by Paul Thompson
Like my last trip to Florida I was there to race. And like my last trip, for the Melbourne Half Marathon in February 2010 in which I finished 4th masters in 70:25 as part of the USATF Masters championships, the course and conditions proved more challenging than expected. In Melbourne high winds and high bridges slowed me down. Meanwhile in Jacksonville, host city to the Gate River 15K, hot and humid weather and a similarly high bridge, topped with ‘irrational exuberance’ in the first mile, undid my plan to eclipse the 50:07 M50 record set by Bill Rodgers in 1999.
The race was the USATF 15K Championships for open men and women (but sadly not masters) so offered depth at the front end. The distance and timing, four weeks out from my Greater Manchester Marathon looked a good bet for a pulse check on how preparations were going.
But in the days leading up to the event things started to heat up. In New York temperatures edged up towards 70F. Not surprisingly in Jacksonville race day weather was predicted to be 80F and 90% humidity. The weather folk were, unfortunately, spot on.
Sham and I arrived at Jacksonville International Airport (JAX) on Thursday night. Thanks to Uber, for $19 we got a ride to our hotel located two miles from the start and finish area. The course actually went past our hotel at around two miles. If things weren’t looking good early on, a very tempting place to step off the course.
On Friday morning Sham and I ran around the vicinity of the hotel to take in views of the Hart Bridge. Conveniently located around mile 8 of the 9.3 mile race the ‘Green Monster’ as locals call it offered a 20-30 feet climb according to the official route map. The route map, and my race profile per Garmin, were wrong about the elevation. The bridge’s elevation peaked at more like 150 feet. At mile 8 that would feel like 15,000 feet and be a heart breaker. After a few miles in the ‘hood we then ran to the race expo to get my number packet. Located at the Jacksonville Fairground the Expo was right next to the start and finish. It proved to be the end point for my day before run.
The elite race coordinator Richard Fannin had kindly given me a complimentary race entry. He was not at the expo but rather at the Hyatt Regency hotel frequented by the elites. So after picking up what free stuff we could at the expo, a rite of passage for us runners, and something I’m now well trained for, we walked to the hotel where there was a hospitality suite for the elite runners. Sham and I hung out there for a couple of hours, enjoying the snacks and drinks while contributing to and eavesdropping on running gossip with some of the organizers and elite runners. USATF TV were there doing video interviews with the contenders. They overlooked me. Next time perhaps.
In the evening Sham and I had a pasta dinner, with salad and garlic bread washed down with a bottle of beer, for $17 excl. tips at a neighborhood family Italian restaurant. It was my kind of place – friendly service and plenty to eat at a low price. Us runners are practical after all.
On race morning we slowly ran to the start area. Fog was lifting off the river revealing bright but unwelcome sunshine. I had tag number 58 personalized with ‘Paul’. I completed a few strides and felt sharp and rested after having tappered slightly. At 8:25am the elite women were off. At 8:30am we set off in hot pursuit. The elite field comprised some 30 younger athletes with 16,000 others in hot pursuit. My plan was to run even 5:20 mpm pace. With 20 seconds in ‘reserve’ for the bridge that would give me 50 flat.
This plan unraveled quickly, as quickly as I ran the first mile. The elites stole a lead almost immediately and I tried to settle into a small chasing group. Passing the first mile in 5:03 I realized I’d gone out too fast. I made adjustments as we crossed the relatively flat Main Street Bridge. I lost my group and passed two miles in 10:27 then sped up slightly and hit 3 miles in 15:44 and 5K in 16:30. My pace was erratic as I struggled to find my usual rhythm.
Mid race the course wound its way through an upscale residential district, many lawns adorned with Trump signs. Large canopy trees offered shade from the sun but not relief from rising temperatures. Locals came out in force to offer drink and encouragement. As I passed 10K in 33:34. I was starting to catch the slower elite women and wheel chair athletes. My Garmin was telling me I was running long (10-15 meters per kilometer) and my heart rate in the 185-195 range (it peaked at 197, higher than I imagined I could get it).
Then I was on the ramp of the Green Monster. There was no respite from the bright sun on the wide boulevard of off white concrete. The eighth mile was a steady grind to the mid point of the bridge. My pace slipped to almost 5:50: it felt like a crawl. The bridge had the worst kind of incline – long and an ever so slowly diminishing gradient to the crest – but then also the best kind of descent. I clocked 5:05 in the last mile, the men’s winner 4:07.The clock read 50:45 as I crossed the line. I was 34th overall and first masters. Analysis of the Garmin data proved I’d slipped off my 50:00 target in the second 5K, run in 17:04. By the time I reached the ramp onto the bridge I was already 30 seconds behind.
After touring the fairground picking up free bites, beer (Miller Lite, not quite the craft ale after my Melbourne race) and other beverages we waited near the stage. We guessed I’d done enough to win the masters. While waiting for the awards ceremony I spoke with Alex Monroe one of Lee’s most talented younger runners. Alex was 7th, just 30 seconds shy of 3rd.
Sham and I were on a tight schedule. Very tight. I was called onto stage as the MC announced “the winner in 50:45 in the masters age group from Peekskill, New York is Paul Thompson. I hope he does not mind me telling you that he’s 50!” We now had 45 minutes to jog the two miles back to the hotel (with booty of trophy, freebies and dhamaSPORT device handed to me by the CEO as I stepped off the stage), shower and pack before our Super Shuttle pick up. Barely an hour after I picked up my trophy we were at JAX. While I failed to break Bill’s M50 record the race confirmed my marathon preparations were going well. We also set a new PR for race venue to airport.