Race Report: Mercedes-Benz Marathon, February 22, 2015, Birmingham, Alabama (4:00:45, PR)

Awwwww yessss it's time for another overly detailed race report!  In short, I ran my first marathon in 4:00:45.  I now understand the appeal of the marathon, because it is a beast of a race.  Even though the last few miles are as abysmal as people say, I feel like I did well.  The marathon was a huge learning experience for me and I have no regrets.

Finished with a smile, too.


I did not fully intend to attempt the marathon distance until November 2014 (about 14 weeks out from the race).  Before that, I was running 20-mile weeks for fitness and relaxation.  I hooked up with Birmingham Track Club Saturday morning long run group, where several people suggested I try a marathon and see if it suited me.  I volunteered to pace the Saturday training runs in exchange for a free race entry for the local Mercedes-Benz Marathon.  I figured why not...at the very least least I would learn something about my body in the process.  

Full disclosure:  I did not fully commit to running the marathon distance until January 20, when I completed a 19-mile long run that felt decent.  Even then, I made sure I would be able to change my mind and do the half on race day if I felt injured or mentally weak.  I also want to make it clear that I did not take this lightly or for granted.  I followed my club's "Novice/Excellent Cardiovascular Fitness Base" marathon training plan for 14 weeks.  I maxed out around 45 miles a week, with a 21-mile long run, and never felt injured or discouraged.

I did 99% of the runs on my club training schedule.  There was one 12-mile run scheduled for December 27 that I had to change to an 8-mile tempo because of Christmas travel, but I did the other thirteen long runs exactly as scheduled.  During the week, I did a short recovery run on Sundays, a speed workout, a few moderate runs, and took Fridays off.  I did workouts on the stationary bike if I started to  feel burned out on all the running.  Toward the end and especially for the taper, I was very careful to follow the training calendar.  I raced a 10-miler two weeks out, then started dialing back the volume and intensity.  

The Course
There she is.

Mercedes is a hilly marathon.  It is two loops on the same course through downtown, industrial parks, historic suburbs, and a college campus.  Weirdly, race weekend has a history of coinciding with the coldest weekend of the year.  In other words, this is not a Disney Princess event.  But, Mercedes is my hometown marathon, it is headed up by a phenomenal director, and it draws a very manageable crowd of enthusiastic runners (Marathon Maniacs looking to cross "Alabama" off the list, I am looking at you).  There is free barbeque and beer for everyone.  The major partner is the Bell Center for Early Intervention, a amazing charity that helps developmentally delayed children.

Double Hill Fantasy!  (walk breaks visible to all the world...thanks, Strava.)

The Race

I put my start-to-finish experience into bullet point format, or you can view the activity on Strava, if you are curious.  Going into this race, I felt fairly well prepared given the circumstances and my abilities.  I had made sure to eat and sleep well in the weeks before.

On race day, I got up around 5 am, dressed, and ate my normal long run breakfast of a Clif bar, a banana, candy pumpkins, and a cup of coffee.  I jogged the eight blocks from my apartment to Boutwell Auditorium and the starting area to stash my bag.  Since my family wouldn't be meeting me directly after the race, I checked a tote bag with warm clothes, my house key, and an old cell phone (I kept the SIM card with me while I ran).  I saw a few people from the track club, hit the bathroom, and got back outside just as the announcer was saying "three minutes, time to line up."

With Monica, our club long run coordinator...I checked my bag and warm clothes after this was taken.

Suddenly, there were a ton of people packed into the starting chute, and the crowd outside was moving verrrrryy slowly.  I saw the 4:00 pacers and another sign for "9:00 Miles" and decided I would get right in front of those guys.  I also saw that there was no way I was going to get all the way around the barricades and then make my way to the appropriate pace group.  I have a horrible history of underestimating my pace or starting too far back, so I started to feel panicked.

Right as the announcer said "one minute," I decided to climb over the barricade.  It was slippery and I had to wedge my shoes in sideways to get a grip on the rails, then fling myself onto the ground.  I am so, so glad I didn't hurt myself before the race even started!  I turned on my iTunes playlist, started my GPS watch, and shuffled across the start line. 

Mile...12?  This photo and the one above were given to me by Judith at Marathonfoto.com.


So, here are some splits (there are a lot of splits in a marathon, sorry):

1 - 9:06 - decent for the crowded start
2 - 8:57 - trying to stay relaxed and run even 9:00 splits
3 - 8:38 - crowd thinning out, feeling very excited to see my family at mile 3.5
4 - 8:49 - past Railroad Park and Regions Field...Birmingham you are looking lovely today!
5 - 9:04 - up the hill onto UAB's campus (slowed down for water and fuel right before the hill)
6 - 8:58 - at the 10k mark, I made a conscious decision to slow down
7 - 9:03 - started paying more attention to my watch, worried I was too excited and running too fast
8 - 9:04 - slight uphill section going into the Highland Park area, started to feel a little spun out
9 - 9:10 - Highland Park section, part of my normal midweek loop (more water and fuel)
10 - 9:07 - down a steep hill in the rain
11 - 8:54 - no memories of the next two miles...they are straight and flat
12 - 8:59 - ...and they are also part of my midweek loop, so I think I just switched my brain off
13 - 8:42 - yep, brain switched off and running too fast again
14 - 9:23 - after the half marathoners split off, I slowed down for water and fuel
15 - 9:04 - bumped into a training buddy and we ran together silently for a while
16 - 9:32 - took a walk break for fuel, thinking of the next hill section and feeling light headed
17 - 8:53 - saw my husband again, then tried to make up some time (a mistake in retrospect)
18 - 9:52 - second time up the hill onto UAB's campus
19 - 9:09 - reminded myself I needed a 9:0x pace and tried to pull it together
20 - 10:16 - another walk break at the steepest part of Highland Avenue
21 - 9:31 -  basically gave myself a motivational speech..."you LOVE Highland Avenue!"
22 - 9:20 - "no walking on Highland Avenue!" (I didn't walk again after this, so I guess it worked?)
23 - 10:01 - down the steep hill again, had to pump the brakes (I need to train more for downhills)
24 - 9:07 - caught by the 4:00 pacers, who dragged me along for a mile
25 - 9:30 - the real fun started as the pacers slipped away from me
26 - 9:35 - turned onto the final stretch and started counting down the blocks
.2 - 9:07 - hit the finish line and stopped my watch on 4:00:53

Taken at mile 8 by the Huntsville Track Club photographer.

So, I guess that list of splits combined with last week's bullet points is probably all I need to memorialize the race experience.  At any rate, it's probably more than you need.  I was surprised by how quickly some of the early miles flew by.  And then I was shocked by how slowly the clock seemed to move in the last half hour.  At the end, I felt pulled in two different directions by my extreme fatigue and the hard work of running, and I had no resources left.  Every time I think back on the last two miles of the race, I am awed by the memories (and of course resolved to do better "next time").

After the Race

As soon as I was through the chute, I chattered nonsensically to the 4:00 pacers and they congratulated me.  I grabbed a medal and shook hands with our track club president...I have no idea why he was standing there.

I was surprised that we had to walk through a maze of fencing in Linn Park in order to get back into the auditorium.  This little rat maze took everyone past stations with fruit, Powerade, and water.  I grabbed a banana and two bottles of water, and consumed them immediately.  The grassy park had been churned into mud and puddles, and I was having real difficulty walking through it all.  Annoyingly, obvious non-runners (family members?) were walking against the flow of traffic and taking up the entire sidewalk.  (Poor sidewalk etiquette is sort of a "thing" in the South, and I have gone into fits of rage about it many times since moving to Birmingham.)

I got over to the auditorium bag check and felt like a genius for checking a tote bag, especially since I didn't have anyone meeting me at the finish.  After that, I headed straight for the beer and drank half a Bud Light while I reassembled my phone...don't judge.  I texted my husband and started looking for the food.  By that point, walking across the auditorium seemed like an impossible task, and I have no idea how I managed to smile and not trip over everyone and everything.  Frankly, the idea of eating was disgusting, but I got a full plate of food anyway.  Like some miracle, salty potato chips restored my appetite and I ate every bite of food while I sent texts and cleared a million notifications from my phone.  I checked the race timing app and saw that two of my training partners had finished around 3:56, and four others were still out running.

The rest of the time in the auditorium is sort of a blur.  I wandered upstairs and found a woman from Good People brewery just handing out ice cold cans of IPA.  It was so strange...she was in a dark corner of an empty room in the auditorium trying to get rid of beers.  She made me take five, and I popped one open.  My husband called, and he and W joined me for more food, then we walked home.

I spent the rest of the day basically drinking water and enjoying marathon-related social media.  I tried to resist taking boatloads of Advil, but ended up taking a few before bed.  We got Indian takeout for dinner, and that was amazing.  Surprisingly, I struggled a bit with sleeping...my mind was overloaded and my legs were very tight.

I waited two days before trying to run again, when I did a three-mile crawl through Railroad Park in my marathon shirt.  In retrospect, this was probably too much too soon.  I had lingering tightness in my left hamstring for about a week. 

The Good
- I went into the race just hoping to 1) run a steady pace and not hit a wall, 2) have fun and learn what the marathon is all about, and 3) finish.  I did those things, and I was pleasantly surprised to finish close to the four-hour mark.
- Everyone in my pace group did amazingly, and everyone finished.  I am so proud of each and every one of them.
- I am grateful for the opportunity to be a track club pacer, and for the free entry to the race.  
- I am also grateful for the training plan put together by my track club, which seemed to work well. 
- And...I am beyond grateful for the club's organized long runs, which enabled me to run all those Saturdays with companionship, water drops, and pleasant routes.  I probably don't have what it takes to get up before sunrise and do a 15+ mile run all alone, in freezing weather, every single week.
- I feel like I did a good job building aerobic endurance, and I never felt winded during the race.
- The fuel I used was ordinary candy pumpkins, the kind that are basically gigantic candy corns.  During the race, I ate twelve of them, which is 90 grams of carbohydrate (equivalent to 3.6 gels).  I never felt like I hit a wall or ran out of fuel except for a brief moment around mile 16, which I was able to identify and address. 

Running with my pace group, photo by AL.com

The Bad
- I feel like I need to work on training to reduce fatigue.  I really felt a lot of muscular weakness toward the end of the race, especially in my hamstrings.  I want to run more when I am fatigued, by taking active recovery days and doing hard workouts closer together during the week.  I want to strengthen my core and upper body.  I think squats and deadlifts might help my legs, if I can work that in without having to reduce how much I run.   
- My splits show that the second set of hills really destroyed me.  I'm already planning to add in a tough hill workout once a week to help with this issue.
- Despite my best efforts, and my awareness of it as it was happening, I ran the first half too fast.  I think I should have run a steady 9:00 pace instead of running "how I felt," as boring as that seems.  I wasn't prepared for how difficult it would be to think rationally about pace during the race.  
- The weather was a challenge during this race, as it was during a lot of training runs.  As always, I ran with some fear of slipping and falling on the wet pavement.  That is something else I need to get used to.
- I didn't take enough rest after the race.  I need to take extra care stretching out my hamstrings, and probably give them three full days of rest after a marathon.  

Advice for Out of Towners
- Stay downtown!  I can't overstate how nice it is to be within walking distance of the start and the giant, indoor staging area.
- Find somewhere else to use the bathroom on the morning of the race.  The lines are horrible and full of all sorts of nervousness and negative energy.
- Make sure you train on hills!

I was given a free race entry in exchange for my services as a training pacer for the Birmingham Track Club.  I was not compensated in any way for this post. 


Jan said…
Great race recap! I love your pictures, especially the one of your pace group.
Dolly said…
Wow, Great race recap. I'm glad you provided a lot of the little details. I'm jealous that you were able to walk out your front door and jog to the start line. Are you kidding me? My home town marathon is Rock n Roll Las Vegas. The logitics are well organized but, the whole event is a circus.

Take it easy for the next week or two, It hasn't been quite a month yet since you finished your race. :)