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Race Report: Slacker Half Marathon 2016

A lot of races don’t know what they are. The Slacker Half Marathon really wants you to think of it as a race for people doing their first half, or maybe someone who’s done a few in the past, but struggled, and is looking for an easier path to another finish line. That’s why they bill themselves as “The Slacker,” and push the downhill aspect of their race so hard. But the reality is that’s the very thing that makes it a poor choice for those types of runners. Downhill running, especially steep and consistent downhill running (there’s well over 2,000 feet of elevation between the start and finish lines of this race), is easier to preform in a cardio sense, but it absolutely beats the shit out of your body. I run the Mount Evans Ascent every year before the Slacker and even though it’s longer and involves going about twice as much up as the Slacker has down, there’s way less recovery time. Freezer meat in the Rocky movies gets worked over less than your legs do in the Slacker. So I routinely feel bad for the first timers who blunder into this thinking the downhill will help them, when in reality it’s just making the devastating aftereffects of their introduction to this distance twice as bad. And I worry that after seeing the wrecks their bodies became from trying just an “easy” half they’ll never try another one, which would be a shame. Although that’s not to say the Slacker doesn’t have a niche. For the experienced runner, who knows what kind of pain they’re in for and is willing to push through it, this is that most golden of opportunities: an almost assured PR glamour race, with a time you’ll be bragging about for the rest of your life, cause you’re never topping it in a normal run.

This is my third Slacker, and never once has it started on time. Most years I get it. The logistics of moving everyone up into a ski resort from the parking area are a bitch. Hell, just getting everyone parked can be a pain in the ass, since the little mountain town (Georgetown, CO) we’re bused from really isn’t built to take this kind of traffic rushing into it all at once, and eventually the roadways clog to a standstill. So every year the website and update emails beg people to try and get onsite early, and set deadlines for arrival that mostly go unheeded (for example, this year I was in a near panic about time because of a shopping stop for the racer going up with me, and even though we got onto a bus bare minutes before that deadline passed I’d say we were among the first 200 to 300 racers up to the starting line, which would mean about three fourths of the racers viewed the “deadline” as, at best, a vague suggestion). So every year the angry voices in my head wonder why they don’t just start the thing and tell the late comers to cross the timing mat whenever they manage to get up there, while knowing what an awful public relations move it would be to try and swing that on so many runners. But this year in particular, since they were experimenting with a two wave system for the first time (and built in a large gap between the waves), it was especially tough to see why they didn’t just let the first wave out on time, and tell everyone still busing up they were now proud members of wave two. Especially since this already has the latest start time of any half marathon I’ve personally run, which, combined with the fact that it takes place at the end of June, and you’re running downhill towards the warmth rather than up and away from it can lead to an ungodly hot finish to the race. Those extra few minutes waiting for the last buses can lead to several extra degrees over those last few miles, which can mean the difference between wilting and finishing strong.

When we finally did get moving the opening jumble felt pretty slow to me and I started angling to get through the crowd. But I, and a lot of other people, were having trouble getting by one fledgling who had apparently read somewhere that he was supposed to kick higher behind him when running downhill (this is true, although not to the extent he took it), because I swear he actually had scuff marks on his shirt where his shoes were hitting him in the middle of his back. Not his butt, his back. There can’t be many people whose legs even bend like that, let alone who try and run that way. You could tell it was slowing him down too, because every time someone would pass him he’d get frustrated and suddenly slip back into a normal running motion to get back in front of that person again, and then resume his slower wild backwards leg flail. Eventually a group of us pushed by, and blocked him off from angling back ahead of us until he faded off the pace and found other people to try and slow down.

Now, I’m not the most disciplined of race runners. I don’t go out looking to hit a consistent speed for each and every mile, nor do I often even try for the vaunted negative split. Usually I just run based on my energy level, trying to keep up a pace that strains me, but feels (just barely) sustainable. What that means is I usually come out fairly fast and fade bit by bit as the race goes along (with exceptions for weird little energy spikes I get here and there that occasionally jolt my pace). But it also means I never really hit a wall in the classic sense, because I’m never struggling to hold onto a number mile after mile, I’m just moving as fast as I can. So while I do get progressively slower over time, I never drop off a cliff by over straining myself the way some runners who push to keep up, say, 6:30 miles until they suddenly can’t do it any more and stagger through the last section of a run barely holding onto 9 or 10 minute miles do. Until this race that is.

I was blowing by a few people going up one of the rare hills (which, while actually quite short and manageable feel like the end of the world after acclimating to running downhill so consistently) around the six mile mark, and suddenly it felt like someone cut my gas line. And from there everything went to shit. All the sudden I dropped from miles in the low 6 minute range to an 8+ one, and continued slowing down with every step, culminating in the worst mile I’ve ever run in a half marathon. After the courses takes you through 12 miles of mostly downhill speedboating (the last two of which in particular seem to be really steep) the final mile of the race plops you into town and promptly asks you to start running flats, and eventually up hill. Trying to make that transition on your legs after logging so many miles of the exact opposite almost feels unfair, even to the good runners, and it breaks a lot of the eager new kids who were looking to run every step of a half for the first time. I just barely managed to keep something above a walk going and logged an embarrassing (for me) 11 minute final mile and wandered past the finish line looking for somewhere to commit honorable seppuku.

What caused the sudden drop off? Tough to say. There’s a lot of factors that can go into something like that, and I’d managed to hit most of them. I’d had a weird, first time, medical emergency earlier in the week, and my body could have still been recovering from that. And of course worrying about possible long term fallout was keeping me up at night, so I barely got any sleep for days leading into the race. It also could have had something to do with the devastating heat (I’ll admit it wasn’t quite that hot, but I’m a fucking penguin, and even without physical activity anything in the 70s makes me feel like I’m melting, and the 80s and above is legitimate grounds to call in National Guard disaster relief teams). Might have just been that even though I’m working my way back, I am, admittedly, generally out of running shape and have been for several months now. More than likely it was some combination of all those factors.

Overall Impressions: I’ve done some bitching about the race in this post, and I should correct a little of that here, because I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong impression. It’s a good race. The course is among the prettiest I’ve ever run on, beginning along an isolated bike path in a nice little pine forest, and eventually opens up alongside a mountain highway, with some heart stopping views. The volunteers and crowds are very enthusiastic. And the post race party, while squeezed into too small a space, tries its damnedest with all the essentials like water, bagels (with cream cheese packets, which shouldn’t come as a revelation, but I’ve never seen in another race), and bananas, but they also throw in fun little touches like finish line otter pops, a free hot dog and soda truck, and not one, but multiple post race beers (from the excellent Tommyknocker Brewery just down the road in Idaho Springs). Aside from a few nagging logistical issues (mostly the start time and the somewhat absurd distance you’ll be doing that noodle-legged walk post race walk between the finish line and your car, although to be fair they do provide shuttles to avoid that, but good luck getting on one) I would encourage people to try this race… as long as they know what they’re getting into. If you’re looking to get some downhill assistance to log an easier half marathon save yourself for the Georgetown to Idaho Springs Half in August. It’s in the same area, has an earlier start time to avoid some of the life draining heat, and while still downhill, is nowhere near as steep, so you can cross the finish line without feeling like your legs have been beaten with rusty pipes (or at least without feeling more that way than you usually would). However, if you’re looking to set your absolute best half marathon time I struggle to think of a better place to do it. This year aside both of my half marathon PRs have come at the Slacker and I’ve never come within spitting distance of those times anywhere else. Try it, just keep the masseuse on call for after.