After a nice dinner with friends last night, I went to bed at 23:20 and got up at 7:00 this morning, a relatively relaxed start for a race day. B got up about half an hour later (I’d already dressed, taken the dog for a jog, and gotten myself the standard pre-race breakfast of half a bagel, peanut butter, and half a banana) and we rolled out around 7:50. After a brief stop for sugar donuts (for the driver) and gas (for the car), we were off.
Last year, I ran the 50k and it took 6 hours and although I got 4th place in my division, it was a grueling trek that left me sore for days. I was not really prepared for the hills, the terrain, and the other challenges of a long trail race.
This year, I won’t say I felt entirely ready–I went into this thinking I had done neither enough hill work nor enough speed work to really perform as well as I could. When I signed up, it was with the hope of going sub-1:45, which would be a personal record (on any type of terrain). Instead, by the time I got to the starting line, I was hoping to finish in around two hours, which is respectable for a half marathon but not amazing.
We arrived at Kettle Moraine State Park around 9:10, enough time for me to grab my race packet, spray myself with bug spray, put on my number and chip, and use the (somewhat scary) park outhouse. Ugh. Then we lined up, got a quick course talk (I missed most of it, since I was in the bathroom–the gist of it was “Two loops, follow the yellow arrows, there are some aid stations somewhere.”). And we’re off!
I had lined up toward the front, since I got to the line-up late, and although I felt like I went out pretty fast I was passed in the first mile and a half by what felt like the whole pack. So I gave them all nicknames: Mr. Two-Bottles (one in each hand!), Ms. Newtons (not really a trail shoe?), Mr. Asthma Attack (at least that’s what he sounded like as he passed me), and Girl Giant, who was about a foot taller than me (not that I’m that tall, but wow).
I should mention that the trails here are not single-track; instead, there are cross-country ski trails, hiking trails, and horse trails. Generally I prefer trails like this over single-track, although there were a few spots where things got a bit sandy underfoot, which is uncomfortable. The hills are quite steep and fairly constant; runners don’t get much in the way of downtime. A number of the descents are quite rocky too, so bombing down them without paying attention is hazardous.
I remembered the climb out of the first aid station from last year (it was mile 18 of the 50k; it’s about mile 2 or 2.5 of the half) and I had to force myself to relax as I hit it–my calves were cramping up and I was starting to get a side stitch. Clearly in an attempt to maintain position I was running too hard, taking the hills recklessly–running scared, not running smart. After a while, I let go of all of my ambitions and I settled into a nice pace (about 9:15/mile, though I didn’t know it at the time, since I don’t have a GPS watch). I hit the second aid station around 45 minutes in (I think it’s around mile five), and shortly after that picked up a couple of chatty 50k runners. The woman, from Milwaukee, was a CPA. I didn’t ask the man what he did. The 50k has a 13-mile out-and-back and then two 9-mile loops; they were just finishing the out-and-back and seemed to be making pretty good time. They buoyed my spirits some, and we reached the start/finish/beginning of the 2nd loop area at almost exactly one hour.
At this point, I headed into the second lap with a lot more confidence. I was feeling very strong. I had brought a gel along with me, with the plan to take it at the halfway point if I felt like the wheels were beginning to fall off, but I didn’t need it. As I bid my new acquaintances farewell (the 50k and half marathon diverged about fifty feet past the starting area), I realized that Mr. Two-Bottles was directly ahead of me, and Ms. Newtons was leading him. I began pushing a little harder on the downhills, and over a few successive ridges managed to pass them both and put some real distance between us. I decided I was going to run conservatively until I got to the second aid station, then push hell-for-leather for the finish.
Then, as luck would have it, I realized coming into the first aid station that I was right behind Mr. Asthma Attack. I took it easy on the long hill out and passed him a few turns later. I felt like I was keeping a pretty easy pace and I was able to run most of the hills in this section of the course.
Coming into a wide meadow, I saw a bright shirt ahead of me and realized–it’s Girl Giant. Unlike the others I had passed, she was still moving quickly–and smart: I saw her walk several hills, a good bet on this course. But by running some of those same hills, I was able to pick up some time. Finally, around 1:46:xx we reached the second aid station. The sign noted we were about 1.5 miles from the finish line. She left just ahead of me; I grabbed a cup of water, drank/inhaled half, dumped the rest over my head, and took off, dripping slightly. A few turns later, I had passed her, and ran it in for 2:00:59 and 2nd in my division.
B was waiting for me. We stopped at the local cafe/deli/general store on our way out and I got a coffee, into which I added sugar, skim milk, and a scoop of vanilla protein powder. Then I ate a chocolate-covered creme filled donut. This may not have been the best choice (or so my stomach suggested), but it was delicious. Then I took a nap.
A few lessons learned: Don’t get carried away with the crowd right at the start; it’s easier to save some juice for the second lap and pick people off than it is to come back from a bad start. Drink lots of water. Be careful when bombing down hills–if you over-reach, your knees will start to hurt. Walk the hills that are too steep to run. Know which hills those are.
I think I’ll be back next year.
(Photos taken by B on his iPhone. Thank you!)