When I ran the Patrick Henry Half Marathon back in August, it prompted me to investigate other small, local half marathons. Before that, I’d only run big half marathons, with tens of thousands of runners. But I really liked the smaller race. When a coworker mentioned how much fun he’d had running Fredericksburg’s Blue & Gray Half Marathon, I signed up. I’d already looked at the race, already contemplated it, and his positive review was the last thing I needed to fill out the registration form.
Fredericksburg is only about an hour north of Richmond, so I woke up early on race day – Dec. 3 – and made it to the start line with more than hour to spare. It was cold, right around freezing, so I spent the time in my car, blasting the heat and debating what to wear. I took off my base layer just before race time, left my hat in the car and opted for a thin pair of gloves and then, about ten minutes before the start, I sauntered to the start line, stretched and at 7:30 a.m., we were off.
The course for the Blue & Gray Half Marathon follows the Heritage Trail, the Canal Path, and the Fall Hill Trail. It’s all paved, but mostly off-road, minus a few parts that were off the trails or where there wasn’t a sidewalk. With only 400 runners, sidewalk and narrow trail running was doable, and the course never felt crowded. Water stops were every two or so miles, with the first at 2.5 and the last at 11.8, with Gatorade available after the second water stop.
I started the race fast, for me, anyway, with my first two miles coming in under 8:20. I felt good, but I was suspicious something terrible was going to happen. Things felt almost too perfect – I’d slept well, I didn’t have any stomach troubles, my pre-race breakfast settled nicely, the temperature was good, my wardrobe decisions were working and both my legs and my lungs felt strong.
Suddenly, the first five miles were done and I still felt great. I was still going fast, still felt strong and I started fueling with some Gu after those first five miles and kept that up the rest of the race, taking little sips every mile or so and washing them down with water.
I’d worried about the hills, but they weren’t slowing me down. Until that sixth mile, when I encountered THE HILL.
There it is, at mile 6, that big fucking hill, taking a whole minute off my pace. I covered up my watch to avoid stressing about the drastic drop in speed, put my head down and focused on putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again until I made it to the top, or at least to the part I decided was the top, even though the road continued to tilt upwards, albeit at a more manageable grade.
Sometimes I hit a tiny wall at mile eight or nine, not in a serious way, but in a, why the fuck did I want to do this?! sort of way, but that didn’t happen at this race. I knew, having climbed that big fucking hill, I’d get to go back down it and so when it came, at mile ten, I let gravity drag me back down that big son of a bitch and clocked my fastest mile of the race, at 7:53.
After that, I was a little tired. I walked through the water points, sucked down more Gu and tried to dig a little deeper in the final miles. John, my not-entirely-ex-boyfriend, came down to watch me finish and I saw him in the final quarter-mile and that gave me a little extra push to the finish.
When I crossed the finishing mat, when I stopped my watch, when I saw the time, I cried. My fastest half marathon was in 2013, at the Shamrock Half Marathon, held in Virginia Beach. I ran a 1:50:30 that day, on a fast and flat course. At Fredericksburg’s Blue & Gray Half Marathon, on the most challenging half marathon course I’ve ever ran, I managed a 1:50:52, just 22 seconds from my PR.
I hugged John, said over and over that I couldn’t believe I’d managed a time like that, especially on a course that was so hard, and then they started posting the official finishing times and I confirmed that yes, really, I did run a 1:50:52, and also I was the fastest female in my age group, coming in first out of 16 others in the 30-34 division. This is another great reason to run a small race – fewer competitors in your age group means it’s much easier to earn a top spot. Overall, I was the 29th female to finish out of 196 and the 94th runner to cross the finish line out of 382.
I’d recommend this race to any runner who doesn’t mind hills or cold-weather running, who doesn’t require spectators along the course to stay motivated or need a bag of swag, and any runner who is fast or fast-ish and wants to try for a top spot in their division. It’s definitely not an easy race, but it’s one that makes finishing feel extra special.