BIRD-IN-HAND HALF MARATHON
Day 1: Thursday, September 7, 2023
There is one rural race in Amish Country that was featured at length in Runner's World Magazine in 2012, and according to Active.com, was voted #3 by runners in the category of "Can’t Miss Half Marathons in the Country." This particular community has been welcoming thousands of runners from around the globe each year since 2010. It was for these reasons, and many more, that I set out to make Pennsylvania's Bird-in-Hand Half Marathon the 12th race in my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. The timing of this trip came right on the heels of my trip to Duluth, Minnesota, for the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon, which was going to be an experience that would be pretty difficult to beat.
Like many, I had never heard the phrase "vella shpringa" before. It's a Pennsylvania Dutch phrase that means "let's run," or "gotta run," and it's the official slogan of the Bird-in-Hand Half Marathon. Vella Shpringa is also the name of a local Lancaster County Amish running club, featured in Christopher McDougall's 2017 New York Times article, "Running With the Herd." Throughout my weekend in Lancaster County, home to the oldest Amish settlement in the United States, I began to associate "vella shpringa" with so much more than the act of running itself — it became a metaphor for running together — building community, friendship, and esprit de corps. And no one does community building quite like the welcoming little village of Bird-in-Hand.
Bird-in-Hand was founded in 1734, and the origin of the name is exactly what you'd expect according to legend— two land surveyors were discussing whether or not they wanted to stay at their current location for the night or continue on to Lancaster, and one of the surveyors said, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." The surveyors ended up spending the night at what is known today as the Bird-in-Hand Family Inn, which is where I decided to drop my pack for the weekend, 300 years later.
The Bird-in-Hand Family Inn is in an extremely convenient location at the epicenter of all of the race festivities, and quite literally across the street from what would be the start and finish of the race. The Inn is a resort-style hotel that includes a cute swimming pool on the property, surrounded by beautiful rural views, and no more than a few hundred feet away from authentic Amish Country dining options in every direction. Behind the Bird-in-Hand Bakery & Café, which is across the street from the Inn, you'll even find a corn maze and the Village Petting Zoo. I probably won't need to continue selling this to you after you run (don't walk) to the Inn's website. I recommend booking a year in advance, since this event makes for a bucket list weekend and the rooms fill up even faster than the race registration sells out.
When my plane touched down in Philadelphia, a light rain was falling, which gradually matured into a severe thunderstorm later in the evening. I met up with my new friend Vicki, whom I'd connected with through our 50 Half Marathons in 50 States Facebook group, and amazingly enough we were on the same connecting flight to Philadelphia from Chicago. This is one of my favorite things about running to travel, or traveling to run — all of the new friends we make along the way who become part of our running family for life!
By the time we made it to Bird-in-Hand from the airport, there was one restaurant that was still open, Miller's Smorgasbord. Founded in 1929, it's an enormous buffet-style restaurant with endless options of Amish comfort food, and desserts that are to die for. While we ate, the thunderstorm outside had progressed, and we experienced a short power outage that lasted all but a few seconds, but it was enough to generate a collective "ooooh" of concern from every restaurant patron. If you're looking for a dining option in the area that stays open a bit later, Miller's is it, and you can also count on them for breakfast and lunch.
Day 2: Friday, September 8, 2023
The following morning, I walked from my room across the parking lot to the Bird-in-Hand Family Restaurant & Smorgasbord for breakfast. This would be the first of many meals enjoyed there. They advertise "authentic Pennsylvania Dutch food and hometown hospitality," and they delivered in every respect each time I visited throughout the weekend. I settled on classic French toast with a side of bacon and scrambled eggs, plus bottomless coffee refills. The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and includes a cute little gift shop at the front of the store, and a small bakery counter with no shortage of whoopie pies, cookies, regular pies, and artisan ice cream fresh from the Bird-in-Hand Bakery & Café.
Vicki and I spent the whole afternoon exploring Amish Country before it was time for packet pick-up at the race expo later that evening. We had an absolute blast on our adventures traversing Lancaster County, deciding along the way to take photos of (and with) as many funny street signs as we could. Our itinerary included Intercourse, Paradise, and Blue Ball. We opted to skip Virginville, unfortunately, because it was a bit out of the way. We laughed the entire time, and it was a joy discovering we had the same sense of humor. There are plenty of folk tales surrounding the naming convention of the Lancaster County towns, some of it rooted in fact, and some of it based on speculation.
Either way, no matter who you are, or how mature you think you are, it's hard not to chuckle at the names. We located the signs for Intercourse and Blue Ball, and then encountered trouble in Paradise when we could not find a decent sign. The closest we got was "Paradise" on the side of the Post Office. Our souvenir stops included Kitchen Kettle Village, where we were determined to take home merchandise emblazoned with "Intercourse." Kitchen Kettle Village is an adorable outdoor Pennsylvania Dutch shopping village in Intercourse, consisting of more than 40 shops, eateries, and an Inn. We stopped at the Lapp Valley Farms ice cream stand, where I didn't have the opportunity to take a photo of my ice cream as it rapidly was melting. Saving the two best shops for last, we patronized Good Vibes, where I picked up an "Intercourse" mug and an "I ♥ Intercourse" shirt for my husband, which he found hilarious; and the Jam & Relish Kitchen, where I put together a custom sampler box of mini jams. It was nearly impossible to settle on only six delicious jams for my sampler box, but I finally decided on red raspberry, strawberry, peach, apple butter, strawberry rhubarb, and cherry. And, because I lacked any discipline whatsoever in Jam & Relish Kitchen, I also hauled away two bags of Small Batch Organics Granola Bark, in the flavors of peppermint and coffee bean. Had I brought an empty suitcase with me, I could have easily filled it with 40 pounds of jam, relish, salsa, spices, and baked treasures.
Our Lancaster County exploration concluded for the day with pizza in Paradise at Two Cousins Pizza, which came pretty close to the quality and deliciousness of genuine New York and New Jersey pizza. Read more about my pizza elitism here. I decided after writing that post I would not only run a half marathon in each state, but mused about trying pizza in every state and comparing it to pizza in the New York tri-state area, which has superior pizza to everywhere else in the continental United States. Yes, even Chicago. Two Cousins is on my official list of must-try pizza for any traveler seeking great Pennsylvania pizza.
Bird-in-Hand Half Expo: Big Time Celebration, Small Town Heart
Amish hospitality, community, and camaraderie best describe the rest of the evening on Friday, when we headed over to the Bird-in-Hand Half Expo. The expo was held under a giant tent at 338 North Ronks Road, right across from Bird-in-Hand Family Inn, and this would also serve as the location for the evening's pizza and pasta dinner, and the community picnic on race day. The BIH Half Expo doubled as registration/packet pick-up and a showcase of local vendors, with the marketplace described by race organizers as a "favorite for runners" to visit and peruse locally handmade crafts, accessories, tasty treats, and an opportunity to enjoy homemade fresh cinnamon rolls from the Farmhouse Stickys gourmet cinnamon roll food truck. Farmhouse Stickys remained on site all weekend for runners to enjoy a cinnamon roll.
While picking up our race packets, we got our first glimpse of the legendary Road Apple Award, which is exactly what it sounds like — poop. Runners had the opportunity to earn a Road Apple Award by completing both the Bird-in-Hand Half Marathon and Lancaster County's Garden Spot Village Half Marathon in the same year. The participant guide has an extensive step-by-step review of how Road Apple Awards are made, from drop to finish, and "every pile is unique and has its own story to tell." Not to be outshined by the Road Apple Award, we also got a first look up close of our unique horseshoe finisher medals, skillfully handcrafted by Amish volunteers. My favorite part of the expo, aside from the helpful volunteers and friendly small business owners, was what was in my swag bag — a great quality BIH Half T-shirt with the race's motto, "Vella Shpringa," printed along the side, and... A WHOOPIE PIE! I was so excited about the whoopie pie, and tucked it away in my mini-fridge for safekeeping. It was hands down one of the most awesome swag items I've ever received, almost too perfect to eat, and it later became a post-race celebratory treat.
While Vicki ran the 5K, which started at 6:30 P.M., I headed back to the expo tent after some down time to save us a couple of seats at the pre-race pizza and pasta dinner. The storm clouds were looking pretty dark and ominous when I stepped out of my room — cloudy with a chance of meatballs, so I threw on my poncho that I'd packed with me to get me through the short walk to and from the expo tent. Interestingly enough, no one seemed to be concerned about the impending rain, but I was prepared regardless.
Moving through the food assembly line, I piled my plate high with spaghetti and meatballs, salad, breadsticks, and shoofly pie. At 7:30 P.M., the Bonfire and S'mores Party kicked off, with runners, family members, volunteers, and members of the community taking part in the festivities. It was such a wholesome sight watching everyone sharing a meal together and then making s'mores and fueling the bonfire together.
Running With the Herd
Race Day: Saturday, September 9, 2023
Photo credit: Mr. Paul Stoddard, 9/9/2023
When I think of traveling for a race in September or October in one of the "Middle Atlantic" states, I'm envisioning the leaves changing color, cooler temperatures, fall-themed beverages, apple cider, flannel and sweaters, pumpkin-flavored everything, pumpkins on porches, pumpkins in patches, and Halloween candy and decorations on every retail shelf. What we got instead on race morning was a rude awakening characterized by what I like to call The Trifecta of Hazardous H's: heat, humidity, and hills. The consensus among visitors and locals alike was it was unseasonably warm for the time of year in Pennsylvania, and this year's Bird-in-Hand Half Marathon was reported to be the second hottest on record.
I rolled out of bed, threw on my running clothes, pulled my Yippee-Ki-Yay Races baseball cap over my lion's mane of unruly hair, packed up my running gear in my Camelbak, and shuffled across the street to meet Vicki at the Bird-in-Hand Bakery & Café, which conveniently opened at 6:00 A.M. I had my customary race morning bagel with cream cheese and drank a bottle of strawberry lemonade.
Knowing my body would need every available molecule of hydration with the expected temperatures, I skipped my usual cup of coffee. It was misting when we made our way outside, and I wished hopelessly that it would rain while we were on the course. When we crossed the field along Old Philadelphia Pike and headed to the race festivities, the sun began to come up, and we were treated to the most spectacular sunrise — hands down the most beautiful sunrise I've ever experienced the morning of a race. As the sun rose higher in the sky and the misting rain stopped, a hint of a faint rainbow made an appearance over the finish line. Anyone who doesn't believe a pot of gold exists at the end of a rainbow has never experienced finishing the Bird-in-Hand Half Marathon on the second-hottest September 9th on record.
The race director politely announced that all runners were to head over to the start corral and find their pace groups. The asphalt was still wet from the overnight showers, and awash in an orange glow from the sunrise. I made my way over to my pace group and suddenly felt my stomach twist in a knot from anxiety. I checked the weather on my phone, and my heart sank when I confirmed it was 68° at that point in time with 98% humidity, and expected to be around 78° by the time I planned to finish. Even though I kept repeating silently to myself that I was prepared and to trust my training, no motivating mantra could reassure me.
The National Anthem was sung beautifully and reverently, and with my hand on my heart, I shifted nervously and did pointless calf raises to channel my anxiety. We were off promptly at 7:30 A.M. I trotted along with my pace group, and then finally, as we crossed the timing mat, I started my watch and began a very conservative jog. Our herd was led by a horse and buggy, in keeping with race tradition. On the course, we enjoyed the most breath-taking country scenery for 13.1 miles, consisting of rolling hills of grassy farmland, pastures dotted with cows, and roads lined with tall corn stalks bearing the absolute biggest ears of corn I've ever seen ready for harvest.
The first mile came and went while I was lost in my thoughts as I took in the scenery, and as we crept up on mile 3.5, we arrived at the second aid station. Each aid station had extremely friendly volunteers who smiled, encouraged us with kind words and thoughtful funny signs, and at some of the aid stations they even treated us to live music. One aid station had orange sherbet samples, which I greedily snatched up in my dehydrated, thirsty state, desperate for anything cold. In that moment, that little cup of sherbet was the best thing I'd ever eaten in my entire life.
In addition to the manned aid stations, there were also large coolers filled with ice on the side of the road at different points on the course, and I helped myself to heaping armfuls of ice from these treasure troves, which I generously stuffed under my hat and inside my sports bra. I took "ice chest" to the next level. After a certain point, I didn't care what anyone thought, and the ice at least temporarily kept my head and core cool, if only for ten minutes at a time.
Around mile 5 I began to feel the onset of heat cramps, and pulled out one of my salt tablets. I continued to stick to my nutrition plan and attempted to increase fluid intake whenever possible, sometimes taking 3 or 4 cups at the aid stations on the back half of the course. In addition to hoarding ice on my person, I ran through sprinklers, which were also strategically placed at different points along the course. For at least ten miles I was completely soaked, both with sweat and water from sprinklers and melted ice, and chafing everywhere began to emerge as a concern.
Somewhere at the turnaround point between miles 6 and 7, I had a hard time containing my excitement when we came across a group of the prettiest cows, fixing passing runners with their bovine stare. The cows lifted my spirits as I jogged around the orange cones at the turnaround point. I wasn't in Kansas anymore, and I acknowledge that even though I live in the Midwest, no matter how many times in my life I see cows in passing, my reaction is always the same: "LOOK! Cows!" Most animals bring me joy, but cows just hit different.
At mile 9, I started laughing pretty hard, because a band of five local volunteers — three men and two women — were singing the most sorrowful, sad song as we ran by, and the irony was not lost on me that it was reflective of how most of us were probably feeling at that point in the soaring temperatures. The women's delicate voices harmonized with one of the men, who belted out, "All that he said, now he was dead, so this was the way it would end. The dreams they had dreamed, were not what they seemed..." This melancholy melody could not have been more perfectly timed.
All throughout the race, I'd heard whisperings of a camel sighting, and it sounded like it was the stuff of legends. At that point, I'd gone almost ten miles without seeing a single exotic animal, let alone a camel. I began second-guessing myself, wondering if in my overheated state of delirium, I had somehow missed it. I knew I wasn't crazy. On the race's website, we were advised to look for the following along the course: an Amish one-room schoolhouse, horse powered farming activities, horses, cows, mules, buggies, historical areas, road apples, chickens trying to cross the road, roadside stands, the "worst hill", and camels.
Suddenly, as I crested the hill at mile 12 — the "worst hill" — I saw a group of runners beside a fence with their phones positioned high above their heads. When I got close enough, I realized we finally reached the camels. Not one, but two! Taking a camel selfie was what I needed to give me a second wind to push through the final mile to the finish line. The camels were unquestionably pets, and they happily approached visitors and allowed us to get close enough to take photos.
When they were not entertaining visitors, they were peacefully grazing on the grass. I can now cross "camel selfie" off my bucket list. During the last mile I made two new friends from Florida who were also running the 50 states, and we passed the time of the last mile discussing race recommendations. They recommended the DONNA Marathon Weekend for Florida, and I recommended the Anchorage Mayor's Half Marathon for Alaska. I also couldn't help but recommend Yippie-Ki-Yay for Iowa when asked what my favorite small race has been thus far.
Crossing the finish line was bittersweet: I was happy to have finished, and had a blast enjoying the scenery and the company of great people, yet super disappointed that this was my official PW (personal worst) since my finish time in Colorado, which I 100% attribute to heat and humidity in both cases. From 10:00 A.M. to 12:00 P.M., a community picnic was held for race finishers, family, and the entire community, and everyone was welcome. By the time I began making my way over to the tent with the buffet, the lines were super long, but it appeared to be moving quickly. I stopped at a smaller tent where barbecue ribs were being grilled and served, grabbed a rib, and hopped in line for the main course while I ate the rib as an appetizer.
Volunteers in the main tent served barbecue chicken, grilled sausage, cake, and ice cream. As appetizing as everything seemed, I did not eat much right away, realizing I felt quite nauseous from the heat. With a bottled water and a bag of chips in my hand, I retreated across the street back to my room to shower and hydrate. I later met Vicki for a more substantial meal at the Bird-in-Hand Family Restaurant, where we said our goodbyes before she headed to the airport. I had an incredible chicken salad club with a side of buttered noodles, and indulged in from-scratch apple pie with a side of monster cookie ice cream.
Later that evening, I returned to the restaurant again for my final dinner in Bird-in-Hand. As I was enjoying my delicious platter of turkey smothered in gravy, stuffing, macaroni and cheese, and cranberry sauce, a gentleman who I presumed was a tourist like myself, approached my table. I looked up from my phone expectantly, and he asked, "That looks delicious, what is it?" I pointed at each item on my plate in acknowledgement, and said, "Turkey breast, stuffing, and macaroni."
The interaction took a very unpleasant turn when the man replied, "And you're going to eat all that?" Mentally, my eyes were already rolling to the back of my head, as I thought, here is yet another person who thinks it's acceptable to make unsolicited comments on my food portions. I sighed and said curtly, "Yep."
The man raised an eyebrow and said, "You can't possibly eat all that." My mood went dark quickly and I replied impatiently with, "I ran 13 miles today, I don't think it's going to be an issue." I helplessly looked around the bustling restaurant, waiting for someone to save me from this cringeworthy encounter. "See, this is the problem," the man continued, "This isn't a cafeteria. You're going to have to eat it all, or throw it away." I shrugged, shoveling food in my mouth, hoping he would get the hint, and I said, "Uh, yeah. I'm going to eat it." Then I began scrolling mindlessly on my phone, hoping my purposefully rude, introverted Millennial body language would put an end to the conversation. The man persisted: "You're by yourself? You didn't come here with a group? Or a boyfriend?"
"No, I'm by myself." I felt my anxiety rising up a notch when I realized where this was going, but I felt confident enough that I didn't feel I had to make up a lie about my husband being in the bathroom. The man replied with, "And you don't have a problem with that?" I slammed my knife on the table with an audible clatter and said, "Excuse me?" As expected, his response was, "Well you're a pretty lady, I would have thought you'd have someone with you." I stared blankly at him, and he continued, "I guess you don't want me to join—" I held a up hand and interrupted him. "NO," I said, raising my voice suddenly, "I'm fine by myself, thank you." I picked up my knife and fork and resumed eating.
"I was trying to be nice," he decided. I rolled my eyes and said, "Okay, whatever you say. Have a good night." And mercifully the encounter ended with him walking away to bother someone else, at his table, where he belonged. I debated whether I should leave this story out of this post or not, but decided to share it, because unfortunately, people experience this type of harassment every day. I intentionally left out a description of the man who harassed me, leaving it to the reader's imagination. No matter what blanks our brains attempt to fill in, there is no excuse for this behavior and no one deserves to be harassed. If you have experienced something similar, I see you. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming...
The Bird-in-Hand Half Marathon was fantastic in all the ways a race can be when it comes to race communication, organization, sense of community, festivities, and Amish hospitality. Most of all, I'm thankful I made some amazing friends along the way to take my mind off how hot it was! This was an unforgettable experience, and someday (as with all memorable races that are on my list of favorites), I plan to return and do it all over again.
Bird-in-Hand Family Inn
2740 Old Philadelphia Pike
Bird in Hand, PA 17505
Happy running and safe travels,