Last Saturday, I ran the Big Elk Half Marathon in Elkton, Maryland. Overall, I had mixed feelings about the race, but was glad to be back on the trails after a month of almost no trail running.
Race day outfit:
Target tank, Oiselle Rogas, Brooks Cascadias, Injinji trail socks
I left my house around 6:30 AM, and arrived at the Fair Hills horse racing track around 7:30 for the 8:00 AM start. I snagged a sweet parking spot and made my way to the pavilion for registration. There were about 200 half marathon runners, and 50 full marathon runners.
As I approached the pavilion, I was instantly overwhelmed by loud, "jock jams" like music blasting. For a second I thought I was at a Rock 'n Roll marathon event, but reminded myself that this was, indeed a trail race. I picked up my bib which came in a hydration pack, which I will probably end up using for hiking or day trips, because I already have a decent Nathan hydration vest for running. We also received regular cotton tee shirts and Power Bar gels and bars in addition to the hydration pack.
There was a square timing chip provided as well, which I clumsily threaded my shoe laces through, and reminded myself again that this was, in fact, a trail race.
After dropping my stuff off in the car, I used the restroom, which was the best feature of this race venue. There were tons of regular, clean stalls (no porta potties) thanks to the fact that the start/finish was at a horse racing track. I never mind using the woods as my bathroom, but it was very nice to have these amenities at the starting line.
The race director came on to the AV system a few minutes before 8:00 and began cracking jokes, which lightened the mood of some of the more "serious" runners of the group (note: they were the ones wearing neon compression calf sleeves with their headphones in, running laps around the race track...) The RD noted that he "fully expected some sprained ankles" on this course and I looked around to see if we were talking about the same course. I didn't see any mountains nearby, but I took his word for it and lined up at the official starting line under a big, green, puffy arch.
I started off towards the front of the pack, unintentionally. I tried to keep an easy pace, around 10 mins per mile, as the faster folks in the crowd whizzed by. After crossing a bridge over route 273, a conga line formed on some rolling, single track trails through the shaded woods.
The course terrain was variable, and included mostly shaded, single track trails with some easy hills and switchbacks. There were also a couple of miles through sunny meadows, which were beautiful, but definitely the hottest portions of the course. Overall, it was fairly rooty and rocky, but I wouldn't call the course difficult by any means. Compared to the Wissahickon trails I normally train on, I found the course to be pretty timid. There were a couple of shallow creek crossings, and I actually managed to keep my feet dry until around mile 12 with the help of a few bridges. Though the temperature kept climbing, and I wouldn't have minded a couple of waist deep creek crossings towards the end.
As far as fueling goes, there were aid stations about every 2 miles, which was more than enough for the 13.1 mile loop. It was hot and humid so I chose to carry a handheld water bottle, which I refilled once on the course. I drank water from my handheld whenever I was thirsty and grabbed a cup of Gatorade for electrolyte replenishment at every other aid station. I also sucked down a GU packet slowly from miles 5-6.
The only food items offered were Power Bars and Power Bar gels at each aid station, which was quite disappointing to me since I've become accustomed to the "buffet-style" aid stations of ultras. I reminded myself that I was only running a half marathon, so I could get by on sugar alone, and grabbed a Power Bar gel around mile 9 in case I needed a little more sugar to get me to the finish.
Lesson learned at mile 10: Power Bar should stick to making bars. The gel was awful. I didn't really need it to keep running, but I thought it would help me finish faster. I only ate a tiny bit before gagging, and held on to the full packet until I threw it out at the next aid station.
Which leads me to my biggest gripe about this race. The sheer amount of gel wrappers and paper cups strewn on the ground throughout the back half of the course was horrifying. I sensed that there were a lot of "non-trail" runners, but any decent person should know to not litter in the woods. I've talked about this in a previous post (Trail Running Culture), but this time, I felt really offended by the amount of trash on the course. I can only hope the race director and company swept the course afterwards to pick up every cup and gel wrapper off of the beautiful trails.
I ended up finishing in 2:22:25, which was 79th out of 194 finishers, and 20th woman overall. Not awful, especially considering my lack of training during past month. The post race food left something to be desired, since they only offered granola bars, soda, water, and chips/pretzels. Regardless, I ended up hanging out at the finish line for about an hour cheering on other finishers, which has quickly become one of my favorite parts of any trail race. I definitely did not envy the marathoners going out for a second loop, which reminded me that I made a very responsible decision in registering for the half. I was pretty tired after the half, and realized that I have a long way to go before my fall 50k and 50 miler.
Though I was disappointed that the Big Elk Half Marathon did not live up to my high expectations, I still had a great time. The course was gorgeous, and I would love to head back down there for a solo run sometime soon. I can't say I highly recommend this race, but it was worth the trip down to Maryland for a beautiful trail run. The medal I received was cool, if you're into that kind of stuff. Personally, I'd love a pint glass or a coffee mug over a medal any day, and was jealous that the age group winners received pint glasses as awards.
After the race I treated myself to a solo brunch at the Home Grown Cafe in Newark, near the University of Delaware. As I demolished a pork bahn-mi sandwich on the shaded patio, I couldn't imagine a more perfect way to spend my Saturday morning than running for a couple of hours on new trails and sipping a spicy bloody mary al fresco.