Better Late Than Never: Tobacco Trail Half Marathon Recap

My first blog race recap and I’m already several days late. Whoops. Anyway.

Going into this race, my previous PR was 1:39:20 from the National Half Marathon in 2011. That was almost exactly 2 years ago, and so that time is just hanging out, waiting for me to break 1:39. This spring I haven’t been focused on speed at all. I’m just trying to make it through the Boston Marathon able to run and enjoy the race AND able to run after the race. But after running 1:39:50 in February in Hilton Head without much of a plan going into that race, I decided I should try for a new PR. I wanted to negative split, and I knew my miles needed to average 7:33. I even wrote on a post-it note what each mile split and cumulative time should be, starting with an 8 minute first mile and speeding up to a 7:10 or faster last mile. Spoiler: it didn’t work out and I ran 1:40:01. 155th place out of 2160 people.

The Tobacco Trail Marathon/Half-Marathon provides a limited number of parking spots near the actual race start, and you have to reserve those spots when you register months in advance. By the time I registered, those were long gone, and everyone else has to park in an office park 5.5 miles away and take a shuttle to the start. After looking at the parking instructions, we realized there was a runner drop-off option, so Eric offered to drop me off near the start and park at a local park 3 miles from the start and jog back over.

I woke up at 4:40am (so early), scrolled through twitter on my phone (a terrible habit), and luckily the most recent tweet was a sports motivation quote retweeted by Chrissie Wellington.


Why yes, this is the only image in this post because I remembered that the internet is FOREVER so I’d be able to go back and find this gem.

I figured that was a good enough start to the day, so I made my coffee, got dressed (in a red shirt to celebrate my friend Lexi’s birthday, since she has suffered 25 years of people wearing green on her birthday even though her favorite color is red), and prepared my banana and peanut butter half sandwich. Eric picked me up around 5am and we were off!

Once we figured out the runner drop-off zone, I hopped out of the car, taking only a water bottle and long sleeve shirt that I was comfortable donating in case Eric couldn’t find me back at the start. I figured I didn’t need my phone and I didn’t want to check a bag because in my head that was just too complicated. Want to know what I didn’t take that I should have? My IT band strap. I realized as soon as Eric pulled away, but again, no phone. 

Lesson #1: Relatively small races that start and end in the same place have exceptionally simple bag checks. Just check a bag so you have a phone and maybe some sweatpants, because sitting around for an hour in the cold isn’t fun. Also, it’s easier to keep track of your things if they are all in one bag – my IT band strap was in the bag in the car.

I basically spent the next 45 minutes stressing about not having my IT band strap. I’ve run up to 6 or so miles without it, mostly on days where it keeps slipping and I give up, but it makes me nervous and I briefly considered whether it’d be better just to skip the race in order to make sure I could run Boston. Finally Eric got back to the start (he ran about 3 miles on dark roads using his iPhone for light to make sure he didn’t trip and die – impressive). I told him I forgot the IT band strap, but he didn’t have time to run back and forth again to get it, so we decided I’d see how my warm up felt and that I would stop if I needed to.

Lesson #2: If you need to wear some sort of brace around your leg but don’t want to have it on while walking around pre-race, velcro it loosely around your ankle so you don’t lose it. I saw a few girls doing this, and if I had put my strap around my ankle, I wouldn’t have forgotten it. Also see Lesson #1: check a bag.

I did a 15 minute or so easy jog out the first part of the course and back. The bad news: a pretty steep hill at the beginning. The good news: the same hill carries you to the finish. I got in the starting corral about 15 minutes before the start and spent most of the time being jealous of the men going to the bathroom in the woods right next to the start and stressing about whether I should line up closer to the 1:40 half marathon pacer or the 3:30 marathon pacer. Pace groups and I do not get along for a few reasons. On days like Sunday where I want to negative split, the pacer running my goal finish time will likely run an even split and will therefore go out faster than I want to and I’m pretty bad at letting people go ahead of me if I’m not in the perfect mindset. And on days where I might positive split and I’m ok with it, these groups are too slow at first and then they catch me and I get angry and demoralized. I realize I should never have the goal of positive splitting, but I think the real lesson here is that I like to run my own race, and if I’m tired, I don’t get motivated to stay ahead of a pacer, I get demoralized and slow down.

The race started, and we made our way across the line and up the hill. The first (and last) 2.5ish miles are on roads and the middle section is on a finely packed gravel trail. I spent the first mile tripping over people. That’s pretty normal, but I was already unsettled so it didn’t help. Also, I run with a Garmin FR60, which used a foot pod/pedometer to track your distance and speed instead of GPS, so I knew every tiny sideways step I took was not only mentally frustrating, but it was also totally messing up my first mile split. This was only my second (I think) race running with this watch instead of a normal Timex running watch.

Lesson #3: Run races with a regular running watch and just lap each mile manually. It’s the race course’s 13.1 miles that count, not your watch’s. 

When we passed the 1 mile marker, my watch had already beeped, but the overall time was right at 8 minutes. Perfect! Now to incrementally speed up. Meanwhile the crowds were thinning and running was easier. My second and third miles beeped in around 7:35 and then 7:13. Oops. I figured that although my miles weren’t matching up with the course markers, the pace at least should be accurate, so I should try to slow down a bit. Instead of gently accelerating, I ran the next 8 miles all under the 7:33 pace I needed, and the last 2 were just over that pace, and yet I was still a minute too slow and my watch calculated a race distance of 13.51. I’m definitely not saying the race was long – I’m saying a pedometer is not the most accurate way to measure a race distance.

The course was a true out and back, and according to the online race results splits I actually did negative split, which is interesting. However, I have to say that running an out and back course on a trail was not my favorite. I felt like I never settled into a comfortable rhythm and there just wasn’t enough space to spread out. After the turn around, since I was towards the front of the race, there were many more people still heading out, they were often running 3 abreast while I was heading back towards them. It made passing anyone from behind pretty difficult. I generally prefer less densely crowded races even though I’ve run plenty of crowded ones (Boston will be a shock I’m sure), and this small local race suddenly was pretty claustrophobic.

I ran near some of the same people for a lot of the race, including the dreaded 1:40 pacers.  The race was great in terms of water and Gatorade, and they even had gu available in case you wanted some. By mile 7 or 8 my legs were definitely feeling tired, and I had taken a gu around mile 6. I wish I could say more about what was going through my mind each mile but I’m pretty sure the whole time was a running (ha, pun not intended) commentary something like this: “Ok this feels fast but I do think I could go faster, so that’s good since I’ll want to pick it up towards the end. Why is my watch beeping already, I have no idea where the mile marker even is. My watch saying I’m running the right pace, but my overall time isn’t looking so great. What is going on? This is hard but hey it’s not supposed to be easy. Why is my watch beeping already?!?!”

By mile 10ish we turned back onto a road that was plenty wide. My original game plan had included a pretty fast last 5k so I tried to pick it up. Instead we turned a corner right up a hill. That knocked the metaphorical wind out of my sails pretty quickly. Once I crested the hill though, I tried to pick up the pace, though my watch begs to differ. I knew that last downhill toward the finish was coming, and I was looking forward to it. I sprinted down the hill, saw Eric about 100 yards from the finish, made my grumpy face at him because I already knew my time wouldn’t be a PR, and crossed the line at 1:40:01.

While I wanted a PR, I haven’t done any real speedwork in over a year and I certainly had no real reason to expect a good time would just fall into my lap. I honestly felt like I couldn’t have run any harder, especially those last few miles, so it is what it is and I’m proud of myself for not giving up when I knew I wouldn’t PR. Perhaps if I had stuck to my planned paces, it would have turned out differently, but who knows.   

Eric and I walked/jogged back to the car, still 3 miles away. My legs were NOT feeling it, and my stomach did not feel great either. Plus, we were going the opposite direction of the runners still on the course, so I felt like a bit of a brat sauntering (ok I was struggling to walk normally but still) past them with my finisher medal and space blanket, etc. Several runners actually congratulated me, and we cheered for them as we walked. 

Prior to the race, I had request Dunkin Donuts if I ran well. When we got in the car, Eric asked if I still wanted donuts, and I said if you don’t PR you don’t get donuts. He disagreed, which was nice of him, and we got to have green iced donuts for St. Patrick’s Day. I admit I have a weakness for themed donuts.

Overall, I’m not sure I’d do this race again, and I definitely wouldn’t do it for a PR attempt. I like to support local races, but the appeal of a local (which should equal simple in my mind) race does not include shuttles and parking far away in my mind. I want to just drive up, park, and run. And as I said before, I didn’t enjoy the gravel trail section of the race. I love trail races, but trail races should be on dirt and are not for PR attempts. Of course, my opinions of a course are almost certainly directly proportional to how well I raced, so there may be some bias in there somewhere.

I have to highlight how thankful I feel to even be running at this point. After a year of no running, and then slow 1 to 3 mile walk/jogs through the fall, the fact that I am even racing half marathons at a pace comparable to my best times is not something I take lightly. I don’t know when or if I’ll get the chance to run Boston again (though I really hope I’ll continue to improve my marathon times and re-quality), so this winter and spring of training for me has been a great reminder to be thankful for what I can do. There is less than a month until Boston, and my last long run is this weekend. Then it’s taper time!

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One Response to Better Late Than Never: Tobacco Trail Half Marathon Recap

  1. Caroline says:

    You almost lost me with “If you don’t PR you don’t get donuts”…I’m glad Eric talked some sense. ANYWAY, congrats on a great race, PR or not…I’m excited that you get to run again, and can’t wait to read all about Boston!


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