Wednesday, September 17, 2014

VHTRC Women's Half Marathon Race Report


Hi Runner Friends! I hope you are enjoying this beautiful early autumn weather as much as I am :)

This past Saturday I ran my first race of the fall running season-- the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club (VHTRC) Women's Half Marathon. It's a small race, at approximately 200 runners, and is designed to encourage women to run trails. 

Course Map

When I signed up for this race I already had my training plan made for the Wineglass Half Marathon and the Philadelphia Marathon, but I thought: "Oh, no big deal, it's just a half. I'm comfortable doing 15 miles at St. Mary's Lake, this can't be that different." The weekend before the race I ran 16 miles at the lake and passed through the 13-mile mark at roughly 2 hr 43 min. I felt prepared for the upcoming VHTRC Women's Half

A few days before the race, Nick pulls up the elevation profile for the race, and proceeds to say, "Wow, you've got some hills to run." I'm not going to lie-- this freaked me out a bit. I hadn't been worried about the distance or the hills, but after he said that I started reading race reports from previous runners. The one blog I found, ultrarunnergirl, the woman had run this race 10 times before. She had some great advice.

Altitude profile of the Women's Half Marathon. The locations of the aid stations are shown in blue.
Elevation Profile

The morning of the race was on the cooler side with rain light predicted for the morning. I was happy about the temperature, and not worried about the rain because of the tree cover. We arrived at Fountainhead Regional Park a little after 7:00 am. The race was scheduled to start promptly 8:30 am. I got checked in and was really excited to get to choose between a red or light blue race shirt. I chose blue :) and was very pleased with how it fit. Nick, Sarge and I walked around for awhile and made some new friends. Sargey was very happy to be around all the runners and was very well behaved around the other dogs. She even met a new puppy friend who looked so much like her! I had a good conversation with the women parked next to us. They had all run this race before, and it was nice to hear about their experience. 

Eating some pre-race blueberries.

 

Sarge thinks she's running the race.

At 8:20 am the race director called all the runners over to the start area to go over some final directions and to show everyone what the trail markers looked like. After she was finished, the men from the VHTRC serenaded the runners with a rendition of Happy Trails

That pink and black ribbon is the trail marker.

Start of the race!

At exactly 8:30 am, the runners were off! The first mile or so of the race is on paved ground. It winds through the parking lot then down Park Driveway before entering the Blue Trail and heading towards the infamous "Do Loop". If you're wondering where the Do Loop gets it's name-- when the race began in the early 90's the trail was not as well marked, so many runners would get lost and stuck running the loop again. And yes, a computer nerd did give the loop it's name :)





I ran, probably, one of my fastest miles in a race for that first mile at 8:57 min/mi. You may be asking yourself why I would intentionally start out a race so fast. During my pre-race research I found that many runners recommended sprinting the first mile because once you get on the trail it's difficult to pass, and some runners may not be used to running a technical single-track trail. Sprinting the first mile enables runners to get in a better position for the trail. 

Many of you already know this about me, but I am a huge proponent of the "run/walk". I went into this race with the plan to run 8:30 min and walk 1:30 min. I did this in a lot of my training runs at St. Mary's Lake and was happy with the results. Knowing that I was going to sprint the first mile, I knew that my run/walk plan wouldn't start right away. I didn't want to get on the trail and start walking right away. Luckily, once you entered the Blue Trail, you were blessed with a downhill. This helped me keep my heart rate and breathing under control until I decided to do my first walk break. To be honest, at this point, I don't remember exactly when I first walked. I think I waited until the first hill to start. 

Once I started the run/walk cycle, I was able to stick to my plan for roughly the next two miles. I remember coming into the Do Loop aid station, seeing a sign that said "Enter Do Loop" in some text that looked like a computer program, and being real happy that the next mile was downhill. I didn't follow my planned run/walk because I wanted to take advantage of the downhill. Ever since running the Blue Ridge Half Marathon and the downhills at Yosemite National Park I've been feeling pretty confident in my downhill running ability. After that glorious downhill, the next 2.5 miles were pretty miserable. I knew there were going to be hills, but I was not prepared for the steepness of the Do Loop hills. They are not to be underestimated. 

I don't remember much at all from this point of the race. I just remember wanting out of the Do Loop. For most of the loop I was running with four other women. We were all about the same pace when we were running. Then we would encounter one of the Do Loop hills and start walking. I was so thankful when I finally saw the sign that said "Exit Do Loop". 

After exiting the Do Loop, you still had 2.4 more miles to go before finishing the first section of the trail. I remember at one point hearing Sarge barking and thought I was getting close, but it still seemed like another mile until I came out of the woods. Those 2.4 miles were all up hill. I walked so much. My legs and my mind felt so tired. It was difficult to think. All I wanted was to get off this part of the trail. Eventually I came to a straightaway and saw a photographer. This meant two things 1) I had to smile and look good for the camera and 2) I was exiting the woods!

Nick trying to take a selfie with Sarge.

I saw Nick and Sarge right away. Nick was cheering me on and Sarge was barking me on. I briefly said, "This is way harder than I expected" before entering the Bull Run Trail on the other side of the road. A volunteer said there was only 0.5 miles to the next aid station. I definitely was ready for some water. My water pack had a gatorade water mix and at this point I was really thirsty for plain water. This part of the course paralleled the road. Nick and Sarge sort of ran next to me for part of the trail and continued to cheer me on. 

Done with the Do Loop!

Finally I popped back out of the woods into the Fountainhead Aid Station which was pretty much in the parking lot. My head was sort of fuzzy and I wasn't really thinking straight. One volunteer handed me some water and another ask if I liked spiders. Again, my head was sort of fuzzy so I had no idea what he was talking about, but he handed me this puppet spider thing and said to carry it to the finish. Not thinking, I just nodded my head and took it. At this point I really needed to eat. I should have started eating sooner, but every time I walked was up steep hills and it was hard to breath let alone eat something. I finally pulled out my little bag of blueberries. You may think it's odd that I was eating blueberries, but I'm a a firm believer in eating real food when you run-- not processed sugar junk that will spike your blood sugar. A women who was leaving the aid station at the same time was really excited about my blueberries so I shared them with her. It was super random, but I was happy to do it. 







Really needing my food.

After the aid station, I headed right back onto the trail. At about 0.25 mile in there was this weird little rundown cemetery. If it would have been closer to Halloween, this could have been creepy. The next 0.5 miles were downhill. Unfortunately, it was a steep downhill, and to avoid erosion of the trail there were "steps". It was really difficult to get any sort of rhythm going. At this point in the race the lead runner passed me heading back to the finish. She was moving fast. The next mile of the trail was back up hill. Again, really steep, with a portion of the trail containing steps. Eventually I made it to the top to enjoy a nice long downhill. It's a weird feeling-- you want to be excited about the chance to run down hill, but in the back of your head, you know that you're going to have to go back up that when you turn around. 

I'm carrying that silly spider.

The next 0.25 miles were steep uphill again. I think I walked a lot here. But right at the top of the hill you enter the Wolf Run Shoals aid station. They have margaritas waiting for runners who want them. I didn't take one, but it was a neat little surprise. After passing through the aid station, you have about 0.5 miles to go until the turnaround. 

I don't remember much of my last 2.5 miles of the race. The hills were killing me. I walked a lot. According to my GPS watch, I had a 15 min mile at one point. I didn't even care though at the time. Coming back through the aid station at Wolf Run Shoals, I looked at my watch and thought to myself that I could walk the remaining 2 miles and still finish in under 3 hours. It was a bad attitude to have, but I was struggling. At one point there were two women near me. The one was struggling like I was and her friend was encouraging her on. She encouraged me to run with them, and I did for a little while. I really needed that pick-me-up. 

I finally got back to the creepy cemetery, knew I was close to the finish, and was able to pick up the speed. The finish line ended on a downhill, and as I rounded the corner coming out of the woods I saw the finish line clock showing 2:44 and some seconds. I picked up the pace and crossed the finish line in 2:44:41!

The final stretch.

Done!

I had that post-race deliriousness. A volunteer handed me water. Another volunteer finally took that silly spider away from me and in return gave me a small box of truffles (kind of cool). The post-race food was ok-- nothing compared to the Wineglass Half Marathon, but they were making smoothies and there were cookies. 

I was totally exhausted at this point. I was supposed to run 18 miles for marathon training. We were going to do 5 more miles after the race, but I just couldn't run anymore. Instead I finished the 5 miles on the elliptical at the drill hall once we were back home. Even today, 4 days later, my legs still don't feel fully recovered. 

After all that rambling, you're probably waiting for the bottom line: was it a good race? I'd answer yes to that. The atmosphere, hospitality, volunteers, price were all great. 

Would I return next year? That's a major TBD. We'll see how ambitious I'm feeling next summer. But if I come back, you can bet that I will not underestimate the Do Loop. 

So tell me-- what races do you have planned for the fall running season? Do you prefer the trail or road? I'm always looking for new races and would love to hear what fun runs you have going on! :)