Redding Half Marathon 2018 – Run for the Cows – Race Report

Last Sunday I ran the Run for the Cows Half Marathon in Redding, CT and I’ve been mulling on it ever since. I ran a PR of 1:51:28, but I had been hoping for under 1:50, potentially a good bit under 1:50. A PR is a PR and of course I am happy about that. But I also want to figure out what happened. Was this a case of mission creep? A harder course than expected? Not enough mileage? Unwillingness to face the race demons? Maybe some of all of that. Racing can be a learning experience and I’m working on the lessons from this one.

Why did I decide to run this crazy cow race anyway? Rashi couldn’t stop raving about it. Lots of cool swag. A pretty course. A race director with a big personality. A race with a home-town feel but all the amenities. We worked out a kind of swap – I would do Redding if she signed on for Erie. Let me state for the record – I knew this was a ridiculous swap at the time, even if she didn’t. I committed to an in-state half marathon in exchange to her committing to a destination full marathon. That’s not close to an even trade and if she has to bail on Erie, no hard feelings. Redding did look like a good race. In fact, it looked ideal for Snarky Girl so I convinced her to sign up as well. This race sells out so we all registered on January 1st.

Fast forward to spring race planning post-Donna Marathon. High Power Running Mentor #1 kept telling me to run more short races and apparently a half marathon doesn’t count as “short”. I added the bunny race 5K in Chicago and a local 10K plus my hometown race, the Middletown 10 miler. Now I had a spring schedule with a smorgasbord of distances, four races in a six week period, plus three weekends out of town. No wonder my house is a bit of a mess!

Flat Sarah ready to go

The first three post-Donna races this spring were big PRs, bigger than I expected, to be honest, and that boosted my expectations for Redding. The goal of jumping from my old PR of 1:52:44 to 1:50:00 was already ambitious, but the various calculators and some folks in my inner running circles were saying maybe I should even be thinking something pretty far south of 1:50. Times like 1:45-1:46 may have been batted around. Then as race day approached, it looked like we would have high humidity and Coach Mick suggested that might call for a more conservative approach. I have been trying to run without fear and to start more aggressively. But the hills on the course are truly insane. How fast should I start? Should I run without looking at my watch? #nowatchme worked well for my two half marathons last fall. In listening to me yammer on about this, HPRM#1 said I was looking for excuses to sandbag this race. Suddenly the hills seemed bigger. The weather felt more problematic. 1:45 felt absurd. We worked through some of that, but I was left with lingering doubts. I texted with Coach Mick about “Trying Not To Suck,” my half marathon mantra from the fall. On the morning of the race, I got encouraging texts from both Coach Mick and HPRM#1. The Incredible Mervus also offered lots of support, as he always does. But what would happen during the race? I sort of let go of expectations, for good or for ill. It just felt too hard to predict.

Snarky Girl and I drove to the race together. We passed the hospital where Rose was born and had a long chat about our birth experiences. It reminded me of running the Providence Marathon together when we spent so much time talking about how we met our husbands. Racing together is such a great opportunity to deepen friendship and I’m so lucky to have my running friends in my life.

Amazing Swag!

We arrived at the race just after 7am, having seen some of the course on the way in. Gorgeous! Through the woods, often along a stream, and yes, very hilly, as promised. Also as promised, incredible swag. You get a shirt, but also a hat, a tin cup, some chapstick, a sticker, and a cowbell, plus there was a huge spread of food, including chocolate milk. We sampled a little but mostly held off until after the race. I had had my usual race day (really every day…) oatmeal at home and I had the Five Hour Energy Shot once we got parked. We got our bibs and found Rashi and she and I did a warm up jog around the field they were using for parking. We had to rush back from our warm-up during the Star Spangled Banner, which I didn’t like at all. That’s the one little piece of Suck that kind of snuck into the process, but it wasn’t a big deal.

Just before lining up, I got separated from Snarky Girl and Rashi in the porta-potty zone. I would have liked to line up with them but I couldn’t find them and I went more to the front. This made no difference in outcome but it would have been fun to stand with them. They blew a vuvuzela to start the race and we ran a loop around the fields. I’m sure this makes for good spectating because the cheer squad can see the runners spread out along the farm and I bet it’s lovely. For actual running, it’s not brilliant. Running on grass on a rainy morning meant our feet were even wetter than they had been. There’s also a hill (of course there’s a hill) and it felt kind of like half a mile of not being able to establish a pace, but whatever. I glanced at my watch once and it said 7:15. Oops. Way too fast so I slowed a little as we left the farm and headed out to the roads.

Start of the race – photo from race website

My race plan had been to start at 8:20 pace and see how that felt. The first five miles are a very gradual uphill with several small rollers. Deceptively hard because you can’t perceive the gradual uphill but it’s surely there. I knew the quick start on the farm would also mean the first mile was pretty meaningless so I decided not to check pace and just go by effort. Early in the race, I glanced at my watch a few times, but it was clear the instant pace information was useless. I know the instant pace is often off, but especially with the constant up and down and probably less-than-ideal satellite connections, this was just garbage information all the time. In retrospect, though, I wish I had checked mile splits. I think knowing how things were going might have helped me adjust my goals more consciously. I would have known earlier that 1:45 was ridiculously out of reach on this course, but maybe held onto the sub 1:50 goal for longer. Live and learn, or I guess, race and learn.

Despite mostly not looking at my watch, I caught the four mile split by accident: 8:46. That’s a bit too bad because it’s one of my slowest. But even when I saw it, I knew that mile had both a big hill and a Gu stop so it would be slower. Still. I kind of wish I had either not seen any splits or seen all of them rather than just that one.

As we got into the rhythm of the race, I started to recognize the people around me. In particular, there were two women who looked to be about my age. I’ve started to check times for age group placements for races. This is still a weird activity to me and one that feels unnatural but I’m doing it nonetheless. After all, I was 2nd in my age group at the 5K bunny race, 4th in age group at the 10 miler, and 2nd in age group at the 10K. That’s somewhere in the top four for each of those races. I’m not going to hide it. I LOVE being able to place. This is complete terra incognita for me and I plan to enjoy it. I might even search out some tiny races at some point just to see if I can win stuff. The idea that I might win anything at all for a footrace completely blows my mind. But for Redding – I knew that anything under 1:50 might get me into top three in my age group, or at least top five, and I would love that. I didn’t know who these women were, but I wondered if I could hang with them.

I did hang with them for quite awhile. They clearly knew each other. One was tall and thin and did not seem to be working all that hard. The other was shorter and muscular and she sometimes fell behind. I never got ahead of tall-and-thin, but I could pass short-and-muscular on the downhills, where I was faster. She always came chugging back though and passed me on flats or uphills. I was working hard to stay with these ladies and I started to wonder if I was working too hard. It was only 5-6 miles into the race. My effort was more like “sentence” rather than 1.5-2 sentences. I was keeping up. But I also felt like their presence was starting to mess with my mind. Was I trying too hard to stay with them? Was that a good idea or a terrible one? I really didn’t know. Around the halfway mark, I decided to let them go. In retrospect, was that a mistake? Maybe sticking with them would have carried me through? No way to know. Race and learn.

Just before the halfway mark, there’s an absolutely massive descent. You can see this on the course map but wow, running down it is still bonkers. The road switches from paved to dirt and you sort of drop off the face of the earth in terms of running down that hill. In any case, I explicitly avoided getting my time at the halfway mark. I’ve run plenty of half marathons and I can do halfway split x 2 math even when pretty fatigued, but that was information I really did not want. Therefore I was halfway through the race without much of a clue as to how it was going.

This race has lots of funny signs along the way with pictures of cows and they also count down the hills for you, all 15 of them. Right after the big descent, a sign said something like, miles 7-10 are either downhill or flat. Looking back at my splits, I clearly felt worse than I was running. My splits say I was back under 8:20 pace after the big downhill, but my head kept saying “When is this going to be over with?” I had promised Coach Mick that I was going to run with joy, but I did not really manage that. Unfortunately, I ran with a good deal of frustration instead. The things I often think of to lift my spirits: my daughter Rose, being able to run healthy, uplifting songs on my trusty iPod shuffle – I didn’t really remember any of that stuff. Instead my brain was sort of locked on an internal debate. In Coach Mick’s facebook group we had had a discussion about running with fear versus running stupid. Do you have to be stupid sometimes to find the place of running without fear? I had proposed that yes, you do. I even wrote “God loves idiots” on the back of my bib along with one of HPRM#1’s favorite slogans: “Do. Work.” I was certainly “Doing Work” but I don’t know that I was doing it all that effectively because I couldn’t get my brain away from the debate of whether I was running stupid or not. I think I spent a lot of mental energy at this race trying to commit to some strategy or another and not really being able to. I had wanted to run a bit stupid or run without fear and I don’t think I managed either of those things, but I am not sure why. Race and learn.

I want to give a shout out here to my friend the Fat Man [I kind of can’t bear using that name, but HE PICKED IT!]. When we talked about his recent half marathon, he said he wasn’t that miserable at mile 9. That’s how I know he could have run it even faster than he did – and he got a massive PR! At mile 9 in my race, I was already pretty miserable, but with only four miles to go, I wondered if I could pick it up a little?

Before I could answer that question, the game changed or really, the course changed. We had been running for miles on a paved two-lane road through a forest. The road wasn’t closed to traffic, but there were barely any cars and runners were well distributed. I was never alone but it certainly wasn’t crowded. Then there was a sign at the bottom of a hill (of course) that said something like: 10 miles – The Race Starts Here. Ha ha ha, I thought, yeah, the last three miles of a half marathon are always the hardest. But for this course, that was genuinely true. The course left the paved road and shifted to a wide gravel trail. It was narrower than the road had been and we also caught up to the early start folks – the race lets slower runners start the half 45 minutes ahead of time. Suddenly we had twice as many people on a road half as wide and the hills started again.

All of this combined to shift my head, though I am not sure whether in a good way or a bad way. I was really tired and kind of over the whole thing. I could feel myself slowing down, but since I hadn’t been looking at my watch, I had no real idea of how fast I had been going anyway. I decided I had better change my approach. If racing is like a battle with your demons, this is the moment when I said, ok demons, we are all done boxing. I am not doing well with boxing today. This is a fencing match now, so find yourself a freaking blade and let’s go.

I resolved that I wasn’t going to look at the watch anymore at all, but also that if I could establish something that felt like a comfortably hard tempo pace, that had to be good enough. This was another moment of mentally and physically easing my foot off the gas pedal a bit – it is what Sarah Bowen Shea of Another Mother Runner has called “taking the deal.” Tempo effort is not race effort. I don’t feel great about this choice. On the other hand, I did get to a happier place. I decided instead of fretting about pace, I would start counting people I had passed. I would count up for people I passed and down for people who passed me to arrive at a net tally and hope to end up positive.

I got to 30 people before anyone passed me at all. I decided to aim for 50 people passed. Then thought, maybe I can get to 100 people passed? All this time we were running on this damn path through the forest and it was beautiful if kind of crowded. I wish I could report that I found joy, but that would be a lie. I found some grit and that will have to do this time around. Miles 11 and 12 are 9:20 and 9:33 and having just run 3 consecutive races at a sub-8 average pace, that’s disappointing. Finally we got to the bottom of a never-ending hill, turned around to climb back up and then off the path and back onto the road. I was at over 100 people passed already and my final tally by the end of the race was 130! How many people are even in this race? (Answer: 505 for the half marathon; 450 for the 7 miler).

At the 12 mile marker I thought – ok, let’s sneak a peek at the watch after all. 1:42:xx. Jesus, I’m not even going to manage under 1:50? What the actual hell? Then I thought – wait, a mile to go and 8 minutes. Maybe I can pull out an 8 minute mile and at least be close. FINALLY I picked up the pace, only to be confronted with yet another hill. Oof. Really, Redding Half people? IS THAT NECESSARY? Oh, and another tiny hill and another one again? Sheesh. But this mile is overall a huge net downhill and I finally found some fire at the end. Most of the downhill sections of this mile are sub-7 pace and the last mile of the race was my fastest at 8:07. At the end, you turn around a corner and run through a barn and I spotted Mervus and the kids and gunned it for the finish line, but I could see the clock – 1:51 and change. No sub 1:50. Damn. At least a PR.

You get a carnation at the end of this race and the medal and some water. All I really wanted was to find the Incredible Mervus.

I handed him all my stuff and just wrapped my arms around him and cried a little and tried to catch my breath. I gasped out “That was so freaking hard.” I just needed to stay like that for a bit and pull myself together. Finally I was ready for him to put my medal on me, to drink some water, and to sit in the chair that Aidan had been using. Mervus asked me how the conversation with the demons had gone – I said, today we agreed to disagree.

By then Snarky Girl and Rashi were also done. We collected our troops, enjoyed some pizza and chocolate milk, and I presented my flower to Rose. I did a cool down mile around the parking lot and we piled into our cars for brunch at the Early Bird Café. The only shortcoming of the Early Bird was no mimosas, but we made up for that later that night at home.


I’ve been thinking about this race a lot this week. It’s good to experiment and sometimes you try things and they don’t work out. I managed most of the business of Trying Not To Suck, that is, controlling the controllables, so I feel good about that. If my main goal was a really fast half marathon, I would probably need to run higher mileage prior to the race. But my main goal is a fast marathon, and the past few weeks have partly been a break between marathon training cycles. A chance for body and mind and life-schedule to recover. Of course, I still got a PR even if I didn’t meet my goal time. Mostly I am learning that I want to learn how to race better. Next time around, I would keep better track of how the race was going. I hope I get better at not taking the deal and at racing without fear. I’m not there yet, but more races ahead means more chances to experiment.


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3 Responses to Redding Half Marathon 2018 – Run for the Cows – Race Report

  1. I just love the way you write. It’s so enthralling and interesting, and I completely love your race reports.

    Also, this REALLY spoke to me: “If racing is like a battle with your demons, this is the moment when I said, ok demons, we are all done boxing. I am not doing well with boxing today. This is a fencing match now, so find yourself a freaking blade and let’s go.”

    This past weekend I had a goal-less 5k. After seeing the course and considering where my legs are right now I freaked myself out. It wasn’t until 2/3 of the way in that I finally realized I was running a pretty good race, and I settled into a comfortably hard pace to finish it out. I wrote in my recap that finding that niche and locking it into place is my favorite part of racing. I just love when your body goes, “Yep, this will work” and everything clicks. I spent so much of this race pushing too hard and then letting myself off easy and when I finally changed tactics and decided to settle on a challenging-but-doable pace, it was like finding a way to work with the demons.

    Sorry this comment is basically a novella. Great job on your PR! I know it’s not what you wanted but it’ll just make your eventual success that much sweeter.

    • sarah says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words! I have to admit – that part about the demons is my favorite part of this report as well. It was such a turning point in the race for me – I sort of simultaneously gave up and also buckled down to get through it. I’ll be really interested in running this one again at some point.

      It’s SO good to see you up and running again!

  2. Jim says:

    Well done! I love detailed reports. Your report did not disappoint. I look forward to arguing with the demons, again, one day. Congratulations on both your race and PR!

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