The Hitchcock Experience‘s inaugural event created by the Greater Omaha Area Trail Runners (G.O.A.T.z) opened up last year with 50- and 100-mile distances; this year, a 13.1 distance was added. I found out about this race through the local trail running groups and knew immediately that I needed to add to my winter schedule. Hitchcock was my 9th half marathon distance, my 4th trail race and my last race of 2016.
Flat Mel: SO MUCH GEAR!
There’s a reason that the word “experience” is in this event — it’s much more than a trail race. I experienced many moments throughout; least of which were:
Unabashed fits of joy.
One of our pre-race emails included that phrase, which is spot-on and absolutely sums up my personal experience with Hitchcock. I’ve felt many emotions during my races — particularly in completing my first marathon — but this race transformed everything that’s fun about trail running into something that deeply affected my soul. Can you find yourself in the Loess Hills? It’s quite possible that I did just that.
I knew going in that Hitchcock would be my most challenging race thus far. For starters, throw out everything you might think about Iowa: IT IS NOT FLAT.
Elevation change for the half marathon is just under 6,000 ft.
Location: The Hitchcock Experience takes place entirely within the Hitchcock Nature Center — located north of Council Bluffs — and its adjoining private property. The nature center exists to develop and foster appreciation and understanding of the Loess Hills as a globally significant landform through land management, environmental education and low-impact recreation.
Registration and Cost: Because the half was capped at only 50 runners, I stayed up until midnight when registration opened up on September 2 (at exactly 12:01am). I even set an alarm to make sure that I didn’t fall asleep. The race cost $65 (+fees for online registration).
Packet Pick-Up: I had to leave work early the day before the race to pick up my bib in Omaha — which is two hours away. Packet pick-up was held at Canfield’s Sporting Goods from 2-6pm OR you could do pick up on race day at 4am (uhhhhh, no). It wasn’t obvious where the pick-up was once you entered the store (it was in the shoe section at the back), so I had to ask an employee (who didn’t understand why I was there at first either). I love that the bib is event specific, featuring an awesome nighttime picture of the course from last year’s race.
Swag: We received a branded cinch race bag with a long-sleeved cotton shirt, extra reflective keepsake bib, Hitchcock patch and sticker, and finisher medals! (100-mile finishers under the time limit get a belt buckle, as is tradition with ultra distances.)
Weather: Having a race in December, you’re almost guaranteed SOME level of winter weather; the race started in the low 20s. But as we were running, we got SNOW!!!!! I never really felt cold though until the last 1/4 mile or so when my gloves got damp from the constant snow and chilled over; my nose was running constantly throughout the race, so I also had a frozen patch on my BUFF. It actually snowed quite a bit and was so beautiful. There was a section where it was near white out and I was catching snowflakes on my tongue like a literal crazy person. I loved it!
Course: Not your usual out-and-back, this trail race is a 12.5-mile loop on varied terrain (alfalfa fields?!) with challenging elevation gains, and great technical difficulty. I went out a couple weekends before for a race preview run with the GOATZ, so I already knew which sections I would hate — thankfully, due to the weather, the much-cursed sandy sections and aforementioned alfalfa fields were frozen over (but severely lumpy!). There’s an addition at the beginning of the first loop for each race, and there are a few places on the course of two-way traffic.
Oh, yeah… and most of it is run in the dark.
There was something positively magical about being in complete darkness in the middle of the woods though. At certain sections, I was entirely alone. I could see headlamps in the distance — some at much higher elevations than where I stood.
For this race headlamps and hydration bottles/packs were required. The course was marked extremely well and had reflective orange flags, plenty of colored signs with arrows and/or ground markings to aid in course direction. Even in the dark, I could always see where the next trail marker was. The two-way traffic areas were also marked well, but I had a few moments wondering if I was moving in the right direction.
When the sun rose, I was in a rolling section of the trails in the woods and any description I attempt to use just underestimates the incredible experience. Powerful.
Start Line: Speaking of the dark, start time for the Hitchcock half distance was 5am (!!!). We got to share the start line with the 100-milers in the morning; the 50-milers started at 9pm (so everyone runs in the dark at some point). Oh, and the news was there to broadcast all the crazy! While there were time limits for the 50 and 100 runners, there was only a “just finish” for half marathoners (the last finisher came in just shy of 8 hours).
Aid Stations: An integral part of ultra races is the aid station; there were three stations per loop, and we were all required to check in at each. I used the stops for a quick fuel break; at the Oasis I was strangely craving hot coffee (perhaps because of how early it was?) and had that. Aid stations had a bunch of food and drink options, including: water, Tailwind, pop, coffee, soup, peanut butter sandwiches, chips, fruits, candy and various Honey Stinger gels and waffles.
There was also a fourth aid station located near mile 9.5 and manned by volunteers from Loess Hills Nordic Ski Patrol; they had a giant bonfire, which made it difficult not to stay longer to hang out. One of the kind gentlemen volunteers allowed me to drink from his water bottle, since my hydration pack hose froze over and there weren’t any beverage cups at this station.
- The Lodge aka: Beacon of Hope/Despair (start/finish)
- Ralph’s (the campground) at approximately 3.65 miles. Named in honor of Ralph Hohneke, who has so graciously allowed us to run on his property on race weekend.
- The Oasis at approximately 6.75 miles
- Loess Hills Nordic Ski Patrol near the 9.5-mile mark
Finish Line: To add to the physical and mental torture of the event, the finish line was uphill; it was nearly impossible to run at that point, and it seemed most of the finishers around me walked that last part of the course. Good thing, because my dang shoe came untied near the final climb (and was frozen). There was a volunteer who placed the medals around our necks and a photographer who snapped several finish line photos.
After Party: My after party consisted of a gigantic omelet at Henry’s Diner in Crescent, Iowa. After a ride back to my hotel room, a hot shower, and a glass of wine (since I wasn’t driving home), it was then a two-hour trip back home to Des Moines.
Experience: Something that I want to emphasize in this race is the amazingness of all the people — including the volunteers. Everyone involved in race day was so helpful and positively excited to have us there; fellow runners were equally as encouraging, and I loved the spirit of the two-way passes with everyone congratulating one another. By the way, the race communication for this event was The Best — I received no fewer than 3 emails following up to race day with all the info that I needed to know and their Facebook page was a great source of additional info and finishers updates.
Extra Awesome: The race directors sent out a post-event runner survey “thank you” email within a couple days, which also included official results and a link to FREE race photos, where I found this gem:
The Great: UNABASHED FITS OF JOY
The Good: Snow!
The Bad: In the last mile, I slipped going downhill and fell backwards – somehow catching myself on my right elbow and not my butt. Luckily, I did not get injured.
The Ugly: My Camelback hose froze; thankfully, a nice volunteer at the Ski Patrol let me drink from his bottle.
TL;DR: Thank you, GOATZ and thank you, Hitchcock for just an incredible event. I will remember this experience forever. I fully intend to run this again next year; though the distance is still to be determined. 😉
29th finisher in the half
8th female finisher overall in the half — I made the Top 10 Females leaderboard!