Race Report: GroundHog Midnight Run

OR: When Race Weekends go Awry!

I like to think of myself as a pretty determined person.  I finish what I start.  And when it comes to running, I work hard and train hard so that I can ‘go the distance’ on Race Day.  Not that I am perfect.  In fact, sometimes I feel downright lazy compared to some of my running buddies.  But I do the very best I can and I can live with that.

This winter has been a difficult one from a weather perspective -- very cold here in Chicagoland (temps as low as -20F with windchills of -45F at times) and lots of snow (52 inches have fallen so far).  I have done a lot of training runs in this weather because I prefer running outside over hitting the Treadmill.  My last run outside was January 4th in the midst of a snowstorm (which was fun by the way).  Since then, temps below zero have forced me to head to LifeTime Fitness and their rows of treadmills and stationary bikes.

But I figured I was ‘badass enough’ to run the GroundHog Day ‘Whole Hog’ race weekend – a 1/6th Marathon night race (4.4 miles) followed by a Half Marathon the next day.  The race directors were very clear: the park path is not plowed or prepared ahead of time for the race. You run against whatever Nature puts in your way.  This is a winter challenge to be sure.  They don’t cancel due to wimpy things like rain or snow.  It sounded like the Polar Dash Half (which I did in 2012) on steroids.  I was game!

So Saturday morning I was driving to Grand Rapids, MI to have some ‘fun’!  That turned out to be my first ‘adventure’.  The highways were barely plowed so the going was slow and careful.  At one point, the car started to swerve and slide towards the center grassy (well snow-filled) divider on I-94.  I had no traction at all.  It took about 5 seconds to carefully guide the car back on the straight and narrow (it felt like minutes).

Quite scary!  I saw many cars and light trucks sitting in that ditch as I continued on for the next mile or so.  Thankfully, I avoided their fate.  What usually takes me 3.5 hours to complete, took me 5 hours this time.  But I did make it to the hotel safely.

I checked in, got myself settled, and rested a few hours before heading out to the race HQ for packet pickup (and to make sure I knew how to get there during the daylight).  No problems there.  I grabbed my two bibs and went back to the hotel.

Then came time for the 1/6th Marathon night race.  The 4.4 mile loop for this race is the same course that the Half Marathon (made up of three loops) would take the next morning. So I signed up for this in order to get a feel for the course, so that I could make better gear choices for the Half.  I wanted to know the course conditions ahead of time.  That was the best decision I ever made!

The weather was a comfortable 25F with very little wind.  I was dressed well for the run with compression tights and UA underwear, a long-sleeve tech shirt under my Marathon Maniac sweatjacket, and my LifeTime running jacket over that. I had double gloves, my Polar Dash beanie, and YakTrax over my running shoes (which I had duct taped to try to keep my feet dry).  Of course, I had my head lamp with me.  I was prepared.  I was ready.

When the race started, I knew this was going to be different and a lot more difficult.  The snow was much deeper than I had anticipated, and it was all new, unpacked snow so there was no support or stable ground layer to land on.  I tried to run but with snow between 7-11 inches deep, it was just not possible (at least for 245lb me).  It was more like hiking through tall brush/dirt/sand, high stepping all the way.  I wasn’t cold at all.  But it was hard to find solid footing with the snow causing my feet to slide sideways and diagonally, with varying depths at each step.  Those stabilizer muscles in my ankles, calves, thighs, and hips were working overtime!

At one point, I stepped down on my right foot and went down about a foot into the snow.  I was not prepared for that, and I had to kneel in the snow to keep from falling down.  Then without any leverage, it was a bit hard to get myself back up. LOL!  But I did, and kept at it.  My steps were uneven and several times I almost rolled my ankle.  When I reached the 1.5 mile marker, 35 minutes had passed.  35 minutes to go 1.5 miles?  And I had 3 more miles to go!  My heart was pounding and I felt somewhat out of breath. This was really hard!

I made a very difficult decision.  I decided to stop and take my very first DNF (did not finish) in three years of running.  There was a path at the mile marker leading up to the road (a plowed road) which would take me back to the entrance of the park and the race HQ.  I took that exit route with another runner who was also having difficulties (turned out he has been running for over 7 years and had run numerous marathons). We got back to race HQ, had some hot chocolate and a cookie, told the timer we DNFed, and I drove myself back to the hotel.

Back at the room, I showered, changed, and had a nice Cobb Salad for dinner.  Then I spent some time in a videochat with my W.I.S.H. Team Captain Vicky (FaceTime is my friend).  We discussed everything that happened.  DNFing my first race was depressing and deflating.  I’ll be honest -- my male ego took a ‘hit’.  But she helped me keep things in perspective.  And she helped me work through options as we debated what to do with regard to the Half the next day.  Vicky, I owe you a lot!  Thanks! :)

So, why did I stop? Several things went through my mind during those 1.5 miles.  First, a course with that much snow is a risky proposition.  It would be very easy to twist an ankle, sprain/pull a muscle, strain your back, or otherwise sustain an injury.  Had this been a training run, I would never have chosen to run on a path with that much snow for that long a distance.

Secondly, I had to put this race into the greater perspective of my Spring race goals. This was supposed to be more of a ‘fun race’ with a 13 miler that fit into my overall training plan for the upcoming Los Angeles Marathon.  But with these conditions, it certainly wasn’t going to do much to prepare me for L.A., and it might ruin my chance to race there if I got injured.

Lastly, this was supposed to be ‘fun’.  And truth be told, I was not having any fun.  In fact, this is probably the first race where I wasn’t feeling the ‘fun’.  So I decided to take a DNF for this night race in order to focus on getting to my “A” race ready to run.  My racing team's motto states that a "Did Not Finish" is better than a "Did Not Start".

I wasn’t the only one who made this decision.  Only 56 runners finished the night race.  There were at least 150 people at the start of the race.  Maybe more (the race cap was 250).  But even if I had been the only person to stop, I still think it was the best decision for me at that time.  There will always be more races to conquer.

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