Sometimes, the best things in life end up being the unexpected. That’s my experience at the Inaugural Georgia Marathon, on March 25th, in Atlanta.
Sure, I’ve been to Atlanta before. Well, if you count making connections at Atlanta’s busy Hartfield Airport. Or driving through downtown Atlanta in the wee hours of the night on my way to (or was it from?) Florida for spring break when I was in college. Or maybe marching through the iconic Southern city in the multiple times that I’ve seen “Gone With the Wind” and “Driving Miss Daisy”.
Well, then, I guess maybe not. It seems a good thing, then, that my membership in the 50 States Marathon Club requires that I make a pass through Georgia. And even better yet when my friend Michele alerts me to that fact that ING is sponsoring a new 26.2 mile jaunt through her town in March of this year. In the marathoning community, we know that running an inaugural marathon has its risks; I’ve felt this pain in the old Mile High City Marathon and at the inaugural Tecumseh Trail Marathon in Indiana. Snafus are more than likely. But a couple of facts help me ignore the risks of the newness of this race. One is that ING is the sponsor, and they sponsor many big city marathons, including New York, Miami, and Amsterdam. They must know what they’re doing, right? And the other fact is simply this: when Michele makes the announcement, many of my Taper Madness buddies immediately sign up to do the race. How could I not join them?
So on race day, I find myself on the MARTA train with Michele (my hostess for the weekend, and from here on out “1L”) and Michelle (my fellow boarder at 1L’s house in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, “2Ls”). We have a wee bit of stress as we worry about the train getting us to the start on time, but our worries are for naught. We reach the Underground station with enough time to cycle through bathroom lines before checking gear in the UPS trucks. We run into a few more TM friends (Lori and Autumn) who are frantically making their way to the port-a-potties for their final pre-race stop, and then we all wish each other good luck as we head off for our respective places for the race start.
It’s still dark for this 7 a.m. race start, but the bad news is that it’s already warm – I watch as the huge Coca-Cola sign changes the temperature from 65F to 68F in the minutes while I wait for the race to start. It feels weird to be suddenly alone, in a huge crowd of people. 1L has gone off to find her neighbor and training partner Sally, and 2Ls has gone to find the 6 hour pace group. As for me, I have no idea what to expect from the day. My training cycle has been weird – influenced in a bad (slow) way by far too much snow on the ground this winter – and I don’t really feel prepared for a marathon. Last fall, I ran 4 marathons between the end of September and the first part of December, and it all started to feel routine. Now, with 3 ½ months between races, it all feels new and foreign again. What’s ahead?
Helicopters circle overhead, and it’s impossible to hear the speakers, but I have a sense that the race has started. There’s a small amount of movement from where I’m standing, way, way back in the crowd. Finally, after walking several blocks, it seems that we’re running across the start line. But wait. It says “Finish”. Huh? I know that the race will end back here, but I’m confused – is there a separate start? In a panic, I start my watch, only to realize, a few moments later, that there is actually a separate start line. I frantically stop my watch and hit reset, just before I finally cross the true start line. Whew. So much energy and panic, and the race is barely underway.
The scenery in the first few miles could be anytown, anywhere, anymarathon: people, wall to wall people. For an inaugural event, this puppy is huge: 15,000 people in the combined half-marathon and marathon, and we’ve all just started together. I don’t really mind, at first, that it’s this crowded – it all adds to the excitement of the start. But shortly into the run, as I have to weave around walkers and people proudly wearing t-shirts with slogans like “I know I’m slow but I don’t care” printed on the back, I get a bit annoyed. I’m happy to share the race course with these people – God bless you for getting out here to run – but if you’re going to walk in the first couple of miles, next time could you please line up at the back???
Around the two mile mark, it’s getting light out, and we make a major left-hand turn, running just past the Martin Luther King Center and the church where MLK preached back in the early days of the civil rights movement. Pretty cool stuff, but the cool stuff I’m looking for is the water offered up at the first aid station here. Now I’m on familiar turf, since 1L took me on a tour of the race course yesterday, and I’m starting to recognize landmarks. We run right past the MLK birthplace, but I have to admit that today I miss it entirely. Good thing I caught a glimpse yesterday.
The road remains crowded, and I’m looking forward to the point, around 3 ½ miles, where the half marathoners split off and we full marathoners will have the entire road to ourselves. Just before the two race courses split, there’s a second aid station. It’s a bad sign that I’m already looking forward to more liquids this early in the race, but it’s quite warm for a marathon. The really, really bad news is that just as I run up to the aid station, I see the last two cups for water disappear, and hear volunteers say that they are out of cups. Out of water this early in the race? Unbelievable. But there’s nothing to be done except to keep running and look forward to lots of liquids at the next aid station.
We split from the half marathoners, and finally have a bit of room on the road. We’ve just run through the Atlanta areas of Inman Park and Little Five Points, and I’m feeling okay. My right calf/Achilles tendon have been bothering me from the start, but they’re starting to go numb, so I’m okay. My splits are slower than for any of my marathons last fall, but given the hills and heat, that’s not unexpected. I’m just running and starting to enjoy the scenery.
As 1L pointed out yesterday, we’re running through some really beautiful areas in Atlanta. Old neighborhoods, re-gentrified and nicely kept. Everything is in bloom – dogwoods and azaleas and cherry trees – and there are pockets of people out cheering us on.
As I run, I try to remember the course map, trying to picture the biggest climbs. At what point in the race do they come? Since this course is mostly a loop, there is no net elevation change, but there are lots of ups and downs along the way. 1L ran much of the course a few weeks ago with her training friends, and declared the course to be much harder than Boston. I was a bit skeptical of this diagnosis until we drove the thing yesterday, and I was convinced that she was right. The only saving grace, I think, is that the first half has more downhill than the second half. I hope that I can use this fact to help to establish a faster pace out of the chute, and then try to maintain that on the way back to the barn.
As my splits reveal, the strategy does not work, but I won’t know that until later in the day.
The one thing I remember clearly from the maps is that the first big climb of the day starts around mile 6, and goes on for about a mile and a half. Just around the six mile marker, there is a sign announcing an upcoming aid station. Since I didn’t get water at the second aid station, I’m really looking forward to this one, and I swallow a gel. The only problem is: there is no aid station. After running for a while past the sign, I start to talk to people around me. Isn’t there an aid station here? Everyone agrees that they also saw the sign, but no water appears. The temperature is climbing. I’m getting thirsty. This is starting to seem like a really, really bad idea.
We run through some lovely areas, and then along a divided roadway. The climb is done, and finally – finally! – there’s another aid station at mile 8. I want to stop and drink several glasses of water, but instead I just grab a couple of cups, trying to have some sympathy for the back-of-the-packers yet to come. We pass Agnes Scott College – a beautiful campus – and then turn into the town of Decatur.
Our bibs today have our names pre-printed on them, and so far I haven’t heard the fans along the roadside take advantage of this fact. But as we turn into Decatur, there is a nice gathering of fans all cheering insanely loudly. The Decatur High School cheerleading squad is lined up on the left hand side of the road, in uniform, and the first cheerleader looks squarely at my bib. She turns to her squad, and as I run by, they post up a cheer “Go Judy Go Judy Go Judy!” What a rush! And then it seems a huge number of people stick out there hands, just so I can high-five them as I run by. There are moments in every marathon that stand out, the things you’ll remember months later, maybe years later, after all the pain is gone, after you’ve recovered and run several more races, after you’ve forgotten much of the race course itself. These are the reasons that we get out of bed at insanely early hours on Saturday and Sunday. As the cheerleaders chant my name, and my hand slaps the hands of who-knows-how-many spectators, I think that this is one of those moments. This moment alone might make my day.
On through the town of Decatur, and past several huge churches with pastors in full robes standing at the open doors. We no longer have the full road, and we’re running in a single coned-off lane. It’s a bit crowded in that lane, but worse yet, the road is slanted. The roadways here all seem to be crowned – probably to funnel off rain – and that’s bad news for anyone who is forced to run mile after mile after mile on a single side of the road, because it puts undue pressure on one leg. I try to run as much toward the center of the road as possible; that means I often run outside of the cones, and I keep my eyes out for cops and race officials who might disqualify me. I see lots of other people doing the same thing. I’m worried about how this is going to affect my gimpy right leg. But I’m more worried about the lack of electrolyte replacements – there has been none of the advertised Powerade on the course – and think briefly that I’ll head into a convenience store if I see one, just to buy a bottle of Gatorade – but there are so many people cheering in little sections now that I never see a store.
The temperature is continuing to rise, and we continue to run. Atlanta is a beautiful city, and this course takes us through many beautiful areas. There are plenty of twists and turns to keep the thing from ever being boring. Soon, we are making yet another turn and heading through a small part of the Emory University campus, where there is an aid station. Finally, the aid stations are coming fairly frequently, and this is by far the best – spread out, lots of volunteers, and the volunteers seem to have experience. The only unfortunate thing – other than the sharp up and downhills through the campus – is that the aid station is set up right on top of a mile marker; it’s the only split that I miss today.
The next several miles are by far the prettiest of the course, through the Druid Hills, past the Driving Miss Daisy house (which, by the way, I never really see). These are mansions of the antebellum style that I associate with the south, with lots of huge overgrown trees and shrubs. Up LullwaterRoad, then down Oakdale Road – more of the same, huge old beautiful homes. What surprises me most is the support offered by the residents. Everywhere now, there are pockets of people out cheering, and there are even a few little bands out playing for us.
Along Oakdale Road, I run with a woman for awhile who introduces herself as an Atlanta native. It’s a nice distraction to have someone to talk with, and we weather the hills here together. But I’m watching my heart rate, and it’s quite out of control, here at the halfway point; at one point, I utter a sentence to the woman, and then think that I’m going to pass out because I can’t catch my breath. In fact, for a moment I think I’m going to have a heart attack, but I concentrate on breathing, and the moment passes. Better not to talk anymore. My running partner utters another sentence or two, but then she bids me farewell with a “I’m slowing down” utterance, and I’m on my own again.
The heat is taking its toll. The hills are taking their toll. And it’s only the halfway point.
At the halfway point, I hit another split on my watch. 2:05. Not bad, I think. Because of the heat and the beating my legs are taking from the hils, I expect my second half to be slower. Still, I think that maybe I can turn in a 4:15 for the day, and I’d be very happy with that. So I try to hang on, but my initially slow speed is slowing even more, and I’m feeling the effects of dehydration. My right calf, which had gone silent many miles back, now makes itself known again by starting to cramp badly. I run through the cramp, but the cramp moves into my right foot. Uh-oh, I think; this could be a really long day if I have to walk the rest of the race.
But I seem to be able to run through the cramp, and I take another electrolyte replacement tab when I reach the next aid station. I really need some Gatorade, but there is none on the course. I’ve taken a couple of gels at this point, but decide that my stomach is going sour too quickly, and I decide to hold off on taking more. Besides, the thought of swallowing another gel in this heat pretty much turns my stomach. So on I run.
Next up: a funky little out and back route on Freedom Parkway, just past the Carter Center. This might be a nice stretch of roadway, except for the fact that it’s all completely exposed to the cruel sun. I start looking across the parkway for familiar faces, but don’t see anyone. There’s one odd brief moment of respite from the sun, when we run under a concrete shelter that seems to make no practical sense, but as long as I’m not in that sun, I’ll take it.
I don’t spot any other Tapers until the turnaround point at mile 19, where I see Deeter standing on the grass in the median, taking photos. We greet each other. “How are you doing?” asks Deeter, and I reply that I’m doing okay. What a colossal lie. When he responds after I pose the same question back to him, it’s with “I’ve been better.” Ah, at least one of us is telling the truth.
Somehow, seeing speedy Deeter just having fun with the day and clearly not working towards any goals just kind of takes away any remaining incentive I have to try to do something with the day. It’s not going to be a PR day; it’s not going to be a sub-4 day; it’s just going to be a tough slog to the finish, so who cares? That’s the lethal thought that implants itself in my brain, and it makes the final 7 miles of the race nothing but a painful death march.
From here on out, everything cramps at various times. My right calf, my right foot, my entire left leg south of my knee. My hip flexors. Then my left knee twinges in a weird new way, and I think it might just give out entirely. I run through the cramps, all of them, but I must look odd as I do it. I’m in pain, more than ever before in a marathon. This is not a good race for on-course photos.
I still recognize a few neighborhoods and areas from the tour of the course yesterday, but I’m no longer really enjoying this tour of Atlanta…until. Until we reach the Virginia Highlands area, where the local folks out cheering are just incredible. And they have ice. ICE! God bless them, everyone! I take ice from everyone and anyone offering it, even though it means that at times I’m stuffing huge ice cubes in my mouth so that I can hold more huge ice cubes in both hands, and then bathe my entire body with ice. ICE! God’s most incredible invention.
But the ice can only do so much. The rest of the race is pain, pure pain. At some point I decide that my only remaining goal for the day is to finish in under 4:30. At the time I adopt this goal, it seems a no-brainer. But the cramping continues, and I’ve started to get light-headed, so finally at mile 23, I start walking in sections. I’ve never done this before in a race, not beyond walking through aid stations. Even in my first marathon, all those years ago, I walked only once late in the race, on a serious uphill; even then, I vowed I’d never do that again. Today, I don’t care. I’m seriously afraid of passing out, so when my head starts to spin, I start to walk.
There is far too much uphill in these last miles of the race, and I’m crawling. I play mind games: when I get to the next block, I’ll run. And then I get there, and I say, okay, the next block. It’s not a pretty sight.
Finally, as I monitor my watch, I determine that I’m going to have to pick it up in order to finish in under 4:30, so when the course finally turns a bit downhill in the last half mile, I start to run again. I manage to eke out a 4:28:36. I cross the finish line, but I don’t do the traditional Rocky pose. This is pure survival, and it doesn’t feel like I should celebrate. It’s more simple than that: I’m done. Another state crossed off. Another medal for the collection.
I’m not feeling so great about the day, but as I exit the finish area, I find 1L and Len (a Taper who very wisely stuck with just the half marathon), and then moments later, a whole passel of Tapers join us. We hobble off to the Atlanta Underground area, where the team tents are set up, and we proceed to pump fluids into our bodies, attempting to avoid further cramping, and we share stories of the misery out on the course. There is far too much truth in the adage “misery loves company”; usually there’s something sad in the truth of it, but today there’s only joy. This misery seems universal among us runners: we all experienced the same heat and dehydration and hills and lack of fluids on the course, and we all have similar stories to tell. Somehow, it’s so much easier to laugh at your own misery when you’re sharing it with someone who understands at a molecular level what you’ve just gone through.
There are several of us Tapers, just hanging around; nobody has much need to move, to go, to leave this gathering. Every once in a while somebody says, “I wonder how Michelle is doing out there?” and we all express concern, hoping that maybe she took the smart route and dropped from the marathon to the half. 2Ls, however, is a marathoner, so the smart money is that she’s still out there on the course. Finally, 1L remembers that 2Ls took her cell phone with her, and calls. She’s at the 24 mile point, walking, but going to finish!
So we all sit around a bit longer, then we stand up and complain about our aching bodies, and we limp our way back to the finish area, picking up bottles of water and pretzels for 2Ls, and whatever else we can scrounge along the way. We get there a moment too late – Michelle has her medal when we find her, but she’s still jazzed about finishing. She’s thrilled that we are all there to meet her, just absolutely thrilled. I feel like this is the best thing that I’ve done all day. In truth, this is the unexpected best thing about the day: the time spent with friends.
And so it is that I have a story to tell my friends and family in the following days, when I return home and they ask me about the Georgia Marathon. It was a train wreck, I’ll tell them. A horrible race. Heat, hills, dehydration, cramping, crawling to the finish. Ah, too bad, they’ll all say in response. I’m sorry you had a rotten time there.
And then I’ll correct them. No, not at all. I had a terrible race. But I had a fantastic time.