Disclaimer: I received an entry to the Hilton Head Half Marathon to review as part of being a BibRave Pro. The review, thoughts, and observations of the experience are honest and based on my own experience. You can learn more about becoming a BibRave Pro (ambassador), and check out BibRave.com to review, find, and write race reviews!
The anticipation of this race weekend was growing the closer I got to it. In fact, during the race, I wondered if I had been too bold in declaring this race one where I was trying to beat my PR… a PR that I had made back in 2016 and had spent the last year trying to get back to. That was a lot of pressure to put on oneself, but as the races for the rest of my Winter/Spring 2020 season are just training to my ultimate end goal of the Bryce Canyon ultra, I knew this was probably my last chance to work on speed.
This training cycle definitely had it’s ups and downs. It started pretty much immediately after the New York marathon in November. I hadn’t intended on racing so soon afterwards, but when the opportunity came up for a flat, winter half marathon, my dreams of beating my 2016 2:09:42 resurfaced. I told my coach, Jess, my plans, and we got right back to work.
Everything was going smoothly until the beginning of January when I received an upsetting medical diagnosis. No reason to freak out: I’m fine, it’s nothing life-threatening, but it really upset my mental mindset. It also made me realize that I need to make some changes in certain aspects of my life. I’m working on it, but I missed a few critical runs and workouts as I was dealing with the initial news. I gave Jess a heads up of everything going on, and she was so supportive. We made a couple of changes to my training schedule, and I got back into the grind.
I will be the first to admit though, that I was changed, and maybe not as inspired as I originally was. I just wanted to get through these next few months and try to figure out how to incorporate these lifestyle changes into my day-to-day. But, as the training runs ticked away, I tried to regain my focus, knowing my immediate goal was just around the corner and possibly within reach.
The week before the race, I had my pre-race strategy call with Jess. We talked through what my goals were, and I told her I did want to go for that PR. We talked about what that mileage pace would need to be… knowing that I wanted to beat my October race where I got as close to that original PR as I had in years. But not only that, I wanted to try for the sub 2:10 and beat my 2016 time. The thought of running this with an average pace under 9:50 minute miles was a little daunting, but I kept reminding myself that the race day conditions were looking really good, and the course was flat except for an overpass that you did twice. My training had shown me that my legs could do it, I just needed to get my mind there.
Jess and I agreed to the following strategy: First 3 miles easy but no slower than 10:15 minute miles, then the next 7 would be at a threshold pace, trying to stay as close to 9:50 as I could. The final 5k would be go-time, to just push with all the gas that I had left in the tank. In the words of the Navarro Cheerleaders (yes, I just binge watched the season): I can. I will. I must. I also embrace the cheesiness of this, but this was the beginning of my working on that mental game.
Friday after work, my friend Michelle and I began the drive from Raleigh, North Carolina to Hilton Head, South Carolina. Leaving on a Friday night isn’t ideal, but as working parents, and other upcoming races and getaways in our future, we had to work with what we had. We also had a major storm come through the area and a lot of places had downed trees and loss of power. Michelle’s family was affected by this as two giant trees in her yard came down, just narrowly missing her house. As I pulled up to her house, I watched a giant crane lifting one of the trees over it and into a wood chipper.
So, after watching the second tree get hauled away, we were on the road. We gave ourselves a couple of breaks to get gas, dinner, and stretch. We didn’t want to be too tight before the race. But we due to Friday night traffic and our necessary breaks, we didn’t get in to Hilton Head until almost 11pm. The race offered pre-race bib pick-up, and the start time wasn’t until 8am, so our alarms were set to a fairly reasonable time the next morning. We went to bed as visions of PRs danced in our heads.
We woke up the next morning somewhat refreshed. I never do well the first night in a hotel, but I got at least 6 hours of sleep so I knew I could work with that. We puttered around our room getting ready, and eating our Bobo’s and energy bars for breakfast. We were torn about our race day attire as the current temp outside was in the high 30’s. That seemed really cold for our originally planned outfits, but I kept reminding myself that the bulk of the race would be sunny and mid-40’s. I went with my long sleeve BibRave pullover, Oiselle shorts, and a hat. I brought my buff and gloves in the car just in case, but once we arrived at the start line, I decided to skip them.
Race-Day Logistics: We arrived at the high school parking lot right at 7, and had zero issues grabbing a spot close-up. It was a short walk to the start line; literally it was across the street from where we parked. By the time we walked back to the car at 7:15 with our packet pick-up items that we wanted to drop off, there was a long line of cars and traffic to get into the parking lot. So tip: plan on getting there before or at 7 to beat the rush.
Bib-Pick Up and Swag: Walking from the car to registration took us under 10 minutes, and there were no lines at the registration desk. We grabbed our bibs, then went over to pick up our vests. They let us pick our size and we were able to try them on in case we wanted to switch. The fleece vest was lightweight, but a great alternative item to the standard race t-shirt. I also loved that I wasn’t stuck with a bunch of random junk that usually comes in the race bags that are handed out. No fliers or frills. Just the vest and bib. We found the bathrooms (they had a public bathroom as it was at a park, but also a long row of porta-potties), and then made our way back to the car to drop off our vests. We hung out in the car for a bit to stay warm, and then headed back to the start line to get this show on the road.
Start Line and Go Time: We arrived at the start line 10 minutes to the race start. I found BibRave Pro Justin and introduced myself. Our orange gear makes us really stand out in a crowd, and seeing BIBRAVE across the back of his race shirt made it even more obvious. I said goodbye to Michelle; she was going to run a much faster race than me, though she was also going for a PR. I chatted with Justin for a few minutes and then before we even realized it, the starting gun went off. He was running the full, so I wished him luck, and started to execute my race plan.
The first 3 miles felt great. It was a little crowded at the start. The race had a combination of distances including the 8k, half marathon, and full marathon. I had to do a little bit of dodging and darting in the beginning, but reminded myself to keep my pace and effort easy. Around the 3 mile point, the 8k racers had turned around, and the course cleared up a bit. I didn’t have to worry as much about people stopping to walk around me, and I got into a comfortable rhythm with those in my pace group. I did not see any race pacers for the whole race, though I understand there were some out there in the faster groups. I had a pretty steady group surrounding me, and we flipped places with each other for most of the whole race.
After my first 3 miles, my watch beeped and I kicked it up a notch. I was still comfortable, which was good. I would do little mental checks with myself to see how I felt and if this was a pace I could keep for the next 7 miles. The answer was ‘yes.’ When the overpass came, I powered up and made up most of my lost speed on that downhill. One of my slowest miles actually came after the overpass when we entered a little trail area that was enclosed in the Spanish-moss covered trees. It was beautiful, but had a lot of turns as we made up the mileage before we turned around and made our way back. Between the many turns and the tree coverings, my GPS on my Garmin was having a hard time getting an accurate reading. It was saying I was going a lot slower than I knew I was, so I was tempted to just pick up the pace to make sure I didn’t lose any valuable time. Every second was really going to count for this PR.
After we were out of the tree covering, we were basically on the turnaround to the way back. It felt great, and I continued pushing to stay close or slightly under that 9:50 pace. One problem? I found myself now running into the headwind. I hadn’t even realized there was wind that morning until we turned around. Yikes. This was going to make it a little bit harder. I had known I could meet the pace before, but now I had to meet it while running into this. Ok, I could do this. I kept meeting those watch beeps and regularly checked in to make sure I wasn’t going too hard, but also still meeting my time. I knew that final push was coming.
The final 3 miles kicked off with the trip back over the overpass. Great. Time to get uncomfortable. My mantra changed, and I started the pep talks. I started looking ahead and picking people that I was going to pass. I started counting down the distance to the finish. I kept telling myself it was ‘ok’ to be uncomfortable, and that this last 20, then 15, and then 10 minutes would all be worth it when I got that final finish time. Soon enough, we were back in the park, and running around the lake to the finisher’s chute. I saw Michelle and heard her cheering as I ran towards the finish line.
And then it was done. I had done it! My finish time was 2:07:51. About 4 minutes faster than my October half, and about 2 faster my 2016 PR. I was over the moon! Michelle found me on the other side and shared that she had also blown her time out of the water: an over 10 minute PR bringing her under 1:45! We were both thrilled and ready to celebrate.
We hung out in the finisher’s village for a little bit. They had computers setup to show your individual full results including age group. I was second place in my gender and age combo but lower in the award group (they did the range of 30-39). But still, I couldn’t have been any happier. Michelle was also high in her age and 5th in her division. It was time to celebrate and then head home!
We picked up a bag of kettle corn to bring back to our families, and grabbed bananas for the road. They had pizza and beer, but we wanted to clean up and get a real lunch before hitting the road. We had been able to get late check-out at our hotel so we headed back that way. We realized as we walked to the car that in all our excitement, we had forgotten to take pictures together in the finish area with our medals. The good news was the our hotel was directly on the beach. So we parked and headed to the sand. Finisher jump shots always seem like a good idea, but are harder to execute after a half marathon and in beach sand. Michelle literally fell to the ground after one of our attempts. After we picked ourselves up from laughing, we took the best post-race showers ever, packed up, and headed to our celebration lunch. We spent our lunch talking about our respective races, experiences, and overall thoughts, then headed home.
Overall Thoughts on the Race: Clearly, I’m thrilled with my results from the race, but as for the overall race ‘experience’ and details? This course was definitely what I was looking for with my previous goals, and though there was minimal crowd support, the volunteers were awesome, and I was able to get into my headspace and just focus. If you rely on cheering crowds and spectators, this race will not be for you. We spent a considerable amount of time on roadways, with a little bit of time through a park. The course was mostly long, straight, stretches, though there were some twists and turns in the middle that could slow someone down a little. Still a great course though, and flat aside from the one overpass that you travel twice.
I didn’t get a chance to experience the expo as it was on Friday and we arrived too late. Even if they had offered later hours, we wouldn’t have been able to make it in time, though we might have tried harder if they went to 8pm. But it wasn’t an issue. The morning of bib pick-up was perfect and gave me exactly what I needed: my bib and vest. I love the vest as the race swag. I also was more impressed by the finisher’s medal in person. It didn’t look that exciting online, but the design is nice, and I like the texture… it looks a lot nicer in person.
The support throughout the race was in the form of water stations every two miles. After the first water stop, they offered gatorade at what seemed like every other station until the end where the last few had both. I did not see any gels offered on the course. I believe they had some at the expo though I’m not sure if they were free or for purchase. I would have loved a gel on the course at the halfway point, but I didn’t necessarily expect it and I came prepared with my own fuel just in case.
The finisher’s experience included free pizza, bananas, granola bars, and beer. The kettle corn booth was there with some samples, but it was mostly meant for purchase. The location of the start and finish line was beautiful, and you could have made a picnic lunch out of it and hung out in the sun while you watched finishers come through. They also had a DJ out playing music and making announcements, but it was pretty low key overall.
I would definitely recommend this race for someone looking for a PR. We really lucked out with the weather given the storms two days prior, but I imagine the weather is a bit more reliable in Hilton Head this time of year.
I also posted my review of the race to BibRave. Check it out here.