Last weekend I ran the 2016 Oregon Wine Country Half Marathon. It was my first time running it since it was established in 2011 and afterward I couldn’t believe what I had been missing all these years. It was by far one of the prettiest courses I’d ever experienced and one of the most challenging too. Being in wine country there were lots of rolling hills and a long gravel stretch in the later miles. I admit I’ve shied away from it in the past because I had heard how difficult it was. I would only sign up for the flattest courses I could find, thinking that was the only way I could successfully run a fast time.
Let’s rewind a little bit. A couple months ago I flew to the east coast to run the Virginia Wine Country Half, part of the same Destination Races series. I was in great shape based on a stretch of good workouts and I was ready to prove it. On a humid day and on a tough, rolling course similar to the one in Oregon, I ran my heart out for the first six or seven miles, completely hit the wall, had a very painful second half, ran a big positive split, and lost my first place position within the last two miles of the race. That was one big slice of humble pie.
This summer I began my training building up to the Chicago Marathon in October. My coach Greg suggested running the Oregon Wine Country Half as a fitness check point. It was a no brainer- it would be like getting a do-over after Virginia! I thought of all the things that I wished I would have done differently. Go out relaxed. Don’t run scared. Trust in your fitness.
Trusting in my fitness was a big one for me. The night before running Oregon I thought of one of the marathoners I admire the most, Desi Linden. Every time I’ve watched her compete, she has always seemed so cool and calm. She would always run her own race and not allow herself to get swept up in the pack. You have to have a lot of confidence in yourself to be able to let other runners go. On the flip side it takes guts to keep the pace honest and quick when no one else wants to take the reins. I told myself to be like Des!
At the wee dark hour of five in the morning on race day, my husband André and friend Dani trekked out to wine country. As we approached the start area at Stoller Family Estate, we were treated to the most beautiful sunrise over Mt. Hood with a hot air balloon dotting the horizon. The general atmosphere among runners was calm and carefree. Everyone was stopping to take photos of the pretty scenery before dropping their bags.
The start line of the race was stacked, as there were at least three women that have run Olympic qualifying marks (including my Oiselle teammate Lyndy Davis) in various events plus some of the fastest runners in the Portland area. In a way that took some of the pressure off. I wasn’t out trying to make the podium. I just wanted to run the best I could on that day.
The race began on a nice little downhill out of the Stoller Family Estate and from then through mile six or so the course dipped and rolled along. The faster runners probably had 20-30 seconds on me by the first mile mark, but hey, if I were up there with them I’d be worried! I was a tad fast in my first mile at 6:19 but settled into the next four miles at 6:38, 6:40, 6:39, 6:49. I took quick small steps on the uphills and opened up my stride on the downhills. I kept yo-yoing with a woman who was stronger than me going uphill, but then I’d catch her on the way down. She eventually took off, but I let her go- not that I had that much of a choice, she was speedy! I needed to run my own race.
After zipping through a nice little residential area, the road opened up to vast fields and vineyards and I allowed myself to enjoy it and take it all in. I let my imagination run away with me and pretended I was on some epic quest to deliver an important message or escape some evil empire or go for gold as an Olympic runner. I also kept myself in check by imagining that I was part of a big beautiful landscape painting and had to look the part. No slouching, no slogging, just running gracefully and effortlessly. The runners had gotten pretty spread out so at that point I was running solo. With an open road and only the occasional passing car, I felt I had the scenery all to myself.
After the halfway mark there were some longer and more gradual uphills and downhills. My sixth and seventh mile were 7:15 and 7:17 then my eighth was 5:08. I couldn’t quite trust those numbers (5:08 would have been a mile PR) so I just ran as I felt. I quickened my pace a bit but told myself to stay cool until mile ten where a long stretch of gravel road would be waiting.
When I race, I try to draw from people and stories that inspire me. One of my favorite Olympic moments was American figure skater Evan Lysacek winning gold in the 2010 Winter Olympics. His final routine was performed to a medley of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite Scheherazade. Whenever I hear that music, it brings me back to that moment, so all through the half marathon I let it play in my head. I decided that since Scheherazade had four movements, so would my race.
Movement 1, miles 1-3 – The music starts off really big, grim, and foreboding, calms down for a bit then goes into this sweeping, crescendoing ascent, like something really awesome or terrible is going to happen! It perfectly embodies the nerves and excitement of the opening miles in a race.
Movement 2, miles 4-7 – As I ran through the countryside and imagined myself in different story-like scenarios, the lyrical style of this music was the perfect accompaniment.
Movement 3, miles 8-10 – The most heartbreaking and beautiful part of the suite. I knew in these miles the pain would be setting in and I felt like this music was saying, “Yes I know it hurts!! It’s okay to have feelings!”
And that bring us to mile 10 and beyond. Not only were these toughest miles as they were the last, but there was gravel road to deal with, plus the temps rising with no cover from the sun. I felt like I had saved something just for that though and I told myself as soon as I hit the gravel it would be go time. I thought of the frantic, driving staccato rhythm in the fourth and final movement of Scheherazade and matched it to my footsteps. I caught a few runners and off in the distance I could see the next woman ahead of me. As we continued over the gravel I reeled her in little by little, though she was still running strong. My miles from 9 through 11 were in 6:32, 6:30, and 6:32 again. It turned out I wasn’t even running that much faster than before, but I wasn’t falling off either.
Once we hit the pavement again close to downtown Carlton, I held nothing back and ran as fast as my legs would allow me. There was one last turn with about a half or quarter mile, after which you could see the finish arch way off in the distance. It took a solid three minutes from the time I could see the finish line to the time I reached it! I kept trying to close the gap between me and the woman ahead of me but she got away. My final mile was in 6:19 and I finished in 8th place with a time of 1:25:27- exactly three minutes faster than my time in the Virginia Wine Country Half, and my third fastest half marathon ever. Dani finished strong in 9th place and we were both top 3 in our age groups.
All in all I’m really happy with the way this race went. I had a totally different approach and mindset going into this race compared with Virginia. It was a really good learning experience and will be good to draw from when I run the Chicago Marathon less than two months from now. The event itself was probably my favorite half marathon ever. You can’t beat Oregon wine country as a setting and overall it was extremely well organized and fun. The participants got to sample all kinds of wine by local vendors at the after party and we were treated to a wonderful post race concert by my friends Beth Bombara and Kit Hamon. Thank you to Destination Races for putting on such a great event. I certainly hope to run it again in the future!