I had the pleasure of kicking off my 2016 race season on Sunday with the Lake Health Running Series 20 Mile Drop and laughing in the face of Mother Nature, who obviously is a hot mess and forgot it’s spring with her recent blast of snow. All of you know that I absolutely hate cold weather, but that didn’t stop me from running quite possibly my best distance race ever.
I love, love, love the 20 Mile Drop because it’s the perfect training race for the Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon and gives me a chance to run through my hometown of Painesville. When I ran it with Dan two years ago, we wore shorts and tank tops. This year was a bit different. We woke up to find this on Saturday morning before the race.
I was freaking out for many reasons. How the heck will I run in the snow and cold? Will the path and roads be cleared for the race? What will happen if I slip on ice, get hurt, and all of my CLE training would be for nothing? Should I back it down to the 10 Mile Drop to be safe? Are they going to cancel? The plan was to drive to packet pick-up, scope out the weather and roads in Lake County, and make a decision. Worst case scenario would be I make the decision Sunday morning and run either the 20 or 10. Packet pick-up was quick and uneventful, just the way I like it, and the plan was to run the 20 on Sunday morning.
With the race being in Chardon, just a few miles south of my parents’ house, we decided to stay there instead of driving in the morning. Plus, my mom and dad were able to help out with the kiddles (thanks, mom and dad!). It’s hard enough to rest up and prepare for a race at your own house, but when the kiddles are super excited for a sleepover at Grammy and Grampy’s, it’s even more difficult. I didn’t have a great night’s sleep before the race, but I still felt it would be okay. Adrenaline and excitement can help me overcome less than perfect sleep.
Dan and me pre-race
I was thankful that my dad agreed to drive me to the start in Chardon on Sunday morning. Being able to have extra time in the morning and sitting in a warm truck before the race made a big difference. With about 15 minutes to spare before the start, I said goodbye and hopped out. While it was cold, it wasn’t as bad as I thought. The race was supposed to start at 7:15AM, but they pushed it back to allow all racers, me included, to use the bathroom, which I thought was a nice move. After a final bang on all of the porta potty doors and a quick line-up, we were off!
When I first started, my feet were ice cubes, and it took about 2.5 miles to get feeling back. Thankfully, the rest of my body felt great from the start, mostly because smart layering and hand warmers. I also felt that I was well rested from taking it easy during the week. It was then I decided I was not just going to run this, I was going to race it and was excited to see how fast I could go.
Don’t let the name 20 Mile Drop confuse you; this is not a nice, easy downhill course. There are quite a few hills and inclines, nothing ridiculously huge but enough to make you feel it in your legs. At those points, I was happy I trained harder and smarter this season, as the hills weren’t a big deal. Around mile 5, I was still clipping along at a solid pace (around 8:35-8:40) and met a similarly paced runner on the course named Mack. We got to chatting, which made the miles go by very quickly. Turns out he’s from Vermilion (right next to my town), has 4 kids (and 16 grandchildren!), AND has a daughter named Stephanie who graduated in 1999. Crazy coincidence!
Hustling with Mack at mile 12
It was around mile 12 when I started getting antsy because I knew I would see my family soon. The race course took us through my old neighborhood, and the mile 15 marker was very close to my parents’ house! When I saw the kiddles and my parents cheering for me as I turned onto Cedarbrook, I got a little teary. They were yelling and had made a sign for me. I ran past to give them high fives, but one of my boys slipped on the ice and fell. I helped pick him up and wanted to see if he was hurt, but my mom told me to keep going and she would take care of him. I said goodbye to them, knowing I would see them at the end. They were just the boost I needed to make it the final 5 miles.
Mack and I were still keeping the same steady pace as before, but I could feel my legs getting a little heavy. After all, this was the fastest I have ever run for this distance. When we got to the north end of Painesville, I was worried we would have to stop for a train but was overjoyed when it passed before we got to the tracks. Had I been forced to stop for the train, my race would have been over. I told Mack to feel free to leave me in the dust if he wanted to pick up the pace, but he said that since we ran most of this race together, we were finishing together. It’s amazing how much someone who is a complete stranger before a race can turn into your biggest motivator during.
When we turned on to Richmond Street, my cheering section was back and bigger than before. My parents and the kiddles were joined by my youngest sister and her daughters, who had overtaken the Kurlee Kone parking lot. I was so happy to see them!!!! With only 2 miles left, I checked the watch. Unless something disastrous happened, we were going to finish this thing in less than 3 hours! After we passed, the fam piled in the vehicles to head to the finish line, with the kiddles blaring music and screaming out of the windows to the other racers and me.
There was an extreme sense of joy and accomplishment when we hit mile 19. Only 1 to go! Sometimes this part of the course seems to be the longest for me, but before I knew it, we were making the final left turn for the home stretch. I had some energy left in my legs for a kick at the end but decided against it with having to finish on grass, which was a messy mixture of snow, slush, and mud. Plus, I didn’t want to have a perfect race ruined by falling at the finish. That would have been embarrassing. My family was there at the finish, along with Dan who had run the 10 Mile Drop and they were yelling like crazy for me. I heard my niece yell to me, “Come on, Aunt Stephie, pick up the pace!” to which I responded, “Why don’t you try to run 20 miles, honey?!” It made me laugh. Running as carefully and quickly as I could, I crossed the finish line with an official time of 2:53:25, well below my goal of sub-3 hours!
After finishing and grabbing my super sweet and well earned medal, I thanked Mack for helping me through this race. Because of him, I was able to keep a great pace and finish strong, even though there were times I felt tired and wanted to slow down. I told him I looked forward to seeing him in CLE because he is also planning to run with the pace group in the hopes of running a sub-4 hour marathon.
The fam ran to meet me at the end, and I hugged and thanked them for their love and support. Having them there made a big difference, and I love them dearly. I think Dan was shocked when he saw my finishing time, and he told me how proud he was of me. It’s not that he doubted me before, but he said the idea of me running a sub-4 in Cleveland was a reality after this race, especially considering the things I had going against me to start such as bad weather and lack of sleep.
Reflecting back on the race, I don’t think there was one thing I could have done to run it any better, and I’m very pleased. My plan was to leave it all out there on the course, and I did just that. This race left me feeling confident and motivated for the last month leading up to the Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon (psst…it’s only 33 days away!) Here’s to a great last month of training with the hopes it will all pay off in the end. Good luck, everyone! We’re in the home stretch!