Another goal I'm loosely aiming for over the long-term is to run a half in every state. I needed a July race for the HF goal, so I looked to see if there were any in the easily accessible neighboring states of Pennsylvania and Michigan. As luck would have it, the Erie Runners Club was hosting a half marathon at the stunning Presque Isle State Park, on a Sunday for which I had no work scheduled. Boom - done. Signed up for a very modest fee, and started planning my schedule for getting out to Erie early on a Sunday morning. It's about an hour and a half drive, doable the day-of if I wake up early (and go to bed early the night before), but far enough that a cheap hotel along the way isn't a horrible idea.
Unfortunately, my weekend unfolded very differently than I expected at the time I picked my July race! Turns out, that same day was going to be our bi-annual family reunion, for which I was on the planning team. It would be late enough in the afternoon that I'd have no problem making it in time after the race (and was actually on the way home from Presque Isle), but it would be a looooong day outside and mostly on my feet when I'd likely be ready to collapse. Because of the reunion, my brother and his wife would be in town, too, and of course I'd want to spend time with them on Saturday. We ended up going to Party in the Park, a weekend-long live music festival event that was awesome and full of junky fair foods that were delicious (deep fried pierogies mmmmm). Afterwards, we did what we always do: we gamed. All night.
So long into the night, that at one point I finally said we need a little break while I go prep my car to leave in 4 hours for the race. I laid out my clothes, threw together everything else I'd need, and dumped it all in the car. Including my keys. And I always lock my car doors. Closing that door happened in such slow motion I thought I'd actually be able to get in there in time! Alas, I did not. So at midnight I'm calling AAA to get my car unlocked (yup, we only have one key for that car) while we're trying to finish a game and there's a race in just a few hours... I know, I know, my choice to game instead of sleep, but I get to see my brother so rarely! Eventually I got my keys and got to bed, woke up with a lot of grogginess but no problem getting in the car and on the road in time, and actually had a fun, music-jamming car ride that landed me at Presque Isle just as packet pickup opened.
One of the big draws to this race (besides crossing off another state) was the early 6:30 start time that had originally been advertised. After registering, I found an FAQ page that said the race actually starts at 6:45 but that the online system wouldn't let them post it at quarter-hour intervals. I shrugged it off because it's only 15 minutes and that meant I could sleep in just that much longer. When I arrived, however, it quickly became clear that the 6:45 start time would be difficult to achieve for the vast majority of participants. There was only ONE line for packet pickup, and while it did move relatively smoothly, there were 1300+ participants in the race and one line was NOT going to cut it. They also offered race-day registration, and both pickup and registration started at 5:45. The lines got longer and longer, until an announcement was made at 6:30 that the race start would be delayed to 7am instead. Meh, I was starting to lose the "early start means cooler weather" advantage for which I'd been planning.
With all the extra time to wait, I hopped in the 20-minute port-o-potty line just in case and because I had time. It moved very slowly and I ended up catching a few Pokemon while waiting and watching the check-in line grow and grow. Around 7 I made my way over to the starting line, which was narrow enough to mean us mid-packers would have a ways to go just to reach the start. Finally it was almost time. They played the Canadian national anthem, then ours, and the airhorn went off - just as someone yelled "WAIT, STOP! MEDIC!" We waited. And waited. And waited. It was unclear what was happening and if the person needed an ambulance, there was no way one could get through the crowd if we're all standing there waiting. Finally, at about 7:15, the race actually started. I crossed the starting line about five minutes later, officially starting the race 50 minutes late. NOT HAPPY.
Fortunately, the intense beauty of the course made the run a lot better than I expected it to be, even though the entire park had gotten much warmer in the long delay. We loop fully around the penninsula, spending the first half of the run skirting the very sunny inner bay and the second half enjoying the shady side in the trees. This was probably the most scenic course I've run yet! And the course support along the way was easily the best I've experienced. Not only were the (large) volunteer groups vocal and encouraging, but people visiting the park on family trips or personal biking outings supported the runners throughout the entire route. Some families even took to driving around the penninsula slowly (only one lane closed for runners) with windows open and radio on to give us mobile DJs of a sort. One car had a different motivational sign hanging out the window every time they passed! Course support like this makes cover 13 miles so much more fun, even if it is sweltering and I haven't trained in weeks!
I did struggle with the running part, though. That "not-training" thing wasn't a joke, I really hadn't run more than a mile or two since the Towpath Ten-Ten a full month prior. Only a couple miles in, I found myself walking. Over and over again. My rule was that I could only walk in contiguous shade, to keep my time in the sun to a minimum, but even with that rule I was doing a LOT of walking. The heat was a big limiting factor too. I found it a little easier to move once I hit the shade for a while on the return trip, but by mile 10ish I was hurting. I made a new running buddy (don't I always?) who was running her very first half, and we finished the course together with a mix of walking and running.
We were obviously pretty excited to have finished! I was even more excited when my time was 2:30 - exactly on par with my "goal time" for a race like this, in which I know I won't have much chance of a PR but don't want to totally bomb. My excitement, however, was short-lived, as I soon received my finisher medal - and almost handed it right back. I don't run races FOR the medals anymore (mostly, though it can help me choose between two big races on the same day) but when I run 13.1 miles, I expect a little more than the cheapest generic medal you can find online with a sticker on the back that doesn't even say the name of the race! I can't imagine how I would feel if this was my first half marathon and all I got was a crap medal that looks like I bought it at a thrift store and printed my own sticker for it... I know what it costs to make a decent finisher medal, and it's not nearly as cost-prohibitive as people would think, especially when ordering 1300+, so I was supremely disappointed that this race couldn't provide something a little more unique to a race that could have something really spectacular, considering the location they're using.
They DID provide box lunches from Bob Evans at the finish line, which I thought was really cool until I opened mine and found that it was a premade sandwich with all the dressings on it that I don't eat. There were no options as far as anyone could tell (including no veggie option, just turkey) so I nibbled at the fruit cup and some of the dry bread before heading back to the car and racing home for the reunion. I made it on time, but only barely, instead of having the small amount of time to relax a bit as I'd planned thanks to the excessively delayed start of the race. I made it through the reunion, exhausted but feeling accomplished, and definitely got a good night's sleep afterwards!
Presque Isle Half Marathon Breakdown
Organization: I don't usually give grades in this section but I think I'm going to start today. Organization gets a big D. Maybe a D minus. Late starts are AWFUL, especially in the middle of summer when it gets hotter by the minute, and extra-especially when you have a race to which many people travel. Aid stations advertized "Gatorade" but really it was "Gu Brew" and they didn't have the concentrate mixed properly, so some stations were almost straight lemon-lime electrolyte concentrate that burned the inside of my mouth, and others were just water with the barest hint of citrus from the single drop of concentrate that found its way in. Long lines at registration and not enough bathrooms, a chaotic start protocol, shoe-tag timing not reading at the split markers and making me worry I wouldn't even get an official time, and of course medals that look like they'd been forgotten until the day prior, all made for a very negative impression of the event. Not something I'd like to repeat, but they DID actually manage to get all their runners through a half marathon, so I can't give it a totally failing grade...
The Course: Gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous, and full of support. An A minus here, only low because the first couple miles were incredibly congested thanks in large part to a lack of pace groups or corrals. In a narrow bottleneck start, there has to be a better way of spreading out runners appropriately, especially when there's no room to pass due to running on a still-active and popular road. Volunteers were everywhere, providing clearly-communicated water stop choices and even cool wet towels towards the end of the race. If the organization wasn't so piss-poor, this could be an amazing race.
The Swag: Cost for this race is between $40 and $50 depending when you register, which is admittedly pretty cost-effective for a half marathon - but that doesn't justify skimping on focal-point swag! The race shirts were tech material tank tops that had the weirdest women's cut I've ever seen; I actually traded mine in after the race for a men's small (since no women's smalls were available and apparently I need giant wide armpits and huge gazongas to fit into the medium) just to have a prayer of ever wearing mine. If a race is going to cut costs somewhere, I'd rather have it be on the shirts than on the medals, but that's a preference thing I suppose. Not everyone has a thousand race shirts. But I do strongly feel the medal is an important part of a half marathon, specifically because so many people doing their first half really deserve to have something amazing to show for it, and this little thing is NOT going on anyone's cubicle wall. The lunch was a nice addition but without options to accommodate the vastly different tastes of many runners, it's almost a waste of money that could have gone to other parts of the experience. Swag gets a C for tech material and lunch, but also for crappy medals, ill-fitting tops, and lack of variety.
The Bottom Line: I wish I could say I'd like to run this one again, but I just can't say that. Despite the incredible course, there's no way I'm trusting this group to put on a solid race event again in the future. It's too far a drive for such a late start and such a disappointing takeaway. I got my fourth month of half marathoning checked off, I added PA to the state list, I'm done with Presque Isle for the forseeable future. Tough cookies, but it is what it is.
What was the most disappointing race you've run? Have you ever participated in a race that had such horrible swag you'd almost rather have gone without? What's your favorite scenic course?