The time finally came this past weekend when I had the honor of running the Towpath Half Marathon, an event staged by my friends at Canalway Partners in conjunction with the company for which I now work, Hermes Road Racing. In the days leading up to this race, I talked a little bit about how much running on the Towpath means to me, so I won't linger too much on that topic here, but I do want to reiterate that going into this race was more than just prepping for 13.1 miles of pavement. The Towpath was my "welcome home" and the friendships and opportunities that have come out of my first experience along the path have been instrumental in shaping my present and future.
But on to the race itself!
I cannot discuss any race that happened this past weekend without mentioning the unexpected snowpocalypse that loomed over the Cleveland skies starting on Friday afternoon. Weather forecasts were predicting eight inches of snow or more over night, and Saturday morning was ugly. I worked several races on Saturday, though thankfully my morning race moved to an indoor track, but runners still arrived even for the outdoor runs, and all our races went on as planned. The threat of more snow lingered, and there were doubts about how many runners would actually show up for a half marathon if the blizzards continued. Fortunately, I've accumulated more than enough warm running gear between my races in Chicago and Cleveland, and felt I would be adequately prepared for at least the low temperatures. If the snow held off, we'd likely be chilly, but at least the trail could be plowed and we'd have a clear path for running.
Sunday morning was even colder than anticipated - but clear of snow! I arrived on-site about two hours prior to start time to help with race-day registration and packet pickups and could tell early on that the darkness and cold were not going to deter nearly as many people as we'd feared. We even received last-minute registrations! Most of the runners huddled in a big group near the starting line, bouncing around to stay warm before the 8am start sent us out on the trail. I connected with some runners I'm starting to know from various Hermes events, made some new friends, and even found some running buddies!
With all the weather threats and the plunging temperatures, I'd already changed my "plan" before the race; though originally it had been a loose goal to repeat my 2:15 PR from Sunburst, I was just hoping to make it from start to finish without walking and with some level of enjoyment. The night before, I prepped a big playlist, with just enough classic rock to last me 2.5 hours, hoping I wouldn't need more than that - but come race morning, I ended up not listening to ANY of it! Instead, I teamed up with some other runners who were running just a little slower than my originally intended pace, and we chatted the whole way.
A few miles in, my new running buddy mentioned she'd never finished in under 2:30 and had given up hope of it on the Towpath due to the weather. But when I checked my phone's GPS, I realized we actually weren't going much slower than the pace we'd need for her to PR. I told her I thought we could make it, but didn't say much more. Instead, I slowly increased the pace little by little over the next few miles. I was feeling amazing for most of the race, and I probably could have hit my 2:15 had I run for myself. But I remembered Sunburst, and how easy it had been to run an unexpectedly fast time thanks to a new friend who helped me through, and I opted to make a friend and help her find her strength instead. We started struggling a little around mile 11, when my toes started to feel bruised and she started noticing the now much faster pace, and at mile 12 we separated as I tried to empty the tank (up a crazy hill) while she stayed steady through the finish.
I crossed in 2:27, but felt so light and energetic after finishing that I just knew I could have run the race much faster. I've never been so prepared for the distance, but I'm totally okay with having the fun I had on a course that carries so much meaning for me. The Cleveland Rite Aid Half Marathon is about a month away, and I anticipate a PR on that course, which I will be sharing with many of my Hermes coworkers and fellow local runner friends! What I am MOST proud of at the Towpath Half is my new buddy's PR - she finished only two minutes behind me, gutting out the hill and maintaining the right pace to get in under 2:30! We waited for the others in her group (with whom I am also now friends, but who were running at different paces) before heading to the after party down the road for sandwiches, bananas, and eventually a warm ride back to the starting line where we'd left our cars!
Towpath Half Marathon Breakdown
Organization: I'm a little biased here, having worked previously for Canalway Partners and currently working for Hermes, but these Towpath races are ALWAYS amazingly well put-together. There's a reason they've been a staple of the Cleveland running world since 1992, and it's pretty easy to understand why when you participate in their events. Registration, early packet pickups, email communication, race-day logistics - everything is always in place, and any issues are addressed quickly and with professionalism. There are three events run concurrently (half marathon, 5 miler, and 3 miler), and everyone has a great experience no matter which length of trail they cover. Other runners have a lot of positives to say about both companies, so it's not just me! But I did help on the back end of this race, as well, so maybe I am tooting my own horn a bit here too...
Two of Canalway Partners' biggest assets!
Course: The Towpath Trail is beautiful, even when it's buried in snow! So beautiful, in fact, that Runner's World includes October's Towpath Marathon as one of the most beautiful courses in the country! I've run most of this particular section of the trail previously in the Towpath Ten-Ten last year when it was muggy, humid, and even pouring down rain. I actually enjoyed it more when it was freezing! But some of that has to do with my preparedness for the race, and my mental state leading up to the event as well. We were very lucky that the snow held off and the Metroparks staff was able to plow the entire route, and we were even more lucky that most of the icy cleared up before the race too! A few patches remained, but runners communicated clearly and everyone I know across all three events made it safely. Turns and distances are distinctly marked for all three event distances, and there was no confusion as to where I was supposed to be going at any time. Mile 12 contained a massive, ugly hill, but it was the perfect amount of challenge for me at the end of what was otherwise a pretty easy course.
The Swag: I love the Towpath totem pole logo, and I love even more that each of the races takes a piece of the totem for the swag. My tech shirt is a gorgeous blue color, and it's soft like heather cotton while still being made of lightweight performance material (it's a new style, and we're loving it for our other Hermes races). The medal for this race is HUGE! And it was a little heavy after running, but I have no problems blingin' it up after a half marathon. I'm impressed with the quality of the items Towpath runners receive, and I also know that the majority of an entry fee goes towards preserving the national and local history all along the Towpath Trail, so I find the entry fees for the Towpath races to be an incredible value for runners looking for a challenge, some cool stuff, and a great cause. Canalway Partners just recently used proceeds from the races to break ground on a new park in Cleveland that will be an amazing addition to our city!
The Bottom Line: I love this race, I love the people involved, I love the path, and I love the cause. If I could run every Towpath race, I'd be there in a heartbeat! More likely, though, I'll be officially working the next couple races with Hermes, but I'll always find a way to be present at these events. Be sure to come find me at the next one - EVERYone in the area should be running a Towpath race at some point!
Did you race last weekend? How about this coming weekend, any plans? What's your favorite or most meaningful course? Would you rather PR alone or run a solid race and make some amazing friends?