By Courtney Hansen
Breathtaking Lake Michigan views, a quaint Northern Michigan town, and the chance to qualify for Boston. This is what the Charlevoix Marathon has to offer runners — and so much more, including an amazing team of pacers for both the full and the half marathon.
I am fortunate enough to know Andrew Buikema, the pacing coordinator for the Charlevoix Marathon and Half Marathon for the past two years. He is a member of the Grand Haven Running Club and had been recruiting other members to help pace starting in early December. I jumped at the chance and signed up both myself and my boyfriend Steve. While I was a smidge apprehensive to pace the 3:30:00 group (which translates to an 8:00/mile pace), I was hopeful that my training for the Boston and Bayshore marathons would carry over enough strength and endurance for me to be a great pacer.
Pacing is not as easy as simply running a slower than race pace for the full distance of a given event. Pacing requires quite a bit of discipline from a runner to hold back and be steady. Pacers also need to be social and upbeat, keeping up the morale of the racers around them and offering advice and a way to distract from the later discomforts of the final miles. And then there is the ‘holding of the pace sign’…yes, we carry a sign to advertise our pace and expected finish time. And we carry it the entire race. I envisioned my pace group as a bright yellow line that steadily moved along the course at the prescribed speed, a beacon or guide for the marathoners around us.
Leading up to race day on June 25, Andrew emailed updates, collected biographies, and set up a website for the Charlevoix Pacers — this allowed racers and pacers alike to get a little background info on one another. Twenty six point two miles is a long time to spend together, and it is wonderful to have the chance to see who you’ll be with.
At Charlevoix, I was lucky enough to be in a pace group with two other runners I know very well: Val Petre and Kyle Mireles. Both are experienced distance runners and had recently run the Bayshore Marathon with me. I knew we would be a great team together. Val is a very soothing presence and had paced this race before. Her experience and knowledge of the course was invaluable to us. Kyle was our comedic relief, providing the comments and laughter to break the ice with other runners. He also gallantly volunteered to hold our pace sign and did for most of the 26.2 miles. I was the second set of eyes on our pace and called out when we hit mile markers and aid stations, occasionally cracking a joke.
We all made a lot of effort to connect with the runners in our group, learning about them and why they chose to run Charlevoix. We had nurses and moms, graduate students and real estate agents. For some, it was a third, seventh or even a 29th marathon. For others, such as Kathryn L. from Georgia, it was their first marathon. Everyone had trained for months during the late winter and early spring with high hopes for their times and paces. I was getting a rush hearing their stories and sharing mine. I also felt some pressure because our pace was a BQ (Boston Qualifier) pace for most of the women in our pack.
Katherine’s story really stuck out. Charlevoix was her first marathon and she was aiming to BQ. I related to that instantly, having had the same goal for my first marathon. She also had this amazing family that went from mile marker to mile marker, aid station to aid station. Her parents rode their bikes along the road, while her siblings drove a car. They shouted, cheered, and were the best possible support group any runner could have asked for! Katherine, buoyed by their cheers and offers of gels and salt tablets, kept her Southern smile bright and her spirits high. The cheering was infectious among the rest of us as well, and served as something to look forward to at each aid station. Georgia ruled the day!
Charlevoix is an out-and-back course, and as we closed in on the turnaround at mile 13.1, the lookout for the lead pack began. Instinctively, our pace picked up with our excitement, and we had to rein in our pace more than a few times. The entire 3:30 pack cheered for the runners as they coasted past us. I loved seeing Steve with his 3:15 pace group and blew him a kiss as they soared by. Once we made the turnaround and headed back toward the finish line, we kept up the cheering for the other pace groups and friends we saw along the course. This is what I love the most about an out and back course…the opportunity to cheer on others and be cheered on by them.
I will admit pacing was more difficult than I had thought. Pacers endure the same conditions as the racers, and Charlevoix was uncharacteristically warm and sunny. The race began cool enough, in the low 60s, with a slight breeze off Lake Michigan at the 6:30 a.m. start. But the temperatures climbed with the sun and beat down on the course. Val’s husband Steve was also on the course, offering support by providing her and I with cup full of ice in the last third of the race. This was welcomed gift, even as I struggled to get the ice in my hand-held bottle and a bigger piece shoved down the back of my singlet.
Occassionaly, Val, Kyle, and I had to individually fall back for water refills and other pit stops, but the other two would maintain the pace line and soldier on while the other played catch-up. At one point, I lost the group as a whole as I kept the 8:00/mi pace up a long, low grade hill. Hills are my favorite during a race and I pride myself on maintaining pace up them. I slowed a bit on the downhill and waited for the rest of the group to catch up. We had (unintentionally) banked some time and needed to slow down a bit in order to hit our 3:30 mark.
Our pack of runners was dwindling by mile 18, as the heat of the day and the distance began to take their toll. By Mile 23, we were down to three or four runners. Katherine was still with us, joined by her sister for moral support for the final few miles. Even I will admit that while I didn’t hit the wall during this race, I definitely felt those final miles took more effort than the ones preceding it. The heat was getting to me, despite diligent hydration, cooling stations and fueling. The finish line was a welcome sight, after spending the last mile or so weaving through the neighborhoods leading to downtown Charlevoix.
As we made our final turn, our 3:30 pace sign held high, one race spectator shouted, “Cutting it kinda close, aren’t you?” Kyle and I snickered…cutting it close to 3:30 was exactly what we were suppose to be doing! We rocked across the Charlevoix finish line (which was blessedly downhill!) at 3:29:30. Katherine came in with a solid BQ for her first marathon at 3:29:59! Val had the pleasure of crossing the finish line with her. Andrew was waiting at the finish line for us as well, double checking that we had fulfilled our pacing duties and snapping photos of us.
After the awesome finisher’s medals were given and the assessment of physical ailments began, so did the celebration. Katherine’s family was right there at the finish line, so proud of her. The 3:30 pace team awarded her the pace sign, which we all signed for her. Katherine not only earned a BQ at her first marathon, but also third place in her age group! Val won Female Masters and I took first in my age group, both unexpected and unintended bonuses!
We gathered at our campsites later on, joined by Katherine and her family, to celebrate, swap stories, give tips for Boston training, and simply enjoying each other’s company. Sore and mildly gimpy, I felt elated and very pleased to have successfully paced the marathon. I made new friendships and others grew over the course of twenty six point two miles. A better finish for my spring racing season than I had ever hoped for!
Courtney Hansen is an avid runner, teacher and mother. She was featured on the Michigan Runner Girl podcast earlier this spring, sharing her experience running Boston this spring, along with other running plans for 2016. Courtney is a member of Run Muskegon, Grand Haven Running Club, the Oiselle Flock and a Nuun ambassador. She is the author of the running blog Running in the Mitten.