Thursday, December 3, 2015

Race Recap: Wolf Hollow Half Marathon 2015

As I shivered in frigid November rain at the start line of the Wolf Hollow Half Marathon in Nashua, New Hampshire, I tried to remind myself, "You do this voluntarily. For fun. You paid someone money to have this experience." The task of running 13.1 miles in 37 degree piercing rain pellets sounded unappealing, even to me. In spite of all this, the memory of a sting on my cheeks and the numbness in my toes pales in comparison to the memory of an idyllic wooded course and friendly, well-organized race. And the winning of a prize didn't hurt.

Steph, who catalyzed my obsession with running by goading me into signing up for my first half marathon two years ago, has been patiently rehabbing a nagging ankle injury. Along with a few fellow running lovers, Steph and I signed up for this race to mark her progress and celebrate her birthday. We then coerced my begrudging (but increasingly speedy!) husband to relay the half marathon with her.

The Course
The Wolf Hollow Half Marathon has been running through Mine Falls Park in Nashua, New Hampshire in late November for each of the past 4 years. I haven't the slightest idea how this race earned it's name, because it certainly doesn't take place near the Wolf Hollow reservation in Ipswich, MA (although I have, in fact, run a race at Wolf Hollow before). Proceeds from the race go to support the local YMCA, which, though a wonderful and important community resource, does not have anything to do with wolves. And, although the race did take place in a park in the woods, to my knowledge there were no wolves on or near the course.

The race began at Stellos Stadium and wrapped around the local high school before looping twice through Mine Falls Park via a foot path along the canal. After the second loop, the course returned to finish in the stadium parking lot. The half marathon could be split into a two person relay, with a hand off at the end of the first loop. Even on a miserable, rainy day, the late fall beauty of this park was apparent. I enjoyed the wide, well maintained trails, and only felt unsure of my footing on a very few rocky or leaf covered sections. The course was mostly flat with a few hills toward the end of each wooded loop. There were 7 water stops offering both Gatorade and water and 6 port-a-potties on the course.

We left Cambridge at dawn on race morning crossing our fingers that the weather would stay clear and dry. Our hopes were dashed as we crossed the New Hampshire border and rain pelleted our windshield. While Chris filled up our gas tank, I dashed into the gas station convenience store and purchased a hot coffee and a $1.99 pair of gloves in attempt to keep my belly and hands warm.

We parked outside the YMCA about 1/3 mile from the race start and I contemplated wearing my warm down vest and sweatpants until I got to the starting line. In what would ultimately be a much regretted decision, I opted to leave the warm things behind and strip down to my shorts and long sleeve shirt in case there was nowhere to stow items.

We made a pit stop at the port-a-potty en route to pick up our bibs about 20 minutes before the 9 am start time. We found our last race companion, Auntie Cristina, along the way. Bib pickup was was uncrowded and within a few moments, I was hopping up and down, eager to start running just to ward off the chill.

The Start
There were 512 half marathoners and 44 relay teams, so the start area felt busy but not crowded. No corrals were needed, and I nudged my way toward the front third of the pack. The director counted us down through a megaphone at just a few moments past 9 am.

Miles 1-3
After a mildly disorienting dash out of the parking lot and onto the street I found myself jockeying for position amid a pack of 5 women. We looped around Nashua High School South. As we passed the first mile marker, I glanced down at my watch. Too fast to start. Time to ease in. I broke free from the pack just after the Mile 2 marker as we returned to the stadium and turned into Mine Falls Park and found my footing on the dirt trail.

Miles 4-7
We crossed a bridge and hugged the canal, then crossed a second bridge before emerging in a parking lot behind what looked like warehouses. As I reached to take a cup of water from the outstretched hand of a volunteer, I discovered that my own hands were now claws, devoid of feeling and unresponsive to my commands to open and close. It was probably not helping my circulation to run with a grimace on my face, elbows tightly flexed and shoulders up around my ears. I cued myself to relax and spent a few minutes running with my hands flopping around by my sides, which helped to warm them enough to graduate from total absence of sensation to painful pinpricks but probably looked ridiculous. Down a hill and into the woods, we ran back toward the park entrance along the opposite side of the canal. Before completing the loop, we detoured off the main trail across a bridge and ran an amusing lap around a baseball diamond at Lincoln Park before cresting a small but challenging hill and crossing back over the intersection just inside the main gate. I can't remember exactly where, but there was a super dark tunnel/underpass that was both cool to run through and mildly unnerving.

Miles 7-13
The relayers were stationed at mile 7.5, just after we half marathoners embarked on our second wooded loop. I spotted Chris among the shivering pack, awaiting his hand off from Steph. I always feel bolstered when I see someone I love along the race course, and I grinned and slapped him a big high five. The rest of the race was exactly identical to the first loop in the park, except this time I was starting to pay more attention to my surroundings and assessing my body to decide how hard to push to the end. My claw hands struggled with the tiny Ziploc containing my homemade date/coconut oil bites, and I tore at the bag with my teeth in frustration. Around mile 9 I began to leap frog with a few men, and appreciated that we pushed each other to keep pace. By mile 10 I knew the woman in front of me had enough of a lead that I wouldn't likely catch her, but I also couldn't see any women behind me. I was able to confirm this as we circled the baseball diamond park a second time. I pushed up the hill before turning back through the Main Gate and out of Mine Falls Park.

Back on the pavement, we crossed straight through the parking lot and past the stadium to the finish. I glanced at the clock and felt a mix of satisfaction that I'd run a decent time without feeling terribly taxed and disappointment that I'd been too conservative and had finished with fuel left in the tank. Having completed her 7.5 mile leg of the relay long ago, Steph was waiting at the finish line.

Becca crossed the line next, earning a massive 6+ minute half marathon PR with a time of 1:51:29.

Steph and I greedily sipped the hot broth from a bowl of (vegetarian!) Armello's Famous Portuguese Kale Soup. I tried to shake life into my hands and wished I had my vest.

We cheered Chris across the line at 1:57:29. He and Steph earned themselves a 7th place overall finish among the relay teams.

In her triumphant return to the half marathon after suffering a gnarly collarbone fracture while being an absolute badass in Australian Rules Football, Cristina looked strong as ever at 2:28:04.

My time of 1:35:40 was fast enough to earn me a 5th place overall finish among women and 1st place in my age group. My prize was a sweet pint glass, which I struggled to close my hand around.

I really regretted not having pants on, so I walk/jogged back to the car, where we celebrated our return to warmth with chocolate caramels.

We helped Steph in her quest to taste all the pancakes in the world with a stop at City Room Cafe...

I sincerely hope the owner of this shop is named "Ladie"

Back at home, Chris and I enjoyed some late afternoon relaxing couch/ice cream time.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Race Recap: Green Mountain Half Marathon 2015

Chances are, you've never heard of the Green Mountain Marathon and Half Marathon. And, chances are, you've never heard of Grand Isle, Vermont, either.

I'm not exactly sure how my friend Becca stumbled upon the bare-bones website for the Green Mountain Marathon and Half Marathon, but I am sure it was the perfect race for her first-ever marathon. The small, simple event took place on Sunday of Columbus Day weekend in the town of South Hero, which sits on the southern half of Grand Isle. There is a legitimate island in the middle of Lake Champlain. Who knew? The bucolic setting was everything you'd imagine for Vermont in autumn. Vibrant foliage, rolling pastures with grazing dairy cows, dirt roads, apple orchards, and stunning mountain views.

The moment I discovered Becca's declared first-ever marathon was paired with a simultaneous half marathon, I was in. The modest $35 half marathon price tag sealed the deal. Becca and I asked Ciara to join us for the half and then coerced our loved ones to come along for the ride (and to drive us around the island, and to cheer relentlessly for us, and to feed us cider donuts, and to put up with us).

The Course
Grand Isle is barely 32 square miles and has a network of only a few roads. The marathon and half marathon start together and follow the same out-and-back course running south to north along the western shore of the island. The half marathoners simply turn around at mile 6.5, while the marathoners continue on north until mile 13. The views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks are abundant, as are opportunities for whipping wind to gust. More on that later. The course is mostly flat with some rolling hills on a combination of packed dirt roads and asphalt. Although none of the hills were particularly large, they felt substantial when I hit them with tired legs. Water stations were situated every two miles along the course and had both Gatorade and water. This was by no means an easy course, but it was an absolutely beautiful one.

We rented a small cottage on Keeler Bay, just a few miles from the race start/finish area, which happened to be the local elementary school. The race was to take place on Sunday morning, so we traveled up from Boston on Saturday. After dropping our bags at the cottage, we drove to pick up our bibs at the school.

There was no "expo" or fanfare, but friendly volunteers passed out our race bibs and way cool long sleeve t-shirts with a smile and the race director, Bob, was on hand to answer our questions about the course and wish us luck.

The town's seventh and eighth graders hosted an "Infinite Pastabilities" dinner for $10 per person to fund their spring field trip. Although it looked absolutely adorable, we'd made plans to meet Becca's parents for a pre-race dinner in Burlington, so we passed on the pasta.

We stuffed our bellies with salad and pizza at American Flatbread in Burlington, compliments of the generous Judy and David Pearl, before crawling into our beds for a restless night.

The Start
We were already familiar with the nearby starting area from bib pickup, but we left our cottage cautiously early, just in case! At dawn, the temperature in South Hero was nudging 40 degrees and the wind was gusting. Parking was ample in a field located about a quarter mile from the start line. We killed some time in the car to postpone the inevitable shivering for as long as we could. Finally, we emerged from the car to use the port-a-potties and jog to the start line. Having looked ahead compulsively at the forecast, we'd stopped on our way up to Burlington to purchase ugly knee socks at Target to use as throw-away arm warmers, so our teeth chattered in style.

With a total of 590 participants between both races (376 in the half, 214 in the marathon), there was no need for corrals or signs to line up. We waited together while the race director made a few short announcements and counted us down to the on-time 8:30 am start. And we were off!

Miles 1-3
The first mile of the race was flat and I settled in to a manageable fast pace. We made our only right turn just after Mile 1. Just after the first aid station at Mile 2, we passed Becca's parents waving and cheering outside their bed and breakfast.

Miles 4-6.5
These miles passed quickly. I stripped off my arm sleeves and dropped them in a trash barrel at Mile 4. The roads were not closed to traffic for this race, and it felt odd to yield to occasional car traffic passing through the runners. I suspect that most of the passing cars carried spectators. Ciara's husband, Rich, and my best running comrade/coach/cheering squad, Steph, had jumped into the car after we started and were hollering for us around Mile 6. Seeing them gave me a big lift, and I ran to the turnaround with a grin plastered on my mug.

Miles 6.5-10
The half marathon hairpin turnaround was an orange cone in the middle of the road accompanied by a spray painted white arrow and the words "HALF TURN".  I looped around the cone, still feeling strong, and gave a quick glance at my watch. Boy, that was a fast first half of the race! I'm really cruising! But the moment I made the turn, I understood why I'd felt so strong and fast. Headwind hit me in the face like a wall, and I was certain the second half of this race would not be nearly as gleeful as the first. Still, I felt great, and Ciara and I greeted each other with a massive high-five as we passed. I jumped up and down to wave like a goon at Steph and cheered heartily for Becca as we ran by one another.

Although I wasn't there to see it, Becca passed through the half turnaround looking strong and smiley, and carried on northward with the marathoners.

Things started to feel a little more serious around Mile 8. I tried to remind myself how to properly run hills. Small steps. Lift your knees. Stand tall. Maintain effort. But the wind in my face sent my mental form cues out the window and I focused on barreling forward. Somewhere around mile 9, I noticed two women drafting off my shoulder. I've never, ever experienced this before and had no idea how to deal with it, so I ignored them.

Miles 10-Finish
As we turned a curve along the shore at the end of Mile 10, the headwind turned into a sidewind, and I fought to maintain my footing. One last slow Mile 11 up a small, but challenging hill, and suddenly I found myself on the flat, straight last mile stretch. I let my legs open up and I picked up the pace as the elementary school came into view.

It was kind of a dickish thing to do in a half marathon, but I sprinted past someone to the Finish Line. The clock was obscured from my view by a tree. At that point, "one second" was on repeat in my mind, and my body reacted almost automatically. Sorry for being a jerk, guy.

Ciara powered to the finish line moments later.

Becca Brings It Home
After inhaling a bottle of water and a banana, Ciara and I threw on layers and piled back into the car with Steph and Rich to hunt down Becca on the marathon trail. We caught a glimpse of her at Mile 19, accompanied by her mother, who was running beside her in jeans!

Ciara and I ran along with Becca, who looked strong and was still grinning, for about a half mile before parting ways. Knowing what we did about the windy, hilly miles just that lay just ahead, we returned to the car and drove on to Mile 22, where we planned to join Becca for the final 4 miles of her race.  She powered through like a champ.

I know running those final marathon miles with Becca was meant to support her. But, as always is the case, running and chatting beside my two running companions was a selfishly pleasurable experience for me. I can't thank either of these women enough for being there every time I need a friend to run with. And to Steph and Rich, the most supportive pit crew in the world: Thank you a thousand times for hauling our butts around the island and yelling at the top of your lungs for all those people you don't know.

Becca finished her first marathon in 4:08:00. She crossed the finish line just as gracefully as she started. In each and every race photo taken, she looks beautiful and calm and is wearing a smile from ear to ear. Just look at this (lifted, sorry Patrick Hendrick photography!) photo of her crossing the finish line. That's her dad in the background.

Ciara finished the half in 1:45:37. She made pink animal print arm socks look stylish.

I came in at 1:35:45, good for 9th place female and 34th overall finisher in the half. My splits were embarrassingly positive as I slowed down in windy miles 9-12, but it seems that all other runners were in the same boat.

We spent the rest of our day alternating between eating, drinking and relaxing. Maple creemees are fantastic. 

Becca shamelessly rocked some sweet socks and sandals. When in Vermont...

Becca's first words after she crossed the finish line were, "Well, glad that's over!"

So what's next?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Race Recap: Run The Vineyards Unionville 8K & 5K 2015

My secret to winning a race? Sign up for the one that has the fewest people and the weirdest course. This is how I finally achieved my goal of a first place finish in a running race.

Run The Vineyards Unionville 8K & 5K was a trail race through the Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes, New Jersey. It was organized by Good Day for a Run, a small racing company that hosts a race series called "Run The Vineyards" throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

I ran this race on a weekend trip home to visit family in New Jersey. The event included simultaneous 8K and 5K trail races with a total of only 162 runners between both races. I wasn't kidding when I said it was small! My dad, sister, and neighbor ran the 5K while I ran the 8K race. It's way more fun to run when I coerce my loved ones into joining me. 

We spent the night before the race at my dad's house. My sister and I left his house neurotically early to allow time to park and pick up our race bibs. We discovered a nearly empty parking lot upon our arrival at the vineyard. Bib pickup was straightforward and uncrowded and we had ample time to use port-a-potties twice before lining up.

Prior to the race start, the race director gathered a small crowd of the 8K runners to fill us in about the course in hopes of preventing anyone from getting lost. I hopped from foot to foot, feeling chilly in a tank top as he assured us the course was well-marked, albeit complicated. I appreciated his detailed description, despite ignoring it 15 minutes later. Take a look at these ridiculous turns:

The 5K runners lined up first and immediately disappeared from view, making a right turn into a field of vines. About 3 minutes later, the 8K race started. We scrambled straight downhill out the rocky driveway and across a small street into another field, where we circled the perimeter before snaking up and down its rows of vines.

In typical fashion, I started a bit too fast. Through the first mile, there were two men well ahead of me but no women. Just before reaching the mile 1 marker, I got myself into a bit of trouble when I missed the first turn into the vines. The turn had been well enough marked, but I was so fixated on maintaining my lead that I wasn't paying attention and there was no one nearby to keep me on track. It occurred to me that I'd made a mistake when I jumped over a section of orange tape. You're usually not meant to jump over tape in a race. After about 100 yards of off-course running, I made an about-face and found my way, sprinting, back to the correct path. By this time, three women had passed me.

Although my blunder was a set back, I think it ultimately worked in my favor. I have never been the leader in a race, and I had no idea how to pace a lead spot. Those first few minutes of leading had made me feel a little frantic. With three women in front of me, I was able to regain composure and resolve to pass them one at a time. We turned back into the driveway and joined the 5K route. I caught a glimpse of the lone crowd supporter cheering loudly. It was my step mom, Missy. Once I was within a few yards of the leading woman, I decided to be patient and wait to pass her until I was sure I had gas in the tank to open up a lead.

After taking over the lead, the race got a little funny. We snaked our way up and down rows of vines, making hairpin turn after hairpin turn. By this point, the front pack of the 8K race was catching and passing the back of the 5K race. Some of the lanes were narrow, and I had to politely alert walkers and runners to my presence behind them. I accidentally scared a few folks who wore headphones and didn't hear me coming.

I crossed the finish line in 37:50. My watch told me I'd run 5.4 miles (an 8K is a 4.98 mile course). It appears I need to learn how to stay on course and run tighter turns. This was by no means an impressive pace, but I felt good about my effort on the uneven, hilly terrain and tight turns.

I collected my family, who had all finished the 5K strong. They confirmed that I was the first woman to cross the finish line, and third finisher overall.

Post race, we were offered free wine tasting. I do love a good 9 am glass of wine.

My first place winnings included a medal and a bottle of Riesling.

Lessons learned: 
Small races = more winnable.
Trail running = way fun.
Starting too fast = naive.
Paying attention to course = important.
My family = awesome.

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