I normally don't do half marathons, but I was kinda roped into this one. Whenever I see a "Do all these races and complete the challenge!" thing, I always fall for it. To some degree, I feel like that demonstrates that I didn't just do a race, that this is more of a lifestyle for me.
I only learned about the Berkeley Half Marathon when I heard about the Berkeley/San Francisco Challenge - run both the San Francisco Marathon and the Berkeley Half in the same year and you "complete the challenge" and get a special medal. I'd already done the San Francisco Marathon, and I'd done something similar called the LA/SF Challenge - run both the San Francisco and LA Marathons in the same year. All I had to do was show up and complete what is essentially a training run and I get rewarded with a small sense of accomplishment.
The start line was only half a mile from my friend's apartment, so I stayed there for the night and just walked over. Ditched my warm-ups and put them on a bus about 15 minutes before the gun and headed over to the start line. Based on my time in previous races, I was able to line up at the front as an elite athlete. Bumped into Nick and Ben, two of my Google teammates at the Hood-to-Coast Relay. Ben is way faster than me, so I knew I wouldn't be seeing him much. Nick and I lined up near each other and got to talking.
"So what time you aiming for today?" asked Nick.
"Oh, well, I haven't been training seriously or even eating well lately, so I dunno, anything under 1:20 will make me happy. I'm just trying to have fun today. I mean, 1:20 is good by any objective measure..."
"Yeah, that's what I was hoping for! I might just try and stay with you!"
Nick later revealed that he'd be in Dallas to run the Dallas Marathon in a few weeks. I told him that's where I was moving to and gave him a few pointers about the course. Dallas was actually my first-ever Boston qualifier, and I've always run well there. Fond memories.
The Berkeley Half's course starts near the UC-Berkeley campus and heads straight downhill to the bay for four miles. After that, all flat, mostly out-and-backs along the water. A fast course, and very different from what I'm used to. A lot more people, too. 4,680, to be exact, seemingly a very high number for an inaugural event. Then again, half marathons are now the most popular running distance. Maybe that's normal.
Right out of the gate, Ben got far away from me and I couldn't see him at all. Nick took off like a light too, and after a minute or two, I wasn't close to him either. Seemed like there were a lot of people that could run fast! I wasn't sure if I was just running unusually slow, since I didn't have my watch with me. But I felt like I was putting out a solid effort, so forcing myself to go faster probably wouldn't be a good idea.
After a couple miles, the crowd started to stretch out and I started passing people more often than I got passed. At one point, it looked like we were running directly into a thick fog, but once we got near the water, it cleared up and turned into a bright sunny day. After four miles, the course flattened out and we turned south for the first out-and-back.
I must have been hitting my stride right about now, because it was right about now that I started passing people exclusively. Not that I was passing people left and right, but I would pass someone every couple minutes, and no one was ever passing me. Every time I asked someone, I was told we were right on a 6:00 pace, right where I wanted to be. Just keep it up!
About half a mile before the turn-around, I saw the first runner coming the other way. Holy crap, a whole mile ahead of me already?? That would mean he's faster by almost a whole minute per mile! Only about 15 seconds later, I saw Ben, in second place. Goodness gracious, that guy's fast...
Nick was only about 30 seconds ahead of me when I reached the turnaround at mile 6.5. A few minutes later, I caught up to him. He stayed with me for about half a mile before I got away from him.
About eight miles in, the course turned to do a short loop around a park. I passed a tall lanky guy and asked what our pace was. Still 6:00.
"I'm dyin', by the way," he added.
"Hang in there, man. It's only another 30 minutes. You can do anything for 30 minutes!"
"Yeah, that's what I'm trying to tell myself."
The course through the park put us on an unpaved crushed gravel trail. Well, that threw me for a loop! Didn't expect that at all. Lucky for me, I'm perfectly comfortable on the trail. Carried on.
For whatever reason, these miles seemed to take a long time. They weren't grueling and I didn't feel that tired, but everything just went on for a lot longer than I expected. After a couple miles, we did another out-and-back section, then ran across some more gravel to the final stretch.
For the first time in several miles, someone passed me, a very tall guy in a yellow checkered shirt. In the last mile, the course did some zig-zagging in a parking lot, marked off by cones, then did one last hill just before the finish. I must have paced the race pretty well, because I was just starting to get tired in the last half-mile; it was hard to maintain my pace at that point. Forced myself to hold strong up the very last hill, then cruised downhill for the last minute of the course.
I finished under 1:20 like I wanted, but had a 6:02 pace when I was hoping for 6:00 or less. Still, I wasn't taking this one too seriously, and I think I did well and had a good time. I wound up finishing 38th; Ben finished fourth! If I'd known that 2-3 miles would be unpaved, I might've kept my light trail runners out of retirement for one last race.
Oh, and the goodies after the race? Superb. Tons of samples of granola, trail mix, bars, and a free beer. And since I was registered as an elite athlete (though I don't quite consider myself an elite athlete), I got to go into the VIP area. All the beer you want, massage, donuts, muffins, and a food truck! I took advantage of almost all of that, including a short rib sandwich, cup of tortilla soup, and a vanilla shake from the food truck.
Most importantly, I had a good time running this race. A fitting send-off for my last day in California.