Long story short – I started out too fast, wasn’t as prepared for the hills as I thought, and got my ass handed to me.
If you’d like the long version, stick around.
Originally I had planned to make the trip to State College solo and stay with my brother and sister-in-law, but earlier in the week Tall One decided to go with me so I didn’t have to worry about driving home after the race. Isn’t he a nice guy? So, Saturday we loaded up the car and made the trek over to State College. It rained the whole way there, and continued raining for most of the evening. Luckily the weather report promised that by Sunday morning it would be clear skies and sunny but freezing cold! We got to my brother’s late Saturday afternoon and my sister in law had everything a runner would need the day before a race: pasta, garlic bread, lots of water and CAKE! We spent the evening hanging out, watching college football, eating cake, and playing with their pet bunny.
Isn’t she the cutest? She’s about 3 pounds of fluff and sass and is awesome!
We went to bed a little later than we normally do, but the race also started a little later than most (10 AM) so it all balanced out. I slept pretty well and managed to sleep in until almost 7, which never happens. The cats are normally clamoring for breakfast right around 6 every morning so it was nice to sleep in peace ;-).
I got up, had my cinnamon raisin bagel with peanut butter and coffee and started to get ready. It was cold which really doesn’t bother me – I was prepared for that. What I wasn’t prepared for was the WIND, but more on that later. There was no Saturday packet pick up, so we had to leave a little earlier to get that taken care of. Pick up, and the start line was on campus at the Snyder Ag Arena, which meant absolutely nothing to me. Luckily, it meant something to my brother (a Penn State alum) and he was able to navigate and get us there without any problems! As soon as we got out of the car, I noticed just how bad the wind was – the arena is on top of a hill and it seemed like the wind was coming in every direction making the already cold temps feel worse. We got inside and I picked up my timing chip and shirt (no bibs for this race) without any trouble. I was really excited to see that the indoor facilities were available for use and I hopped in line to use a bathroom with flushing toilets and running water! It was amazingly wonderful to be able to stay inside until the start!
It was just about time to start heading outside. When we pulled into the parking lots, I was looking around for a start line and didn’t see one so I wasn’t sure where exactly to go. In the email we received from the race director the day before the instructions literally said “follow the crowds” so that’s what I did. The wind was really whipping at this point, so I said goodbye to Tall One and my brother and followed the crowds.
We all stood around waiting for the start, trying to stay warm. One good thing about being short is that all of the taller people around shielded me from the wind! Without any warning, the race started and we were off!
Miles 1-3: The first 3 miles does a bunch of loops around the back part of campus around the agricultural department, so it was a lot of cows, sheep, pigs, etc. and thanks to the rain on Saturday it was muddy trails and frozen mud puddles. This was by far the easiest part of the whole course. I made a BIG mistake along this stretch by going out way too fast. My breathing was hard, and my legs felt really heavy – had I looked at my watch I would have seen that I was running 9 min miles and I would have eased up. I really just thought my breathing was hard because it was damn cold. I always try to not look at my watch, because I normally run better that way but that didn’t work out so well this time.
Someday I’ll learn to find a balance. Right around mile 3 you start a nice downhill that takes you off of campus and onto the highway. The highway that is also open to traffic the entire time, where all of the runners are crowded onto the shoulder/bike lane, with their backs to oncoming traffic. Fun.
Miles 4-6: The race website mentions somewhere that there are 3 water stops along the course, but doesn’t say at what mile markers, just on what road they are on. That doesn’t mean much to someone who is from out of town, but luckily I found this blog that gave me a much better idea of where to expect the stops. I knew the first one would be coming up after mile 4, so right at the 4 mile mark I started to take my first gel. It takes me a while to get those down so I start early. Right around 4.5 was the water station and the road/shoulder was so uneven here that I decided to stop and drink rather than try to choke it down while running. The hills started here as well, and they were the gradual kind that you can see from a distance (but not when you are actually on them) and really do a number on your legs. Somehow I forgot about that part of the elevation map during my training. The shoulder of the road also started to disappear along this stretch and there were a lot of times I was running in loose gravel trying to keep my balance. I wasn’t 100% prepared for these climbs, and it was made even harder by the lack of space and the wind that just wasn’t letting up. At some point, we were also running next to the airport and the wind here was just brutal. You are on top of a hill and I felt like I was being pushed backwards. The shoulder is nonexistent in many of these places, so I tried to run on the road when I could. This was also difficult because I had to keep turning around to make sure there were no cars coming. Most of the traffic that came through was really nice about slowing down and moving over to give us some room but there were several that were flying along and staying as close to the shoulder as they could.
My time started to suffer here, and I remember thinking that the hardest part hadn’t even come yet. I tried all of my tricks to distract myself. Positive affirmations, focusing on my form, focusing on my breathing and nothing helped. I kept hoping for a small reprieve from the hills and wind so I could try to recover a bit and it just wasn’t happening. My legs were already feeling trashed at this point, so I knew I was in for a killer second half.
Miles 7-9: Right around mile 7 I took my first walk break. I tried to hold off for as long as I could before walking, and this little section was really lacking in space so I slowed to a walk. A few runners passed me at this point, and I tried to rationalize my walk break as being a courteous runner to let people by. At this point, anything to make me feel better. Mile 7.5 starts the loooooong downhill section of the course, and I was able to get my breathing and form back and cruise down the hill (my splits don’t really reflect this, but I felt like I was cruising). Normally, I would try to take this easy (I have a fear of tripping, falling on my face and losing all of my teeth) but I figured I needed to make up all of the time that I could so I just went with it. The downhill goes for about a mile and a half and after all of the hills before, this part feels like a dream. For a minute, I thought that maybe I could salvage things from here and use the downhill to help power me up the last half of the course. Hahahahah, wishful thinking.
At the very bottom of the hill is the next water stop at mile 8.5. Again, I had a rough I idea of where this would be so I took my gel earlier and planned to stop at the table for a drink. I was so surprised and happy to see Tall One and my brother waiting for me here! I said a quick hello, tried to look strong and took off again. Then the next round of hills started. These were the shorter, but REALLY steep kind and I finally threw in the towel and started to walk up them. My legs just felt dead. I would try to shuffle up the hill, walk a little and repeat.
Miles 10-13: At mile 10 the hill is so steep and long that you are better off power walking up it than running. Everyone around me was doing the same, so I didn’t feel as bad about it. There is no shoulder at all along this entire stretch so you are also watching for cars to make sure you don’t die. Right before mile 11, I saw Tall One, my brother and sister in law again! I tried really hard to start running again and look strong (I apparently failed miserably because later Tall One said I was looking “rough”, hahaha). I gave a big wave, and my brother told that the beer stop was just around the corner! Side note: Jain also mentioned that there was an unofficial beer stop put on by a local running club at mile 11. I was talking about it the night before, and was really hoping that it would be there again and it was! At this point, I knew that it would take a miracle to not Personal Worst so I stopped, grabbed a Dixie cup full of ice cold Yuengling and enjoyed the hell out of that. Beer has never tasted so good! I thanked the guys, told them they were the best and took off again. Right after this starts another little downhill and then a flat trail, so again I thought just maaaybe I could pick it up, power up the last hill and finish strong. Spoiler Alert: Didn’t happen.
The climb started just after 11.5 and I was trying to tell myself that I can do anything for a mile! Didn’t work. I saw my sister in law once more, about halfway up ringing the heck out of her cowbell and going crazy cheering for everyone! People loved her, and she was a total hit with the other runners! I couldn’t even attempt to look strong at this point but I gave her a big wave and told her she is awesome and carried on. I tried to keep going, but the long gradual hill was just too much for me. Right around mile 12 I picked up two ladies were run/walking their way up and said I was more than welcome to join them. I was SO grateful to see them, and I tried to hang on as best I could, but I had to let them go. I just couldn’t do it. I got the worst side stich I’ve ever had around 12.5…it felt like someone shot me right in the gut. In hindsight, it could have been the beer but it was so delicious that I didn’t care and would totally do it again! I got to the second to last turn, and tried to breathe deep and run but I couldn’t. I could hear my sister in law’s cowbell in the distance, so I kept shuffling along. Right at mile 13 I saw my family and Tall One gave me a high five and told me to finish strong. I was so tired, and over running that I nearly started to cry, but I just nodded and trudged on.
Mile 13.1: You make another turn back to the Ag arena where you started and mercifully the hills finally end. I rounded the last corner and crossed the finish line in 2:35:51 (An 11:53 pace) to more cowbell courtesy of my sister in law! A volunteer handed me a bottle of water (no medals at this race) and I the first thing I said to my family was “holy &*#$ was that hard – never doing THAT again!”. It was still super windy and freezing cold so we made a beeline for the cars to get home, and showered so we could get lunch! Pizza never tasted to good!
Overall, I’m OK with the result. I knew this was going to be difficult, I just didn’t realize how difficult. I decided the day before that a 2:25 seemed like a reasonable goal time; I know that a 2:35 finish is way off of that, but considering the wind and the amount of walking I did at the end, this wasn’t a terrible time. Am I disappointed? Absolutely. I didn’t manage my pace properly at the start, and while I try to not look at my watch, my heavy breathing so early on should have been an indicator to back off a bit. I also was really under prepared for the entire course. I was so prepared for the last climb at mile 12 that I ignored the ones in the earlier part of the race. To be honest, that last climb didn’t seem nearly as bad as the ones that came before. It’s always tough to put in weeks of time, and effort during training and then not be able to deliver on race day. One of my fears when I initially decided on this race was that I would finish last…that didn’t happen, but I was damn close. I came in 514th out of 533 runners.
This was a hard, hard, course. A few years ago, I would not have even attempted to run this race, so that fact that I even attempted it was a win in my book. I’m proud that I didn’t give up, even though I would have rather stayed at the beer table 😉