Funny how when you anticipate an event, the actual happening of that event unfolds in a surreal way.
I arrived in Ashland, Wisconsin at about 7 Friday night. Nina and Joe had to be at their respective sports practices until about 5. Vinny was working, so he stayed home. I had left work about noon, so I enjoyed some time at home, packing and preparing. And thinking "Wow. I'm really doing this!"
The drive takes about two hours. Once we arrived, and picked up our race packets, I for the half marathon and Nina for the 10K, we went directly to the Pasta Feed/Fish Boil. Because this race is in Wisconsin, there had to be a fish boil. Whitefish. Although it was not as good as the Labor Day weekend fish boil in Port Wing, Wisconsin. That one featured volunteers running around with pitchers of beer, it was an all you can drink event. Which was probably not appropriate for a pre race event.
I got my gear together and tried to get to bed at a reasonably early time. The forecast was for temperatures in the 30's around race start time, so I adjusted my race wear plan. I was going to run in a tank top and shorts, but I decided on my long underwear shirt, capris, and my very fashionable tank top over my long underwear shirt. I pinned my number, which had my timing chip attached, to the tank top. The number had a bright green "First Timer" sticker attached, so I would be readily identified as a novice!
The alarm rang at 5:30. I got up, made a pot of coffee, and started getting ready.I had a bowl of cereal for breakfast, something I rarely do. Russ drove me and Nina to the race starting area, about six blocks away. We boarded shuttle buses at about 6:50 AM. They were school buses, and my the driver of my bus was a jovial fellow. He seemed to enjoy his job. We arrived at the starting line, in Moquah, about 15 minutes later.
Moquah was probably a bit larger than it is now when the race corridor was a railroad. Now it is a township hall, a utility shed, and a couple of ball fields. When my bus arrived, the township hall was already filled with runners seeking warmth. They just opened up the utility shed when my bus arrived, and soon that was crowded with runners. I found a spot to sit down and sip the coffee I had brought in a mini thermos. I talked with a couple other female runners. I don't know why the shuttle buses arrived an hour before the 8:30 race start, but I guess it's better to arrive early.
Sooner or later, it was approaching start time. I consumed the one GU gel I had brought with me; the rest were to be found along the race course. I made my way to the trailer, where I stuffed my sweatshirt and coffee thermos in my labeled gear bag and placed it in the trailer that would take it to the finish area. The race start was very informal; I tried to figure out where would be the appropriate start for me. Not at the back, but maybe towards the back. I chose my place, and before I knew it, we were off and running.
The start of the race course headed west, away from Ashland, for a little over a mile along a county road that had very recently been re-paved, so very smooth. From there it took a connecting gravel road to the abandoned railroad corridor that would be our very straight course for the remainder of the race. A railroad corridor headed towards Lake Superior can only mean one thing: downhill or flat all the way. Which is a very good half marathon course for a first timer.
One thing I noticed in the first two miles was that my capris, which I had not worn on an actual run since I bought them in the summer, seemed to be slipping down on me. A lot. In the first mile I was pulling them up every minute. I thought that would be a problem. I thought that every runner behind me was probably thinking "First timer! Pants on the ground!" But somehow after two miles, the problem resolved itself. I figured the capris had either frozen to my butt, or had adhered themselves with sweat. Probably the latter.
I was running with my Map My Run app on my iPhone activated, mostly so I could keep track of my pace and not run too fast in the first few miles. When the friendly voice announced I had just completed my first mile, it was in approximately 11 minutes, 40 seconds. Perfect. I had told myself, in no way did I want to complete one of the first few miles in under 11 minutes.
The first couple miles were surreal, full of thoughts of "Oh my God, I'm actually doing this!" And they felt very good, physically. I was pacing myself, going the speed I knew would get me through this. Enjoying the tidbits of conversation overheard from other runners. My plan was to grab another GU gel at an aid station that was supposed to be about 3.5 miles from the start. Somehow I missed the GU if it was there, and I knew I didn't need water or anything until about 5 or 6 miles. And I could always make it up with Powerade. Wisdom from my 12 mile training runs.
The course, as I mentioned, was along an old railroad grade. It was unpaved, mostly firmly packed gravel, which is as good as or better than what I'm used to running on. And, going through deciduous woods with maple trees at their peak in fall color, it was very beautiful. This is probably one of the most rural half marathons out there, which suits me well. The quietness, and the fall colors, the joy of running, and going on a flat to downhill grade got me into a happy, meditative state for most of the run. I really didn't think about the first half of the race as it went by. It was just another run along a country trail for me. And it felt pretty good.
I didn't stop to walk much. At the first aid station after mile 5 I had some water, but didn't feel like stopping too long for it, and at another aid station I actually used one of the portable restrooms (damn coffee). Finally, when an aid station came along near mile 9, I was ready for some Powerade. And they had GU. I could not believe I was crossing under US Highway 2 already. That seems so close to Ashland, well, driving anyway.
Then, at about mile 9.2, there was an unofficial aid station. With a keg. Hell yeah, I stopped for that one! It was quality beer too. It lifted my spirits, and my pace for the next half mile. Ah, Wisconsin.
My only problems came at about mile 11. Not exhaustion, far from it, but both of my calves decided to cramp up at the same time. I was totally clueless about how to deal with muscle cramps during a race. I massaged them a bit, did some gentle stretches, started to run, then did some more. Somehow the cramps went away, no damage done.
Soon after that, I entered familiar territory. When the rail corridor crosses the road at the western edge of Ashland, it turns into a paved trail, and I had run to that part of the trail once or twice on a Sunday morning in Ashland. Smooth sailing. But somehow my energy was waning, and I was succumbing to walking every so often. Okay, I told myself, I'm going to finish this, no worry about time. But looking, back, if I had not walked when I wanted to, I could have saved a minute or two. Oh well. First time issues to work out next time.
When I crossed into the city park that led to the finish line, however, I got a burst of energy. I was in VERY familiar territory at that point, and I was so close, and this was what I had been training for all summer, and finally I was going to see the finish line, and WOW! So I got faster with every turn, for at this point in the course there were turns. I could see the finish tent. I smiled. I was HAPPY! When I rounded the final turn, I was ecstatic. I heard my name being announced. I raised my arms in victory. And I crossed the finish line. 2:38:23.
Respectable. I still have it at 47. And I'm going to do this again. This one for sure. And Brookings, South Dakota in May. Duluth, MN in June. This is the beginning.