On May 4th, the stars aligned, mother nature was kind, and the running gods smiled on the Great Western Half Marathon in St. Charles. Beyond this hyperbole, it really was as a great day for a race. The temperature was around 52°, partially cloudy, with very little wind. I also felt pretty prepared for the 13.1 miles, which probably added to my enjoyment of the day.
This was my third time running this half marathon which takes place on the Great Western Trail, which is an old railroad track converted to a trail. According to the race organizers, the Fox River Trail Runners, 67% of the course is on crushed limestone, with the remaining 33% on asphalt. Oh, and it’s mostly flat – other than a few slight inclines and declines up and over pedestrian bridges – and a cruel hill in the last mile, more on that later.
The one (perhaps only one) downside to this race is the lack of parking near the starting line. It starts and ends in a small forest preserve, Leroy Oaks County Forest Preserve in St. Charles, which simply isn’t able to accommodate parking for 1200 runners. So all parking is at the local high school a few miles away, with school buses shuttling runners between to and from the race start. I used the shuttle bus the first year I ran, but was fortunate enough to have my wife drop me off near the start the last two years – definitely saves some time before and after the race.
My Race – This was easily my best half marathon, both in terms of time and just how I felt overall. The great weather certainly played a role in that, but I had also trained better for this race than any previous half marathon. I’ve run 8 previous half marathons, but they were all pretty much at the start of the season or the start of a training cycle for a full marathon where I only had a handful or training runs under my belt. So my “official” PR for the half was around 2:18, although I’ve run quicker 13.1’s as part of a full marathon (2:01 being the fastest). Just to fully lay out the excuses(!), at last year’s Great Western Half, I went into it running only 4 times prior that year (2.5, 3.5, 6.5, and 4 mile runs), which resulted in a very slow run of 2:25. Not smart.
Since I’ve been running every day this year, my goal going into this race was to get below 2 hours. A few years ago, I really never thought that was possible for me, but I’ve definitely gotten quicker this year and knew it was an achievable goal if the conditions were right. I planned on starting with 8:30 miles, with the goal of keeping everything under 9 minutes per mile for as long as I could (knowing I would also have a little wiggle room if I slowed a bit in the last couple of miles).
Since most of the race was on a relatively narrow path, it’s a staggered start to send runners off in groups of maybe 100 or so at a time. This works fairly well, but still took a mile or two to get around people running a similar pace. After a bit of running around slower groups, and getting passed by a few faster runners, everything seemed to settle down a bit and spread out ok by mile 2. Because of the positioning battle in mile 1, I probably went out a little too fast due to running around slower groups, but not too terrible (8:18). I settled into a nice 8:30 pace for the next 3 miles.
It’s an out and back course, and I really felt pretty strong and comfortable through the first ten miles. By that point, I knew I had more than enough time in the bank to reach my goal of under 2 hours, but wanted to keep pushing over the last 5k to keep everything under 9 minutes per mile. The last mile was definitely the toughest, as there was a brutal hill that seemed to never end (in reality, I’m sure this thing was not that bad at all, it just felt like it on tired legs). I definitely slowed, but was able to push a bit on the flat sections to maintain my new goal pace.
My chip time came in at 1:53:15!!! I was beyond excited with that time and new PR, and the feeling of not falling completely apart in the last couple miles was a nice departure from prior half marathon races.
Overall – a really great race, otherwise I wouldn’t keep coming back to it. It’s very reasonably priced for a half marathon in Chicagoland (somewhere around $45 or $50 depending on if you’re FRTR member). And nothing beats getting a new PR, and one that really exceeded my expectations going into the race!