Race: Run the Bluegrass Half Marathon
Place: Lexington, Kentucky
Date: March 31, 2018
There is something to be said about not coming into a race wanting to smash it. Pressure can be a friend or foe, and with me, more often than not…it’s foe.
There is also something to be said about choosing an almost local half marathon to run…one that you’ve wanted to run for a couple of years but have always been riding the injury train…and spending it with important people in your life. Not fussing over all the minutiae…stressing over goal times…all the stuff that comes with races.
There is something to be said about running the race that is billed as “America’s Prettiest Half Marathon.” Running it, my friends, but really taking it in. Drinking in the gorgeous horse farms, and the running horses by the roads you are running, taking selfies with strangers and friends alike.
Yeah…it’s something I rarely get to experience because I do get wrapped up in finish times more than finish lines sometimes. That was a lot of “-imes and -ines” all at once, yeah?
I registered for the Run The Bluegrass Half Marathon after being encouraged by my enabler…er…friend…Melissa. I knew this one was going to be a tough course, as I heard about the, anywhere from 33-40 hills (it’s all in who you ask and talk to!). We all know, my broken down hips love the downhill and flat spaces. The uphills…well…let’s just say I’m working on that.
My coach, Linda, actually provides her runners as pacers for this race. No…I did not sign up to be a pacer. She and her local and amazing Frankfort pack were going to see runners to their goals on race day. Linda was going to be pacing the 2:10 group, fresh off of the Chattanooga Marathon where she punched her ticket to the Boston Marathon next year. I was told to line up with her and to stick with her. And while, for a brief moment, I felt like I was wasting an opportunity to race…it turned out this was a blessing in disguise (and maybe it was all part of her plan from the start…Melissa is convinced that it was!).
The Friday before the race just happened to be Good Friday. So, my office gave all employees a half day. This meant that Cathy and I could hit the road to Lexington early and get to the expo and have some time to look around. I had packed some Asian soup for us to eat before we hit the road, and we had dinner plans that night with Melissa and Paul at the BEST place to get pasta in Lexington – Bella Notte.
The drive down was easy and uneventful. We were pumping ourselves up for the race, so I put in the Britney Spears Greatest Hits album (don’t judge!) and played it all the way through. Then, my Garmin GPS in the car took us some weird route toward the race expo, where we were driving on narrow back roads. It was wet and rainy and beautiful. We passed a chicken farm…where I declared, “That there is a chicken farm!” Because, I wanted to talk in a hick-deep-South accent, I guess.
It was at that turn, however, that Cathy made note of the signs marking the Run the Bluegrass route. As we turned and took the road toward Keeneland, where the race expo and the start of the race would happen, we wound through the beautiful horse country. And as Cathy pointed out the course signs, she literally turned her head and said…
“You’re going to die tomorrow.”
I am still laughing over this…because she knows my hatred of uphills. And there were going to be 30 something uphills to conquer. She probably wasn’t wrong. My saving grace was going to be running with Linda…my coach…the 2:10 pacer. Linda and I have run in the same races before, but never together. So, I was pretty stoked about it. Linda was too. And that helped.
We arrived to the expo and parked the car. Keeneland is gorgeous and we walked into the main building of the expo where you are immediately greeted, handed info books and catalogs and directed to the packet pickup area. This is done by bib number, which is corresponding with the corral/wave that you are in. My bib was 1052…first corral…but I was falling back to wherever Linda was going to be stationed. I texted Linda as I got there and then went to get my bib. A lot of the Frankfort runners were manning packet pick-up and when I gave my bib number, I was given a long look, the bib was flipped over to get my name info, and she said, “I though that was you, Karen. You’re just not in running clothes.” That must be one of those #runnerproblems.
Linda caught up with me just as I was entering the expo space to look at all the things for sale and really just wanting to buy everything. We hugged and she showed me all the great things I should by. In the end, I ended up with one of the Run The Bluegrass Ponya Bands (I was going to get a Bondi Band, but was literally seconds too late as the woman at the table and grabbed the last two), and the official Run The Bluegrass jacket, which is gorgeous and I love it and want to wear it all the time. It has, actually, come in handy with the crazy rainy days we’ve had since the race. I also had Cathy buy me some of the special popcorn from Popcorn Paradise.
Melissa and Paul were on their way in, so we made the rounds through the rest of the expo and checked out all the vendors. I’m still searching for some shoes that I can simply train in (so I don’t wear out those hard-to-find Newton’s that I race in), but none of the ones for sale at the expo spoke to me. Ah well. I did finally get to try Sword. It was pretty good…but I’m still doing well with my combo of Hammer gels and Nuun Performance. When my stomach is happy…I stick with it.
At the very back of the space, you get to pick up your race shirt. In this case, it’s this t-shirt hoodie thing. Which, honestly, has become my favorite thing to wear at the moment. Just slip it over my workout clothes and good to go. They also had out next year’s gear and…the hoodie shirts aren’t coming back. They are bringing in long sleeve and short sleeve tech shirt options, and the upgrade jacket has omni heat lining.
I ran into Tammy and Dean back here and we got to talk for a little bit. This was also their first time running Run The Bluegrass…so we were all pretty excited to be taking part in it this year. They were catching dinner at BJ’s…and we were hoping to squeak in as walk-ins at Belle Notte eventually. They went to head out and we turned around to go back toward the front of the expo.
Melissa and Paul texted to say they were parking so Cathy and I maneuvered back up to the entrance area. Twenty minutes later and we were wondering if they got lost in the parking lot. But, they did eventually come through the doors, hit up the bourbon table, got their bibs and texted to see where we were. I texted back to turn around.
And we were reunited. We all made our way back through the shopping, vendors, and races that were there to hopefully catch your eye. Many of them did…so…who knows. Paul replaced his sunglasses as his old pair went missing on the NYC trip. And they got their shirts/jackets. Melissa stayed with the hoodie…but Paul had upgraded to the men’s jacket. It was NICE!
As we were standing around about to try more Sword, I got a text from my friends Ron and Shawn, and they came on back to where we were so we could talk for a moment. Ron was going for a race PR the following day and he looked relaxed and ready. They would be heading to Bella Notte for dinner as well later that evening.
With all the expo excitement done, the four of us split up to make the trek to Belle Notte for our pre-race dinner. Bella Notte has an amazing gluten-free menu and knowledgeable staff. I have never had issues at this restaurant, and I make sure I eat here every time I’m in Lexington. I often contemplate trying something else…but in the end…I always end up getting the same thing: Gluten-Free Pasta Arrabiata with a Salad (no croutons; no cheese) with their balsamic dressing. Melissa got the Caesar Salad (no croutons) and the Bella Original Rigatoni Crema (which actually comes out as Fusiili pasta). Cathy got the Tomato Basil Soup and the Bella Origina Rigatoni Crema, and Paul got Salad and got the Baked Rigatoni Romano. There was a lot of food…but it was all fantastic, good…and we ate it all. I was on the right amount of full. And afterwards, we went to walk it all off for a bit at the Half Price Books nearby and then hit Kroger up for some bananas, waters, and whatever else we needed for the hotel room.
The plan was to play some games (it’s been awhile since game night and that was the never-ending game of Stranger Things Monopoly). But instead, we ended up watching a few YouTube Videos (one a comedian doing a bit about fitness trackers and joggers…and triathletes. It was funny…and of course…Marathon Thoughts). And then Melissa had us watch the episode of The Office where they run a 5K for rabies awareness. It was so funny. So…the games didn’t happen..but we were chill and relaxed and got our stuff laid out for the following morning to help make life easier. Cathy made up my Nuun Performance to go in my water bottle for fuel and then we did a Shaun T stretching video to realign, relax, and prepare ourselves for some sleep and hopefully get out the door on time to head to the start the next morning.
I heard some horror stories about the traffic going into Keeneland on race day.
I actually slept really well. My alarm went off at the same time as theirs. And, much like when we shared the Suede Tomb in NYC…we just sort of went in rounds through the bathroom. I snagged my race clothing (I started in a tank top and running skirt…and of course had my sports bra) to change into while I used the bathroom and brushed my teeth. I came out of the bathroom to let whoever was next go in and do their thing. And while that was going on…I put on my compression sleeves, my anklet, my earrings, put my hair extensions in and put my hair in pigtails…
…and then Melissa checked the weather again. And everything needed to change. It was about 30 degrees at the start of the race with a decent wind going on. I changed my entire outfit to a totally different tank top (which I added arm warmers to), bright capri’s…changed my compression sleeves and then put on a jacket and my pants over it to stay warm. It was going to be close to 50 by the time I would be finishing the race…but we were starting in the freezing temps. This is why I don’t know how to dress in spring.
To top everything off…I donned my “Hills Suck” Bondi Band. It was perfect for this race.
Cathy headed down to the restaurant to snag some real food from the complimentary breakfast. Apparently runners had this plan too because she texted that she was in a line. She grabbed an English Muffin (line too long to toast it), potatoes, eggs, and bacon and gobbled it down while the runners of the group got their shit together and headed down. Melissa wasn’t sure how the race would go, so she and Paul went ahead and loaded their stuff up into their car instead of bothering with late checkout. I went to find Cathy and she casually finished her breakfast, got her coffee to go, and we were all out the door and en route to Keeneland. Cathy took the first gate (despite instructions to take Gate 2) and we got stuck in a bit of a line waiting to get parking. Melissa and Paul took Gate 2 and got in and parked in a prime spot without a wait. Naturally.
We ended up being directed up a hill with every other vehicle coming in at that point and parking in the grass in the middle of a field. Thankfully the grass wasn’t too soft from all the rain we’ve been getting or I fear my little Toyota Corolla would have had some problems getting out. We sat in the warm car until I heard from Melissa and Paul that they were heading to the RunDisney tent for the meetup photo there. Cathy made me get out into the cold, but we decided to wander into the expo building. I figured I could use a flushing toilet while there…but then I saw the line and, since I really didn’t have to go…I really didn’t bother to wait in the slow moving ladies room line. Hey…the port-a-potty lines were just as long. We eventually did make our way out to the muddy tent area, found Melissa and Paul and then went on a Linda h
unt. Since she and her runners were pacers, it was no surprise that they weren’t at the tent. Cathy decided we needed to head down to the start line anyway.
And on the way, I did fuel up with my Banana Bread Lärabar. The bar worked for New York, even though I definitely used more energy there. Actually, with all the hills…I figured it would probably be comparable effort. Maybe?
At the start line…I saw no one. No one that I recognized. No pacers yet. So I devoured my breakfast and then finally saw a smiling, happy face. Ron!! He was hoping to run a RTB (Run The Bluegrass) PR (he has been saying if he can sub-1:45 he’d burn a couch) and he looked good and strong and we had perfect weather. I told him I knew he was going to do it and wished him luck and let him go and get lined up where he needed to achieve his goals. Then, I saw Tim walk by with the 1:45 pacer sign. AH…the pacers were here…which meant Linda would be here. Which meant, I needed to head back in the corrals and find her.
On the way, I spotted Greg, who was a 2:00 pacer and stopped to give him a hug and talk to him. He told me Linda was the next corral back to lead Wave 3 out…so I told him to have a good race and skipped back to where I saw the next pacer sign. YES! There was Linda and her pacing partner, Mark! I had never met Mark, but I had seen him earlier, because he was wearing a kilt. I notice kilts!
The start of the race was actually delayed by about 15 minutes because the ambulances were stuck in traffic and not at their stations on the course. So, I got to know some of the people around me. I had this couple asking me questions about my Newton running shoes…we talked about half marathons…and then…finally…go-time!!!
Except…I was in Wave 3…so it was walk up with the 2nd wave and wait…and then finally move to the front. I think Linda said there was supposed to be 2 minutes between waves, but as we got to the front of the line for Wave 3, I heard the announcer say 40 seconds before Wave 3’s start. Two minutes my runner’s booty!
And just like that…I was off…running my very first Run The Bluegrass Half Marathon. So many of the runners I know continue to return to this race, so I knew I was in for something special. I also knew that I could really take in the experience, which was both frustrating and amazing all at once. My legs like to run…and I was moving at a trot (horse reference, get it?). I knew that hills awaited and, honestly, this was probably the best way for this race to be approached. Linda had the breakdown specific to this race on how each mile needed to be run and I’m not used to checking my watch, but I figured I could at least help with that. Maybe?
We headed up Keeneland’s Back Gate Drive – the first hill…and I felt strong and my legs really wanted to push and power up…but more hills awaited and Linda was keeping me right where I needed to be. She’s good at that. HA!
I knew this was going to be a good run when I saw horses within the first couple of miles. Seriously. Horses that were in one of their fields. They were running away from the big group of humans that were running and we all joked that the horses were thinking, “Well, all the people are running…we should too.” HA!! It was…SO amazing. We were still ahead of pace, and Linda said that worked to our advantage because that meant we could walk some of the bigger hills. I was totally okay with that.
There were definitely a couple of selfie-stops along the way. And when we hit the split for the 7 Milers and Half Marathoners (which also happened to be that Chicken Farm) and said to Linda to take note to tell Cathy…because I promised her I’d say it. And then I let go with my “That there is a chicken farm!” I had so much fun running with Linda and the group of runners that she and Mark were leading. I got to talk to a few of them about Disney races, Dopey, New York City, and Linda let me in on a secret…it’s good luck to throw your hands up in the air when you run across railroad tracks. So, the three sets that we crossed during this race, I did that and let out an enthusiastic, “WOOOOO!” at the same time. I mean, if you’re going to do something…do it with gusto!
It was also around the second or third water stop that we realized that, unlike it was stated in the race guide, Sword was not at every water stop. And this concerned a lot of runners who had planned to use this as their fuel on the course and didn’t bring their own. Every water stop we would ask for the Sword…and were told they just had water. A few runners were already starting to panic as the day was heating up (I shed my arm warmers and was comfortable in a tank), the sun was up, and electrolytes were needed. I always carry my own fuel regardless, so I said I had Nuun Performance if needed…and Linda had salt tabs to offer if needed as well. We FINALLY ran across a stop with Sword at the halfway point. That came as a relief…but the rest of the way…Sword was only in one or two other water stops. That would be my only compliant…mostly from other runners standpoints. I have never trained with Sword and am kind of in love with my Nuun, but I could see the frustration and worry of those I was running with who were looking for Sword at every stop.
That being said, the various farms that we came across were stunning. I particularly liked the one near the end that had spires and is just absolutely stunning. The fact that that is a BARN and not a house still baffles me! Honestly!
Going into this race, I was warned about the hill at Mile 9…the dreaded S-Curve. You start up…it levels out, you round a corner…you go back up. I was prepping for this and the drums pretty much the entire way. This hill is, apparently, notorious! As we were heading toward this hill though, we were coming up another one and had caught up with the wheelchair racer. He was blind as well and had his helper. The runners did good to get over at this point, but Linda said to me…”they will fly past us on the downhill in a few minutes.
She heard them too…and started to shout to the runners to GET TO THE RIGHT! Of course, most did, except those with headphones on. One woman almost got completely taken out because she couldn’t hear the TEN times Linda had shouted at her to move over for the wheelchairs. And then…The hill leading into Mile 10. The dreaded hill I heard so much about.
As we started the climb, a runner started up it with us and said, “This isn’t so bad.” I laughed and said, “Those might be famous last words.” She shook her head. “Nah. I’m from Cincinnati…I run Mount Adams.” And then she picked it up and powered on up the hill
I did hear the drums that I had heard so much about. I was told to put my head down and ignore everything and to just get up the hill. We climbed, turned…and climbed some more. That being said…the hill after that one is probably the one that you’ll hate more than anything.
Linda did pass me her pacer sign at this point to run fast downhill to hit use the bathroom near Mile 10. Mark had me back off the downhill pace (downhill is my favorite speed…this was hard to do, LOL!) and he let Linda know we were going past as we rounded the corner at the water stop and continued onward. Linda is amazing and caught up with us not much longer…on an uphill. We like to make her work for it. After all, running slower than my norm is not easy for me and she had to keep calling me back if I would get too far ahead on the course. Around Mile 10 I had to take a gel. My stomach was rumbling (I was usually done with half marathons at this point and I still had three miles to go) and drank some water with it. It didn’t really do much for the hunger, but my energy was picking back up.
Near the start of the race, Linda had told me that she was going to let me go at Mile 12.1 to spring into the finish line. Just after we passed Mile 11…she said, “You can go.” I looked at her. “Really?” She nodded. “Yes…you can go.” I threw my hands up in the air in a kermit flail and yelled, “YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY” as I took off. And trust me, despite the hills, I had energy to burn at this point. I know I was probably getting the stink eye from some runners at this point. Pretty much legs are done by this point, but the course only has some small rollers with the long not-steep climb at the end to the finish line. So, I’m surging. But, more often than not, what I got was, “You go girl!” “That’s how you finish!” “Looking strong.” “Get it girl!” I loved that. I wasn’t even moving up to race pace at this point, because hills, even at a slower pace, are still hills and my legs weren’t accustomed to running fast. They adjusted.
The final two miles flew by and when I hit the timing mat at Mile 12.1, I tried to pick it up just a little more. They record your final furlong (last mile) and I really hoped to pour on the power and speed. I think I managed to pick it up slightly more, but not where I would feel like I was just…flying. But I felt good. I was having fun. I was smiling. I looked good. And I made the turn to come into the finish line and put on that final push and crossed.
That. Was. Fun.
I had a medal put around my neck and I made my way through the finisher’s chute. The entire time I was heading into the finish, I was looking for Cathy and the sign, but never saw her. Never heard her either (which is weird, because she is always screaming at me at the finish line!). I stopped near the end of the chute, across from the donuts and just…kept raising up on tiptoes expecting to see the sign walking toward me. It never happened.
Ron found me. He had a fantastic race…and there will be couch burning because he ran a 1:40. Totally flew on this course. I was so excited for him. I asked him if he had seen Cathy and he hadn’t. Soon after that, I spotted Linda coming down the chute. She came over to me and asked me my finish time. I said it was 2:04 something…and she said she was in the 2:09’s…right on target for that 2:10 pacer! She’s amazing. I asked if she had seen Cathy and she hadn’t…so…we figured she might be at the ForWord Running tent so we headed that way.
She wasn’t. I told Linda to try calling her, which she did, but Cathy didn’t answer. So, she tried my phone. This time she got her. Cathy had been in a panic for about 20 minutes because she had gotten the time I crossed the mat for 12.1 miles, but never received notification that I had finished. She never saw me sprinting it in. She thought maybe something had happened to me, and of course, having Linda call her didn’t make her feel any better. Linda assured her I was fine and we were at the tent. She came over and looked so relieved.
I ate a few grapes and drank my water, but I knew Cathy and I had a Louisville City soccer match to hit up at 3 pm. With it coming up on noon-ish at this point…Cathy was ready to get back to the hotel so I could shower and we could get on the road back to Louisville. I gave Linda a hug and we started through the masses.
But I did make Cathy stop, even though she didn’t want to at the time, so I could get the infamous Keeneland Starting Gate photo. It had to happen and I was going to be stubborn about this one. I managed to find a short line and pulled myself up to stand in the gate. I felt amazing. Cathy snapped some photos and then had to lift me down because that gate is pretty high up. HA!
Later, when I sent the photo to Melissa, she texted me back and said that was the most genuine smile she had seen on me after a race/run in a long time. She wasn’t lying. I felt amazing. I had so much fun. I could have cared less about my time. Genuine. You better believe it.
So…the official results of the Run The Bluegrass Half Marathon are that I finished it in 2:04:43, running with the 2:10 pacers for the first 11 miles and then being turned loose for the final 2.1. I was 743/3163 finishers overall. I was the 283/1989 for women finishers. And I was 65/388 in my age division. I’m really happy with this. I averaged a 9:32 pace for the race, none of which ever left me feeling like I was dying or about to die. The hardest thing was suddenly being hungry. That never happens. LOL! But this race now holds a near and dear place in my heart…and yeah…I’ve already registered for next year! Can’t wait to smile all over again.