Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Race Report: Divas Half Marathon - DC Wine Country

I should have known better than to sign up for a race with the word "Diva" in the title, but this one just happened to fill a need. Marcey and I wanted to go out of town for a girls' race weekend. I prefer longer distances, Marcey prefers shorter, and we wanted something within driving distance. The Divas Half Marathon - DC Wine Country met all of these parameters: it was 2 hours away in Leesburg, it had a half marathon and a 5k, and it worked with our schedules.

So we got excited and signed up for it way back in January and have been counting down ever since. We reserved a room at the official Race Hotel, the Landsdown Resort; planned coordinating outfits (not matching, just coordinating); planned a post-race afternoon of wine, cheese, and lounging in our room in pajamas with not a care in the world; made dinner reservations at one of the resort's restaurants; and picked out little black dresses to wear with our medals.

Everything about the weekend turned out just as we had hoped... except for the race itself. A better name for this event would have been the Divas Disaster Half Marathon. 

From the top...

Packet Pick Up

Packet pick up and the race expo are always my least favorite parts of a race. This one was no exception, with the one saving grace being that it was held at Landsdowne so it was convenient for those of us who were staying there.

Otherwise, it was ridiculous because they offered packet pick up for only a few hours on a Friday night in Northern Virginia. Anybody who has ever lived in the DC Metro area knows that traffic on a Friday night is a flat out nightmare. To give you an idea, when I lived in Gaithersburg, Maryland my commute to North Bethesda was 11 miles... and it took me ONE AND A HALF HOURS. Leesburg, the site for this event, is pretty far west of DC and for anyone trying to come from there, I'm sure it was difficult. Marcey and I left Richmond at 4:00 pm and barely made it ourselves, arriving just after 7:00 pm (expo closed at 8). 

Strike one for the organizers. 

Once we got to the expo, we had to stop and be surveyed by Divas staff before we were allowed to pick up our packet. This was also annoying. The questions were: Where are you staying? How many nights? Do you have spectators? I know they were gathering this information so they could show the resort hotel what a great revenue generator this event was, but it was still aggrevating for people who had just sat in hours of traffic and just wanted to get their stuff. I actually tried to bypass them but they caught me.

Just give me my damn bib and shirt, please!

Race Day Arrival

Here's where the real fun starts. On Friday evening I put the address for the Tarara Winery (the race site - in theory, very nice) into my navigation and it showed that it would take 25 minutes to get from Landsdowne to Tarara. That kind of annoyed me... the whole reason that I paid for an overpriced resort hotel room was because I figured that the official race hotel would be extremely close to the race itself. 

Guess I was wrong.

The event organizers made it very clear that the road into the Winery would be shut down at 7:15 am, meaning we all needed to be parked before that. Marcey and I decided to leave the hotel between 6:00 and 6:15 am, giving us a cushion of at least 35 minutes. I anticipated some traffic build up since we would all be converging on the same place and figured that this would be adequate. It was cold that morning, and we didn't want to arrive insanely early and stand around freezing.

We got into the car at 6:15. Things were going fine for about 15 minutes. And then we hit the start of the traffic. I got more and more anxious as I watched the minutes tick by. 6:40... 6:45... 6:50... 7:00. I was worried we were going to get turned away. But then we realized that everyone else around us was also going to the race and there was no way they could turn us all away - it seemed like ALL of the participants were sitting on that stretch of Route 15 - and as Marcey said, the last thing you want to do is piss off 5,000 women. 

7:15 came and went. FINALLY we came to a point where there was an alternate route we could take, so I did. This alternate route was a dirt road that led into the back entrance of the winery. We parked the car in a field at 7:20, jumped out, and literally ran toward the start. I had half a bottle of water in the car and HAD to go to the bathroom. My race was supposed to start at 7:30, so as we jogged toward the starting area I was already assuming that I was going to be jumping in late. Marcey's 5k was supposed to start in waves, with the first being at 7:45. 

Note on the parking: we parked in a freshly mown field. And it was very wet. My feet were soaked by the time we got through it. This was a bad thing, as we'll see in the future.

When we arrived at the start it was obvious that we weren't starting on time. We heard people saying 30 minute delay as we headed toward the porties. Excuse me... the LINE for the porties. 

I was grateful for the delay but I knew that people who had been there and were in the start corral were pissed. I truly do feel for those who had been there in time and were standing in the cold, getting hungry and thirsty and stiff legs. They had every right to be mad. I was pissed because it was obvious that the race organizers had no idea what they were doing when they chose this winery that was accessible only by 2 dirt roads as the venue for a race with 7,000 participants. Dirt roads cannot handle that capacity. I also heard that there was an accident on Route 15 (the way they told everyone to take) that made traffic congestion even worse. 

THEN the announcer had the gall to make an allusion that the delayed start was the fault of the participants. That just sent me over the edge. NO. I left at 6:15 for what I anticipated to be a 35-40 minute drive. Based on comments I have read since on Facebook, others who had left even as early as 5:45 am did not make it to the race in time. To try to blame participants for not planning well enough was truly bad form.

At 8:25 it was announced that we were going to continue to be delayed. FINALLY, the half marathon started at 8:55 am... nearly 1 hour and 30 minutes late. It was bad for the people in the corral, it was bad for the people who got stuck in traffic. It was bad for the volunteers at water stops who had been standing out in the cold, ready to go. It was bad for everyone.

Really bad.

As for myself, I had gotten to my "corral" (more on that later) at 7:55, expecting an 8 am start. When that didn't happen, I decided to try to find Emma, of A Mom Runs This Town. I knew she was running and I figured at least we could chat for a while to kill time. It wasn't hard to find her ... there weren't that many people in the corral. She had been there since 6:30 am and was really really unhappy about the repeated delays (as she should have been). She was starving, freezing, and getting tight after having performed all of her pre-race rituals in time for a 7:30 start. We tried to make light of the situation, but by 8:45 with no start time announced, we were just done. Personally, I didn't even feel like running anymore. All I kept thinking was that if we had started on time, I would have been almost finished by now.

So. BIG FAT FAIL on Race Day Arrival.

Starting Area

1. Not enough porties. 7,000 women, 50 porties. NOT ENOUGH.

2. Tiny, dirt starting chute with graded, sides. Not cool. Accessible only from the back, so if you needed to work toward the front to your "corral", you had to weave your way through everyone else.

3. Non existent "corrals." They did a wave start for the 5k, but there was no such thing for the half. We all just kind of self-selected into waves based on estimated pace. Emma is super speedy, so she was hanging out in the 7:00-8:00/mile area. There weren't many others there, unlike the area where I should have been, which was swamped. So I did something very bad and just stayed with her and started in that "wave". I wasn't in anyone's way because there just weren't that many ladies in that area. Yes, I'm a bad racer. Sue me. But after standing around for an hour, I just didn't care anymore.


I am kicking myself for my procrastination because the official course description from the Divas Half website has been taken down now. But here is the gist of it, from what I can remember (and I read it a few times because I was nervous about the course, knowing that the Leesburg area is hilly):

"Enjoy this scenic course in Virginia's wine country. You'll pass vineyards, rustic farmhouses, open fields, and country churches. The course has gently rolling hills and two more significant elevation gains of 300 feet that are minimized as they are spread out over 1/2 mile."

My interpretation of that was yes, there are 2 challenging hills but otherwise this won't be so bad.

As far as I can tell, this was everyone elses' interpretation as well, because let me tell you, hot topics on the course were the delayed start and the hills.

They seemed to never end. From the time we started, if we weren't running up hill, we were running down hill. "Gently rolling my a$$!" was the general consensus. Every time we turned a corner and saw yet another hill, a chorus of groans and expletives rose from my fellow Divas and myself. What was even worse is that the course doubled back on itself so you knew that once you ran over one big hill, you were going to have to do it AGAIN later. Just that thought made me want to quit so many times.

Here's the elevation chart, which doesn't look that scary. But trust me, these hills were no joke. They were small but they were fairly steep and just never ending.

The only respite that we got was a fairly flat stretch between miles 7.5 and 9.5, but by that point I think it is fair to say that most of us were already beat and our legs were shot. It was just a matter of survival. I remember looking down at my Garmin at mile 8 and saying to myself, "5 miles. You can run 5 miles. That's all you've got. 5 miles... less than an hour... just keep going...".

Oh, and the scenery. HA. Yes, there may have been "rustic" farmhouses, quaint churches, and vineyards, but we were all too miserable to enjoy any of it. There was also a fair amount of time spent running in McMansion neighborhoods (decidedly NOT scenic).

Finally, this was advertised as a road race. Sure, we were on roads... but at least 8 of these miles were completed on very uneven dirt/gravel roads. I don't care how hilly or flat something is... the minute you throw dirt or gravel on it, it becomes more challenging and it is far different than pavement. If you never run on trails, doing so for the first time is a learning experience that can sometimes be dangerous. Thankfully, I've run on all kinds of trails so it didn't throw me, but I know that a lot of people wiped out and were very angry about the running surfaces. I feel very badly for anyone who had only previously run on roads or treadmills. To experience dirt/gravel surfaces for the first time during a hilly race had to be quite jarring.

So basically, I felt pretty misled by the race organizers as to this course. Listen, I like to be challenged. But I was NOT prepared for this in any way. I like to think that I am at the top of my game right now as a runner. But after the first 6 miles of this race, I honestly just wanted to quit. They were the hardest 6 miles I have ever ever run, including the last 6 of the 18 miler last weekend.

Ok, well maybe not ever. The worst miles I ever ran were the last 4 of the Army 10 Miler a few years ago. But this was close to that misery, especially considering my level of fitness is SO much higher now. If I had KNOWN about the hills and the dirt roads, at least I would have known what to expect and could mentally prepare myself. 

Oh, and the course was 13.3 miles long. I know that they are never exact, but come on... nearly a quarter mile?

But let me say something positive about it: there were more than enough water/Gatorade stops, all manned with smiling happy volunteers. God bless them... they were just as inconvenienced by the delayed start as we were.

The Finish

Finally, at the end, there was some REAL scenery in the form of a lovely pond back on the Tarara Winery property. But honestly by that point I didn't care if I was running through a nuclear power plant... I just wanted to be DONE. At mile 13 we ran through the "Tiara and Feather Boa" station, which is a cute idea but honestly, it's kinda hard to jam a tiara on your head and putting on a cheap feather "boa" at mile 13 is not really enticing. However, I did both because dammit, I had suffered and I was going to live it up at the end. 

After crossing the line, I received my GIGANTIC medal from a very fit shirtless man. Then they tried to shove a plastic flute of "champagne" (aka sparkling cider) at me... pretty much the last thing I wanted but I took it because I didn't want to be rude. Same with the rose. All before food and water. I JUST WANT WATER AND A BAGEL OMG. Luckily I had Marcey there on the other side of the chute to dump off this stuff with so I had free hands to get my food.

The food was lackluster. Bottles of water, plain or cinnamon raisin bagel halves (which were kinda stale) and chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin cookes. That's it. There was no other runner support at the finish ... honestly I don't even recall seeing a medical tent. I'm sure it was there... somewhere... right? 

Overall Grade

Sorry, Divas, but this gets one big fat F. There was really nothing enjoyable about this experience. I guess at least I got a really gigantic medal out of it and a nice techinical race shirt that actually fits.

To be fair, this was an inaugural event for this particular location. I knew there would be hiccups... there always are at the first go around. HOWEVER, this is a National race series whose organizers should have forseen many of the problems and prepared for them. To me, the misleading course description was almost worse than the traffic issues. 

But the real rotten icing on this bad cake was that the organizers seemed to blame participants for the traffic and only took responsibility for their error much later - I believe in a Facebook post/email the next day. And they NEVER acknowledged the course problems.

And that is why I am never, ever doing a Divas race again.


Personal Performance

Other than the Army 10 Miler, I have never been happier to be finished with a race.

After the 1.5 hour delay, I really just wanted it to be over with, so I went out way too fast. I knew it was stupid and I knew I would regret it later, but I just didn't care. My legs were tight thanks to standing around, and my feet were numb with cold after getting soaked from walking through the field that we parked in. I don't think I actually felt them until mile 3 or so.

By mile 6, when we turned a corner and saw yet another incredibly steep dirt hill in front of us, I really just wanted to walk. The only thing that got me through were the Schwings on my shoes.

Whenever I looked down at my feet because looking UP at the hill in front of me was too terrifying, I saw my Schwings and said to myself, "Kathryn, you have wings on your shoes. You cannot walk. That would just be ridiculous. People with wings on their shoes don't walk."

I wish I was making this up, but I'm not. I really did tell myself that.

Near the end, when I really felt like crap, I saw others starting to walk. I thought by encouring them I could also convince myself to not cave, so I would run pass and cheer them on. "Come on come one, we've survived the worst of it. We have less than 2 miles... you can do this! Don't walk now!"

These were really just pep talks for myself.

When I hit 13.1 (before the official finish line), my watch showed 1:51:something. That's unofficially a PR for me. My official time was 1:53:16, NOT a PR but also NOT a half marathon, as my Garmin read 13.3 miles. My average pace was 8:31/mile. That also included a 60 second trip to the portie located a mile 7.

Given all of the cirumstances, I'm pretty proud of myself. I ran fast despite the hills. I did walk for about 25 yards during mile 12 before I got pissed at myself for being a quitter and started running again. I did stop at water stops and I even took the time to stretch my poor calves at mile 12. Why I thought it would help at that point was beyond me... I guess really I just wanted to stand still for 30 seconds.

I finished 85th out of 2,535 participants, so that's not too shabby I guess... but to be fair I think that at least 50% of the people walked it instead. I placed 24th out of the 454 participants in the 30-40 year age group.

I was really so exhausted by this point that I have no
idea how I look remotely presentable.

But the people that I am most proud of are Emma and Marcey.

Despite all of the things working against her and the less than ideal conditions, Emma placed fourth overall and won our age group with an amazing time of 1:31:58! That is just flat out amazing to me. I can't imagine running that fast ever, and especially not on that torturous course.

I hope some of Emma's greatness rubbed off on to me.
Just a little teeny bit.
(Photo yoinked from Emma)
Marcey PRd her 5k time too! Thankfully, she said that the 5k course was not very hilly and the participants of that race seemed more pleased over all.

Marcey is pleased.

So, there's my book on the Divas Disaster Half Marathon.

I'm really hoping that I can redeem myself at the Wilson Bridge half in 2 weeks. After the Divas course, it should be a relative breeze (I hope).


  1. Wow, that sounds like quite the experience. I can't imagine how frustrating it was and to come out with an unofficial PR is pure awesome. I've dealt with some of those issues but never in the same race.

  2. The Wilson Bridge Half is a wonderful course for much of the course. When I ran it, there were a few short not awesome parts near the end, but they may have changed those by now.

    My FIL lives near Tarara, so I'm pretty familiar with that area. I'm not at all surprised by the traffic or hills. Good job running as well as you did!