As most of you know, not only am I an AMAZING runner, I’m also a teacher and a tennis coach. I was scheduled to have a home tennis match this Saturday that I was going to have to rush back to town for after running 13.25 miles. Luckily, due to the opposing school’s homecoming, our match was cancelled and I was afforded the opportunity to take my wife along and spend a night, and day, in the St. Louis area.
The McKendree Harvest Challenge 5k and Half Marathon is located in a small town in the northern part of Southern Illinois in what is gradually being sucked into the Metro East area of St. Louis. Lebanon, Illinois is a small town with a cute downtown, a small private college, and lots of rolling hilly cornfields. I’ve travelled through Lebanon on many occasions since I began college at Southern Illinois University. On trips from my hometown of Pekin to school and back, I grew to know this town as the half-way point and the home of the cheapest gas in the state. The cheap gas thing has changed, now that the St. Louisans are branching out into their hamlet. Normally, on my trips through town, I’d stop for gas, grab a bite, and get on the road homeward bound (whichever direction that may have been at the time). I rarely noticed all of the hills, as I passed through, that I am now all too familiar with!
A week before this race, the director (or his staff) sent us a race day prep email. In it, I found an interesting map of the course, including the topography.
Looking at this, I thought: “Well now, those are some serious hills.” As I studied it more in depth I realized: “Hm. It’s only an elevation change of about 50 feet from lowest to highest. Shouldn’t be too bad”. In the preparatory email, they also warned us about “hill country” between miles 8.6 and 10.1. “Yeah, there’s quite a bit of uphill there, too”. I think by having us focus on “hill country”, they were trying to get us to look past the fact that the WHOLE RACE IS HILLY!!! There isn’t a flat part of this course. It may look like it levels out for a bit, but… I assure you, it doesn’t. Ever.
The race itself was great. It was well presented, with great volunteers, and water stops at every mile except for mile 1. There were 4 gatorade stops, which seems to be about all that is really necessary (for me, anyway). The shirt they provided was top notch. It even has a little tribute to the Boston bombing on the sleeve. Nice touch.
Lebanon is a very nice little southern Illinois town. On my drive-bys, I never knew it had such a nice college there on the outskirts. The downtown area looks like it’s straight out of the 40’s or 50’s, and is perfectly preserved. Luckily, the race starts out at the college and heads straight through this area. It was also nicely shaded…
That shade was a short-lived luxury. After the first half-mile, we didn’t see much more shade the rest of the course. With a late start time (8:00), the sun is high enough in the sky to beat down on the runners over top of the corn stalks that we ran through for at least 11.5 miles of the course.
After that half mile through the heart of Lebanon, we headed north past a few small neighborhoods, a couple of corn fields, and past a cemetery at mile 2, where the 5k turnaround was. At the cemetery, we headed to the right (north), up a hill and into the REAL hill country (the unofficial hill country that is un-advertised). Since most of the first 2 miles were downhill (except for the very first quarter mile, which is uphill), my time after 2 miles was exceptional. I was averaging 8:36 per mile. After the rolling hills on miles 3 and 4 that headed further out into the cornfields, and hot sun of about 73 degrees by this point, my average had gone all the way up to about 8:44 per mile. Even after 4 miles, this isn’t bad for me. But, the hills kept growing, the sun kept pounding, and my mind kept circling back to the fact that I still have another 4 of these things to run in the next 2 months.
On the map, miles 4-6 look like they’re all downhill. A great chance to pick up some time, right? One would think. However, it was 2 miles and a 20 foot elevation drop. Not much of a chance to pick up any speed. Along with that, the road is crowned so dramatically that, unless I were in the middle of the road, it was extremely painful and difficult. With the “light traffic” and the race vehicles going up and down the road, there wasn’t much of a chance to stay in the middle. After 6 miles, I was almost out of contention for a 2:00 Half Marathon. But, I was ok with that. I just wanted to jog, save energy, and stay semi-consistent the rest of the way!
I decided at mile 6 that I would go ahead and slow down and treat the rest of the race as a training run. I’d hope to average 10:00 miles the rest of the way. Given the heat (reaching 80 degrees by the end of the race), humidity (around 70%), and hills, I figured this would be a great goal from here on out.
Mile 7 went well, I even found some shade before crossing a bridge that apparently the high school kids love to spray paint inappropriate things on… And, as we reached the end of mile 7, I saw the sign welcoming me into “hill country”. Lovely. Ya know what else happened? I passed someone going up the first hill. Someone who had passed me earlier. We exchanged encouraging remarks and kept on. Then I passed another. And another. Up a hill, past a runner. Down a hill. Up a hill, past another, downhill. I was amazed at how strong I was on the hills. People around me were dropping like flies! Around mile 10.1, there is a sign with a smily on it that says “You’re now leaving ‘hill country'”, but I could still look ahead and see possibly the biggest hill on the course! On that hill, another sign saying “Just kidding, this really is the last”. At the top of that hill, I passed another.
Before the race, I had gotten to talking to a gentleman who was wearing a shirt from one of my favorite races, the Lincoln Presidential Half Marathon in Springfield, IL. He had talked about how hilly that race was, and how it was a little too hilly for him. In the beginning of this race, he took off flying past me. At mile 11.5, I passed him.
Around mile 12 I passed my final racer. And, then I died off. Miles 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 were all within 10 seconds of 10:00 miles. Mile 13 was 10:55. It was my consistency that passed those runners, not my speed. They had succumbed to the heat and the hills. I just kept pushing on. When I got tired on a hill, I slowed down, I even walked a couple of times at the top of some of the hills, but I got going again as quickly as I could.
This race was hard. Probably the most physically challenging race of my year. I’m hoping I don’t have to say that too many more times. I figured at the beginning that these would get easier as I went along. But, the courses keep getting tougher. And, I was hoping this heat would break. I got lucky in Mahomet with the cool temps. McKendree wasn’t as forgiving.
The finish line for this race is actually 13.25 miles from the start. Coming up the final hill I saw some kids reading off times next to a sign that said: “mile 13.1”. They said “2:06:23”. Not bad. Given the situation, I’ll take that time. Had I really pushed myself, I could have broken 2 hours. I may have died from heat stroke, but I could have made it.
I pushed through the last .15, heard them announce my name, and looked up to see the final time at 2:08:13. They hung my medal around my neck, and it was official! I’ve finished 9 Half Marathons this year… SO FAR!!
For Comparison, here’s the medal next to one of my smallest, weakest medals of the year:
Like I said, this race is well directed. Lots of good people worked very hard to put this on! It was very nice. But, I probably won’t do this again. Suggestions for a better race? Glad you asked. Start the race at 7:00. This way, you catch a cooler part of the day. Also, why not head your race to the south of the town? You’ll still have some nice hills in there, but it seems to me that the south side of town is flatter and more interesting.
I was very glad to get to spend the weekend out of town with my wife! We had a great time, and I got to get away for a weekend! Thanks for helping me out on that one, McKendree Harvest Challenge Race!!
Please leave some kind of comment! I’d love to hear from you!
2 weeks from today is the Quad Cities Half Marathon! Don’t go too crazy waiting on it!!