I waited until May to run my first race of the year. I didn’t plan it that way, but with my lingering hamstring/glute/hip flexor injury, my hectic work schedule from January until April, and various other stuff going on, I just didn’t sign up for any races earlier in the year. That’s probably for the best, as I was undertrained for the first four months of the year and probably would’ve been frustrated with any race results if I even made it through a race without tweaking anything.
No easing into racing with a couple of 5Ks or a 10K this year…I started with the Fifth Third River Bank Run 25K in Grand Rapids, MI. This race is pretty well known in Michigan and beyond, as it is an established race that also serves as the USA 25K National Championships. I’ve been interested in running this race the last couple of years, but it conflicted with the Borgess Half Marathon so this was my first year doing the River Bank Run. I lived in the Grand Rapids area for several years and I really like it there, so I was looking forward to running this one.
My training was pretty rough, as I hadn’t run 10 miles at a time since January and had to cut a few runs short leading up to the race due to hamstring pain. Even worse, I tweaked my good hamstring just a couple weeks before the race. I had the option to drop down to the 5K or 10K if I needed to, but I really wanted to run the 25K. I babied my good hamstring, and it felt much better after just a few days. Because I hadn’t done any long runs in the months leading up to this race and felt like I had no stamina for a race of this distance, I decided to test myself in the weeks leading up to the race to determine whether I should try the 25K or drop down to the 5K or 10K. I didn’t do any long runs, but I did run 10 out of 11 days during a period ending the week before the race, and then I ran a few more times the week of the race. I didn’t do any long or really intense runs, just enough to test myself on tired legs without adding extra risk of injury. It was more more mileage than I had been running, but in the form of fairly easy runs. I felt like I held up pretty well, so I decided to try the 25K as originally planned even though I had no idea what to expect for speed or pacing.
We headed to Grand Rapids the day before the race, and stayed at a hotel right next to the starting line (and only a block away from the finish line). Traffic getting to the hotel was pretty hectic, but we didn’t care because once we parked and got checked in we had an easy walk to the race expo and could settle in to relax. I’d much rather deal with traffic the evening before the race than the morning of the race! The expo was in an exhibition hall and was pretty big. There were a lot of vendors there as well as booths for various charitable organizations that had runners participating in the race, including my alma mater’s “Laker for a Lifetime” program and the Paws With a Cause Assistance Dog organization (just to name a couple of the many great organizations that were represented). We spent a decent amount of time at the expo and enjoyed seeing the different things the vendors had to offer. The race shirt is a gray, short-sleeved technical shirt. The shirt is nicer than the screwy white balance in the photos below makes it appear, and it’s one I’ve worn several times since the race.
I slept like crap before the race and woke up with a little bit of back pain. Not what I wanted, especially because I had just started going to a chiropractor a week or so before the race and had already felt a lot of improvement. Reemerging back pain was the last thing I wanted to worry about on race morning…I already had enough nervousness about my hamstring and my lack of training. Luckily it loosened up after I had been awake for a while. I don’t like to eat before running, but I do try to eat something before longer races so I woke up early to eat a banana and some other small snacks. I also packed two Hammer gels to carry during the race. WOOD TV 8 in Grand Rapids did an awesome job with race day coverage, and they broadcast their morning news from a set near the start line that we could see from our hotel room. One of their meteorologists, Laura Velasquez, is an avid runner who ran the 25K. Not only did she run the race, but she drove the course early in the morning, broadcasting from several points along the way before returning downtown in time for the start. There were 5K and 10K races that started before the 25K (I’m not sure why they don’t start the longer race first), and we were able to see the starts of those races from our hotel room and see the 5K finish on TV.
The 25K started at 8:20 a.m., and because we were staying so close to the start line, we didn’t leave our hotel room until about 8:12. We saw Clint Verran, a professional runner who lives near us, has competed at the elite level for more than a decade, and is a charter member of the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project. After we wished Clint luck (he finished 16th overall with a 5:07/mile pace), we made our way to the start corral. It was extremely easy to get into the corral – by far the easiest of any race I’ve run that has corrals – and we had no problem getting a spot near our desired pace group. My wife was aiming for an 8:00-8:05/mile pace, so I decided to run with her for a while to see how I felt. We started out conservatively and had no problems staying in that range for the first four miles. We slowed it down to 8:07/mile for miles 5 and 6, then picked it up to sub-8:00 for the next several miles. I took a Hammer gel around the 9-mile mark (almost 15K), and when I slowed down a little bit at that point to get water from an aid station, I realized that it was getting more difficult to catch up to my wife.
Even though my pace was improving, she was pulling ahead and I realized that she was dropping her pace big time. By the 11.5-mile mark, she had moved out of my view and I was very happy for her. I kept plugging along, but my pace started creeping up by mile 12. My hamstring started to bug me a little bit between miles 8 and 9, but it wasn’t too bad, and certainly not as bad as I thought it would be. My calves really started to bother me after mile 11, and they felt totally trashed over the last few miles of the race. There were a couple of hills on the second half of the course, but they weren’t too bad and didn’t slow me down. I think my calves just started to hurt due to a lack of training. I wore my Brooks Launch for this race, making sure to avoid shoes with a low heel drop. But after a while, I don’t think it mattered what shoes I was wearing because my legs just weren’t used to that distance and effort.
I was getting pretty bummed out as I realized my pace was slowing and I wasn’t going to be picking it back up. I was just trying to maintain a steady pace, but it ended up just getting steadily slower from miles 12 to 15. I passed the 13.1-mile mark (half marathon distance) in a little under 1:45:00, which is several minutes slower than my half marathon PR but probably in line with what I should have expected to run based on my training. It’s difficult for me to lower expectations for a race though, as my instinct is to compare everything to PR pace even when that isn’t very realistic. I think the fact that I was slowing down bothered me more than my actual time or pace at this point. Although I didn’t have a specific goal for this race (except to finish, haha), I was hoping to run between 7:55-8:10/mile, and I was in that range. But I was fading by the 13-mile mark, and I just wanted to hold on until the finish.
I kept going, tried to ignore my calves as much as I could, and looked forward to returning to downtown Grand Rapids for the final mile. I was really happy when I passed Grand Valley State University’s downtown campus, and I tried to pick it up a little bit for the last mile. I even tried a bit of a kick when I turned onto Ottawa Avenue toward the finish line, but that only lasted for a couple of blocks and I couldn’t quite keep up that pace for the final two blocks. I was thrilled to finally cross the finish line, thus ending the most suffering I’ve felt during a race since I ran the Bayshore Marathon last year. My wife was waiting for me, and I found out she had finished about three minutes earlier and ran the 15.5-mile course about 15 seconds/mile faster than her half marathon (13.1 mile) PR pace. So awesome! I was very happy to finish, but part of me was disappointed in my time, pace, and slowing down so much over the last few miles. All things considered, I can’t complain about this race, and I’m very glad I decided to try the full 25K.
After receiving my finisher’s medal, my wife and I grabbed a few snacks and headed to the post-race party, where participants were able to redeem a ticket for a free beer. The snacks weren’t too bad, though I’m never very hungry right after a race and am more interested in getting fluids than food. We didn’t stick around long, as we had to get back to our hotel so we wouldn’t miss the check out time (no late check out for runners this time because the hotel had a conference or something later that day and needed to turn the rooms around quickly).
This was probably the most well-organized race I’ve run. I was very impressed with all aspects of it – the online registration, the packet pick up and expo, the organization of the start and finish areas, and the post-race party. Everyone we encountered who was connected to the race was friendly and supportive. I like the course, and even though there are a few spots that aren’t the most scenic, I found the course to be very scenic overall. I’ll admit I’m biased toward the Grand Rapids area, but I think that I’d also find it to be scenic even if I was totally objective. It’s easier than the half marathon courses I’ve run, but it also has a few challenging spots, mostly on the second half of the course. There was severe flooding in Grand Rapids a few weeks before the race, and there was some doubt as to whether the course would have to be adjusted. However, Mother Nature and some awesome volunteers made sure that the normal course was clear and no alternate course was necessary. There were some spots near the river where I could tell there had been water and mud on the road, but it had been cleared for runners by race day and had no impact on the race. The crowd support was pretty good. There were some stretches in the first few miles that didn’t have many spectators, but that was probably due to the logistics of trying to navigate closed roads and a narrow riverside road that normally has limited traffic anyway. The last several miles – when I need the support the most – had some very enthusiastic crowds. There were several cheer stations set up by various groups including a high school band, a cheer squad, and a university alumni group, as well as some music along the course. All very much appreciated by this runner!
I highly recommend this race if you’re interested in running a 25K (approximately 15.5 miles) and can make the trek to West Michigan in early May. You’ll be part of a first-class event with great organization, you’ll be a part of the USATF 25K National Championships, and you’ll get to run a great course in a great city. I’m looking forward to running it again, and I will do much better next time.
Chip time: 2:06:22 (gun time: 2:07:17)
Garmin time: 2:06:25 (15.68 miles)
Pace (per Garmin): 8:06/mile
Age group: 183/422
Slowest mile (per Garmin): 8:45 (mile 15)
Fastest mile (per Garmin): 7:49 (mile 11)