The Garden Spot Village Half Marathon is situated in beautiful Amish country, and I have been part of the pace team for the past three years. There’s both a half marathon and full marathon, and I pace the half. The timing is perfect: a little more than a week out from Boston, and it’s the distance and pace I’d normally be running that day anyway. I usually pace the 1:45 team. A few weeks before the race, the guy who coordinates the pacers asked if I’d be willing to switch to the 1:40 time slot. That’s about a 7:38 pace. My training had been going well, and I’d been doing my long runs a touch faster than that so I figured it would be a better fit than the 1:45 time slot anyway. I agreed.
This is a Saturday race, and the race director invites the pacers to come to the pasta dinner for free the night before. He knows most of us come from about an hour away, so he puts us up in a nearby hotel for the night. I look forward to this mini-getaway each year.
I got to the pasta party and grabbed my packet. The organization that hosts this race is a non-profit, and they pull out all of the stops. My swag bag was an awesome: a clear tote adorned with the race emblem and a zipper that would be great to use for bag check for future races. It came stuffed with lots of goodies, including THREE shirts! The racers got two shirts – a short sleeved tech tee, and a short sleeved cotton tee (the cotton tee is SUPER cute!), but the pacers got an additional pacer shirt. The pasta dinner had all of the usual items and then some – pasta (regular, whole wheat, gluten free), meatballs, garlic bread, sweet potatoes, coffee, tea, iced tea, cookies, chocolate cake. After eating our fill of food and chatting with the race director, we headed to the hotel.
I got a decent night’s sleep and woke up around 5:30 am. Oddly enough, the forecast was calling for snow. Being as it was April 9th, I simply didn’t believe it. I got up and looked outside. Nothing. I was certain it would just be colder than average but with no precipitation. I typically wear shorts and my pacer shirt for this race, but this year required some warmer clothes. Tights, a long sleeved shirt with the short sleeved pacer tee over it, gloves and a headband. I hit the road to get to the race just before 7 am, and the first few flakes were beginning to fall. It was actually snowing!
I got to the start and headed to the heated tent to stay warm and dry. By this point, the snow was coming down pretty hard. They had coffee and hot tea set up for the runners, so I grabbed a coffee and chatted with the runners and pacers. My concern wasn’t that we had to run in the snow. I enjoy snowy runs, and a snowy run through Amish country would be spectacular. My concern was with holding a certain pace in the snow. If it stuck to the roads, I wasn’t confident I could do it. I lined up at the start and found I was the fastest pacer. The fastest marathon pacer was 3:25, so it was likely that I would have a few marathoners attempting a sub-3:20 finish starting with me.
Several runners came over and introduced themselves to me, and told me they wanted to break 1:40. They asked what my strategy was, and I planned to keep even splits throughout the entire race with the exception of the notorious mile eight hill. Keeping even splits as a pacer is important because you can’t cater to how each individual runner trains. I did a post about this with tips for being a pacer following the Hartford Marathon.
As with most races, being familiar with the course helps tremendously. I know from past years of pacing Garden Spot that as we descend the hill, we should pick up the pace. It’s a significant climb coming back up. If I keep the pace up the hill on the way back, runners often get discouraged and begin to walk. The plan was to run that hill on effort. The mile with the hill has 243 feet of elevation gain, but only 21 feet of elevation loss:
Side note: If you run the marathon, that uphill welcomes you at mile 22. Mean!
As the gun went off, I had a large group of people and it was snowing pretty hard. Everyone was quiet, so I talked. I don’t usually talk about myself but I could tell within the first mile that the group was working. Lots of heavy breathing. I checked my watch religiously to ensure we were not moving too quickly. I needed to keep a consistent pace, but also knew I might lose runners at the beginning of the first climb (about mile 3).
I thanked the group for keeping me company on my last long run for Boston. They seemed to really like that and perked up almost immediately. It got some runners chatting about upcoming races, and I asked where everyone was from. I wanted to make sure the effort was appropriate for the group so I tried to get them talking to listen to their breathing. I wanted to hold 7:30-35 pace to ensure we came in just under 1:40. As pacers for this race, we are asked to bring the crew in around in whatever your goal is, but ideally a few seconds under.
We settled right in and held 7:30s pretty consistently from that point on. It was snowing so hard that it was almost white out conditions, but thankfully wasn’t sticking to the roads. It was one of the most beautiful races I’ve ever run – the snow blanketing the farmland and farmhouses was a magnificent sight. The mile markers were on little street cones, and I missed the first one because I couldn’t see it. I was trying to run the tangents but came up on mile two and noticed the mile marker was positioned .06 after my Garmin indicated we were at mile two. I hit lap and decided I should continue to try to run the tangents, but to stick to 7:30-7:32 pace in the event every mile was off this way.
After the first series of hills, I found myself running alone. I was worried and disappointed that I’d burned the group out. I caught up to two runners that were from the area and we chatted. You could tell that both of them were very comfortable and were actually slowing down to talk to me. I told them that I loved their company but to drop me if they had energy. They did, and I later found out that they ran 1:36!
I hit the big downhill solo, and started cruising down. About half of my original pack crept up behind me and someone said, “We finally caught you!” They told me they knew I was on pace and were trying to keep me in their sights. They knew the second half of the course was more downhill, and wanted to try to catch up to me at that point. This relieved me, knowing that they could see me and used me as their “rabbit”.
The turnaround on the course is well over halfway into the run. It’s somewhere around mile 7.5. It’s nice because you have one HUGE climb, and then it really is almost all downhill from there. We started climbing the hill and once again, the pack dropped off. I was holding about an eight minute pace for that mile, and when I reached the top I picked it up a little to try to earn some of the time back. One by one, the pack caught up with me. Each time, I told them that the rest was downhill so they needed to go and make sure I didn’t catch them. For most of the runners that passed me, it worked. Most came in well under 1:40. Some fell behind, and I didn’t see them again.
By this point, I was absolutely freezing. I was soaked, and my hand was numb and cold from holding my 1:40 sign. I reeealllyyy had to pee because I hadn’t gone before the race started in an attempt to stay warm and dry for as long as possible. I could hear footsteps and breathing as a runner was coming behind me. I slowed my pace and let the runner catch up to me. As he approached, he looked pretty strong, so I encouraged him to take off and not let me catch him. He laughed and said, “Maybe at mile 12.” We ran together for awhile in silence, and at mile 12 he took off.
I finished alone, but I still felt happy with the job I did pacing because many of the runners “beat” me. Maybe that’s the name of the game for 1:40. If you can get in under that 1:40 mark, why not? I finished in 1:39:52. I hope I paced the runners accordingly, because I had a lot of fun with that pace.
After the race, I typically like to stick around to watch the runners finish, and to hang with the rest of the pace team. The post race food at this race is fabulous – omelettes, oatmeal, etc. The race director puts on quite the event, and I highly recommend this course to anyone looking for a challenging spring half. I was cold and soaking wet so I made a beeline for my car and my warm clothes. Once I got changed, I was still freezing. I couldn’t talk myself into going back out into the snow, so I headed to Starbucks before getting on the road. I was also concerned about the long drive home in the “winter” weather. At this point, the conditions were like this:
It was so beautiful, but so slushy and wet. I can’t imagine the marathoners that were still out there for hours running in that. Imagine being a first time marathoner that day. You pick an April race thinking the weather might be ideal, but you get February conditions. What a way to experience 26.2 for the first time. If that doesn’t make you badass, I don’t know what does!
I ended up being the 7th female and got 2nd in my age group. I’m listed as earning that award but I hope they gave it to the someone else because I don’t feel right about it. It was not my day to be winning; I was there to help others achieve their goals. When I crossed the finish line, they took my tag from my bib (even though it was chip timed) and I told the volunteer to not put me on the board. My name is still listed in the awards. Since I didn’t stick around this time, I don’t know for sure what happened.
I love ending my Boston training with pacing! After having a great training cycle and some spectacular races, I like being able to give back to the running community before my goal race. This was quite the different experience, but still just as rewarding.
Have you ever been a pacer before? Do you ever volunteer at races?