Hokie Half Marathon 2016 Race Recap

Oh my gosh I have so much to say about this race but all I really want to say is that it was the BEST race. THE BEST. I was so happy and my heart was so full I thought it might actually burst. It was so much more than I was expecting - because what did I really have to expect from a little ol' half marathon after training for an Ironman for 4 months? - and not in any ways that are quantifiable but it was a rare day for me when numbers truly did not matter.

My Blacksburg running came to an abrupt end 2 months before we moved when I injured my foot in March, so I guess you could say I had some unfinished business to take care of. I ran the Hokie Half in 2014 (my first sub-2!) and 2015, and just because I'm not local anymore wasn't a good enough reason to skip this year. The distance fit in perfectly with my Ironman taper and I was missing those mountains something fierce, so after making a deal with my coach to take it easy, I signed up!

Luckily this wasn't at all a goal race for me, because the days before were less than ideal. I had originally planned to drive up Saturday after my bike ride, be there in time for dinner and maybe a walk or shake out run around campus before going to bed early. Then the week of the race, my parents told me they were going to surprise my grandparents with a visit that weekend. My grandfather has had some health problems this summer and I haven't seen him in a while, and since their house is in northwestern North Carolina, my Blacksburg trip would already put me much closer than I am in DC. so instead I moved my 50-mile long ride to the trainer after work on Friday, got up at 5am on Saturday, and drove what ended up being 6.5 hours to Sparta, NC.  I met up with my parents and visited with my grandparents for a few hours before making the almost 2-hour drive to Blacksburg before packet pickup ended at 9pm. It was close to 10pm by the time I got settled - not at all the day I had originally planned, but being with my family was more important.

Although it wore me out, those hours of driving ended up having a major silver lining when I spent a couple of them talking to my sister-in-law on the phone. We ended up having a really eye-opening discussion about how I've been feeling about Ironman training, how I just haven't been happy training and I feel like it won't even matter what happens on race day because I won't be happy no matter what. I don't think I've made it a secret that I've been in a dark place about training, but talking to her finally helped me see the light. I truly felt lighter after that and went to bed feeling completely open and excited about running the race in the morning!

Race Morning

There is no parking directly at the start line, so I parked in a big parking lot about a mile and a half away. I got there in plenty of time and was planning to take the race shuttle from the parking lot to the start, but my coach had written in 15 minutes of a short run/stretching warm up, so I walked for a few minutes and then ran just under a mile to the start. I got there with just enough time to hit the porta-potty and get into the corral!

I was exhausted, but I really tried to make myself focus on being happy and making the best of this race. I had every reason to be grateful that morning, not the least of which was being in a beautiful place I love so dearly. There is nowhere that makes me feel as grateful for taking up running as Blacksburg does. When I first moved there as a college freshman, I was a depressed 17-year-old with anxiety and low self-esteem and no confidence. Although I could never pick just one thing that pulled me out of that hole, I can attribute a lot of it to becoming a runner and overcoming obstacles I never thought possible. When I moved back to Blacksburg two years ago, and nine years after my first stint in college there, I was a completely different person. I was strong, confident, and willing to take on anything and fight for what I wanted and believed I could achieve (as evidenced by the fact that the reason I had moved back was because I had quit my job to go to engineering school at 25). There is no place that simultaneously reminds me where I've been and where I'm going - and I need that reminded now more than ever.

I darted into a random spot in the corral, and as I turned to face the start line, there was an M dot literally right in my face. The guy I had randomly stood behind was decked out in Ironman gear - at first I didn't think anything of it since I've done more tris than running races lately and there are Ironman logos everywhere, but then I remembered this was a running race, and although that wasn't unusual, it wasn't very common either. I took that as a sign from the Universe, another thing to think about in addition to what I'd talked to my sister-in-law about, and another reminder of why I was running.

Miles 1-4
(9:04, 9:05, 9:13, 9:08)

Since I have run this a couple times before, the course was familiar to me, but not so familiar that it was boring. The first few miles run from Blacksburg to the next town over, Christiansburg. There are rolling hills but i in elevation, it's a net downhill. Because of that, and a little bit of wind at our backs, I knew I was getting some help and wasn't too surprised or worried to see those first few miles pop up in the low 9s. If I'd really been practicing IM pacing I would have gone for more like 9:30-10:00, but rather than sticking to a strict pace I just wanted to run how I felt.

My goals for this race were simple: to not get injured, to not run too fast and trash my body, and to practice Ironman pacing, which really just meant run on feel. Just after mile 2, I got another goal: don't get sick. I could hear a guy behind me coughing his lungs up and getting closer to me, so I tried to move as far to the right as I could to get away from him. It was the kind of cough that could have been from being sick or could have been a chronic thing, but when he ran past me and I could see his head and neck sweating profusely, two miles in and in under 50 degree weather, I was pretty sure I knew which one it was. I tried to stay away from him but we kept going back and forth which each other, each time with me praying to all that is good in the world that I wouldn't catch some errant germs. I even thought about just taking a walk break for a few minutes to put some distance between us. That probably makes me an asshole but with two weeks to IM, ain't nobody got time for that! 

Just after mile 3 we finally turned (for the first time in 2 miles) at the entrance to the mall and a big shopping center. Last year there was a bit of running through the parking lot during this section, but this year it was back to the original course and we ran directly to the Huckleberry Trail. That was right before mile 4, and the trail is almost 6 miles long, so it makes up the majority of the course! 

Miles 4-10
(9:26, 9:42, 9:36, 9:19, 9:15, 9:32)

The Huckleberry Trail runs between Christiansburg  and Blacksburg, so the next several miles took us back to Blacksburg. Like I said before, it was a net downhill during the first few miles, so that means a net uphill going the opposite direction. There are some sections of the trail with rolling hills, mainly at either end, but even the flatter sections in between still have a slight incline. It's not enough to really notice, but you can definitely feel the effects after you've been running for a while.

I have biked on the trail more than I've run it, but I have run on it several times and I've even run the entire thing once or twice (the first time was actually the first time I ever ran a sub-2 half on a training run!). I can't even remember the last time I ran on any portion of it - I think it was January or February? - so I really soaked it all in! The first few miles are wooded and there are streams flowing alongside it. It was such a perfect fall day and the way the light came in through the trees was just breathtaking. 

Around mile 4 I got passed by Coughing Guy again, and it was at that time I realized I needed to really focus on my goals for the day. I was still dancing with a pace that would put me at a sub-2 if I pushed just a little bit more to speed up and hold it. For a minute I thought about it, but then I realized...running a sub-2 that day would be absolutely pointless. I know I can run a sub-2. I have a handful of them to prove it. I had nothing to prove today, so I didn't need another one. 

What I did need was to practice running 13.1 miles and finishing feeling like I could run another 13.1 (like, literally). So that's what I focused on for the rest of the race. It felt counterintuitive to think that running slower would actually get me closer to my ultimate goal, but at the same time it was so freeing. In that moment I just gave in to what I already knew and had been feeling about that race and that day: I wasn't there to race. I was there to run free.

Just before mile 7 we started to hit rolling hills again and I was actually surprised at how well I handled them, especially considering I don't really run hills in DC the way I used to in Blacksburg (DC is hilly but in a different way).  There is a lot of construction on the highway that's parallel to the trail in that area, so we actually ended up taking about a half mile detour before hopping back on the trail like normal.

The last mile of the trail flattens out quite a bit and is much more civilized since it passed through campus and some of the surrounding neighborhoods before ending in town. We reached the end around mile 9.5 and then turned into the neighborhood adjacent to the trail.

Miles 10-13.1
(9:12, 9:07, 9:14)

After the slow climb of the Huckleberry comes a really hilly neighborhood. There's a climb maybe a third of a mile long as soon as you enter the neighborhood, and the 10-mile marker is just beyond the crest of the hill. 

At this point I should probably mention that the volunteers were AMAZING! They were all either high school kids or cadets from the corps and they were just so enthusiastic and encouraging and adorable. I tried to say thank you to as many of them as I could. I can't imagine that's a super fun way for kids to spend a Sunday morning but they sure made it seem fun!

For the last few miles I was really focused on not letting the excitement of being almost done get to me, and sticking to my plan of saving my legs as much as possible. The last couple miles ended up being totally different than previous years - instead of cutting back over to the trail and then approaching the finish from the north, we ended up going out to Main Street. This was actually fun for me for a couple reasons: the road out to Main Street was one I'd never been on before so that was new, and where we came out on Main Street was close to the boxing gym and we ended up running by the gym! For a second I was hoping our old trainer might be our cheering people on - he wasn't, but that still gave me something to think about for a few minutes.

Time was going by pretty quickly at this point, as it usually does during the last couple miles of races. So many spectators were encouraging us to keep moving and to finish strong, and it felt so strangely empowering to me to not push myself during that last stretch, and to know that I was exactly where I needed to be. I have pushed myself so many times, fought to the finish, but not today. That just wasn't what it was for and honestly, during those last couple miles I don't know if I even really wanted the race to end. 

We hit a half-mile long hill at mile 12 - an unexpected and not entirely welcomed alteration to the course this year - and, I know this is cheesy, but as I made my way up, up, up, it truly felt like a metaphor for my Ironman training. I saw so many people walking and yes it was hard, especially at that point in the race, and it would have been so easy to just slow down to walk to get to the top but then I thought - I didn't make it this far to stop now. And as I said that in my head, I knew I wasn't really talking about that hill. 

When we got to the top of the hill there was a turn and then it continued a little bit more, but finally it crested and we made our way to the finish. There are a couple of rollers in the last half mile, but after the last little bump there's a nice downhill to the finish. As I got closer and closer to the finish I really wasn't ready for it to be over! I stopped just after the mile 13 marker to take a photo and I felt like people must have been looking at me like I was crazy, but I had to do it! It was such a beautiful end to such a beautiful day.

I can honestly say that I enjoyed every single second of this race. That's not to say that I wasn't counting down the miles from the beginning, but that was more so out of habit and about trying to keep my mind occupied than it was about wishing the miles away. It was so freeing to know that I didn't have to worry about my pace or try to push myself, and to just enjoy the journey on my way to something bigger. It truly felt like a little celebration of all my hard work over the last few months. It was one day when I got to do something I loved in a place I loved, without fear or anxiety or any reason to have any negative thoughts. I felt as fresh as the mountain air.


  1. 'There is no place that simultaneously reminds me where I've been and where I'm going'- i'm not crying, you're crying.
    how cool you randomly got behind a guy decked out in ironman gear. totally a sign :)
    i would totally run to get away from the coughing guy, ironman coming up or not! ew.
    enthusiastic or nice volunteers always make me teary, totally awkward whilst running, but i can't help it.
    i'm so happy this was such a fabulous race for you, seriously! so, any big plans for this weekend?
    just kidding :)

  2. Not ideal that it added some kinks to the original plan, but so great that you got to spend some time with family when it sounds like it was really important for all of you. Great way to start a really life-affirming and heartening race experience! Blacksburg was THE best place for you to be during your IM taper, I'm sure of it.

    The guy coughing all over the place? Kind of a jerk. That would have been a good time for him to invest in a face mask or something, even like the paper hospital ones. So many people in small space, breathing heavy and sharing close quarters? Don't show up sick, guy.

    I need some of that good run free feeling, and so reading this was inspiring. And also, that uphill reminds me of where Brian picked me up near the end of City of Oaks (it actually made me picture that Go Pro video!) -- thanks for that reminder, too. Gorgeous picture from the last mile marker; it really does look like a perfect day.