Yesterday I ran my second Run the Bluegrass half in Lexington, Kentucky and was treated to drastically different weather from 2014’s race. So many things were in our favor this year; UL secured their spot in the Elite 8 (opposed to losing to UK), mom was feeling 100% (as opposed to running a fever and throwing up), I only had 13.1 to do (as opposed to running 4 miles to the start to get in 17 miles as part of marathon training), and the weather – oh, the weather! – was cold but sunny and what I would call a calm wind. Things were looking up!
This race has exploded and will only get bigger after being named in Runner’s World as “one of America’s 20 stand-out, must-do half-marathons”. I signed up for 2015 within a week of completing the 2014 race and have been looking forward to it ever since. Of course, when I describe last years’ weather I am often met by bewildered looks as to why in the hell I would voluntarily put up money to do it again. All I can say is; Runner logic. The weather was so bad, we’re owed a good year. I gambled and won!
The race has a leisurely start time of 9am which allowed us to sleep at home (in Louisville), get up and on the road at 7am, arriving in Lexington about 45 minutes before race time. I’m very hesitant to complain after last years’ weather attack, but the fact is it was 21 degrees (colder than Chicago for those wondering), and I was not about to stand at the start line any longer than necessary so we pulled to the side of the road and sat until 8:40. I put my hand-warmers between my two pair of gloves, took a deep breath and exited the car, with a plan to – like last year – see my adoring fans at mile 8. I jogged onto the grounds of Keeneland and headed towards the music. We had just over 10 minutes to the start and everyone was moving in some way to stay warm, although the sunshine helped so much, it’s hard to stand still with the mix of pre-run anxiety and freezing temps. Soon enough the Keeneland bugler stepped up to play My Old Kentucky Home followed by the Call To The Post (for those who are not from Kentucky, this is it). We shuffled up to the line and our journey began!
Personally, I was treating this run like any of my Saturday long runs. My goal race is the Derby Festival MiniMarathon next month (a goal I made long after registering for this one), but as luck would have it, my training plan called for a 1:45 run this particular Saturday. I decided to not run with my Garmin and go by feel, figuring I would most likely take closer to 2 hours due to the (Godforsaken) hills. I reminded myself many times to not get caught up in the race since I have 4 more weeks of training and I’m going to need these quads and hamstrings to get back to work.
They aren’t exaggerating when they call this race “America’s Prettiest Half Marathon”. The course winds it’s way through a number of Lexington’s many horse farms so the entire course your eyes are feasting on open, rolling, fence lined hills with horses scattered about grazing and enjoying the morning. There are a few railroad tracks and creeks to cross, just enough to make sure you get the full Kentucky scenic experience.
This map looks innocent enough, and standing at the start it may seem that way, however once you hit the first mile marker you’ve climbed 2 decent hills and know better. I did a few hill workouts early in my training for the mini but unless you run these hills regularly – and even then – there is nothing to truly prepare you for this course.
After passing the second mile marker I felt I had my head in the game. While you’re on the hills you feel there’s no way you can do umpteen more miles of hills, but on the downhills and flats your mojo comes (mostly) back and your resolve strengthens. One music/hydration station and steep hill later the feeling in my toes were back and I passed the 3 mile sign. Anytime I needed a distraction I looked over both shoulders at the vastness of it all and smiled. What a lovely day for a run!
We made our way through the second hydration station and I had a flashback to the previous year and a hill that stuck in my head. As soon as we turned left I saw it. “Just keep steady”, I thought, and focused on the runners around me. There was no talking up this hill. Not only was it steep, it seemed to keep getting longer. I dug in, focused on my breathing and reminded myself that I won’t encounter this at the Mini. As soon as the road leveled out the chatter picked up and I felt we all got through it together.
We had single digit miles to go and I was feeling good. The sun was shining, I had unzipped my jacket’s armpit vents and began fishing the hand-warmers out of my increasingly sweaty gloves. Once that task was done and we closed in on the 6 mile marker I felt it was time for my chocolate Clif Shot Gel. After taking a right just past the 3rd hydration station we began another ascent and I decided I’d wait to crest the hill before attempting to open and ingest my gel. It’s a good thing because this one took my full concentration. At one point I thought we were almost to the top, but no, it kept slowly gaining! I recovered my breathing and tore into the gel, nearly having to chew it as the temperature made it very thick. Normally I eat half, run a few more miles and have the other half. The rolling hills over the next 2 miles inadvertently changed that strategy. I took to eating little bits when I found I could breathe in between the hill attacks. I swear I remembered this stretch being relatively flat but (as you can see above) it is not. Still, the straightaway provided beautiful sweeping views to either side and they captured it through their aerial photographer:
Just before the race went off I got a text from mom saying there was a blockade at the road to get to mile 8 where they spectated from last year, so I wasn’t exactly sure where they’d be on the course. There aren’t a ton of spectating spots the way the course is laid out, plus mom had a red pom-pom (go UL!) and a race horse on a stick so they were set to stand out. Soon after the 7 mile marker I spotted a red pom-pom to the left of the course! I clenched the gel packet in my teeth, took off my left mitten, extracted my base layer glove, replaced the mitten and started on the right hand. It was a race against time to get these gloves off so I could toss them to dad. I got everything situated, waved my hand high, tossed him my gloves and yelled, “see you soon!”
I think of mile 8 as a section divider of the course. There’s a hydration station and music and it’s where the course veers right heading towards Keeneland (we’d have to make a pretty big loop to get to the finish but that’s not important right now), so I felt a surge of renewed spirit as I made a sharp right. I immediately began mentally preparing for the hill at mile 9. Not a lot of things surpass the memory of the weather last year but mile 9 is one of those things. It’s steep and longer than it has a right to be at that point of the course. I remember drummers near the top of it which helped and as soon as I heard them I thought, “here we go”. I kept my eyes on the road just in front of my feet and focused fully on my breathing. I nodded at the drummers as we made a right and up the final and steepest part of the hill. I COULD ACTUALLY FEEL MY GLUTES BURNING. There’s a very brief downhill then it’s right back up another short – but just as steep – hill.
The worst was over! I knew there were more hills but nothing like the one’s we just conquered. We passed (another) barn to the left that I distinctly remembered from the year before because of the pretty star painted on the side of it. It was this point (last year) the rain started really coming down and the temps started dropping and as the sun shone down and we made a sharp left past another hydration station with mile 10 coming into view, I looked around me and felt grateful for the amazing weather.
Just before mile 11 was a solid hill but with under 5K to go I knew I had this. The rest of the race is relatively flat. Well, not so much flat, but no glute-burning-lung-busting climbs. We met up with the 7-mile racers who were walking and many were stopping to take photos of the horses, which would be more tempting if I weren’t so close to the finish. The amount of spectators increased the last 1.5 miles since you could walk there from the finish area and their cheers and signs helped break up that last mile. This whole time I had no idea what my pace was since there were no mile splits and I went sans Garmin, I was just hoping to be under 2 hours and at least a 9min/mi average. As the finish line came into view I saw the 1:45 pace sign (the fastest pace group) for the first time and was amazed! The finish line was packed with spectators, you could hear the band playing and the announcer saying, “just over 1:45, awesome job!”. I crossed the line in 1:46:01, thanked the volunteer for my medal and happily took my snack bag and chocolate milk. My 15th half marathon on the books!
Apparently I have a pretty spot-on internal pacer!
I found a spot in the sun to call mom and decided to meet her at the nearby Kentucky Bourbon Ale inflatable that just so happens to make an awesome backdrop.
Very happy with my time and my ability to resist tearing down the hills since I still have another month of training for the Mini! This race really is an experience and is so well organized I’m sure it will double in size shortly. The medal is hugely awesome and the race shirt is the softest long sleeve hoodie I’ve ever felt! If you’re looking for a spring race and want a challenging but beautiful course this one is for you!