March 16, 2014

Race Report: Shamrock Half Marthon 2014 (Virginia Beach)

Seeking a respite from the logistical issues and disappointment in the 2013 Rock N Roll USA, I decided to change up the spring season and head out of town for a race. The Shamrock Half Marathon seemed to be the most recommended local race in the mid-March time, and it helped that I have in-laws who have run it before and rave about it nonstop. It also offered considerably better value at $80 than the Rock N Roll prices of $85-150 (depending when you register).

So with all that, we packed up the toddler and headed to the beach!

The Expo

The expo took place in the Virginia Beach convention center, a very modern glass building that looks more like an airport than a convention center. We showed up with about an hour to go on Saturday, and the process was very smooth. There were shorter than expected lines, so grabbing my bib and shirt were a breeze. I was thankful there was a shirt exchange station for changing sizes. All racers also received a drawstring cloth backpack, always a great item for collecting freebies and swag at the expo. The merchandise store was a bit spartan in terms of signage and presentation, but it was very large, with plenty of offerings, and normal expo prices. They also sold older Shamrock merchandise for $5-10, good for a cheap training tee or a throwaway shirt; due to mid-40s temps, I didn't need a throwaway item, and I ended up not buying anything.

The rest of the expo was decent sized with a bunch of the usual options. If you've been to a few events with 20k or more participants, you've probably seen all the same national vendors, mixed with local race booths.

The Course

(click to enlarge)
The course starts in downtown Virginia Beach, a couple blocks off the water. The first 3 miles are in the city, surrounded by hotels or residential areas, along a large road with no view of the ocean. It then enters a wooded section for miles 3-5.5. This section is along a two-lane road, surrounded by tall trees, and has Irish signs and jokes to keep runners entertained; unfortunately most of the small signs were on the left and the main packs run along the right side of the road.

Miles 6-9 take runners through Joint Expeditionary Base East (Fort Story), a military installation that offers views of the sand dunes, glimpses of sea, and a few historical sites. First is a cross identifying the "First Landing" or site where Jamestown settlers first arrived in 1607 after their trip across the ocean. While inside the base, runners also pass between two historic lighthouses on Atlantic Avenue. The Old Cape Henry Lighthouse, one of the oldest surviving lighthouses, is a reddish sandstone octagonal lighthouse built in 1792. Across the street is the new Cape Henry Lighthouse, a black and white tower constructed of cast iron in the 1870s.

Historic Cape Henry Lighthouses in Fort Story

The course then rejoins the prior street headed back into the city in a repeat of the first three miles. For the final half-mile, runners turn onto the concrete boardwalk and run along the water.  Though you're at the beach, unfortunately you get very few views of the water or the beach. The majority of the course is not very scenic; however, it is a flat course and if you avoid crowded packs and windy days (not so in 2014), it's a course made for PRs.

Race Day

With the shorter race starting at 7:00a (full marathon at 8:30a), it was a very early wake-up call for us half marathoners. I was dropped off by my in-laws downtown by the starting line at 6:15 or so. The temperature was in the low to mid 40s, so I opted for throwaway arm warmers (tube socks) and no other cold weather gear, other than my knee-high green socks. However, as soon as I got to the starting line the wind was howling off the ocean through the hotels and buildings, and I instantly regretting not bringing a throwaway shirt or trash bag. It was much colder than I expected and after a bit of shivering I found my way to a Holiday Inn a few blocks from the starting line and ducked inside to stay warm. It was around this time I realized I forgot my watch while groping around in the dark (can't wake the toddler!) at 5:00a to secure all my running gear. Sheesh, what an amateur move...going for a PR and no'd think I'd never raced before. Partially because I had no watch, I hopped in the portable bathroom line later than I should have and got a little stressed as I  listened to the pre-race hype and national anthem in a slow line; while inside I heard the wheelchair category launch. I managed to run to the starting line and hop over a metal barrier into Corral 1 just in time to see the countdown drop under one minute to go.

On the gun, the corrals were launched into the frigid Virginia Beach morning air; a bobbing sea of beer hats, green shirts, and Irish wannabes like me. Thinking of keeping my pace around 6:45 to set a subtle PR, I was shocked when I crossed mile 1 in about 6:00 flat, but at least there was a race clock to check. The first 3 miles along the roadway passed fairly quickly, with a touching moment or two as I passed the Team Hoyt wheelchairs and their dedicated volunteer pushers; I've already decided that for at least one race I'm going to sign up to push one of these inspirational children for 13.1 or 26.2 miles. The wind was whipping into runners from the front and right, and I found myself alone for a few stretches battling through it. Miles 3-6 along the wooded roadway was calmer, but also where I began to kick myself for not having a watch; I didn't see a clock with the mile markers and I started having the "you went out too fast you fool!" feeling that runners know so well. This was confirmed when I hit mile 5, where a clock was stationed, and confirmed my pace was in the 6:20s.

Entering the Fort Story area for miles 6-9 were mentally and physically tough. Being close to the ocean with no buildings or trees, the wind was hitting in full force. My legs were starting to burn from my early race pace, and even my lungs were aching a bit. Between my lack of speed work training, the wind, and blowing my legs out early, it was just one of those races where I never felt great after mile 6. When you're anxiously looking forward to the mile 7 flag in a half marathon, you know it's going to be a gut check race...but that's where I was, begging for the halfway mark and just thinking of holding on. Unfortunately the marathon and half marathon mile markers looked similar and you really couldn't tell them apart until you're on top of them, leading to some 'desert mirage' moments where I thought I would never see the next mile click off. The new Cape Henry lighthouse added some visual interest to the otherwise wind-whipped section, and I turned my head to catch the Old Cape Henry lighthouse as well while running down Atlantic. Leaving the base at mile 9 I was passed by a large pack of probably 15 runners...that certainly didn't ease the mental demons saying I totally blew my race plan.

The next few miles were along the roadway, some roadside support and crowds reappeared, and I tried to find a second wind. I focused on breathing and cleaning up my form, and finally saw another race clock at mile 10 showing I had slowed but was still below 6:30 pace. I tried to hold back a bit in mile 11 to conserve energy, tuck in behind a couple runners to shield from the wind, and just survive at that point. By mile 12 I knew I would be able to hold on to a decent time, but I was unsure of what that would be, and the course got in one last punch in the final mile; runners turned at mile 12.5 to hit the boardwalk and were met with a wall of cold wind. I was almost at a standstill, leaning into the wind and fighting to get through and turn the corner. Once on the concrete boardwalk, I could see the finish line arch and tapped into any reserves I had (which wasn't much), coming into the finish chute as the announcer called out my name. In the corner I caught a glimpse of the final race clock, sub-1:27, a great time after a race where I never felt comfortable.

So maybe there's something to all those folks saying don't train with a watch? Even though I didn't feel great and I ate pain over the final stretch, I ended up with a 2.5 minute personal best, on a windy day at that. But I'm not going to lie, it didn't feel good while I was doing it, and you do not want to look at my face in most of the race pictures. I was more than ready for the post-race Irish stew and beer. 

The Results

5 mile :          31:53  |  6:23/mile
Final:        1:26:24  |  6:36/mile  (#120 overall)

The Swag

So why do so many people travel from every state to run this race in March? I think a lot has to do with the very runner-friendly amenities and swag. At the expo, all runners received an event-specific technical shirt (8k, half, or full marathon text), drawstring backpack, and their booth had Shamrock beer koozies and other fun items. Then in the finishing chute, runners receive a nice medal, event-specific finishers hat, and a finisher premium item. Finisher hats are an annual item, and in the past they've had finisher cotton shirts as well. But the "premium item" seems to be the real draw for folks. In the past few years they've had thick hooded sweatshirts, plush cotton throw blankets, and this year they had a beach towel; as this was a brisk year weather-wise, I was actually pining for one of those sweatshirts or blankets.

Finisher medal

Finisher hat, shirt, backpack, etc.

Finisher premium item (beach towel)

Once you get through the finishing chute, your arms bursting with finisher swag and food, you're directed to a huge party tent right on the sand. Voted as one of the best post-race parties in a few publications, the tent has bands from 8:30a to 4:00p, and most importantly, every runner receives a warm cup of Irish stew from a local pub and four (count 'em, four!) glasses of Yuengling beer, not that I would advise that after a strenuous run. The tent also has a store with more finisher items for sale in case you haven't been Shamrocked enough to that point. Unfortunately my reward for finishing at #120 overall was an empty party tent (see my photos below) since all the elites go to the VIP spread. But it filled in while I was there and based on videos posted on their Facebook page, it really got hopping later in the day as all the half marathoners came in and the full marathoners joined them.

Irish stew!

Stew station, beer stops, back of tent.

Front of tent; this place is big.

First band warming up

Race weekend sand sculpture

Yes, it's cold...but brew on the beach!

The Verdict

The J&A Racing team put on a very good event and I saw why it's so highly rated by so many publications. The expo was organized and efficient, with very short lines for bibs and shirts. The runner amenities were fantastic, as already covered in the swag section. And if I didn't have a toddler in tow, the party tent would no doubt be a great way to relax for a few hours and enjoy the beach atmosphere. Given everything runners receive, the value of this race at only $80 is really high and worth the price of admission. The course was flat and fast, even if we all hated the wind, and it seemed to be free of logistics failures that plague other large races. The only downside, or increase in effort and cost, is the drive down, needing lodging for the weekend, and the 6+ hours in standstill traffic to get through the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel and up I-95 on Sunday afternoon (not Shamrock's fault obviously).

Between the fast course, premium amenities, and relaxed attitude, I'm pretty sure I will be returning in future years. But to avoid Sunday traffic, I may stay one more night and leave on Monday morning.

Map image, medal image, and finisher image courtesy of race Facebook page; lighthouse image courtesy of Google Maps; image proofs from MarathonFoto used in accordance with fair use four factors