Last weekend I flew across the country to Virginia to hang out with my sister and friends, enjoy a weekend of fine dining and wine, and oh, race the VA Wine Country Half Marathon!
Leading up to this race I had some of the best running weeks of my life. I ran some of my fastest intervals on the track and tempo runs on the road, and the most exciting part was that I was reaching my goals without going all-out, plus I was bouncing back and recovering from each workout pretty quickly. It had probably been my best ever block of training and I couldn’t wait to see what I could do in the half.
Race morning I couldn’t help but laugh a little as I stepped outside into the thick humidity that was Virginia in June. It was so different than the crisp, relatively dry mornings I was used to in Oregon. I took a shuttle from Leesburg to the start/finish area at Doukenie Winery about 20 miles deep in wine country and silently thanked the running gods as the fog rolled over the meadows and hung heavy in the sky. It may have been humid, but at least it was cool and overcast.
My fellow shuttle passengers and I were dropped off in a lot and were then directed to make a single file pilgrimage across a field to the winery. The scene was quiet and serene, but as we got closer to the start area, festive music and and announcements over the loudspeakers soon filled the silence and we melted into the crowd.
I picked up my bib number (cleverly shaped like a wine barrel), and exchanged hellos with the race director Matt Dockstader, who I learned founded the entire Destination Races series. I took off for a warm up and ran into a few other women from the Oiselle team. It was great to have teammates there to chat with and shake off some nerves even though it was our first time meeting.
When I lined up at toward the front of the crowd over 2,000 runners and walkers, beads of sweat were already trickling off of me. I learned later that the humidity was at 98%! When the race began I bolted away and couldn’t get enough of that free feeling of cutting through the cool, open air. The nice part about starting in that type of weather was that my muscles were warmed up and ready to fire away!
I didn’t pay too much attention to the numbers on my watch, but I clipped along at a pace that felt fast but manageable, similar to the many tempo runs at goal race pace I had done in training. A group of men took off and strung out in front of me. Within the first quarter mile or so a cyclist peddled up next to me and told me he’d be hanging with me as a guide since I was the lead woman. Cool!
I had no idea how close the next woman behind me was, but I ran as if she were right on my heels. Overall I felt good and kept a steady pace, taking water at every aid station, just getting the job done.
Somewhere around mile six or seven, the paved road turned to gravel and we approached the rolling hills, as promised in the course description. I had gotten a lot of practice in similar conditions on Leif Erikson trail in Portland, so I felt pretty confident in my gravelly hill running abilities- so much that I attacked them with gusto. I was running close behind a man that I believe was wearing an Ironman shirt- or was it a tattoo? My memory is a little fuzzy. With each hill we climbed I got a little bit closer to Ironman and eventually passed him… for a moment.
We were soon at mile eight and the hills continued on. None were especially steep or especially far, but they just kept coming and coming like waves in the ocean. With the gravel underfoot, each step I took had the slightest slip to it. As the hills began to wear on me each little slip seemed to become more pronounced. Slip, slip, slip. It didn’t take long for Ironman to pass me back. We told each other “good job” and off into the distance he went.
Around mile nine or so I started to fade badly. I could feel it and I could see it in the way the lead cyclist had slowed down to what must have felt like a crawl. By mile ten the struggle was very real. My friend who’d recently raced in a 50 mile trail race told me he had come up with the mantra, “rest while you run” as a way to keep himself running whenever he got the urge to stop and walk. I gave myself permission to “rest while I ran” through the remainder of the gravel portion though I knew every second I lost was a second gained by the next woman behind me. I told myself when I hit the pavement again, I had to go.
I was fully anticipating for the paved road to feel like a fresh of breath air- a reset. While it was a relief to get my footing back, my legs continued to rebel. I remembered the start of the race, when the first 5K was a nice, ever so gradual downhill. I also remembered thinking, “Shoot, that last 5K is going to be tough!” as I’d be going back the exact same way. Well, there I was, in the midst of the last 5K, suffering and mentally kicking myself for thinking it would be a good idea to tear it up so early in the race!
I was still leading the race on the women’s side but my body was in shutdown mode. I was running about a minute per mile slower than the pace I had started at. I was sweating buckets with salt accumulating on my skin, my ponytail whipping from one side of my neck to the other. The lead cyclist kept glancing over his shoulder, which could only mean one thing… the next woman was closing in! Soon I heard light footsteps coming up behind me. It felt like one of those key moments where all I needed to do was dig down deep and find that extra gear to power to the finish. I tried to think of how the pain was only temporary, how my sister and friends were waiting to see me finish, and how good it would feel to have flown across the country and then go home with a win.
Alas, she sailed on by looking so smooth and comfortable. We gave each other some words of encouragement and off she went, the lead bike by her side. I tried so hard to hang on. I couldn’t match her pace, but chasing her helped me snap out of the funk I was in. We were getting closer to the finish and had nothing to lose. I had no idea if any other women were closing in and I had to defend second place!
I rounded the final corner of the road leading back up to Doukenie Winery. From my position about 40 seconds back I could see the first woman crossing the finish line and hear the crowds applauding and cheering. It was a touch heartbreaking but also exciting to be so close to the finish! I charged up the final hill with all the strength I could find. I ran past my sister Katie with Jess and Lisa who were cheering like crazy people and holding up big signs- best moment of the race by far! I continued to dash through the tunnel of spectators until finally crossing the mat. Stopping was wonderful. I finished with a time of 1:28:27 and placed 2nd overall woman.
From there, the celebration began! The vineyard was set up with a wonderful array of tasting stations from local wineries. I may or may not have made a beeline for the sangria slushies. I met up with my awesome crew and we cheered on the rest of the runners coming down the homestretch.
The award ceremony was held soon after the race on a grassy lawn. Runners and walkers with their families were lounging about, sipping wine, and just generally having a pleasant time. The event overall was done impeccably well. We were in a beautiful location, everything was organized to a T, the volunteers were outstanding, and the post-run goodies which included a coaster finisher medal and commemorative wine glass were fabulous.
The top three men and women were announced then we received some fun prizes (including a gift card to a nearby winery!) and got our photos taken together. It was great getting to meet the 1st and 3rd placing women, Sarah and Jessica, who were both so kind. We’re all Strava buddies now! I also got to meet a group of women from the Oiselle team after the race. Even though I was far from Oregon, I felt right at home with so many new friends in the running community.Earlier this year I regretted not putting myself out there more in the Bloomsday Run. I approached it conservatively and felt I didn’t really stick my nose in the competition. At the VA Wine Country Half, I put it ALL out there and went after what I wanted. It didn’t work out the way I hoped, and of course I wonder what could have happened if I went about it differently. The outcome might have been the same, but maybe the last few miles wouldn’t have been so painful! I’m disappointed that I didn’t have a better finish time to show for all the hard work I’ve put in this year, but as my coach pointed out, that fitness won’t disappear. After taking a few down weeks since the race, I’ve been looking forward to some fun summer racing including the Butte to Butte 10K on July 4th and the Bowerman 5K on July 23rd. After that I’ll start ramping up training for the Chicago Marathon in October.
To another season of getting fitter and wiser!