I've heard tell of this "Amish Country" race before, which actually surprised me. The race takes place in Berlin, Ohio, which is a relatively remote location for a race that has a little bit of hype. I suppose any good race will eventually start building a reputation, so I was excited to check it out for myself. Waking up at 4:30 in the morning is never a picnic, but I left on time and took to the very dark, little traveled roadways that would get me into the heart of Ohio Amish Country. Unlit roads and poorly marked intersections got me a little sidetracked, but I made good time and was at the last intersection before pulling in to the parking lot (literally right across the street) - and then it happened.
While inching up to check around the dangerous intersection, where cross traffic comes around a blind corner and doesn't have to stop, I was rear ended by another runner who decided that my inching meant she would be able to just shoot across right behind me without actually stopping. The hit wasn't really all that hard, but since I had been peering around a tight corner, my head was a lot closer to my steering wheel, and the hit slammed my temple right into the wheel. Hard. We got out of the cars and she said we could just pull across to the parking lot to exchange information, but the entire time she was trying to weasel her way out of taking any responsibility at all. I told her it was my mom's car and that I would need all her information to pass on to my mom, and she said I should wait until after the race to even call anyone about it. Well, she was running the 5k and would be LONG gone by the time I finished (especially with the concussion she had given me), and I wasn't about to wait. I called the police, initiated a report, got her information, and did the best I could not to panic. Piling a car accident on top of everything else I've been dealing with lately was almost enough to break me, but I wouldn't let it. It was time to run.
One of the reasons the Amish Country Half Marathon is becoming well known is, apparently, the incredibly challenging course. I knew it would be hilly (I've driven those Amish Country roads before) but actually running the crazy steep hills all morning was one of the most difficult tests of athleticism I've ever encountered! Between the lingering illness, the fresh concussion, and a woeful lack of recent training post-MCM, I was more than happy to take my time with the hills. I ran a good portion of the course, but I walked more miles than I had originally intended because the elevation changes were making me a little dizzy. Oh, yeah, and some of the ascents were too steep for my body to comprehend a way to climb at a running pace... But the goal wasn't to PR or to run in any particular time. All I had to do was finish.
Fortunately, the running community proved itself once again to be full of awesome, and I connected with a couple of other runners who had the same take on this particular race. We took our time, chatted, took photos, and focused more on having fun than on keeping a quick pace. Though the day was overcast, Amish Country is still quite beautiful, with valley vistas that are breath-taking even on a rainy day. Plus, every turn and crossroad had an Amish family to point the way or pour water, so we occasionally stopped to chat for a bit with the locals. They didn't exactly cheer, and there were no motivational signs anywhere, but I would still have to say I enjoyed the course support simply for the fact that there were so many families out enjoying the "worse parade ever"! Even when it started to drizzle a little, most of the families stayed outside, and the ones that went in stayed by the windows and waved as we passed. It was really cute to see all the kids' faces pressed against the glass! Eventually, though, I had to slow down too much for my new running buddies, and I wished them well as they moved on ahead.
I took a couple miles as personal quiet time, mixing it up between running and walking a little. My time wasn't completely atrocious considering the elevation and my state of health, so I was in good spirits despite the chilly, damp weather and the solitary stretches of pavement. At one point I passed a table covered in candy bars and helped myself to the coldest non-ice cream Snickers bar on the planet, which hurt my teeth but made my stomach very happy. Shortly after that table, I found myself passing a man who looked like he was limping a little. I turned to ask him if he was okay, and realized I knew the guy - he was on my impromptu running team a month and a half earlier at the Towpath Marathon Half! He recognized me too, and we took the next mile and a half together at a nice, easy pace.
We found the 12 mile marker at the crest of a particularly nasty hill, and I knew it was time for me to start the engine again to finish under three hours. From that point on, the rest of the course was all completely within view of the finish line - which meant I constantly felt like I was "almost there" despite having a considerable chunk of course left ahead of me! I gutted out that last mile (and the last big hill) to cross the line in just under 2:50. Yes, it's my worst half marathon time ever by about 5 minutes. No, it doesn't bother me in the slightest! I finished this race, and with all things considered, I would have been happy with any time so long as I was crossing on my own two feet under my own power. Keeping the time relatively close to a couple previous races was actually icing on the cake, so I finished with a smile and headed back to the gym for my hot buttered noodles with my head held high.
My new friends had waited around to make sure I had finished without further injury or incident, so I got a few extra hugs before I grabbed my post race food and started chowing down. Instead of just receiving a medal at the finish, I was actually handed a plastic bag (with the medal tied on, of course) containing a chocolate milk, a whole block of Amish cheese, and a little pot of Amish-made healing balm. What a cool finisher bag! I've never been to a race that handed you an actual bag of goodies at the finish line instead of when you pick up your race packet, and honestly I kinda like it. It wouldn't have been a problem at this race with the parking lot right by check in and the start/finish, but receiving the goodies at the end would eliminate the need for bag check at other races. The best part of the post-race, though, was easily the hot buttered noodles. Actually, this was probably the single best post-race food item I've ever had, at ANY race. Now that I've learned the joys of a bowl of hot buttered noodles after a chilly run, it's likely to become a winter running staple for me!
I took my time eating and recovering, thanked some of the race organizers for a very good experience, and meandered out to my car. Part of my slow exit was intended to allow the parking lot to empty and the major intersection to clear: I can't say I wasn't nervous about getting back on the road after my pre-race accident. Taking my time also gave my head every possible precious moment to clear before I had to tackle a two hour drive back home. Seeing the damage done to my beloved little Hyundai threatened once again to bring me down, but thankfully the Berlin high school hallways were ready to help! Right at the end of the hallway by the parking lot was a big bulletin board that said simply "Believe in Yourself". With the weight of my past few weeks crushing on me, I had still managed not only to complete 13.1 miles of insane hills, but I had done it with a smile and with as much vigor as my tired little body could muster. My worst days can get pretty bad, but I am always ME, and ME is a pretty awesome person to be! So thank you, fortuitously placed bulletin board, for the much-needed reminder!
Amish Country Half Marathon Breakdown
Organization: This is a relatively small race, with only a few hundred participants at best, but race day logistics moved like a well-oiled machine that probably could have accommodated many, many more runners. There might have been as many volunteers as there were runners, to be quite honest! Packet pickup on race morning was quick and relatively painless, though I was disappointed when they tried to hand me a "small" shirt knowing I had requested a "medium". When I asked about it, they clearly had "small" written on their check-in list, and I clearly had "women's medium" on my confirmation email, so we weren't really sure where the disconnect was. My guess was that the gender-specific shirts advertised had been changed to unisex, so they gave me a small thinking it would compensate. Communication on that front would have saved some confusion, but otherwise, I got my bib and shirt with no wait. The course was well marked and there were people to direct at every intersection. I did notice a few tables that looked like they were supposed to be water stops, but there were no people there and only a few things that looked like aid station leftovers. It was a chilly, overcast day so I didn't miss the water, but I do wonder what was up with those unmanned tables. Overall, though, I was pleasantly surprised and at times impressed with the overall organization of the event.
The Course: Hills, hills, and more hills! What a great course for a challenge! If you're looking to try this race in the future, I cannot stress enough how important hill training is. And these hills were more than just some elevation changes - they were steep and prolonged, drawing out the agony in my legs over and over again. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely loved it, and wish I had been in better shape to see how well I could perform on such a difficult course, but it definitely made my muscles sore! There were enough active aid stations for the colder weather, and as mentioned the route was easy to follow thanks to ample course marshal support. It was pretty scenic, too, despite the general bleakness of the day. I really have no complaints about the course at all - fun, challenging, supported, and scenic, what more could you ask for?
The Swag: Early registration for next year's race is already up, at $50 for the half marathon. I paid $65 to register about a week prior to the race, so either way the cost is in the same ballpark as most other local half marathons I've done this past year. The swag, though, is easily some of my favorite. All half marathoners received a long sleeve tech shirt, a straw hat, a fake beard (uh-mazing), a medal, chip timing, Amish cheese and other goodies, and of course the hot buttered noodles that have changed my world. Very few races have as many little swag items that put such big smiles on people's faces! No race photos (not even on the Facebook page or for purchase) so if you're one of those people who loves race photos, take a camera or bring your personal paparazzi. I loved all the items (and freaked out my dog when I walked back in the house wearing my beard), but have to admit I was slightly disappointed with the shirt. It isn't a bad shirt, but as mentioned previously, the registration page asked for gendered sizes, and I remember it listing "Brook's long sleeve" as the item because I specifically said to my parents while I was registering "Oh Brook's, okay, I have a bunch of women's mediums from them and they fit great!" I was very excited to get a long sleeve shirt from a brand that is tried and true. Come race day, however, I was listed for a small - and received an off-brand, unisex shirt. They gave me the medium I requested but as a unisex shirt I probably should have just taken the small. I didn't notice the difference until later. Checking the website for next year just says "a dri-wick long sleeve" with no brand mentioned, so I don't know what happened with the shirts this year. Still, it's a pretty good quality shirt, and all the other bonuses more than make up for it! Very solid value for the cost.
The Bottom Line: Would run this again, for sure! But would also prepare for it a little better. I signed up for this one because it fit the schedule and I needed a November race, then pushed through the Universe trying to get me to quit, but I would highly recommend knowing what you're getting into if you have any actual goals for the Amish Country half. It's not a race that can be raced without a little hill training. It IS a fantastic challenge with a lot of heart and soul, and I highly recommend anyone who relishes a good uphill battle make your way out to Amish Country. You won't be disappointed!
What's your favorite post race food? What was the most challenging non-running situation you had to deal with before or during a race? Have you ever been to Ohio Amish Country? Why does Amish cheese taste so damn good?