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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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's first words after she crossed the finish line were, "Well, glad that's over!"
So what's next?