What’s harder than running an ultra? Running a half marathon through a Nor’easter. Cape Cod Half Marathon Race Recap

It was literally the worst of times.  The worst weather I’ve ever run in and the worst time I’ve ever clocked in a half.  By a lot.  Was there a “best of times” for the Cape Cod Half? I wouldn’t go that far.  I would say that I learned a lot about how far I’ve come as a runner in the past few years.  And I learned definitively how important running with another person at your side can be for getting through a difficult race.

I signed up for the Cape Cod Half on sort of a whim.  My friend who I used to work with in NYC eons ago emailed me and another runner friend back in April and asked if we thought she had enough time to train for what would be her first half marathon – the Cape Cod Half taking place at the end of October.  Both me and her friend responded enthusiastically that she definitely could.  I also said it was too bad I couldn’t run it with her because I already had another half scheduled for early October (our local Mohawk Hudson River Half Marathon), but I assured her I’d come cheer her on (cue dark foreshadowing).  A few days later, this same friend (Hilary) emailed me her race registration.  Fast forward not that far to the end of May.  After two years of Hilary trying to set me and her brother up, we had our first date.  We fell head over heels in love, but that’s not the story I’m telling here (yada yada yada).  By that time, my racing season plans had changed, as they often do, and I had decided to sell my bib to the MH Half (signing up for this race and not running it is a yearly tradition with me.  Someday I’ll run it.  Maybe), and I found myself able to run the Cape Cod Half with Hilary after all.   Plus, I now had the added impetus to do so because then maybe her brother would come and since we had just started dating at that point, it seemed like a good excuse to all spend the weekend together on the Cape.  Plus, one of my Team TMI gals (“Team TMI” is this little trail running group I started organizing this year) was signed up to run the Cape Cod Marathon as her first full the day after, so I could stick around and cheer for her.  If I was going to be there anyway, there was no sense in just cheering my friend on, when I could run it with her instead.  I messaged Hilary and asked if she’d like me to run the race with her and she responded that she was really nervous about the race and would love it.  Hilary had been struggling to train through injury, and I was happy I’d be able to be there on race day to support her.  So, I signed up and told her brother I was going to run it and asked if he’d come cheer us on.  He agreed.  And then ended up signing up for it himself a few weeks later as his first half marathon.  Soon after that, my Team TMI friend, Jess, decided to drop down to the half.  And that’s how we all ended up running 13.1 miles in a bonafide nor’easter along the coastline of Massachusetts.

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y tho

I like to say I’ve run in all sorts of weather.  Living in upstate NY, I had to learn to either love the dreadmill or run in all conditions; I chose the latter.  I’ll run in snow, sleet, blizzards, rain and mud.  And blistering heat & humidity? Yeah.  As my coach said before the Cape Cod Half when I was panicking a little about the forecast: “You ran 25K in an oven this season.  You’ll do fine.”  Truth.  I’ve even PR’d in a driving rainstorm in January.  That said, the one weather condition I hate more than any other, is heavy wind.  I avoid running in it whenever possible.  And I’d never raced for a longer distance in winds gusting to 60 MPH accompanied by driving rain along a coast.  The forecast was grim for race day and wasn’t budging.  The remnants of a hurricane were gonna slam into the coast right when the race was set to run.  There was nothing to do about it except prepare as best I could by wearing the right clothing, but more importantly, by steeling myself mentally and emotionally to “embrace the suck.”  My coach advised me to layer up and wear a trash bag for good measure (he made sure to instruct me to cut holes in the trash bag for my head and arms.  Important safety tip, Coach).  He pointed out to me that being warm and wet was preferable to being cold and wet and that no matter what, I was going to be wet.  Also true.  So, I filled my suitcase with a bunch of different options gear-wise and headed out on Friday for the 3.5 hour drive to the Cape.

On the drive out, I listened to the Billy Yang podcast interview with ultrarunner Tim Olson that I’d been saving for this trip.  In it, Tim talked about one of his running mantras: “Take the pain.”  I knew that was the frame of mind I needed to take into this race.  Avoiding the pain would be impossible – I was going to have to accept it and lean into it and keep going.  To be honest, I’d been dreading this race even before it became clear the weather was going to be shit.  Ever since I completed my first 50K last month, I’d been whining about being done for the season and being totally burnt out.  I had openly lamented signing up for this half.  I wished out loud that I was just going to be cheering on my friends and my boyfriend and not running it.  I even thought about DNS’ing, but I’d signed up and paid for it and I was going to be there, so I might as well run.  The predicted nor’easter was not helping my frame of mind.  Reaching out to my coach helped (that’s what coach’s are for – to boost your spirits when needed – not just to keep you physically fit).  I realized that my dream of PR’ing my half time was out the window between the weather and still-recovering legs.  And I wasn’t going to have fun or be seeing any beautiful sights.  This race would be all about grit and the 3 other people I knew who were running it, including two first-timers.

Ironically, the weather driving out to the Cape was picture perfect.

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Ok, this was the day after the race, but the weather one either side of race day was glorious.

All blue skies and sun and cool fall temps.  It was hard to believe the predicted storm would hit just in time for the race the next day, but the forecast was holding steady.  I got to the Cape around lunch and my boyfriend and I headed over to Falmouth, an hour away from Hilary’s summer home, to pick up our bibs and hers.  The minute I walked into the middle school gym, I saw Jess!

That helped pick up my spirits.  We commiserated on what we were about to do, took a quick pic and said we’d see each other at the start line.  J & I got our bibs and a sweet-ass long sleeve tech shirt that wasn’t unisex and actually fit (you know how rare those are)! Then we perused the little expo – the one measly rack of rain coats was where most people were huddled.  We ended up not getting anything and headed back to the house.  That night was a flurry of us 3 runners comparing clothing choices and seeking advice.  Choosing how to dress for such weather can be confusing and anxiety-producing.  I decided in the end on 3 layers on top – a short sleeve tech T-shirt, a long-sleeve tech tee over it, and a windbreaker over that.  On the bottom, I’d wear my Go the Distance Tights and my Toasty Cheeks Skirt, the latter of which had been a last minute Skirt Sports purchase to keep my bottom warm (it worked so perfectly that I posted to the Skirt Sports Ambassador page the next day that I was going to marry that skirt).

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all the layers

As instructed by my coach, a clear trash bag would be thrown over it all for function and style.  Then there were the gloves, brimmed hat and buffs.  I wanted to bring a dry buff and pair of gloves in a ziplock so I could replace the wet ones with dry ones mid-race and my other clothes lacked sufficient pockets, so I decided to wear my camelbak mini mule; something I wouldn’t normally wear during a race of that shorter distance (I know, I know, but it’s “shorter” than a 25k or 50k).  It turned out to be a great choice.  Because I have Reynaud’s Syndrome, having wet, cold extremities is really painful and ultimately can be dangerous, so I wanted to make extra sure my hands and feet would be well cared for.  To that end, I also packed a couple of hand warmers in my camelbak and made sure I was wearing my best moisture wicking smartwools on my feet.

Since we were staying an hour away from Falmouth where the race started, we got up at o’dark thirty to get ourselves ready and on the road.  When we left, it wasn’t that bad yet.  Wind was howling like a banshee, but it was still relatively warm (40s) and not really raining yet.  By the time we got to the parking lot at 7, it wasn’t dark anymore, but a steady rain was falling and the temps had dropped somewhat.  We hit the port-a-potties and walked the half mile or so to the start line.  By the time we got there, we were already chilled and wet.  Most of the runners huddled in one of the two gear tents trying to keep warm until the 7:30 start time.  With 1600 runners signed up and what I predicted (rightly) would be 1200 runners actually toeing the line that morning, there would be plenty of time to get across the timing mat at the start and since this was a chip timed event, I didn’t care if we were last to get across it.  Best to stay warm and relatively dry for as long as possible.  I stripped off my outer layer (warm up pants and a hoodie) and looked around at the other runners – many of whom had way less layers on than me.  I debated shedding my windbreaker, but I knew I’d be out there longer than the majority of the runners and my coach’s advice that warm and wet was better than cold and wet played in my head.  I also remembered the many runners, some of whom I know, who had ended up in medical with hypothermia during Boston this year after similar conditions.  I kept to my strategy.  I texted Jess and we were in different tents, so I told her I’d see her at the starting line.  I was fumbling with getting my garmin started and my bluetooth headphones on when the national anthem started.  And, oh shit, the chest strap on my camelbak had come un-clipped!  In the silence and with everyone else standing with hands over hearts, I motioned wildly to J to clip it back together for me while I held up my trash bag.  He got it done just in time and as soon as the anthem ended, a cannon (a real fucking cannon) went off and scared the shit out of everyone.  We all shuffled off into the rain.  I grabbed a quick selfie of my crew as we did the dead man’s shuffle to the starting shoot and then we were off!

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Starting line selfie.  Best I could do under the conditions

Hilary and I had talked leading up to the race and she had told me she would be doing a 3:1 Galloway interval throughout the race and wasn’t used to running with others, so she gave me permission to go ahead.  I promised her I’d see her at the finish line.

The first couple of miles of the race were in a neighborhood, so we were still fairly sheltered from the real ferociousness of the wind.  The rain was steady, but my headphones were buzzing with my spotify playlist and my legs felt good.  I was on pace for some slower early miles.  Then, we rounded the corner and came to the coast line.  The wind was like nothing I’ve ever experienced.  It whipped the ocean up into the air and literally threw it against our bodies, mixing the salt water with the steadily falling rain.  The brim of my Albany Running Exchange hat kept getting caught by the wind and thrown off sending me scrambling to grab it with other runners around me trying to help.  There seemed to be no way to angle my head where this didn’t happen.  After the 4th time, I tried taking it off all together but I realized right away that without the brim to shield my eyes, I was in for even more discomfort as the rain and salt spray would be blown into my eyes.  Then I noticed a woman ahead of me running with a head band wrapped over her hat.  Brilliant! I slowed to a walk and unhooked one side of my camelbak, maneuvering it under my trash bag that was blowing like sail.  I found my dry second buff stashed in a pocket in a zip lock and pulled it out, carefully doubling it and putting it over my hat like a headband.  That did the trick and my hat stayed put the rest of the race.  My badassladygang buff that I had over my neck was another story – it was soaked pretty much right away so it didn’t help when I tried to pull it over my mouth to make it easier to breathe in the wind.  I kept it on my neck to try and protect that area since it was exposed, but I would just have to deal with being seriously short of breath in the gusts of wind for the entire race.

We wound back down into a neighborhood and now that I’d gotten some of the technical glitches taken care of, I picked up the pace again.  I had been looking around for Jess, hoping she’d started ahead of me and I’d catch up.  About 1/2 mile later, I saw a woman I thought was her from behind.  As I got closer, I spied her badassladygang buff and knew it was her.  “Jess! I found you!” I screamed through the wind as I pulled up next to her.  I took my earbud out and we started running and chatting.  I was so happy to see a familiar face so early in the race.  Jess was running 1/2 mile, then walking .10, then running again.  She invited me a couple of times to go ahead of her, but I told her I’d rather run a bit slower and have someone by my side for what was shaping up to be my hardest race to date.

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Mid-race with Jess. Sheer madness.

After I met up with Jess, the rest of the race was actually sort of a blur.  We ran and walked and chatted.  We cursed at the furious winds and driving rains and laughed because it was all so awful and ridiculous that we were out there doing this thing.  We laughed extra hard when an ocean wave blew up over the barrier onto the road soaking me as I ran by.  And laughed again when I took a piece of Halloween candy around mile 11 from a little girl and Jess asked me what I had taken – when I opened my mouth to tell her, the wind picked up and blew half-eaten Twix all over Jess’s rain jacket (which belonged to her wife! Oops!).  I don’t know what that race would have been like if I hadn’t run it next to a friend.  There wasn’t much time to go into my head, to doubt my ability to finish or to even bitch too much about the abject awfulness of running in this weather.  I thought a couple of times about going ahead a bit, but I knew whatever little time I gained would not be worth losing the company of a fellow crazy strong friend running in this mess.  After a third time of saying I should go ahead, I told Jess “No.  I can’t get through this alone.  I’m sticking with you.”  Even with a friend by my side, the race was still hard.  My body hit a wall of exhaustion about 9 miles in.  Battling against the wind and bracing against the cold took it’s toll on my muscles and my legs were still not 100% recovered from my ultra or the 6 mile mudfest of a trail race I’d run the weekend before.

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Jess took this pic of me somewhere between miles 8-9 (?). Running into this wind was no joke.

We got a little reprieve once we hit the turnaround and the wind was at our backs for a couple miles, but it slammed into us again from the side along the coastline.  And again around miles 10-12, the wind whipped into our faces even though we were running through a town and not along the coast.  Jess and I both said “How is this even fucking possible?” and laughed.  About 3/4 of a mile past the turn around, I saw Hilary coming up from the out and back – she had about a mile to go to the turnaround over a bridge where all you could do was hunker down and walk into the wind.  She looked defeated and said “I don’t know if I can do this.” I stopped and assured her she could and to make it to the turnaround because it would get much better with the wind at her back.  I texted her a little bit after we parted ways and told her to keep going and that I would come back on the course after I finished and run her in.

Toward the end of the race, when my legs were shot, Jess pushed me forward spurring me to run more than walk.  Between miles 12.5-13, she started our run to the finish.  I so wanted to walk, but I also wanted to cross the finish line with her, so I kept up.  It was a long run to the finish – down the road we could see the 13 mile banner whipping in the wind and there was a cheer squad of runners who had already finished telling us the finish line was just around the corner.  We turned that corner and ran across the finish together, smiling and high-fiving.

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Hardest-earned finish to date!

I was so happy to be done, I almost forgot we get a medal for this shit until a volunteer came over and asked if we’d gotten one.  All I wanted was to be warm and dry and have some soup and find my boyfriend who had finished earlier.  I finished in 2:48, my slowest half marathon time by a lot, but I don’t really care – the fact that I finished without too much trauma to my body and mind proves to me that I’m a much stronger runner than I was a couple years ago or even last year.  The fact that I finished with a friend who I made through starting my little running group this year, made it even sweeter.

It took a while for me to get my soup and donut and find J.  The getting warm and dry piece would have to wait because I knew Hilary was still out there.  J was in bad shape – he had finished 20 minutes earlier and had been huddled in the gear tent trying to warm up.  He had put dry clothes on from his drop bag over his wet running gear, but had gotten rid of his space blanket (rookie) and was shivering and his color was not good.  He was barely talking and not laughing at all.  I told him I was going back out on the course to find Hilary and run her in and that he should stay in the gear tent.  Did I want to go back out there? NOPE.  I was done.  But, it’s what we runners do.  It’s what people have done for me in the past and it’s what I would want if I was still out there.  I wasn’t sure where she was and my phone was dying, so I went back out to the mile 13 banner where that little group was still out cheering for the last runners and waiting on one of their crew.  We were cold and wet and tired, but in good spirits.  And we made some even colder, wetter and probably more tired runners who were at the very back of that race smile as they came toward the end of this incredibly difficult race.  The cheer crew was loud and funny and I was happy to be out there cheering on people who had worked, in many ways, the hardest of all of us runners on that day.

The volunteers were starting to pack up the course, and one pulled up in a truck to take down the 13 mile marker but our group yelled at him to stop and he heeded our request.  I was getting increasingly wetter (if that was possible) and colder.  I had changed my gloves to dry ones at about mile 9, but they were now firmly soaked again.  My space blanket was whipping in the wind.  I was wondering how much longer I could stay out there without freezing to death, when the other group of supporters found their runner and disappeared with her across the finish line, leaving just me out there cheering.  I texted Jeremy to pull on a space blanket and come over to mile 13 & wait while I started walking back on the course to find Hilary.  I figured getting moving would theoretically warm me up some.  Two other women came out from the finish area and started to walk out on the course as well, also looking for a friend who was still running.  We introduced ourselves and I learned they were heading up the BAMR retreat team that was there that weekend.  I told them I was a BAMR too and we chatted a bit, but I didn’t have to go too far before I saw Hilary in her blue tights and bright orange hat.  I sent up a cheer, said goodbye to the BAMRs and pulled up beside her.  I had tears in my eyes (not that you could notice).  “YOU DID IT!” I told her and informed her that just around the corner was the finish line.  She started to run, but quickly slowed and I told her to just walk until we rounded the corner and then run into the finish.  J then appeared before us hobbling and we walked together with Hilary to the corner.  When she rounded it, her 7 year old daughter and hubby were there.  Her daughter sent up a a cheer of “MOMMY!” and J and I let Hilary go.  She crossed the finish line of her first half marathon with her daughter by her side – an epic ending to an epic race.  The finish line banner had been taken down, but the timing mat and clock were still up.  The medals were in boxes and self-serve.  But, there was still food and space blankets.  The weather was so bad they had called off the awards ceremony and announced they would mail the race winners their awards.  Everything was being packed up, but there were still people finishing.  The race had a 3 hour cut-off but it wasn’t being enforced and that was good, but they also were packing up, which can be tough.  I hope every finisher felt proud of their amazing accomplishment in finishing on that day.

We all hobbled over to the car kind of dazed.  It would take a few hours to warm up and get dry and we had an hour long car ride back to the house.  But, we all did it.  We all finished.  We beat the storm.  Or, rather, we didn’t let the storm beat us.  Afterward, I texted my coach that I’d rather run back-to-back ultras than run in that weather again.  He responded that it would be a great story to have and that those types of stories are fun to tell, but hell to live through.  In the aftermath of it all, I can tell you that if I ever wake up on a race morning to weather like that again, you can put me in the DNS column.  But, I’m glad I faced the weather I feared the most and battled through it.  I’m glad I was out there with friends and was able to cross the finish line with one of them.  I’m glad I helped make a few of the last finishers smile.

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warm and dry and DONE for the season!

As we head into NYC marathon weekend, I have some friends tackling their first full, the inspiring and determined Kelly Roberts again going after her dream of BQ’ing, the tough as nails Latoya Snell taking on NYC one week after crushing her first 100K at Javelina, and many other inspiring elite women athletes who I will be tracking on race day.  I hope that whatever Sunday holds in store for them, they can take home the sense of pride and love of community that I took away from this past weekend’s half.  I am incredibly glad this epic and difficult season is over for me and that I can rest for the next few months, recharge and start planning for next year.  I’ve never been happier to see an off-season.

 

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