Chicory’s 2019 Kentucky Derby Mini Half Marathon Race Report: I Still Hate Running Through Churchill Downs

Accurate summation.

The Kentucky Derby Festival miniMarathon was my first half marathon and it’s my current PR course (from 2017). With Grandma’s Marathon on the schedule for June, the late-April race was a good fit for a tune-up and check-in.

I was training pretty well all spring, not setting any workout records but building back up after a crappy fall season. My mileage and paces were more “normal” (these things, of course, being relative) and I was feeling pretty good. Maybe not quite PR shape, but at least faster than the mediocre halves I ran in the fall.

A couple weeks before the race I headed to Chicago for work, just for an overnight; up Thursday afternoon, to return the next night. Friday I woke up early to squeeze in a run and didn’t feel great, but I had been out until 1, had a few drinks, didn’t sleep well because of noisy neighbors (my boss called security three times) … all that jazz. I thought the easy run would help, but a headache persisted all day. As our flight got delayed three times for a total of three hours—bumping our 5:15 p.m. arrival to 8:30—I grew more and more irritable and tired. I just wanted to go home.

The next day, I postponed my long run, still not feeling great. I was developing a little bit of a cough, but didn’t think much of it. The cough was worse on Sunday and I still didn’t get my long run in, but the next day was Marathon Monday and I had taken off work to watch the race and thought maybe I could do it then.

As it turned out, dear readers, I did not. By Monday afternoon I was diagnosed with Flu A. I laid on the couch for most of the day because I wanted to watch the race, alternating between sweating and shivering and groaning from joint pain. Monday was really bad, Tuesday wasn’t great, but I was able to run again Wednesday (probably shouldn’t have).

Crap, I thought, I do not have time for this.

That’s a long way of saying I was not as prepared for this race as I wanted, though I was well-rested. Heading into it, I was not quite 100% but I was close. I began to feel more optimistic. I have run a lot of 1:28s on not-great days; my PR is 1:25:53. It’s a pretty narrow window, and I thought I might crack 1:27 or at least be under 1:28.

Late April in Louisville can be a doozy, but for once, the weather was great! It was cool enough for gloves (if you have Raynaud’s). I was able to get my favorite parking spot next door to a coffee shop. Things were looking good!

I warmed up with my friend Stephanie, used the bathroom several times and did some strides in the corral. Then came the gun.

Typically coach has me split a half marathon into three segments: miles 1-5, 6-10 and 11-13. Relaxed through 5, working to maintain position and pace through 10, then give it whatever you’ve got. In the early miles, I chatted with people I knew. I started off a little fast—6:26—but settled into the 6:40s I hoped to stick to. If I felt great in the second half, I’d try to ease it down after mile 10. If I didn’t, I would try to maintain.

I caught up with an acquaintance for a while, then pulled away around mile 4. The pack began to string out and I was left solo, caught in a purgatory of too fast or too slow all around me. But the course is super-flat in the early miles and I felt great heading into Old Louisville.

Miles 1-5 splits: 6:26, 6:40, 6:36, 6:39, 6:47.
I manually split my watch during races at the mile markers and mile 5 is a little long … my average pace was 6:37 so could be the marker was a touch out of place or I can’t use my watch or I was just slow.

A lap around Central Park brought us some good crowds as we got closer and closer to Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby.

People think this part of the race will be cool. It is not.

I am a jaded cranky old lady and I don’t care, I say it is not fun. First you run across some cobblestones. Then you run down a steep, dark tunnel that goes under the race track itself and then back up so you can do a lap around the infield. You can catch glimpses of Thoroughbreds completing their own morning workouts, but only if you can look around while trying to navigate the rough pavement and beer cart obstacles. Then you go back down the steep tunnel and back up and out of the track. After Churchill, the runners split. The full marathon heads out to hilly Iroquois Park; the half marathoners take a straight, mostly-flat shot back to downtown.

I had planned to take a gel at the mile 8 marker, which is right at the point where the course goes into Churchill. With all the twists and turns, I completely forgot. I finally took it around mile 9 as I hitched a ride on the struggle bus.

At mile 9 I was completely dropped by another girl who came up behind me and just glided on by. Ironically, I think it’s the girl I out-kicked at the Anthem 5k earlier this year. She was running with another guy I know (who went on to PR in a big way, hooray!) and I overheard later she almost missed the start.

Miles 6-10 splits: 6:36, 6:43, 6:40, 7:05, 6:54.

“Well. This is no longer fun,” I thought. It seemed novel, but in my experience the last three miles of a half marathon are never, ever fun.

The next few miles were pretty uneventful. I couldn’t see any women ahead of me; I got passed by a couple of guys who admittedly did their best to be encouraging, but my tank was empty. I don’t think I went out too fast; my HR was in the right zone the whole way.

I assessed my condition and determined that holding on to sub-7 pace was the new goal. “Don’t give up, don’t back down, but keep working with what you’ve got. Maintain your position.” At different times in the race I had been told I was somewhere in the top 9-12 women, so by my estimation I was somewhere around 11-13. “Do not get passed” is my most powerful mantra; it makes me do crazy things.

At 12.5, we made the right-hand turn on to Main Street. In the distance, I could see someone wearing a long-sleeve pink shirt and black shorts, but everything was a little baggy and honestly I assumed it was a guy based on that fact, and since none of the women I saw were wearing that outfit at the start. I was working, not as hard as possible, and this person was coming back to me. It was probably around 12.75 that I realized she was a woman.

A big part of me wasn’t sure I could do much about it and didn’t care to try, but that part of me rarely wins these arguments.

My old friend, that competitive, instinctual part of my brain, kicked in and concluded that yes, she is fading and yes, I can catch her. I passed somewhere around 12.9 and while I am usually down for a friendly “good job” during a pass (as the passer or passee), I knew this was going to be tight.

I took the last turn at mile 13 into a slight downhill and willed myself to push forward, to not look back, to believe I would hold her off. To believe I might still break 1:28 based on some calculation I made during the race.

Miles 11-13.1 splits: 7:00, 6:53, 7:06 time/6:45 average for 1.1.

I finish 12th, in 1:28:08.

Despite planning and wanting to run faster, to be in the top 10, I was not disappointed at all. I managed to run a half-marathon two weeks after having the full-on flu, and I ran the same time I did for two races in the fall for which I didn’t have an excuse. I persisted; I put forth a solid effort. And what’s more, it was a great fitness-building session for Grandma’s, which is (gulp!) five weeks from the day I am writing this report.

Started running in my early 20s and ended up running my first marathon 15 months later. Managed to break 3 hours in my 12th marathon. Pilates instructor passionate about the importance of your powerhouse in running and the mind/body connection. One husband, zero kids, mama to one Australian Shepherd.

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  1. 1:28:08 is solid when 1:28 is the hope for a not-great-day, if you ask me. Nice work!

    FWIW I think Sassafras might be one of those people who thinks the Churchill Downs business is fun. It’s funny how you both came at this race from different perspectives and had pretty similar feelings about the experience in the end!

    1. Actually, I don’t love Churchill Downs. I don’t hate it with quite the intensity as Chicory, but steep hills, abrupt turns and tunnels is a bit jarring. I was all about it the first time I ran the race (the novelty! the horsies!) but you can’t even really see them. I feel this way about all races that include a stadium-esque element (e.g. Ohio Stadium in the Columbus Marathon). It’s a decision made with tourism in mind, not runners.

      Great job, Chicory! I love how our bottom line takeaways were basically the same, despite drastically different mindsets and days.