Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Ely Half Marathon Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 17; 10th Edition
144.1 miles run and 58 miles biked and 1930 meters swam in 2023 races
Race: Ely Half Marathon
Place: Square Lake, MN
Miles from home: 246 miles
Weather: 60s, cloudy, windy, slight rain and humidity

For the second year in a row, the app I have co-created, Sherpa, is the title sponsor of the Ely Marathon. For the second year in a row, I was running a half marathon there and excited to do so. I was excited, in spite of the fact that I’ve had less than a stellar year of racing and was definitely still feeling quite tired from the half-Iron Man race I did two weeks ago. 

I had planned more than a few months ago to take this race a little less seriously than most and just have some fun with it and help promote Sherpa in a silly way. I decided the way to do that would be to wear a disco ball helmet and carrying a 3 x 5 flag with Sherpa's logo on it to help promote it to the people at the race and in the city. I have run with the flag on multiple occasions and even on the best days it is quite exhausting. Why I think "have some fun with it" means "make the race harder" is beyond me. I wasn’t exactly sure how this race was going to go but felt I could run solid through the places where I knew it would be easier and then take it easy on the places that were harder, which, given this is a rather challenging race, would be plenty.

Race Morning:

The buses to the start of the various race were located just one block from the finish line. Ample parking awaited all those who needed it, including last arrivals like myself.  In fact, everything about the logistics of the Ely Marathon is convenient and stress-free. I don't say this as a sponsor. I sponsor the race because that is true.  Having run hundreds of races and being a bit of a prima donna on race morning, the last thing I want to do is be troubled with logistics. That is one thing I adore about this event. The lack of headaches.

I was able to catch one of the last buses for the half marathon and still had over a half an hour of time before the race started once I got to the starting line. In addition, it what would have to be an absolute first in my racing life, I got to the bathroom and had absolutely no wait.  I just walked right in.  I almost thought I cut the line. There were more than a few hundred people ready to race, it was as if everyone had already used the bathroom and was saying, "Go right ahead, Dane it’s all yours." In fact, as most runners will know, you get a little nervous before a race, and you have to go more than once, which I did, and almost never had to wait for more than one person.That was a treat.

It was then just a few minutes before the start of the race that I finally unfurled my flag, and put on my silly little helmet. I sauntered close to the start, hoping that I would be able to run close to what time I ran last year: 1:29:13. But given my extra accoutrements, that was highly unlikely. As the wind whipped around us at the start I positioned myself to the far right, not to get in anybody’s way, and simply waited for the countdown. Away, we went.

First Three Miles: 

I saw two people I immediately recognized as the men’s winner last year, and the women’s winner. I figured I wouldn’t be anywhere close to the men’s winner, who I couldn’t beat on my best day, and I was likely to lose to the women’s winner as well. As we started the race and began climbing a small in height, but long in duration. hill, I was already feeling the effects of the wind on the flag. I also just didn't have any zip. 

My 1st mile was at 7:11 which wasn’t too bad given the first hill and my 2nd mile was a 7:06, which was a little bit disappointing because this was likely the biggest downhill of the whole course. The only one which might be more forgiving would be the steeper but shorter hill at mile seven. I remember specifically that I ran these first two miles in 6:34 and 6:32 last year, so I was already well off the pace. As I went from the 2nd to 3rd mile the wind almost ripped the flag out of my hands and I could feel something going a little askew in the pole. As the point was to advertise with the flag, I didn’t mind if I rolled it up a little bit and tucked it under my arm on this portion, as there was virtually nothing but trees and deer out here to see it.

To Mile Seven: 

Quite challenging, this Half Marathon is easily broken up into four sections, which make it more easy to digest. The first section is the three miles do you which include the biggest climb of the day. The second section is the out and back where you go through the town of Winton (pop. 162) and experience a series of undulating hills, but also more than a few Wintonites out cheering you on. It was here in this section that I realized that I had two runners running directly behind me who I hadn’t heard the entire run. One thing about a disco ball helmet is that you can hear virtually nothing!

The only reason I found out these runners were so close is because, as we trudged up the hill, and, as is my norm, I slowed down. I am horrible at running uphills. Once we got to the top and were giving a few down hills to run, I was able to put them behind me. I expected to see them anytime we hit the uphills again, as there were plenty but I didn’t see them the rest of the race. 

Before I even got to Winton the overall leader was already heading back. I could tell that I was getting my butt kicked today because I was much further ahead last year. I never even saw him at this turn around. I actually made a choice to drop my flag at this one aid station, knowing that there was a little loop that I didn’t have to carry it and could be able to pick it up on the way back.

I passed a house with a flag outside and the first word I could see was "Trump". St. Louis County  went for Biden in 2020 but it also included the city of Duluth. I was not surprised to see that out there (just like I am not surprised when I see Trump signed in my own hometown of Titusville, PA.) But when I saw it said "Keep America Trumpless" it was like a burst of energy. You can actually see it on my GPS! 

As I rounded this section, I looked on the ground for my flag ready to shoulder the load again.  But it wasn't there! The volunteers must’ve seen the shock look on my face (impressive given the enormous sunglasses I was wearing and the helmet obscuring my forehead)  because one of them pointed to the other side of the street.  Another volunteer was holding it aloft ready for me to grab. Now that’s what you call service! 

I grabbed it, held it aloft proudly and began running back the way I had came. By this time the vast amount of runners behind me were streaming by. I received many smiles and high-fives from competitors. I don’t know if it was because of the disco ball helmet or the flag but either way I made some people smile and that’s a pretty darn good thing. 

I went down the other side of the biggest hill of the course and was ready to take on the section between Shagawa Lake and Miners Lake. I always forget that there are two big climbs in this section and the second one really does take it out of you. But the reward for climbing that hill and going down the other side as you get to run next to the ruins of a mill, and if nothing else, it makes for great pictures. 

You also get to join the trail that goes around Miners Lake and avoid some other hills that you would have to climb if you stayed on the road. For that, I am very appreciative! As you run around the west end of miners lake you are usually presented with a few well wishers and a aid station with nice cold drinks - glorious even when it is in the 60s.  And to say something about the weather: I have no idea how mid-60s can feel so warm but it probably has to do with a helmet.  Regardless, I was utterly drenched in my own sweat and so thankful for a cool drink.  I was ready for the best running portion of the whole race followed by one last kick in the butt.

Heading to the Finish:

This long straightaway here is where, after a small uphil,l do you have a nice long flat to downhill section that is peppered with signs that well-wishers have created and left out for you to read. At this juncture in my running career, I’ve pretty much seen all of the motivational signs, but I did chuckle at “Run like your mother used your full name." I then got a little catch in my throat because I realized it has almost been one year since my mother passed and this was the last Half Marathon I ran before she did. 

I didn’t have time to fight with those feelings right now, however. I was feeling the best that I had all day because I had given my friend Heather, and co-creator of Sherpa, the flag about a half a mile back.  I asked her to give it to me a bit closer to the finish so I could just try to run like a normal human for once. With a disco ball helmet but still, kinda normal.

I ran one of my fastest miles of the race and thought I might be able to track down the only two runners who had passed me all race, having done so as we ran between the lakes a mile or so back.  But they must have been enjoying this section as well as they only seemed to lengthen their lead, as they battled it out. One of them had asked when he passed me if this company was paying me a lot to carry the flag.  I told him not nearly enough and laughed. I see now he was a 23 year old and he was battling the 53 year old who passed me. Kudos to Caleb and John for fighting hard to the finish and giving me something to try to chase. I had lost contact with virtually anyone else miles before and this was the spark I needed to try to get moving.

When the flat section ended and the last climb back into the city began, I was feeling pretty good. Unfortunately, no one told my watch that as I had my only, 8+ minute mile of the entire race here. I also had to contend with a morning driver who had gotten a little lost and while trying not to cause any trouble but almost caused a lot of trouble. Luckily, I sidestepped her vehicle and then began running on the main  drag in Ely for the last mile and change. Ely is a small town but it was no small feet to get an entire mile plus of street completely blocked off to all traffic. Runners could feel like royalty as they had the entire street to themselves.  I ran down the middle of it feeling like I was in an apocalyptic movie with no other survivors. There were a few hardy spectators out including the ever-present jello shot givers in front of Gator's Grilled Cheese Emporium. I don't partake but I know others love them and that made me smile. With one last rule hill before the historic theater, I grabbed the flag from Heather, ran a block or two made the final turn and began heading for the finish at Whiteside Park. 

About half of a mile before the finish the ziptie on the flag broke. I am surprised it lasted this long.  I looped my finger through the grommet and balled it in my fist. I would be damned if I carried it this long to have it NOT be seen by the most people in one place!

The announcer got the people excited for my finish and I came in 11th place overall in 1:40:04.  I truly wished I had looked at my overall time as I know I could have found five seconds in me to make sure I ran 1:39.  I know it is a hard course. I know it is windy.  I know I was carrying a damn flag.  But this time realy disappointed me. Just because you decide to goof around and make your race difficult doesn’t mean that you still don’t think you should run fast.

I didn’t do that today, but I did get to enjoy another well-run race here in Ely. The event weekend continues to grow and add new and more exciting parts to it and we cannot wait to help make it a destination race in the future. Being difficult has not stopped any good race from drawing participants in the past.  In fact, some tout the difficult nature of their race as a selling point.  If you get people to desire to come to you, put on a great race, and give them something they can't get anywhere else (like the absolute lovely lunatics who run the race portaging a canoe!) people will come to you. 

I can't say that I will be surprised that if within five years, Ely has to put a cap on their race. We can't wait to see that happen!

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