One of my favorite short stories begins as so:
Toward the end of March, in St. Louis, slush fills the gutters, and dirty snow lies heaped alongside porch steps, and everything seems to be suffocating in the embrace of a season that lasts too long. Radiators hiss mournfully, no one manages to be patient, the wind draws tears from your eyes, the clouds are filled with sadness. Women with scarves around their heads and their feet encased in fur-lined boots pick their way carefully over patches of melting ice. It seems that winter will last forever, that this is the decision of nature and nothing can be done about it.
Such was the kind of winter I encountered this year. 2014 started with a grim outlook. Another month of appalling utility bills. Another month without sunlight. Another month of wearing two sweaters and a coat to sleep. Another five pounds gained from winter depression. Despite all the negatives, one thing that pulled me through this dreadful polar vortex was running.
Yes, I ran in snow, and yes, I slipped on ice. There were more days than I can remember where I stepped out of the door but immediately turned back. There were days when I got hopelessly lost in the woods and thought I was going to die.
Winter, however, is my favorite running season. I love the harsh but crisp air. I love not having to worry about sweating or showering after a run. I learned to love running (or rather jogging) on the soft bed of snow. And there is something incredibly satisfying about conquering the challenge of (a) getting out of the door when no one is outside, and (b) running against the icy wind until your face hurts and your hands are frozen.
This is all to say that I like running under extreme conditions. So when the extreme conditions went away, I looked for the next big challenge.
Right around the time I made my first ever batch of sauerkraut, I looked up for nearby marathons. It took me ten minutes to find the 1/2 Sauer 1/2 Kraut Marathon and five minutes to sign up. Everything was optimal: the location, the time, and the flavor. As someone who is allergic to serious sports, the self-described “Is this a Boston Qualifier? Hell no!!!!!” marathon instantly won my heart. And what could be better than getting beer and bratwurst as a reward of running 26.2 miles?
Drivable distance? Check. Under $100? Check. A good looking race t-shirt? Check. Humor? Check! 🙂
When my roommate, who is from Germany, agreed to run this race with me, I was sold.
I broke every marathon training law I could possibly break. I did not run regularly. I hardly stretched. I barely did any cross training. I ate meals right before a run. I suddenly decided to go minimalist. I ran 22 miles two days before the race. I binge ate the day before the race. On the race day, I wore an outfit that I have never worn before and chose a pair of socks not designed for sports. Suffer did I. Bouts of shin splints. Blisters. Bloating. Soreness. Exhaustion in and out on the day of the race.
Yet, I got away with doing fine. It was my second marathon, and according to my Nike+ Running app, my time was approximately 4:30:00, averaging to about a 10 min/mi pace — exactly as I expected. Had it not been for the fact that I ran past the finish line after the half-marathon (the full-marathon repeats the half-marathon course), my chip would have recorded a more accurate and legitimate time. But alas, I always manage a good gaffe. At least I have a colorful story tell later. 😉
On the race day, my roommate and I left Princeton at 5:10 a.m., and arrived at the German Club around six. There were ample parking by the time we arrived. We were greeted by four volunteers at the registration desk, located in the basement of the club. There was no IDing. The race packet contained a bib tag, a race t-shirt, and meal tickets. I bought with me a bottle of water, my iPod, a jacket, and a granola bar before hopping on to a shuttle bus (AKA a school bus), which took the runners to Pennypack Park.
Once at the park, your race packet will be placed neatly on the ground based on your bib number. There will be masking tapes and pens available; so don’t worry about losing your race packet. There were approximately fifteen porta-potties at the start/finish line. Caution: nervous and excited runners = long lines. My roommate and I ended up spending our entire prep time waiting in line until a minute before the race started.
The crowd looked very experienced. Since it had been four years since my last marathon, I was surprised by how technically prepared people were. Water bottle belts, compression socks, iPod sleeves… I think I even saw a man wearing Bedrock Sandals.
There were a total of four waves. I started at the beginning of the third wave, quickly surpassing people early on but pacing myself later in the race. At around mile three, I was greeted by the guy who plays the accordion (as advertised). I really wished that I could have stopped to chat with him, but I figured that my mission was to run and his mission was to entertain.
The weather was perfect. Most of the course was shaded with sprinkles of direct sunlight. There were breezes throughout the morning, and running under the tunnels were especially refreshing. The number of water stations was perfect for my needs. The mile markers were helpful and visible. The course was very easy to follow, and the scenery was superb.
The course was all pavements, except for an one-mile trail called Mount Cuckoo. Having read some daunting reviews online about the dreadful hill on Mount Cuckoo, I was a bit terrified. But Mount Cuckoo turned out to be like all the other rolling hills, maybe a bit steeper, but certainly the only hill that will paint your legs with mud.
From my memory, the course felt like this:
_ _ _ _ _- _ _ – _ _ _ _ _ ^_ _ _ _ _- _ _ – _ _ _ _ _
In fact, Mount Cuckoo was my favorite part of the race, as trails are my favorite terrain. Miles 14-17 were the hardest for me. Mile 14 was when I had to stop and walk. Despite my aversion towards walking during a race, my poor choice of socks resulted in multiple blisters by the end of the half marathon. In addition, I had to stop two times just to knock out the pebbles that managed to get into my shoes .
Haruki Murakami once wrote an excellent book about what he thinks about when he’s running. Like him and most people, I don’t think about anything in particular when I’m running. I absorb the environment around me: the jolt of excitement when I see a deer or a squirrel run by, the alluring smell of flowers and trees, the bugs you encounter, the sense of horror when you must face the geese terror squad. Of course, I check out other runners I pass along the way, except for when I avoid the gaze of shirtless muscular men.
During 1/2 Sauer 1/2 Kraut, all I could think about was (a) how many guys were wearing blue t-shirts, and (b) how hungry I was. To be fair, I think about the latter pretty much 24/7. But when I saw those godsend bowls of fig bars and cookie sandwiches at around mile 16, I screamed Hallelujah in my head. I grabbed as many bars as my tiny hands can hold, and wolfed them down so fast that a volunteer asked me whether I was okay.
The end of the race was anticlimactic. Since all the celebrations occured at the German Club, all but a few spectators and workers were at the finish line, making the mile before the finish line rather spiritless. After I crossed the finish line, I received a medal and hugs from my roommate, who won first place in her age category for the half marathon (!), and my boyfriend.
The bratwurst was excellent — it was exactly what I craved for. The bread was chewy and flavorful. The sauerkraut was 1/2 salty, 1/2 vinegary. I was a very happy camper.
Recap of my race day attire: Moving Comforts tanktop, a hand me down from my host mother when I first moved to Princeton, North Face Better Than Naked Crop, Nike Dri-Fit Sports Bra, and Asics GT-2170. Other than the poor decision I made on the socks, I’d say the impromptu outfit was a success.
Finally, if you’re going to make post-race pasta, then make it right. Mine is a stir fry of cooked pasta with veggies and anchovy fillets, plus a lot of garlic. No need to season or sauce. It’s ambrosial, trust me. 🙂
Surprisingly, I did not feel sore the next day or the day after. Maybe it was the yoga I did the night before the race, or maybe it was the frozen yogurt I ate after the race. Either way, the race was fantastique! I would recommend it to any runners looking to have some fun (and pain).