Friday, September 21, 2012

Fox Valley Half Marathon Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 7; 12th Edition 
261.3 miles run; 1 mile swam; 30 miles biked in 2012 races
Race: Fox Valley Half Marathon
Place: St. Charles, IL
Miles from home:  2085 miles
Weather: 50s-70s; sunny

To say this was an odd race for me would be an understatement.

Having originally planned to run the Final Fall 20 mile race, I made the decision instead to take on the Fox Valley Half Marathon to continue my recovery from the bike accident in May.  The decision was made easier when I learned that my friend and last year’s women’s marathon winner, Shannon Bixler, would also be doing the half. I asked her if she wanted someone to help pace her and she said that would be lovely.  We had run together for a portion of the course last year until my course for the 20 miler peeled off and she went her own way. Unfortunately for me she wanted to run a 6:30 pace for the half this year, something which normally would not be a problem.  However, given the fact that I was just getting back into shape this might be a stretch.  I told her I could give it my best shot and only hope to hang on.

The expo was a reunion of sorts, seeing so many of the warm and friendly people who put on the Fox Valley Weekend who I had spent time with the previous year.  The race itself had grown leaps and bounds and was beginning to burst at the seams with runners.  The secret of how well-run the race was and how nice of a course it was apparently no longer well-kept.

Of all the people I spent time with at the expo, the son of a friend named Zachary might have been my favorite. Zachary was born with Down syndrome and has some mental frailties.  But he was strong enough to teach me the sign language for “running” which I then signed to about 100 other people the rest of the day! Even though he has some significant mental and physical difficulties ahead of him, Zachary appears to be ready to meet them with a smile.

The talk of many was the weather for the race. The forecast for the day called for a relatively cool morning and then a warming throughout the race. Bright sunshine and a cloudless sky were also on the menu. This of course would have people who apparently have never run a long-distance race calling it a perfect day for running, seemingly having no clue what exposure to sun for 3,4,5 or 6 hours does to a person pushing their limits. Fortunately, the course provided shade for approximately 90% of the course and running right next to the Fox River gave ample coolness from the waters flowing by.

I was at the expo representing the Illinois Beef Association (“IBA”) and to say people were looking forward to the grilled bites of steak at the end of the race, as they had been provided the previous year, would be an understatement. Obviously this morsel is not everyone’s choice of post-race sustenance but I do know the IBA went home with empty coolers last year.  I assumed the same would be the case in 2012.

Race Morning

After attending a warm family dinner with the race directors the night before the race, I did not get the best of sleep, awaiting a phone call from a friend competing in a rather grueling race in Colorado. Tracking for the race appeared to not be working until I realized my friend had taken a tumble, knocked her head and had to leave the race.  This meant it would be quite some time before she could notify me that she was safe.  I am not blaming that for the little amount of sleep I got (I really do give myself a mental high-five if I can turn my nightowlish self into bed before midnight) but it did not help.

I woke decently enough and lucked out finding a parking spot just a few block from the race start.  I reclined in my car, set my alarm and grabbed another 15 minutes of shut eye.  Popping up just in time to hear the National Anthem before the race, I found Shannon near the start and we scooted toward the front of the first corral. A pungent aroma washed over us as apparently more than a few of the fast runners on the day eschewed both a morning shower and the use of deodorant. “Incentive to run fast!” Shannon said.

First Three on Cruise (6:30, 6:26, 6:35)

Shannon’s goal of a 1:25 overall time was not unreasonable for me to help her with, even with me not being in perfect shape. Nearly 1/3 of all my half marathons run have been under that time. I ran two of my top three fastest halfs just a year ago.  But I wasn’t sure how I would be able to respond on this morning.  The first mile felt solid but then again, all first miles do. When the second mile was a little hot, I was happy as it felt like we were pressing a bit.

As we entered Gunnar Anderson County Forest Preserve and approached the third mile, I got a weird feeling.  I didn’t know how much longer I was going to be able to keep this pace.  I told Shannon she might only get 6 miles out of me today at this pace and I felt horrible about that.  Then, just a few feet past the third mile, I realized there was no way I could carry that pace another 100 yards. I could tell Shannon felt great and there were a few other runners right around us to keep her on pace so I reluctantly fell back. If someone had offered me a ride back to the start and call it a day right there, I might have accepted.

 Middle 5 of Blech (6:55, 6:49, 7:06, 7:05, 6:50)

 Almost immediately we were faced with the biggest hill of the course, which was not much more than a 50 foot bump.  It might as well have been Mt. Everest. I trudged up the hill thinking the day was going to be a long one.  I saw a friendly face in Katie Visco, a girl I met who ran across the United States a few years ago.  Not only was she originally from nearby Glen Ellyn but had also become friends with Shannon in Austin. Katie has her own soup company (Hot Love Soup) and has correctly been described as an “exclamation mark.”  Seeing her friendly face and getting a little bit of a downhill on the other side of the bump was just about the only thing that kept this 5th mile from being run at a 7:30 pace.

A small cheering section set up off of Batavia Ave was a nice distraction from the second and basically last hill of the entire course.  Like its predecessor, it was hardly much to look at but it was very steep in its brevity.  I tried to take in its beauty and just realized how lucky I was to even be running on a day like this, regardless of the tough day I was going to have. I’d like to say that a warm feeling washed over me and I pushed those negative thoughts out of my head.  But then I would be lying.

Approaching the 6th mile, where I was happy to realize was near the halfway point of putting me out of my misery a group of five runners passed me.  Soon thereafter, a group of 8 others, working in swift precision, surgically cut my heart out.  I think I was in 10th place before this onslaught but now I might as well have put a fork in myself.

I heard the soft cadence of another pair of feet behind me and realized another woman was closing on my tail.  I could only hope that when she passed me as well she would be kind.

As we approached a bridge crossing, where the Final Fall 20 milers and the marathoners would turn right, and I would mercifully turn left to head home, I was trying to figure out what went wrong with the day. Suddenly, nearly every runner who had passed me made the right turn to go and run one of the longer races. What should have been a dagger in my heart to realize people running many more miles than me were running much faster than me actually lifted my spirits.

When the girl behind me and another male runner did eventually pass me, I was feeling much better.  Another woman passed me slightly before mile 8 and instead of being lost in her shadow I somehow stayed right in her wake.  We crossed over a bridge to run within touching distance of runners at mile 5 who were heading in the opposite direction.  Then down a small hill with the Fox River on our left.  The Fabyan Windmill in Batavia loomed over the trees in the distance. The water was a perfect mirror reflecting the rising sun, trees and windmill in a gorgeous array of colors and shapes.  I saddled up next to the woman who had just passed me and commented on what a beautiful day it was.

Then I apparently hit my inner Nintendo “B” button and took off like a rocket.

Final Five of Huh? (6:30, 6:19, 6:16, 6:00, 5:49 :30)

It really is hard for me to explain how the next few miles unfolded.  I passed the other female runner and the guy in front of her within about half of a mile.  Then I turned it on more and ran two miles faster than I have in months.  Hitting the city streets and getting a long straightaway only helped my cause.  I have never run well on winding footpaths as they play too much of a game with my mind.  I have no idea why that is but accelerated or keeping a good cadence has always been hard for me to do. But here, on the road, I felt like I could fly.

There is a part of the race that you know is coming as a half marathoner but you still dread it.  Given the nature of running three different distances on virtually the same course and the same finish line, but heading in multiple directions provides a little bit of a problem.  To make this all work there is a ¾ mile-section that only the half marathoners have to do.  You know this is coming because the mile markers for the 20 miler and the marathon are in the same place with the markers for the half being 4 minutes of running further down the path.  I remembered this from last year’s 20 miler and knowing how much of a mental game this can play with you, was prepared for it.  It doesn’t matter if you can see the finish line if you know you still have 2 miles to run.  So I flipped the psychosis of the course and thought I would just run as hard as possible to make it hurt for less time.

I entered the section that only half marathoners had to run and began my clockwise loop around Mt. St. Mary’s Park. On the other side of the loop I could see Shannon in command and on her way to winning the half. I cheered her on and began my own trip around the park.  I didn’t feel like my feet touched the road at all.  I left the park, hit the roads again and knew I had three hard minutes of running left.

As I approached the final turn and headed toward home, I could hear the announcer declaring Shannon the winner of the half. I could not have been happier.  Well, actually, if I had been able to lead her for more than three miles I would have been happier.  But as it were I was running faster than I ever have before at this stage in a race. Cruising into the finish I somehow had made up a huge deficit in just the last three miles. I just barely missed going into the 1:25s when 6 miles previous I had thought I would be lucky to run 1:35.

I was fortunate enough to take 7th place overall in a time of 1:26:03 on a day when I cannot explain what happened in the middle of the race and I am even more flummoxed at what happened at the end. All I know is sometimes you have some races where you will never be able to understand what happens. This was one of those races.

After the race, I grabbed a quick shower and because of the time on my schedule actually was able to stay around and take in the rest of the festivities.  I handed out water to the finishers, provided hugs to those who wanted them, carried a plate of bite-sized morsel of steak to hungry runners, put finisher’s medals around necks, and even helped tear down the scaffolding and race gates a bit. I saw triumph and sacrifice as well and anguish and disappointment.

Justin Gillette won the men’s race in a new course record of 2:31:34 marking this the 52nd marathon he has won in his relatively brief running career. You may recall Justin is the two-time winner, and course record holder, of my race - the Drake Well Marathon.  He is a great representative of the sport and it was wonderful to see him chalk up another victory.  Tons of others who I met at the expo set new personal bests as well.  While the day had not been “ideal” for racing (last year’s cooler, cloudier and rainier day was more suited for fast running) it was a gorgeous day nonetheless.

This race will be on my calendar for as long as I can fit it in.  From the town to the volunteers to the organizers, if you haven’t had a chance to discover this gem in St. Charles, make 2013 the year you do.

I’ll see you there.  And yes, I will have beef.

1 comment:

Shawn Miller said...

What a great recap to a wonderful race! You've got to love a race where the announcer calls your name at the end and announces you like you were the most important person on the course that day. At times I wonder where a runners inner strength comes from to perform like you did but in your case, this day, I suspect that your positive build up before the race helped to fuel you on...oh yeah and the beef waiting at the end! Thanks for including us runners as your friends! --Shawn Miller