Guest Contributor: Steve DeGenaro, Poland, Ohio
Event: 2014 Green Cathedral Half Marathon, 5K, and Fun Run
Event Date: September 14, 2014
Event Location: Youngstown, Ohio
“Good luck at your race tomorrow!!! Remember, in the end, it doesn’t matter what your time is, the most important thing is… That you write a kick ass 2000 word review for me to publish this week!” — Far more Casual Runner than Editor.
Well then. If that isn’t setting a high bar, I don’t know what is. And naturally, I missed the unofficial finish line for completing this recap in a timely fashion. The important thing is that I made it to the only finish line that matters: the line at the end of my first ever half marathon.
Why I decided to run this race.
I wrote about my motivations for running this half marathon in my First Mile link. If you need a quick summary: Go read the article! It’s not that long, and the author is hilarious!
Now I can elaborate on that back story a little. There were a lot of motivations for why I wanted to run a half marathon generally. I wanted to check off a law school bucket list item belatedly; I wanted to become a full time Casual Runner in my transition from student life to work life; and I rekindled, and even surpassed, my romance with running that had laid dormant since my high school days. But this race specifically piqued my interest because its location. Like most distance runners in the Youngstown area, I had done my fair share of training in Mill Creek Park and have grown to love the scenery. It felt cyclical to run my first half marathon in the same place that I first ran cross country.
The other reason I decided to run this race was more of an ex-post justification. While I was signing up for the race, I learned that all proceeds from the race were going to restoration of park facilities. So, not only was it symbolic for me to run the race in Mill Creek, it was also a tangible way to give back to a place that I really liked—it would have been irresponsible to not run the race!
Getting there/the lead-up to the race
My philosophy for the first one was completion. I figured that the combination of my running background and a beginner’s training schedule would get me there. The one I followed can be seen here.
Basically, the plan is a 12 week plan where you add a mile to your weekend long run each week up until two weeks before the race, with a tapering run (6 miles) the week before. Weekdays consist of 3–4 shorter runs varying between three and six miles in length.
I think a running plan like this has a lot to offer. First, I thought that the “add a mile each week” part of the routine was both a physically and mentally manageable way for me to build up my mileage. I don’t recall a single time where I felt that I was unprepared for my long run, and it made for a strong motivator to think to myself “it’s only one more mile.” More importantly, however, I think the weekday portion was a sneaky/easy way to build my base without feeling overly-worked. Three to four miles at a time is very doable, and it doesn’t take more than a week to get to the point where four runs averaging five miles a pop won’t be too exhausting either.
The one thing I would have changed, however, was the week leading up to the race. I tapered way too much; my last run before the race was a short three miler on Monday. I didn’t do anything for six days. While I don’t think it hurt me that bad, I definitely won’t be doing that again.
The race Expo
Confession: I don’t really have a lot to review here because I was over a half-hour late to pick up my race packet. I inadvertently spent the majority of the race Expo helping a friend pack for an upcoming move, and it wasn’t until three minutes before the end that I realized the mistake I made. I dashed off to my car and frantically called ahead to see if there was any chance I could still come in and pick my packet up. Thankfully, the people at the Expo were willing to accommodate my absent-mindedness.
One thing that I suppose could be included here is the one thing I would have improved. The course map didn’t provide mile markers on it. It made it challenging to plan where to tell my parents to head to watch the race. I was able to estimate well enough, but a little more certainty would have been nice.
Here are the spoils of war: tech t shirt (bonus points for lime green trim!), draw string bag, a fridge magnet, two pencils, and some cream for joints. All in all, not a terrible haul in my opinion for a $35 race fee. And, what is that I see on my bib?
The forecast was deceptively easy to dress for despite the 41 degree temperature that my car’s thermometer showed when I drove to the race. I’ve firmly been in the camp of preferring to be a little too cold than a little too hot, so I went with shorts instead of sweats. For warmth, I wore compression shorts, long sleeve under armor, and a winter hat. During the race, I just rolled the sleeves on my under armor and that worked out just fine as the course warmed up to mid 50’s. Around mile ten, I tossed my hat to a loyal fan so it wouldn’t get lost.
Finally, the two most important parts of the outfit. For my shirt I went with the race shirt. It was just so comfy I couldn’t resist. And as for the shoes, Asics is and forever will be the official running shoe of me.
I arrived about forty-five minutes before the gun went off. There was walk-up registration near the starting line, a DJ was playing pump up music over the speakers, and people were generally milling around trying to stay warm while stretching and warming up the for the runs. I didn’t watch it, but the organizers ran a kid’s fun run prior to the start of the half marathon, as I saw a lot of small kids walking around with medals of their own.
Then, with about 15 minutes to go, they called everyone over to the starting line. After the race, I spoke with the organizers and they told me that about 170 people ran the Green Cathedral half marathon. The entrants were treated to Chariots of Fire, and then suddenly, the horn went off.
And just like that, my first half marathon started.
Along the course
The Green Cathedral is very much a course for introverts. The positive of this course is that it was an undeniably beautiful and scenic run. The tradeoff, however, is that the fan support was a little sparse along the path. The majority of the people along the course were volunteers attending to the various water stations (broken out approximately every 2.5 miles for the first 10 miles of the race and then one per mile until the home stretch). Moreover, the course ran along the streets in Mill Creek that cars typically drive on, so that made it a little more challenging to tell my supporters where they should go to watch the race (this was compounded by the course map lacking mileage markers, which made guessing how fast I would get to each part of the race less accurate than I would have liked for my first half marathon).
Now, I haven’t run longer races with large turnouts; I have done a few 5ks that were huge community events that I found to be enjoyable. At the same time, I really found the scenery tranquil—or as tranquil as running 13.1 miles can be. Plus, the tree coverage meant that I was a comfortable temperature throughout the entire race. I am not expressing a preference one way or another, but I think that a lower spectator turnout comes with a course that is less accessible than, for instance, a course that runs through a city.
The other noteworthy feature of the course is the hills. Mill Creek Park is very much a hilly park, and the course through it is no exception. For the first half of the race, I felt that the hills were distributed in a manageable way. The longest stretch of uphill running was around mile four, where there were about 2 to 3 decent sized hills spread through throughout the mile. But, the miles “sandwiching” it were pretty flat, so there was time for recovery. The last 4 miles of the course were a completely different game. Each mile featured a sizeable hill, and the final tenth of the race was a slight incline to the finish line that made my heart drop when I saw it rather than provide me with the final juice to get across the finish line. So runners who prefer flat courses may want to stay clear. Conversely, those looking for a little more of a challenge may gravitate to this race.
As for my personal journey through the race, I was cognizant of the fact that I do not do a good job of pacing myself at the start of races, so I went towards the back of the pack so I could try and find somebody that looked like they were moving at a good pace that I could use as a stalking horse. (It should be noted here that I do not use a digital watch when I am running because I would obsess over the time. This may be a practice I revisit in the future). Anyways, I felt pretty good for the first four miles. I was running what I thought was a manageable pace and was having a good time seeing myself as part of a (still at this point) continuous group of runners.
The only minor hiccup occurred just as I finished the fourth mile. I had been looking for some time to find a runner who had a stop watch so I could see on what pace I was running (see? Not having the watch didn’t mean I would stop obsessing over it). I finally asked this one lady who crossed the marker at about the time I did and was able to see what we were running at. “34:00.”
Crap. That’s 8:30 pace. You cannot run an 8:30 pace.
It was at that moment when I realized some hurt was in my future. That hurt came in the tenth mile. Shortly after completing my ninth mile, I had a pretty bad cramp in my abs. Thankfully, it abated after I stopped running and gave myself a 30 second break. But because I went out too fast at the get-go, I would need to take about 6 of these types of breaks in the next three miles (coinciding with the lovely increase in the hilliness of the course).
So I learned a couple valuable lessons about my preferences for races, and good race mentality in general. First, I need to learn to slow down during the first half of races – even more than I already do. I am always going faster than I think. Second, and related, I learned to fight through the pain and not quit. The cramps did hurt, but I was determined to finish the race so I listened to my body and gave it a break. I am not at the point physically (if I ever get there) where I can go start to finish without a break during a half marathon. At some point in the past, my pride might have made me just walk off the course because I stopped. In training for this race, I learned the humility of knowing my limits, and giving myself a rest in order to make the ultimate prize. And what a great prize it was…
I get the privilege of introducing a new word into the Casual Runner lexicon:
That’s right folks, we now have shiny wooden objects (SWO)! The medal was made from old trees from Mill Creek Park. Is it the flashiest medal out there? Probably not, but it’s my first medal from my first half marathon ever. So do I love it? Absolutely.
Bonus points: not sure how common this is at half marathons, but I was adorned with it by officials when I was barely two steps across the finish line. Really liked that touch.
The post-race experience
If a picture speaks a thousand words…
I felt a lot better than this picture might suggest. Yes, this was right after I crossed the finish line so I was pretty tired. But after maybe thirty seconds, I was up and walking around. I chatted with my parents and other fellow runners while enjoying the weather (by this point in the day it had warmed up to low 60’s). I hit the snack bar like crazy: two bananas, one chewy bar, a Gatorade, two water bottles, and then a third banana for the road.
One really great experience was bumping into a runner I recognized from the course. The man and I passed each other a few times during the first half of the race before (I think) he pulled away. Anyway, we each recognize the other and simultaneously got the biggest grins on our faces. He came over and offered a fist bump. This little moment stuck me I think because it really hit home what a cool hobby this is. Here’s someone I had a ten second interaction with on the course, and we were happy commiserating with a complete stranger about our accomplishment that day. I think running has a reputation for being an individual sport; it is very much a community one as well.
After hanging around for an hour, I went to get lunch at my grandparents’ house. It was not until after 1 pm when the endorphins wore off and I needed to take a nap. So if you need another incentive to try your first half marathon, consider how awesome a two hour runner’s high feels.
Looking back now
I could not have asked for a better first half marathon experience. The weather was perfect throughout the whole race. My parents were able to see my running both at a point where I most needed support during the race (around mile 11) and watch me cross the finish line. I also was rather pleased with my finish time. I very much wanted to just finish the race, but I wound up exceeding the unofficial time goals I had in the back of my mind. And now that I have one under my belt, I can safely say I’m hooked. I’ve already signed up for my second (Hilloween on November 2!), so it won’t be long until I toe the line once more.