Sunday, March 21, 2021

Race Report: Madison Half Marathon

It's been nearly a year since I've posted a race report here on Victory Headstand Runner. The coronavirus pandemic has now been part of our lives for just as long, and with the racing scene at a standstill, I decided to halt my writing here - it was depressing to reminisce of these wonderful travel moments, and have no freedom to leave my apartment for fear of infection.  Additionally, I liked to treat these race reports as "free advertisement" for upcoming editions of these individual races, so I thought that it was better to hold off until the races would return.

When I last left off, I was writing about races that occurred in July 2019.  After running my 109th lifetime marathon in Wales, I decided to return to do a couple domestic races (in addition to getting some NYRR 9+1 races out of the way for NYC Marathon qualification), having spent the better part of 2 1/2 months traveling internationally - to the Czech Republic, Belgium, Finland, Latvia, Sweden, the UK twice and Canada three times. In 2017, I completed the Madison Marathon in southwest Montana, a race which currently stands as my PW - or personal worst - marathon time. All runners start the race at a jarringly high 9,200 feet in elevation, and within a few miles, peak at 9,600 feet before undulating up and down, before finishing at 8,550 feet.  After a lung searing 7 hours and 7 minutes, I finished 26.2 miles of easily the hardest marathon I had completed to date (the Petra Desert Marathon I'd do a year later would be more difficult, in my mind... basically, take Madison and add 97ยบ of heat to it!)

Sam's new book,
available to purchase
on Amazon!
I ended up booking a national anthem gig at the Rock 'n' Roll Chicago Half in 2018 on the same weekend, but when 2019 came around, the Madison's race director, Sam Korsmoe, had a book coming out called A World Gone Mad for Marathons, where I was a runner profile featured in one of the book's chapters. Sam begged me to return and tackle his race once more, in addition to singing at the start for both races in exchange for complimentary entries. With friends Seth, Amy, and Winnie separately planning to head to Montana for the double that weekend, I was able to secure some flights to head back out west, and do the same... though knowing full well how difficult Madison was, I opted to run the half on day 1, and then attempt the full at the Big Sky Marathon on Day 2.  Seth was flying into Salt Lake City from Fort Lauderdale with Amy, and they were planning to drive up to Ennis as soon as they landed, so I opted to join them, rather than pay a few extra hundred dollars to go direct to Bozeman and also book a rental car. Despite the 5 1/2 hour drive, I'd be saving some money.

Summer Fridays at my office meant early dismissal, so I booked a flight out of JFK to head to Salt Lake City in the afternoon, and with us taking off without having to spend a long time taxiing down the runway, we landed nearly an hour early after the 4 hour flight. Seth and Amy wouldn't be landing til close to 9pm, so I spent the 2 1/2 hours of downtime in the Sky Club while also tracking their flight before meeting up with them at their gate.  We headed straight for the rental car center after they landed, and then Seth took to the wheel to start out the drive northward through Idaho into Montana.  I took over driving duties after Seth had driven about three hours, and we got to Ennis at around 2:40am.

Katya and Jennifer, who had spent a couple days driving up from Denver (11 hours total), were already sound asleep at the room Seth had booked at the Sportsman's Lodge, but left the door unlocked for us as we quietly crept into the room.  With race morning bib pickup starting at 5am and the buses loading up to drive up the mountain half an hour later, we only got about two hours of sleep.  The trip up the mountain took about 1 1/2 hours, a bumpy ride once the asphalt road turned into dirt and gravel.  The bus rocking side to side and manically vibrating over the uneven terrain managed to rock some of us (or rather, just me!) to sleep, but also pushed some folks to the edge of being able to hold in their bladders - our bus driver had to stop and let one of the runners out for an emergency pee! The air got thinner as the bus ascended some 4,000 feet into the Gravelly Range, and we finally reached Clover Campground, where we were able to be let out to use the facilities.  Half an hour later and with buses completely full (now that those who had chosen to drive their cars up to the finish line at the campground had parked, or camped there overnight), we'd continue further up the mountain another 13 miles to the start.

More bumpiness and side to side action on the bus ensued, and we were about 8.5 to 9 miles up when we encountered the first of the early starters, which included my friend Winnie, making their way along the edge of the dirt and gravel road as our bus pushed up toward Black Butte Mountain, towering over the distance.  We'd eventually reach the "bowl" just outside the purview of the mountain where the race would start, here at a whopping 9,200 feet of elevation, and despite being July, there was still remnants of packed snow dotting the landscape. Immediately, as everyone disembarked from the buses, people headed for the trees and bushes for one last bathroom break.  Katya laughingly remarked, "all I want is a photo of the snow!" but ended up taking one with unconcerned runners doing their business in nature!

Before long, we were ready to start. We had reached the startline a little later than expected, meaning we were starting late. Sam made his announcements, including an interesting fact that that day was the 50 year anniversary of Neil Armstrong's first walk on the moon, and then introduced me to sing - in 2017, I had sung the Star Spangled Banner, but Sam had suggested maybe doing America the Beautiful this time. Knowing full well that breathing at that elevation was tough, I took my time, and made sure to pick a key that seemed reasonable for my rendition - I did start off a bit too high when I sang here in 2017.  I managed through it quite well, complimented on how the echo reverberated throughout the area.

Soon, we were off.  Fully aware of the immediate uphill that was barely 100 feet ahead, I took my time, starting off nice and slow... but as soon as that uphill hit -- MAN, the difficulty in breathing was so evident! We all took our time as we not only took in the beautiful sights, but to get our lungs accustomed to the thin air, but we eventually got up to the top of that uphill, a gradual climb over one mile.  It was a 13:21 first mile, which I was not surprised with by any means.  Thankfully, it would be followed by a nice downhill over the next mile, dropping us about 400 feet from the crest of that hill - giving me an 8:29 pace once I hit the mile 2 mark!  THAT was a pace I never thought I'd hit on this course.  Granted, it was still VERY early, and many hills were still ahead of me.  We continued on, under the shadow of Black Butte.

Since this race was covered in great detail in the first 13.1 miles of my 2017 race report, I won't bore you (or myself) by rehashing practically the same experience I had from that race, so I'll instead do a photo dump, as that's what really makes this course so memorable!  It was even clearer this time around, with the skies clear from the haze that plagued southwest Montana area from nearby forest fires.









High point of the race.  Smiling, but barely breathing.



Beautiful Montana wildflowers


I did want to note, that about three miles from the finish, I ended up befriending Grace from Oklahoma.  We supported each other as we ran to the finish line, where the last two miles gave me a new experience in a race - being bitten by a swarm of horseflies!  They were so pesky, biting through my compression socks and my tech t-shirt!  It may have even managed to help me finish this half marathon in an exceptional time - nearly 30 minutes faster than the half marathon split from 2017!  

Misprint - it should say "2017" up top.  But look at my splits between the two -- I'm definitely at a better fitness level in 2019!

I crossed the finish line with Grace in 2:42:32, enough for 24th place overall in a field of 58 half marathon runners. I even managed fourth in the nine person Male 30-39 age group, which included the top two overall finishers.  My results from this race really emphasized how fit I had become over the past year, particularly with my faster finishes in races since April.  I stuck around to cheer in finishers from both the half and full marathons - with reports from marathoners who decried the horseflies for much of the second half of the race.  Call me lucky for not having to deal with that in 2017!  Occasional buses and race crew drove us back down the mountain into Ennis, and once my roommates had all arrived, we headed back to the hotel for much needed showers.  We then had dinner at the Sportsman's Lodge Restaurant, before heading to sleep relatively early, as several of us were planning to run the Big Sky Marathon the following morning. 
Victory Headstand!