In the five times that I’ve run “Fly With The Eagles Half Marathon”, I have yet to see an eagle. But there are plenty of other things I can anticipate with some certainty. River to River Runners Club does a great job of organizing the race. The race is well-attended by a variety of athletes throughout the region. The closed course provides rolling terrain and variety of surfaces for runners. Miles nine and ten will test my resolve with that one last hill and a cold north wind blowing across the lake. Excellent post-race fuel including soup and hot beverages help runners recover from the race. Finisher medals and race awards are done well. And finally, the race is famous for the high-quality hoodies given to participants.
For me, Fly With The Eagles has been a test of my winter fitness. I really didn’t know what to expect from myself this year and was hoping to finish in less than two hours. In two of my previous attempts on this course, I missed the two-hour mark by less than a minute. This year, I had been consistently putting in weeks of twenty to twenty-five miles but only had one run of ten miles since September. But I felt good and mentally ready to race.
Weather for the mid-February race in southern Illinois has been a bit of a crap shoot. This year’s race featured partly cloudy skies, 32-degree temperatures and 13 mph northwest wind. Not the best conditions, but far from the worst.
Over 300 racers ran the course through Crab Orchard Wildlife Refuge this year. About 100 yards after the starting chute, racers turned onto a paved road closed to vehicles. This helped the pack spread out while runners found their pace. At mile three, after crossing over Crab Orchard Lake, the course turned off the paved road onto a gravel road through the woods. Rolling hills accompanied the change in scenery and running surface.
The winter had been quite wet and I was concerned that the primitive road may be washed out or under water in some of the low spots. Standing water was confined to one side of the road, which left a dry path to follow. The gravel road continued for about three miles before returning to pavement.
At the half-way mark, runners had thinned out, but there were still people around me running a similar pace. It was ideal as there was plenty of space to freely run my pace with others close enough to keep me from losing touch with the race. Turning onto the main road, the modified out and back course gave us middle-of-the-packers a chance to encourage the lead runners heading toward the finish.
The course had a U-turn near the eight-mile mark. This was a mental boost for me to know more than half the distance had been covered, especially with the toughest portion of the race still ahead. At this distance, miles nine and ten are where the wheels fall off as my body and mind are tested. This course has two decent hills and a chilly headwind at this part of the race.
A couple years earlier, I ascended the final hill and gave myself permission to drop in behind a couple runners to provide relief from the north wind. I was content with settling when a young man passed us. At that moment I chose to push rather than settle. The result was a finish in under two hours.
This year, I continued running a steady pace and started some positive self-talk. “These hills aren’t that bad. I’m pretty good going up. I think I’ll pass that person before the water station. The wind isn’t so strong. I dressed right for today’s race.” At the 10-mile mark, I figured that I should be able to finish in less than two hours if all went well.
There were a couple runners at a similar pace to help me push when I wanted to let off. We passed and let pass, pushed and recovered our way to the last turn with the finish chute in sight. One final burst of speed for the spectators and a smile for the cameras propelled me to a 1:58:32 finish. Actually, the smile came from deep within as a feeling of accomplishment washed over me.
While enjoying the post-race food, I saw that my finish time was good enough for second place in my age group. I like it when races post the results early. After many races I could have been halfway home by the time awards were presented to my age group. But sticking around is one of the character flaws of people who still run at my age.
Like other runners who are looking back, I didn’t expect this to be my last race for the foreseeable future. But at least I can look back without regret at a race where I had fun and met my goal. Looking forward is a different story. But I am confident that we shall race again.