Monday, August 1, 2016

Miles for Mikey

I had always been somewhat dismissive of virtual races. What, exactly, was the point? I enjoy the community of races, the excitement, the energy. How would a virtual race make these things happen for me?

And yet…

This April I had a half marathon in Middletown, Connecticut on my calendar. The idea was to have a race to keep me motivated to do some long runs throughout the winter, as a bit of base-building for my October 2016 Newport Marathon attempt. It worked. I ran.

The evening before April race day, New England was struck by a cold snap. There were intense winds. The race was cancelled. I was deferred into a June race in Simsbury, Connecticut. “Fine,” I thought at the time. This was despite the fact that a half marathon the first weekend in June was terrible for my schedule. It came on the heels of some intense traveling and racing with Ragnar and Bone Frog preceding the race.

The first weekend in June arrived and, for only the second time in my racing career, I opted to skip a race. (The other time I skipped a race was a local 5K I missed due to a calf strain.) I had no motivation to get up early, to drive an hour and a half, and to do a run some place unexpected. Instead, I ended up doing a 10 miler on the bike path near my house. I was happy. The run was great. It was the right decision for me during this time in my training.

On the heels of this experience, I saw a post in the NESpahtens #racelocal Facebook group about a race called Miles for Mikey. It was a virtual race sponsored by Team Mike McNeil to raise money in support of cancer research at Massachusetts General Hospital. There were four options for the virtual race – 5K, 10K, half marathon, or all three. I signed up for the half. Here it was: My opportunity to run a half marathon on my own schedule, exploring my own community, with zero travel.

The last Saturday in July I had a 13 miler scheduled as part of my marathon training program. This was it – my opportunity to run my Miles for Mikey 13.1. The weather was fairly promising. It was not overly sunny and the temperatures were in the mid-70s, much cooler than the rest of the week where temperatures hit the 90s. I laced up my sneakers and headed out at around 9:30 a.m. after sleeping as late as a wanted and having a nice breakfast of oatmeal and coffee a luxuriously relaxed pace in the quiet of my own home.

I ended up doing a loop course, adding on some distance to one of my favorite runs in my neighborhood. I am lucky enough to live about a mile away from a bike path that runs, uninterrupted from Belchertown in the east to Northampton in the west. It is not an exaggeration to say that our community’s bike path is one of my favorite things about living in the Amherst/Northampton-area. I use the bike path at least a half dozen times a week. My lunch-hour running route incorporates the bike path. I use the bike path for all of my weekend long runs. I commute via bike to work usually around four days a week between late March and early October and take the bike path for much of that trip. I’ve biked and run from my house, nine miles along the bike path into Northampton. I explore many of the trails that jut off of the bike path. I love its beauty and utility.

My virtual half marathon running route took me from my home, through the neighboring Amherst Woods community (where I often also run through the Wentworth Farms conservation area – though I skipped it on Saturday). From the back of Amherst Woods, I was able to take the Ken Cuddeback Trail for about half a mile and meet up with the bike path. From there, I ran east into Belchertown where the path reaches its terminus. Along the way, I was hemmed in with swamp and trees. I could see the 7 Sisters mountain range in the distance.

The terminus of the bike path in Belchertown is about 4.5 miles from my house. From there, I had done some brief exploration of the roads in the area. The other day, after uploading my GPS data from last Sunday’s 12 miler, I noticed that if I ran along the road perpendicular to the bike path, I would end up on Bay Road in Belchertown. From there, I could run back west to Amherst, loop around to South East Street, and, from there, return back to the bike path, which would take me back to the KC Trail and then, finally, home. 

This entire plan actually worked fantastically well. The road connecting the bike path to Bay Road was nicely wooded, surrounded with farms and conservation land. It had some rolling hills – more up than down – but was a nice new adventure in scenery. After all, it had been a while since I’d run someplace new.

Exploring my local area by foot is one of my favorite things. I love noticing new houses I’ve never seen as I run along local roads. I am always excited to stumble upon a new hiking trail. A few weeks ago, Ben and I found a new conservation area right along South East Street and got to do some wonderful exploring of a new meadow area we had both never seen. These quiet explorations of nature at the pace of a slow run or an even slower ramble, are an excellent way to unwind and discover Western Massachusetts, even though I’ve now lived here for well over a decade.

The two miles I ran along Bay Road were certainly more trafficked and less picturesque than the rest of the run, but they allowed for a bit of downhill running, which was nice. I was glad to turn onto South East Street and return to more quiet environs.

The run along South East Street was, again, rolling hills. There were lovely homes, farm land, and other conservation areas. I was feeling good as I made the turn on to Station Road to go and meet back up with the bike path. The weather was not overly hot, I was hydrating enough, and I was fueling well with the new chomps I had purchased by Probar.

I reached the bike path and knew that I had less than two miles to go. I was invigorated! I have done two half marathon races in my life, Hogsback Half Marathon and Gulf Beach Half Marathon. During both of those, I ended up doing some walking at the end. This would be the first half marathon I’d done where I’d run the entire way through. (Minus three quick 30 second walks to allow me to eat the chomps. I always stop running when I fuel and walk since I fear choking.)

The last mile I was tired, but I ran strong and faster than in my previous several miles. I finished my run in 2:31. This was close to my Hogsback time of 2:28 and my Gulf Beach time of 2:29. My slower running speed allowed me to run the entire way, instead of run/walking, which was satisfying, though, ultimately a similar speed. I am getting better at pacing myself at a consistent pace.

The Miles for Mikey race was great! I've hung my medal on my rack and value the memories of this half marathon in a similar way to my past in-person races. (Though Hogsback will always be special to me as my first half marathon.) 

Virtual races? I get the point now.

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