Your wait is over! @Chasing42 is now firmly entrenched in the Brandywine Valley, and the blog posts can resume. Of course, there is some unfinished business from my time in Iowa, so we’re still in catch-up mode. However, I’ve been doing plenty of exploring in Northern Delaware, so feel free to check out my Strava page for some exciting new runs!
Once the epicurean and I got the news that we’d be heading out east, I knew I wanted to squeeze in as many nearby races as I could before leaving. A friend (and accomplice), Bly, had talked up the Gambler Half-Marathon for a few years now, raving about the flat, fast course, so I figured it was time to check it out for myself. It didn’t take much convincing for him to join me, and we brought along another friend and headed down to Council Bluffs, IA on April 18th for the race the next day. It rained for most of the drive down, and showed no real signs of letting up, which didn’t bode well for the race the next day.
Packet pick-up was a simple stop into a local casino (how appropriate, right?), and we had plenty of time to head to our hosts’ (friend’s parents) for the night to enjoy a delicious home-cooked meal. I hadn’t given too much thought to goals for this race, and more intended to enjoy the experience and have fun being out there. Thus, I was pretty relaxed. I hadn’t necessarily been training for the distance, or tapering, but that’s pretty par for the course at this point. It’s strange to find myself looking at any race from a marathon down as a training run but it’s a place I’m happy to be at, fitness-wise.
The alarm went off way to early, as it always does, and we all quietly got dressed and had a small breakfast. The Cliff bar and banana I had packed provided the perfect level of nourishment about 2 hours before the race. The rain, wind, and gloomy skies kept our excitement at bay, but all three of us had a pretty laid-back attitude about the whole experience. We got to the starting area, and were able to park only a few hundred yards from the start, which is always an advantage of a small race.We waited in the car as long as we could to avoid the rain, which was coming down pretty steadily by that point and showed no signs of letting up. Eventually the urge to use the porta-potty took over, and we relegated ourselves to standing in line and getting wet. By the time the race started, I was already soaked to the bone, and shivering. The start could not come soon enough!
We headed to the starting line prior to the 8AM start, and I somehow found myself starting alarmingly close to the front of the pack. This was new territory for me, even with the small field, and I tried not to second guess myself as Bly reassured me that we were in a good position for the field. Although I had kept my ambitions at bay prior to the race, I considered the possibility of going out fast and seeing how long I could hang out. It’s weird to think of a half-marathon as more of a sprint, but in the context of running 50 and 100 miles, it is in some ways. My official PR heading into the race was 1:46, although I had hit 1:42 during the Des Moines Marathon last fall. Either way, I felt like I could set a new mark if the course was indeed as flat as advertised. My goal then became to stay as close to 7:30 miles as possible and see what happened.
The gun went off, and the pack spread out quick with the lead group of 6 or 7 runners creating distance after a 1/2 mile or so. Our young friend has quite the set of wheels, and we both thought he had a chance at competing for a podium finish if he stuck to his pace and kept pushing. He shot out fast and had disappeared within the first mile, which we took as a good sign. Bly and I decided to run together as long as we could, but listen to our bodies and let whatever pace we had guide us. The first mile ticked off in 7:11, and the next two flew by almost as quick in 7:21 and 7:27 respectively. I could tell I was moving a bit faster than I should have been, but I was almost too busy enjoying the speed and avoiding giant puddles to notice. I made the poor choice to wear my Hoka One One Cliftons. Although they are light, fast shoes, the thick soles don’t drain water nearly as efficiently as some of my other shoes, and I was quickly gaining weight on my feet.
I held true to my pace goal through the half-way point, and the course was indeed just as flat as I had hoped. The constant light rain ceased to be as much of an issue once I warmed up, but the puddle-jumping did mean I couldn’t zone out quite as much as I would have liked. After the turn-around (out-and-back course), my legs were starting to feel the fatigue of that 7:30/mile pace, and I gave myself permission to let up a bit, gunning for closer to 7:40/mile. Around mile 8, Bly began to pull away a bit, and although I kept him in sight through mile 10 or 11, I’d never catch up. Nevertheless, I kept pushing, eyeing one landmark at a time as I moved through the miles. I was keeping fairly well hydrated, but taking in nutrition was a bit harder at those speeds, and I figured I’d risk it and avoid fumbling with a ziplock bag of Honey Stinger chews and stick to water.
The last three miles were definitely a struggle and I was pushing myself fairly close to my threshold pace, which was encouraging despite the pain in my legs and my labored breathing. The last mile of the course was a tad confusing, with several turns to get us to the finish, but the end was in sight. I had just enough energy for a final kick in the last 1/4 mile, and it felt great to leave it all out on the table as I crossed the finish line, gasping for air. More importantly, I had come oh-so-close to my 7:30/mile pace goal, and finished in 1:38:54, which was a HUGE PR!
Bly had finished only a few minutes before me, and our speedy friend crushed it in 1:27 (well, actually 1:22 for a short race caused by a lead biker who missed a turn and led the lead pack astray), which was good enough for 3rd place overall. We hung out near the finish line for a bit, had a beer, and tried to get dry under a small tend, next to the Blackjack table that was part of the theme for the race. We initially wanted to wait for the awards ceremony, but they ended up canceling it due to the weather and agreed to send out the awards. They ended up having to get new awards made because the originals were ruined in the rain, which was unfortunate. I’m not entirely sure why they kept everything out in the rain, but I’m sure it’s a lesson they’ve now learned.
Overall, the course was indeed incredibly fast and obviously PR-worthy. The volunteers were spread out nicely, and there was some crowd support but nothing extraordinary. The organizers did a nice job under difficult conditions, and were very apologetic about some of the logistical errors, and generally seemed very responsive to feedback. We all dried off as best we could, and headed to Perkins for a warm breakfast, and a much-needed hot cup of coffee. It was a quick race trip, but still a very enjoyable weekend, and a race that I will not soon forget! Race 1 of 6 was completed in my farewell tour :) #chasing42
“No, it was not the money that I valued—what I wanted was to make all this mob of Heintzes, hotel proprietors, and fine ladies of Baden talk about me, recount my story, wonder at me, extol my doings, and worship my winnings.”