I realize this race recap is long overdue, especially since I have another race coming up very soon! I figure in the spirit of this horribly long and cold winter that seems like it will never end, I would finally post my race recap of my coldest marathon ever, which also happened to be the last medal I earned before I went into hibernation. I’m not kidding when I say I have run outside maybe ONCE this year, my trails basically get covered in snow and ice, start to melt into a slushy impassable swamp, and then just get covered in more snow and ice. I’m pretty much done with winter and unfortunately we got some bad news:
Many races have very specific memories for me: Vermont was the most hot and humid, Montana was the most challenging, Florida (Disney) was the most “fun”. Others sort of just go into the recesses of my brain without too many notable things to say about them (Providence, Rhode Island or Ann Arbor, Michigan both immediately come to mind in this case). But Maryland was by far the coldest race I have ever run.
I had completed a half marathon in Baltimore in 2007, and while I considered going back to B-More to run the full (The Wire is one of my favorite shows so naturally this seemed like a good choice), in the end I decided to run one that was a little more to my liking, and settled for the North Central Trail Marathon in Sparks, Md. There were many reasons for choosing this race: it came at a good time of year (the Saturday after Thanksgiving), it was a small field of runners (capping at 250 for the full and 450 for relay runners) and it was a trail run.
Initially I had a hotel booked for this race, but we decided that week we would rather just drive down and back in the same day; it was only around a two-hour drive and would save us money if we went this route. Having access to a kitchen pre-race is very important for me, and it ensured that I would have no glutening mishaps, plus I had the option of picking up my race packet that morning of the race, which was a huge plus. Race directors, take note, I think this should be an option for ALL marathons. It can be very stressful to travel to a race and try to get to the expo on time, I have had a few close calls and barely managed to grab my number with time to spare.
I’ll be perfectly honest, but this race recap is a blur on many accounts, one being that I can’t remember for the life of me what I had for my pre-race meal the night before. The morning of the race I usually stick to my usual coffee, banana and peanut butter on a waffle or English muffin (Ener-G being my favorite), and I am fairly sure I stuck to this routine.
The one thing I wasn’t sure about was how to dress. When it comes to races, overdressing is something you want to avoid. I have never run a race in anything other than shorts, so it was a first for me to consider pants or capris. In the end, I wore capris, a long sleeved shirt, my Marathon Maniac singlet, my Brooks Akron marathon jacket (to this day, it’s the best race swag I’ve ever received) fingerless gloves, a large headband to cover my ears and a hat over top of that. There’s nothing more I hate than getting an earache from the cold, so whenever there’s a possibility of high winds or cold temps, I keep my ears covered.
On the drive down to MD that morning, I kept glancing at the temperature gauge on my car to see if it was warming up. It held steady at 22 degrees. Yup, it was going to be a cold one. I was starting to wonder if I was underdressed, but figured I would warm up once I got started. The sun had yet to fully rise, so it would definitely be more comfortable by the time the race started at 8:30 AM.
We arrived to the small town of Sparks and it was almost as if a marathon wasn’t even happening. They were just starting to put up the start line and cones, and I saw a handful of runners walking to the Sparks Elementary School where I could pick up my packet. Chris dropped me off and went to find parking, and I went inside to grab my number. It was SO blissfully warm inside, and THAT was where all the runners were: the cafeteria was filled with runners getting their packets, there were lines for the restrooms, and they even had tables loaded with free food, coffee, water and Power Gel. For a small race, it was pretty well-organized and they had a lot of amenities. Having access to actual bathrooms with running water was also a plus!
We were ushered out to the start around 8:15 AM, and it was flat-out cold. 24 degrees with a wind chill of 20. Thankfully the wind wasn’t strong, but the cold was downright biting. I figured once I got started I would be fine, but found myself doing anything I could to stay warm at the start. When the race started, we were on paved roads for the first 1.5 miles, and a lot of the road was a steep downhill…something to look forward to at the finish line, I thought to myself. I was warned by runners around me that this course was overall flat but had some cruel hills in the final stretch, so to hold onto some fuel in the tank if I could. The steep downhill definitely confirmed that, so I just had to remind myself of the final miles at OBX and go with that strategy.
For the first three miles I could barely feel my extremities. My legs felt like numb stumps and my hands and fingers ached painfully, I was going back and forth between making fists and clenching and unclenching my fingers just to get some blood flow, but it was biting and painful almost to the point of tears. I don’t do well in the cold at all, I tend to get horrible numbness in my fingers and toes even when it’s above freezing, so this was agonizing for me.
We turned left off the paved road onto the North Central Trail, which used to be an old railroad that was converted into a nature trail.
Photo: North Central Trail Marathon
The surface was mainly gravel, dirt and cinder, so it was very easy on the joints. The course was also an out-and back, which I always find a little frustrating. I always feel like I am so slow, and having hundreds of runners pass me can be a little demoralizing. At least on a full loop course you don’t know how poorly (or well) you are doing until you get the numbers later. I will say that the course was very well maintained, naturally scenic and beautiful, and quiet. As usual with the smaller races, the spectators were mainly the volunteers, which was OK with me.
While my body eventually accustomed itself to the cold, the temps never really got warmer. The fluid at some of the water stops was slushy, and the temps stayed below freezing for almost the entire race. The wind chill easily kept it below freezing, with a high of 30 degrees. Was I miserable? Initially. But I got used to it and enjoyed myself the best I could. I don’t know if it was the cold, but the runners around me seemed pretty miserable. Few people had any sort of words of encouragement and no one seemed in the mood to chat. One guy kept going back and forth with walk/run breaks and must have passed me 20 times. You would think by then we would have become friends but he never said a word to anyone. And so it went for pretty much the entire race…until the end.
The out-and-back, while scenic, soon grew tiresome. I usually love nature trails, and this course reminded me very much of my unpaved trails back home. I could almost envision myself on one of my training runs as the miles went past. But it was fairly lonely and more than anything I just wanted to be finished and in my warm car heading home. I had to keep telling myself that. I also realized I wasn’t the slowest person out on the course, or dead last (Montana had me thinking that and there was no way of knowing), and there were plenty of people still running the first half when I reached the turn-around point. I don’t know why I even care sometimes, as a 50-stater I am there to finish healthy and strong, not necessarily finish fast or place. But there’s always that little nagging part of me that DOES care, and I need to learn to let it go.
As the miles came to a close, I started mentally preparing myself that the last 1.5 would be uphill, and I needed to be ready. As you can see from the elevation chart, the course basically started with a fairly steep downgrade (with a couple hill climbs just for laughs), and then a very slow upgrade to where the second half would be “downhill”. So the first half of the race was actually a little tougher than expected.
When we hit the paved section of road, I suddenly found my wind, and I did well. The hills didn’t kick my butt nearly as much as I feared, and I found myself passing a LOT of people. In fact, I passed a girl that had managed to keep a strong pace ahead of me for the second half of the race and encouraged her as I passed. Suddenly the mood lifted and the runners were more jubilant. The sun was out, we were in the home stretch, and we were so glad to be finished. It was a good feeling. The finish line loomed on a nice little final uphill climb, and I gave it all I had to finish with a grin and a cheer. I had done it, my sixth marathon for 2013, my 15th state, and my husband was right there waiting for me as proud as he could be.
I received my medal and we headed toward the warm school where I could change and get my bearings. While I was cold (it was 33 degrees before the windchill of a whopping 29), poor Chris stayed in the cold the entire time without any opportunities to get warm unless he stayed in the running car. He did a lot of driving to find a spot to spectate, but the results were fruitless. I saw him once at the old train station, which is where most of the spectators were, but that was it. I would say I had it better than he did, because my body had at least warmed up and acclimated.
I did a cursory look at the finish line spread and managed to grab a bag of chips and a banana, not bad! They also had hot soup, one being a vegan soup that looked amazing but also contained wheat flour…I was very impressed that the ingredients were listed on a card in front of it. The women insisted I had to try what they dubbed “the best soup ever” but declined. When they discovered I had celiac they clucked their tongues and said it was a shame. One piped in “Well, it’s good enough for 99% of the people here at least!” I wasn’t even sure how to respond to that one…I assumed it was meant to be funny, but didn’t see the humor (and trust me, very little in life offends me) in it. But they also assured me they were working on a gluten-free soup for a future winter race, which I found to be encouraging. Gluten-free awareness is definitely evolving in a big way, sometimes in small doses, sometimes in massive strides. I will take whatever I can get!
Heading home I just drank fluids, fluids and more fluids. I ate some of the chips, but really wasn’t feeling much of an appetite. I had some company coming later, so I knew we would have plenty of chances for food. I didn’t even really get a solid meal until maybe 7 PM that night. So it goes…but I will say I went to Wegman’s and got gluten-free vegetarian dumplings to try, along with edamame and some veggie sushi rolls. Can I just say how exciting it was to eat dumplings for the first time in over two years? They stuck to the pan, fell apart and were a real mess to prepare, but they tasted GREAT. Honestly, anything tasted great by that point!
Finish Time: 4:15
Overall Place: 231/422
Gender Place: 69/156
So what will 2014 bring? I have several marathons that I am officially registered for: Austin Marathon, Memorial Day Marathon (Lennox, MA), Hatfield-McCoy Reunion (W.Va.), and Wineglass in Corning, NY. I think I am going to try to get two other states, one of them likely being in Missouri. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, all I cay say is there is only one positive thing about winter. It has to eventually end. It must. So here is my wholehearted salute to the season, and take it as you will: