Sunday, March 21, 2010

ING Georgia Marathon 3/21/10 (Race Report)

Today, March 21, 2010, I completed my sixth full marathon, the ING Georgia Marathon, here in Atlanta. My official finish time for the race was 4:58:48, the slowest finish time of the four pavement marathons that I've completed so far.

Garmin Elevation Chart of ING Georgia Marathon.
Elevation change of +1,652/-1,683

 Was this a failure or a low point? I don't think of it that way.

Some people have bad days on a golf course, some people have bad days on the basketball court, and some people have bad days on a marathon course. I've improved my personal records with each subsequent road marathon up to this point, but it was inevitable that I'd participate in a race that didn't result in a PR. If I participate in enough races, I won't achieve a personal best each and every time. It's all in the fun, though, and a rough marathon day is still much more fun than a good day at the office. I showed up at ING Georgia Marathon to enjoy myself and that's what I did.

I knew beforehand that I wouldn't be in my best condition for this particular marathon, because of the demands of the two marathons and three ultramarathons that I've completed over the past five months and because of my current goal right now to lose the unnecessary weight that I've put on since I completed the ING Georgia Marathon for the first time last year. For these reasons, I briefly considered dropping out of this race last week, but I changed my mind when I thought about the pleasant memories from last year's race. It's a gift for me to even be able to complete a marathon distance and I wanted to take advantage of that gift, even if my performance didn't measure up to my previous races. A runner who wants to improve his or her fitness can only do so by the “trial of miles” and that commitment entails showing up on the tough days as well as on the good days. I made the preemptive decision to use this marathon race as a long training “fun run” for the Sweet H20 50K ultra that I'll be participating in on April 3. I resolved to simply have as much fun as I could and complete the distance. Earlier this week, I told a friend that, although I completed the 2009 ING Georgia Marathon in 4:33:56, I'd be a happy man if I completed this year's event in five hours. Mission accomplished.

During the past three weeks since the rugged Mount Cheaha 50K ultra that I finished in Alabama, I focused on my recovery and on continuing my gradual weight loss that I had started a few weeks prior in order to get myself in peak running shape in months to come. After enjoying a fast 6-mile run with my Galloway marathon training group last Saturday and a muddy 11-mile trail run the next day, I settled into a taper week of shorter workouts to allow my body to rest for this marathon. I was derailed two days ago by stomach ailments that started when I returned from the ING Georgia Marathon Race Expo and continued into that evening. I'll use this experience as a Public Service Announcement to marathon runners; it's not always a good idea to accept a taste sample of each and every sports electrolyte drink while walking through the booth exhibits of a race expo! I spent yesterday resting and drinking plenty of water to hydrate myself after the stomach difficulties.

I woke up three hours before the race this morning, because I wanted to secure my favorite parking area for this marathon. The ING Georgia Marathon starts and finishes at Centennial Olympic Park and there's a parking lot directly across from the Coke Museum that I've used in the past, because it's only a short walk from the finish line. After arriving at the race site, I spent the next hour looking for friends and finding my race corral area near the start line. An unexpected encounter put a smile on my face. As I was walking through a building on the way to my race corral, I recognized Kevin, an old college friend that I hadn't seen since we had both graduated from Georgia Tech in the mid 1990's. Kevin was running the ING Half Marathon this year. We spent a few minutes catching up on old times and, after wishing him luck, I found my corral area and waited for the race to begin.

Although I've completed three ultramarathons over the past three months, including a 40-mile trail race, I knew better than to take this marathon lightly. Even if I progress in my ultra distances as I hope to do, the marathon distance of 26.2 miles will always retain its mystique and respect in my mind. After all, 26 miles is the distance that Phidippides ran to inform Athens of the victory at the Battle Of Marathon before dying shortly thereafter. I remembered back to March 7, 2009, when I completed my very first full marathon in Albany, Georgia. At the time, I had simply planned to complete just one marathon, mark it off of my “List Of Things To Do Before I Die”, and move on. I was barely even aware that there was any such thing as an “ultramarathon” (any distance longer than 26.2 miles) and I would shake my head at the insane people who completed multiple marathons in a short time, let alone the crazies who ran ultramarathons in the woods. One thing has led to another over the past year, though, and, as I've met new friends who participate in these activities on a routine basis, the impossible and the insane have now become normal in my fun new life. Still, the 26.2 distance of a road marathon holds its unique challenging allure. As I waited in my race corral, I joked around with other runners, but felt the familiar nervous butterflies in my stomach and the dead weight of my upcoming task sinking down from my head to my feet. The 50-degree temperatures were an improvement over the harsh unusual winter climates that Georgia has experienced this year, but I was still shivering at the starting area and trying to shake off my nerves in the same way that a racehorse trembles before the gun goes off.

The ING Georgia Marathon began with the gradual subtlety common to all large road races where the first race corral starts to run and each subsequent corral walks to the starting line point to follow. I turned my Garmin and interval timer on just a couple of seconds before crossing the official timed start line and began a slow, easy-paced run with the crowd in the first mile of the race that proceeded through Georgia State University to Piedmont Road.

The first 14 miles of this marathon were heaven on Earth for me. My personal mantra for marathons and longer distances is that, if I never have to ask myself during the first half if I'm running too slow, then that means that I'm running too fast. My most fun road marathons have been the ones when I paced out slowly in the first half and then using that conserved energy to achieve a negative split by running the second half of my race faster than the first half. From the very beginning of the race, I utilized my Galloway Method intervals of running for four minutes, walking for one minute, and repeating these intervals to minimize distance fatigue. During my running intervals, I used short strides with increased cadence for the downhills and ran with short baby steps on the uphills to keep from wearing myself out. Despite my weight gain over the past year, as I've eaten excessively while training for long distance races, I felt light and buoyant for most of these first 14 miles. My good humor reflected this and I enjoyed meeting different runners along the route and talking with each one as we ran alongside each other until one of us increased our pace or fell behind. The cloudy sky opened up in a few spots and rain sprinkled down, but the bottom never fell out of the sky as I feared it would. When I noticed myself starting to sweat heavily after the first half hour, I took the first of a few S-caps that I had brought with me. I also committed to eating one of my mint chocolate GU energy gels every 45 minutes.

When I felt like I was pacing out too fast during the first half of this race, I would slow down and take in the sights of this crowded, big event marathon. Although my heart now mostly belongs to the trail races where I sometimes don't encounter any runners for long periods of time, I was impressed and amused at many sights of the ING Georgia Marathon. As I ran by the Martin Luther King, Jr. historic sites, I was touched to see members of a church choir singing to all of us running the race. A couple of miles later, as I ran around the corner to Edgewood, a cheering section led by a loud guy dressed as a caveman, complete with a giant club, greeted me. When I ran up the hill on Euclid Avenue through Little Five Points, it felt strange to be on that street in the early morning without plans to go CD shopping at my favorite Atlanta music store, Criminal Records, or to see a concert at Variety Playhouse.

Every so often, I would pass by volunteers who greeted me by name and I was troubled that I couldn't remember who they were. While I'm not as adept at remembering names, I've always been good at remembering faces and I didn't remember seeing any of these people before. At one point, I passed by a house where the entire family was on the front lawn cheering for the runners. Three young children started shouting, “Go, Jason, go!” I wondered to myself how in the world those children knew who I was. As I ran through the aid station at Agnes Scott College and was greeted by a couple of college girls who knew my name, I was grateful, but likewise puzzled. Later on in the race, though, it occurred to me that my first and last name were printed on my race number that I had pinned to the front of my shirt!

I have to push the pause button on this race report now to acknowledge the volunteers and bystanders along this ING Georgia Marathon course. It may be tough for us runners to keep going on a rainy morning, but it also takes a degree of stamina to stand by the road for hours cheering as runners go by or pouring drinks at aid stations for runners. I've volunteered for a number of races, although not as often as I need to, and can attest that it's work, although the work is fun in itself. I was grateful for every single person who cheered alongside the road and, for the most part, I made a real effort to thank these people for being there for us. I took special care to thank the police officers who were standing at each intersection to divert traffic from the marathon course.

Along the 12th mile, a young woman stopped to walk alongside me after hearing my interval timer beep alerting me to a walk break. She said that her husband had run ahead in the race and asked if I minded if she did the run/walk intervals alongside me, because her legs were fatigued at that point. I welcomed her and enjoyed conversing with her for a couple of miles.

At mile 13.1 in downtown Decatur, I looked down at my Garmin and noted the 2:20 time. This readout was uplifting to me, because I remembered crossing the 13.1 halfway point in 2:30 at last year's race, before achieving a massive negative split and running the second half in just over two hours to achieve my 4:33:56 finish time. With the 2:20 first half behind me, I briefly envisioned myself not only being able to beat my previous year's race time, but also being able to possibly close the bridge on my personal marathon record of 4:20:10 (Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon, November 2009). Unfortunately, this course had other plans for me today.

As I approached the 14 mile mark, Mike, a friend from my GUTS trail running group, rode by on his bicycle and asked me how I was doing. I told him that I felt great and then congratulated him on his Oak Mountain 50K finish the day before. I was incredibly thankful to see him along the race supporting us and let him know it. As he rode on, I told the woman that I had been running alongside that Mike was a “superstar” who had completed multiple ultramarathons and Ironman triathlons.

I started feeling sluggish around mile 14, but stayed true to my run/walk intervals and kept going strong on an extensive gradual downhill. As I've participated in more of these races, I've paid increasing notice to the running form of other people around me and developed a idea of who is able to proceed in a seemingly effortless fashion through an entire distance. I noticed a tall slim guy with red hair running a few feet in front of me. He ran with a casual light-footed pace and his feet seemed to float along the road. I found myself envying his easy stride and wishing that I could be lighter and have the same effortless motion that he had. By contrast, I was beginning to feel the adverse affects of my own heavy weight and I felt like I was pounding on the pavement with elephant feet.

The woman who had run with me for the past couple of miles continued on as I stopped at an aid station just before mile 15 to refill my handheld water bottle. A few yards past the aid station, I stopped briefly at a portable toilet, then emerged to continue my run.

At that point, I experienced a sudden energy drop. I'm not sure if it was the act of stopping motion to wait for a few seconds in line at the portable toilet or something else, but I went from feeling slightly sluggish to feeling almost completely drained in a matter of seconds. The energy drop is difficult to explain, but I was reminded of a villain from the Superman comic books that I used to read in my childhood. The Parasite was a character who could drain a superhero's power simply by touching that superhero. As I began running again at mile 15, I suddenly felt like the Parasite had just touched me and drained my energy away for himself.

I ate another energy gel and soldiered on. I briefly caught up with the woman that I had talked with earlier and we both commented on how beautiful Emory campus was as we turned off of North Decatur onto the campus. After a comforting downhill leading away from Emory, the challenge of Druid Hills began with a vengeance as I ascended a climb on Lullwater. I kept to my 4/1 run/walk intervals, but my pace had slowed considerably. I picked up momentum again on a long downhill before turning on Ponce De Leon Road for a short while before another comfortable downhill on Oakdale. I was spotted by another GUTS runner, Len, just after a hill climb and said hello to him before continuing on another downhill.

Shortly before entering the beautiful Virginia Highlands neighborhoods, the ING Georgia Marathon course took a different course route from the previous year to challenge us with some steep uphills on Stillwood Road. These hills got the best of me and, for the first time, I dispensed with my 4/1 run/walk intervals and proceeded to simply walk the uphills along this road. My legs felt like lead bricks at this point and, although I knew that I had less than 7 miles left, my body was telling me that it had been through enough. I guess, after taking on the task of racing six marathon/ultramarathon distances over the past six months, my unprepared physique was finally yelling, “Mercy!”, and giving in. Self-doubt kicked in and I thought about the concern about my running that had been voiced to me by my family and by various friends. “They're right. I am trying to run too much.”

At this point, though, I realized that I loved these moments and that these times when I'm doubting myself and staring over the edge of the abyss are part of the reason why I'm drawn to the allure of long distances. I agree with something that Dean Karnazes wrote about the simplicity of the task.  As adults, our major life decisions (Rent or buy? Stay in Atlanta or find a job in a more affordable place?, etc.) are complicated and the outcomes are uncertain. During a long distance race, though, I'm never uncertain about what needs to be done or how I must do it. I always know that I must keep moving forward and, even during my lowest points, I'm drawn to that simplicity that I don't have in any other aspects of my life.

Thankfully, I stayed fairly true to my “no whining” rule for this race and remained in good humor. As I passed one struggling runner at mile 20, I told him that this would have been much easier if Phidippides had died after running just 20 miles and we both started laughing.

As I entered Piedmont Park and began a short out-and-back around the park perimeter by the Botanical Gardens, I was happy to see another GUTS runner, Kim, who was standing by the route with some friends to cheer the other runners. At that point, I was temporarily reduced to a walk and I told them that I was doing just fine, although my legs were not cooperating.
When I reached the turnaround of the out-and-back stretch at Piedmont Park and was running in the opposite direction of those runners still behind me, I had another encounter that put a smile to my face and gave me new energy. I looked over at the runners struggling behind me in the opposite direction and saw the tall slim guy with red hair whose “perfect effortless floating stride” I had envied at mile 14. I have no idea when or how it happened, but I had passed this “perfect stride” runner at some point over the past few miles and he was now a considerable distance behind me. Score one for me and my heavy overweight elephant foot stride! I broke out into a wide grin and started to run again.

A long uphill descent up 12th Street from Piedmont Park was excruciating and reduced me to a walk again. Thankfully, I found myself walking between two groups of beautiful Atlanta Falcons cheerleaders on each side of the road and I decided that I was in no big hurry to pass by them.

At this point, I ran the downhills, but the uphills owned me. At mile 23, I looked down at my Garmin and saw a time of 4:25. My shipment of Fail had arrived and I would not be beating my time from last year's race.

I continued on through Georgia Tech campus, breaking into a run as I waved to some fraternity guys who were cheering me on. As with last year's marathon, the route through Georgia Tech was one of my favorite stretches for personal reasons. During the early 1990's, I was a poor student at Georgia Tech and my priorities were never in the right place. I somehow managed to graduate from Georgia Tech with a mediocre average GPA in 1995, but I've often regretted my immature lack of focus during those years. The symbolism of running through the Georgia Tech campus in the final miles of a marathon and having a personal victory now associated with that campus gave me a newfound peace of mind last year and I felt the same way during this year's race.

After one last uphill beside the Georgia Tech Student Center, I began the final mile of the ING Georgia Marathon along a deceptively difficult flat road leading to the finish. I looked down at my Garmin and realized that I only had twelve minutes left to finish the marathon before the 5-hour mark. I've never been on a road marathon course for 5 hours and I had no intention of going over the 5-hour mark today. With my legs sending railroad spikes of pain with each step, I did my best to hurry to the finish. I was happy to see yet another GUTS runner, Scott, who had accompanied me at the Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run, along this stretch. I made the final turn and took off my cap to run through the Finish Line, where I picked up my medal and quickly downed a bottle of water and some yogurt from a volunteer food stand.

My Garmin registered my finish time at 4:59:00. My official finish time was posted at 4:58:48. This was my slowest road marathon time, but it was also my sixth marathon/ultra distance within six months and, therefore, qualifies me for double-star status with Marathon Maniacs, a group that I joined last year after completing my first three marathons with in three months. Most people don't understand, but I'm proud of this. I guess there's a reason why we're referred to as maniacs.

Thanks to the race directors, volunteers, and friends who made this “bad day” such a fun experience for me.

See you on the trails.


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