Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Biggest Loser Winner

I don’t watch TV very much. I only pay for the cheapest cable package, so I don’t get many channels. My television is used primarily for the news, some PBS documentary stuff, and Jeopardy. Even with these favorite shows, it is often just playing in the background while I’m multi-tasking on something else.

Thus, I know very little about most of the TV shows that are deemed popular. This is especially true for most of the new wave of “reality shows.” However, because of my constant struggle with dieting and exercise, one type of entertainment programming I have watched periodically is weight loss shows—particularly “The Biggest Loser” on NBC. I remember the very first season, and have watched the show change over the years. While I sometimes get frustrated at the convoluted plot twists and efforts to induce drama in the house, I still tend to have it on—even if only as background noise for my other activities.

Given my history with this show, my interest was piqued when I discovered that there was going to be a travelling Biggest Loser Half-Marathon event in Charleston, WV. Two former contestants whom I remembered—mom Jackie Evans and her son Dan Evans—are the stars of this traveling roadshow, with other former contestants joining in as the race caravan rolls from city to city during the year. The timing for the Charleston event turned out right because we were thinking about going that weekend for some other reasons. Plus, I am currently competing in a six-month weight loss contest that started in January and ends soon. I could choose to get up early on Saturday morning and go for a 13.1 mile stroll.

All of this decision-making for our plans that weekend was happening at the last minute. When it appeared that we would indeed go to Charleston, I decided to wait until I had completed at least nine miles of racewalking before signing up (figuring that 9 was close enough to 13.1). I’ve done a couple of half-marathons in the past (one running and one walking) but it had been six years since I had last gone that far. However, I’ve always been one who is more interested in the thrill of the race itself than in the tedious training most people do prior to the race.

Just five days before the race, I registered for it (after checking the long range weather forecasts). By waiting until the last minute, I had to pay full price—there are discounts if you commit to the race early, but I had missed the last chance on those reduced rates. It was the most expensive price I have ever paid for the mere opportunity to punish my body. I guess you are paying a premium price for the connection with the Biggest Loser TV show, and the cachet that goes along with that. I’m normally rather frugal, but I decided that this might be worth splurging on. After all, you never know how many more opportunities I might have to do a special event like this.

In fairness, you do get a bit more for your money than I expected. The day before the race, they have a nice registration process with informational sessions on a variety of topics, including inspirational speeches from former contestants (I even got my picture taken with Chelsea Arthurs from this past season). The event shirt was blaze orange (good for hunting, too!) and very nicely designed. Participants also received a matching drawstring bag with the Biggest Loser logo. Everyone who finishes gets a snazzy looking medal, age groups are set up in five year (not ten year) increments with the top three in each get medals as well, and professional photographers roam the racecourse taking your pictures, which can be sorted by your bib number and downloaded for free after the race.

On raceday, I made my way over from the hotel to the starting line area at Haddad Riverfront Park. I wanted to represent both of my alma maters, so I wore my University of Charleston Golden Eagle socks and my former WVU soccer jersey, which has the flying WV logo offset on the chest, so that my bib member would not block it.

The half marathon was set to start at 8:00, but it would have three waves from the starting corral, each separated by a few minutes. The first was to be strictly runners, the second would be runners and walkers, and the third was to be strictly walkers. I had registered as a walker, but since I would be using a racewalker technique, I decided to position myself in the second group (but perhaps I should have started with the final wave?). Plus, I was antsy and wanted to get going so I could get this over and done.

Soon the horn sounded and the second crowd started emptying the corral. Even though I was at the back and just racewalking up Kanawha Boulevard, it wasn’t long before I started passing slow runners or runners who had already decided to take a break and walk, even though we were only a short distance into a half marathon. Further up Kanawha Boulevard, someone had posted an inspirational sign near the Capitol which read “You run better than the government runs!”

Upriver from the Capitol, we turned off of Kanawha Boulevard and headed back towards the Capitol via Washington Street. Then we veered behind the Capitol Complex and over behind UC Stadium. Near the WCHS television studios, we took the bridge across the Interstate and started up the hill. By then, it was really getting hot and humid.

I’ve written about my only other visit to the cemetery on the hill above Charleston. Now I was walking a half-marathon through a convoluted path that took us up, down, and around the narrow roads of the cemetery. Just when you would reach the crest of a hill, hoping that it was the last and that you would finally be walking downhill back to town, you would see it merely led to a short downhill followed by another uphill just beyond. Near the mausoleum there was a water sprayer that you could go through to cool off, which I gladly opted to do. A few of the other participants were noticing the majestic views of the Kanawha Valley, including the Capitol dome in the distance, but I had enjoyed them on my prior visit—at this point, I just wanted to get out of the cemetery before I died!

Finally, we reached another water station and then started the descent back to town. I like long downhills when I am running, but as a racewalker you must continue your walking stride rather than let your momentum force you into a run. It was a bit frustrating to see runners who I had passed on the cemetery hills (when they were tired and resorting to walking) suddenly catch up and pass me on the long downhill stretch.

Soon we were turning off Court Street and onto Virginia Street, working our way through downtown. I was surprised in the East End by a former high school classmate, who ran out in the street to give me hug—despite the fact that I was drenched in sweat. It was a very inspirational gesture from a beautiful girl whom I have rarely seen (not counting Facebook) since graduation. That is one good thing about getting old—hugs are granted far more readily now than when we were in high school. Thanks, Jane!

I'm flexing my bicep while pointing at the WV logo to indicate I was feeling "West Virginia Strong!" after Jane's hug.

As we entered the Capitol Complex from behind the Governor’s Mansion, I noticed a woman up ahead of me stop to take a picture of the Capitol dome from that western side, which allowed me to close the gap on her. Then, as we were going by the back center of the Capitol, with the fountain in the center, she stopped to take another photo of the northern side. Obviously this was her first visit to West Virginia’s capital city, so as a proud native of the Mountain State, I offered to stop and take a picture of her with the Capitol dome behind her as a memento of her visit. Between this photo shoot and the hug from my high school classmate, I probably lost a minute off my time, but both were worth it.

Eventually, we arrived back on Kanawha Boulevard, where we had veered off of it a few hours earlier. I was trying to stay in the shade of the trees to avoid the oppressive sunshine. After completing 11 miles, Kanawha Boulevard never seemed so long! I could see when I passed UC on the opposite river bank, but the boulevard kept going and going! Finally, the downtown appeared as I went under the Southside Bridge, and saw the Union Building (the only building on the river side of Kanawha Boulevard) where I had worked a part-time job my last senior semester. I was so glad to be near the end that I wanted to run, but had to maintain my racewalker stride. The crowd was cheering to encourage us to the finish.

I could see there was a clock on the right side of the finish line, but they had some colorful flags lined up in front of it which inhibited my ability to read my time until I was close to the finish line itself. I noted that it read 3:03 (and some odd seconds) as I neared my final steps of the race. I was so relieved to have finished 13.1 miles (especially since I had not practiced going further than 9 miles). The time didn’t really matter—it just felt great that I had done it! There aren’t too many folks who have even attempted a single half marathon, and now I’ve been able to complete three of them—in three of West Virginia’s biggest cities, each of which have been important in my life (Charleston, Parkersburg, and Morgantown).

I had not set a goal for myself prior to the race (in part because I had no recent data since I had not practiced a half marathon), other than the goal of simply finishing it. After all, it takes some gumption to merely attempt a half marathon. However, when I realized I almost beat the three hour mark, I started trying to think about how much time had been spent hugging and taking pictures. Then I remembered that the event clock would have started with the first wave to leave the starting corral, so if there was a two-minute gap before the second wave started, then I could subtract that amount off my time. That calculation in my head got me even closer to the three hour mark.

Finally crossing the finish line!

As I staggered from the finish line area, I grabbed a bottle of water, a banana, and a couple of plums (I skipped the bagels) that were among the free post-race food offerings, and headed for the levee to rest, stretch, and listen to the end of the concert by former Biggest Loser contestant Dan Evans. Then it was time for the awards ceremony. I knew I had not seen many other walkers, and that with five-year interval age categories, I thought there was a chance I might have won something. However, to my surprise, my age category was not even announced.

I went over to the wall where they were posting results pages from their electronic scoring, and discovered that I was not listed at all. I spoke with someone in charge, who explained that the chip embedded in my racing bib must have been faulty. They asked if I had noticed my time as I crossed the finish line, and I told them it was 3:03. They entered it in the computer (and may have otherwise checked to confirm a rough estimate of my time from a list of bib numbers as they crossed the finish line). Eventually, they informed me that I had indeed finished first in my age group, and gave me a certificate and blue ribbon. I even got to have my picture taken with a group of the former contestants. Although there was a snafu, it turned out to be okay.

When examining the post-race results on the webpage, there were only 31 registered walkers (plus 253 runners). It was surprising to me that more people in the Charleston area didn’t take advantage of the chance to participate in a Biggest Loser Half Marathon! I finished seventh overall, and there was only one other guy in my age group. It might sound good to say I finished seventh overall in a half marathon, but I compared my time to last year’s Parkersburg Half Marathon (which attracts about a hundred walkers), and discovered my time would have finished 52nd overall (plus not even make the top five in my age group). That helped to keep me from feeling too full of myself. I don’t claim to be a great athlete—I’m more of a “fathlete” who channels his inner stubbornness to make it to the finish line.

All in all, it ended up being a nice day for a stroll around Charleston and then to hang out with some reality TV stars! It sure is much more memorable than simply sitting on the couch and watching TV!

After the race, with four former Biggest Loser contestants--
Chelsea, Danny, Lauren, and Dan.

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