How sweet it is – My Hershey Half Marathon Race Recap

Four years can make a huge difference when it comes to running. In 2015, I ran the Hershey Half Marathon for the first time, only one year after my very first race, in just under two hours. This year, I ran it again after nearly 20 half marathons and six full marathons, focusing on improving my speed, and reduced my personal best for a half marathon, even on this hilly course in 1:40:20. I’ve got Hershey to thank for fueling me with chocolate and ice cream to make it possible.

In four years I had forgotten how much I enjoyed the Hershey Half Marathon. Somehow, rather than remembering the section through the amusement park and the section through the Milton Hershey school campus where students came out to support runners, I mostly recalled a run through parking lots and less populated areas with little support. Sure, those parts were still there, but even in the rain, the support was great and helped get me through my hardest push through a half marathon yet.

After running the London Marathon in April, I didn’t have much on my running agenda. The remaining world major marathons, Tokyo and Boston are still probably years away for me since Tokyo would require the boys being a bit older to enjoy it and make it through a lengthy flight, and Boston is just too difficult to get into. I’d need to either cut off over 40 minutes from my marathon time or keep the same pace until I make it to age 80. Instead, I decided I would take it easier this year and get back to running just to run. I made it a few months before deciding I needed a target and a goal.

Hershey is a perfect half marathon for me. It’s not super close, but it’s an easy car ride away. With running friends in the Philly area, it’s the best race to meet up and enjoy both some pre and post race fun. It’s also a fairly small race, so there’s no waiting around in huge start corals or massive packet pickup, just getting to the start line on time. Plus, since it’s sponsored by Hershey, there are plenty of chocolate goodies throughout the weekend. This year with the boys, we figured it would also be great to spend the day before at Hershey Park and give them their first real taste of an amusement park since race participants get two free tickets to Hershey in the Dark any time while they run it.

The Hershey area is great for a race. Not only does the park provide a great way to spend the day before or after the race, there is Chocolate World for experiencing how chocolate gets made and sampling some, Troegs and several other breweries for parents, and a surprising number of good restaurants in the local area. The park itself is also plenty to do for a full day even with young kids thanks to the zoo and a tremendous number of rides that even three year olds can actually go on.

Because of the size, only a few thousand participants across the half marathon, a two-person half relay, and a 5k family fun run, logistics around the event are slick and quick. Packet pickup took me mere minutes, I was in and out in the time it took my wife to get the boys out of the car. This year, as the 10th anniversary of the race, the shirt was even a commemorative long sleeve and hooded design, which was very tempting to bring out for the race thanks to some drizzly weather. It’s also the only race I’ve ever received a 13.1 magnet from, though this year for the first time they gave out car window decals instead, which I might actually use at work. Once again, picking up materials at Hershey Stadium, right across from the old arena brought back tons of memories from my childhood. The stadium was the site of my first concerns ever, KISS and Aerosmith, while the arena was where my dad and I attended numerous Hershey Bears hockey games as season ticket holders in my youth. I don’t know if anything is even still inside the building, but I like to imagine my high scores are still on the Simpsons arcade game down in the basement somewhere.

We spent the day after pickup in the park, enjoying the rides with the boys, taking in a quick musical show, and visiting all of the animals in ZooAmerica, still a part of the park admission. The boys’ minds were still just as blown away from the stamp that only shows up under black light as I was when I was their age. As the sun set, we rode a few more rides with them, then left the park for a pre-race meal.

Hershey is the latest town to get a location of the Iron Hill Brewery chain, becoming popular across the mid-Atlantic region and likely expanding further into NJ and maybe even NY soon. We had eaten at one on a stop down in Delaware on the way to the shore with the boys two years ago, and I remembered enjoying their beer but couldn’t remember the food. I was pleasantly surprised with just how good it was, and even more pleased with the huge offering of unique beers. Each location not only brews the signature brews for the chain and some seasonal like an excellent spiced pumpkin ale I liked most, but also allows each brewmaster to experiment with their own selections, leading to a crisp kolsch and a flavor bomb of a guava IPA at the Hershey location. The menu is mostly pub type food, but the pub burger I had was excellent and the fries were dangerously good. While the boys chowed down on Mac and cheese and quesadillas, we discussed the upcoming race and made plans for way more marathons than we can actually run in the year ahead. We parted for the night after a decadent piling of brownies with locally made caramel ice cream and of course Hershey’s syrup and made plans to meet up at the finish line the next morning.

We stayed for the night at the Harrisburg-Hershey La Quinta, about 20 minutes from the park and start location so that we could bring Hershey thanks to their pet policy. While he sadly wasn’t allowed at the park with his own name, he did enjoy the morning there and some treats from reception. I enjoyed a quickly grabbed bagel with peanut butter from the breakfast which was thankfully open at 6:30 when I left thanks to an early start time.

I lined up pretty close to the start line a few minutes before the start thanks to a bit of traffic getting into the parking lot and some lengthy porta-potty lines. I even parked fairly fare away by the newer arena and walked briskly to the stadium to avoid some traffic on the way out. Thanks to the organization, I didn’t have any issue getting there right on time. Even with a pretty tricky weather outlook, 48 degrees and intermittent rain, I was able to stay relatively warm thanks to a space blanket from another race and a light jacket. I even left the hat and gloves in the car knowing I’d be pretty warm if I could keep my pace up.

Over the last few months I trained to increase my speed and run faster longer. After finally beating my goal of sub-four-hours in the marathon, I wanted a new goal of increasing my half marathon pace down to around 1:40:00 and even set up a training program from my Garmin watch to work on it. With far more miles and actual speed repeats and interval training, I felt myself getting faster and faster throughout the summer. Our vacation in Spain disrupted running for two weeks as I got lazy, but actually gave me a nice rest period to recover and refocus on speed when I got back. While running in NYC isn’t the best for speed runs thanks to tourist crowds and tons of stop lights, I did apparently get enough speed work in to start going faster.

From the start line, I felt powerful and fast. I was worried about the effect a beer and a decent amount of brownie would have on me at the start, but if anything they must have given me more fuel. I had loaded the course on my watch and even created a mile by mile pace plan to stay on target. While it worked great for the first three miles around the parking lot of the park and stadium, apparently the course changed enough from last year that it got completely off and was pretty useless for the remainder of the race. Thankfully the tracking itself was accurate so I was able to measure and maintain my pace throughout, even negative splitting slightly and increasing mile over mile.

I think the Hershey Half has a pretty nice mix of scenery and changing landscape along the course. From the start which goes about two miles through the parking lot of the park and stadium, it heads right into the park and passes several of the rides including the train, a huge water slide, and even goes right under the Ferris wheel. I sort of wish it were longer for more of a view of the park, but it’s also the most winding and hilly part of the course, so it’s nice to leave the park again. Then it heads back outside the zoo where I actually saw an elk and a bear watching us run. Then, it’s back through the residential townhouses of the town and through some of the parks behind the amusement park dodging some geese and a very short section of trail running over some grass and rocks.

Somewhere around the halfway point, the course traverses a golf course on the way through the Milton Hershey school campus. I didn’t really understand or enjoy this part during my first run of the race, but in the meantime, after learning about the school and how it enables kids with so many different backgrounds to learn, grow, and succeed, I was inspired to run through the school and made a point of high fiving every single student who came out in the rain to support the runners. I’ve learned how hard cheering a race is, often much harder than running one, so I appreciated all the kids who came outside on a pretty dreary day to support every single runner. It inspired me so much more this time.

The out and back through the school takes up the majority of the middle of the race. It’s only in the last two miles that the course turns back to town and runs through a short section of the downtown, complete with Kiss shaped street lights. It’s in this section too where volunteers give out Hershey bars which I actually felt like trying this time. They’re actually not bad for a late-race energy boost. I’m not likely to bring any along for a sweaty summer long run, but it was a nice change up for the race.

The last mile of the course seems to stretch forever. I kept thinking I was just about done from the minute we got back to the parking lot. Then we turned into it where I thought it ended at the end. This was followed by a turn onto the main tram line street for the park access which I thought had to be the end. That then turned up to the stadium where I figured it had to end in front. Instead, it turned to the side, then the back, then inside of the stadium, each time making me think I had only a few more feet to go, and kept sprinting harder. Once inside the stadium, we actually finished along the side of the football field inside. At the end, in addition to the medal and a foil heat blanket which was absolutely a life saver in the rain which carried on throughout the entire race, we also got a bag of post race supplies including a bottle of water – a small thing but something I always appreciate at the end of a race – and a bag of Kisses.

I didn’t stick around much longer thanks to the rain and my wet shoes. Bundled up back in the car, I enjoyed my Kisses and reveled in my new PR of 1:40:20, 20 seconds slower than I had aimed for, but still more than five minutes faster than my next fastest half marathon. It has to be one of the smallest marathons I’ve run, but the Hershey Half Marathon sure is sweet. From the great local supporters to the unique locations along the route and of course the chocolate, it’s quickly becoming one of my favorites. I imagine I’ll be back for more rides with the boys and tons of chocolate again.

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