Vakava Team Photo

Vakava Team Photo
Vakava Racers at the Mora Last Chance Race

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Say What? A 26 km Road Running Race

    This isn’t a terribly common distance but it happens to be the distance around Lake Bemidji (or at least the distance on paved trails and roads). This distance is one of three distances offered as part of the Blue Ox Marathon (there is a marathon distance as the name implies as well as a half-marathon which entails getting bused 3.6 of the miles around the lake). I had never done a 26 km running race previously but since distance is my forte and I was less than inclined to run a full marathon, I settled on the 26 km. 

    When Erik and I discussed our plans with one of our friends, she coined this the “Goldilocks” race distance because it’s not too short and not too long. And for this particular race, it’s also the distance around a lake without having to get bused or adding in any out-and-back or extra loops (as is the case of the marathon).  
A training run on some gravel roads- always reminds me of high school running in Bemidji:) Any day running on a gravel road is a good day. Photo: Erik

    I’ve ran around Lake Bemidji a good number of times dating back to high school. Last summer I ran around with Erik but we cut a few corners and did a bit of trail running. I averaged 8:44 minutes per mile on that run. 
My Garmin from my last year's (2016) run around Lake Bemidji. We started and ended at my mom's house and cut everywhere possible.

    My training for the race was mostly good. Two weeks out from the race I exceeded my own expectations on a long run with combined threshold. I ran with Erik along the Mississippi River, doing 15 miles total with interspersed threshold for 20-15-10-10-5 minutes at 7:30 pace. This run took me just under 2 hours and 6 minutes total which was way faster than I thought I could run for 15 miles and a huge confidence booster!
Crushed this 15 mile run!
    Then the week before the race we did a 12 mile trail run as part of Vakava Fall Camp that ended in the dark and rain and me dropping 4 out of 5 of my guy teammates (oops- but they did all do rollerski intervals faster than me the next day). I was breathing out of my nose and wasn’t trying to drop them, but this was still a good sign leading up to the race.  

    The race started at 9 am allowing plenty of time to sleep in and eat breakfast before the start. Weather conditions were forecasted to be about 38 at the start warming to 44 with increasing chance of rain throughout the day. Perfect for long sleeves on top and bottom and some light gloves. The marathon started with the 26 km but did a big loop first and so I would only be running with the other 26 km runners and given last years times, I would likely never see any of the other marathon runners again. The half marathon also started at the same time, but over 3 miles up the course so I wouldn’t be seeing those runners until later in the race.

    Looking at the race results, I was likely to finish well within the top quarter of the 200 participant field in the 26 km and that meant I would be running with few others around me. This was quite different from some of my recent races, but not unlike long runs with just Erik. Thinking about this was good mental preparation prior to the race. 

    Given the distance, I was going to let the first few miles be my warm-up. My goal was no sub-8 minute miles for the first few miles. While this pace felt pretty fast to me a few years ago, it was now very comfortable. I set my watch to autolap every half mile so I could frequently check my progress. I had also been paying better attention to my heart rate and knew I wanted it in the upper 140s for most of the race. My goal pace average was somewhere between 8-8:30 minutes/mile. 

    Assuming I was feeling good, my plan was to start pushing the pace 3-4 miles prior to the finish and try to run some miles in the 7s. Also, from the race map, the distance looked to be more like 27 km rather than 26 km which is also important to know prior to the start as a kilometer, which would take me about 5 minutes, is a long time when the muscles are tired and the cardiovascular system is being taxed.  
    Since the start was cold and we knew the field was small, we left my mom’s house for the start with only 30 minutes to spare. There was no traffic and ample parking and no line for the port-a-potty. I downed a gu with 10 minutes to go and got in the start line with 5 minutes till gun time. No one was really getting up close to the front so I lined up very near the start with just a couple women in front of me (both 26 km and marathon racers). The gun went off and I moved to the right side to let people pass and so as not to be too caught up in the excitement. I ran what I thought was an easy pace but still clocked a 7:45 min/mile pace for the first half mile. There was a woman running in black who got ahead of me; she was chatting with a guy from Hibbing.

    From there I tried to slow down just a tad, but mostly avoid doing any pushing and just nose breath. I counted the women in front of me as we veered off from the marathon course- I was 6th, but then another woman passed me. I ran with the 6th place woman for the first 2 miles, then dropped her. A couple guys passed me and I passed one. Then a guy in a white shirt came up alongside me and we ran together for the next 4 miles along the mostly flat and straight railway grade trail. We passed a sign that said “100 miles to International Falls.” I had saw that sign so many times while rollerskiing this stretch more than a decade earlier but had forgotten about it. The trail does indeed go to International Falls, albeit it is mostly unpaved. Every time I see that sign it makes me want to go to International Falls, but today my goal was to run around Lake Bemidji.

    My half miles kept ticking away right at 8 minute per mile pace as I ran with white shirt. We didn’t say anything and I kept nose breathing. I hoped I wasn’t going too fast but figured the nose breathing was a good sign as well as my pace workouts at 7:30 min/mile. My stomach felt a bit cramped. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken that gel right before the start? It wasn’t slowing me down but I didn’t feel as good as I would have liked. 

    And then we were passing the 4 mile sign and I thought, “wow, that was quick. Already about a quarter done with this thing.”

    At 6 miles we got off the railroad bed trail and headed into Bemidji State Park on a winding downhill trail. The fall leaf colors were amazing but I was racing and couldn’t fully enjoy this part of the course. Here I started passing my first half marathoners who had a 3.6 mile lead on me. Then once we got back near Lake Bemidji the course started climbing through the western part of the State Park. Now 7 miles in, I gave up on the nose breathing and was breathing hard out of my mouth as I passed another guy.

    Next was our first road section (we would be on roads almost the entirety of the remainder of the race). Now I was passing half marathons constantly. I made it a point to say “good job” even though it takes my breath away I like cheering; however, I was disappointed that all these people were plugged in. 

    Unlike the Twin Cities Marathon course that is almost continuously lined with spectators, there were very few spectators out on course. On the north side of Lake Bemidji, 2 people came up with a very effective way to cheer- they got some giant speakers and blasted music! This was awesome. Now, I love listening to music when I run, but not the headphones kind- the kind that screams TREAT THIS LIKE A DANCE PARTY!

    Soon the fifth place woman in black was in my sights. I worried I might be breathing too hard. I was mouth breathing now and it was loud to me. I was working hard but thought I could put out this effort for another 8+ miles. Then some fast chick passed me. I thought about going with her but told myself that would be stupid. And it would have been stupid.

    I got a gel at the 10 mile aid station that took me half a mile to get down. I didn’t want to litter and so carried it to the next aid station. My stomach was still a bit cramped. Again, nothing major but it didn’t feel awesome. By now I caught up to the woman in black in front of me (we were now 5th and 6th place). She was talking to Hibbing guy still. They were going the pace I wanted to run and thoroughly enjoyed listening in on their conversation and even partook a bit (the woman ran a 3:36 at Twin Cities Marathon 2 weeks previous and she didn’t seem to be pushing the pace- especially since I wasn’t in her age group). We were passing so many half marathoners and us women were often cheering them along. This part of the course also had about 4 small hills on it. Now, as a Bemidji native who had ran this street a lot (Birchmont), I knew about all these hills but it was pretty fun hearing these 2 companions talk about how the course was hillier than expected. 

    Somewhere in this section, the race officials had done away with the 26 km mile markers. Now, as I mentioned previously, this might be because the race is closer to 27 km, and in the US we don’t really measure things in kilometers. Since there were mile markers for the marathon, which was a Boston Qualifier, I figured those were pretty on the mark and I could count down at that point. 

    With 4 miles to go I remarked that my calves and body was getting tired. At 3 miles to go we came out to Diamond Point Park near Bemidji State University. This was our first time being close to Lake Bemidji for awhile and with the angle the Event Center, the start and finish of the race, looked a lot farther away than 3 miles! I got a surprise cheer from my father-in-law before running up the hill by the college. My legs were fried and I could tell my lungs didn’t have much reserve.

    As mentioned earlier, my plan was to push the last 3ish miles if I felt good but my stomach was too cramped, my body too tired, and my breathing already too hard to do any pushing. Now we were nearing downtown Bemidji and soon we were heading by the Paul Bunyan and Babe statue. The Hibbing guy was really struggling but that woman was really encouraging him! He said this was a training run for his first planned marathon (Grandma’s) next year. I was a bit disappointed my family wasn’t out cheering- especially because I picked up lots of plastic sh*t noisemakers for them to use. 

    Oh well, as I approached the one mile to go I started to struggle a bit and sometimes it’s just better to struggle solo. Then I blazed past the 2:15 half marathon pacer. That last mile was into a cold headwind and not at all downhill. I was still passing some half marathoners but couldn’t muster any kick. With half mile to go it felt like an eternity. With .2 miles to go the finish looked so far and wasn’t approaching very fast. I tried to take some deep breaths like my friend Craig, recommended, but it wasn’t very helpful. My mom was cheering .1 miles from the end and my bro took a video (although I didn’t see him). I did see Erik who had finished 16 minutes in front of me cheering in his bright green shirt. My effort felt like I was finishing a 5 K...I was totally beat and couldn’t run any faster. But this also told me I completely nailed the pacing!
My mother-in-law took this photo less than a minute after I finished and you can see I look pretty rough. Erik ended 3rd overall in the race! Photo: Barb Pieh
And this is why I looked pretty rough...19th overall, 5th female. Fast pace for me.

    It started sprinkling, and then raining, after I finished. I must’ve looked pretty rough because someone asked me if I was OK at the finish. My lungs had worked hard and I had that feeling like I needed to cough but the cough wasn’t coming. My stomach was in knots for a good hour after finishing as I gradually got down some water, then chocolate milk, then a banana, followed by more chocolate milk:)

    Afterwards I wasn’t at all sore which was nice; however, for the remainder of the day, every time I took in a deep breath, I could tell my lungs had worked hard. My pacing was very consistent throughout the race, average 7:56 min/mile overall. My slowest half mile was 8:24 (big uphill) and my fastest 7:36 (mostly downhill). I averaged 7:55 for my 16th mile and 7:44 for the last .7 miles so I wasn’t slowing down by the end which was good. Oh, and my watch clocked 16.7 miles for 27 km.
My Garmin trace for the race. Here you can see the distance and the farther route on the northeast side of the lake compared to last year's run...and the faster pace!

    I ran through the 10 mile at 1:19:01. Last year I ran a 10 mile race in 1:19:14 and felt I had put it all out there. This year I was able to run another 6.7 miles at that pace which tells me my training is working and I am getting faster which is so exciting! Even though I was exhausted at the finish and was thinking I’m not too keen to repeat this, seeing improvement makes me want to keep racing. I’m trying to decide what I want to do next year but this includes trying to shatter my previous times in the 5 K through 10 mile and possibly running a 25 km trail run. 
Winners of each race got these mini axes, or "hatchets" as Erik said. Not quite as cool as the rosemaled axes for the Minnesota Finlandia!
Erik and I with our age group prizes- cowbells. Now an hour after my finish I was feeling much more recovered. Photo: Barb Pieh