If you don’t get the reference in the title, you’re either 1. not a Nebraskan 2. not a Husker fan 3. not a college sports fan or 4. All of the above, a.k.a. my husband Jason. He went to UMKC for academics not sports, or so he says.
We ran the Lincoln Half Marathon in Nebraska, home of the Huskers (Go Big Red!), Runza, and Arbor Day (no, really). Because I am numbers 1-3, it was a return to my roots race.
I was born in Lincoln, my parents both went to UNL, and I still have family and friends there. My grandma is always telling me to come visit; she’s been telling me about this race for a few years now. I decided to finally look into it.
In 2013, The Lincoln National Guard Marathon and Half Marathon was limited to 10,000 entries, and they sold out the DAY THE RACE OPENED. This is really impressive to me. This is also really confusing to me.
Kansas City has several races with 10,000-plus runners and NONE of these races sell out that fast. Rock the Parkway half marathon usually sells out in a few months but not in 1 DAY. Hospital Hill has a half marathon, 10K, and 5K in June. It’s currently the middle of May, and even it’s not sold out yet. Not only does it have the best race swag and an awesome course, it has distances that appeal to runners of all levels.
The Lincoln race is a half marathon OR a full marathon. The marathon course is also a Boston Qualifier. I’ve read and can now attest it would be a great place to try and BQ (Boston Qualify) because the course is very flat and fast, and there’s such great support on the course. But still, these are not two distances people just sign up for at a whim.
Also, this race is in Nebraska. NEBRASKA. Which I love, don’t get me wrong, but there’s not a whole lot going on there. It’s not on the coast of California. There’s no chance of getting a high five from Mickey Mouse. It’s not the oldest race in the nation.
So that leaves me wondering if it’s the finish that’s so appealing. You finish inside Memorial Stadium. Which to Husker fans is like entering the gates of Heaven. You not only finish inside Memorial Stadium, you get to finish on the 50-yard line of the football field. Which to Husker fans is like entering the gates of Heaven AND getting to shake God’s hand. Well, not really. That would be if former Coach Tom Osborne was at the finish line congratulating everyone.
So I definitely got A LOT more interested in this race. Not only would I get to visit my Grandma, I would get some of Grandma’s delicious cookies too! Oh, and find out why this race is so popular.
This year the race had 12,500 entries (they widened the trail) and registration opened at midnight on New Year’s Day. I set a reminder alert in my phone. Although we went out with friends on New Year’s Eve, I was pretty tired. But I had to stay up to register for that race!
Well, midnight finally came, and I was furiously trying to get the site to work on my phone. It wouldn’t come up. We got home, and I whipped out my laptop. Site still not working. Jason, who is a server admin when he’s not making fun of me for being a Nebraskan, took a look at the site and pinged the server (whatever that means).
“The site’s crashed. It has too much traffic,” he said.
“AHHHHHH!” I replied, “I can’t stay up much longer! I’m getting so old!”
1 a.m. and the site was STILL DOWN. I went to bed. I woke up at 6 am. My cats were demanding I feed them or they eat me. I decided to try registering again. Yippee! The site was up.
And they only had a little over 2,000 spots left. Damn.
But we were signed up! Not only that, this race gave us a three-in-a-row race opportunity. I don’t recommend doing this unless you are really crazy and really motivated to get medals. There’s a half marathon series in Kansas called the Heartland Series. It used to be 3 half marathons in 4 weeks. The way the schedule worked out this year, it was 3 halfs in 5 weeks, so you had a weekend off between each race. The series is accumulative from year to year. So each year you do the race series, the swag gets better. This year we were supposed to get an UBERMEDAL that had slots to add more pieces to it for future years we complete it. Next year we’ll also get a cool Nike running jacket.
But the Linconln Half fell right between one of our recovery weeks. So now we were doing 4 half marathons in 5 weeks. It was going to hurt. But we were committed. Think of the cool medals! Think of the new running shirts to add to my already large running shirt wardrobe! Think of how many times I’ll go to the chiropractor school and help my friend graduate!
We also looked forward to going to Lincoln to see my family, take my 10-year-old cousin to the Omaha Zoo, and pick up some of the awesome local beer we couldn’t find in Kansas (Lucky Bucket’s Certified Evil beer…it will certifiably get you happy).
Packet pick-up was well run. We stopped on Saturday morning on our way to the Henry Doorly Zoo. The hotel was easy to find, the tables were well organized so the lines weren’t long, and they had some cool race shirts available for sale. However, it wasn’t a big expo like some of the races I’ve done. There weren’t tables with free samples or running stores with a chance to buy last-minute items.
They scanned our bibs to activate the chip. My name said “Hillmaster.” I had totally forgotten about the customized bibs. Jason’s just said Jason, and I mourned the lost opportunity to have given him a funny name like SexyBeast or add my last name, Jason Hartz. (I haven’t changed my name yet even though I ran right by the county court house in the Garmin half marathon; I couldn’t ruin my splits!)
The morning of the race we definitely didn’t leave early enough. My family gave great directions so we wouldn’t end up getting stopped by streets closed for the race. But the UNL campus has the same problem as KU. Parking is a competitive sport. And we were losing. And the clock was ticking.
We found a Wendy’s, but it had a very blatant sign that it would TOW ANY NON-WENDY’S CUSTOMERS. What if I write a note promising to get some nuggets when I’m done? I promise you I could eat a hundred of those on any given day, maybe 200 after a race.
We couldn’t chance it though. There was NO WAY we would be able to walk back to Grandma’s after 13.1 miles. So we parked in a red faculty/staff lot. I was pretty sure the map said red parking was good to park in. But did they mean the lots marked red on the map or the lots marked red on the sign? Who knows. I might not officially be faculty, but I sure was gonna school people in how to run a half marathon today.
We also couldn’t find port-a-potties at the beginning of the race. One of the buildings was open though, so people were using the public restrooms, which I’m pretty sure all the runners appreciated a lot more.
I was surprised by the National Anthem. For being a race hosted by the National Guard, it was just a recording. No live band. No singer. The recording didn’t even have a singer. Surely the university could have helped them out with some cool music. Even the tiny races in Kansas usually have a live singer. It was cool though, watching the flag, hearing the anthem, and seeing Memorial Stadium in the background.
The race had a wave start. Pace groups holding signs with their mile times were everywhere. I went with the 8-minute mile people knowing I needed to find the 1:55 or 2:00 pace group. The race was very slow with starting each wave to make sure the street wasn’t too crowded. This was awesome, although Jason said it was almost 7:30 by the time he started.
We ran through the heart of downtown Lincoln before heading towards neighborhoods. We went right by the capital. We went right by a lot of places I had faint memories of – like the movie theater. I was trying to pace myself and enjoy the scenery. My first mile was right where I wanted it to be – 8:40.
But soon my stomach was upset. I wasn’t sure why. My only thought was maybe I’d put an extra scoop of protein in my smoothie. I packed my protein in a plastic bag without the scoop to save space. Who knows exactly what was in that bag. My breakfast smoothie sat heavy in my stomach – too much protein would take forever to digest.
Around mile 2.6, we hit our first uphill-ish incline. Or as uphill as things get in Lincoln. I focused on doing what I do best – conquering hills – and enjoyed being distracted from my stomach pain. I passed people, which lifted my spirits a bit.
We turned right at the top and headed down Sheridan Blvd, a street with lots of historic houses. I don’t remember the houses so much as the people. There were still people cheering us on! Most races the cheering crowd drops after a couple of miles. But not just a few people – the crowd was lined up all the way down the street. People had signs. People had music. People were passing out food as unofficial aid stations.
I’ve NEVER seen a race where several of the supporters have tables FULL of food for runners. And it was several people too. A young kid was passing out Dixie cups of water at one table. I was really touched by the Nebraskan hospitality. And then I saw something I knew for sure I’d never seen at a race.
A lady had a box of Kleenexes.
And the runners were taking tissues from her! Lots of them! Of course, a lot of these used tissues were then ending up in someone’s yard a few houses down, but it was amazing! I ALWAYS run with Kleenexes. I don’t know if it’s Midwest allergies or what, but I have to blow my nose when I run. It’s really, really weird. I always have a giant wad of them with me on a race. But see – I’m not completely crazy! Or maybe it’s just another Nebraskan thing.
I was in distress though. My stomach was not feeling good, my miles were over 9 minutes now, but I had to keep going. I knew I had to enjoy the first half of the race before my legs started asking, Why are we running another one of these? Didn’t we just run one of these? Do you hate me?!
Of course not, legs. I love you. I love you so much I use you ten times more than my arms, which is why I have the body of a t-rex. And right now I need you to keep moving because my stomach’s not getting any happier.
Mile 5 was coming up, and I was on the lookout. Grandma and Aunt Linda were going to be cheering us on, and Grandma had made a sign. I didn’t expect my Grandma to put anything sassy – like “Smile If You’re Not Wearing Underwear” – but I wanted to see her sign. I needed a some motivation.
We were at Mile 5, about to turn a corner, when I was engulfed. A sea of runners in the 3:35 pace group had caught up to me. This is a very popular group as females 34 and under must run 3:34 to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I looked around me, but even though I’m built like a t-rex, I’m very short for a t-rex. I couldn’t see anything.
Once I got past the aid station and decided my stomach was not ready for energy gel yet, I figured I’d missed them. I kept checking the crowds, but it was way past mile 5 now. Shoot. I really had wanted to see them. We were on a downhill, and I focused on trying to be almost halfway done with the race.
The Lincoln course is very flat – it has a couple of uphill inclines. And you do go by a few nice parts of Lincoln, like downtown and the historic neighborhood. But there wasn’t a whole lot to look at. It was nice though there were still TONS of people along the course route. It was the most race support I’d ever seen.
Close to mile 7 we turned onto the trail they had widened. And by trail I mean a wide concrete sidewalk along highway 2. It. Was. So. Boring. And not scenic at all. When I think trails, I think of the technical trails in the woods, like what the Trail Nerds race on. Or I think of suburban trails where it’s black asphalt going through woods and parks. Nope. Just an over glorified sidewalk with a lovely view of the highway on the outskirts of town.
There were still lots of people though. And the aid stations were great. Most races have small cups full of water or sports drinks, and the volunteers have to keep shouting which drink they have. Here it was really obvious. The blue Pepsi cups had water and the green Gatorade cups had beer. Just kidding, they had Gatorade. But I was getting delusional at that point, so anything was possible. I also liked how they had lids and straws on the cups. I could still run and drink and not spill all over myself. There was also food like gummy bears or oranges to help you fuel.
Near mile 8 I started to feel…what is this feeling? I feel….I feel good! I feel great! Ok, not great, but my stomach had finally processed whatever it had been working on for the past half of the race. My legs were still holding up. It was time for some energy gel!
Miles 8 and 9 were great. At one point, we turned off the trail and got to The Hill. The hill is miles 8.6 to 9. Here is the one place they do need more support. There were lots of people at the top and bottom of the hill, but you need someone telling you to keep it up halfway through. The Hillmaster in me got all excited, and I went up that hill. It wasn’t as bad as the ones in KC, but it still was a hill. And I loved it.
I was really disappointed no one cheered me on using my nickname going up the inclines and hills. I had some people at aid stations and during other parts of the race yell, “Yeah! Go, Hillmaster!” but no one did on the hills! If I had that bib for Hospital Hill, I guarantee it would have been a lot more popular. It was the wrong setting. Like wearing a Husker hoodie in Oklahoma.
Mile 10 and it was just a 5k left. Just a 5k. A very painful 5k. My legs had finally decided they had had enough of this. But I kept going. We ran by a Runza. But no one was throwing out Runzas. I would have run A LOT faster if someone would throw food at me. Especially Runza.
Mile 11 and we turned on 10th street. It would take us all the way back to the stadium. 10th was one of those streets that goes slightly up then down then slightly back up then down. The rolling incline kept me moving. I saw a girl in a Kansas City Marathon shirt. I wanted to say “Hey, KC Represent!” but she had headphones on. And I probably didn’t have enough breath to make a coherent statement anyway.
There were a few other people I wanted to say something to during the race. There was an old lady, had to be in her 70s, maybe 80s, running. But she too had her headphones in. I understand running with music – it’s the only way I survive the treadmill. But when I’m outside, especially during a race, it’s about the race. Maybe it’s because I ran cross country and track in high school where we trained and competed without music. But I distinctly remember talking more to runners in races past. Now everyone blocks out the world with their music. I miss the camaraderie, stories, and new friends I used to make. Even if it was just for a mile or two.
The stadium was finally in site. But we still had a mile. Then half a mile. But I feel like I can touch it!!! The made us run all the way behind the stadium from one end to the other, make a right turn (marathoners to the left! they were only halfway done!), and run back to the other end of the stadium.
I started kicking it in. I hurt. I wanted this over with. And this was the moment I’d run the whole race for.
A somewhat long time ago, a little curly-haired girl took a field trip with her kindergarten class to UNL. They got a tour of campus and got to see Memorial Stadium. In fact, they got to run on the field. 21 years later and I was back to run on that field.
My feet hit astroturf and cried out, “This feels so good!”
My legs hit the astroturf and cried out, “The finish line’s right there!”
My mind was silent. I’d left my sanity back there somewhere, probably around the mile where I realized no one was handing out Runzas.
The Lincoln Marathon sends you a short video of your finish. When I saw mine, it was hilarious. I’m the girl in blue with a black hat who comes out of nowhere. My high school coaches would have called this “Finishing Strong.” I call it, “Let’s Just Get This Damn Thing Over With.”
Once you cross the finish line and get your medal, they are pretty quick to clear you off the field. I was having none of this. I wanted to enjoy being on the field for a bit and figured Jason couldn’t be too far behind me. We hadn’t agreed on a meeting spot since we didn’t know anything about the finish, and he didn’t have his phone on him.
I kept moving from spot to spot on the field as the volunteers, mostly one lady who was very gung-ho about her job, tried to usher us off the field. I saw the Marathon winner come in. Even though this was another race I didn’t make my under 2-hour goal, at least I had finished before the marathon winner. Barely.
Finally I went into the finisher chute under the stadium seats. I was greeted by a table full of Pepsi. Really. This time the Pepsi cups actually had Pepsi in them. And Diet Pepsi. And Sierra Mist. And MOUNTAIN DEW?!!! NO WAY! BEST. RACE. EVER.
This is another thing I remember about growing up in Lincoln – it’s very much a Pepsi town. My family was always drinking Pepsi and playing cards. We got it at the Cornhusker State Games. One of my first words was Pepsi, although apparently I pronounced it “Pice.” I remembered how good ice cold Coke tasted during my summer trail half marathon, so I had a small cup of regular Pepsi.
It tasted FANTASTIC. Then after a minute the sugar hit me, and I felt really weird. What I really needed was water and something bland, like bread or a banana. For a moment I thought I was going to pass out. I opened my water bottle and drank it. Soon I was good again. Good enough that I had to try some of my signature Mountain Dew. However, it wasn’t as cold as the Pepsi, so I didn’t end up drinking more than a sip.
They also had chocolate milk, yogurt, bagels, bananas, and cookies for post recovery. None of those really appealed to me, and I can’t handle dairy anyway, so I decided to wait for the banana bread and protein powder I had in the car. But I was impressed by the spread. There were also small Gatorade bottles being handed out somewhere.
I found Jason behind me in the food line, and we hobbled our way towards the exit. I stopped and asked a guy to take our picture. We definitely look a lot more rugged than we did in our photo for Rock the Parkway, which was our first half marathon this spring. Three down now and one more to go the next weekend!
Our car was still in the lot. We drove home where my family both thought our running was amazing and crazy. We went to Valentino’s (another Nebraska thing) brunch buffet. There I finally enjoyed my post-race meal and an ice cold Mountain Dew. We needed to drive back home that afternoon, and I needed to stay awake.
So I’m still a bit confused as to how this race sells out in one day, but I definitely understand why it’s popular. The course itself is not only forgiving (we definitely struggled more the next week where our half was not as flat), but all the spectators and support were amazing. It was the best I’ve ever seen at a race. I would run it again, although hopefully next year we’ll get more of a break in between races.
But I definitely don’t want to wait another 21 years before getting to run on the field again. That finish was worth every step.