Monday, October 28, 2013

2013: Red Baron Half Marathon (Race Report)

Brian, Maria, Mike at the Start. Phot by Matt.
Want to hear something funny? I've never run a half marathon before. I have run both 25k and 50k trail races, but never a half. Want to hear something else funny? I hate road running. But what I do like is helping people and running with friends, which is why, when approached back in September, I agreed to pace my close friend Maria through her first event of this distance. That is in itself another first, as I am accustomed to months of deliberate training and self induced stress in the lead up to any distance event. Going into a race anxiety free, already in 50k shape, and without any goals but to shepherd a friend to a strong finish is a new, and very welcome, experience for me, not to mention an excellent way to wind down the 2013 season prior to beginning my build up to the Hyner View Trail Challenge 50k in April 2014. This is how the day played out.


The best part about the Red Baron Half Marathon is the ingenious 1:00PM start. Its always nice to sleep in on a Sunday morning, wake up with a hot shower and read the newspaper with one’s favorite drink. Maria and I did not leave Sayre until 11:00AM to make the leisurely 50k drive up Interstate 86 to Corning New York. Coming from a guy who doesn’t really like to drive, the finish line (at the YMCA) is one turn and under a mile from the Corning exit, making for an easy trip for anybody in the Pa/Ny twin-tiers.

We arrived to our coldest weather yet this year, though even with the breeze, a partly cloudy day in the upper 30’s is nearly ideal for running and can hardly be considered frigid. The finish line area at the YMCA was merely a stopping off point. We stowed our things in my truck, and caught the next shuttle to the start line at Corning Community College. And therein lies the first major flaw in the race.

Maria and I registered for the event online at the end of September, received confirmation emails, and had no reason to suspect we were not good to go on race day. When we tried to check in, however, race officials found no record of our registration in their computers. Check in and same-day registration for the Red Baron Half Marathon are located at the college, putting the two of us, and many other runners whose records were also missing, about 13.1 miles away from our wallets. (T-shirts were also unfortunately handed out at the start. There were no swag-bags) Luckily I was able to access the receipt in my email from a college computer and show it to race officials. Maria, however, could not find hers, and had the officials not taken her registration on faith, we would have had no way of paying. 

Averting our little registration crisis ate up some time, but still left about a half hour to mingle in the comfort of a well heated room before stepping out into the cold. I had the chance to catch up with fellow Valley Running Club (VRC) member Matt Geer about our experiences at last month’s Green Monster 50k. In running the 50k Matt raised nearly $60,000 for a local food bank in need of a new building and was now capitalizing on his 50k fitness by tacking the half marathon on to the end of the year. He went on to a strong sub 2 hour finish. With all the pre-race mellow drama out of the way, we shuffled out of the heated waiting area and into the cold to gather at the start and await the gun. 


Between signing up for the Red Baron and toeing the start line, Maria had come to the conclusion that she would rather run trails, and having expressed that she did not foresee herself entering a second road half, my primary goals for the day were to make sure she had a good time and finished the race without any doubt that she’d done all she could on this particular day.

Based on the handful of runs we had done together I knew that she could 1) finish the race, and 2) probably maintain around a 10 minute per mile average pace for most of the distance. With that, and the downhill nature of the course in mind, I aimed to keep  the pace at just under ten minutes per mile from the gun, and yet reigned in enough avoid a death march to the finish.

Miles: 1 - 5 (9:43, 9:35, 9:55, 9:36, 10:10)
We deliberately slipped into the back 25% of the field at the start, and when the gun went off let the pack organize itself. With thirteen miles ahead, and a field of no more than a couple hundred runners, there was no point in jockeying for space. There would be room enough for all after the first half mile.

We'd been warned about monstrous hills. We must have taken a wrong turn though, as they never materialized. The Red Baron has a cumulative loss of more than 800ft, and nearly all of its 540ft of gain is indeed in the first five miles, which can best be described as rolling. “Is this one of those big climbs?” Maria quipped at mile five when the biggest ascent on the course rose a scant 133 feet, comparable to the average loss or gain of every single mile on our local trails at Waverly Glen.

I advised her to keep her head down, shorten her stride, lean into the hills and try not to expend too much energy, as we chugged past runners and walkers alike. The downhill’s that awaited would be ideal for making up time. Mile 5, which featured the last of the climbs would be our slowest all day.

Miles: 6 - 10 (9:33, 9:41, 9:33, 9:24, 9:31)
The next five miles of the (relatively scenic, as far as road races go), race skew downhill, as the course winds out of the hills from Corning Community College back toward town. We hit the 10k mark in a little over an hour, a PR for Maria who had never raced the distance before, and then proceeded to run the second 10k even faster.

One of the highlights of the day was yo-yoing with friend and fellow VRC runner Karen Hovan Jones, who was executing a run-walk strategy. Karen had her watch set to beep every so many minutes, either telling her to run, or slow to a walk. Each time our paths crossed we had the opportunity to exchange encouraging words, and she seemed always to have a smile on her face. Her strategy would pay off, as she went on to finish within ten minutes of Maria.

Maria's calf muscles had begun to bother her, no doubt from the descents, though her pace continued to increased. We passed Karen for the last time at around mile 9, and then caught VRC regular Mike Meahger for the first time as we entered town at around mile 10.

Miles: 11 - 13.24 (8:45, 9:28, 9:41, 2:23)

The diversionary tactics began during mile 9 with a game of questions to take Maria’s mind off the pain. What is your favorite Ice Cream? In retrospect, perhaps a bad question for that particular day, as the wind had picked up making for a wind-chill in the 20’s. Next came the encouragement. “You gave birth to a child. You can do anything. Running is a piece of cake. You’ve got this.”

By mile 11 I’d resorted playing to her competitive nature, and made a game out of passing runners who'd been slowed to a shuffle or a walk by fatigue. After passing Mike during mile 10, Maria ran her fastest mile of the race (8:45) on level ground at mile 11. I'd hoped to maintain this pace to the finish, but Maria had already bravely pushed herself beyond my ability to rouse her any further as we twisted and turned along streets and into a park, just hanging on to that sub-10 minute pace.

In the last mile the course leaves the park, and travels along a wide main thoroughfare, the kind of unfortunately-straight section of road where you can see further ahead than you would like. “Three-quarters of a mile, just three laps of the track,” I said, trying to break the remainder of the course into manageable pieces.

A proud pacer watches his runner finish
With a quarter mile to go, the finish came into focus. We crossed the bridge and hung a hard right onto a sidewalk leading directly under it. Maria dug deep, found a burst of 6:26 per/mi speed to pass me as she cruised into the finish in just under 2:07 (Garmin Report)


The finish line was cold and a bit on the lonely side. We got a few cheers as we crossed the line, but most of the field had gone inside the YMCA to eat pizza and warm up. We toughed it out outside watching Mike and Karen finish during the next fifteen minutes. Inside was a crowded, underwhelming post-race pizza party that neither of us found very interesting before heading for home.


- Maria was incredible out there. She came into the race under trained, not knowing what to expect, but she trusted my advice and ran bravely and with heart. It was an honor to be able to help her achieve her goals. While neither of us have much interest in road racing, it would be kind of cool to see what she is capable of with some more training under her belt. If we go back to the Red Baron next November I’m certain she’ll finish in under 2 hours.

- After nearly a decade at it alone, it was great to finally have another runner to travel and race with.

- This half marathon was my longest run since completing the Green Monster 50k (race report) on October 13th, and the longest road run I’ve done since August. I wore a pair of zero-drop Merrell Trail Gloves. No blisters, no leg pain, though I did manage to turn the big-toe nail on my right foot black and my right hip does hurt a little.


-As far as road races go, most of the course was fairly rural and scenic with some fall colors yet remaining, although the leaves have past their peak. If the final miles of the race were moved out of down town Corning the course could be called exceptional.

-Race organization / management leaves something to be desired. Check-in / Registration should be moved to the finish line where runners arrive to catch a shuttle to the start. Online registration problems needs to be sorted out.

-At $20, registration is a steal.

-However the low cost is reflected in the total lack of race swag (except a t-shirt) and crappy post race party. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by some awesome trail races, but I like a hearty meal at the finish line. Races are a celebration. Give me a reason to hang out for hours after I finish.

-Finish line needs MORE COWBELL. Again, I’ve probably been spoiled by trail racing, but I have to say that I think its pathetic that there were 200 people crammed into a YMCA fifty yards away ignoring the back of the pack runners who were still coming in. When you go to a trail race it doesn’t matter if you finish first or last, by the sound of the cheering you’d swear you just won the race.

-The other runners on the course were not mean, but the overall vibe was considerably less friendly than I am accustomed to:

1) ALWAYS thank the volunteers who are out there freezing their asses off to keep you hydrated and on course. Seems like a lot of runners took these awesome folks for granted.

2) Never throw your cups and gel wrappers in a random front yard a quarter mile outside of the last aid station.

3) Listening to music (when too loud for you to hear when somebody talks to you) is both dangerous (due to oncoming traffic) and rude (to other runners.). Though people certainly have the right, I don’t personally see why anybody would listen to music during a race of this length, especially when they are surrounded by other runners at all time. Its one thing if you are go to be alone for hours at a time, but in a race that lasts about as long as the average movie, it seems like you would want to be engaged with your surroundings, rather than block them out. As a trail runner I’m used to a few people listening to music, but at the Red Baron nearly every time I tried to encourage somebody or strike up a conversation my words fell on deaf ears. Seriously, this is the first time I ever left a race without making a new friend. I usually go home with half a dozen life stories…

Other Race Reports

- Green Monster Trail Challenge 25k (2012)
- Hyner View Trail Challenge 25k (2013)
- Green Monster Trail Challenge 50k (2013)


  1. Well written thus far, and thank God Maria got in!

  2. Thanks. The registrations issues were a frustrating begin to the day, and luckily we were not the only ones as we may of found ourselves out in the cold. I've registered for dozens of races online without any issues. This is a first.

  3. I agree on the low budget (ie swag bag, t shrits, post race goodies..ect.) I have run this race twice. This hills are tuff to most runners maybe not us VRC people were lucky enough to have hills everywhere we go! I think they need a revamp on the registration for sure but all in all its a good race!

  4. Its a "good race," but with a little work and not much more money it could probably be a great race.

  5. Yup, the registration process was very frustrating and confusing. My wife and I also pre-registered..thank god she brought a print out of our reciept. You're right on the spot about having the check in and T-Shirt pick up at the Y, so you can store your stuff before getting on the shuttle. The website also stated that there was to be a shuttle to and from the start and finish. Good thing we parked at theY otherwise it would have been a long, cold walk back up to the college.
    As for the big whoop, a 1/2 marathon for $20! A t-Shirt is fine. I ran this race in 1992 to a PR of 1:08:53, so I like it. A bit tougher than it was 21 years ago. After 32 years, seems like the awards would be a bit better. Same plastic trophies they had in 1992. I would however, consider coming back, as I did enjoy the course and the scenery. I too love train on, but not race.

  6. I'm not big on awards, but a medal or something of that nature might be nice for folks who may only ever run one race of this distance in their life.

    And I suggest giving trail racing a try. A trail run of this distance is such a different experience.