The annual Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) convention always combines their conference with a running event to give attendees a chance to get a little competitive running in during their trip. That was the case with the recent conference in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The conference was timed just before the Marine Corps Historic Half Marathon, organized by the same people who put on the Marine Corps Marathon in October. They tout the Historic Half as a course that “covers a wide variety of scenic locations from parks, streets and neighborhoods to monuments, Civil War battlefields, museums and the Rappahannock River with entertainment all along the way.”
I had only run one half marathon and two full marathons so I was a little reluctant to sign up for the event. It was tempting to register for the 5K (my favorite distance) but I didn’t want to seem like a wuss to my fellow RRCA convention attendees. Plus, how often do Montanans get the chance to run a half marathon? We only have a few in the state and one in Missoula. Six weeks ago when I signed up for the race the longest run I had done since last summer was 9 miles. I attempted an 11 mile run a few days after registering and strained a muscle in my calf. My physical therapist gave me the “do not run” speech and told me to give it 1 ½ - 3 weeks. That set me back even further. I did manage to get a 10 mile run in two weeks before the event, making me feel a little better about being unprepared.
The three days before the race were spent traveling, networking and attending workshops on very little sleep. Plus, they fed us rich fatty food, including a lot of beef—which I never usually eat—and gave us drink tickets each night to indulge in beer or wine. I don’t have the willpower to not eat good food and use up drink tickets to taste local wine and beer. Our agenda was packed: Upon arriving Fredericksburg we had activities scheduled from 5 a.m. runs to dinners that went until 10 p.m. I didn’t want to miss out on the 5 a.m. runs on historic battlefields even though in Montana it was 3 a.m. By Sunday, I was glad that I had because I got to run through some beautiful historic sites and I got and run with some new people, many of whom are leaders in their running clubs—and I was little more prepared to once again get up at 5 a.m. for the Historic Half.
That morning, I groggily got out of bed, had my coffee, banana and bagel and took the bus to the start, which was in the parking lot of a major shopping center outside of the Expo Center. It didn’t have much character, but it could accommodate 9,000 runners. (In its fourth year it has grown from 3,000 to 9,000 runners.) The music was already pumping and their celebrity runner Drew Carey (his first half) was trying to get the participants excited.
I checked my bag, used the porta potty, took a last drink of water and headed to the 1:45-2 hour finish section, not really knowing what to expect for my finish time. Drew Carey made some final strained motivational announcements with a hint of nervousness and unknowing in his voice. The gun went off and about 45 seconds later I crossed the starting line. The first mile was spent dodging in and out of people who were blocking me in. At about the 2nd mile I had reached a rhythm and the runners had spread out a little. I moved along, feeling the humidity more than I liked. I felt pretty good for a while, but by the 10k mark I wondered how I was going to keep it up. We reached the town of Fredericksburg and ran through the historic streets. Although there were a lot of great volunteers on the course I was surprised at how little the community came out to cheer on the runners. There were some people in front of the houses cheering us on and generously handing out lemonade, licorice and gummy bears. Since I run without a watch or an MP3 player I tried to make small talk with other runners. I met mostly locals during the run, including a carefree young man who was running while bouncing a tennis ball while he maintained an 8-minute per mile pace. I asked him if he was training for something that involved bouncing a tennis ball and he said he found it a few miles back and though it would be fun to bounce it.
Just like the Marine Corps Marathon, the half is well-organized largely because of the hundreds of marines who line the course at the water stops, entertainment and cheering sections. They soften a little compared to their usual demeanor with cheers of “lookin’ strong,” “almost there,” and “nice job” in addition to a lot of high fives. At each aid station I took a cup of water, sipped it and poured the rest of it over my head. Even though it was in the 50s the humidity made my face feel hot and flushed. It reminded me of how I felt after high school track practice in upstate New York where it’s also quite humid in May. The majority of the runners wore capri running tights and some even wore long tights and long sleeves. I wore as little as possible—a tank and shorts.
After running through Fredericksburg and right by my hotel, where I was tempted to stop, we ran along the beautiful Rappahannock River. I started thinking to myself, “I’m in the homestretch, only about a 5K to go” and “I love 5Ks, this is going to be fine.” But it was not fine. The last 5K was mostly uphill. I slowed down and everyone started passing me. I thought, “I’m from Montana. We are surrounded by mountains, why can’t I run Virginia hills and why are these city eastern folk passing me?” I was disappointed in myself, but I thought of it as good training for the Pengelly Double Dip and realized that I needed to run a lot more hills when I returned to Missoula.
I was also glad I didn’t drive the course before I ran it. I started to have a vague memory of someone telling me at dinner the night before that there was a 6% incline on the course. Sometimes being ignorant is an advantage. The steep hills finally came to an end and the incline turned gradual. We ran over the I-95 overpass, which is where I remembered the 1-mile mark. “Oh good, I can run one more mile, I think,” I told myself. I caught up with the guy with the tennis ball, who had passed me on the hill. We ran together for a bit until he stopped and said he was going to wait for his brother who was running his first half marathon.
Finally, I could see the finish line. I sped up a little, but realized I still had about 500 meters left to go. I could see the people lining the finish area, then the race clock, which said 1:43. I was pleasantly surprised as I was hoping to finish around 1:50. Not wearing a watch and being ignorant worked for me again. Once I made the mistake in a 5K to ask a runner the time at the 2 mile point. When she told me I told myself I was going too fast and slowed down. If I hadn’t known I probably would have ran faster.
The finish area was lined with more Marines handing out bagels, pretzels, bananas, bottled water and other treats. I headed straight to the gear bag tent and got my bag with my long-sleeved shirt and water bottle immediately. Then I redeemed my beer ticket even though it wasn’t even 9 a.m. yet (and 7 a.m. in Montana). A beer after a race tastes great no matter what time of day. I was back at the finish area in 5 minutes to watch the other runners. Looking around I was surprised at how few people it seemed there were, but we were in a large box-store parking lot.
As I sipped my beer I watched the runners coming through the finish line. Everyone was going wild cheering for the people who were just breaking two hours. There was a lot of commotion all of a sudden and I realized Drew Carey had come through the finish line. I later found out he had finished his first half marathon in 1:57. Not bad for a first half, but I was secretly glad that I had beat him.
~ Eva Dunn-Froebig