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Starved Rock Country Marathon – Race Recap

Marathon Start (picture via mywebtimes.com)

Marathon Start (picture via mywebtimes.com)

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.

Honest Abe and Stephen Douglas Statue in Washington Square, Ottawa IL

Honest Abe and Stephen Douglas Statue in Washington Square, Ottawa IL

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).

Start Line at Starved Rock Country Marathon

Start Line at Starved Rock Country Marathon

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.

Start Area of Starved Rock Marathon

Start Area of Starved Rock Marathon

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.

Starved Rock Marathon Map 2014The 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).

Photo credit: Dan Mulka via Starved Rock Marathon Facebook page

Photo credit: Dan Mulka via Starved Rock Marathon Facebook page

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!).

Starved Rock Marathon Mile 21I 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.

Starved Rock Marathon Finish LineStarved Rock Marathon FinishBy 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!

imageThe 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:

Pros:

  • 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

Cons:

  • 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!

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Great Western Half Marathon – Race Recap

Great Western Half Marathon 2014 ShirtOn 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 amazing cheering section!

My amazing cheering section!

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 GreatWesterTrail2014-Splitsrunners 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.

The Swag – a nice ‘technical’ t-shirt, and great medal (huge improvement over the dinky medal from the first time I ran in 2011).Great Western Half Marathon Medal

 

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!

 

 

Run For the Turtles 5k – Race Recap

Sarasota Running

imageI was originally signed up to run a local 5k on Saturday, April 5th, but ended up having to go out of town for work that weekend.  While I was disappointed in having to miss the 5k, the sun and 80 degree temps of Sarasota, FL was sure to help ease my pain.  I knew that I’d have Saturday morning free, so I took a look to see if there were any local races.  Sure enough, the Mote Marine Laboratory was hosting their 28th annual Run for the Turtles.  Since I usually run about as slow as a turtle, I knew this would be a good race for me.  Plus, based on pictures from the prior year, it looked like the start line was actually on the beach…so how bad could it be?

Run for Turtles Race VillageThe race took place on Siesta Key Public Beach in Sarasota, which many signs on the island will proudly tell you is the #1 Beach in America (they’ve apparently won a few different awards – and I wouldn’t argue with any of them, the sand and beach are pretty spectacular).  I got there around 6:45 am to register, which beat the time the sun got up that day, so it was a little dark filling out the registration form.  They had a 1-mile fun run that started at 7:30, with the 5k going off at 8 am.  Unlike my 5k the prior week, I didn’t need to sit in my car to stay warm.  I was able to walk along the beach for a bit and watch the sunrise – not a bad way at all to kill time.  I also learned that it was not just the start and finish line that was on the beach, but the entire race.  Basically just an out and back course right along the water, something you just don’t get to experience in Chicago!

imageMy race – Did I mention the whole course was on the beach?  Oh I did…well that’s about all you need to know about this race.  It was beautiful and stunning.  I was initially concerned that the sand would slow me down, but I really don’t think it had much impact.  There was a 5-foot area right by the water was fairly packed down, so it wasn’t like I was running on soft sand for 3 miles.

I did the first mile in 7:15 and felt pretty comfortable…after all, I just kept reminding myself I was running on the beach, I’m not allowed to feel anything negative.  Then a funny thing happened after the half-way turn, I started to get tired!  Not to make excuses, but I do think the heat and humidity were starting to get to me since I wasn’t accustomed to it (no, I’m not complaining about the 70 degree weather, and really don’t think my body would have preferred the sub-zero temps it had become used to).  Anyhow, I slowed to 7:46 in mile 2.  I even got a cramp in my side around the 2.25 mark, and finished mile 3 in 8:07.  I didn’t have as strong of a kick at the end as I did in my 5k the week prior, but that’s ok – because all that really mattered was that the entire race was on the beach!image

I finished in 23:46, which put me 7th out of 23 in my age group, and 82nd out of 588 overall.  1 to 3 in each age group got medals, and 4 to 6 got ribbons, so I missed an award by one spot – but isn’t running a race on the beach reward enough?  I think so (although I did think this was a pretty fast group of runners, apparently it’s one of the circuit races for the local Manasota Track Club).

The Swag – Besides getting to run on the beach (sorry, just had to mention that one last time), I received a white tech shirt with the Mote Turtle Run logo on the front.

RunForTurtles5kMapOverall, this was a great experience, especially coming from the harsh Chicago winter to be able to finally run a warm weather race.  I was pleased with my overall time, even if it was slower than last week.  And I felt like a learned a little bit about race preparation for shorter distances (I didn’t have much to eat or drink beforehand, which likely contributed to my slowing; and didn’t warm up much – two things I would have changed about my race prep that morning).

I also got to hear something by the pre-race announcer that I probably won’t hear at a Chicago race anytime soon.  He announced beforehand that “about 3/4 of a mile down the beach there’s a large tortoise near the water, which appears to be nesting, so be sure to give it a wide berth as to not disturb it.”  Wow, I thought, that’s an obstacle I won’t encounter in too many 5k races.  Just before the start, the announcer came on the speakers and clarified, “minor correction, I’ve just been told that it’s a large TOURist, not tortoise, 3/4 of a mile down on the beach.”  Only in Florida.

Siesta Key

Blackberry Farm 5k Spring Gallop – Race Recap

Blackberry Farm 5k FinishI ran my second 5k of the year this last Saturday, March 29th, the Blackberry Farm 5k Spring Gallop in Aurora, Illinois. Blackberry Farm bills itself as a “historical village”, and is part of the Fox Valley Park District.  It has a few paths surrounding the property, which made for a nice run through a mix of forested trails.  Most of the race was on paved trails (using the Virgil Gilman Trail), with a short section on crushed limestone.Blackberry Farm 5k Course

I missed the online cut-off for signing up (which was something like a week ahead of time), so I got there early to register.  I had no problems registering, but had about 45 minutes to kill before the 8:30 am start.  Unfortunately, it was a rather miserable Chicago day – gray and windy and cold – so I spent the pre-race time huddled in the warmth of my car.  I spent most of the time debating my clothing options, and ended up sticking with my running jacket.  I walked over to the starting area about 10 minutes before the start, and was immediately glad I had opted for the jacket.  Too cold for March 29th!

Start Line of Blackberry Farm 5k Spring Gallop

Start Line of Blackberry Farm 5k Spring Gallop

My Race – I lined up towards the front a few rows back.  The gun went off and I took off like an idiot, racing like it was a 100 meter dash (I really need to work on that negative split thing).  I didn’t feel particularly out of breath or tired in the first half mile, but knew I was definitely going faster than I should have or could maintain for the full 5k.  In fact, I was a little scared to glance down at my watch because I wasn’t sure I really even wanted to know my pace at this point, in fear it might psych me out.  I worked up the courage to take a peek at the half mile mark, and found I was doing a 6:30 mile – way too fast for my slow legs!  So I dialed it back a bit to a more comfortable pace and finished mile 1 in 7:01.

I settled in and felt pretty good in the second mile, still pushing myself but nothing out of control.  I managed a 7:33 in mile 2, and just hoped I could maintain that pace in the third mile.  I was still feeling pretty good until around the 2.5 mile mark, when I started to feel fatigue in my legs (hmmm, I guess sprinting out of the starting gate is not an ideal race strategy after all).

I started battling another runner with a half mile to go. I would get passed and then they would pass me.  Soon enough though the other racer got a good 10 yards on me and seemed to be gaining speed, while I was slowing.  At this point, the race meandered and winded its way through a section near the finish, with lots of little turns.Blackberry Farm 5k Finish  I knew we were approaching the parking lot where the finish line was positioned, but couldn’t reconcile why my watch was telling me we still had .25 miles to go…since the finish was in sight.  This made me nervous because I didn’t want to start my finishing kick too early, or too late.  But as we approached it became clear that there was one little loop left in the parking lot before heading to the finish line.  Ah, I instantly felt better being able to see the remainder of the course, and confirm that my watch was not playing some evil and cruel early April Fools joke on me.

Anyhow, I still had my competing racer in sight on the last stretch, and was able to muster a strong sprint finish over the last .10…and managed to outkick the other racer by a good 2 seconds!  Ok, confession time – the racer I had been battling the last half mile was an 11-year old girl!  No, I am not proud of beating her (barely beating her), as I really was just battling and pushing myself rather than racing against anyone else.  And yes, that 11-year old girl is 10 times the runner I am, or will ever be.  She ended up being the second overall female finisher – and obviously has a very bright running future ahead of her.  Mine is much more questionable!

Blackberry Farm 5k FinishSo I ended up finishing in 22:32 (7:16 pace), which put me in 30th out of 394 runners, and 5 out of 25 in my age group (but would have been 1st in the 1-14 Female group, which as you know is my primary competition).  So this was easily good enough for a PR over my 24:18 back on February 2nd, which I’m obviously happy about.

Swag – The goodie bag included a long-sleeve t-shirt (not a tech shirt, but still ok), a bag with the race logo on it, and various other trinkets such as a key chain and stress ball which my daughters were very happy to take from me.

Overall – While the weather didn’t cooperate (missed it by just one day, the Sunday after was close to 60 degrees), this was a nice course and I was thrilled with my time.  Doing more short runs where I focus on speed rather than distance has helped with my cadence and quickness for these shorter races.  All in all a great morning, even if the weather wasn’t very “spring-like.”