Contrasted with the logistical nightmare that was the Rock and Roll USA Half Marathon, the Tobacco Road Half Marathon in Cary, NC was a smoothly-run event. The race was scheduled to begin at 7 AM -- we left the house at 5:30 by car and got dropped off a few yards from the starting line at about 6:30. There was a long string of about 50 cars ahead of us dropping off other participants, though this was not really an issue. The weather was extremely humid, and a bit warm (about 60 degrees at gun time). It had rained the night before, dampening the whole course and saturating the air with water.
Once we arrived at the starting line, the crowd of about 4500 runners packed in closely (though not too closely) and co-mingled. We settled around the back of 9:00-10:00 pace "corral" (there were no real lines of demarcation here) and waited for the gun. After the singing of the national anthem (I think, as we were so far back we couldn't hear) and some enthused emceeing, we heard the crowd roar and the bodies around us surged. The race had started.
As we set out, it quickly became apparent that we were running the grounds of the USA Baseball training facility. We headed over some lightly rolling hills as we made it around the facility, moving onto two-lane roads that weren't quite wide enough for the crowds running the race. We got stuck behind a 2:30 pace group and had some trouble getting by, as the cluster of runners dedicated to that pace spread out and stuck with their pacer. The course eventually widened at mile 2, allowing for more easy navigation as the race populous spread out.
After about three miles on the roads we came to a tee in the course: the marathon would head one way on the Tobacco Rail Trail, the half marathon headed the other. Soon we found ourselves on a twelve-foot-wide fine gravel trail, the crowd spreading wide and taking up the width of the trail. We moved our way ahead, slowly progressing forward, but keeping the pace conservative, as my running partner was running a half for the first time. The rail trail crossed over a few local roads, and had a few access points, allowing for a few small groups of twenty or so people to come cheer on the runners. At times, the groups just stared at us and did little cheering.
At the four mile mark, the lead runners began to fly by in the opposite direction, effectively narrowing the trail to half-width. From this point on the trail was a two-way street. The rail trail is unsurprisingly flat -- most rail trails are, after all -- but a few small hills peppered the course, allowing for some breaking up of the monotony. At about mile 6, we passed through a thirty-yard-long tunnel that was not lit and extremely damp. This was probably the highlight of the race, as it was kind of creepy and the dampness a bit off-putting. Half a mile beyond the tunnel was the turnaround point, a hairpin turn around a few cones that sent us back the way we came.
Returning back the way you came is a rather uneventful way to finish a race, though it does offer familiarity with the surroundings and the water stops/bathrooms adds a general comfort to the uncertainty of the race. As we made our way back towards the finish, we spotted the 2:00 pace group about 400 meters ahead. With the pace group serving as our rabbit, we caught up to the pacer to ensure a finish in line with the goal: a sub-2:00 race.
Running with a pace group is both wonderful and a let-down: the pacing becomes easier, but at the same time most of the work is being done by someone else, allowing you to park on their hip and kind of zone out.
With two miles to go, we broke from the pace group and tested out how fast we could comfortably go. I pushed enough to stay five or so yards ahead, sort of pulling Misty along as we steadily increased our pace on the way to the finish. With a mile to go, we made our way over the same hills that rolled early on. As we circled the baseball stadium, the emcee at the finish could be heard, calling us towards the finish. Misty kicked, slowed a bit, and then kicked again at the finish, and we crossed the line just under 1:57 -- easily under her goal time of 2:00.
- We managed to best Misty's goal time, and that was nice.
- There was pizza at the finish. Orange slices, too. And beer.
- The trail had a number of crossings, allowing for crowds to gather along the isolated portion of the course.
- The parking lots surrounding the baseball stadium worked well for post-race festivities.
- The race wasn't too big for the course.
- The weather was rather humid. This isn't the race's fault.
- The access to the starting line was limited to one two-lane road. I wouldn't be surprised if some people got to the race late because of the access limitations.
- Crowds were thin, though to be fair the race was held in suburban/rural area.
- The out-and-back nature of the course really made passing along the course difficult at times. Once the trail was a two-way street the going could be tough, especially when trying to pass a group of three or more.
- The last two miles along the course limited runners to only the shoulder of the road, which made the course effectively two people wide. This was an unnecessary limitation and was pretty inconvenient.