This weekend I ran the half marathon at the inaugural PNC Milwaukee Running Festival. The weekend events featured a 1-mile race (on Saturday), a 5K, a half marathon and, the crown jewel – the first ever full marathon run entirely in the city limits of Milwaukee. Together the 4 races drew just under 3,000 participants. Whether you were there to PR, run your first ever half or full marathon, or just be part of this “first” in our city, there was an excitement in the air that you just don’t find at other races.
We were blessed with perfect weather on Sunday – sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-to-high 40s at the start. And then, at 7:00 AM on the dot, we were off! (mad props to MRF for the earlier start time. Yes, it sucks to get up early but I personally prefer earlier races anyway because I like getting races over with earlier in the morning. It’s nice to know I still have my whole day ahead of me!)
The first few miles were a straight shot up Lincoln Memorial Drive, right along Lake Michigan. I started off running 8:30-8:35 miles, which is about 10 seconds slower than where I would have liked to finish the race (1:50, or 8:23ish). Perfect starting pace. Or so I thought. I immediately noticed that this pace didn’t feel as easy as it should. Lack of fitness? Maybe. But these same paces were easy as cake at last weekend’s relay race. What gives? I wouldn’t say it was hard, I just didn’t feel as light and springy as I usually feel in the beginning of races. Instead of slowing down, I decided to just make myself stay at that pace for a few miles, figuring that maybe it would just take my legs a while to warm up to it.
They never really did, though. In fact, my hamstrings were really tight and stiff throughout the whole race and never completely loosened up. It was never painful or seriously bothersome, it just made me drag a little and made it hard to get into a rhythm.
There was a large hill at the beginning of mile 4, which I had been a little worried about but it actually didn’t seem that bad. In fact, working my way up that hill gave me a little jolt and I was able to gain a little bit of steam coming off it. This was also where we turned off the lakefront and went through some of Milwaukee’s upscale neighborhoods on our way into the East Side. I still felt about the same – “meh” – but I was starting to speed up a little bit. I looked down at my watch over the next few miles and saw that my average pace was creeping down. We went down Brady Street, which has a lot of bars and coffee shops, into the Brewers Hill neighborhood which goes by the Lakefront Brewery, and then worked our way through Schlitz Park en route to downtown. In those next few miles there was a lot more downhill than up and I thought, if the rest of the race could go this way I might be able to keep gaining steam.
But….’twas not to be.
The second half was harder than the first. It could just be my imagination but I thought there was a lot more uphill in the latter half of the race. We worked our way downtown, which included a jaunt along the river walk, and then we turned onto Wisconsin Avenue and what would be the toughest part of the course. A long hill in this 9th mile, plus some headwinds from the west, delivered a big blow (pardon the pun) that I was never really able to recover from. The irony is that this is where the course ran by my workplace, so I thought I’d be prepared for this hill more than the others because I walk up it every single day. We worked our way up Wisconsin Avenue to the Marquette University campus and then the half marathoners split off from the full marathoners to work our way back to the Summerfest grounds.
We went over the 16th street bridge, which was a pretty unremarkable stretch but I was relieved to find wasn’t as big of a hill as I’d feared. Then we went down into the up-and-coming Walker’s Point neighborhood, including a short stretch along the Hank Aaron trail on the river and by the Harley-Davidson Museum.
The last two miles were mostly flat but by then it didn’t matter. I was tired. My complete lack of endurance training in the last few months really started to show its face here. There would be no second wind, I just had to push through as best I could. The last mile was mostly just working our way back through the Summerfest grounds to the finish and it seemed to drag on for all eternity. It wasn’t one of those miles where I suddenly feel recharged with the knowledge that I really am gonna finish this sucker. I mean, I knew I would finish, but it definitely never seemed like “only” .5 miles left, if you know what I mean.
Okay, okay, I know what you all really want to know so I’ll get to it: I finished in 1:51:25. It’s not my best (well, as a matter of fact it’s actually my second-best half marathon time, although still 2 and a half minutes off my PR), but it’s a pretty respectable time considering that I haven’t been working very hard these past couple months. I think the only disappointing thing about it was that I was on track to do better than that until I ran out of batteries in the 2nd half. My paces slowed and I ran a positive split race. But, oh well. It happens sometimes. Just means we’ll get ’em next time.
So, as for my racing on Sunday: if I were to grade it, I’d give it a solid B. It wasn’t super comfortable or fast, but it was still an overall pretty decent run. I think I did the best I could given my training and preparedness (or lack thereof…)
MRF Review and Notes
Personally, I think this would be a pretty tough course to PR on (assuming your PR is current and reflective of your true abilities), but it’s definitely possible if you put in the training work and log the mileage necessary for racing a half marathon, and if you really study and prepare for the course profile (aka hill training)…you know, two things I definitely have not been doing lately. It’s not the hardest course I’ve run, but I certainly wouldn’t call it easy. My strategy of “cross my fingers and just hope I’m having a supremely awesome day” would have been much more likely to work on a flatter course with fewer turns, methinks 🙂
But that’s okay, because the MRF is really about the experience. It is basically a running tour of our city. It isn’t really the type of race that’s designed to be nothing more than a PR factory; it’s about the sights, sounds, experiences, and community. Many people ran this as their first ever half or full marathon. They got to run through neighborhoods they love and neighborhoods they are meeting for the first time, with volunteers from numerous community organizations and businesses cheering them on along the way. It’s a celebration – of our city, of the running community, of the success of this inaugural event. The MRF organizers have long said that this isn’t a “running” event, it’s a community event, and you could see how that was evident here. I mean, you can run it however you want to, but I think you’d be remiss not to soak up the experience and enjoy the views and the camaraderie.
With any first event, things aren’t going to be 100%, and of course there are some kinks that need to be worked out. I would have been more surprised if there weren’t, honestly. Although the course was USATF certified, there were many rumblings that it was a little short. My watch read 13.14 at the end, but since I undoubtedly didn’t run perfect tangents I’m inclined to believe maybe it was a little short.
There was also a big last-minute snafu with the liquor license and they weren’t allowed to serve beer at the event. But this seemed more like a bizarre mix-up than an actual planning oversight and as someone who isn’t much of a drinker anyway, I easily forgave them :-). Sprecher Brewery, whose beer was supposed to be served, did give out free cans of their famous root beer and offered free tours of their brewery that day to anyone with a drink ticket.
The rest was little stuff: the start area needed more porta potties, there were no mylar blankets at the finish, even though we were told there would be, and even though there was a “food” ticket on our bibs, there was no food in the finish area (except the typical granola bars and bananas they hand you at the finish). In fact, the post-race festivities were pretty much nonexistent, at least while I was there. They had the typical results and medical tents but there was really nothing going on. I could be wrong but I was sort of expecting more of a party at the finish. Not a big deal though as I really didn’t want to stick around except to see the winners. I love watching the winners finish!
But overall this race was awesome and I think it really exceeded expectations. Kevin rode his bike around the city to see me at various points along the course, so he experienced this race too, and he commented to me later that you couldn’t tell this was a first-time event because it seemed so professional. I can’t think of a single criticism of the race itself. Everything went smoothly. There wasn’t much spectator support but I think that’s to be expected of a first time event and will hopefully get better in coming years as the event gains more community awareness. The volunteers were amazing, aid stations were plentiful and well-manned and they had NUUN! I loved that! So much better than Gatorade, if you ask me. The course, while physically challenging, was great at showing off Milwaukee landmarks and neighborhoods. When you only have 26.2/13.1 miles to work with there are only so many places you can go, and I think they did a great job in designing the course to hit as many unique spots as they could. Everyone seemed like they were having a lot of fun and enjoying the race.
All in all, I loved the inaugural MRF and I’m so happy for the organizers that the first year was a hit. I know how much hard work, blood sweat and tears went into making this happen so I’m so glad it went well. I hope to be back next year and in the years after that to be a part of the race as it continues to grow.