Yesterday, I had the opportunity to run my fourth and definitely most enjoyable half marathon. A group of us went down the night before so we wouldn’t have to do the 2+ hour drive the morning of the race. All together it was Sarah and myself, running friends Shannon and Eddah with her son Morcelli. We all stayed in Northfield, MN the night before where we were able to enjoy the town for a few hours and carbo-load.
The race started at St. John’s United Church of Christ in Fairibault, MN and most of the course was through Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park. Weather was perfect for racing— sunny and clear with temps at the start in the upper 40s, warming to around 60 by the finish. Besides the 1.3 miles between the church and the park and another short stretch of pavement, the rest was on trails in the park. In total there were maybe 3 miles of pavement, the trails featured packed dirt, gravel, and a thick carpet of leaves. Going in, since I hadn’t run a trail half marathon before, I decided my goal would be between 1:45 and 1:50. Settling on a goal time was hard since my half PR on a mostly flat road course was set back in May at 1:40:11. I know I’m more fit than I was then, but still, shooting for a PR on a challenging trail course was probably unreasonable. Not knowing the trails, I figured 1:45 was decent goal.
After warming up and milling around for awhile, we were finally ready to RUN! For me the most excruciating times are those final 10 or 15 minutes right before race start. I remarked to Sarah somewhere in that time, “Oy, I don’t know how I’m feeling.” I was a tightly wound mix of nerves and potential energy. Anymore waiting and I may have lost my mind…or my breakfast! Sarah gave me some good, long hugs which helped me settle down. She knows just what I need and her tender hugs are yet another reason why she is the ultimate race support person. Unfortunately for her, this was not a good race to watch as she saw us at the start and finish, but was not able to see us otherwise. Most of the race was within the park and inaccessible by vehicle.
The mass start mixed half marathoners in with 10K runners and there was no breakdown according to pace groups. I did my best to get in close enough to the front so I wouldn’t be held up by walkers and joggers. Once starting out we took off on the gravel road and then headed left onto pavement. From there it was only a little over a mile before reaching the trails. Shannon started somewhere ahead of me and I caught her just as we went into the trail. I almost let out a crazed shout of, “WE’RE IN IT NOW, SHANNON!” I held back as the crowd was still somewhat thick and I didn’t want to startle anyone.
The first 1.3 miles, being slightly downhill for much of it and on pavement, were easy to cruise through at a good clip. Plus, I had some adrenaline to burn off. Still, I felt it was a comfortable start and I didn’t get caught up in anything wild early on. After turning into the trails I had no problem keeping myself a bit below goal pace and decided to go with it for awhile, figuring I better roll along while the terrain was manageable. Splits for miles 1-3 were: 7:45, 7:42, and 7:46.
Early on in the woods the trail featured gentle rolling hills, soft curves and a packed dirt surface. I thought to myself that if the trails kept like this most of the way then my goal should be achievable and a PR (1:40:11) is not even out of the question. Keeping aware that I was not familiar with the park, I thought I’d continue to run hard, but be sure to keep it out of the red as I knew there could be some more challenging sections ahead. My heart rate was settling between about 168 and 172 and my legs felt light and fast. Splits for miles 4 and 5 were 7:54 and 7:57. I was feeling I had found my groove and wasn’t struggling to keep my pace at or below the goal pace of 8:00 mpm.
Even during the mostly smooth running of those early trail miles, I was aware the thick carpet of leaves on the trail could become an issue later on. Fortunately, everything was dry so there wasn’t much slippage, but the leaves were covering lots of divots and roots along the way. It wasn’t a problem while I was still mentally sharp and running strong, but I knew the hidden obstacles might try to pull me down when fatigued. Even in the first few miles there was one slight ankle roll as I stepped awkwardly into a divot and the left ankle buckled to the outside. Fortunately, I have rather flexible ankles and all I got from that first near mishap was a mild twinge of pain and a wake-up call.
Around mile 6 we came to our first real hilly section. There was an intense downhill featuring several log water bars that needed to be carefully hopped over. Even those were partially covered by leaves and not always easy to pick out. After flying downhill the trail leveled out, wound around and began to climb. Looking ahead and up, up, up, I decided it was a good time to walk and refuel. I had my first couple Shot Bloks and walked for about a hundred yards up the first part of the hill. As I sipped water from my handheld to wash it all down, I gladly allowed several runners to burn by me up the hill. My heart rate gradually eased down and I got through the steepest part of the climb. Then I began to run again feeling refreshed and ready for more. Splits for miles 6 and 7 were 8:42 and 8:48.
Somewhere in the middle of the race I had 3 more near ankle rolls within about 12 steps. A narrow trench was hidden by leaf cover and after the third misstep I finally smartened up and jumped to the other side of the trail. Amazing I didn’t go down in this section or hurt myself. This was the case all day as I was able to run an aggressive pace and get away with close calls. There were at least two other times where the bottom of my shoes’ lugs glanced across the tops of tree roots, but I didn’t catch enough tread to take a dive.
Miles 8 and 9 provided some easier terrain and no major hills, so I was able to bring my pace back down and start thinking about what it would take to meet my goal. I was beginning to crunch numbers and thought maybe a PR was in reach, but once again, I did not quite know what was waiting ahead on the remaining trail. I told myself I’d continue to run hard, but somewhat cautiously until 5K was left and then I could bust rump if I had anything left in the tank. Splits for 8 and 9 were 8:11 and 8:00.
Between miles 9 and 10 we encountered another deep valley. Leading in was a huge descent and then, like before, a few curves along the bottom before a steep ascent up the other side. Again, I took this as an opportunity to refuel and ate a couple more Shot Bloks. Walking and sipping water for a bit I let some runners pass before feeling confident the steeper parts were behind me and I could resume running strong without killing myself through the rest of the climb. I felt like I timed it right and reached the apex without letting my heart rate get too terribly high. My split for this mile was 9:19— slowest mile of the day, but the climb was steep and I was starting to tire.
The final three miles featured more rolling hills and soft curves before exiting the trails. Back on pavement I had less than 1.5 miles to go and knew 1:45 was within reach. After rounding the corner onto the last long stretch of pavement I got passed by a guy who had been nipping at my heels for a few miles. He gave me a “Great race!” and I responded with “You too, we’re almost there!” He said, “I like the trails a lot more than this.” I ended our chit-chat with “Me too, this stuff hurts after all that trail!” Then he ran on and I told myself to hang with him in an attempt to finish in a flurry. Our last mile vacillated between 6:50 and 7:30 as we tore up the road. I was able to pass him with about a quarter mile to go. Splits for the last 3 miles were 8:00, 8:21 and 7:18. Looking back at my Garmin I saw my heart rate reached 184 in that last mile, so I was definitely pushing.
Official Time: 1:45:01
Avg. Pace: 8:00 mpm
Overall Placing: 66 out of 375
Division Placing: 14 out of 49
Placement Among Males: 60 out of 207