There’s a great little half marathon just to the north every January. I’ve run there eight times over the past twelve years. I’ve done well (including my PR in 2005!), and horribly. Some years we’ll run in beautiful, crisp 25 degree weather, others in blustery 45 degrees with horizontal rain.
Through the years there have been two constants. The shirts always have the same stuff on them – a nice trumpeter swam in flight, and "nookachamps winter runs" with the year. The other thing is the great energy that the event has.
The first time I ran Nookachamps was in 1996. I was new to half marathoning, with just three under my belt. I was also still pretty new to the Pacific Northwest. Unsure of the driving distance, I arrived early enough to take a nap in my car before the gym opened. I had a pretty good day too, running to a new PR.
I was on again, off again at Nookachamps for a while. Then in 2004, I ran into a friend from work while waiting for the start. He was up for the race with a group of friends from the Eastside Runners, and invited me to go for lunch with them afterwards (had to decline so I could get back home). That year, I ran a very good ten mile race. The problem was, I needed to run another 5k or so in order to get back for a nice hot shower. I gritted it out through mile 11, before my friend loped easily up behind me and said "Thought I’d never catch you!". He chatted me up until we made the final turn into the college – easing my pain through the hardest part of the race. I mustered one final kick, finishing my fastest half marathon in seven years (about 15 seconds behind my friend). The following year I eked out a 30 second PR, this time running the first miles with my friend (who was generously pacing someone else to a PR too).
My wife and I have returned to run Nookachamps two out of the last three years, making a day of it with ESR. The club rented transportation, and we’d capped the race with a hearty meal at the brewery in downtown Mount Vernon. Even though I haven’t approached a PR since 2005, I’ve had a great time visiting with friends, enjoying the course, and drawing something from the experience of running a solid half marathon.
This year, we ventured up in the lap of luxury, owing to the efforts of Barbara Sobey, who arranged for a bus to carry up the 15 ESR folks who chose to share the ride. We had perfect running conditions – 45 and dry. This was about fifteen or twenty degrees warmer than my recent Nookachamps races.
The magic bus pulled up to Skagit Valley College in time for us to stretch, relax, and "find our happy place". Then we ambled out to the starting line where we had just enough time to settle into a couple of pace groups before it was time for the surprise no countdown start.
We never saw John before he shot off way ahead of us. We did have enough time to wish Nicole and Alicia well as they left us in the dust. Bob and Mark chatted with us as they warmed up during the first half mile. I settled into a nice steady run with Randy, Ram, and Karen. I wasn’t feeling my best, and I had no idea what the race would hold for me.
Randy’s plan seemed to be steady 8:15-8:30 miles, which sounded good to me. I was prepared to slow down more if I felt like it too. Randy and I passed a pleasant five or six miles together.
Then I had a dilemma. Having no real expectations for the race meant I hadn’t committed to a specific pace. I’d planned to run with my wife until she rebuffed me in favor of headphones (apparently she hears enough from me without needing to endure a long run together). If I’m ‘racing’, I generally try to hit about an eight minute mile pace, but didn’t expect to do so today. So when I pulled a little ahead of Randy I wondered whether I wouldn’t rather drop back and make a social run out of it. What’s the point of pushing too hard without a hard goal? As I ticked off a succession of 8:10-8:20 miles, I pondered this question, even as I slowly began to pick up the pace.
I stole a look at my elapsed time as I crossed the nine mile mark. I try not to do that, instead focusing on each mile split. But what my watch told me was that if I pushed a little, finishing the last 4.1 miles in about 31 minutes, I’d hit my outside goal of 1:45 (that’s eight minute splits for those following at home!).
But I didn’t want to make this nice day only about a time goal. So I decided to push as hard as I could, but hide my watch under my sleeve, so I couldn’t see how fast I was actually running. Brilliant! Also borderline obsessive-compulsive.
There’s a lot of gentle up and down on the course. Forgetting about the steep hill coming up from Clear Lake around mile 8, the two hills I remember most are at mile 10 and 12, coming up from the valley into town. I could definitely feel that I was running faster as I managed the climb from the valley. Oddly, I felt much better than I’d expected, and chalked it up to my accidental negative split strategy! Making the final turn into the college, I anticipated learning how close to my goal I was. It wasn’t until the final 150 yards that I saw just how close it would be. I gave it all I had, and crossed the line with just 3 seconds to spare!
Once my heart and lungs had returned to their normal locations inside my body, I joined the folks who had finished before me to greet our friends as they came in before adjourning to the warm showers.
All in all – ESR folks did well this year. 10k finishers included Carl Kadie, Charlie Garrett, Doug Chase, Mark King, Ed Sobey, Mona Petrou, Trish Ostertag, and Linda Rinker. Richard Chase, John Dickson, and Nathanial Rastallis led the club finishers in the half marathon. Also running the half were Rod Brown, Barbara Sobey (placing in her age group!), Kris Solem, Amy Wismer, Hazel Chase, Karen Zehm, May Cheng, Randy Erber, Judy Fisher, Tony Tang, your humble narrator, Alicia King, Nicole Sweeney, Mike Donoghue, Bob Wismer, and Mark Hovde. This varied group included the full complement of PRs, PWs, negative splits, leg cramps, side stitches, and swan sightings.
Distance running will humble you. Even if you prepare well, a last minute cold, sleepless night, or random meal choice can sink you. So when I don’t prepare well, I’ll take whatever I get. This time around I ran two different races. I’ll remember the one after committing to do my best. It’s important to celebrate even the small victories.
The rest of the day was very nice. We hung out at the brewery, and enjoyed watching the Seahawks bolt out to a two touchdown lead (unfortunately they still had to play another 3 and a half quarters). We rode back towards home trading stories about our training plans and remembering a nice day in trumpeter country.