Oh deer! Hills and more at the March Madness Half Marathon

The first mile

The first mile Photograph: werphotos.net

Sometimes I wonder what possesses me to do the crazy things I do for running. While many shamrock-hat wearing Chicagoans were reveling in pre-St. Paddy’s day craziness on Saturday night, I was packing up my gym bag and setting my alarm for 5:30am so I could drive the hour and fifteen minutes north up to Cary, Illinois to run the March Madness Half Marathon on Sunday 15. I’m running the Boston Marathon in about six weeks and wanted a chance to (finally!) run outdoors, get my nutrition routine down, remember how painful pre-race jitters can be—basically go through the race-day motions. And emotions.


The race registration opened at midnight on December 31st. So I’m not kidding when I say you have a screw loose to be one of the people who jumps out of bed on January 1, boots up the computer, and nabs one of the 1,000 or so spots before the race sells out in 29 hours flat. (The race, put on by the Crystal Lake–based Hillstriders Running Club, sponsors the Fritz Kaufman Scholarship for McHenry County High School Senior distance runners.) Why does a race that’s known as the hilliest 13.1 miles in Illinois—that’s likely to take place on a frigid day, and that’s over an hour outside of the city—fill up so fast? I figured it was because every Chicagoland runner training for a spring marathon is desperate to get a race under his or her belt before the biggie. But now that I’ve run the March Madness Half, I think the charm of the event and of Cary itself have a lot to do with the allure.


I arrived about an hour before the start gun went off and was happy to find the Cary Grove High School was open for runners to lounge in before the race. We took over the gymnasium, cafeteria and bathrooms, sprawling in lycra and fleece and noshing on bananas, toast and—mmm—energy gels. I like to keep to myself before a race so I killed time by listening to my Nano, reading a magazine, and pinning and unpinning my race number. And before I knew it, it was time to ditch my headphones and bag in my car and head to the start-line.


“Bang!” went the gun and suddenly we were off. The race begins on a slight downhill and even though I felt like I was taking it easy, all of the Garmin-wristed runners calling out their current pace to their running partners alerted me I'd fallen prey to the oldest mistake in the book: starting too fast. I reined in the speedy pace and tried to find a rhythm over the first three miles, where we encountered “rollers”—in running parlance, those are mellow hills with ups and downs that wake up your legs, but aren’t so challenging that they leave you breathless. When we hit the mile three marker we were treated to a trio of spectators I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing on a race course: deer!


Soon after the deer, I settled into a quicker-than-planned-for pace that felt (happily!) maintainable, and fixated my eyes on the runners just ahead: a fit twenty-something with a pixie-cut, a pony-tailed brunette in black shorts and a green top and a guy in an orange long-sleeve shirt. Just stick with these folks, I kept thinking, and you’ll have a great day out here. On roads that felt worlds away from my usual running environs—a treadmill or the frozen lakepath—we saw ponds, a nature conservatory and beautiful homes with expansive lawns. It was a breath of fresh air from the city.


The shiny, happy, Bambi euphoria didn’t last much longer. Starting at mile 5, we began climbing hill...after hill…after hill. “This is a hell of a hill!” one fifty-something year old man barked as I settled in beside him for a stretch. At the next one: “This ain’t no slouch either!” In mile 11 we trudged up the worst of them all—“Heartbreak Hill,” nicknamed after a similarly frustrating behemoth in mile 20 of the Boston Marathon—a long, steep climb that takes the wind right out of your sails with its brutal placement near the end of the race. Legs already screaming, breathing heavy and sweat pouring down your face, you just have to grit your teeth, get your head in the game, and power on up it.


In the final few miles, through residential streets, runners were spurred along by scarf- and parka-clad neighborhood folks, who sat on lawn chairs and rang cowbells to keep our spirits up. (Thank you, Cary fans!) For miles I’d been telling myself I’d pick it up at the end, but with two to go I had no steam left to push it into the next gear. Just hold this effort and it'll be over soon, I kept telling myself. I finished at about the pace I’d held in the early miles, which was just fine with me. And when I crossed the finish line, I had a new half PR (and some very wobbly legs) to drive home with. (I've been practicing hills on the treadmill and surprised myself by not sucking too much wind on each one.)


With the shining sun, the cool morning air, a course filled with beautiful country roads—plus some deer for good measure—the March Madness Half was totally worth the trek about 140 of the 1,019 runners made from Chicago. An experience like yesterday’s, I’m left thinking, is why runners like me keep signing up for this craziness.



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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)

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