Today was the first annual Portage Winter Blast Half Marathon. And yes, it was a blast. But it was tough. The day did not start off auspiciously. First of all, despite getting to bed early, I didn’t fall asleep until well after midnight. Secondly, my calves were still as taut as violin strings and had been so for several days. Finally, my wake up moment was a mad rush to toss the blankets and cats off of me and hit the bathroom. I almost didn’t make it. Something was in the chicken last night; that is all I can say. Four trips. This wasn’t jitters by any means. The race was only going to be a training run for me to begin with so I didn’t care about performance. I managed to drink my left over key lime pie smoothie (which was actually really healthy) and have some caffeine.
Eventually, after suiting up like an astronaut on an EVA, and getting air into my right forward tire (which lost an encounter with a pot-hole), I was on my way. The air temperature? -2 F. I had four layers on my upper body, a face mask, three pair of gloves, one pair of socks, and shorts and running pants. I wondered if it would be enough. Thankfully there was no wind.
Once I got to the race location, I found my friends and we did several group photos. No one was going outside until the last possible moment. At gun time, it was +2 F and the sun was just coming up. Those feeble rays looked very nice but totally delusional. It wasn’t like they were going to warm us up any. The announcement came and we started walking in a massive herd right out of the building and straight to the starting line and then we were off. I did get a mental image of a bunch of lemmings heading to our doom and I made a crack about someone finding our bodies frozen in a running pose come spring.
There were hundreds of people all heavily breathing in the icy air. It took only a few tenths of a mile before everyone’s exposed hair, eye lashes, and eye brows were coated in a thick layer of white rime frost. It was cold. I never really felt the cold in my chest or throat but my nasal passages chilled fast. I pulled my face mask tight but I couldn’t take it being over my mouth. I couldn’t get enough air flow through the material especially once ice formed on it. As we turned towards the east with the sun low on the horizon, I knew I had a lot of frost at the corners of my eyes and on my lashes because my view was rimmed with shiny spots of light which were from the sun refracting through the ice.
By mile two, I was feeling back in the groove as far as running pace and such but I had a very cold toe which is unusual for me even in these conditions. My hands were cold but having them balled up into fists inside three pair of gloves helped keep them mildly uncomfortable rather than frost-bitten. As the run slowly progressed, my thighs and cheeks got very cold. I expected the thighs to get chilled but my thin face mask wasn’t covering enough of my face and it was getting really uncomfortable. I was starting to get worried a little by mile 4. I will say this. The course was snow and ice-free the whole way. The cities of Portage and Kalamazoo did a great job with snow and ice removal.
By mile 5, I was feeling a lot of fatigue in my hamstrings and my calves were still tight. This was way, way too early for this kind of nonsense. Granted, I knew I was tired and dehydrated but still, it was worrisome. I was taking some walk breaks but not as many as usual simply because it was too damn cold. However, there was one unexpected benefit to a walk break. My cheeks would flush during the walks and they would briefly return to feeling normal. Once I started up again, the cold nip returned.
I had my music blasting in my ears and did manage to knock the volume back but changing the tunes was a royal pain. I would strip my right hand down to the inner layer of gloves which were usually worked with touch screens. Not at this temperature. I had to strip that final layer off and after two times, I gave up. Consequently I listened to my play list a few times over. Around this time I noticed that a thin overcast had blotted out the sun and it was still really cold. I don’t think I ever got what you would call warm but I did get to the point were I was acceptably comfortable.
I consumed my one Accel-Gel just before mile 7. Like breakfast, it was key lime pie flavor. I noticed the irony that my foods up to this time were all tropically themed even though I was running in Antarctic conditions. That isn’t far off because the Antarctic Ice Marathon which I am considering doing some day, has an average race temperature of +10 F although there is usually a brisk wind.
By this point, the course was on a straight section of road that was a bit psychologically boring and the air temperature actually felt colder. I think my sweat began to chill on my body but at least I didn’t get seriously cold. I kept passing back and forth with a chatty runner but I didn’t want to completely cut off my music to hear her. I needed the music to focus. She asked me if I had ever done a half marathon before and I croaked out that I did and that I was training for an ultra marathon. She was impressed and I said that I feel like I am starting over from scratch after being ill this morning and for much of the prior three weeks. At that point I couldn’t imagine doing the ultra. Here I was, moving with the speed of a damn penguin in the frozen wastes of Michigan, at mile 8, and struggling. This was supposed to be a confidence rebuilder and instead was turning into a mental block
However, two things got me mentally going again. One was that at mile 8, you only have 5 miles left. The second was I started listening to the music and Pink’s “Timebomb” was playing. There is a refrain in that song that says “throw it away like a boomerang.” Although she was speaking of love, I was thinking of worry. All I had to do was keep plodding ahead one step at a time.
Once we reached the turn around point, it was about 4.5 miles back to the end. It was along the Portage Bicentennial Trail and this particular section is pretty but it was in the woods and cold. It also winds around a lot and kinda is a pain. But I kept plodding along. I also started mentally rewriting Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” with the lyric “we started a fire. It was always burning since the race started…” Anything to think of warmth. But the idea of thinking of warmth became counter productive so I stopped and just cleared my mind.
The miles slowly moved by. Once I reached 10 miles, I started feeling mentally better. I had run this trail for several thousand miles before so I knew every little turn, hill, dip, etc… Up to this point I was happy that I took every hill at a run and continued to do so, not that there was many hills to begin with. I found my new chatty buddy again and we ran side by side for a while.
Then suddenly I started feeling the shakes. I knew I was losing steam but this was a blood sugar crash. I mentioned wishing I took the GUs that they were handing out at mile 9 but I didn’t. One, I figured they would be about the consistency somewhere between chewing gum and ice cubes. Second, I didn’t think I would need it. Wrong. My new running friend proved the saying “Ice is Nice” because she offered to me three strawberry shot blocks. I never had these before and strawberry flavored dish soap never tasted better. Yeah, they weren’t the best tasting but I was desperate. I managed to get them down and by mile 12 I was feeling some semblance of strength returning although it was hit and miss.
Once we got to the end of the trail, we could see the high school up ahead that was the finish. Only about another four tenths of a mile left. I picked up pace and jokingly had been thinking it was way too cold for a cheetah but perfect for a snow leopard. I kept going back and forth for the whole race wondering which animal better suited me for this race, penguin or snow leopard. For most of it, it was the penguin. But now it would be a racing snow leopard.
When we reached the high school, it was only two tenths of a mile to go. And there was two turns and then the end. I started really moving fast. I passed a runner that had been see-sawing back and forth with me the whole race. I heard her steps pick up as she was determined to beat me. Not a chance. The snow leopard was pounding and was at full sprint. She never had a chance. About ten seconds into the all out sprint, I heard my name called out along with “look at that finish!” The crowd cheered as my legs started going to jelly. However, my momentum was taking me and I crossed the finish line with a sigh and a huge puff of condensed water vapor in my breath and ice on my face. It was done. 2 hours 13 minutes. For a training run, it was ok. It was however, one of my slowest half marathons of the eight that I had completed. And I didn’t care.
It was far too cold to wait so I got my medal and immediately went indoors. I found my new running friend and we formally introduced ourselves. I told her that her generosity saved the race for me. Runners often prove to me over and over again that humans have a warm and bright side to them even in overcast and frozen days like today.
Of course I also got to thinking that I cannot believe that I need to do this two more times and add almost a 5k on top of that for the ultra. It was a tough day and I was weakened and recovering from several weeks of illness. But there you have it. Can’t change that and I am sure that even the plodding penguins of Antarctica have tough days too.