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Half marathon tests runners' mettle
"I don't understand it."

That's what a friend told me when talking about my desire to try my first-ever half marathon.

I never really considered running one until another friend, who runs, suggested that the Giant Race in San Francisco would be a good to try. The encouragement was all it took. I jumped online and parted with $100 to sign up. You only live once. Besides, I thought a physical challenge would be a great way of celebrating turning 50.

Nobody just starts out doing a half marathon. You have to be fairly serious about running on a regular basis to consider putting yourself through such a rigorous stunt.

If you're not a runner, the thought of running 13.1 miles non-stop is enough to make you grab your chest and feign a heart attack like Red Foxx used to do on Sanford & Sons. Just know that on this side of it, it's not the impossible task you might think it is and easier than you might imagine when you're conditioned and toned for it.

I hated running in high school because I'd get those side pains - I was told they were caused by "air bubbles" - so I didn't start running until 2000 after succumbing to this nagging feeling that I needed to get physical. I was tired of feeling like a banana slug and running was something I could do without cost. I laced up and could barely get two blocks without thinking, oh, man, can't do this. I didn't quit. I tried again and again, going greater and greater distances. It became a personal challenge, a discipline of sorts.

An iPod changed everything. Running to music made it so much easier because it occupied my mind, filled my ears with good beats to run to, and made time go by much quicker. Music, I found, gave me a mental energy, a sly and deceptive way to get my brain to forget about what I am commanding my legs to do.

Running for me has always been a solo sport. It's my time to slip away and take charge. My pace. My music. My route. My health. My pain. My gain. But like anything, there's days when I feel I must drag myself out there, to beat my body to make it work, fearful that if I slide this day, it will turn into a week and then a month and then I've fallen into the cold world of complacence where too many souls lay fallow.

Possibly out of boredom from routine, I set out three years ago to run a desolate stretch between two cities in Stanislaus County, a distance of 11.2 miles. I had to stop a number of times and resorted to walking the last three miles on legs that felt like rubber. The next year I managed to make it all the way and felt like I accomplished a great feat. In April I ran non-stop and did it in one hour 42 minutes. The distance was just two miles shy of a half marathon and I told myself, no sweat.

Still, I've heard of half-marathons ending in disastrous results. My son Bret ran a San Jose half-marathon in which two men dropped dead from apparent heart attacks. So it's always best that anyone who runs a long distance to be on top of things medically and be checked out by a physician.

I had several months to prepare for the Aug. 27 race. Nobody can tell you the best training regime in preparation for a big run. Mine is just run what's comfortable and push distance and time now and then. I like to run two miles a day, and then will sometimes double that on a morning. Push yourself as much as you can but have fun doing it.

The Giants Race two Saturdays ago would be a different experience from my normal solo run. I'd be running with thousands of others, in a strange city, in different weather conditions than Valley dryness. I was more than happy to be running in cold since my body temperature reaches steam stage about 12 minutes into a run.

The race assembled in the parking lot at AT&T Park where the SF Giants play. It was a typical cool socked-in-with-fog summer morning as I joined all kinds of runners in all kinds of shapes - mostly younger than myself - all wearing different types of clothing. Not sophisticated, I went with a simple T shirt and black nylon running shorts. All runners assembled themselves in three corrals based on time to run a mile. An Oakland choir sang a stirring rendition of the National Anthem and the big event was off. I cranked up Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" and let the legs fly. The pack thinned out very quickly and the adrenaline was flowing.

We looped around the stadium and underneath the Oakland Bay Bridge. I marveled at uniformed officers being posted at every intersection.

I heeded the words of caution from other runners: Don't burn yourself out in the first half and run out of gas for the finish. But I felt a rush coming on that didn't stop for nearly the next two hours. I passed runner after runner and kept them behind, each time seeing my standing climb on the ladder.

In what seemed like a half hour I was running along the Embarcado, through the heart of Fisherman's Wharf, running past Pier 39, the Rainforest Cafe, Alioto's, all the tourist shops on Jefferson Street, then Aquatic Park and Fort Mason. The anticipated hill at Gashouse Cove came and I charged it - just like I did back at home - and overtook other runners while doing it. I was not about to let a hill steal my goal to finish this race within two hours.

A great disappointment was delivered by the fog which robbed me of a much anticipated view of seeing the rust red colors of the Golden Gate Bridge.

While it seemed hokey, I appreciated those who cheered us on and smiled and offered five-highs. Somewhere in the vicinity of Marina Boulevard and Divisidero Street I saw a bearded man standing off to my left offering high-fives with his left hand. I was game for any hand of support and slapped his hand with my left hand only to find out after the race that it was Giants pitcher Brian Wilson. (Okay, so I am not much of a baseball fan and didn't really know what he looked like). Friends Chrissy Cole and Shelley Brown stopped to get a cell phone shot with him which bit into their time - as did their one potty break. I burned up all that I drank producing energy and sweat.

Along the run I saw a young man carrying the American flag. He was one of two people I spoke to on the whole run. I was inspired and told him so.

Along the way runners must learn the technique of accepting cups of water or Gatorade offered at liquid stations. I slowed a bit, bent my cup to prevent slosh over and kept running. With an occasional burp and cough, I chugged on.

All was going well. Then came disaster came in the final mile.

Nobody wants to fall in a race. It's embarrassing and can end everything. But you learn from things in life. I made an unwise decision that resulted in a fall. Right after I passed Farmers Market on the way toward the Bay Bridge, I saw a man take advantage of an elongated raised cement seating area, using it as a runway out of the congestion caused by 5K and 10K runners. I leapt up and ran on this elevated "track" for about 10 seconds when my foot or shoestring caught one of those devices that prevent skateboarders from sliding across an edge. I tried to recover but I slammed into the cement sidewalk. It was a slow-motion fall that jarred my left wrist, removed a half-dollar sized piece of skin from my knee like a cheese grater and thwacked both ankles. I was stunned but thankful my head didn't go into a cement wall. A runner offered me a hand up, but I stumbled and fell again as if I lost control of my legs. A surge of adrenaline and a bit of anger pushed me off and I was on my way again. My ego bruised worse than my leg, I wondered if the runners around me were silently chuckling "Dumb butt."

I envisioned ending the race across the finish line like an Olympian with arms raised in victory. Instead, a logjam of runners turned the finish line into a parking lot on the backfield of AT&T Park. Packed in tight and moving like cattle, I fought my way to get the chip on my shoe across the electronic counter as I listened to one runner with cell phone pressed against his ear receiving encouragement from his Sarah. Thus my run ended with a slow motion crossing at the finish line.

My goal to finish within two hours had been realized with a time of 1:56:14. I placed 20th out of a field of 62 runners in the 50-54 male category. Overall I finished 639 out of 2,455 runners (26th percentile). Of the 1,050 male runners, I was 424th, certainly not stellar at the 40th percentile but not bad for a 50-year-old beginner who is used to running solo among the cow pastures, canals and almond trees.

An online search of the results allowed me to see that Erika Bucheli of Ceres had run in the 20-24 age division, and finished with a finish time of 2:32:07.

In case you're wondering, the best time in the race went to Jack Schmitt, 24, of Kentfield who finished at 1:04:51. The best women's time came with Magdalena Boulet, 38, of Oakland who posted 1:14:31. The race's slowest went to Christine Clark, 39, of Antioch with 3:42:33.

A crush crowded the concession corridor as runners awaited race T's, Tim Lincecum bobbleheads and race medallions. In that sweaty corridor I failed to see the medallions and went home without one. I literally hobbled the mile back to the hotel room, dried blood trickled down my shin, chuckling as I quietly sang "I Left my Knee in San Francisco," my remix of Tony Bennett's classic.

It felt good to set a goal and accomplish it.

I'm hooked. I want to run more halves and I have this giddy feeling in the pit of my runner's stomach as I flirt with this notion to try what seem an unthinkable quest: The big marathon itself, 26.2 miles.

Hey, Modesto has one coming up on March 18, 2012. Anyone feeling inspired?