Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Crystal Coast Half Marathon

A Handcrank Participant’s View From Ten Inches Off The Road

It rained. No it poured. It blew. It blew a gale. The Atlantic Beach bridge grew another 10 feet in height. OK, I’m making up that last part.

After a week of beautiful sunny weather, the Crystal Coast Half Marathon’s inaugural event started out amidst the wettest and windiest day of 2008 so far. If it were summer it would have been a tropical storm.

My teammate ran the 5K. I did the half marathon.

The race director arranged for a bicyclist to escort me on the course. She didn’t realize what she was signing up for. What a great sport! What a great support crew! Through the grittiest rain and the staunchest winds she hung in there, soaked to the bone, constantly encouraging me and chatting.

Everyone was hopeful that the rain had passed. The race started with winds at about 20 MPH SSW. That gave me a slight tailwind as we traveled east on Arendell Street. At mile 1.5, my mother braved the storm and walked out to the street to cheer for me. At about mile three the lead runners began to catch me as I approached the port. It is always inspiring to see the frontrunners in a race. Heidi Tucker, the women division winner, looked like she flew as her long strides pulled her through the storm.

By now my teammate was beginning her race.

I turned south on Fourth Street and thought I had hit a brick wall. The wind was howling around the end of Sugarloaf Island and being funneled in between buildings. It blew so hard I was beginning to have my doubts about crossing the bridge. As I turned back west on Evans Street, the crosswind had a slight headwind component, giving me an additional challenge. I passed mile 4 and could feel the wind freshening and the temperature dropping. My bike escort was right there grinding along beside me. It was starting to rain.

The other runners were great! Many were friends with whom I had participated before. Many called me by name. Many stuck out a thumbs-up. Many yelled out encouragement. Everyone should experience this kind of support for something they do in their life. It’s no wonder I’m hooked.

But what about that bridge? The wind was still freshening. It was starting to rain pretty hard. The gusts were probably up to 30 MPH. I approached the foot of the bridge where it was about mile 4.5. The wind was almost straight head-on.

I started training on this bridge last summer. I need the gradient to train for my ultimate quest, the Marine Corps Marathon. I’ve been across the bridge with 20 MPH winds before. That usually means grinding along slowly in my lowest gear if it’s a headwind. I figured the southward ascent up the steep side of the bridge would be on the lee side of the bridge. That would take some of the sting out of the wind until I got near the top.

Riding at Bogue Banks has become almost a weekly ritual for my teammate and me. We have ridden up and down highway 58 from Fort Macon to Indian Beach in training. We had ridden this very course in all kinds of weather. The previous weekend I cranked across this bridge six times. It’s a good thing.

The first few yards of the climb up the bridge slowed me to a crawl. My bicycle escort dismounted and started walking. The rain was now a full-fledged downpour. I think every runner that passed me shouted in encouragement. The spirit on the course was awesome! The steepest part of the bridge is about at mile 5. It’s a 6.3% grade. I know this because my teammate had measured it with a digital inclinometer (did I mention we were serious about this?).

Eighty feet in the air on that bridge, gusts were probably 40 miles an hour. The rain was like one of those summer thunderstorms when your windshield wipers can’t go fast enough to see. In, fact I could only see about thirty feet in front of me. The combination of the wind and the rain literally stung my face like being sprayed with a fire hose. Runners were shielding their faces with their hands and arms as they charged the blast.

By now my teammate had finished the 5K. She remarked that they could see black cloud obscuring the top of the bridge. At the finish line there was a combined air of angst; 5K’ers and spectators were concerned about family members enveloped in somewhere that storm.

I don’t know how to describe this but I’ll try. The resistance from the wind normally slows me down. This wind, with the added mass of gallons of rain, on top of the grueling grade of the bridge, made me feel like a salmon trying to swim up a waterfall. Now I understand why they jump out of the water.

The trudge, or swim, south on the Atlantic Beach Causeway was still a slow, grueling, grind. Many of the race volunteers had bailed, presumably assuming the race would be cancelled. Most did not. They were right there, at their stations. One group of youngsters steadfastly handed out water and cheered the runners at mile six in the worst of the torrent. I tried to thank every volunteer and policeman I saw on the course.

By the time I reached the Atlantic Beach light, about eight inches of rain had accumulated in the street. Runners were darting through parking lots and along curbs, trying to stay out of the puddles. As I plowed through the water, surely as high as my seat, I thought to myself, “This guarantees it. Now there’s not a dry spot on my body.”

By now the rain had subsided. The eastward dash out Fort Macon Road was under crosswinds and was sheltered somewhat by the tall homes along the south side of the street. I was able to make up a good bit of time lost coming up the bridge. As I passed runners, I felt a genuine aura of relief, as if they were glad to see I had survived the stormy bridge onslaught. I caught up with another runner from Hope For The Warriors and other friends who had passed me on the bridge. We exchanged mutual cheers of support for each other. March’s lion-like downpour had not dampened the spirits of these racers.

Once I was back to the Atlantic Beach Causeway at mile 10.5 I received a well-deserved reward. A tailwind. A 20 MPH tailwind. I leaned back against my backrest, stretched out my arms, and pulled; instantly rewarded with a blast of speed. It was a great feeling, like my memories of sailing on a beam reach in Beaufort Inlet. The words out my mouth described exactly how it felt: “Yee-ha!”

The wind pounding against the upslope of the bridge amplified the wind speed, making the return climb up the bridge “a piece of cake.” At the top, the gale blasting at our backs, I checked with my loyal escort, “Got brakes?” Shouting to other runners at the top of my lungs, “Passing on the right!” I crested the peak and zipped down the lee side of the bridge. It became obvious that the handful of runners descending the bridge in front of me were deafened by the howl of the wind. They couldn’t hear my warnings. For our mutual safety, I rode my brakes heavily down the last half of the hill, although I’m sure I startled one runner as I weaved around her at the bottom of the incline.

The rest of the course was a milk run. It was, however, an honor to pass the home of my dear friend, JT-, with whom I share a similar disability. She had been driven indoors earlier by the weather so I shouted her name as I cranked past her porch.

At the finish line, runners and spectators lined the finish chute, cheering loudly. I have never received such an enthusiastic reception at the finish. I think it was partly because of the shared experience with the weather of the runners, spectators, and volunteers and partly just the indomitable friendly nature of my fellow Crystal Coasters. The finisher’s medal, appropriately enough, bears a picture of the Atlantic Beach Bridge, my formidable adversary that day. I hugged the volunteer who hung the prize around my neck.

So, how did I do? My time was 2:21:13. I’ve done better, but given my experience with the “speedbump” in the course, I’m happy. In the “is the glass half full or half empty” department, this was the inaugural Crystal Coast Half Marathon and I was the only handcrank participant. That not only makes me the winner in my (albeit unofficial) division, it makes me the course (handcrank) record holder! Not only that, but my teammate, won in her age group. So now she is a 5K course record holder for her division, too! That ought to give my mother enough bragging rights amongst her quilting friends for a while.

Looking back, if you factor out the miserable weather, what is left is a feeling of incredible camaraderie amongst the runners who endured the trek together, the mutual support we all shared along the way, a huge feeling of gratitude for the volunteers and police who were there along the way, and a overwhelming sense of accomplishment at the end. Those are the memories I’ll savor until the end of my days.

My participation in events such as this are dedicated to the honor and memory of service men and women wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families. I raise money with my campaign, 2008 Miles of Hope, through donations to Hope For The Warriors. I’m not a wounded warrior, I’m a grateful beneficiary of their sacrifices. Learn more about Hope For The Warriors.

Please donate to my fundraising campaign to support wounded warriors, 2008 Miles of Hope. All the money I raise goes to Hope for The Warriors. This phenomenal organization provides Warrior Wishes, Direct Needs Grants, and Spouses’ Scholarships. Now they have embarked on the creation of a Hope and Care Center, a rehabilitation and wellness facility for wounded warriors.

You can easily make a donation to Hope For The Warriors by using my secure credit card donation site:

Or donate by check. Download our donation form, fill it out, and send it to me with your donation to my address on the form:

Donation form.pdf

-Let's Roll!


Amy said...

You continue to inspire us with your determination and perseverance. Thank you for a promise of Hope and life beyond recovery for our injured service members. Hope For The Warriors salutes you and thanks you for all you continue to do to ensure that their sacrifices will never be forgotten, nor their needs unmet. Blessings, Amy Koury

cymrusteve said...

What an inspirational race report Paul!! Many, many congratulations!

If anyone complains about any kind of breeze at Sunday's Shamrock Half & Full Marathon, I'll suggest they read your story before saying anything else....

Have a great week.

Keep rolling!


t said...

paul, i can't believe what you endured!!! i am SO VERY proud of you!!! and now i know i have no right to whine this weekend. :) i can't wait to see you, and look forward to our races together.

and wow-two records between the two of you??!? that is just incredible! i am so proud of you too, sally! i remember when you scoffed at the idea of running a mile. and look at you now! can't wait to see you friday!

Charlie said...


Congratulations on your half! What an accomplishment! What an inspiration!

See you at Shamrock,

Anonymous said...

I was there with you last year at this run. It was my first half, and I was already nervous. But watching you (and there was also a blind runner!) tackle the run gave me the courage to trudge on through. My finish time is not important (let's just say you beat me very badly), but I finished! Again, thanks for what you do and do know that you are a great inspiration to all. I will be looking for you this year 2009!

Wanda East

LetsRoll said...

Well, Wanda, let's go tackle that bridge again! If that was your first Half, then Bravo! Well done for some tough weather.

How has your running progressed since? I think we will have some good runners out there this year.