Saturday, September 11, 2010

Elroy Tunnel-Trails Half Marathon Race Report

Today's race in Elroy, Wisconsin (population 1,578) was one about friends. I drew on my experiences and friendships with a number of different people as I posted a new personal best at the half marathon distance. It wasn't by much, but 13 seconds still count!

The Elroy Tunnel-Trails Half Marathon had 85 finishers a year ago, and I'm not sure that they might not have been too many more starters than that. Once I had made the decision to go and cover Ironman Wisconsin, which is in Madison on Sunday, September 12, I quickly signed up for this race. It would allow for me to run a half marathon in my 34th state.

Google Maps had suggested to allow myself approximately two hours to get there, but it didn't really seem that I needed that long. I pulled into town at approximately 7:15 a.m. and drove around for about 15 minutes until I found the park where the race would start and finish at. Buses would take us out to Hustler, Wisconsin. (Just stop right there. There was Amish children there set up to sell items for the town's regular Farmer's Market.) I started to get a little discouraged because I didn't know the condition of the trail and it seemed like we were being bussed out about 15 miles.

I actually had come into the race expecting to PR. Yes, a dangerous thought given that I had pretty much rested the entire week. Not by design, though. As I was expecting to run on conditions that were more like a road surface, I actually ditched the PR notions and focused on just having a good race.

On the way, I saw that Bill Dwyer had called to wish me well. I returned the call (after Juliee Sparks answered the call to try and throw me for a curve) and we talked for a little bit, and I thought that all great coaches do things like this. I had watched Andrew Strong, Fred Johnson and Walt and Lisa Yarrow's coach, Muddy Waters, watch them at the bike exit at Ironman Louisville and then retreat to his hotel to call his athletes that were doing Subaru Ironman Canada. Bill's phone message that I got later went like this, "Good luck today. Don't get too greedy too soon with it. Be patient, and hopefully run a PR. That would be really cool. But just good luck and have fun, that's the main thing."

The course description is as follows: The half marathon is unique in that it uses three different bike trails and features a fascinating tunnel. The event begins in the charming village of Hustler, Wisconsin. The runners will begin the race on the peaceful and secluded Juneau County Omaha Trail and head south towards Elroy for about 10 miles. Runners will pass through the tunnel after about three miles of the run. The tunnel was built in 1876 and is 875 feet long! There is a gradual incline up to the tunnel and a gradual decline afterwards. Flashlights will be given to the runners while in the tunnel to increase safety. Furthermore, runners should use caution and good judgment while running in the tunnel. Upon entering Elroy, the course will take a short wind through Kimball Avenue and then a one-mile trek on County PP. There, the runners will take the Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail into Elroy, pick up the 400 Trail, and enter the Elroy City (Schultz) Park for the finish line.

As we started the race, I was surprised that the trail was actually pretty good surface, but not what I was expected. I tried to keep it calm because I usually go out too fast. However, it was becoming readily apparent, after passing mile 1 and getting a time mark, that I needed to urinate.

Mile 1 -- 9:30.11

During mile 2, I was making decisions, based on trying to hit a PR, on whether or not I would be able to hold things and for how long. I made the realization that I would probably slow down focusing on it the longer I went. Once we passed the mile 2 mark, we had to cross a highway. I picked a strategic angle behind a vehicle along the open road and did what I needed to do. Once done, I got some fluid at the aid station and took off trying to "make up" as much time as I could.
Mile 2 -- 9:40.75
Mile 3 -- 10:45.65

The one thing that I noticed, though, is that in mile 3 a steady incline was occuring and did through most of mile 4 until we came to the tunnel. It was dark enough that you had to grab a flashlight from a volunteer and about three-quarters of the way, it was necessary to slow down a little because you were unsure of your footing. The mile 4 marker was a little beyond the end of the tunnel and I kept telling myself that this was like running out Lake Woodlands from Market Street during my long runs to date.

Mile 4 -- 10:15.91

With a little downhill, I started to pick up the pace a little bit and focus on form. I remembered the gutsy performance that Kirsten Krause had during CB&I earlier this year. She really hammered things on the run and I used that effort the following day when I ran a 2:13-and high change in a half in Dallas to push through the last four miles. My legs were feeling it again here because I hadn't run the entire week after putting 36 miles on in about 72 hours at the end of the previous week.

I don't know if I'll blame her for the bee sting that came as I crossed a bridge. I looked and there was a bumblebee attached to the upper front portion on the inside of my left leg. I swatted it away and now I'm surprised it didn't come back for more. I kept an eye on it for a little bit to see if it was going to swell up or not. (I learned later from the EMS guys is that if I was going to have a reaction, it is likely I would have taken a DNF.) I actually stopped at the mile 6 aid station for a few seconds to get some advise and then I tried to get back and push things a little bit.

Mile 5 -- 9:44.63
Mile 6 -- 9:50.00

I could feel the pain of the sting a little bit, but I chuckled about the magic hat - a Memorial Hermann Ironman Texas visor that I was given at the night of the event announcement - that I was wearing. As a result, I thought about John Laskowski's performance on Monday at the Avia Austin Triathlon and how smooth he handled the run portion of the course that day. While wearing the hat, of course! I tried to mimic that calm, cool form as much as I could. You'll note that mile 7 was my fastest mile all day.

Mile 7 -- 9:38.44

There was another little incline in mile 8 and about midway through the mile, I thought about Vanessa Gnatzig, who is training for Ironman Florida and was a pretty good high school and college cross country and track athlete, and her comment on my Facebook this morning and how she said to enjoy the beautiful state. I was doing my best to, and just as I thought that I turned to the left and there was a pool of water covered in algae. Yes, the algae, I swear, was Team Strive green. Mile 8 I really hustled to get to the cone that was in the middle of a foot bridge to keep the split under 10 minutes.

Mile 8 -- 9:58.90 (1:19:24)

The trail from Hustler to Elroy was about 8 miles a sign said. But during mile 9, we were still on it. A little bit faster. Not sure I really remembered why. At the beginning of the mile, I talked with an aid station worker very briefly about Penn State-Alabama. Yes, I was wearing my Penn State running shirt.

I also remembered here about what I've heard Kim Hager has said about enjoying the experience. Sure, racing is supposed to be hard, but enjoy it.

Also before I got to mile 9, I also thought about Adrienne Langelier running me in a couple of races three to four weeks ago and the annual tradition that Waverly and I have of finishing the last three miles together of the Chevron Houston Marathon.

Mile 9 -- 9:44.42 (1:29:08)

This mile took us to the roads a little bit, which I loved. However, it had three good inclines on it. After we passed those, and entering a downhill, I started to run more strong and more confidently. And once the mile marker came in the view, I made a deal to the euphemistic running gods that I was going to run a 10-mile PR, perhaps even at the expense of a half marathon PR. There, of course, was an incline to the marker, but I kept the split, again, under 10 minutes.

Mile 10 -- 9:55.61 (1:39:04)

Shortly thereafter, we met a stiff headwind before a left-hand turn on to another trail. This trail was a better crushed and packed surface than we have in Houston at Memorial Park, which made it pretty good to run on. Miles 11 and 12 were steady. Mile 12 had a little bit of a dip right before the mile marker.

Mile 11 -- 10:04.44 (1:49:08)
Mile 12 -- 10:03.40 (1:59:12)

As I crossed the main drag of town, I had to take a quick break to catch my breath - actually twice - before getting back to work and trying to meet the PR. At this time, I could also begin to feel my legs to begin to cramp and, of course, making me to question the wisdom of not getting my work done earlier in the week. Just the last half mile or so, I could see volunteers on the trail. There was a string of a flags on both sides of the trail and it was on the other side of a street crossing. I was visually focusing on that and ran towards it. I quickly came to find out that I ran right past a sign to make a right-hand turn. As you can imagine, I was livid.

I turned around, made a left turn (which should of originally been a right), crossed the road still complaining, and then missed going a little further off the road once I crossed the street and instead ran alongside the road into the park. A volunteer, who I had talked to before the race, opened the gate. Looking at the two events together, I don't think I lost any distance that would have put the PR in jeopardy.

They then made you do a lap and a half at and by the finish line. Painful. It was just a little bit bigger than a track, but a little bloated in the middle. So you had to run by the finish line once. They said it was about .4 miles. So when I looked at my watch, as I made my first pass, it read 2:05. I knew I had a chance. I basically ran it like a 400, even though it was really more like 640. I passed three women who might have been doing their half loop before the finish. All I can say is the speedwork pays.

Last 1.1 -- 10:33.48 (2:09:45)

That was half marathon number 74 and in state 34. Here's my top six half marathons:

2:09:45 - 9/11/10 - Elroy Tunnel-Trails Half Marathon, Elroy, WI - 74
2:09:58 - 3/18/06 - Wheatfield Half Marathon, The Dalles, OR - 24
2:12:06 - 1/29/06 - 12th annual 3M Half Marathon, Austin, TX - 23
2:12:26 - 1/28/07 - 13th annual 3M Half Marathon, Austin, TX - 31
2:13:55 - 5/2/10 - Heels and Hills Half Marathon, Irving, TX - 71 (Mostly flat, 60s)
2:14:09 - 1/11/09 - First Light Half Marathon, Mobile, AL - 56 (Flat)

My last racing day, which I ran three in the same day, was with Bill Dwyer and Adrienne Langelier.

Today, of course, to Wisconsin, I came alone. A friend wrote about that concept last night and they said, "That makes going alone fun, it's more of an adventure."

I'd say that they're right. ;)

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