Months ago Runner’s World magazine shared a feature story written by Bart Yasso about a group of Amish runners in Lancaster County. It was a great read, and if you have time I encourage you to read it as well. It was the first time I had heard about the Bird-In-Hand Half Marathon. At just four years old, it’s a relatively new race but one that is quickly taking hold as both a destination race, as well as a popular community event. It’s run by the Bird-In-Hand Volunteer Fire Department, of which more than 60% of the volunteers are Amish.
Soon after the article first appeared, Runner’s World shared a list of some of the coolest race medals. After seeing the used horseshoe turned medal made by the Amish, I know it was a must-do race. I admit, I’m slightly motivated by bling. However, I’d like to think it was more than that. The Amish, Mennonites, and other Anabaptists have fascinated me for a long time. I even took a class in college that explored the different groups in-depth. I still feel as though I know so little about them, but maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be.
Nevertheless, I added the Bird-In-Hand Half to my list of races that I knew I wanted to do. The 2014 race had sold out so I decided I would do it in 2015. Apparently luck was on my side as I soon found out a friend who had registered could no longer attend the race and was willing to transfer her bib. The transfer through the race went seamlessly and I was added to the list of runners. Soon after I booked a hotel and anxiously awaited race weekend.
Last week leading up to the race I found myself nervous after seeing early weather reports. A high of 89 was predicted for race day with humidity almost as high. After such a mild summer and very few runs in that type of weather, I was worried about how I would manage. I knew there’d be little to no shade on the farm country roads, but hoped the early start time would help. The expected high did not change as the week came to a close and so I decided to throw any time goal I had to the wind and focus on just having fun and taking the entire race experience in stride (no pun intended).
On Friday, Gabe and I hit the road around 3 p.m. and, despite a nasty rainstorm just outside Lancaster, arrived at the expo with plenty of time to spare. The expo, parking, and finish line were all on empty farm fields and parking was handled by Amish volunteers.
It was a smaller expo with not as many things related to running as you might see at other race expos. However, there were tons of Amish vendors selling some of the most delicious smelling treats. There was also space for their Friday night Pre-Race Amish Pasta Party. Packet pick-up was very organized and done by bib number, which I received via e-mail a few days prior. The tech shirt was great (I’ll have to post a picture later) and the whoopie pie made by Amish women was delicious.
The finish line was really neat. I snapped a photo of it Friday evening with the 5k banner up. The white fence ran from the road all the way through the finish line. It was truly awesome to run down it Saturday with it lined several rows deep with spectators.
Gabe and I decided to head to Iron Hill Brewery for dinner. It was across the street from Franklin and Marshall University and not too far away. Gabe decided to do a sampler and none of the beers disappointed.
The service and the food were also quite good. I think we might be back!
After locating our hotel, a mere 5 minute drive from the start line, we stopped in Target for some breakfast items. I settled on mini bagels and some peanut butter. I had to laugh though while coming and going from Target. It was built right next to the home office for the Amish Farm and House Countryside Tours, which looks just like an old farm house. The juxtaposition was comical to say the least.
We left for the start line at 6:15 am. Despite being only a short distance away, Bird-in-Hand is a very small town and I wanted to be prepared for parking traffic. Traffic wasn’t bad and we were parked quickly and heading over to watch the hot air balloon launch before the race. I had never been to one so I found it to be quite neat.
After parting ways with Gabe, I headed to the start line. After throwing my time goals out the window due to the weather (it was about 70 degrees at the start) I decided to start near the Amish pacer with the 2:10 sign. I figured the 9:55/mile pace would be safe to start and I could always work my way ahead or slow down if need be. This was the first year they had pacers, but from what I gathered it went very well.
I have to admit I was surprised by the number of Amish I saw at the start. Men, women, and even young teens in their plain clothes ready to run. Even after reading the Bart Yasso story, it was still somewhat surprising. Like the rest of us, they were excited and probably already a bit warm.
The race soon started and we began our trek on the beautiful country roads of Lancaster County. I had my earbuds on, but had the volume low enough to hear anything important, including buggy and car traffic, although there wasn’t much of either. Right from the start the Amish families whose farms we ran past were out in full force watching and sometimes waving, but always smiling. At one turn, there were at least 20-25 Amish sitting out on folding chairs waving as we all passed by.
Early on the corn, which was unbelievably tall, provided a bit of shade. But as the sun began to rise that wasn’t an option for long. Aid stations on a day like Saturday were crucial. I made it a point to stop at each, which were all manned by Amish families, and take water to drink and later, water to pour on my head and neck. The Amish families did an outstanding job of supplying water and gatorade and keeping all of us runners going. It doesn’t get much cuter than a bunch of Amish children standing there with arms out saying “Water, water, water!” in unison.
Another pleasant surprise were the large coolers of ice sitting along the course. We grabbed handfuls as we ran by, some to put on our necks and our heads, to rub down our arms, and even some to eat (and no I did not care how many other hands had been in the cooler before me. When you’re hot, you’re hot!). There were also port-a-potties along the course and outhouses at the one-room school houses for runners to use. Many Amish farmers set up sprinklers alongside the road, which many a runner took advantage of, myself included. Another pleasant surprise came somewhere near mile 10. We had turned onto a dirt and gravel farm road and were climbing probably the toughest hill of the day when I saw a sign for “Rita’s.” Despite how nice that sounded I didn’t think it could be part of the race. But low and behold, an Amish family had bought tubs of Rita’s ice, dumped them into large coolers and were handing runners small cups with just enough in them to satisfy you and make you smile.
Overall the course was great. It was challenging like most race courses, but wasn’t nearly as hilly as I was expecting. Most of the hills were long and gradual and at times unnoticeable, that is until you’d reach the crest and be staring down one incredibly long downhill. There were at least two such downhills. At the start of the first downhill I remember just taking in the view. You could see for miles in the sunny weather and it was just Amish farms, one after another. It was spectacular and I’m not overstating. The farm animals were also quite entertaining. A great many of the Amish families had dogs, including the biggest pug I’ve ever seen and two very obedient Boston Terriers. The cows were also quite comical, often gathering near the fences and mooing at us runners. They either thought we were crazy or were cheering us on. I’d like to think it was the latter.
The last mile was tough. It was around that time I started to see more than a couple runners walking, being helped by other runners, or attended to by EMTs. I also felt the need to walk for a short bit because it was just downright hot by then. The temperature had crept into the 80s. At some point I had caught up to the pacer for 2 hours and realized that despite the weather I might be able to break 2 hours for the first time. While walking I glanced behind me and saw him approaching and so I started running again heading straight for the final sprinkler of the course. After making the final turn it was so wonderful to see so many spectators lining North Ronks Road where we had started. They were loudly cheering us on to the finish. We turned onto the grass field between the white fences and headed to the finish.
Upon crossing the finish line, a group of Amish girls were there to hand you your medal. I took mine from a very short and cute little girl. In the tent were the local Dairy Princesses handing out chocolate milk, which was so incredibly cold and delicious (I may have gone back for seconds), tons of bananas, apples, bagels, cookies, and so much more. I honestly wasn’t that hungry, but grabbed an apple and a cookie for Gabe. I came out of the tent and found Gabe. He took one look at me and was like “Oh my…” I was soaked clean through, but I fit in well among the runners.
Honestly, I have nothing but good things to say about this race. I can’t wait to do it again. It is by far my favorite race to date.
After a quick shower and a little time to relax, we headed into downtown Lancaster for lunch at Aussie and the Fox. The food was once again delicious. It was at lunch that I started thinking about the Amish runners.
Why do they run? They work very hard throughout their lives, and minus their predisposition to some genetic disorders, they don’t have as many of the same health issues as the general population. This is possibly due in part to the fact that they do physical work, don’t smoke or drink, and eat food from the land instead of processed junk more often than not. So clearly, the motivation isn’t simply to be in peak physical condition, to lose weight, set records, win races, etc. If those were the motivating factors, it would probably go against some of their beliefs.
So what is it?
As I thought about it more I first thought about what motivates me and other friends who like to be active and fit. I also thought about how many people, both those active and fit and those who are not, look at fitness and running as too hard, not enjoyable, and just all around have a negative attitude. For me, it’s because I enjoy it and all the positives it provides for me both personally and socially.
I kept thinking. What is it?
Then it dawned on me. I remembered a saying on the back of our race shirts, “The joy of running in community.” That was it! It’s about community, which is what their lives revolve around. Yes they’re fast, and yes they’re dedicated, and yes I’m sure they have goals. But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that they enjoy being out there together, and sharing this activity with their families, friends, neighbors, and you guessed it, their community. Amish and English alike.
“I love the serenity…every step, every breath, every PR is a gift from God.” ~Amish runner as quoted in Runner’s World.