I’ll start this by being frank: If you plan to run the Frederick Running Festival in 2016, you’d better be ready to run some hills.
However, I would absolutely run this event again because everything else was that great. A serious tip of my hat to Corrigan Sports: this running festival has all the elements of a homegrown, hometown atmosphere with the logistical savoire-fare of a world class event. Never once did I feel like I was out of the loop– the communication with runners and spectators was outstanding with colorful, printed runners handbooks that included course maps, parking guidelines, helpful tips, and spectator information. I never once was made to feel like a member of a “herd” of runners, and I felt very well-taken care of and welcomed. The swag, in my opinion, was outstanding. The race t-shirts were made from a material that felt like one of those soft vintage t-shirts that are currently all the rage but you can wear them to run in, too. The merchandise was plentiful, reasonably priced, and had great variety. The volunteers were welcoming and gracious. I felt like I was truly among neighbors with them. The course, aesthetically speaking, was gorgeous. The course support was staffed with volunteers whom you could tell truly had their hearts in their jobs. Someone always had a cup of water for me and there was plenty to go around. Kids, adults, I even high-fived a priest and some nuns as I ran past a church– at 7AM on a Sunday morning, no less! The police men and women took their duties seriously in making sure we were safe from cranky, detoured motorists. This town truly came alive for all of us runners. I’m not sure what I really expected with this race, but I was totally impressed and left feeling happy and take care of. This race, in a word, is heartfelt. This is a truly heartfelt race.
Now back to those hills…
I usually always check the course map and elevation before a race, and I certainly did so with this one. Take a look at the below elevation charts, one from the course itself and the other one from my Garmin:
Maybe I forgot my 6th grade geography or I don’t know how to read an elevation chart, but compared to the hills I ran during the United NYC Half-Marathon in March, you’d think this race would be a cake walk. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I’d taken several days off to focus on core and strength work to stave off a misalignment issue that had created a huge knot in my calf muscle that was making running feel impossible, but I seriously doubt that was the case. Maybe I didn’t realize that Frederick, Maryland is located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, compared to just an hour south in Northern Virginia where things are relatively flat along the riverbed and the Chesapeake Bay delta. Whatever it was, I felt it.
The Frederick Running Festival is actually a two-day event that kicks off with a Twilight 5K. I may or may not have known this when I registered. I registered through the Baltimore Running Festival’s King Crab Challenge once I realized I had not won a lottery entry to run the 2015 New York City Marathon. The King Crab Challenge, which is a bucket list race for me, consists of three races that are held over the course of several months, starting first with the Frederick Half-Marathon in May, then the Baltimore 10-Miler in June, and finally ending with the Baltimore full or half-marathon at the Baltimore Running Festival in October. With varying levels of participation, I “obviously” chose the hardest level, which includes the full Baltimore Marathon and this weekend’s Nut Job Challenge. The Nut Job Challenge is accomplished when runners run both the Twighlight 5K at 6PM on Saturday and return in the morning to run the half-marathon at 7AM Sunday morning. Runners who complete both races get a special challenge completion medal. Like I said, this was not a tough decision for me. The more medals, the better.
The advice for us “nut jobs” (yes, we were called that in runner communication packets, hilarious) was to do same-day packet pickup at the expo the day of the Twilight 5K. I didn’t realize that the 5K was actually at 6PM in the evening when I registered (no, it’s not actually called ‘Twilight 5K’, so in my defense, this was an easy oversight), so carbing up was a bit of a challenge. I pretty much ate donuts all day, feeling like crap about it, but I wasn’t sure what to eat for two races within 13 hours of each other. Eat all the carbs? Well, alright.
The expo was….tiny. I mean, really tiny. The running festival was taking place at the Frederick Fairgrounds, which took me about an hour to get to from DC, and I probably booked a little too much time. I got there shortly before 4PM– a standard 2 hours prior– and I was probably in and out of the expo with my race bib, race shirts, race merchandise in hand in 20 minutes tops. The exhibitors were great; all the kinds you want to see at a race. But there were maybe ten total. I picked up about 3 new grocery tote bags; I think they were just eager to have people there! The tiny expo is not necessarily a bad thing, nor am I complaining. After having run so many races, you see the same things over and over again. Admittedly, I was just not expecting to have almost 2 hours to kill before the race. Had I known how seamless getting my race items would be, I’d have come closer to gun time. Problems are never problems until they become a problem, right?
After the expo, I probably could have wandered into town a little bit, but the race organizers had cautioned us in our runners packets to high traffic volumes and I didn’t want to get stuck. But stuck I was, at the fairgrounds, for 2 hours with not much to do. The time passed–I wormed my way into a sports bra in my hot, stuffy car. I nibbled pretzels and sipped water. I social-media’ed. I took a jog to test my annoying calf muscle. I tried to look cool. The evening was a notch under perfect. Slightly breezy and cool enough to wonder if arm warmers would be a good idea, but I decided against them. Lining up with hundreds of other runners on the racing track in the fairground arean, however, the sun was hot and bright and it felt like summer. It had that small town, hometown summer night atmosphere. Can’t be bought.
The 5K race wound around the race track at the fairgrounds for about the first half mile or so. The race track was covered in gravel and we passed the 13-mile marker, both of which messed with our legs and heads. My legs felt stiff, and I started wondering immediately not how I was going to get through this race but how on earth would I get through tomorrow’s race!? After exiting the fairgrounds, the 5K course then wound through the outskirts of town. I was tempted to stop once or twice to snap a picture of some beautiful scenery: a silohuette of a silo and farm house against a mountainous backdrop with miles of perfect green and golden sun. Beautiful. Definitely a mental picture moment. We charged down a hill and I was thanking God it was “just” a 5K. Obviously, the righteous downhill meant a quick turn-around and a charge uphill, which is also where the “Official Course Liar” sat perched on a lifeguard stand chuckling jokes like “I can see the finish line from my house!” and “I’m stone cold sober right now.” I think every race needs to have one of those– it made a lot of us laugh.
The 5K was over quickly, and my time was decent. I was happy with it, even though I knew I had lucked out on it after taking so much time off. I stayed for a few minutes to enjoy the festivities, including a really great band. I don’t usually pay much attention to the bands at race festivals– mostly because I’m running past them on the course– but this band was really great. They played some current hits and 90’s hit– who doesn’t love that? I left the race about 15 minutes after finishing the 5K, mostly to try and beat the traffic out (which I did not– expect to sit there for awhile leaving the 5K if you park at the fairgrounds) and because I had an hour to drive yet and an early wake-up call, but I was also facing a carb dilemma. I wasn’t sure how I wanted to carb up! I didn’t have pasta at home, nor did I want to run to the store or order a pizza. I got home at quarter to 9PM, went across the street to the Rite Aid to grab a frozen pizza, and realized to my dismay that the store had closed early! I had to high-tail it across the street to the convenience store in my building’s basement and grab a $9 Kashi frozen pizza with 5 minutes to spare before their 9PM closing. That was a little bit ridiculous, honestly. I’ve never had to work so hard to get carbs for a race. My advice to 2016 Frederick Nut Job runners coming from DC? Staycation. I didn’t get to sleep until almost 10PM with a 4AM wake-up call.
Here’s how my Frederick Running Festival Half-Marathon day shaped up: I woke up at 4AM, left the house at 4:30AM to drive an hour to Frederick, MD to Arlington, VA for a 7AM half-marathon that I had to run in 2 hours so I could drive an hour back to DC, shower and dress, and get to the airport by 12:30 to catch a 2PM, 2-hour flight to St. Louis and then drive 3 hours to the Ozarks to catch a cocktail reception at a conference I had to speak at the next day. That’s called a long day, guys. Luckily, this race was so well-put together that we had an on-time start, an efficient post-race experience, and I left so quickly afterwards that I didn’t deal with any traffic hardly at all, that it was also possible.
Race day morning, despite being awake at the worst hour of the day, getting into the fairgrounds where volunteers were directing drivers to park close together at the fairgrounds and not cars-width distances from each other and clogging up the space, was super fast and easy. I arrived on time for sunrise, quickly used a port-a-john, and realized on my walk back to my car that I could have used one of the actual bathrooms that the fairgrounds had opened for us instead. Whoops. The morning was cool, so most every one sat in their cars. Let me tell you, that is a HUGE perk right there. I literally sat in my car sipping coffee and water and nibbling Pop Tarts until about 10 minutes before the race started. Occasionally, I’d get out and join the fast-moving line at the bathroom then hop back in and keep warm until closer to race start. Sure beats layering up with throw-aways and doing knee raises and leg swings in your corral. Once I joined the starting crowd, mashed together with pace signs hanging on the fence along Patrick Street, things started coming alive. The singing of the national anthem played as a hot air balloon drifted so close over our heads we could almost touch the basket. That was amazing. I found out later that the choir was not actually singing from the balloon as it flew over. I’ll still tell people in conversation that it was though.
The race started literally a few moments after the gun went off; perfect timing considering I was on a tight schedule. I was wearing compression socks to help with the knot in my calf, and that was definitely a smart decision on my part. I aligned myself with the 2:10 pace group, thinking that it was a reasonable goal all things considered, but I was delighted when I passed them with some ease. But the race was hard almost as soon as it started. My legs were heavy and I felt like I hadn’t run in years. I pretty much settled in for a tough race and knew that I was running “just to finish” and not for time. I realize that not every race can be– nor should be– run for a PR, but it still feels a little defeating to have to concede a race to “just finishing” almost as soon as you begin. Even the whole “run another day” mantra didn’t hold a candle to the fact that I wanted to do a great job today.
For all 13.1 miles, I just tried to focus on finishing one mile at a time. Around mile 3, which took us through downtown historic Frederick and its colonial-era brick streets and houses, I realized that if I was already feeling this exhausted, the next 10 miles were going to be awful. I felt my heart sort of gripped with panic, or at least swelled under the surface with me trying to ignore it. Usually, in races, I smile and even sometimes wave at the crowds. At the very least, I acknowledge them for getting up at sunrise to cheer us on. But all I wanted was to stop. And crawl into bed.
The hills in this race were a pain. The course takes some pretty tight turns, and around every one of them, after having just climbed a gradual hill– not a steep one, a gradual one– I would expect to turn the corner and see a gradual decline. But no. Literally, every corner you turn in this race for 13.1 whole miles is a hill. I can barely remember any downhills. All I can see in my mind is the hundred or so runners in front of me, running steadily up. Going through some of Fredericksburg’s quiet neighborhoods didn’t help at all. Try running over several gradual speed bumps in a half-marathon. Not the little skinny ones that make you wonder if your car has the hiccups– the tsunami-like ones that give you and your one-ton vehicle a respectable lift off the ground. The hills…the hills…the hills. For the first half of the race, at least the sun wasn’t out and we were in the shade. But around mile 10, after ascending a big hill in the sun and then looking to see yet another gradual one (from which we never descened, by the way), I literally felt like I wanted to give up. I almost did, too. I knew I’d finish the race. My paces were decent up until then. And so I let ten miles of irritation and boredom and exhaustion catch up with me. Sometimes you just need to drop your crap at the side of the road so you can move on.
Mile 11 is usually a turning point, so I got back in the game at mile 11, even though that mile gave us another gradual hill through a very white-washed and boring neighborhood that was already baking in the midday sun. Sometimes I don’t quite understand the point of giving up when you’ve come that far– all I wanted was to be DONE. That’s all I gave a crap about. So, I charged as best as I could through mile 11 and then mile 12. I wanted my two medals, and I wanted them now, thankyouverymuch.
But the Frederick Half-Marathon was not done with us yet.
I remember that I was running a somewhat respectable pace at mile 12.5. I was telling myself, Only half a mile to go! Just a half mile and you’re done. And then I glanced to the course ahead of me as it veered to the right. A massive. Freaking. Hill. It was huge. A respectable bunny slope, the perfect sledding hill. The kind of hills my bike and I ate for breakfast when I was a kid. That hill be like:
Okay, maybe not like that. That rogue wave caused the boat to sink, after all. I decided that I would get up over the hill running, not walking. Even if my pace suffered. But I would not walk. Even if it hurt, which it did. It hurt like hell, actually. If it weren’t for the hill being at that point in the race, I might have walked up it, but I was literally right there at the finish line. Plus, I realized that that darn hill was the same one I had run up and down in the previous day’s 5K. I figured that out because the last 0.4 mile was around the gravel-covered race track we’d started out on yesterday. Nice touch, Frederick. Very nice. Really. On top of that, the finish line photos from the official race photographer came back with me looking like I had broken my hips. Ouch.
Despite the gnarly hills and the knot in my calf that rendered my legs useless for a week (I was also traveling between 3 states, speaking at 3 conferences, and battling a chest cold which also explains why I’m posting this recap nearly two weeks after the race), I finished in 2:05:46. Seriously, not a bad finish. Not bad at all. A lot of people on social media posted that they got a PR at that course, but I just wasn’t ready for it that morning. I’m proud that I finished the Nut Job Challenge, and part one of the King Crab Challenge is completed. Sometimes you just need to step back and see the bigger picture.
At any rate, this race made me see that I am not invincible. And it helped me practice a strategy for running those pace levels in a fall marathon. I’m always bothered that the conventional wisdom of running says that the way you run a half-marathon is a good indicator of your full marathon finish time. If that was always true, I’d be finishing around 4:10-4:15, but my finish times are consistently around 5 hours. Focusing on one mile at a time helps me to “ignore” what I’m trying to accomplish and break down a goal into managable pieces. Run your race pace one mile at a time.
So, would I run Frederick again? Yes, I would. And I would recommend it to anyone else, too. The small town atmosphere, the pre-summer vibe, the amazing event staff, the gorgeous race course, and all the runners’ perks made this one a half-marathoner’s delight. Also great family vibe, too, if you have young runners. But, if you do decide to run this one, I would also strong suggest that you find a good training program that has some hill training in it.