I didn’t realize how badly I needed this past weekend.
This story could start last fall, but it really goes back to March 2020. I had just been dealt a major professional blow and was picking up the pieces there. My former boyfriend and I were having issues over the blow, and I had just started seeing a counselor to get myself right. Which was another issue in my relationship (you don’t even want to know) but ultimately a great call, since I finally got confirmation that the struggles I’d long suspected were in fact there. Sometimes confirmation is what the doctor ordered.
I wanted to go someplace different for my then spring half marathon. All of the races I had previously done were in Ohio or Indiana, and a few runners I followed on Instagram had sang the praises of a race in Lexington, Kentucky called Run The Bluegrass. The race starts and finishes at Keeneland Race Course, which was founded by horsemen in 1936 as a race track and Thoroughbred auction house. According to their website, Keeneland supports safety initiatives and advocates for Thoroughbred aftercare to keep the industry strong.
The course itself winds through Thoroughbred farms, up and down steep hills of the Kentucky countryside. Every runner who completed the course talked about the hills with a mix of reverence for their brutality and awe at themselves for surviving the hills – or even thinking of registering in the first place.
Did I run on hills normally? No.
Did I have any idea what Kentucky terrain might be like, compared to mostly-flat Central Ohio? Another no.
Did I hurry up and register during the early bird deals? You bet your ass!
I was registered for Run The Bluegrass. I was committed no matter what and I was looking forward to it. At this particular point running was taking a backseat and I wasn’t as fast I used to be, but I didn’t care. I needed to get out of Columbus, go someplace different, and bask in both the discomfort and glory that is running the hills in Kentucky. I needed something positive to focus on.
This was right as the pandemic was starting. I didn’t take it seriously – I was even joking with coworkers about how a little beer flu couldn’t stop me (coronavirus, beer flu … Get it?) Then a few days later we were sent home for who knows how long and it started to dawn on me I wouldn’t be going to Kentucky after all. All of the races I was registered for were cancelled, and I found myself walking the trails near my complex wondering what the next step was, and then feeling helpless to the world around me.
A lot has changed in two years. I’m employed again in saner pastures, which was a long wait. That relationship ran its natural course, ended amicably and now my home is peaceful again., The world is back to the real normal, not that awful “new normal” laundry detergent commercials kept crowing about.
Well, minus one. As a family we’re still carrying the sadness of my grandfather’s passing and will be for a while. His presence is always there and it doesn’t seem like he’s passed on, but then something is said or a moment comes and I remember he is gone. Grief is surreal.
All of that being said brings us to this past Friday. I packed up my car and drove out to my parents’ house to drop off my car and meet Mom. The plan I had to go down to Kentucky by myself changed a little when Mom suggested we go together. She’s gone to races with me in the past and I figured we could make this weekend a fun girls’ trip, enjoy some quality time away from work, responsibilities and the heaviness of grieving. I was surprised a month before the race when Mom texted me to check my email. The message she wanted me to see was the one she received from Run The Bluegrass, confirming she registered for the Yearling.
Run The Bluegrass has three distances – the half, the seven-miler, and the Yearling, which is 3.65 miles. Mom has walked 5ks before and regularly run-walks on the treadmill, so this sounded like a perfect opportunity to go out, do something fun that wasn’t just waiting for me to finish a half, and get some endorphins.
One of the struggles of being a runner is genuinely not knowing how to dress yourself the morning of a race.
The general rule of thumb is to expect your body to heat up by 20 degrees when you’re running, so if it’s 45 degrees outside, you’re going to feel like it’s 65 and should dress for that. I had on a long sleeve technical shirt and cropped leggings, and frankly, I was freezing my ass off at the start line. Mom had a long sleeve over her t-shirt and was having fun showing me how the sleeves fold over the hands in a way to create mittens. “Are you sure you don’t want your jacket?” she kept asking me.
Jacket: an item of clothing an adult child wears when her mother is cold.
I decided to go without the jacket, since I knew I’d warm once I was running and didn’t feel like fighting with it. I did however agree to take the gloves I got from the First on the First 5k, which came in handy.
As we all gathered in the corrals, there were murmurs of excitement and a few shivers. I feel like now I need to apologize to any Kentucky residents reading this – I have no idea what your state anthem’s title is. It’s normal to play the National Anthem before races, so I figured we’d hear that. Mom and I were surprised to hear Kentucky’s state anthem on trumpet, but then we remembered that we weren’t in Ohio. Tourists were among the Kentuckians.
The first five waves were half marathon runners, and we were off first. In years past I wound get emotional and teary-eyed towards the end of the race, but this time around, as soon as I took off over the starting line, I felt the emotions surface. This moment, as simple as it was, required me to wait two years. It was that long from when I felt like I was on top of the world, then struggling to stand, and then drifting into the abyss for anyone’s guess of how long.
The first mile through Keeneland wasn’t too bad – meaning, no hills yet. I felt strong and steady, and was able to smile to myself and no one in particular. Then that first hill came shortly after the Mile 1 flag.
You know how race reviews will talk about the one or two hills that you “gotta watch out for?” Yeah, Run The Bluegrass is not like that at all. Right after Mile 1, the course is nothing but a constant up-and-down. There were no flat spots to be seen again over the next 12 miles. All of the uphills were incredible, and I’m pretty sure I walked most if not all of the inclines, only to sprint down the hills once we reached the peak. It turns out the secret to me running a mile in under 10 minutes is to run downhill at all times.
And yet in spite of the hills, the race flew by. It turns out a mile can feel faster when you’re sprinting down a hill and can see the mile flags instead of running on a mostly-flat surface forever wondering where that mile marker is. I surprised myself by having a ball on the hills. I never thought I’d be a hill person, since I am absolutely not fast on them at all, but I had so much fun running up and down them. I felt like both a mountain goat and a cheetah.
The horses were out and about as we all ran past them, and as I took in the horses and the land around me, I got to thinking about Run The Bluegrass’ tagline – America’s Prettiest Half Marathon. The farms and pastures are pretty, don’t get me wrong, but what stood out to me is that they were so peaceful.
Every race I picked before this one were partially or entirely in cities, with spectators and DJs and locals showing up in mass to stand behind the runners. Feeling the push of a city behind you is incredible and is something I encourage anyone thinking of running a half or full marathon to experience once. But Run The Bluegrass isn’t like that. With the exception of the start and finish lines, it’s fairly low-key and quiet on the course. But then again, the land doesn’t need a local DJ blaring “Turn Down for What.” It was perfect, inspiring and exhilarating as is.
It was from the peace that I felt the long-awaited return to who I once was. I’m the woman who loves to be outside, to see the world around me on my own feet. I’m the woman who knows I’m not fast or a natural athlete, but doesn’t give a flip about any of that because love for the sport and overcoming physical challenges is glorious enough. It was far away from Broad Street in Columbus, Ohio where I remembered that I am The Broad Running Broad.
I felt alive on those hills running besides the horses. I felt connected to what matters, and I received the clarity I had been looking for over two years.
I ran happy over that finish line in 2:41:25. It’s not fast, but considering that 13.1 miles were straight hills, who cares?
Mom was waiting for me and was pleasantly surprised to finish her race in 48 minutes. That’s a 12-minute mile, and she felt great the entire time. We were both riding our highs and couldn’t wait to get back to the car to call Grandma. And eat some salted caramels. Holy crap were those good.
The lessons of Run The Bluegrass
The race was incredible, and looking back, even though it was the main event, I can’t call it the highlight.
Ever since Grandpa passed, it seems like responsibilities have quadrupled and Mom and I haven’t had time to talk. I don’t mean talk normally, as we do every night. I mean talk talk. The car ride down was candid and deeply emotional, with both of us talking about the impact of grief in details we just never had the time to do earlier. Then after talking about the sadness we talked about happy times and started laughing. I mean really laughing too.
On Friday after the expo – which was an adventure to get to, thanks to Waze taking us though all the side streets of Lexington – it was time for dinner. I can’t tolerate a ton of dairy while Mom doesn’t eat a lot of starchy foods anymore, so we couldn’t figure out what was safe to eat. So we decided to try a place called the Tilted Kilt. I’ve heard of it but never been there; Mom was just learning this place existed. I vaguely remembered a college acquaintance mentioning the uniforms, and I brought it up to Mom. She laughed and asked, “What could it be, like Hooters?”
Okay, for the non-Americans and the Americans who have no idea what the Titled Kilt is about – go ahead and Google a picture of the uniforms after you’re sure your children are asleep and elderly parents aren’t around. Mom and I got an eyeful, which we weren’t ready for. And then we got over it, got some of the best food we’ve had in a long time, and had a great time. I think my mother is on a quest to hit up any Tilted Kilts we come across and tie one on.
She also recommends the Holy Guacamole Burger.
We laughed. We hobbled around hotels together. We enjoyed way too much food. We took turns commenting on various motorists who don’t know how to drive and ultimately, we relaxed and had fun. Racing gave both of us something to look forward to and a sense of accomplishment. In a word, we were happy and felt like ourselves again.
It was about the hills and horses, but it also wasn’t about them. It was about us and feeling joy again. We’re already talking about coming back next year and I think Mom is going to make friends at the Tilted Kilt. Everyone we met in Lexington was so kind, and a little Southern hospitality never hurt.
So Run The Bluegrass was both a running experience unlike any other and a source of joy in some weary souls.
10/10, do recommend.
Yours in writing and running,