Amish Country Half Marathon Race Report
Race: Amish Country Bird-in-Hand Half Marathon and 5k Races
Location: Old Philadelphia Pike, Bird-in-Hand, PA
Distance: 21.1 km (13.1 miles)
Date/Start Time: 6 November 2010, 0800
Distance Travelled to Compete: 108 km (67.1 miles)
Weather conditions: Clear, partially cloudy. Wind chill was brutal at sub 20F/-5C, temps at 28F/-2C most of the race, rose to about 35F/3C by the end.
Course conditions: Wide open course with plenty of rolling hills. This course was very hilly, with six hills, the worst being at miles 7 and 11. Pavement most of the race course with grass/dirt road for the first and half 1/2 miles. There was a dirt road at miles 10-11. Hills I do recall at miles 1.5, 2.5, 4, 5, 6.5-7 and mile 11.
The excitement of my first race: here it was. A freezing day in November upon the rolling hills of Bird-in-Hand. A quaint, quiet, yet beautiful, unique and scenic course. Endless rolling hills, countless acres of farmland. And the smell of manure ironically wasn’t that bad. And the back roads of Amish country for one morning was marked, even it for one morning, with chalk markings, arrows, street cones and signs, tables for the water stops, all for the Amish Country Half Marathon and 5k races.
To save money, I stayed with my parents who live roughly 20 minutes from the race start location, however, most out-of-towners opted to stay in the intimate bed and breakfast hotels that are just everywhere in Amish country. I know Vee and her friends stayed in the nearby Lancaster Host Resort just south of the race start on Lincoln Highway East. Nonetheless, for a small town, there are plenty of locales to stay, and given the timing of the race (late fall as opposed to peak tourist season), most participants should be able to find reasonable accommodations.
My father told me that the Amish country half marathon was a race that prior organizers used to run way back when, decades ago when he used to run races himself. They had stopped it and only recently was the county jumping in and operating this race again. Several of my high school friends had wanted to run this race, but stopped short of doing so. A few had run the Hands on House race in nearby Landis Valley, however, did not run this one. Runners in this race hailed from 26 states and 2 foreign countries.
As we pulled in off Old Philadelphia Pike, I hopped out and proceeded to the main corral. Due to traffic on the pike and Ronks Road (just a block from the race start), the organizers thankfully delayed the start by roughly 20 minutes. Runners were guided across the yellow tent and onto Ronks Road (see below) where everyone was ready to go at the start line.
I chatted nearby with a 5k participant; at 8:15am (when the 5k was supposed to start, half gun time was 8am), she grumbled impatiently about the cold, hoping both races would start soon. I told her that while the temperature itself was bad, we would all be okay unless the typical Northeast wind chill kicked in. When chill kicks in here in the Northeast (though I argue it’s worse in Philadelphia with the river sources nearby), it’s generally ten degrees worse than the current temperature. In which case, I would emerge from the race with a severe cold. Luckily there was hardly any wind, at least at the race start.
Finally, the organizers signalled for the race start. A woman sang the national anthem and finally, we were off. 13.1 miles in freezing temperatures. Vee and her crew had arrived separately, and I imagined they had started further back than myself. Knowing there was a turnaround at mile 5, I figured I would see her at that point.
And finally, just like that, we were off.
Little did I know some of the things, the little things of this race I could come across, the things that would make this race most memorable. For one, the hospitality and the novelty of the Amish folk that I would see and the charm of the Amish would be an element that I think years from now, after all the major races I’ve run in, would still stand out. I may be biased having grown up in Lancaster County, but seriously how many half marathons do you know of where a villager lends his bathroom as one of the official restroom stops in the race or Amish schoolchildren are the ones handing you water and Powerade? How many races do you know of Amish folk singing and playing guitar for the runners passing by?
All my life I’d grown up thinking the Amish were secretive people and always were in hiding. But here, it proved the opposite. They were out in force, everywhere you were, you saw the Amish. They were in force selling their baked goods in the food tent at the afterparty (at which Vee and I bought their red velvet whoopie pies) and they were there in force supporting their own, as about 15 Amish men were running the half, and yes, they ran very well, even with their traditional pants and suspenders. Only 2 of the Amish actually wore technical clothes. There were about 5 more that ran in the 5k race.
Yes, it all happened here. My experience detailed below, with the approximate points in the race:
Mile 0.5: As we made the first turn onto Church Road, we saw an Amish couple playing on their guitars and singing to the runners. We saw a large sign indicating which way to turn: 5k runners were to turn left on Church; half-marathoners were to make a right into the rolling hills. The women running alongside me all chimed in unison upon seeing the singers: “Awwwwwww!!!!” More Amish folk were at the sign cheering us on.
Mile 1: We caught several men running into the woods to relieve themselves just before we hit the Mile 1 marker. Several women and I caught them doing so and they catcalled them, “gee don’t we wish we could just whip it out like that!”
Mile 1.5: The first of 5 restroom stops. I had no need (and didn’t go) to make a restroom stop at any point during the race, however, as I passed each stop, my mind wondered where on earth the port-a-potties were. Turns out, they didn’t exist. The race course had been carefully constructed in such a way that Amish families whose homes were along the course route were able to share their restroom/outhouses with the race participants as the restroom stops. I kid you not. And of those I knew that went, all of them said the outhouses were very clean. Wow. That’s got to be a first.
Mile 4: Three middle school teachers were griping about their students cheating on their English essays, namely copying them from the internet. For the first 5 minutes, I found their conversation intriguing, how the kids thought cheating was okay, how they didn’t care. One of the ladies said she had to drag her student to the computer and show him the definition of cheating…wow. When they started rambling on how kids today are so much worse than they were when we were their age…egh, it started getting old. The very last thing I need in any race is negativity. If it’s what got those teachers through the race, then more power to them, but I powered ahead out of earshot.
Mile 5.5-6: The “wacko” turnaround, I’m calling it wacko because the turnaround itself was shaped like a J, which to me was weird. Additionally you could see those ahead/behind you for a good mile and a half. It was also pretty cool because on the way back, people were giving high fives, as I did to Vee on my way out of the turnaround. However, this was also the first aid station area, and probably the point of most significant dread to a novice runner. Specifically, at the 5.5 aid station, I saw SEVERAL people drop out of the race, and one person was getting bandaged. Heard a mother say “did Kelly drop out or something?” At the end of the zone where I saw those behind me, I saw my friends: Vee, Kelly and the rest of the crew from Northeast and West Philly, who also travelled like myself for this race. And finally, a 5 year old spectator holding up a sign: “13.1 = 5.5 donuts.”
Mile 6.5: “Alright everyone!” I heard a nearby male runner chime. “Get ready for our pair of big bastards!” When I asked him what he meant, he explained that he was referring to the two worst hills in the course. “Big Bastard #1 is Mile 7, and Big Bastard #2 is at Mile 11.” Wow I really wanted to hear that, but then again, I was doubly thankful that running negative splits was in my blood. Because it was also around this point, I saw several runners starting to show signs of pair and fatigue as I passed all of them. At the same time I had to discipline myself to conserve the energy that I needed for the two big hills.
Mile 7: We had a 20 something Amish man just before the respective water/Powerade stop, also playing on his guitar and serenading runners. Very cute!
Mile 7: We’re coming up on Big B-tard 1 of 2. Yes it’s “1 of 2” because the sequel – even worse – was Mile 11. I had no problem with this one, but I noticed a lot of people did. Several people I knew were whining. I had taken my friends’ advice of breathing in as slow as possible so that the air was warm by the time it hit my lungs and boy did it pay off. On the hills it was even worse, and at that point, it was all mental. I inhaled even more slowly and threw my body weight slightly forward. Also made sure given the lesson I learnt 24 October at the NERR tuneup was to run on the level part of the road to avoid injury and that also paid off in spades. Pretty soon, this hill was over, and I had conquered the first of the two bloody buggers. Our reward? Another water/Powerade stop.
Mile 7: The singing chorus of Amish girls “We have Powerade!!! We have Powerade!!!” It was the CUTEST thing in the world. Even more, I was SO annoyed at myself that I didn’t have a camera!!! Oh man, if anyone running this race had a camera, I wouldn’t have issues paying for the shots of the Amish children handing out those things. How often are we going to see that? It was quite priceless!!! These girls could not have been more than 8-9 years old! VERY CUTE!!!
Mile 8: Entirely downhill after what was a hellish climb at Mile 7. It was around this time that the wind chill started to kick in slightly, and the smell of cow manure even more.
Mile 10: “How the hell are you sprinting? Damn negative splitters making the rest of us look bad!” This was said in jest but I did get a lot of deer in the headlights looks from people as I overtook them. I must have overtaken close to 80 people after mile 8 but I think I overtook the most during mile 10. Even then, I just wanted to focus and run my own race. It was how I was taught, and it’s what I have seen so far to work for me. Besides, I know myself to not be the most athletically inclined out there compared to your average 20-something runner; I feel that I need every advantage I can get.
(For those of you not into running, I have defined negative split here.)
Mile 10-10.5: The infamous buggy stream. This was another instance where I was annoyed as all hell not having some device to snap pictures. A stream of 5-7 Amish buggies pulled on the left side of the street as the children in the buggies started chanting “Go runners!” “You can do it!” “Go runners go!” At first I thought it was just a random group of Amish buggies, but I had found out from another runner later on after the race ended that the Amish had purposely sent packs of buggies down a marked off side of the street through Mile 10 (where traffic was allowed to pass runners – the off-limits section was marked off by cones) with the children chanting to encourage the runners. This is one of many aspects where I really appreciated the Amish’s involvement; the bitter cold was killing a lot of runners’ morale and as for myself it made my experience a lot better.
Mile 11: Big B-tard 2 of 2. This was the second hill on a dirt road. Several Amish spectators were telling us what lay ahead, and some were telling us what Amish vendors to purchase their baked goods from after we were done with our race. Wow, that sounded awfully tempting. However, this last brutal climb was punctuated with even more whining from runners on this hill. The lot of runners running my pace were wearing down, yet most encouraging was seeing a father/daughter couple push alongside myself on the hill. The father, roughly my own father’s age was quite old, yet he was having less trouble than the daughter who appeared a tad younger than myself. About several hundred feet up, I saw a team of a mother, father and son my age all pushing each other in the final leg of the race. Nonetheless, it was incredibly encouraging seeing the way family members pulled each other together, although it was a painful reminder of the family stability and closeness that I could not have, especially off the pavement. (My dad Pierre admitted to me after the race seeing a lot of elderly people race and myself inspired him to try his hand, shape up and run shorter 5k races again. Yay!)
Mile 12: Beechdale Lane. It was Mile 12, and I knew it. On one hand, I have never been so glad in my life to see a street sign. The end is near. But never has this felt so bittersweet. Seeing the Mile 12 marker meant this race was almost over. I was so sad. Fourteen weeks of training and the real fun only lasted just north of two hours. This was not fair. Just that thought made me want more. I wanted to run more, alongside people. The camaraderie, it was all worth it.
Mile 12.5: Penultimate turn back on Church Road heading back east towards the grandstand and Bird-in-Hand Family Restaurant. The wind chill bit hardcore as soon as I turned, the wind got so bad a lot of runners had to slow down. The chill started to seriously mess around with my lung capacity almost to the point that breathing slowly did me no good. I shielded my mouth from the wind, but to no avail. God, not now, not so close to the finish. I’m not going to quit. This flipping wind chill isn’t going to stop me. My mother couldn’t stop me, this flipping weather sure will not either.
Mile 13: The final turn on Ronks Road heading south to the finish line. The cheers, the cameras, the singing. Hearing every spectator chant “YOU’RE ALMOST THERE!” I saw Pierre step out and snap my picture as I was sprinting towards the finish line. I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy I was near the end, this was the moment we’d all worked for. We hit the grass…and then…
THE FINISH LINE: The white banner bearing the Amish Country Half logo, hearing the announcer butcher my name before saying I was from Philadelphia. Ahead, I saw ladies clipping off the timing chips from our shoes. But not before I saw the clock and seeing that even with the rolling hills and the bitter freezing temperatures, that I had still managed to pull off a PR by 6:11. I was shocked, as I had not expected to PR given the weather. I was prepared for the hills, but the temperatures were brutal.
I couldn’t believe it. I was shaking, as I emerged from the group of ladies clipping our tags and giving us our medals. Yes, this shiny thing hung from my neck as I got in line to collect bananas, Powerade and other refreshments.
Physically, my body was shaking. Pierre handed me the sweatshirt as I pulled it over me, yet it was still not enough. We queued through the food tent as I grabbed yogurt, bagels, peanut butter, apples and bananas.
My body continued shaking as I approached the grandstand, where the band was playing and the Amish food tent where runners and their families were seated post-race. With my lungs still playing catchup from the final sprint, I took in some hot tea slowly, and after Vee, Claire, Kelly and their crew joined me at the tent, did we feast on whoopie pies. “You just burned 1500 calories, this is the perfect time to have a whoopie pie!” exclaimed Vee. Sure enough, giving into temptation, I figured this was the first time in ages that could have such a treat and not feel guilty.
Overall, the race was very well organized. I was very impressed at the community involvement and even more so the ways in which the Amish were involved supporting not only their own but other local and travelling runners. I was very appreciative of everyone’s support along the lines and the incredible spirits of all the stewards, Amish or not. And of course, the travelling buggy loop at Mile 10. We all pulled together and overcame the bitter cold, and the manner in which it was done was priceless.
That all said, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, even as I run the big races, I won’t forget the charm of my first true half marathon event. It was definitely a unique experience in every sense of the word.