On March 22, 2015, I completed my seventh Publix Georgia Marathon with a finish time of 5:10:20.
The Publix Georgia Marathon, which takes place every March here in Atlanta, is the race equivalent of a new James Bond movie or a new Stephen King novel, in that I refuse to miss out on it regardless of predictions or circumstances. This year, my predictions were not particularly stellar.
After achieving my slowest road marathon time last year at this event, my extended running funk that I had been experiencing since my Pinhoti 100 finish in late 2012 had continued in a gradual downward spiral until this past Christmas season, when I found myself in a state of complete “fitness burnout”, where I lacked the motivation even to show up for normal Saturday training runs or weeknight gym workouts with my trainer. The sofa in my apartment was more inviting, and unhealthy processed foods were more tempting.
I ultimately decided that, instead of waiting for my running mojo to return to me, I needed to put on some running shoes, go out into the world to find my running mojo, hit it on the head with a club, sling it over my shoulder, and carry it back to my cave. At the beginning of 2015, I established a new rule that forbade me from taking consecutive rest days, meaning that I had to run at least every other day. I did not concern myself with pace or speed, and I decided simply to concentrate on shorter runs of three to 10 miles where my only goal was to run nonstop without walk breaks. I also backed out of a handful of ultramarathons that I had scheduled over the winter, with the belief that a no-pressure approach to my running comeback would help me to rediscover the joy of running simply for the sake of running. Since we had a rough winter by Georgia standards this year, with more sub-20-degree days than usual, the act of going outside to run at least four days a week was not always easy, but I soldiered on without fail, often wearing bulky clothes on the colder days or running at odd hours during out-of-town trips to work conferences and such. The best way to become a runner is simply to run, and, after weeks of pounding the pavement on the hills around my apartment complex, even on those days when the absolute last thing on Earth that I want to do was run out in the cold, I am finally starting to feel like a runner again.
My newfound focus on consistent short runs, however, came at the expense of endurance training, and, when I showed up at the start area on the morning of this marathon, my one and only long distance workout of the winter had been a 16-mile Saturday morning run that I had completed with my training group in late February. During the previous year, I had learned the hard way how a long distance can wreak havoc on legs that are not accustomed to endurance training. My running was more consistent than it had been in years, so this marathon would be a true test of whether consistency could compensate for a lack of longer runs.
As I sat in my truck in a parking area next to the race start and watched the pouring rain hit my windshield, I debated whether or not I should visit the check-in booth and change to the half marathon distance, as several of my friends had done this year. I finally decided that the worst thing that could happen was that I would be picked up by the sweeper bus if I ran out of energy and fell behind on the necessary pace to finish within six hours. I finally left the dry comfort of my truck to walk over to Centennial Park in the cold rain, where I took shelter under a Powerade tent and talked with a friend for a few minutes before lining up in my race corral, where I set my timer for modest two-minute-run/one-minute-walk intervals.
My enthusiasm was dampened by the miserable weather during the first few miles through downtown Atlanta, the historic Martin Luther King, Jr. neighborhoods, and the streets of Little Five Points. I was joined by a local ultrarunning friend, Paul, during these early miles, and I fought the temptation to stay on the half marathon course with him instead of splitting off onto the marathon route where the two courses separated on North Avenue, although I knew that finishing the half route would result in a DNF (Did Not Finish) for me, since I was wearing a marathon race number. My walk/run intervals helped us maintain a deliberately slower pace. As we made it to the fifth mile, I ate my first pack of Sport Beans and drank some Powerade from an aid station in hopes that the calories and the sugar would help my motivation.
When I reached the point on the sixth mile where the marathon and half marathon routes diverged, I reluctantly left the crowds of the half route and continued on the full route toward Decatur, where I knew that tougher hills were in store for my soaked mindset and my undertrained legs. I spent a good part of the next mile after the split-off wondering whether or not to turn back and return to the half marathon.
Somewhere around this time, I realized that a hole had formed in my left Smartwool sock, and that my big toe was poking through the hole. The discomfort of my toe poking through the sock was just a minor annoyance, though, so I shrugged it off as a problem that I would not be able to resolve until the race was finished.
John Milton wrote, “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” During my trek through Candler Park to the neighborhoods of Decatur, I started searching for ways to cheer myself up as I soldiered on in the soggy weather. I made a point to smile and wave at all of the volunteers and police officers at the intersections, since I knew that they were going to a lot of trouble to be standing out in the rain for all of us runners.
A long straightaway into the city of Decatur at mile 11 has always been the site where I experience extreme mental lows during this marathon, because the road seems to go on forever. I was steadily tiring of the two-minute-run/one-minute-walk intervals, and I saw the writing on the wall in terms of my ability to maintain those intervals. After a short internal debate, I changed my timer to one-minute-run/one-minute-walk intervals, knowing that these gentler intervals might slow my pace, but hoping that they would help me through the tougher terrain that was soon to come.
I made my way through the halfway point in downtown Decatur and waved to a few friends who were standing by the road before following the course through the beautiful, albeit rainy, Emory University campus. At this point, I was actually thankful for the cold and wet weather, because I was spared the usual temperature increase that had always taken me by surprise during the final half of the previous Publix Georgia Marathon events. I continued waving to police officers, spectators, and volunteers as I entered the harsh territory of the appropriately-named Druid Hills neighborhoods, where the constantly changing elevations claim many a runner.
The one-minute-run/one-minute-walk intervals got me through these hilly neighborhoods without incident, and I was pleased to find the intervals were helpful in both physical and mental terms. I can do anything for just one minute, and I had no trouble even running up the steepest inclines if they happened to greet me during a run interval. The punishing hills of the Briarcliff neighborhoods on the way to the Virginia Highlands area have slowed me to an extended walk in the past, but I was able to maintain a constant pace this time.
As I passed Mile 20 on the course, I realized that I was genuinely happy and energetic. This was the first race experience in a couple of years where I had been able to pull myself out of a mental rough spot and find energy inside myself for the later miles, and I was overjoyed to be reunited with that spark that had been missing for so long in my races. I was somehow moving almost as fast with the one/one intervals that I had two/one intervals earlier in the race, and I had no doubt that my consistent short runs over the past three months were helping my legs to feel more at home on pavement even during the longest distance that I had completed in months.
As I entered Piedmont Park, I looked down at my feet and realized that the toe area of my left shoe was red. I felt no pain in my foot whatsoever, aside from the tiny annoyance of my big toe poking through the hole in my sock, and I wondered if I had perhaps spilled some red Powerade on my shoe at some point along one of the aid stations. I simply ignored the sight of my shoe and kept running with a smile.
While I was running through the Georgia Tech campus a couple of miles later, though, I noticed that the red stains on my left shoe were becoming more prominent and that, in fact, the red was spilling over the front tread. I was still pain-free, but I realized at this point that the hole in my sock had probably led to a small cut or scrape so that blood was pumping out each time my foot hit the pavement. I was still running strong with plenty of energy, though, and this was something that I would not need to worry about until after I crossed the finish line. After the race, when I did finally arrive home to remove my shoes, I would find that a small scrape had, indeed, formed on my big toe and that the blood had completely soaked the inside of my shoe.
As I passed the Mile 25 marker of the race, I encountered a runner who looked as though he had been struggling, so I asked him if he wanted to join me for my one/one intervals to the finish. We introduced ourselves and spent most of that final mile straightaway road talking about our jobs and such. There was admittedly some selfish motivation in my decision to ask a stranger to join me for this stretch, since I knew that conversation would take my mind off of how this last mile seemed never to end, and of how the distant landmarks of the finish area seemed never to come closer. Just before the turnoff onto the finish road, my new friend fell back and told me that he would walk for a while longer, so I ignored beeps of my interval timer and ran consistently to the end.
I crossed the finish line with a time of 5:10:20, and managed to beat my disappointing time from last year’s race by more than a half hour. This marathon was still nowhere close to my fastest one, but it was also a good bit faster than my slowest one, so that was fine with me. I was grateful that I had managed a decent run by my standards and remained energetic at a race where I had been predicting a disastrous death march during the final miles. I do not have many long distance races on my schedule for the next few months, because I’m planning to continue my focus on consistent shorter runs, but my weekly mileage will inevitably increase, and I am sure that I will be finishing more of these longer runs with a smile in the future.
As always, I am thankful to the volunteers, race organizers, and police officers who helped out along the course, because it is not easy to stand around in cold rainy weather. A couple of days ago, I signed up early for the 2016 Publix Georgia Marathon, so my streak of participating in this great event will continue. My goal for next year is to complete the race with a faster finish time without taking a post-race selfie photo of a blood-covered shoe, and, more importantly, to continue having fun.
See you on the trails.