The overcast skies that loomed high over our heads certainly lived up to the name of the town. There we were, in St Cloud, Minnesota, on this exceptionally cloudy day, getting ready to run the Earth Day Race. The winds were gusty, and the temperatures hovered around 45F (about 6.5 deg C). Had the sun been out in full force, it would have been a day of running shorts and sleeveless tops. Instead, I spotted a full range of long-sleeved tops, gloves and the occasional running jacket.
There was a good-sized crowd huddled at the starting line. Judging by the comments heard, it would appear that the field size this year was significantly larger than previous years. My guesstimate was around 1500 for the half-marathon and 200 for the 20 miler. We set off promptly at 8.30am, after the traditional singing of the Star-Spangled Banner. The crowd surged forward as we crossed the Mississippi river, eager to reel in the miles.
C was going for the half-marathon, while I aimed to complete the 20 miler. Fargo Marathon was exactly 3 weeks away, so the timing was perfect for a final 20 mile LSD run. I ran the first 2 km with C, taking an easy pace to allow time for my legs to warm up. Our pace gradually increased from 6:30/km to about 6:00/km and finally hovered around 5:45/km. Though the density of runners was high for the first 5 minutes, everyone was very considerate and there was plenty of room for runners to settle into their respective zones.
We did a loop of about 4 miles through a residential estate on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, before going over the river once again into the heart of the St Cloud State University campus. Several groups of people, who looked like freshmen getting a tour of the campus, were on the campus grounds soaking in the sights as we zipped along.
After about mile 6, we entered the Beaver Island Trail, which hugged the western bank of the Mississippi. This segment was densely bounded by trees on both sides of the path, and was one of the quietest portions of the run. We would catch occasional glimpses of the river whenever there was a break in the treeline. Otherwise, it was certainly a time to just hunker down and focus on putting one foot in front of the other.
Around mile 8, we emerged from the partially wooded trail, and did another loop through a residential estate in the southern part of St Cloud. I could see the faster runners on their return leg, chugging along at a deft pace. The houses here were big and beautiful, and it looked like a very nice place to live.
The volunteers who looked after the water stops at every other mile were full of energy and enthusiasm. I couldn't help but feel re-energized by their youthful exuberance and cheers of encouragement each time I passed one of the aid stations. Before long, I spotted the sign for mile 10, and knew that we were on the return leg back to the university campus. Gradually, I increased the pace towards 5:15/km as the race was already halfway done.
The most demoralizing point of the race was where the route split at mile 13. Here, half marathoners turned left to go towards the finishing line 0.1 miles away, while 20 milers went right for a repeat 7 mile loop through the trail portion of the run. I bade a silent farewell to the half marathoners, and went the lonely path of the 20 milers.
After the bifurcation, I ran most of the remaining 7 miles alone. Small pockets of other 20 milers would appear every now and then, but this segment of the race was very quiet compared to the first half. It was an ideal time to do a systems check. My legs felt good, and the new Kayanos were performing well. There was a slight ache on the dorsum of my left foot, which I suspect was due to overly tight lacing of my shoe. Otherwise, my breathing was comfortable and I felt energetic.
Keeping my stride small, and trying to maintain a good running economy, I decided to ramp up the pace for the final 4 miles. As long as I continued to feel comfortable, I wanted to see what kind of pace my body could handle after 15 miles. Spotted some of the St Cloud River Runners whom I met the day before at the pre-race pasta dinner. Always nice to see friendly faces in a crowd. Spotted Renee going strong as well around mile 18.
The final 2 miles went by in a blur. The sun was out and shining brightly by this time, and I was eager to complete the race. The mile markers seemed to stretch out longer than before, so I was really glad when mile 19 appeared. 'Only 1 mile left', I mumbled to myself. One mile, 1.6 km, or 4 rounds of the running track. I repeated these numbers to myself as the road disappeared beneath my shuffling feet. The bifurcation came into view again, and this time, I happily took the left turn this time round. Racing up the final 0.1 miles, I could hear the cheers and announcements coming from the finish line. The end was finally within reach.
It was plenty of fun ending the final few steps of the race in a football field. The loud cheers and ardent supporters made the whole area have a carnival atmosphere, and definitely added to the wonderful feeling of finishing the event in one piece. I was pleasantly surprised when my name was announced as I crossed the finishing line - a nice personal touch by the race director.
Official race results: Time = 2:46:39 Distance = 20 miles (32.19 km) Pace = 5:11/km (avg)
Final thoughts: A well-organized race, perfectly timed to serve as the final 20 miler LSD for anyone attempting an early spring marathon. The relatively small field size also gives it a warm and personal feel. The course is mostly flat, with occasional short slopes. Given the opportunity, I would definitely run this race again :)