3rd place at High Cloud Snapple Half Marathon

Right now I can’t decide whether to try to take a nap or write this blog. I’m shooting for the latter as so many thoughts are swimming around in my head that I think it will be impossible to sleep.

Why do I need a nap at 11:30 on a Sunday? Because last night was South Riding Running Club’s Annual Party and Awards Ceremony at my house (this is my last year as president so I decided to host just one more time) and I didn’t go to bed until 1am. Then I woke up at 4am because my legs were hurting (more about that later) and, after getting back to sleep at 5, was awoken by my boys at 7:30!

Yesterday I also ran a half marathon. When I signed up for the High Cloud Snapple Half Marathon way back when it was warm outside (remember?!) I pictured zipping along the picturesque C&O Canal towpath, taking in the gorgeous scenery and enjoying being on the trail and not the road. Even if there was a snowstorm during the race (which is what happened last year) it would still be fun.

The day before the race I received an e-mail from the race organizer. Along with logistical info the e-mail gave several words of caution about the conditions, as the towpath was covered in snow, ice, and downed trees from Wednesday’s storm. Such choice terms as “this course is not for the faint-hearted” and “if you like a challenge, come on out” had me laughing and looking forward even more to the race. I love a challenge! I laugh in the face of danger! Ha ha ha.

I did estimate that this would not be a PR run. Maybe I’d run 7:30 pace. The snow would slow me down a bit. Warming up on the towpath, I got a taste of just how hard this was going to be. The path was covered in snow, which I knew, but it was frozen and rutted in parts, and thick and powdery in others. I couldn’t decide which was worse – slipping through the powder or falling over the ruts. I couldn’t get a good footing on either. Hmm, I thought, maybe everyone will pack the snow down and the footing will improve. Maybe.

So the race started and I instantly began adjusting my expectations. I ran the first mile in 8:16 – the footing was impossible, as it was all powdery snow and there weren’t enough people in front of me to pack it down – and the second in 7:47 where the footing was a little better. There was a brief respite early on when the towpath went under a bridge so the path wasn’t snow-covered. I literally felt like I was running on air for those few steps. Then back to the snow, slush, and ice.

I began to wonder if I really could keep this up for another 11 miles. I had already turned my ankles a couple of times and my body was starting to tighten up from all the torquing. If you’d like an idea of what it was like, run along the side of the road in the ploughed snow. Not the nicely flattened stuff. Run in the lumpy, bumpy, rutted section. Yeah, you want to get off as soon as possible. I adjusted my plan again and decided I needed to continue to push but hold back a little otherwise I’d just exhaust myself. Every step was work and it was impossible to get into a rhythm, which is really essential for good racing. Ideally, you hit the pace you want and hold it there by keeping up a rhythm. Anything that throws you off your rhythm, such as a runner crossing in front of you, is detrimental to keeping that pace.

Then I started slowing, from an 8:07 to an 8:16 to an 8:30 and then an 8:52. That was mile 6. I remember no-one had passed me and I hadn’t passed anyone in a while when all of a sudden 3 guys blew by me like I was standing still. I usually look at my Garmin Forerunner GPS constantly during a race to check on my pace, but I hadn’t been able to do this because taking my eyes off the ground would throw me off balance and I’d stumble, so I didn’t realize my pace had slowed. I did manage to take in a Hammer Gel at 45 minutes although drinking the water to wash it down while stumbling around proved somewhat impossible!

While racing I play little games to take my mind off the effort. It was a little more difficult yesterday as I really had to concentrate on where I was putting my feet, but I looked around as much as possible, noting the locks that were used when the canal was in use, each with a lockkeeper’s cottage positioned alongside the towpath. I imagined what it must have looked like when it was in use. When I was 10 or so my parents took my three sisters and me on a canal boat vacation. I remember how much hard work – albeit fun – it was opening and closing the locks. We completely messed up with our first lock, and managed to flood a staircase lock – I have an enduring image in my mind of the lockkeeper shouting at us as we puttered off downstream leaving chaos in our wake – but by the end of the vacation we were pros at opening and closing them!

I was awoken from my little trip down memory lane by a volunteer yelling at me that I was 3rd female, which made me grouchy because 3rd is a spot you really don’t want to give up, but I felt frustrated because I had so little control over my speed. I tried various things such as taking smaller steps or running on my toes to keep myself from sliding, stumbling, and sinking, but nothing really worked. At the turnaround at 6.55 miles I noted that there were indeed 2 women in front of me and, horror of horrors, one close behind and several more behind her! I think that what often drives me more than trying to catch someone in front is trying not to be caught from behind. That’s just demoralizing. I tend to “run scared” that I’m going to be caught and tell myself that a rival is right behind me.

I couldn’t turn around and look – I rarely do this anyway as it was drilled into me at a young age that this shows your competition you’re afraid of them – because I would fall, but I convinced myself that the woman right behind was closing in and that I needed to run hard whenever I found my footing. Thankfully 300 runners had packed down some of the trail, and so it was easier on the way back. I would get into a little groove for a few minutes before stumbling again.

I ran 8:48, 8:25, 8:12, 8:18, and 8:07 for miles 7 – 11. I ate another Hammer Gel at 1:20. I hadn’t been passed and was actually passing men in front of me. Still couldn’t find elusive 2nd place woman, but one of the guys I passed told me she was just up ahead. I started trying to push a little harder for the last 2 miles but the terrain was worse with lots of slush where the snow had been churned up. I ran 8:24 for mile 12. I started trying to kick with one mile to go but here we hit powder and the harder I tried, the more I slid. Mile 13 was an 8:30. I could see the crowd at the finish line and hear them cheering, so I made one final effort and ran in stumbling and falling at a 7:21 pace for the last 0.1.

Third place in 1:50:22. Post-race there was soup (yum!) and hot chocolate, Snapple iced tea, bagels, bananas, cereal, and Pirate’s Booty. Once home I took an epsom salt bath (couldn’t deal with an ice bath) to try to flush out my sore legs. The outsides of my shins hurt the most, probably from turning my ankles so many times. Everyone else I spoke with after the race said they turned their ankles at least a dozen times! Certainly not a race for the faint-hearted. Today I am wearing my Skins compression tights and Sigvaris compression socks to stimulate bloodflow, which will flush out my legs.

I do recommend a run along the C&O Canal towpath and I do plan to go back – when it’s not snow-covered! It is absolutely beautiful.

Comments

  1. Great job, Alison!! I’ll bet a lot of people just gave up considering how difficult the conditions were. After all you went through, I bet that made placing in the top 3 even more exciting! 🙂 Awesome work!

  2. Congrats on the 3rd place finish! I heard some rough stories about the conditions at that race, so it’s good you were able to survive and do so well!

    I couldn’t respond directly to your comment re: General Smallwood Tri (I think you need to enable email responses or something in your settings), so I figured I’d reply here. I think the seaweed issue is more of a seasonal thing and hopefully will be gone by Oct. There are 2 races held at the same park – 1 in the summer and the other in the fall. It also looks like the swim course for the 1/2 will include more swimming away from the shoreline where most of that seaweed was anyways, so that should minimize it. Let me know if you have any other questions – Best of luck!

  3. Congrats on placing! I bailed on that race after seeing the conditions. They looked way to treacherous and I am scardy-cat of getting injured so early in the season. Way to gut it out and do well!

  4. Beth, to be honest, I would have bailed if I had known what the conditions really were…it took a long time for my legs to recover from that race, which isn’t helpful when marathon training! Do you have any races coming up?

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