Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Illinois Half Marathon race recap

Continuing my recap of Illinois Marathon weekend and the Half I-Challenge, which began with the Illinois 5K on Friday night.

After finishing the 5K, Erin, Jason, Adam and I went to meet Anne, Bob, and two of their friends for dinner at Big Grove Tavern in downtown Champaign. I am a big fan of local-type restaurants, and this place didn't disappoint. We had a yummy meal and lively discussions about our good old student days, race and spectator strategies, and Pinky and the Brain, amongst other topics.

Words to live by, no? ;-P

Unfortunately there were no TVs in the restaurant, but Adam noticed that the bar across the street had the Blackhawks game on. He and I alternated inexpertly squinting through the windows at the distant TV. When we saw the Hawks win in overtime, I did my best to hold back my exuberance until we had exited the restaurant. Another great tiding for the weekend! =D

We headed back to Erin's parents' house. Jason, Anne, and Adam went to the kitchen to hash out their spectating scheme. Unfortunately, the half marathon was going to be challenging for them to attack as a joint spectator group. Jason was the only one that knew the course; Bob, Erin, and I were all running vastly different paces; and all three of us were in different starting corrals.

I went to go lay out all of my gear. Then I hit the sack.

The next morning, Bob, Erin, and I arrived on site bright and early, then split to find our respective corrals.

A wide range of professional pacers were available for both the full and half marathon, and I definitely wanted to take advantage. I had been going back on forth on whether or not to go with the 2:15 half marathon pacer vs the 2:12 or even the 2:10 pacer. Ultimately, after my meltdown of a 5K PR attempt from a few weeks ago, I decided to take things more conservatively. I went with the 2:15 pacer, whose name was Tom. At the race expo, I had been told that he was an extremely experienced and reliable pacer that had the accuracy of a metronome. This was comforting.

Speaking of metronomes

The corrals were crowded. Once my corral got underway, the course remained crowded. When I run races, especially longer races, I put forth a lot of focus on running the course tangents. However, this was difficult to do amidst the crowds. It took a few minutes for me to settle into my pace, especially as the course immediately turned directly into the sun. When we hit the Mile 1 marker I was happy to see that we were exactly on pace.

It had been my intention to do a 9:1 run/walk ratio during the race. Unfortunately, the crowds made it difficult to see and rejoin Pacer Tom after the breaks. After two walk breaks, I decided that walking wasn't going to work and that I would try to just run with the pace group for as long as I could. Given that I do all of my long runs with walk breaks in training, I knew this decision might come back to haunt me. But I went with it anyways.

The course ran through Campustown on Green Street, past the Illini Union and the alma mater, and into the residential neighborhoods of Urbana. This time I did get to see the alma mater along the course.

Hail to the Orange,
Hail to the Blue
Hail Alma Mater
Ever so true
We love no other
So let our motto be
Victory, Illinois,

Our spectators were of all ages and they were cheerful and energetic. It was awesome seeing so many folks decked out in Illinois gear. I tried to read as many of their signs as possible. This was one of my favorites:

I focused on running the tangents where possible and keeping up with the pace group. The miles flew by and every single mile split was spot on. I started thinking that the pace felt really easy. I had to hold myself back from speeding up. Some gentle hills along the course helped keep me grounded. It was then that I realized the extent to which I had always been starting out too fast in my half marathons. I took my first GU at around mile 4.5.

Erin's parents' house was near the Mile 6 marker, and I knew that I'd be seeing the spectator group there. It gave me something to look forward to. Sure enough, I saw Adam waving his Terrible Towel. It made it easy for me to spot him from a distance. I didn't see Jason, but I waved jauntily to Adam and to Anne as I ran past. I was feeling proud that I had easily kept up with the 2:15 pace group to that point.

Near the Mile 7 marker was the first marathon relay interchange, which brought with it a huge cheering crowd. It was awesome seeing some folks handing off. At that moment I decided that I was officially adding a marathon relay to my runner's to-do list. (Who wants to join me?!?!?)

Shortly afterwards, volunteers were handing out GU packets along the course. I grabbed two of them and kept charging ahead.

Me with one of the GU packets in hand.

As the miles ticked off without me taking any walk breaks, I started wondering when fatigue might catch up to me. I was still feeling really good. So good, in fact, that I was nearly in disbelief at myself. But Pacer Tom was keeping the mile splits dead on so I knew that everything was on target.

Around miles 8 and 9, the course ran through Meadowbrook Park. It is a beautiful and serene prairie area with bridges and grassy open fields.

Meadowbrook Park on a non-race day
Unfortunately the path was narrow and winding. Again it became hard to run the tangents and to stay with the pace group amidst the crowd. I tried to keep Pacer Tom in sight. Unfortunately I did have a few instances where I got caught in the crowd and had to put forth some small spurts to catch back up. I took a second GU at around Mile 9.5.

As we approached the Mile 10 marker, I looked down at my Garmin and was shocked to see a 1:42:XX. I've run two 10-mile races in the past, and both times I had to put forth a strong effort to achieve a 1:46 and 1:48. Too bad I couldn't include today's split as a new 10-mile PR for myself!

I was still waiting for fatigue to rear its ugly head. Mile 11 has historically always been a tough point for me. Physically I was only starting to feel tired, but mental fatigue was definitely threatening to set in. Seeing the Mile 11 marker made me think that I should have been tired. I mean, at that point I am always tired, right? And then, as self-fulfilling prophesies would have it, the fatigue did hit. Pacer Tom was starting to inch ahead of me and I began losing the steam to keep up with him. But I kept plugging away, still knowing that I'd been able to maintain my pace for most of the race.

Charging along
After covering a lot of off-campus territory, the course re-emerged onto campus. I began noticing an increasing number of students amongst the spectating crowd. I even found myself thinking that they all looked so young, and wondered if I looked that young when I was a student. (Depressing, I know.) I ran by a fraternity house blasting music and offering libations to passing runners. It made me smile.

I reached mile 12 just shy of 2:04. I started calculating what pace I needed to run the final 1.1 mile to be able to PR. I was tired, my quads and feet were starting to burn, and I was ready to be done. But I knew that I was going to be able to PR - it was just a question of by how much. When I realized this I breathed a small sigh of relief.

Adam had told me he'd be on the course around mile 12.5. I started looking for him after the Mile 12 marker. I found out afterwards he had staked out a high-visibility spot and waited there for over 30 minutes. It had only been after I texted him my finishing time that he realized that we'd both missed each other. Very mysterious! (I joked with him that maybe it was because I ran by so quickly that I was a blur!)

The full marathoners split off from the course right around mile 12.5. At that point, I looked down at my watch and told myself, "Only about five more minutes. You can do anything for five minutes. You've already finished this, just cross the line."

I was ready to start speeding up. But then, the course went through a hairpin turn in the final quarter mile, and a woman in front of me had some spectator (in jeans and sandals!) jump onto the course and start running next to her. There wasn't much room to maneuver around them so I hung back. Similarly, as we took the last few turns to enter Memorial Stadium, a few other folks were running in tandem and/or slowing down and blocking the path. I gritted my teeth, ducked around them, and high-tailed it to the finish line. It was a thrill to see myself on the stadium scoreboard as I crossed.

Not quite a race photo body spasm, but pretty close!

My official time was 2:15:21.

It took nearly three American presidential terms, but my previous half marathon PR of 2:16:37 from September 2002 has finally fallen. Hallelujah!

From L to R: Bob, Anne, Erin, and me post-race in the stands, with Anne sharing her fabulous spectator sign.
Bob and Erin also PR'd at the race, so we went 3 for 3 on successful PR attempts!
Check out Erin's race recap here.

During my time at the University of Illinois, I went through so many life milestones, grew up so much, and learned so much both inside and outside of the classroom. I think it's very appropriate that I would be able to enjoy this running accomplishment at my old campus, as well.

The race medals (!) for the 5K, half marathon, and I-Challenge

Illinois Marathon weekend was an amazing, memorable, and incredibly well-organized series of events. My thanks go out to Pacer Tom for his unbelievably accurate timing splits, which were so instrumental in helping me reach my time goal. I am also very grateful to Erin and Jason for being such great weekend hosts; and to Anne, Jason, and Adam for spectating. And as always, I am eternally grateful to Adam for joining me on this running escapade down my old college lane!

My next race: the Chicago Spring Half Marathon on May 18


  1. Congrats Emily! What a perfect race to unleash that long-awaited PR! You look so badass in all the pics. Well done! See you on May 18.

    1. Thank you so much, Marcia! Congratulations again to you for your AG win at the race in Vernon Hills, talk about bad-ass. =) See you on May 18, can't wait to catch up!!!

  2. Congrats again on your PR!!! I hope you don't have to wait another 12 years to beat it :)

    I was amazed by all of the crowds, especially early on in the race! I think my comment to Jason was "whoa, there's a lot of runners when you're fast!" since I'm used to a more thinned-out crowd further back in the pack.

    The relay is a lot of fun, but the only strange part is that your start and finish can feel so non-eventful compared to a traditional race. I ran leg 1, so I got to start the marathon (which was amazing, as you know), but "finishing" a race at the Urbana Meijer was a little... anti-climactic? But it is fun when your team crosses the finish line together, and that's definitely the only way I'll ever run a 4:30 marathon :) And you do get the best of both worlds there in that you get to run AND spectate a fun race. So I'd probably do one again.

    1. Thank you so much, Anne! I hope I don't have to wait another 12 years, either! But maybe I'll be able to think about qualifying for Boston in about 30 years, LOL.

      I was surprised by the crowds, too, both on the course and as spectators! The organizers did have starting corrals set up to help ease the congestion, but this race was definitely way more crowded than I am used to in general. I am sure that I cut some people off at various times when trying to run the tangents. Oops!

      Good point on how a marathon relay can have a start or finish that is anticlimactic! Actually, I would like Urbana Meijer as a finishing spot for its great selection of post-run libations. =D But hey - if you're running Ragnar this year, you are going to do the ultimate in relaying. You'll be doing an ULTRAMARATHON RELAY! (It sounds so hard-core to say that!!!) How cool is that going to be!?!?!? Ragnar aside, if you are ever up for doing another marathon relay, please let me know! It would be awesome to do one with you!

    2. Hahaha yes, I was wondering what the qualifying time is for 70 year olds ;)

      I want to say I started in the F or G corral last year, and it wasn't quite as packed! I was just impressed that it was consistently as crowded all through the race, the pack never really seemed to thin out too much.

      LOL, but you don't really have time to shop at Meijer, you have to get to the next hand-off point! The relay is a lot like spectating in that you're spending a lot of your time driving around just to watch the course for a few minutes here and there :) I think if I were to do another relay, Illinois would definitely be a good choice!

    3. I wonder if there were more registrants for the races this year than in prior years? I saw several announcements about the number of finishers at each distance, which seems to indicate they had a good strong showing. =)

      Oh bummer on Meijer as a finishing point, I forgot all about how you have to go to the next hand-off point. =D I think it would be fun to do the last leg of a marathon relay. It'd be a neat experience to be running on fresh legs while all the marathoners are feeling the distance, right? By the way - I was telling Erin last night that Grand Rapids looked like a cool potential marathon relay race. I know you and Katie and some other folks were considering running the half there, so I think it could make for a really fun weekend!

    4. Yeah Bob said it was cool to jump in at mile 7 on fresh legs... but I bet he annoyed a lot of the runners he flew by, since he started after me in the 12:00 pace group. It's definitely a different experience though.

      Yes, Bob and I are planning to do Grand Rapids, and I think we talked our friends into it this weekend too. I'm not sure about Katie, but Eric and Mo were considering it as well. It'd be a fun trip :)

  3. Yay! Congrats on the PR! That's awesome! It was such a hot day too! I always have bad luck with Pacers. Glad you had a good one!

    1. Thanks so much, Amanda! I just read Too Tall Fritz's recap where she was mentioning all the support that you gave her on the course. I really do wish that I'd known that you were going to be there as it would have been so awesome to see you! Next time. =) See you at the Michelob Ultra on June 7, yes?

    2. Yes I will be at the half on the 7th. But I have a triathlon the next day so I'm thinking of a run/walk method to save my legs. Not going to be able to try for a PR that day :(

      I was at the marathon! I helped my friend Jill out with miles 17-24, then went back to 23 and waited for Amanda and helped her to the finish. It was hot and so many were having troubles! Wish I could help everyone!

      We aren't too far off on our paces. Hopefully we can run together sometime!!

    3. But also I think I texted Amanda occasionally from 14.5 until I saw her hoping she would make it through. That's helped me at a marathon before too when I see a text from someone either telling me to suck it up or giving me words of encouragement.

    4. Oh my goodness, that is going to be one busy weekend for you! Last year I wanted to do the PAWS Run For Their Lives 8K the day after Chicago 13.1, but in the end I decided just to do their 4K walk instead. It turned out to be completely the right decision as my legs were shot! So yes, definitely take it easy at 13.1!

      So cool that you helped both Jill and Amanda out at some of toughest miles along the course! You are such a good runner friend. I think it's really great to receive texts of encouragement while running, as well, so that was so considerate of you to do so for Amanda!

      I hope we can run together sometime, soon! And actually, the Michelob Ultra might be a great race to do so!!!!!! Let's see how things progress prior to then. =D

  4. Yay!!! Emily, congratulations! I know you've been eyeing that PR for a while, and you've finally done it! Victory! I'm double impressed that you were able to achieve it with such a crowded course. You mentioned that the pacer made a big difference, but what else do you think you owe your PR to? Something in your training? The weather? Your fueling?

    Congrats again!

    1. Thanks so much, Amy! I was just hitting "Submit" on my comment on your 5K PR plans when I saw your comment come through. So we were commenting on each other's blogs at the same time. =)

      Pacer Tom made a HUGE difference. I've never run with such a consistent pacer, ever. I've heard a lot about the benefits of running even splits, but didn't realize until then what a difference it really makes. I definitely trained more consistently for this race over a period of about three months instead of my usual 1 month =D. I also topped out my final long training run at 12.5 miles (normally I only go up to 11). And I think having recently lost some weight made a difference, at least psychologically.

      I'm in the mode of PR-addict now, too, where I am excited to see what else I can achieve this year. That's both good and bad!

  5. Congrats again on your PR!! I'm so happy your pacer worked out so well for you.

    1. Thank you so much, Erin! Congratulations again to you on your PR as well! Way to knock it out of the park! And yes, I was very fortunate to have two awesome pacers over the weekend - you on Friday night, and Pacer Tom on Saturday. =)

  6. Emily!! Congratulations on your new PR and for running such a well executed race! Woohio! See you on the 18th :)

    (And of course, GO HAWKS!)

    1. Thank you so much, Bobbi! I miss you! How are things going with the rehab process!?!?!? I am really excited that I'll be seeing you on the 18th - it'll be awesome to catch up!

      And indeed, GO BLACKHAWKS!!!!!!!!!

    2. Rehab is slow but sure, thanks for asking :) I am impatient, but I am getting there.

    3. I can relate! When I was rehabbing my knee a few years ago, the process was so slow and painful. All of my PT exercises did help, but I got so bored of doing them day in and day out. =( I wish you the speediest of recoveries!!!

  7. Congrats on the major PR!!! That's awesome! I know you've been putting in the training and working toward it. I'd love to hear more about what you think were the top factors for the PR.

    1. Thank you so much, Lauren! Honestly, I think the biggest help for me was that I've lost about 15 pounds since last summer. Other things that I think have helped a lot were doing my easy and long runs at a slower, more comfortable pace than in the past; and doing speedwork almost every week.

      BUT! I should really be getting tips from YOU, considering how advanced your training has been for your triathlon!!! I'd love to hear more details about your test run at Ravenswood!

  8. Wow! What a fantastic PR! You had to do so much work to keep up with Tom in those crowds and with skipping your walk breaks, and look at how well you did! I hope you are still patting yourself on the back!

    I love the concept of the 5K and HM and the extra medals (and the other series, too). So fun! Too bad the courses are getting so crowded! I wonder if they will do more with wave start times, in the future!

    Love the orange top!

    And you know I am in for a marathon relay, or any relay w/o overnights. Ha!

    1. Thank you so much, Kim! My Garmin read 13.18 miles after I finished which I know was due to doing a lot of bobbing and weaving. So I was excited thinking about the extra time I could shave off just by running a straighter course in the future!

      Likewise, I'm getting more and more into these combo races where you get a synergy of medals! Will have to look into more of these types of events in the future!

      Yay for orange! I'm all about supporting my Illini while also representing your favorite color!!! =D

      YES for a marathon relay! I was telling some other folks that Grand Rapids looked like a good marathon relay for us CRBs to consider. We'll talk about it more as it draws closer!!!

  9. WHOOP! I KNEW you could! So, 2:05 in your sights next?

    I'm going to have to start speed work to keep you from passing me in the half PR category.

    1. Thanks, Natalie! I'll be shooting for 2:10 next time, but I love and appreciate your confidence in me, hehe. Yes, let's both do speedwork to keep each other motivated as leapfrogs!!! =D

  10. Congrats Emily! I am so happy for you!! I want to run this race next year.

    Oh, and count me in for a marathon relay. It is also on my to do list.

    We should plan to run together at the upcoming Disney races. Are you running the Wine and Dine again?

    1. Thanks so much, Zenaida! Yes, come run Illinois next year! I think you would really enjoy the festivities, and given your racing experience the I-Challenge would be a piece of cake for you. =)

      YAY for a marathon relay! I know we talked about doing one together a bit earlier this year, let's continue to keep our eyes out for one that would work in our schedules! (I am eyeing Grand Rapids... would you be potentially up for that one?)

      YES on running the Disney races together! I'm indeed doing Wine and Dine again and it would be great to have company! =D

    2. I just looked up the date and don't think I can do Grand Rapids. Boo. I am sure there will be others.

    3. Bummer! But Grand Rapids is actually kind of expensive when it comes to race registration fees, so maybe it's just as well. We'll find another. =)

  11. WOO HOO!! Congrats on the PR!!!!! That's amazing!

    1. Thank you so much, Maggie! Hopefully the next PR won't take 12 years to achieve, yes? ;-)