|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.
|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.)|
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.
- 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|
- 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.