On Sunday I ran the Cary March Madness Half Marathon out in Cary, IL to test my readiness for Boston. The event is hosted by Hillstriders Running Club and is very popular for those training for a spring marathon. It’s a great way to test how your training plan is going and make any adjustments to workout paces, plus it’ll give you an opportunity to practice race day strategy.
The March Madness Half Marathon is VERY popular, so popular in fact that the race sells out in a matter of minutes. Registration opened on December 31st at 6am. So I woke up at 5:30am on New Years Eve, logged onto my computer, and pulled up the webpage poised to click “Register” as soon as the link went live. At 5:50 I began frantically texting Kaitlyn, “Is it open yet? Have you registered” while also checking the Bootleggers Facebook page to see if anyone had yet been able to register.
Right at 6am I was able to submit my registration, phew, and then promptly went back to sleep.
According to its website, the March Madness Half is dubbed “the most challenging in Northern Illinois” and is quite hilly, making it the perfect practice for Boston. My goal was to practice this race like I plan to run Boston: go slow at the beginning, don’t get hyped by other runners passing, stay consistent effort on the hills, and push the last part (in this case the last mile). I planned to start around 7:15 for mile one, 7:00 for miles 2-3, and then picking it up to my race pace, 6:50, for the rest.
Annabelle and I made a plan to leave at 6am to make sure we had enough time for parking. I texted her at 5:55 to say I was brushing my teeth and would be downstairs shortly… her response, “Ah I overslept! I’ll be there in 10!” Not the best for my type A race anxiety. Are we going to be able to find parking? Will I still be able to pick up my packet? Am I going to be able to warm up? Will we miss the race? Breathe, Becca.
After a few bumps and wrong turns we made it safely to the start line, taking us just about an hour and a half to get out there. There was plenty of parking available, and packet pickup took less than 5 minutes. I shouldn’t have worried, sorry Annabelle! Luckily packet pickup could be done on-site the day of the race- Cary, IL is about 45 miles from Chicago so that would have been a hassle to have to do it the day before the race. We met up with Kaitlyn, Kelly, and Dallas in the gym, as well as some other Fleet Feet runners. Everyone was milling around in the high school gym, which reminded me a lot of my very first marathon, Milwaukee Lakefront, as all the runners also wait in the school before beginning.
I had 18 miles total to do on the schedule for the weekend, so I decided to do 1 mile warmup and 4 miles cool down. Since the race started at 8:35am, the girls and I began warming up around 8:15. We did a mile and then I did Bob’s typical dynamic stretches: lunge matrix, high knee shuffles, butt kicks, leg swings, karaoke, and at least 4 strides. By 8:30 I was at the start line and the other runners were slowly moseying over. The start of the race was much more relaxed and chill than I would have anticipated- at 8:35am on the dot, without even a foghorn or whistle or the National Anthem to start us off, the race director said, “Go!” and we started running.
The course begins and ends at Cary Grove High School in Cary, IL, weaving through the surrounding neighborhoods. There are 6 named hills in addition to plenty of other rolling hills: Shoe Tree Hill, Sneaky Hill, Substantial Hill, 10 Mile Hill, Big Hill, and Lung Buster Hill. According to Strava, the elevation gain was 499ft throughout the course. Woof.
Again paralleling Boston’s Course, the March Madness Half course starts off with a net downhill for the first 3 miles. “Be patient, be slow” was my beginning mantra. Pshhhh, you know me, as soon as I toed the line I went into race mode.
I did manage to keep myself slow for the first mile, and I blame the downhills for making me drop to my goal race pace for the next miles. So much for “be patient, be slow.” At mile 4 we encountered a hill that I mistook as the first “Big Hill” and I thought, “Man, that was the first hill? These people don’t know what hills are! That was easy!” Splits: 7:00, 6:49, 6:48, 7:02.
Miles 5-7: Rapid Fire Hills
Nope. That wasn’t the hill. Shoe String Hill came about half a mile later. The volunteers had labeled it with a sign on the side, and it was definitely more intense than what I thought was the hill. However, I quickly found myself up and over it. But then less than a mile later (mind you it was rolling hills throughout this interim), Sneaky Hill popped up. This hill lives up to its name because it comes at the end of an ess curve so you don’t see it coming, and then when you reach the top you turn to the left, only to see that Sneaky Hill keeps going up for another stretch. Verrrrrry sneaky indeed.
After Sneaky Hill comes Substantial Hill right passed mile 7. This hill isn’t as steep as the others but it goes on for quite some time and it curves upwards. Again, you aren’t able to see the top easily, but there was a good number of volunteers and spectators standing at the top. I had picked out a girl in front of me and slowly reeling her in at this point because I saw her struggle on that hill. Splits: 6:55, 6:57, 7:05. I was pleased that I was able to stay consistent through this first stretch of hills.
Miles 8-9: Descent
On the backside of Substantial Hill we begin a slow rolling descent into the valley between the hilly sections. It’s a good chance to pick up some pace, especially at mile nine where the course levels out. At this point we began passing some of the runners who had chosen an earlier start time (they were run/walkers, and were offered the chance to start earlier so they could make sure to finish). One woman shouted out, “You’re currently number 5 female!” Wooohoo! I picked off 2 runners (male), but then I also was picked off by a girl and Annabelle right after mile 9. There’s nothing that will make me motivated like being passed by a girl, let alone someone I know. I saw the hill at mile 10 looming so I didn’t push it just yet, but I knew that I would have to get my positioning back because, thanks to the run-walker, I was now aiming for a top place! Splits: 6:55, 6:45. You can see that I definitely picked it up on mile 9, especially because I was angry that I was passed.
Miles 10-12: Second set of hillz
Mile 9 is one of the only long straight portions of the course, so you see 10 Mile Hill looming in the distance. It looks daunting, however the closer we got, the flatter it seemed to be. Maybe that was just my mentality at the moment, or the fact that I was determined to catch the girls ahead of me, but in any case it helped me get up and over the hill without much problem. On the back side of the hill the aid station sucked- they were shouting out “gatorade and water” so you couldn’t tell which they were actually holding. Every other person was holding something different so I didn’t get any water. I took some Honeystingers without being able to wash it down. Grrr.
The next hill we encountered, Big Hill, definitely took something out of me. It was the steepest one yet and happens only about a half mile after 10 Mile Hill. I slowed and fellow Fleet Feet runner, Kati P., passed me just as we crested the hill. I latched onto her on the descent and for the next half a mile or so I stayed a few strides behind her as neared the pack in front of us. We crossed the 11 mile marker much closer to the pack, I knew it was going to be hard to catch Kati but I thought I could at least get the next two girls I saw. I was so focused on keeping up and getting those places back that I didn’t realize we were up and over Lung Beater Hill until I saw the next aid station. From previously looking at the map, I knew that the aid station was after the last hill, so I mentally shouted “Hooray I am home free!” Splits: 6:59, 7:22 (woof Big Hill), 6:51
Mile 13-end: The Push
That realization that I was done with hills and could really push it now lit me up and soon I had regained my place on Annabelle and the girl who had passed me around mile 9, and my eyes were locked on the other girl (for no rhyme or reason she annoyed me and I wanted to beat her). The runners rounded a corner and I could see the high school soccer fields. This was where we had turned around for our warmup so I knew I had just a half mile left. I kicked it into high gear and held off to cross the finish line with a time of 1:30:49, finishing 6th place overall. Final splits: 6:39 and then a 6:00 min average for the .1 haha.
After finishing, I hung around for a few moments at the finish line and saw both Annabelle and Kaitlyn finish. Annabelle finished 8th female overall, and Kaitlyn came away with a PR!!!
I still had some more miles to run, but boy am I glad that I did a little extra for the warmup because by the time Kaitlyn and I hit 3 miles on the cool down I was done and called it a day. I was almost at 18, so I just kind of shuffled around the parking lot until I hit my total and then I went inside to change and have my smoothie and Honeystinger Waffle as a reward.
We changed, stretched and rolled out- thanks Mr. Clampy- and soon we were on our way back to the city for some celebratory brunch!
Overall, I would definitely recommend the March Madness Half Marathon to anyone with a hilly spring marathon. It’s a good test of your hill strength so you can adjust training paces as necessary, and it provides a great opportunity to test out race day strategies. Or at least attempt to. Now, what the hell am I going to do with the bright orange jacket…?