Every Step a Surprise: The 2014 Groundhog Day Half Marathon Race Report
-Phil, Groundhog Day
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Saturday, February 1, 2014
You’re running a half marathon… in Grand Rapids, Michigan… in FEBRUARY!? Um… why?!?
This is myself scolding myself during the treacherous drive along I-94 East from Chicago to my sister’s place in St. Joseph. Visibility is poor. The roads are slick. The driving is uber slow. By the end of the day, 8+ inches of snow will have dumped on western Michigan.
I want to go run in it.
Because I want a challenge, I reassure myself. Mountains of snow, polar vortexes… if you can’t beat the weather, might as well get out and live it. Right? Maybe? Hope so?
My girlfriend, Edna, is gaming for the adventure too, so I don’t feel too crazy. As someone with several hundred milers under her belt, her continued desire to explore herself through physical challenges cements the sanity of my own decision.
After a nerve wracking drive, a nice home cooked meal by my sister and an evening of playing with toddlers, Edna and I are psyched to get out in the snow and have fun ourselves. When I receive an email from a friend telling me the course conditions — that the trail is brutally tough with snow up to one’s knees in spots — we look at each other and know that we’re going to give it a go anyway. Last week we ran in circles for 6 hours in the face of 40 mph wind gusts and barbarously cold temperatures. If we could survive that (and have fun!) then running in knee deep snow shouldn’t be much worse.
Sunday, February 2, 2014
At 5 a.m. our alarm clocks go off in smart-technology unison and we are up. I sip some coffee, eat a banana and then Edna and I eat some pie (why not?) to finish off our breakfast.
It’s 5:45 a.m. and we are on the road — one that is in much better condition than it was yesterday.
The temperature is going to stay in the low 20s with plenty of clouds overhead and *GASP*, no real accumulative snowfall is predicted. Still, knowing what we already know about the trail, we both expect to take it easy today.
An hour and twenty minutes later and we are in the John Ball parking lot, huddled among other frigid crazies waiting to catch the shuttle to the start/finish line. It arrives, we squeeze ourselves in, and by the time we make it to our destination we only have ten minutes left.
The two of us push ourselves through the crowd gathered inside the warm hospitality tent until we finally get to the check-in table and grab our bib numbers. Hurriedly, we pin one another, and venture outside just in time to hear “And they’re off!”
Miles 1 – 4.4
Hurry up and wait. That’s what we do. This is, after all, a race run on a paved bike trail (though you wouldn’t know it from the snow cover) and the trail isn’t exactly wide.
We are way at the back of a decadently fluorescent conga line and by the time we get to the timing mat, two minutes have gone by. I think about darting up ahead, but from the endless stream of slow moving head bobs, I know there’s no point. Might as well just take it slow until the crowd thins out.
I stick by Edna and after a quarter mile of struggling through shin and knee high snow, I accept what I already know: today is going to hurt and today is going to be slow.
“I think the key here is to take smaller steps,” I say to Edna. “If I take too large a stride the potential for injury is too large. I’m going to try to keep my feet under me.”
Even heeding my own advice, the potential for disaster is still there. The snow is powdery. Slippery. But it won’t pack down, not even with hundreds of runners trampling over it. It’s a snowy, ill-footed mine field.
Every step is a surprise.
We hit the first mile mark in just over 17 minutes. Holy shit.
With a hat-tip to the Bill Murray film, the Groundhog Day Half Marathon is a 4.4 mile loop run three times. It features mostly flat landscape with some pleasant views of the Grand River and surrounding wilderness, all of which is covered in snow and ice. Every once in a while I remind myself to look up — to actually enjoy the scenery — but most of my focus is on staying upright, requiring me to look down.
A couple of miles in and already my hips are starting to scream while my heart rate soars. It’s not every day I “run” a 17 minute mile and maintain a 160 beats per minute heart rate. As we reach the first aid station, where I fuel up on Gatorade and those delectable peanut butter pretzel bites, I feel like a rebel soldier fleeing the Empire’s invasion of Hoth.
You could use a good kiss! I think to myself. Whew, I could also use a good recliner. This is hard work!
A little more slogging later, and the crowd opens up a little. I turn to Edna, get my kiss and kick on down the snowy trail.
Down to a 15 minute mile now (HUZZAH!), I find that the footing on the back half of the course is even worse than the first half. Slip… slide… WHOA LOOKOUT… save myself… slip… slide… WHOA LOOKOUT…
A lot of things are on repeat here.
After much struggle, I find myself back at the start/finish line, only 4.4 miles into the race, in a whopping one hour, nine minutes. Yikes! Before I give in to the idea of quitting — as many ahead of me appear to be doing — I immediately turn around and get myself back out there.
Miles 4.4 – 8.8
Back out on the trail now, I know what to expect the rest of the way: powder, pain and suffering. At least it’s not very cold, I remind myself. And there’s no wind.
It could be worse. It could always be worse.
I will myself to remember this bit of truth. Just think about all those crazies running the full marathon!
Indeed, it could always be worse.
Right now, despite my achy hips and slow pace, life is pretty darn good. The crowd has subsided. I’m running pretty much all by myself now, passing people who’ve been slowed to a walk on occasion.
Shortly after refueling at the aid station and kicking back down the trail, my watch gleefully beeps to inform me that I am in the 13 minute mile range now.
Oh boy we’re blazin’ now!
Relatively speaking, I am moving pretty fast. Though I may look like I’m moving in slow motion, I maintain
running jogging slogging pace. I only come to a walk at the aid stations.
And because I’m paying so much attention to the ground beneath me, the time seems to pass quickly. Another hour and seven minutes has passed and I find myself at the start/finish line again.
I dart out for my third and final loop with the kind of enthusiasm born from an impending completion of epic snow schlepping. And oh look, my face hurts… from smiling! Again!
Miles 8.8 – 13.1
Beer, beer, beer… chili, chili, chili…
I’m going to hang on to whatever it takes to get through this fluffy mess, and right now, I know that concentrating on the finish line fare (and warmth!) will get me where I need to be.
I should also note that this fluffy mess seems to get worse as the day goes on, not better. If the snow were just a little more damp, perhaps it would pack down and stay down. Instead, what we get is surprise after surprise after surprise.
Just before hitting the first aid station on this last loop I notice someone close on my heels.
“Keep setting the pace, man,” says the guy behind me. I find out his name is Steve. We will share much of this last loop together. After the mental struggle of the first loop and the isolation of the second, I welcome the company and conversation.
We share our race resumes and talk about annoying injuries past. We discuss the difficulty of running a half marathon in February. In Michigan. In knee deep snow. And we both come to the conclusion that we need a beer.
“Just keep pumping your arms,” I say. Someone gave me this advice for the last 10k of my first marathon and it has stuck with me. “If you move your arms your legs will follow.”
After the last aid station, I thank all the aid station volunteers. I’m sure this has been a tough day for them too. Keeping water from freezing in sub-freezing temps and listening to cranky runners whine about the conditions probably doesn’t make for the best way to spend a Sunday, but they’re all troopers and it’s nice to hear their cheers each time we come through.
“These peanut butter pretzel balls are amazing,” I tell Steve, as I take off down the last leg of the loop. “I’ve been eating them all day. I’m ravenous. I’m starving!”
Chili, chili, chili… beer, beer, beer…
I’m coming for you!
As we reach the last turn back towards the finish line I pick up the pace and notice Steve fall back a bit. I keep going. I want to be done. I want to be warm. I want to eat and drink and–
“Hola, mi cielo!”
It’s Edna! “Hola, mi amorsita!” I yell back. She is heading out for her last loop while I finish up mine. We stop for a short embrace and she assures me she’s feeling fine. Her smile lights up the trail like always and I can’t wait for her to get back so we can both be warm, rested and DONE. “I will drink some beer and eat some chili for you,” I tell her.
“Very good,” she says ironically (Edna doesn’t drink) before taking off through the snow.
Stuck in cheesy smile mode, I run the last 200 meters to the finish, coming across the line in a whopping 3 hours, 18 minutes, 51 seconds, a time more reflective of my recent 26.2 mile races. Exhilarated and gassed, I head straight for the hospitality tent.
I can’t see!
Seriously, I can’t. I’m snow blind. Some kind soul directs me through the crowd of exhausted runners to collect my finisher’s medal. Once my eyes adjust I am able to see just how bad ass this piece of hardware is. Heavy and profound, the medal features a dancing groundhog in relief and I put it around my neck, where it will stay until I get home.
For the next hour and a half I camp out next to the New Holland kegs and sip The Poet until my equilibrium requires me to eat some chili to rebound. I talk to a bunch of strangers. I share war stories with other finishers. I’m about as happy as can be.
Edna finally comes through and we hug each other, celebrating our mental toughness victories.
“Wow, that was hard!” she says.
“Yep. Yep it was. That was crazy hard.”
But we did it. We stuck it out.
We chose to be here and we knew what we were getting into. We knew we’d escape with a story worth telling — one that would leave us starving and snow blind and smiling.
You can’t get this sort of experience on the couch. You gotta take a leap and learn to adapt. That’s life right there. That’s what keeps it interesting.
And interesting never gets old.