Oak Barrel Half Marathon: that one time I surprised myself with an unexpected PR

After a few weeks of lackluster runs and extremely low energy levels, I truly did not expect much when toe-ing the starting line of this race. My original plan was to run with a friend, Heather, who was running her first half marathon and typically held an 11-12 min/mi pace on her long runs throughout training.

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(This photo and all photos with a We Run Huntsville watermark are credited to Gregg Gelmis of WRH – the matching singlets me and two of my buddies are wearing are shirts our local running group had made specifically for this race)

We arrived at the race location about an hour early to get our packets and find good parking. I spent much of the morning trying to locate Heather and was never successful. As we all gathered in the starting area I anxiously looked around for her more– she was no where to be found! Eventually I just decided to give up on my search and stick with mom for the time being. Ultimately our goal was to run easy and enjoy the race, since we have another half marathon coming up this Sunday and my plan was to PR at that one.

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(Photo credited to my sister, Roo)

I took off at what felt like an easy pace and mentally prepared myself for the challenges ahead. This race boasts a beautiful but difficult course, with the crown jewel being a tough climb named Whiskey Hill. My friends had told me about how awesome this course was, and they were completely right on that! Throughout the whole race we were surrounded  by sprawling fields of green. The only bad spot was just before making it to Whiskey hill.On the way there, we ran by what I can only assume was some kind of manure farm. It was a large field covered in brown sludge, cows crowded around a trough looking sad, and the smell was one of the most foul, rancid odors to ever assault my nostrils. Several of the people running by me nearly lost their breakfast; mom and I sped up the pace to get away from the putrid stench as soon as possible. After a couple of rolling hills, we made it to the base of Whiskey Hill. According to my watch, Whiskey Hill was about a 2 mile incline. It began gradually, and somewhere off in the distance we could hear Deliverance banjo music.

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Slowly the climb became more intense, and I slowed to a walk. “No sense in pushing too much, after all, I’m just here to have fun,” I thought to myself. Just near the top of Whiskey Hill, the route cuts sharply to the left and the climb starts to feel like you’re going up a ladder. Before I got to this section, I spotted our local photographer extraordinaire perched on the side of the road… so of COURSE I ran up the steepest part of the whole dang hill JUST so I’d be at least semi-running in my race photos… Pride. It’s what gets me up hills.

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Just before mile 5, I crested the top and thanked the Lord for flat ground. After running up such a steep incline, my quads were jelly. I stumbled on, probably looking like a baby giraffe, and gave myself a silent pep talk for the few remaining hills. Surprisingly enough, I felt good. I kept wondering when that all too familiar completely gassed feeling would hit, but it never did, even after running over the remaining rolling hills.

Around mile 8.5, the racers were rewarded for so much climbing with a looooooong descent. Aside from helping me be much stronger on going UP hills, trail running has made me much stronger going down them as well. Instead of holding back like I normally would (due to fear of falling down), I let my legs fly as fast as gravity could take them down the descent. I felt swift and strong, and when we emerged back onto flat ground I took a tentative peek at my watch. The last few miles were fairly flat, and I realized that if I pushed a little, I could PR.

Everything felt good– mentally and physically. I think this might be one of the first times in my life where I truly had the energy for a strong finishing kick. I passed several people while running toward the finish, several of them being local running friends of mine. About two miles from the finish I came upon Will and Laura. I was surprised to see them and wondered what in the world they were doing back there, as they are both extremely fast runners. I figured they must be taking an extremely easy day, and when I passed them I mentioned that I thought I might PR. They both cheered for me loudly and yelled out supportive words as I ran by– I can’t even remember exactly what they said anymore, but in that moment it was so encouraging and helped fuel me to the finish. (Turns out Will and Laura had already finished and were just running some cool down miles, haha. Thanks Will and Laura!!!)

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(Do I look tired? It’s because I was)

Soon enough, the end was in sight. I rounded a corner and was greeted with the beautiful sight of a giant inflatable finishing arch. I noticed the clock, and immediately I felt a huge rush of excitement. I DID IT! I PRed! And it didn’t even hurt that much!

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I crossed the finish line, received my medal and a bottle of water, and plopped down on the sidewalk. Normally I would go look for my family, but I was so tired all I could think about was sitting down. About a minute before me, mom had finished. She left me behind somewhere around mile 7 and I never caught back up with her– this was her first time beating me in a race and she shaved nearly 10 MINUTES off of her previous PR. I am SO dang proud of her! Scott, unfortunately, had a terrible race. Just after finishing Whiskey Hill, his knee blew out and he had to walk much of the second half of the race.

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My official time was 2:21:14 (10:46 min/mi pace), which beats my previous PR by 1:36. Not a huge improvement, but I am BEYOND thrilled! For one, my previous PR was on a pretty much flat race, and this one was anything but. Also, if I could PR at Oak Barrel by a minute without really meaning to, what does this mean for my half this coming Sunday?? I am excited to find out. 🙂 I loved every single minute of this race and am absolutely returning next year. The swag (we received a pull over, a hat, and Swiftwick socks in addition to our medals– talk about hitting the jackpot!) was awesome, the volunteers were great, the medal is one of the most unique ones I have, and the course was amazing! This half marathon is definitely going on my list of favorites.

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