Thursday, July 24, 2014

Volkslaufe, Michigan - July 4, 2014

The town of Frankenmuth is a bizarre little piece of Germany that is somehow located about 90 minutes' drive north of Detroit. It's as if an enormous forklift simply scooped up a quaint little village from deep in the Bavarian Alps and deposited it neatly in southeast Michigan - walking down the main street is like being transported back to 1985 when I was an exchange student in Ingolstadt (minus the insane, snuff-dipping host father, coked-up anorexic host sister and bodybuilding, Socialist Democrat exchange partner, of course) and with my otherwise fond memories of Germany (chiefly from other visits) I find Frankenmuth absolutely enchanting.

The Bavarian Inn, just by the race start and finish area.
The race has been on my radar for a couple of years now, and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to run it this year. I know a bunch of Michigan runners who are apt to do both the 10K and 5K races - something I'd never consider, ahem - but with my own preference for longer distances, the 20K was the perfect choice for me. The unique thing about the Volkslaufe is that overall and age group winners are rewarded with these incredible, authentic German beer steins, and of course I was very keen to secure one for myself. So off I went to Michigan at the end of June, with most of a week to slack off, I mean acclimatise, before the race.

These are the overall winner steins - we need a scale for reference - they're about 2 feet tall.

The training

Nothing specific for this one, although I did get up at 3:15am the morning of my flight in order to run 8 miles in the pitch dark cold of Wagga - possibly just to remind myself of what I was leaving behind.

It should probably also be said that I spent the acclimatisation time going completely AWOL from my training plan (I did confess this to Benita later, I'm not sure why) - including a fair bit of time spent drinking beer, playing frisbee on the beach and watching fireworks. Also, not nearly enough food or sleep. In a way it was an experiment of one: if I do everything the opposite of what I'm supposed to, how badly will it affect me on race day? Hmmm, watch this space.

Then, at the expo I make a snap decision that is undoubtedly due to the company I'm keeping: I sign up for the 5K, which will start around 40 minutes after I finish the 20K. A good few people I know are running two races (mostly the 10K/5K combo) and I'll be in need of a cool-down, right? Plus, if I can get another stein for that - well, that's pretty outrageous, but also possible! It's also possible that I've finally gone completely insane, we'll soon find out either way.

Race Day

Being July in Michigan, the Volkslaufe has a reputation for rather dicey weather. A couple of years ago it was over 100F (38C) by the 5K start at 10am, and everybody pretty much melted. This year, however, sees the coolest and therefore best weather in a long time: it's predicted to be just 50F (10C) at the start, and we wake at 6am to clear skies and not a breath of wind. Perfect running weather, in fact!

We head over to the race precinct early to set up the racing team tent: I've been made an honorary member of the Hansons Yellow Team for today, and on account of it being July 4, also an honorary American. We pitch it quickly and drag over chairs and tables; it's been so hot here in the past that shade was at a premium, and the tent indispensable. Today will be quite different, but the team members present still pose proudly:

Yellow Team!
We head off en-masse for a 2 mile warm up, and I know fairly quickly that today isn't going to be easy: my legs feel sluggish rather than springy, and I'm working harder than I should be. Never mind, all I need to do is the best I can do on this day - and that still should be good enough to win my old-lady age group. Ah, the advantages of being semi-ancient!

Those racing the 10K head off to start first, while we 20K runners mill around in the cool morning air. We're starting (and finishing) over grass, and honestly I'm not in the mood to run fast. But the gun goes off and suddenly I have no choice....

Miles 1-3: 6:29, 6:16, 6:13 (pace in min/mile)

It's difficult to get up to speed on the grass, and there are somehow a lot of people around me - I definitely don't want to trip, so I'm being very careful as we finally hit the gravel path and turn sharply to the right. The course heads out through some truly beautiful countryside, but for now I'm preoccupied by the fact that there's a woman who looks around my age just over my right shoulder, and I can hear a couple of female voices behind me. They are casually discussing the weather and beaches in Florida - okay, we're only running 6:30 pace, but still - either they're just jogging (in which case they are going to destroy me later) or they've gone out way too fast (in which case, why are they still capable of talking?). All I can do is hope to leave them behind in the miles ahead.

With this in mind I consciously speed it up in miles 2 and 3, and as a result I lose the woman over my shoulder (who I later find out is not in my age group anyway - her name is Lisa, she's 46 and one of Michigan's top masters runners), as well as the chatty pair. There are 3 Yellow Team runners within sight ahead of me: John, Jesse and Bill. I wonder if I can catch any of them?

5K split: 19:50 approx

Miles 4-6: 6:24, 6:17, 6:27

Just as I have that thought, Jesse (who at this stage is closest ahead of me) visibly pulls away. Is he speeding up? Maybe, but a quick glance at my Garmin tells the truth: it's me slowing down again.  I'm not being helped by the moderate headwind that has suddenly appeared out of nowhere, either - we've just turned onto a long straight stretch and the wind has definitely picked up. I need someone to draft off, but Jesse and co. are out of reach now; thankfully there's a guy wearing a blue shirt that reads "HillRunner" just ahead of me. I exert myself to catch him, but he's not happy with that and immediately surges ahead once more. Sigh, I wish these guys wouldn't react so badly to a girl catching up with them.

It's clear at this point that I'm not going to be able to run my usual HM pace today, so I might as well relax and enjoy the ride. For the first time I look up and take in my surroundings, and wow, it's beautiful out here! Cornfields stretch out on either side of the road, the sky is blue, the clouds are fluffy and white - it's gorgeous. And being America's birthday, every house we pass seems to have a flag in the front yard! I love how patriotic Americans are, especially because Australians are so much more casual about it - apart from drunken shouts of "Aussie Aussie Aussie, oi oi oi!" and gratuitous beer consumption at sporting events, I mean. Anyway, the Americans are doing it in style today, and it's very fun to watch.

10K split: 39:40 approx


Miles 7-9: 6:30, 6:25, 6:31

Now that I've settled into my pace and stopped worrying about why it isn't faster, I'm actually enjoying this race. We head through some woods and across a small bridge, and I can't help but wonder what it would be like to run here in winter when everything's frozen - the Winterlaufe is in February I think, and it would certainly be a big change for me to run on snow.

That's pretty much all that I remember of this part. HillRunner is long gone, Jesse and John are holding strong in front of me, and Wild Bill - although a little closer than he was before - is doing the same: I'm all alone out here it seems. We make another sharp turn, this time to the left, and I realise we're heading back towards suburbia. Joel has warned me that there are some hills (or at the very least some minor rollers) in the last 5km of this race, and sure enough I can see the first of them ahead. Yuck! Let's see what I can do about hauling in someone ahead of me - that might keep my mind off things. The dread is enough to make mile 9 my slowest of the entire race.

15K split: 59:35 approx

Miles 10-12.4: 6:26, 6:29, 6:17, 6:10 pace to the finish

The rollers come and go as I abruptly find myself in proper suburbia again, and there are noticeably more people standing by the roadside cheering, which is nice. On one corner I'm surprised to see a Yellow Team vest: it's Scott, waving and yelling encouragement at me! I wave back and realise I can hear Bavarian music all of a sudden - where on earth could that be coming from?? At the bottom of a small downhill stretch I see the answer: it's a row of women dressed in traditional Bavarian clothing, singing a cheerful song about nothing at all. There's a maypole there behind them but for now they're just bopping up and down right by the road - if they were using it they'd look something like this, I imagine:

Und wir tanzen, tanzen, ja ja ja....
This sight has me grinning like a cheshire cat as I realise we're getting right near downtown (read: cheesy faux-Bavarian) Frankenmuth again, which can mean only one thing - the end is drawing near! As if to prove the point, the course now takes me across the covered wooden bridge that is one of the famous landmarks of the region, built by the Zehnder family who are still a strong presence in the town. 

1 covered bridge, 2 happy excited runners.

Right before the bridge I look over to the side to see Merlin - another Yellow Team member who ran the 10K - snapping photos intently....of Wild Bill, who is inexplicably and suddenly right in front of me. Wow, how did that happen? I pant out "Hi Bill" as I barrel past him on the far side of the bridge, and he graciously greets me back.

There just CAN'T be that far to go now - I check my Garmin and see that we have just over a mile left to run. Sure enough I start to recognise landmarks and then finally, as I'm heading down the road where we all ran our warmup (which seems like it was hours ago now) I spot Joel, who is waving his arms and yelling to attract my attention. 

"ARE WE NEARLY THERE YET??" I bellow at him - and then "WHICH WAY DO I GO??" There are runners going in all directions ahead of me and I'm too exhausted to figure it out. Thankfully he points left and then starts running alongside me, yelling encouragement and snapping photos (simultaneously, too - I didn't know men could multi-task like that) and generally being a welcome distraction.

Before too long the course turns onto the grass and I know from talking with Kevin Hanson that I have perhaps 400m left to run - Joel peels off to the side -  and there are yells of "Go Yellow Team" as I round the final turn and charge down towards the finish line. I haven't checked my watch in a while so I look up and to my horror I see the clock reading 1:19:00. Ugh! I wanted to go sub-1:20 as a minimum - I need to get there pronto! My legs still have enough pep in them to step on the gas enough to accomplish it, and so finishes the first race of the day...

Made it!

Finish time: 1:19:30, 6:23 pace

Placement: 2nd female OA, 1st in AG (F40-44)

By the time I've made my way back to the Hansons tent there's only around 20 minutes until the start of the 5K race, and suddenly I'm wondering, what on earth possessed me to sign up for that? That's right, it's my cool down, that's all. I down some water, congratulate Dani (the gorgeous, bubbly female 20K winner who works at the Hansons Running Store and who has just kicked my butt by over 4 minutes; then again she's 23 years my junior so age-adjusted I totally beat her, totally) and - to my absolute surprise - as the winning Masters female I get interviewed by a dude from Michigan Runner. Awesome!

It's time already to line up for the 5K - I strategically place myself well back from the starting line, chanting "Cool down, cool down, not a race, not a race" in my head - and it's weird being so far back, but not unwelcome. 

Mile 1: 6:49

The gun goes and it takes me a while to start moving - ugh, my legs are protesting loudly at having to run again so very soon after the 20K. I'm trying to hold back and just jog, but the assassin part of my runner's brain sees women ahead of me and goes completely insane. Inside my head there's a relentless stream of hysterical yelling: "She doesn't look faster than you! How can you let HER be beating you?? And SHE is probably in your age group! PASS HER PASS HER DO IT NOW!!"

Reluctantly my body complies with the screaming in my head and I start to speed up - I focus on reeling in the females ahead of me, one by one, and slowly my legs stop complaining and let the manic competitive psychopath inside take over proceedings. I'm surprised and somewhat pleased when the first mile split beeps and it's nowhere near the 8:00 that I was planning to run. Could it be that I might be able to win my AG in this race too? There's definitely an evil grin on my face as I emerge from the other side of the covered bridge and head into town.

The 5K course
Mile 2: 6:35

A fairly simple lap through downtown Frankenmuth gets mile 2 done, and I'm surprised to see that I'm almost at my usual marathon pace now - my legs are turning over quite nicely! And I've caught a good few women along the way, too. I usually hate 5Ks because of the pain and discomfort of essentially trying to sprint the whole way, but when you're used to racing more than 4 times the distance and you're not running all-out, 3.2 miles really is laughably short. Only 1.2 more to go!

Mile 3, 0.2: 6:46, 6:10 pace to finish

Back over the wooden bridge and onward towards the finish line, I'm kind of losing interest now and ready to be done - I'm slowing down again and I really don't care. I've got enough left to put on a decent sprint for the final stretch but I have no particular interest in trying any harder at this point, just get me there so I can find some food: my stomach has been making its presence felt and in particular is interested to find a free bagel or two at the finish line.

Finish time: 21:11, 6:41 pace

Placement: 10th female OA, 1st in AG (F40-44)

I'm moderately surprised at my finish time, and the big surprise will come when I go to check my placement.... and find I'm not even on the list! A quick visit to the race office confirms what I hoped would be the case: I won my AG in my cool down race. Okay, I wasn't really cooling down so much as seeing how much more flogging my legs could take, but even so - result!

It's time to celebrate, and I do so by snagging and devouring a substantial number of bagels from the food tables near the finish - bagels are one of my favourite foods and one that is sadly deficient in my homeland, so I need to make the most of things while I'm here.  Soon it's time for the prize-giving ceremony and I'm the happy owner of not one but TWO authentic German beer steins -- which will both be soon filled with free beer, oh yeah.

Fast chicks....                             blokes...                            ....insane raceaholics.

The rest of the Yellow Team has also secured a dazzling array of steins ranging from teeny-tiny (for 3rd in AG) to bloody massive (overall winners Mike and Dani) - we have all gotten our steins filled with free beer by the time this happy photo is taken, with the winners struggling under the weight of theirs.

YELLOW TEAM!! With many steins, and ring-in Aussie wearing patriotic gear.


I had no idea racing as part of a team was so much fun, and it's a major pity that nothing similar exists in the part of Australia I inhabit. Still, what an amazing weekend of racing, and a fantastic group of people to share it with! I didn't run to the absolute extent of my abilities in either race, but it was good enough to win me some pretty incredible hardware - my carry-on bag is going to be bloody heavy on the way home, that's for sure.

My experience of racing in Michigan has further confirmed what I already know: it's fun to travel and it's fun to run, but doing both at once? Priceless. And the American running scene sure makes a lot more of a fuss about Masters runners than the Australian one does, something that is not lost on me. I need to race more in the US before I get slow!

After sadly returning to Australian soil I find myself somehow signing up for another racing double, this time over the Wagga Trail Running weekend. Did someone say "Raceaholic"? Wheeeeee!