On November 13, 2010, I completed the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon with a finish time of 4:30:03.
The Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon takes place in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia along the roads of the Chickamauga Battlefield Park, the oldest military park in the country. The park commemorates the Battle of Chickamauga, an 1863 Civil War campaign that resulted in the second highest casualty count of the war. I have long held an interest in the history of Chickamauga, because an ancestor of mine survived there after more than half of his regiment was lost, and because one of my favorite short stories, “Chickamauga” by Ambrose Bierce, describes a harrowing scenario of the battle. In present day, the pastoral landscapes of this area belie the carnage that once took place there, and a recent issue of Runner's World magazine named this race as one of the most scenic marathons in the country. The double-loop course of the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon circles through the park to provide views of elaborate war monuments, idyllic meadows, rolling hills, and trees with fall leaf change colors.
In 2009, I achieved a personal record at the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon with my finish time of 4:20:10, so I was eager to revisit this race and put my current fitness to the test. When asked by fellow runners about the chances of beating my record from the previous year, however, I replied honestly that I had no idea how I would perform this time around. My recent 60-pound weight loss would work to my advantage, but I would also be approaching this year's Chickamauga race on legs fatigued from a series of challenging trail ultramarathons over the previous two months. The pain in my right knee that had resulted in my first DNF (Did Not Finish) experience at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile on October 16 had lessened after weeks of recovery, but I still felt a dull ache in the knee going into this marathon almost a month later. My decision to concentrate on weight loss over the past five months in lieu of speed work would also fall against my favor for this event. After months of mid-week anaerobic heart rate weight loss workouts and weekend endurance long runs, I had literally forgotten how to pace myself for speed at pavement races. A wise man once said that, if you fail to plan, then you plan to fail. I certainly did not feel that failure was a possibility, but I knew that I was going into this road marathon blindly without a clear strategy.
Strategy or no strategy, I was happily excited to run the 2010 Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon and I felt no real nervousness going into the event, aside from a few prayers that my recovering knee would make it through the race. I was looking forward to spending time with friends, I was looking forward to a well-organized event on a cool sunny November morning, and, although I am not one to obsess over race medals, I looked forward to earning another one of the amazing Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon race medals that are based on different state monuments each year. On Friday afternoon, I drove two hours north to Fort Oglethorpe with loud music blasting in my truck and with joyous anticipation of a fun race the following morning.
After picking up my race number, a race hat, and an impressive long-sleeve technical race shirt from the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon Race Expo, I joined some local friends for dinner at Carrabba's Italian Grill in nearby Chattanooga. I have never been a fan of traditional heavy carbohydrate loading pasta meals on the evening before a race and I normally do not eat a large meal after noon on the day before a race, but I threw my standard routine to the wind on this night by ordering pork chops, garlic mashed potatoes, and Italian bread. Over dinner, I enjoyed the company of some fellow GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society) runners, Beth, Stacey, and Ami, and made a few new friends as we all discussed our plans for the race. I told everyone that, while I hoped to approach my personal marathon record from the previous year, I really did not have a plan, other than to finish the race and to enjoy myself on the course. For the first time ever, I slept soundly in my hotel room on the night before a race, and, when I woke up seven hours later, I was assured that my decision to eat a large evening meal was the right decision.
On the morning of the race, I was enthusiastic as I dressed in my road marathon running gear. Since I knew that the cold early morning temperatures in the mid-40's would warm up to a mid-day temperature in the mid-70's, I dressed in a short sleeve running shirt with compression shorts underneath my normal running shorts. As with my trail ultramarathons, I wore double pairs of Balega socks to minimize blisters after first putting baby powder on my feet. I also wore Zensah compression leg sleeves to enhance blood flow through my shins. Since this road marathon featured aid stations every couple of miles along the course, I opted not to wear my 70-ounce Camelbak Rogue hydration pack and, instead, I would be carrying a 20-ounce Ultimate Direction handheld water bottle. I wore my favorite brand of road shoes, New Balance 850, because they are the ideal shoe for my low-arch overpronator running gait. My standard NikeFit running shorts have deep pockets and, for this race, I stuffed each pocket with Crank e-Gels, with the intention of eating a gel every 20 or 30 minutes during the marathon to utilize the same strategy of taking in 300-400 calories every hour as I did during longer trail races. I would find out later that these gel-filled pockets would swing out of the legs of my loose running shorts and flop around as I ran, resulting in a comical appearance, but I do not try to look suave while running anyway, so this was of no consequence.
The only undesired side effect of my 60-pound weight loss is that cold weather now wreaks havoc on me and chills me to the bone. When I arrived at the start area behind the 6th Cavalry Museum, I remained inside my truck for a half hour before taking refuge in a heated tent to wait for the 7:30 morning start time. Ten minutes before the start of the race, I emerged from the tent into the uncomfortable chill to line up near the back of the crowd at the race start. I was happy to see Paul, another GUTS runner, waiting nearby and we wished each other luck while doing our best to stay warm.
The Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon really does start with a bang by way of a deafeningly loud cannon blast from the field behind the museum. Since I knew what to expect from having run this race the previous year, I watched the cannon preparations and took secretly malevolent amusement from the startled jumps of nearby runners as the cannon was fired. I wished Paul the best of luck one final time and then turned on my Garmin Forerunner GPS watch just before crossing over the timed start line. As I picked up an easy running speed, I encountered yet another GUTS runner, Cindy, with whom I had enjoyed running at the recent StumpJump 50K race. As always, I was inspired to see Cindy's enthusiasm for another great race adventure. After wishing luck to Cindy and her friend, Alex, I increased my speed to take advantage of a low-key first mile around the Cavalry Museum field and to warm myself up in the cold temperatures.
As I always do for road marathon races, I was utilizing Galloway run/walk intervals of four minutes running, followed by one minute of walking, from the very beginning of the race. The Galloway run/walk intervals are a constant subject of debate among marathon runners and the idea of taking walk breaks as strategy can stab at my male ego, but I found years ago that the Galloway training program appealed to me as a way to regulate my pace and energy expenditure from the beginning of a long run. In early 2008, I ran my first half marathon without stopping for a finish time of 2:02. In the fall of 2008, I joined a Galloway Marathon Training program and soon completed my second half marathon with a finish time of 1:55. Since then, I have been sold on the idea of the Galloway walk breaks as a solid strategy to vary the use of muscles during a long run and to keep some energy in the bank for the final miles of an endurance event.
My readiness for a race is normally a gradual affair as I casually walk or jog from a starting area before settling into a rhythm, so my fast-paced start to this Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon came as a surprise. I instantly kicked into a sub-10:00 running pace and felt comfortable in my skin at this speed. As the runners thinned out on a brief wide trail road portion on the way to the main loop of the course in the second mile, I realized that I was able to comfortably hold on to a 9:30 average pace even with my Galloway walk breaks.
At this point, early in the race, I needed to make a decision about my pace strategy. I knew that, if I could finish the race with an average pace of less than 9:59 minutes per mile, I would be able to beat my previous marathon record finish time of 4:20:10. If I maintained a 9:30 average pace, I would also be able to push the envelope of my ability and complete a marathon close to the four-hour mark. I had enjoyed a similar average pace of around 9:30 during the first half of the 2009 Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon before I succumbed to severe leg cramps during the last half of the race. Since I had planned ahead for the possibility of cramping at this second Chickamauga experience and brought S-Caps to consume along with my increased gel intake, I decided to follow the same pace strategy and go for broke to keep a 9:30 average pace as long as I could do so. I knew that my decision to keep a fast pace above my comfort zone for the first half of this marathon would likely result in a breakdown during the final miles once again, but I rolled the dice as I found myself overestimating my post-weight loss running fitness.
The Jeff Galloway run/walk interval strategy is a strategy that allows the conservative runner to benefit from a negative split race, where the last half of the race is completed at a faster pace than the first half. A runner employing the negative split strategy might decide that, if he does not have to ask himself whether or not he is running too slow during the first half of a marathon, then he is running that first half too fast. On the other hand, a runner who decides to go for broke and employ a positive split strategy of running the first half of the race at a faster pace than the second half might convince himself that faster speeds in the first 13 miles will make up for any time lost due to fatigue over the final 13 miles. By running at a speed beyond my comfort zone while simultaneously using the Galloway run/walk intervals, I was taking a gamble that my endurance training and weight loss would come together to keep me from breaking down in the final miles of the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon as I had in 2009. A voice of reason in the back of my mind kept telling me to slow down so that history would not repeat itself, but I was enjoying my 9:30 average pace on the rolling hills of this first course loop and I wanted to see how far I could ride the wave.
I would later realize that I should have listened to the voice in the back of my mind telling me to slow down. The back of the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon race shirt describes this race as “26.2 Miles of History”, and I was willfully ignoring history to satisfy my ego. I had broken down in the final miles of the 2009 Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon by following the same fast pace strategy that I was now using a second time around, but I kept convincing myself that history would not be repeated. I would look down at my Garmin to see an average pace of 9:24 or so as I started a one-minute walk break, then confidently race out faster in the four-minute running interval when my Garmin would show an average pace of less than 9:30 at the end of the walk break. With each subsequent run/walk interval, my average pace became more constant and I soon began holding onto a pace of around 9:27 even through my walk intervals.
During the ninth mile of the course, I started down a one-mile out-and-back segment down a side road that veered off of the main loop and was happy to see my friend, Beth, and a few other runners coming back along the same road. Since I knew that Beth had a history of winning age group awards for her road races, the voice of reason in the back of my head yelled at me to slow down, because I had no business being this close behind Beth on the ninth mile of a marathon. I temporarily smothered the voice of reason with my bloated ego and soldiered on, happy to see the 9:27 average pace display on my Garmin that might very well lead me to a new personal record. I used my walk breaks to consume a Crank e-Gel every 20 to 30 minutes, as I had planned, while downing water from my handheld bottle, and I took advantage of the Powerade offered at each aid station to supply additional electrolytes.
My favorite part of the course, a long gradual downhill beside vast fenced pastures of cannon monuments and stone towers, gave me the chance to speed up and maintain the average pace beyond my pre-race expectations. I passed an aid station next to a railroad track and enjoyed a brief departure from park grounds on the other side of the tracks before returning across the tracks in another half mile. A race photographer was situated on the other side of railroad tracks on the return route and I briefly mourned the goofy appearance of my gel-filled running pockets that were swinging back and fourth under the raised legs of my running shorts. I knew that the best deterrent to an unfavorable running photo was to run faster, so I picked up my pace yet again before hitting a walk break interval cycle after I passed the photographer.
I finished the first 13.1 miles of the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon and reached the halfway point of the course in just over two hours. I was pleased that, despite my lack of speed work, my pace was still yielding the possibility of a sub-2-hour stand alone half marathon time. I let that confidence rocket me along for another mile.
The second half of the Chickamauga course was insidiously exhausting as the same rolling hills that seemed easy on the first loop somehow increased in steepness the next time around and the temperatures that caused shivers during my first few walk breaks picked up in the late morning hours while the ball of sunshine edged overhead above the trees of fallen leaves. As I finished Mile 14, the realization hit home that I would not be able to finish this marathon in one piece if I tried to continue at a sub-9:30 average pace. I slightly slowed down my pace and assuaged my ego that I could still achieve a personal record even if my average pace crept up to 9:40 and, eventually, to 9:50.
My confident and happy frame of mind stayed intact as I began to talk to some of the runners that I had been leapfrogging for hours with my Galloway intervals. I talked for an extended time with one runner who told me that he had traveled from Canada for the race. He asked me how I was doing and I told him that I had paced out too fast for the first half of the race. He laughed and reassured me, “I think that we all did that.” I had also leapfrogged two female runners who were running side by side and talking for the entire time. As I passed by again during one of my running intervals, I overheard one of the women tell the other one that walk breaks were bad during marathons, because it was impossible to start running again after you mentally allowed yourself to walk. I smiled to myself as I started another of my Galloway walk intervals. These walk intervals had served me well so far and, even as I edged closer to fatigue and collapse, I stuck to the plan and kept up my four-minute running intervals, regardless of speed.
|Photo courtesy of Beth McCurdy|
After I passed Mile 19, I remembered that this was the point of the race last year when severe cramps had kicked in. During that 2009 race, I had run by a large crowd of people by the crossroads of the park and alarmed them when a sudden shooting cramp in my leg caused me to stop running and double over in pain. Fortunately, I experienced no cramps this year and I smiled to the crowd as I ran by, waving at different bystanders and joking around. I waved to one girl who was sitting on a bank and felt a brief pang of envy that I was not resting on the grassy hill as well. I thanked the police officers for holding back traffic as I emerged onto the main park road and made my way to Mile 20.
The bloodthirsty hounds of fatigue and self-defeat were unleashed upon me at Mile 20. When I asked myself what I had been thinking by running a sub-9:30 minute per mile pace along the first half of the course, I immediately followed that by laughing at my own stupidity, because I clearly remembered asking myself the same question at this same stretch of the marathon last year.
I did not see Beth during my second trip down the one-mile out-and-back, but I did see another friend, Daniel, and the sight of a familiar face picked up my spirits. I also enjoyed seeing another friend, Don, a group leader for a faster pace group in the Atlanta Galloway Marathon Training program. I left the out-and-back and enjoyed my last extended running stretch alongside the beautiful pastures of the gradual downhill leading to the railroad tracks. Before I reached those tracks, however, energy disappeared from my legs. I swayed uneasily on my feet at the railroad aid station and a volunteer assured me that I was just four miles from the end.
My pace had slowed to over 9:50 minutes per mile and I was watching the possibility of a new marathon record fall from my view. Still, I stuck to the plan and kept up my running intervals until I edged closer to the final railroad crossing and exhaustion took over. I heard a train whistle and saw a train turn the corner just 500 feet from where I was going to cross over. I started walking in resignation, because I realized that I would be held up by the train at the crossing anyway and that I could take advantage of the unscheduled walk break to conserve energy. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a very short train with just five cars, so I laughed again at my stupidity as I tried to resume running through the cleared railroad crossing.
As I started running again, a fresh ache surfaced in my right knee. I was relieved that shooting pains were not erupting in the knee, as they had during The North Face Endurance 50 Mile attempt in October, but this was still a pain that could not be ignored. I fell into another walk break and continued walking for another minute after the scheduled one-minute walk interval ended. When I resumed running, my running form was a mere failed imitation of my self-assured stride from the first half of the race. As I approached a steep hill next to a majestic tree overlooking a pasture, I passed a girl who told me that she was going to walk the hill. I decided to stick to my scheduled running interval plan and run the hill. When I reached the top, however, my knees and ankles sounded their frustration in waves of pain.
My running pace slowed yet again and I was now edging out of the possibility of a marathon finish personal record. I was still convinced that I could finish faster than my 4:20:10 record, though, so I attempted to pick up my cadence on an extended gradual downhill. I could see several runners ahead of me who were walking in exhaustion and I knew that I needed to adhere to my running interval plan to pick these runners off. My plan proved futile as my running became increasingly labored and staggering. I entered Mile 24 by taking more frequent walk breaks that I needed simply to be able to stand upright.
My feet were hurting at this point from the tightness of my shoes. The flow of blood down my legs through my compression socks had caused my feet to swell. I tried to ignore this pain, but reluctantly realized that I needed to stop and loosen my shoelaces. I stood still on the road and leaned over to untie my shoes, but I was too exhausted and loopy to untie the laces with any semblance of coordination. I tugged at the laces randomly over and over again until they finally came untied. I then tied the shoes again, being careful to leave some slack in the lacing. My feet instantly felt better, but I had lost more than a minute standing still in on the side of the road. When I tried to resume running again, my legs locked up in pain. I finished Mile 24 marker with 20 minutes to go in order to beat my record. For a short while, I tried to pick up my running cadence to get a sub-10-miles, but the pain in my right knee was quick in protest, along with the heavy fatigue in my legs and ankles. The moment in a race when one senses the impossibility of increased speed is always a crestfallen moment, but I tried to lighten my mood with the realization that I was still going to finish the marathon with a presentable time.
I reached an aid station just before the Mile 25 marker and found some comic relief in the form of a volunteer who yelled, “Man, you're a big guy! You're tearing up this marathon! How much do you weigh?” I replied, “226”. The volunteer gasped, “Awesome! Look at you, outrunning all these skinny people.” I laughed and broke into a labored run again. Big marathoners represent!
I could not keep up my four-minute running intervals as I returned to the final wide road trail that took me off of the main loop back to the Cavalry Museum finish line. I encountered a few runners who looked just as exhausted as I did, though. I emerged from the trail road and, while I knew that it was too little, too late, I broke into a nonstop run during the final half mile of the course.
When I emerged onto the loop road around the Cavalry Museum field, I saw that the noontime Chickamauga Battlefield Junior Marathon mile was underway and that I would be sharing the finish line with a great many kids. The timing of this kids' race is a grievance of several Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon participants, as I remembered from the reviews of the race on the Marathon Guide website. I was personally uplifted to be sharing this final turn of the course with the kids, though. After all, I am just a kid myself, except that I happen to be 38 years old. I increased my pace when I saw the Finish banner and smiled for the cameras as I ran across the time markers and turned my Garmin off. I finished the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon in 4:30:03.
I graciously accepted my Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon finisher's medal, which was designed from the Tennessee Monument for the 2010 race, and made my way to the food tent of the finish area. After grabbing a couple of Powerade bottles and a couple of pizza slices, I found some friends, Ami, Beth, Ashley, Daniel, Leta, Dena, Paul, and Stacey, and sat with them under the sun as we compared our race experiences. My disappointment at not being able to top my personal record was quickly overcome by my gratitude at being blessed with the ability to complete the 26.2 distance in one piece yet again and then spend time with friends at the finish.
The 2010 Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon was a race that I approached without a plan and without proper speed work. The end result of falling short of my record comes as no surprise, but I enjoyed pushing myself in denial and discovering that I can maintain a solid sub-9:30 pace for the first half of a marathon, even with Galloway walk breaks. Could I have maintained a slower 9:45-minute pace throughout the 26.2 miles and kept energy in the bank to stave off exhaustion at the end? I do not know. All that I do know is that I reached the finish line of a marathon with a smile on my face once again and that I had a fun morning at the park.
See you on the trails.