Sandhills Half Marathon Recap: Thoughts and Lessons Learned from the Worst Race of My Life


This is a story about that time that I thought I could win the Sandhills Half Marathon.

I was right on pace for the first two miles.

Then I thought I was going to die.

Then I learned some serious racing lessons.

And I finished.

Weekend before last, I ran the Sandhills Half. It was the. hardest. race I’ve ever run. And it had nothing to do with the race itself, or the course, which couldn’t get much better. It just was not my day. Not at all.

So before I get into the miserable details of my personal experience this year, let me give you the backstory about this race.

Cattle, windmill Sandhills Nebraska

It’s in the sandhills (duh) of Nebraska, near a town called Brownlee. Population: 15 (as of 2010). Jesse grew up about 25 miles from where the race is held. Aka: “the middle of god-damned nowhere” (his words, not mine). It is beautiful. There is next to zero cell phone service, and lots of rolling hills, windmills, wildflowers, and cattle.

Sandhills Nebraska Road Wildflowers

The course is FLAT (one teeny uphill and a total elevation decrease of about 200 ft), and is run on a narrow “oil road”. It’s at 2,867′ elevation, and it’s a fast course. The race offers both a full and half marathon, and is limited to about 140 people between the two races. Registration opens up at midnight on New Years day, and typically sells out within 24 hours. It’s not the most well organized race that I’ve ever run. (e.g., they pick everyone up at the finish area at 6:15 a.m., and bus you out 13.1 miles to the start. This year, there was only one porta-potty at the pickup location, because apparently the other porta-potty guy had an issue and was running late. You distance runners know how important that Pre-Run Poop is, and one john for 70 people is just not going to cut it. So we waited for everyone to get through the line, and the bus left about 20 minutes late). But, the race is small and laid back. AND they do have traveling portas hauled on truck trailers that drive along the course and pull over for runners. So that’s something.

Last year, it took several months for the results to be posted. I was super impressed that results and photos were online within two weeks this year – a much appreciated improvement!! Overall, it’s an awesome race. I would highly recommend it.

Sandhills Marathon Traveling Porta-potties CHRIS MACHIAN:THE WORLD-HERALD
Photo by Chris Machian/The World-Herald

We ran this 1/2 for the first time last year, and here’s how it went that time. I stuck to my 10 week training plan for the first 5 weeks of training, and only found time for 2 runs per week for the second 5 weeks. I was in the best shape of my life. I forgot to put on deodorant the morning of the race, and PANICKED when I realized it. We were on the bus heading out to the starting line. There was nothing I could do except freak out about how bad I was going to smell, and oh god, what if my armpits chafe the whole time?! Luckily, it was pretty much freezing that morning. Completely overcast, humid, about 43 degrees and windy. As it turned out, no deodorant was not even an issue. I didn’t notice it at all comfort-wise, and I hardly broke a sweat in the chilly weather. And I was FAST. I use Strava to track my runs, and have it set to announce every half mile and my pace. My first two miles were sub 7 minutes (wowza), and I had to consciously try to slow myself down. I then settled into a pace between 7:15 and 7:35 for the remaining 11 miles, and felt like I could go on like that forever. I had that runner’s high, and nothing was slowing me down. I was warmed up so the cold didn’t bother me, the wind was at our backs, and I was loving the scenery. In my head I was like:

This is so beautiful!

I feel great!

Mile 9 already?

I can’t believe how easy this is!

I PR’ed by about 5 minutes, clocking in a time of 1 hour, 37 minutes, 12 seconds. I came in second place, because there was some freak of nature female from the UK who beat me by 12 minutes. I was bummed when we waited around for awards, and they only announced and awarded a trophy to THE winning male and female in each race. No top 3, no age divisions, and they didn’t even announce the winning time (say what?)! Still. I felt amazing, and had run my best race.

So, this year, I was back to win. Spoiler alert: I didn’t.

Here’s how it went.

Jesse and I both stuck pretty closely to our training plan. I’m sure I put in more miles this year, but I still only run 3 days a week at the most. We built up to a 12 mile training run, so we were well prepared for the 13.1 distance. For some reason though, a lot of our later training runs just felt hard. We tapered for the last two weeks leading up to the race, so I should have been well-rested.

I try not to be a health food snob. I don’t worry too much about what I eat in general. I know we could do better, but we don’t eat out real often and cook decent stuff at home. However, I think I did probably got a little too lax about my pre-race fuel. I didn’t argue when Jesse and I stopped at McDonald’s Friday morning on our way out of town to Nebraska. Sausage McMuffin with Egg and Cheese? Yep. I’m lovin it. We also managed to skip lunch after arriving in Nebraska, but I drank plenty of water and only one beer Friday afternoon. I did wonder if stuffing my face with the pre-race dinner that my MIL prepared was a bad idea, but I figured I’d be ok. I was happy to have an awesome meal so I didn’t complain. We had chips and guac, smoked ribs, pasta salad, veggies, and cake for dessert. Could be worse, right? I’m guessing my food choices might have had something to do with how my race went on Saturday.

I woke up on the morning of, feeling great. My legs were rested, I had my race outfit laid out, and I put deodorant on. WIN! I ate a half bagel with peanut butter, and sipped on coffee and water on the 40 minute drive out to the race. Made my pit stop at the lone porta potty, the bus loaded up and we were on our way.


Jesse and Kelly Sandhills 1:2 marathon 2015 Buses

It was much warmer this year, clear skies and maybe 60° at the start. The (literal) shotgun went off and I told myself:

Don’t go out too fast.

Damn, this chick in the pink with the Boston back tatt is serious.

Keep your eye on her. Don’t go out too fast. This is a long game.

I should make small talk with these people. So they don’t think I’m an asshole.

“Where are you from? (Sterling). Colorado? (No, Nebraska, near Lincoln.) Oh, nice. (Have you run this before?) Yeah, I ran this race last year, you?”

Good, now I’m not an asshole.

Mile 1 – 7:26

I’m right on pace. Good job.

This headwind sucks.

Pink lady is within my reach. I’ve got 12 miles to catch her. Don’t blow it.

Mile 2 – 7:16

Still on pace. I can negative split my second half at this rate.

And then, I got a horrible side stitch during mile 3. You know. One of those sharp, nearly crippling stabs in your gut. This has only happened to me ONCE before in my racing career, and it is about impossible to run through. And I thought:


It’s over.

What if I’m fighting this for the next two hours? It’s going to be all I can do to finish.

I walked for a couple minutes, gripping my side and trying to breathe out for as long as I could with each breath.

My race is over.

This just doesn’t happen to me. 

I’m finally having that bad race that you hear about. 

After all these years, I’m finally realizing that I’m not invincible.

I slowly started to jog again when the pain had subsided. Right about at that time, I heard footsteps approaching from behind. It was a guy and the girl that I had chatted with briefly after the start. I moved over to the road shoulder and we exchanged a “good job” as they passed. But all I could think was:

Great. These people think I’m a total dumbass. Who goes out like a bat out of hell, and then has to walk mile 3?

Mile 3 – 9:20

Great, I already lost a couple of minutes. I was then stuck with nothing but the open road, the sun, and my thoughts for a grueling 10.1 miles. It was a huge emotional roller coaster, and a really really tough physical challenge. I caught up to the pair that had passed me, and debated about whether to pass. Knowing that I had a lot of miles ahead of me, and scared that my side stitch would return, I didn’t want to overdo it. So after awkwardly trying to run beside these two on the shoulder, I settled in behind them for a bit. (The race organizers had asked everyone to run 2 wide at the most, as it was on a narrow road without much shoulder).

I said “sorry guys, I’m not trying to push you over.”

Not trying to be an asshole.

The gal from Sterling asked if I wanted to pass, and I said “No, you’re good. I got a side ache out of nowhere.”

In case you didn’t know? Am I making excuses?

She said “Yeah, I saw you holding your side. You ok now?”

“Yeah, I’m good. Just hoping it doesn’t come back.”

So I’m running a step behind these two, trying not to waste too much energy during the first half of the race, and I realize how annoying it can be when someone is drafting off of you. Which is exactly what I’m doing to these two.

God, what an asshole move.

Now I’m an idiot who doesn’t know how to pace, and an asshole.

I should be happy for these people. I want them to do well, right?

Yeah. It’s not about competition. It’s about a supportive community.

So sometime around mile 4 (8:31), I made a move around these two. Then, I had some slightly irrational and short-lived thoughts about

Maybe I could still win. Wouldn’t that be crazy?

It could happen.

Mile 5 – 7:54

I’m no longer here to win. 

Just finishing is going to be just fine.

I should be more proud of myself for running through this than for just having a great race.

I’m overcoming adversity, or some shit.

Sandhills Marathon Runners on Brownlee Road, by CHRIS MACHIAN:THE WORLD-HERALD
Photo by Chris Machian/The World-Herald

Mile 6 – 7:59

It quickly warmed up, and felt flat out miserable HOT at about 75°. I felt bad for complaining about the cold last year.

Oh my god. That sun is horrible. 

I am going to die. 

I would do anything to get that cold weather back.

This will all be over in about an hour. Suck it up.

Mile 7 – 8:01

Wow, Brownlee sure came up fast! 

Maybe I’m going to be ok. 

Thank god for this shade.

There is one turn on this course that takes you off of the main highway and down the road about 1/2 mile into a town called Brownlee, then you turn around and make your way back to the highway and continue on. I was so thankful for the sidewind breeze and a couple minutes of shade at this point. I took a water at the turn-around point, and walked for 30 seconds or so to drink a bit. I was also happy to see Jesse as he came down and I was headed back, and get a high five as we passed each other.

The next three miles kind of blurred together, but not because they went by fast. They were really slow and really tough. I was thinking things like:

Mile 8 – 8:33

I’m a full minute slower than my goal pace.

It’s ok. Any time is ok.

I just want to finish.

Why is this SO HARD?

I know it’s pretty out here, but this sucks.

I am not having fun. 

I should be thankful. I GET to run. Not everybody can do this.

Mile 9 – 8:32

More of the same. And also:

This is horrible. But it’s going to make a great blog post. 

Unless I die.

And then: Mile 10 – 8:32

Thank god. Mile 10. 

I can do anything for 3 miles. 

Right? RIGHT??

I’m not sure I’m going to make it.

Sandhills Marathon hills, by Andy Pollock
Photo by Andy Pollock

Mile 11 – 8:57

I took another small bottle of water at the last aid station, somewhere shortly after the Mile 11 mark. One of the volunteers asked if I wanted an energy gel, I hesitated, and said no. (I’ve never eaten an energy gel during a race. I rarely take water – last year I only took a few sips at one stop, around mile 10.) But I immediately regretted it turning it down.

Damn it! I should have taken the gel. 

I’m dying. The sugar could have saved me.

Is it too late to turn around?

It’s too late. 

I can do anything for 2 miles. Right?

Less than 20 minutes. I can do this.

At this point I had made it to the very last, very long stretch of road to the finish line. It’s about 2.5 miles remaining after the last big curve in the road, and there is a grove of trees along the North side of the road that I remembered distinctly as being a sign that the end is near. Unfortunately, they provide very little shade on the road, and the sun was blazing. You can also see them from a ways back, and holy shit, did it take FOREVER to get there.

Mile 12 – 8:45

It’s so f*$%ing hot. 

It’s a billion degrees.

I will never make it to those trees.

The guy that was running with the chick from Sterling passed me. I told him “Nice job. Way to finish.” And I meant it. I wasn’t upset. I was secretly relieved that Sterling wasn’t with him. But if she was, I would have been happy for her too. Really. He then made a comment about how “That’s a nice sight to see” (referencing all the cars and people in the distance). We then both said something about the heat, mine was along the lines of “it’s killing me.”

No really. I think I might die.

Just get to the finish line.

It will all be over soon, and you can drink a beer.

Then I went into a chant in my head, for what felt like 20 minutes.

You can do this. Don’t stop moving your legs. This is ok. Any time is ok. You can do this. Don’t stop moving your legs. This is ok. Any time is ok. 

I also kept thinking that I was closer than I actually was to the finish. Strava announced 12.5 miles and I thought it should have been 13 (I was slightly delusional at this point, and my judge of distance was clearly off).

Mother f*$%er! You’ve got to be kidding me. I’m never going to make it another half mile.

This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

You can do this. Don’t stop moving your legs. This is ok. Any time is ok.

Mile 13 – 8:26

Thank god.

Mile 13.1 – 7:48 pace – I somehow managed to kick it in. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so glad to cross a finish line. My final time was 1:48:08. 11 minutes slower than last year, but still not bad by any means. I know a lot of people would be thrilled with this time. And I’m really not beating myself up for it, I realize it’s pretty damn good. When I say it was the worst race of my life, I mean physically and mentally the hardest for me personally.

Jesse finishing Sandhills 1:2 Marathon 2015
Jesse kicking it in, I don’t even have a photo of me but it wasn’t pretty so here’s my good-looking husband instead.

So while it felt like one of the most miserable running experiences I’ve ever had, I am so glad that I finished. I also had plenty of time to think about things. I feel like I had several running epiphanies that are good to keep in mind going into any distance race, and here they are:

1. You aren’t invincible. And neither am I. You can’t have a great race, every time. I don’t know why I thought I could. Maybe it’s the fact that I typically only sign up for one half marathon a year, so I damn well better have a good race. But it was good for me to finally get knocked down, and realize that it’s still a big accomplishment to finish.

2. You can’t control how anyone else does that day. You never know who’s going to show up. And you never know if they’ll have the best race, or the worst, of their life. Whether it’s a phenom from the UK, or a tough chick with a back tatt, you don’t know who you’re going up against, what their training has been like, or if they chose spaghetti over ribs.

3. The racing community is supportive. People want you to do well. They may or may not be there to compete, but they’re almost always friendly. Everyone is in the same boat as you. Whether you are on track to run 1:35:00 or just trying to be under 3 hours, everyone that is putting themselves through this is in pain to some degree. If it were easy, everybody would do it. It’s a big deal to run a half marathon, and those that are doing it with you understand what you’re going through.

4. Pre-race fueling IS important. I tried to act like tough shit, thinking I could eat whatever I want and still run well. I think I’ve officially been dis-proven. There’s no telling how many factors actually contributed to my bad race day, but I’m almost positive that a mcmuffin and bbq ribs the day before were major culprits. I’m thinking I’ll stick to pasta next time.

5. The most important thing is how you approach the race mentally. You’ve put your training miles in. You have to trust that you’re prepared, and remember that there is nothing you can do day of to change the physical shape that you are in. You may get some blisters, or fight through some joint pain. But assuming you don’t get an actual running injury, your legs will get you to the finish. It’s all about telling yourself that you can do it. And yes, your mind may be all OVER the place. 13 miles is a long time to be alone with your thoughts, and it’s hard to stay away from thinking negatively. But know that you can do it, and tell yourself that. Even if what you’re really thinking is that you’re going to die.

Have you experienced a bad race day? Any tips to prepare? What are your favorite pre-race foods?

Kelly Jesse Chessney Jens, post Sandhills 1:2 Marathon 2015


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  1. ohhh no I just want to throw up reading this – I’ve had one of those races and they feel like they last for freaking EVER. That looks like a really cute race – I would love to do a small half!

    Also maybe it’s good you didn’t do the gel. Something about it makes me feel like I am going to poop my pants IMMEDIATELY. But if there were porta potties rolling around and making stops maybe it’s not that big of a problem haha!

  2. Loved reading this! The mental side of running is sometimes tougher than the physical. Great job pushing through the struggle. Every runner has had a “bad” race. Great lessons learned! Thanks for linking up with Fitness Friday and welcome to the #fitfam!

    1. Thanks Jill! The mental side was definitely my worst enemy this time! I guess the best thing to do is get back out there, right?

  3. I’ve had some great races and some truly awful ones. Once or twice I’ve thought about not finishing, but I always seem to be able to dig down and get to the finish line. Good job getting there, even though it was a struggle.

    1. Thanks Erika! I truly wondered if I would be able to finish. It’s a good feeling to get through an awful race though, I now know.

  4. These are great takeaways from your race. My boyfriend is actually from Nebraska and when I’ve gone to his hometown I was able to do some running – it was in the winter, but still beautiful to me! I’m sorry your race didn’t go as planned but you clearly learned a lot from the experience.

    I definitely had a bad race experience when I ran a half marathon very undertrained since I was coming off an injury a few years ago. I’ve also had a couple of 5K’s where I started out way too fast and crashed. Running is more mental than anything – I think that it’s important to just focus on doing the best you can and stay in control of your pace.

    1. Yeah, Nebraska can be really beautiful! It’s so peaceful, and nice to leave your cell phone for awhile.

      Injuries can be so tough, I’ve dealt with a few stress fractures and it’s frustrating when you are working toward a race and don’t want to stop. Thanks for stopping by and reading!

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