if she passed me and stayed ahead or if I’d miraculously gotten in front of her the rest of the way. I suspect the former.

The stretch through the UT campus and in front of the football stadium is flat, but I could barely pick up my pace. And they changed the course this year–instead of turning right on MLK (19th Street) and left on Congress to finish at about 17th Street, they had us cross MLK and keep going on San Jacinto almost to 14th Street. Ugh. Seeing the finish line in the distance for more than a quarter-mile really messed with my head. Not only that, the last .10 or so WAS UPHILL. It was the worst of times.

My BRFs had finished (with PRs because they are badass) and cheered me on through the last stretch. I … was not polite back at them. I was beyond ready to be done. M and B were also there, on the other side, and after I finished everyone said I “didn’t look half-dead like a lot of people.” But I sure felt like it.

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I finished 11 minutes off my stretch goal, four minutes away from a PR, and two minutes slower than my last half. But it was 30* warmer than the last time I ran 3M, which still stands as my half-marathon PR. I wonder how different my results might have been if it had been 20* cooler? Like yesterday morning, for example, or tomorrow morning. And every morning for the next week and a half, according to the forecast.

On a positive note, today’s race was my 16th half marathon and my third-fastest overall, in disgusting conditions that cost me a lot–both physically and mentally. My new Air Buds didn’t fall out, my phone didn’t randomly call anyone (which it’s done a few times the last week or so), my Skratch gels seemed to keep me alive, and I wasn’t sick afterward. So I guess all things considered, it was a respectable-ish performance.

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Because Texas

A winter storm came through Central Texas early this morning–it doesn’t snow here, but winter weather = ice, which means pretty much everything shuts down.

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All area school districts and many major employers are closed. Overpasses and bridges on major highways are closed. The police chief and TV meteorologists urged people to stay home if they can. So here I am: fireplace, jammies, coffee, book, warm dog.

But because this is Texas, it’s ridiculous to expect the weather to stay the same for more than a day or two at a time.

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And guess what? The 3M Half Marathon is Sunday morning. According to this, temps are going to be quite a bit warmer than I’d like for race day. Fantastic.

Because Texas.

 

Houston Marathon: a spectator’s view

We drove to Houston on Saturday–not to run, but to support friends who were running the marathon. One was looking for redemption after a wrong turn at his earlier marathon attempt; others had big goals.

First stop: the expo.

The Houston Marathon is huge–about 27,000 runners for the full and the half–and the expo reflected that size.

After wandering around for a while (and buying a few things…. What I can I say? Sweaty Bands were $5 each!) we checked in to the hotel. The Hotel Icon used to be a bank, and it was pretty cool. Not sure it was $250/night cool, but it was close to the start and finish lines. And the shower had so much water pressure I felt like I was washing my hair with a fire hose. But that’s neither here nor there.

A bunch of us decided to go for a shakeout run before dinner. We were close to a trail, but it took us a half-mile or so to figure out how to access it. The area between downtown Houston and Buffalo Bayou is still recovering from Hurricane Harvey, but it was clean and lots of people were out enjoying the 50-degree temperatures.

For the three running the marathon, this was an easy 5K shakeout run. For me, it was a speed workout keeping up with them. 😉

After our run, we met some other Rogues in the hotel bar for drinks, then headed out to dinner. It was a 20-minute walk or so to the restaurant, and believe it or not it was cold and windy in downtown Houston!

For S and me, it was a relaxed evening of food and drink. Especially this frozen Lemoncello concoction we especially enjoyed. The others were nervous, which I completely understood. They had big goals.

So dinner was over early, and we headed back to the hotel with plenty of time for them to get organized for the morning. S and I made posters, which was entertaining after the aforementioned Lemoncello concoctions.

The alarm got us up at 5:30; we met everyone in the lobby at 6:30 for the walk to the start. I thought they were cutting it close, especially considering as we passed the entrance to Corral A the race crew was counting down “Fifty-nine seconds until Corral A closes!” People with A bibs were sprinting from all directions–they were serious about closing corrals ahead of the start. But our friends were in Corrals C and D, and pretty soon we realized they still had a long wait.

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The first wave started at 7, but we didn’t hear them because we were several corrals back. I think it was 7:30 before C left, and 7:45 for D. Did I mention it was 34*? I was wearing two shirts and a pullover, and even with gloves my fingers were cold. Perfect running weather; less-perfect spectating weather.

Let’s put it this way: after D moved forward, we walked from Minute Maid Park all the way around (the side streets that were entrances to corrals were still blocked off) and back to the hotel–three blocks over and seven blocks up to Congress and Main Street–and we couldn’t cross Congress to the hotel because Corral D had just crossed the starting line. It was an almost-endless stream of people! We could throw a rock at the hotel from where we stood, but we had to wait for 10 or 15 minutes to cross. It was fun cheering for the runners, though, so we didn’t mind.

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From the hotel we got the car and headed out to the half-full split around mile 7.5. This is where our friend had made a mistake a month ago, so we all planned to be there to make sure he went the right way. This was kind of an unnecessary step, as a half-dozen signs and Race Crew with megaphones supervised the split. Someone who had dropped from the full to the half (but still wore a full marathon bib) was stopped by a crew member for not taking the right turn to stay with the marathoners. They were serious about this thing.

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From here we drove to about mile 14.5, at the Galleria. Which was fortunately next to a Starbucks, because we were in some serious need for caffeine. A bunch of Rogues were already there, so it was great fun watching with them as Rogue Runners came through. S and I had bought giant (obnoxious) cowbells, and the others had big signs. We were hard to miss.

After all the Rogues came through, we warmed up in the Starbucks for a while, then did some planning. Here’s something cool–the Houston Marathon app allowed us to not only track our friends, but live track them–we could sit in the warmth of Starbucks and watch their little dots move along the course. We might be able to catch our friends who had started in the earlier corrals somewhere around Mile 22, but if we waited there for our Corral D friend, we might miss the others at the finish. So here, we split up. My group headed to the finish.

We found a parking space, then hoofed it around the convention center until we found a good spot. We could see a few blocks to the right, and watch the runners curve toward the finish on our left. Because we were live-tracking our friends, we knew exactly when they would appear. And because we had the world’s most obnoxious cowbells, they heard us when we yelled for them.

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It was really exciting, watching all of these runners make that turn toward the finish line. Even more exciting when we knew our friends not only achieved their goal, but beat it my almost two minutes. By then we also knew that one of our coaches had BQ’d with a big cushion and another teammate had finished her first marathon. Lots of Rogue pride out there!

The finishers’ chute funneled them into the convention center, so it took some doing for us to find them all. But eventually we did, and it was an emotional little celebration–much like many others happening all around us.

We decided to go back out to the bleachers where we’d sat before and wait for J. We knew, thanks to live tracking, that he was a couple of miles out. So four of us got some coffee and settled on the bleachers while S and C ran the course backwards to find him. They ran with him a while, then raced back to watch him finish. He had some ups and downs throughout the race, but this time he finished 26.2.

We went through the same search in the convention center, but it was more efficient as the others had told him where to meet us. Then it was back to the hotel, check out, and find lunch. The first Mexican place had a 45-minute wait, which was unacceptable for starving marathoners. But next door–no wait. It was a great celebration, and I’m excited I got to share it with them.

Spectating is all kinds of fun. I sort of wish I could do it again next weekend instead of running the 3M Half Marathon. 😉