Today, while many of my friends were running the Chicago Marathon, Staten Island Half Marathon and Run for the Parks Half Marathon, I slipped into my Salomon trail shoes and threw on my Berlin Marathon shirt in preparation for a relaxed half marathon.
The trail race, Run Evasion Rhone Half Marathon, was the smallest half I’ve done, including only 555 half marathon runners, including 103 females. In addition to the 555 half marathon runners, 154 people were signed up to run a half marathon relay. Renaud and I headed to the start with his wife and son about an hour before the start. Since we live just a few miles away, we arrived with plenty of time to check our bags, use the restroom, stretch and enjoy the live band before the start. I also had a chance to say hello to a few members of the Geneva Runners, a local running club, who were also running this race. While I’ve yet to make it to one of their organized practices, their Facebook group is incredible and a great reference for all things running, cycling or triathlon in the area!
No race start is complete without good luck kisses, especially from an adorable toddler sporting a puppy sweater!
Right on time they called us to the starting area, complete with an announcer and live music. I made small talk with the runners around me, asking if they’d run the race before. Many of them said they run it annually and warned that the “undulating hills” are killer and to take my time. Renaud also said that I should expect my time to be around 3 hours, 1.5 times as long as my half marathon PR.
Renaud decided to use the race as good speed training, even though he ran more than 25 miles on Friday before work along the same trails. I told him I’d give it 100% and see him at the finish line! With a loud cheer, we were off, ready to enjoy 22 kilometers or 13.1 miles of trails along the Rhone River. Since this is a local race, many of these trails are ones that I can run again in the future though I’d probably get quite lost.
According to the race website, 80% of the race was on trails or gravel while the other 20% were on small roads. I considered this when deciding which shoes to wear for the race. I’ve worn my Salomon’s for 5-8 mile runs but never a half marathon distance. However considering that it rained off and on for the past three days and 80% of the race was trails, I figured wearing trail shoes was the safe and smart option.
As we took off, I could tell this was going to be a fast pack of runners. I kept a 9:40 for the first mile, more than respectable in many races especially considering the incline, and was already in the back of the pack. I reminded myself that I was doing this race for trail experience, enjoyment, gorgeous views, and to keep my legs in half marathon shape – nothing more. I switched my Garmin face to watch mode and started focusing on the gorgeous views along the trail. The path was marked with kilometer markers as well as white markers, hanging from tree branches, to remind runners they were on the right path.
The next 14 kilometers or 8.7 miles flew by quickly. The trail was less muddy than I expected, but some of the steep inclines & declines made me thankful for the shoes, especially in the areas with loose rocks. We had company on the trails in the form of pigs, horses and cows, whose cowbells cheered us on. I naturally fell into a pack of ten runners who were all around my pace. We motivated each other to jog, even on the climbs, and keep moving forward. We uttered no more than a few words to each other during our 5 or 6 miles together, but their company was exactly what I needed.
At kilometer 14, there was refreshment stop and the relay transition point. Unfortunately, it was at this point that 8 of the ten runners waved goodbye as they veered towards the relay transition area. Damn, there went my crowd support. I walked through the refreshment stop, topping up my water bottle and savoring half a banana. By this point, I was feeling my hunger as I was, unfortunately, running without fuel. I made a novice mistake and used the bib belt we were gifted by the race during bib pick up yesterday and mistakenly put my Gu packs in the small holsters without checking that they were secure enough. At mile 5 when I went to take my first Gu I found empty holsters instead of 2 Salted Caramel Gu packs. Live and learn my friends, live and learn.
I set off, ready to finish the final 8 kilometers on my own in the drizzling rain. My legs were starting to feel the course by this point, but I just focused on the fact that I was here to finish and nothing more. There was no time I was trying to beat, personal record on the line, or even a reason to hurry. Bo was doing a 50 kilometer long ride while I ran so I knew he wouldn’t be at the finish line for at least another hour. To break up the silence around me, I put one headphone in my ear and turned on some music, hoping it would distract me from my tight calves and quads.
By this point I could only see a few people around me either heading up the narrow foot path or making their way through the vineyards behind me. After a short time on a small footpath I crossed the coolest bridge and headed back onto the trails.
The next bit wasn’t memorable, as I was surrounded by trees and vineyards with the gray sky peering down on me. I felt alone at moments, worried that I’d gone off path, only to see a single marker within the next few seconds, confirming I was still moving towards the finish line. A mile or so later, though it felt like ages, I heard volunteers cheering. Before I knew it, the path opened up towards the vineyards, where I could see that the final 2 miles were finally here. I’d heard from others that the final 3 kilometers take you up through the vineyards including a climb with more than 15% incline. By this point, my legs were beyond dead. They were feeling the Berlin Marathon in every single step, and my calves were tightening. Up until this point I’d refused to walk, having made a promise to Renaud that I’d run as long as possible. Sure there had been lots of jogging, especially on uphill and downhill sections, but I’d kept moving, one foot in front of the other, the whole time.
By this point, I had to stop and walk up the steep incline. The views were incredible, taking my mind off of everything. Never did I imagine that I’d be running a race through vineyards with mountain tops peeking through the heavy, Fall clouds. I never thought that I’d enter a trial half marathon just for fun. Just as I was taking in the views, I saw a tall blue figure run towards me screaming. Renaud, my dear and incredible friend, had crushed the half in under 2 hours and instead of relaxing, chose to run back towards me to lead me to the finish. Bless him, as this is exactly what my soul needed. He motivated me to run by taking pictures and video along the route. He picked fresh grapes to give me as fuel and promised that the finish was near.
The path led us out of the vineyards and back into the woods before emerging towards an open field and the finish line.
But, before I’d finish Renaud would motivate me to do something I so rarely get to do, pick off another runner. A poor guy was struggling ahead, but he served as the perfect motivation for me to run the final kilometer into the finish. Renaud prodded me to increase my speed so I could pass him and run victorious into the finish line.
Finally, in just under 3 hours, I reached the finish line of my first trail marathon. The miles never came easy, but each and every single mile was beyond beautiful.
My final time put me in dead last out of the 103 females and 480th place of the 484 runners, and I couldn’t be prouder!
I can’t thank Renaud enough for supporting me today and helping me make my way to the finish. I accomplished what I set out to do and am inspired to run more trail races, though I think the half marathon distance is the longest I care to conquer at this point.
Your turn – Trails or no? If you’ve run trail races what is your favorite distance? If not, where would you most want to run one if you could?