Saturday, May 10th, 2014 was the inaugural Starved Rock Country Marathon, which I had signed up for back in the doldrums of winter. The first year event offered a full marathon, half marathon, and 4-mile race (the full had about 200 runners, closer to 1,000 in the half). I opted for the full because the course looked the most scenic and interesting, having a few miles that wound through Starved Rock State Park.
In the days leading up to the race, I was a little nervous about the many hills that also accompany that scenery, and knew that the course would definitely be challenging. This was also my first spring marathon, with my previous 13 marathons all having taken place in the fall, so I was also initially concerned about the number of long runs I would have a chance to get in in the cold weather. But I figured the shorter daily runs would at least count for something, even if I didn’t have many long ones.
The race starts at Washington Square Park in Ottawa, Illinois, which is a quintessential American small town. The town square near the starting line includes a large statue of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas commemorating the Great Debate of 1848 which took place in Ottawa. The race finishes three miles east at Heritage Harbor in Ottawa, so race organizers recommended parking at Heritage Harbor (they had shuttle buses running from the parking area to the start line before the race). Since we stayed the night in the area rather than driving down the morning of, my wife and girls were once again kind enough to drop me off at the start line, so I didn’t need to bother with the shuttle (although it appeared that the shuttles were running smoothly and fairly frequently).
My race – The full marathon kicked off at 7:00 am, with the half starting about 15 minutes afterwards. Since there were only 200 or so runners in the full, I lined up a few rows from the start. I was tempted to head to the front row and sprint the first 100 yards so that I could tell my future grand-kids about the time I was leading the Starved Rock Marathon….but I thought better of it. Although, I must not have been the only one with that thought because a fellow runner turned to me in the first quarter-mile and said, “all right, is this were we make our move to the front?” It’s common knowledge that the marathon is won or lost in the first mile…so I guess that’s where I lost my chance.
The first mile headed out of the downtown area, and across a bridge over the Illinois River. The course then takes a right turn and heads west for the next 12 miles on Route 71 along the river. Route 71 is a two-lane road, so runners occupied the right lane (although the opposite lane was not open to thru-traffic on this portion). With only 200 runners, there was ample space for everyone and things started to spread out a bit as runners settled into their own paces. The first five or six mile provided a few nice glimpses of the river. I felt very comfortable with my pace (around 8:50), and couldn’t have asked for better weather at that point – in the 50s with no wind.
The road enters the Starved Rock State Park area around mile 6.5, and the scenery picks up a bit as well. Around mile 7, the big hill that I was dreading appeared before me. There was no questioning, “is this the hill that everyone has been talking about?” I knew as soon as I saw it that yes indeed, “this is the hill.” Dimmick Hill looked intimidating, but I also knew the steep elevation only lasted about a quarter-mile, and then I could stop worrying about it.
Dimmick Hill gains 150 feet in a quarter mile, putting its gradient at 11.4%. Just for comparison, the famous Heartbreak Hill in the Boston Marathon has a grade of 3.3% (91 feet gain over half a mile). The average grade of Alp D’Huez in the Tour de France is 8% (and no, I’m not suggesting Dimmick Hill is more difficult than Alp D’Huez, that 8% is over 8 miles with many sections in the 12-14% range!). The fact that Dimmick Hill comes at mile 7 is both a blessing and a curse. Part of what supposedly makes Heartbreak Hill in Boston so spirit-crunching is that it occurs at mile 20, right around the time that many marathon runners hit a wall anyways, with or without a hill thrown in for good measure. So it was “nice” to face the large hill early enough where my legs were still fresh, but the flip side of that is that I didn’t know if the extra exertion would come back to haunt me in the later miles. Overall, I didn’t lose much time on the Dimmick mile, clocking times of 9:04 (mile 7), 9:15 (Dimmick mile 8), and 8:51 (mile 9).
After the Dimmick Hill, the course goes through a few gentler hills with a few twists and turns in the road. I really enjoyed this section because the turns and hills made things more interesting, rather than just running in a straight line. The course turns north into an entrance to the park around mile 10, which provided for another very scenic area. There was also a nice long descent in this section, which lost most of the elevation gained on Dimmick Hill. I recorded my fastest mile of the day on this section (not overly fast by any means, 8:31, but felt good to just let the legs go a bit on the downhill).
There’s a final climb exiting the Starved Rock area, and then back over a bridge to get to the north side of the Illinois River. After making a right turn to head east back toward Ottawa (this time on the other side of the river), the course hits the half-way mark. I clocked in around 1:57 for the first half, which I was content with considering the hills involved (and only the second time I’ve ever run sub-2 for 13.1 miles, the first being the prior week).
The stretch between 13 and 20 is a bit of a blur for me. This was a fairly desolate stretch. It felt like one very long road through nothing but farmland, and not helped by the fact that it was starting to get much warmer (full sun, and no shade to speak of). It was at this point that I did my usual questioning of my sanity. With my “long run” of the year having been last week’s Great Western Half Marathon, I was probably conditioned for only about 17 or 18 miles, and sure enough, that’s about when the wheels fell off. I figured the last 8 miles or so would just be a battle to finish, which I was ok with (well, I didn’t really have much of a choice!).
I approached the booming metropolis of Naplate around mile 20 and welcomed the return to civilization (everything is relative, Naplate has a population of 496, but it felt like a different world from the previous 8 farm miles). The course wound its way through residential streets and back towards downtown Ottawa. The occasional tree provided a welcome second or two from the now beaming sun, as temps were approaching 70 degrees (but felt much warmer, as things tend to do after you’ve been running for 3+ hours). There was a brief section on the Ottawa Riverwalk pedestrian path before winding over to Canal Road for the final 2.2 miles.
By this point, I had long given up hope for a PR (4:34), but was surprised to see that I still had a chance at beating my second fastest time (4:39:39 – from my first marathon in 1998!) if I picked up my pace a bit. I wasn’t sure if that was possible, but I managed to shuffle a little faster for the last 1.2, and crossed the finish line at Heritage Harbor in 4:38:37. This put me right around the middle of the pack, 118 out of 215 finishers. I felt exhausted, and definitely glad to have finished. I don’t know if it was the first half hills that came back to bite me in the end, or just the lack of long runs going into the race (more likely, some combination of both), but it proved to be a very tough race for me. But all things considered, I was content with my time and glad that I had a chance to participate in the inaugural edition of this marathon.
Overall – this really was the tale of two halves for me. I felt great the first half, and really enjoyed the scenery, curves and hills. I really didn’t enjoy much of the second half, probably mostly because I wasn’t properly trained for that part, but with the monotonous long stretch of corn fields between 13 and 19 not helping my cause!
The Swag – at the expo, a black ‘string bag’, and also an orange short sleeve shirt. To be honest, I wasn’t thrilled with the front of the shirt – “Move Out of the Way” seems a bit overly aggressive for a small town marathon, eh? – and might have made more sense to have that on the back and the marathon logo on the front instead of the back, but oh well. A pleasant surprise was the red Finisher tech shirt that they gave out at the finish line – a very nice touch! The medal was nice as well, with a cool cliff representing ‘Starved Rock’.
Final thoughts – As I mentioned at the start, this was the inaugural Starved Rock Country Marathon, and I came away very impressed with the overall organization and thought the race organizers really did an excellent job with all the details. I was a little apprehensive signing up for a first-time event because I had just read Outside Magazine’s scathing article on Dean Reinke, a race director dubbed “the shadiest man in the racing biz.” Dean had nothing to do with this race, but the fact that the race was new and I didn’t know anything about the race director made be nervous, especially with it being a full marathon. As it turned out, race director Matt Skelly did an amazing job for a first-time event, and I would recommend his races. Just a few specific pros and cons to anyone thinking of running this race in the future, along with suggestions for future races:
- Very well organized, everything ran very smoothly on race day and the communication leading up to the race was excellent. They even hosted conference calls where runners could ask questions (and posted transcripts of the calls afterwards). The runner and spectator guidebook given at the expo was outstanding (turn by turn directions for spectators).
- Great small town vibe in Ottawa and the surrounding communities – the spectators, while few, were very enthusiastic
- Volunteers – all volunteers were amazing – the race couldn’t happen without them and they are beyond appreciated
- Many water stations – they didn’t skimp at all on the stations, were plenty. Some were only manned by a handful of people, but that’s all that was needed for a race with 215 runners. Water and energy drink at all, Gu at the mid-point.
- Finisher shirt – nice touch!
- Scenic first half of the course, particularly the miles in Starved Rock State Park
- Fun post-race party with DJ and live band
- Requiring packet pick-up the Friday before the Saturday race. It would be nice to have other options in the future (mail packet for additional fee, offer a Chicagoland area packet pick-up, pick-up the weekend prior in Ottawa, and/or race morning pick-up). With so many runners coming from the Chicago area, I think this was the most glaring issue, so I hope they address it for next year.
- The second half (particularly miles 13-19) is a bit boring, pretty much a straight shot through farms. Lack of shade made this a grind in the sun on the black asphalt.
- Spectator viewing and travel – it was difficult for my family to travel around to see me at a variety of places. This may not be ‘fixable’ given there’s not many roads in the area, so it’s tough to re-route spectators to roads that are not closed for the race.
- The Gatorade mix (or whatever energy drink it was) was a bit off, or at least inconsistent at the various aid stations – never quite knew what I would be getting as I approached the drink stations! Water was also a bit warm towards the end since it had been sitting out for a while, but more the weather’s fault than anything else.
Pros or Cons – depending on your outlook!
- It’s a challenging course. The first half of the race was hilly, but nothing too terrible (other than the short mile 7 hill). Definitely not insurmountable if I can do it, but just be prepared. Like I said above, the hills at least make it interesting, but you might pay for them later!
- You’ll be running alone a lot! This is not a big city marathon, so do not expect throngs of spectators, or even other runners around you. Other than the aid stations, I could probably count the number of spectators on one hand for the first six miles (outside of the downtown Ottawa area). There are areas that are more populated with spectators, but just keep in mind this is not the Chicago Marathon. If you enjoy the solitude, you’ll love it. If you need the energy from a large crowd, this would not be the race for you.
Thank you Starved Rock Country Marathon for putting on a great race!