I Should Have Steered Clear of Clearwater – the Clearwater Distance Classic Halfathon, Clearwater, Florida (January 17. 2016)

Sometimes races go well and other times they don’t. Sometimes the race is poorly organized, volunteers are sparse, and the community doesn’t know or care about the event. Other times the weather plays an integral role in whether a race is successful or not. This past weekend in Clearwater, many of these factors came into play. Despite efforts by the race director to work things out, the race turned out to be problematic for some slower marathoners, including myself.

I had registered for the full marathon because there was supposed to be an early start for walkers in both the full and half marathons. This would have given me a full 7 hours to complete the race. The website even has a special page just for walkers, giving information and specifics. Unfortunately, a band of severe weather came through the area on Saturday evening. While the worst of the storms hit south of Clearwater, predictions warned that there was a major chance of heavy rain, wind, and lightning during the early morning hours of Sunday, right before the race was to start. Around 8 pm on Saturday, the race director sent an email to racers explaining that the race start would be delayed an hour. There might be further delays but no one would start earlier. Absolutely no mention was made about the early start for walkers. The email also stated that there would be no more notice of any changes and the RD would be unable to respond to further emails and Facebook posts.

When I checked the race Facebook page, the email notification was listed but again, no mention of an early start. When questioned directly by myself and another walker, we were told by the volunteer coordinator that there would only be one start for all, with the exception of a 5-minute head start for wheelchair racers. Okay, so I would get to sleep a little later in the morning and then would have to do my best to finish within the 6 ½ hour time frame. But it bothered me that an entire segment of participants were ignored and given absolutely no consideration.

At 7 am on Sunday, Darcy and I left our hotel, the Residence Inn Clearwater Downtown, to walk to the race site at Coachman Park several blocks away. We had picked up our packet there on Saturday afternoon so we knew it would take about 15-20 minutes. There was no expo and no giveaways, just a bib with chip and a tech tee shirt which I left there (how I wish races would return to cotton shirts!). As soon as we arrived, I joined the dozens of people lining up for the portapotties and then hunted for an information table so I could ask about whether we would be given extra time to finish on the back end of the race. There was no one who could answer my questions so we looked for the start line. We got there just as someone announced that the early start people were now taking off. What?!? I thought there was to be no early start! I ran to catch up with the others, wondering why there was such an abysmal lack of communication with an entire segment of participants. I later learned that some walkers missed this ‘early start’ and had to fend for themselves when orange cones marking the course were picked up before they finished. There is really no excuse for this. The RD only needed to mention in the email update that there would indeed be an early start for walkers 30 minutes before the regular start.

I managed to catch up with several of the early starters and recognized Jim, Bettie, and Henry. We chatted and then I passed them as I began to fall into a comfortable 14 minute pace. I was starting to enjoy myself, despite the strong winds, when a bike rider caught up to me and asked if I was doing the marathon. When I replied in the affirmative, he said that I should be aware that both the marathon and the ultra-marathon had been canceled. I responded with “I don’t think so.” That’s when he stated he was with the race committee and that everyone now had to do the half because of street flooding on the full course. Policemen and course marshals reiterated that point every time I passed them.

Okay, so this would be a half marathon instead of a full. I could live with that, especially since I am trying to increase my count of half marathons. In a way, I was relieved; the wind was so bruising that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be out fighting the elements for 6-7 hours. I was also afraid I might get hit on the head by flying fronds from the palm trees, especially as we navigated an otherwise pleasant park. But surely the street flooding would have been evident before the race started; the rain had stopped well before 4 am. Better communication between the town, police, and race organizers would have helped.

Because of the extremely windy conditions, mile markers could not be set up on the course. Every now and then there were numbers chalked on the ground but I couldn’t be sure if they were for our race or not. Some runners found this very freeing but I found it rather disconcerting since I had no way to pace myself realistically. Given the blustery weather, I could certainly understand why the mile markers were omitted; they would have been blown away and become dangerous projectiles. This was probably the windiest race I have ever done. I had enormous difficulty maintaining my balance; several times runners bumped into me and each other because it was hard to avoid this. At least everyone was polite and had a good attitude about the situation.

Even if the weather had been pleasant, there were parts of the course that were problematic. Some sections of the course were narrowed to a slim 12” along an out-and-back of a 2 lane highway. This meant that passing was perilous. I tried to stay as far to the right as possible while avoiding the slippery slanted section of the road.

The turn-around was around mile 7 (I guess) and our return to Coachman Park was almost entirely facing a strong headwind. The final section of the race was over a bridge and around a spiraling downhill section that would have been exhilarating had I not been so completely decimated by fighting the furious winds. I crossed the finish line in 2:57, amazed that I managed to finish in under 3 hours in such difficult conditions. Only people who had signed up for the half marathon received half marathon medals. I was thus given a full marathon medal, despite the fact that I only completed the half. It would have made more sense to order extra half marathon medals and mail them to full and ultra participants later. Why would I want a medal for a race I didn’t earn? But at this point I didn’t really expect too much.

Clearwater is a lovely beach town and the course in pleasant weather is probably strikingly beautiful. Unfortunately, I couldn’t appreciate its beauty because I was fighting to stay upright. Our hotel was fine and we ate at several good restaurants (Angie’s for breakfast and Abe’s for lunch and dinner).  Weather is always unpredictable but developing a contingency plan just in case of emergency is essential. In this aspect, the race organizers only partially fulfilled their obligations, leaving walkers in the lurch. For this reason, I cannot recommend the race.

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