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.

Friday, October 2, 2015

When you're up, you're up. And when you're down, you're down.

It has been a week of ups and downs.

The Up
On Sunday, I took home my first ever first place finish in a race. I was the first woman and third overall finisher in the Unionville Vineyards 8K. It was a very small trail race, which most certainly worked to my advantage. But a win is still a win. The day was extra special because my dad and sister ran the 5K race. It was so much fun to run with my family right outside my hometown. I'll post a full race recap later this weekend.

The Down
On Monday, I was hit by a car while riding my bicycle to work. It felt oddly like I was watching life through a GoPro in slow motion as I somersaulted over the hood of the car and landed, stunned, on my back next to my bike in the street. My helmet took a good whack on the asphalt, so I took my first ever ambulance ride. Fortunately, I was given the all clear and discharged with instructions to take it easy and pop some ibuprofen after CT scans of my head and neck came back normal. I walked away feeling stiff and a little foggy, but relatively unharmed. I am so glad this is what my helmet looks like, and not what my skull looks like.

Kids, wear your damn helmets.

Another reason to love living in Cambridge: The paramedics brought my bike in the ambulance with me and then carried it into my hospital room. The front wheel was bent considerably, so I had to carry it over my shoulder from the hospital to the bike shop, where it immediately got repaired. Broadway Bicycle School is the best. I got a new wheel, new seat, brake adjustment, and a new helmet. The steel frame of my bike held up fantastically, despite putting a sizable dent in the front bumper of the car that hit me. Good as new.

The Pits
On Wednesday, the Boston Athletic Association announced the cutoff times for the 2016 Boston Marathon. You may recall that I ran my first ever marathon in May of this year and met the qualifying standard for women in my age group, which is 3 hours, 35 minutes. Meeting this standard made me eligible to apply for entry into the marathon, but it did not guarantee my place. I knew, based on last year's cutoff being 1 minute, 2 seconds below the standard, that things could go either way. So I waited, anxiously.

This is the email I received from the Boston Athletic Association.

I have re-read this email one thousand times. Each time it feels like the cruelest joke. I missed qualifying for the 2016 Boston Marathon by ONE SECOND. 

Rules are rules, and the line had to be drawn somewhere. It just happens to have been drawn right in front of my toes. That one second has already been haunting me. I've replayed all possible scenarios over in my head.

What if I didn't walk through that water station? 
What if I hadn't stopped to stretch my calf? 
What if I didn't wave at Steph? 
What if I didn't check my watch that one time? 
What if I hadn't put my arms out as I crossed the finish line?


But dwelling on something I cannot change will do me no favors. After hearing my news, my ever-supportive friend Becca took me out on a cathartic, rainy run Wednesday afternoon. I left my phone at home and my watch wasn't working. At first we chatted, but then we picked up the pace and were breathing too heavily to speak. It was gray, and it was cool, and all the other runners must have been scared away by the rain, because it was peaceful. We ran silently, in rhythm. I let my legs take charge and remembered that the thing I love most about running is the feeling of total freedom it gives me. It is escape. There is a reason why I am grinning ear to ear in pretty much every race photo taken of me. The timing of my accident seems fortuitous, and serves as a reminder to never take life for granted. I am so grateful that I can choose to move my body and run every day.

When I signed up for the Vermont City Marathon last Spring, I told everyone, "This is a one time thing." Then it became, "This is a one time thing, unless I qualify for Boston." Well. It's funny. Running gets under your skin. The truth of the matter is, I loved the whole experience.

So, because I cannot exist without goals, I am currently looking for a good Spring marathon. Preferably in the Northeast. Definitely a Boston Qualifier.

And, at the suggestion of the wise sage, Steph, I've decided it's time to set a goal that's a little less selfish. I'm looking into Girls On The Run, helping out with a Couch to 5K program, and/or volunteering at some races. Know of something local that could use my help?

Make every second count.
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