Due to an almost 10 hour drive to Ohio for Thanksgiving resulting in a 3am bedtime, Tiffany and I scrapped any crazy ideas of waking up in time for the local turkey trot 5K at 7am. With some swift internet surfing, Tiffany found a race close by in a small village called Berlin, in the heart of Amish country. There was a 5K and a far more appealing 13.1 option set for the weekend. We signed up for the latter, the longer the better obviously.
It was a lovely 20 degrees on race morning. Some brave souls wore shorts, but not us. Tights, long sleeves, gloves and a buff for me. I am not a cold weather fan even though I find a way to run all year long. The race was marketed as “designed for runners by runners.” I assume they were referring to runners who like freezing cold conditions while chugging up and down country roads. That’s right, Holmes County, Ohio is by no means a flat part of America.
This was the second annual race with close to 800 participants signed up between the two races. Mark Fowler, the race director said “Participants will be treated to views of untouched countryside, Amish buggies and working farms, as well as scenic rolling hills, and Amish school houses.”
Mark sounded the horn and we left the black rubber school track to embark on a big loop of snowy countryside. At the exit gate of the track, everyone turned left but I went (and was) right. Being in 1st place wasn’t my plan but here I was. As others rejoined, I confessed to them I had watched the course video the day before. A half mile in, I did a quick head count and had me in 10th. If I wasn’t concerned about the other runners on the start line who looked serious, I was now. I had hopes of potentially snagging a win here but the reality was, I had to watch the front six peel away at a pace I did not want to dare attempt.
I noticed my watch failed to start, the buttons froze or something. I tried to get it going but it was not to be. I would have to run this one school XC style, off feel only. The same can be said of my diabetes. My pre-race glucose at 182 was perfect. I just needed to calculate my carb intake for the next 13 miles at half-marathon pace intensity, a distance I have not done this year, and look to finish around 100-130.
After a back and forth tussle with a runner over the first fast mile, I eventually won the duel to sit alone in 9th. Ahead, groups were forming of two and three. The two within reach wore grey and bright orange. I wanted to close the gap and join them but then the first hill came alone which didn’t work in my favor. I reached the top of the hill, marked by a traffic cone and the gap had opened.
I ran through an aid station which was run by Amish children and their parents. What a unique experience. I felt rude to ignore the water and Gatorade from them so early on but it was so cold, all I wanted to do was run. The road dropped into a valley where other Amish families watched and waved but most noticeably did not cheer as is their religion. A cheer would have been nice though as the next hill was imminent and much steeper.
My pace range on the course was anything from 6 to 10 minute miles (at a guess). It has only ever been so wide when on the trails where hiking is part of the norm. I wasn’t hiking but it felt close as a tip toed up the hill. I leaned into the ground as the angle of asphalt got sharper. I noticed scratches, probably from the horses hoofs over the years scrambling up and down. I didn’t know the grade but it was definitely enough.
As I reached the top, my legs felt like jelly. I was probably doing 6:20 pace, closer to my marathon pace than half marathon pace but my primary concern was on catching the two ahead right now. No matter whether I was chugging up the long steep hill on County Road 70 or descending back down it, the two ahead were somehow staying within sight. I continued to run isolated in 9th. I knew this because I would listen to the spectators voices to gauge how far behind 10th place was.
At mile 6, we unexpectedly turned right off of route 70. We drove the course prior and our journey took us left and flat. This turn right along a dirt road was anything but! The climb was the easiest so far but that really wasn’t saying much. I saw a barn ahead that proved to be the top as well as the halfway marker and an aid station. This time, I happily accepted some cold orange Gatorade that landed on my chest as much as in my mouth.
A sharp descent followed and allowed me to catch my breath. I got to subtly glance behind on a sharp left seeing a runner, probably 30 seconds back that I hadn’t expected would be there. The gap in front of me to the runner in grey was also about 30 seconds and a minute to the only other runner (in orange) I could still possibly catch. When I hit mile 7, I knew I had just 4 flat miles to play with to close this elusive gap before the last and probably hardest climb would start. I knew if I waited until then, chances were I would lose time on the climb.
I tried to move faster but my body felt rigid and stuck at the same pace. I realistically said to myself I could catch only one of them at this point. 4 miles went by and it was still a stalemate. No one had changed position since mile 1. I had reeled in the grey runner to ten feet just as we were about to turn right and climb at mile 11 but as expected he kicked just prior to the big climb and increased the gap on me. I was on my limit and had no response. Mentally, I was done. I had worked for over 10 miles on this gap and now he had gone again.
I climbed up and analyzed ahead. I could see 5th and 6th side by side near the top, 7th was slowing down and 8th (grey) was now making another charge for him while escaping my grasp. I felt like I was drugged going up that hill. My mechanics were atrocious and I hoped to see the same from my fellow competitors but did not. They all looked pretty solid.
At the top, my legs were now really wobbly. More specifically, my right ankle felt like a ‘kankle’ flapping around. (It was not, rest assured). With a mile to go, the runner in grey passed orange. I knew, if I could have hung on a bit longer, I would have been right there making the same move up a place.
A nice descent showed us the way back to the track. My head was back, eyes closed, I was absolutely ready to finish. I had been in 9th place all day and frustrated of not being able to claim places back along the way. Without really noticing it, I actually closed the gap quickly on the orange runner here. I gave it one last burst of speed so he would see me close as he turned left to the track.
But the left I expected didn’t exist. It wasn’t the course. That course video was wrong! We stayed straight and headed back up a hill towards the main high street of Berlin. I realized then, we were going to wrap around the school property line and come back into the track from the far side. This mentally destroyed me more so than a mile before when the runner had kicked away from me. I was so close to the end but there was more! As the orange runner ahead took one last sharp turn left he showed me his cards. He looked back.
The gap remained though, 50 feet or so. Finally, back onto the track I expected us to go straight to the finish on the left corner but we both got ushered right for a 350 meter showdown. Not quite the Jimfest of the 1983 Western States 100 finish but here we were fighting it out for 8th. Now right on his heels, I knew this was my chance but on the back straight, he kicked ahead. I did everything to stay close on the track covered that was covered in patches of snow.
I gave one last charge on the final bend expecting him to go again but he didn’t, he couldn’t. His pace was constant while mine increased with this new speed that seemed to come out of nowhere. I went around the outside of him and kept on going. A couple of looks back to make sure he wasn’t breathing down my neck and I knew I had secured 8th. I looked up at the clock with no idea what I had run and saw 1:27. Definitely not fast, but not slow for the course and my lack of speed training the last few weeks.
I keeled over the finish line. Some volunteers looked at me with worrisome and one said “He looks very pale.” Yes, I was freezing cold and have English skin I thought! I got handed my medal which doubles as a bottle opener and some Amish cheese. Yes, cheese. Do they know what I love or what?!
Minutes later, I watched Tiffany come tearing round the track to finish 2nd in the women’s race. She got to cross the finish line with her four year old niece which was pretty cool to watch, let alone do.
Once warm and dry, I found out I won my age group but only because of my duel on the black rubber track. I was really just content to have come 8th not 9th because I had invested so much effort to close the two ahead down all race. I viewed the age group award as a reward for my determination.
Not that any of this stopped me getting grief as I didn’t get to bring home some cash for placing like my better half! At least there’s $10,000 for the winner next weekend in San Fran. Wishful thinking maybe, but one thing is for sure, I’ll keep trying to be better.