Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Publix Georgia Marathon 3/20/11 (Race Report)

On March 20, 2011, I completed my tenth marathon, the Publix Georgia Marathon, with a finish time of 4:46:23.

Photo courtesy of Susan Hornbuckle
This event was the most fun pavement marathon race that I have run to date, despite a handful of challenging setbacks that could have derailed the experience.  On the morning of this race, I woke up with a sore throat that signaled the beginning of a head cold and my legs were in fatigued condition after a poorly-executed taper week, but I rubbed dirt on these stumbling blocks and readied myself for what has become one of my favorite local events.  The Publix Georgia Marathon, formerly the ING Georgia Marathon, would carry me through 26.2 miles of hilly Atlanta roads and familiar city landmarks where I would encounter friends, old and new, by way of fellow runners and volunteers.  This marathon takes place at the beginning of spring and the chilly starting line temperatures always seem like the last dying gasp of winter as they are swept away from the city streets by a mild heat while runners make their way to the finish.  I knew that I was not at my best when I lined up in my starting corral, but I was not going to let a head cold or a poor taper week prevent me from watching months of early winter morning training runs under bundled clothes fall behind in the rear view mirror as I crossed the finish line of this event with a smile on my face.

Ambitious goals do sometimes have to be shelved under certain conditions, though.  After I spent the weekend before this marathon achieving a new personal record at a local 10K race and then tiring my legs the next day with a spontaneous decision to run ten fast miles around my neighborhood in sunny weather, I realized that my chances of beating my previous marathon record of 4:20:10 from the 2009 Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon were slim at best.  When I volunteered at the Publix Georgia Marathon Race Expo and spent eight hours moving heavy boxes on the Thursday before this event, I woke up tired the next day and decided that I should modify my goal and simply strive to beat my 4:58:48 finish time from last year’s Georgia Marathon.  Finally, after I had trouble falling asleep on the night before the race and woke up from only two hours of sleep with the sore throat, I shrugged and decided that my final goal for the 2011 Publix Georgia Marathon would just be to have as much fun as I could and to keep from embarrassing myself too badly.

I arrived at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta a couple of hours before the race start, secured a spot in my favorite parking lot next to the finish area, waited for friends at the Galloway Marathon tent, and made a couple of last-minute decisions that would ultimately help me enjoy a better race.  Since I was convinced that I had cost myself a sub-50-minute time at my 10K the previous weekend by obsessing over the pace numbers on the main display of my Garmin watch, I decided to remove the pace from the main screen display altogether and replace it with the Galloway interval countdown.  I also took a second look at the high number of water and Gatorade stops on the marathon course map and decided that I would not need to carry my handheld water bottle.  I removed my truck key from the water bottle pouch, tied the key into the laces of one of my New Balance 850 shoes, and left the handheld bottle at the tent for safekeeping.

I lined up in the starting corral with Scott, a friend with whom I had run a few recent ultramarathons, with the intention of running with him for company while we could maintain identical paces.  I knew from past experience that Scott’s sense of humor would make for some interesting early morning miles.  I am ashamed to say that, after over a year of avoiding diet sodas, I had recently fallen off the wagon and had, in fact, enjoyed a few too many Diet Mountain Dew bottles as I rested the day before the race.  The effects of the diet sodas were making themselves clear as I briefly left the start corral just minutes before the race to water some nearby bushes behind a concealed parking lot.  I would end up wasting several minutes of this marathon race with multiple bathroom stops and, when I returned home later, I would immediately resolve to resume drinking water through my normal training days.

Scott was listening to his iPod in one ear as we began moving toward the start line with our corral group and we had fun comparing favorite running songs.  I started my Garmin watch countdown as we crossed the start line and settled into a comfortably slow jog in the middle of the crowd.  As we ran with an easy conversational pace through the streets surrounding Georgia State University, Scott and I exchanged jokes as the occasional runner threw us a bewildered look.  We also reminded each other that, since the marathon runners were vastly outnumbered by the half marathon runners at this event, we needed to stick to our own comfortable early pace before the two races split after the sixth mile and not worry about how many others were passing us.  My experiences on this course during the previous year’s race had taught me that the hills of the final miles were unforgiving to runners who paced themselves too quickly at the beginning.

Just before the first aid station, I ran down some stairs of a parking lot adjacent to Piedmont Road to make the next of many bathroom stops and then caught up with Scott before grabbing a half cup of Gatorade.  Scott and I resumed running together as we ran down a North Avenue hill and turned onto Central Park Place to run under blooming trees. Scott expressed concern for our pace as we crossed the third mile marker at 34 minutes, but I was content to allow for at least two hours and 20 minutes for the first half of this marathon course and then let the race begin in the latter half.  I was feeling slightly under the weather and I would need to draw on the conserved energy later.  As with all my pavement marathon races, I was using Galloway 4-minute-run/1-minute-walk intervals and, during one of the walk breaks, I enjoyed a bridge crossing over Freedom Parkway that shows my favorite view of Atlanta just before passing the Martin Luther King, Jr. historic sites.

When Scott and I were halfway through the fourth mile of the course, I took advantage of one of my walk intervals to pull over into thick bushes for another bathroom stop.  Scott joked, “You need to decide whether you want to run a race or go to the bathroom.”  I replied, half-jokingly, “I was actually planning for a lot of bathroom breaks today with a little bit of running in between.”  The frequent bathroom breaks were an annoyance, but I decided just to roll with it, knowing the situation would improve as I continued running and consuming electrolytes.  I felt more confident with my pace when Scott pointed out that the runners around us were starting to slow down already.

When we entered the Little Five Points area, Scott and I resumed our music discussion as we ran by a couple of favorite independent record stores.  I knew, however, that Scott wanted to plow ahead without the Galloway intervals, so I told him not to feel badly about running ahead and that I would try to catch him during the second half of the race.  Scott sped up and kept running as I started my next walk interval.  I was hardly starved for company in the crowd, though.  When I saw a runner wearing the trademark Marathon Maniacs singlet, I introduced myself as Maniac # 1549 and enjoyed brief conversation as I continued though the split at mile 7 and soldiered along the full marathon course into the Candler Park neighborhoods.  I employed a slightly faster pace when the crowd thinned after the split and even managed to maintain momentum through a few “speed bumps” by way of the Candler Park hills.

I was happy to see a handful of friends from Get Fit Atlanta at the mile 10 aid station, although I wondered in a daze why one of them who greeted me by name was wearing some sort of film noir spy chemical mask outfit.  When my friend, John, asked me after the race if I had liked his Rorschach costume from Watchmen, I laughingly berated myself for being too focused on my race to recognize a character from a comic series that I had loved in my teenage years. 

The next three miles of the race were relatively uneventful for me as I kept a lid on my temptation to run faster during a few flat road sections that led into the city of Decatur.  I thanked volunteer police officers and amused myself by reading a series of rhyming signs placed beside the Decatur roads to motivate the runners.  I was looking forward to reaching the halfway point of the course and my patience was rewarded when I crossed the 13.1 timing marker and checked my stopwatch to see a time of 2:24:30.  During last year's race, I had arrived at this same checkpoint with a 2:15:00 time, but had hit a wall on the hills of the final miles.  This time, I was confident that my slower first half would allow me to maintain my constant Galloway interval pace without taking additional walk breaks on the hills.

The three-mile stretch from Decatur to Emory University consisted of a gradual downhill that I enjoyed with a faster, but still leisurely pace before the trial of hills began just after the mile 16 marker.  The sky was overcast, but the temperature was warming up noticeably on a humid day.  When I felt the first hints of a leg cramp, I took two S-Caps from the net pockets that lined the waist of my running shorts.  During this three-mile section, I enjoyed interacting with one runner whom I would pass during each of my run intervals only to be passed again during each of my walk breaks. Each time, we would wave and give amused well-wishes to each other.  In a marathon, some runners are like Soviet jets in the movie, Top Gun, and you cannot evade them.  This camaraderie continued for the next several miles until I eventually stopped seeing him again during my walk intervals.

After the mile 16 marker, I reached the never-ending Lullwater Road incline that served as the appetizer for the steady diet of climbs that would continue through the Druid Hills neighborhood.  The time for pleasantly holding back on my pace was over and I charged the hill, eager to have this section behind me.  When I crossed the mile 17 marker just before Ponce de Leon Avenue, I looked at my watch and realized that just over three hours had passed.  I reminded myself that I had a good chance of beating last year's time at this race if I did not lose the plot. Do not lose the plot, Jason.  Do not lose the plot.

I turned off Ponce de Leon onto Oakdale Road and continued the brutal punishment of climbs through the Druid Hills area, using mental tricks and old song lyrics to push myself with a deliberate running pace to each subsequent Galloway walk interval.  I appreciated the occasional encouragement that I received from Druid Hills residents that tailgated in their front lawns with friends to cheer all of us along the way.

As I lumbered up and down the hills of the mile 18 section, I received an unexpected wake-up call that would fuel the rest of my race. When I waved to a woman who standing on the side of the road to cheer for the runners, she told me that she was here because she had lost her daughter almost a year ago.  She pointed to a nearby sign for The Amanda Riley Foundation, an organization founded to help children and teens suffering from cancer.  I thanked the woman for being there and continued down the road, but I could not get the encounter out of my mind.  My struggles to finish a marathon were insignificant and trivial compared to the hardships that this woman had overcome during the past year and I was reminded once again that I was blessed simply to be able to participate in this event.  Although I am a state government employee who struggles to make ends meet from one month to the next, I made a silent promise to donate to The Amanda Riley Foundation when I returned home to my computer after the race.  Armed with a new sense of perspective, I ran with a stronger pace.  When I plugged my Garmin watch into my computer after the race and analyzed my mile splits, I was not surprised to find out that I had achieved one of my fastest mile paces along this section.

The hills did not relent, but neither did I.  I stayed true to my run intervals, even when those intervals started at the bottom of a steep climb.  Do not lose the plot, Jason. 

I was carried along the remainder of the race by seeing friends at just the right moments.  As I ran up a hill to make my way out of the Druid Hills neighborhoods for good, I passed Len, a friend from my local trail running group, and he sped up to run alongside me. Len and I soon reached Stillwood Drive, the nemesis of my race from last year.  Stillwood Drive has the steepest set of hills of the entire course and is indifferent to the exhausted runners of mile 20 who must ascend each incline only to dive down to the next.  Last year, this section had reduced me to a walk for the entire mile. I was not going to let this happen in 2011. I walked when my Galloway interval beeps called for it, but I ran every step of the way up these hills during my four-minute running bursts.  Before I knew it, Stillwood Drive was just a memory and I was still running.  I received more uplifting encouragement when Len and I ran the last hill to Virginia Highlands and were cheered along by Sarah, another trail running friend who was waiting to pace Kirsten, who was completing her first marathon.

With Len close behind me, I made my way into Piedmont Park, grateful to see Susan and some other friends from my Galloway group cheering just before the park entrance.  My resolve to stick to my running intervals through the steep hilly neighborhoods of Druid Hills and Virginia Highlands had left me exhausted and I must have been noticeably struggling as Len and I turned around the Piedmont Park lake, because Len encouraged me that I only had a few miles left.  I was occasionally feeling a rise in my body temperature and I knew that there would be a cost to running this race while I was under the weather from sore throat symptoms.

As Len and I started up a laborious hill at the beginning of an out-and-back around the park grounds, we were cheered along by another crowd of trail running friends, Kim, Desiree, John, and Kim's daughter.  When I made it to the top of the hill along the out-and-back, something inside me snapped and I found an unexpected second wind of energy.  The realization that I only had a few miles left to go hit me and I knew that I was capable of a strong finish.  A runner who was going the opposite way on the out-and-back must have recognized my distinctive look and my black outfit, because he asked me if I had run the Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon.  I nodded and waved at him as I passed, since I was desperate to keep the momentum.  Do not lose the plot.  Do not lose the plot.

Len and I hurried downhill from the out-and-back section, where I thanked Kim and the others profusely as I passed by.  Len and I were about to start the arduous 12th Street hill out of the park, but I decided to pull off into the park bushes for one last bathroom break.  I am looking forward to seeing the flowers and leaves bloom throughout Atlanta over the next couple of spring months, because I am pretty sure that I fertilized the entire city quite well during this race.

The 12th Street hill climb was alleviated by perfect timing, because one of my Galloway walk breaks fell squarely in the middle.  I waved to the volunteers who supplied me with water as I grabbed another Crank e-Gel from the net pockets of my shorts and ate it for some quick energy for the hills that would line the last three miles.  Spring Street is no picnic, as far as the hills are concerned, but I ran this mile at a decent pace as I leapfrogged Len and Caroline, a friend from the Marathon Maniacs group.

From Spring Street, I turned south over the bridge into the Georgia Tech campus and silently envied the carefree students who lounged around the lawns of their fraternity houses.  As an alumnus of Georgia Tech, I should remember that a Tech student's life is anything but carefree.  I envied these students nonetheless as I soldiered along a hill climb next to Bobby Dodd Stadium and my old dorm buildings.

My friend, Julian, with whom I had traveled to the Long Cane 55 Mile Ultra several months ago, was standing by the final aid station with encouragement after he had already completed his race.  I was grateful for the well-wishes as I ascended the final challenging hill to start a relatively flat final mile.

The last mile of the Publix Georgia Marathon is sadistic in its simplicity. Exhausted runners continue along a flat road where the Omni Hotel next to the finish can be seen the entire time, but never seems to get closer. After an eternity, the crowds along the side of the road thickened and the horse smelled the barn. I dispensed with my Galloway walk intervals during the last half mile and ran my way home.  I waved to a friend, Beth, who cheered from the side of the road as I made my final turn and ran a hundred yards through the finish line.

I finished the Publix Georgia Marathon in 4:46:23.  I had beat my time from the previous year on this same course by 12 minutes.

A volunteer hung a finisher's medal around my neck and I made my way to a group of friends just beyond the finish crowd.  Scott soon found me in the crowd and we greeted several other friends as we made our way back to the Galloway tent where I retrieved my water bottle.  I never caught up with Scott after all during the race, but he assured me that he had only finished a few minutes ahead of me and that I had been closing the distance in the end.

As Scott and I ate greasy hamburgers at The Varsity after the race, he told me, “Jason, you could have finished this race at least 20 minutes earlier if you had brought your game.”  I readily agreed, because I had not brought my game to this marathon.  Instead, I had brought a sore throat, a pair of already-fatigued legs, and a series of bathroom breaks that had cost me precious minutes.  I was in a celebratory mood, though, and I did not overburden myself with what could have been.  I was happy to have beat my previous year's time despite an emerging head cold and, after my encounter with The Amanda Riley Foundation at mile 18, I could not bring myself to feel anything, but elated that I had just finished my tenth marathon.

That sore throat did develop into a full blown head cold, but that was a small price for me to pay in return for enjoying one of my favorite Atlanta events and for completing what I have come to view as an annual rite of passage into a beautiful spring season.  I have temporarily banned myself from running any distance over seven miles so that I can have a few recovery weeks and be at my best for the next big race, a 50K on April 16, but I will be outside pounding the pavement and trails on a near-daily basis to enjoy the weather while it lasts.

See you on the trails.



  1. Great job, Jason! Way to finish strong!!!

  2. Wow Jason, that's quite a journey of a marathon! I never considered that the spectators on a road race could be instrumental in providing inspiration during the run. But, it totally makes sense after reading about the encounter with the woman who'd lost her daughter to cancer. Maybe I'll try a road race just to experience the crowd support.

    Great report as always, man. I really liked this line: "like the last dying gasp of winter as they are swept away from the city streets by a mild heat as runners make their way to the finish."

  3. 10 marathons...!! You have me beat by 50% Jason! Great report and as always, I am inspired by your amazing attitude:)) Hope to see you at Enoree Passage

  4. awesome! i love it when you run into the right people at the right time :D

  5. Great job finishing number 10 Jason! Cool medal too!

  6. Great finish! Talk about some hills!! Oh man.. that made Boston look like a walk in the park. That was my first Georgia Marathon and it was brutal. Way to get under 5 hours and complete your #10 marathon. We took some great finisher video and posted it to our site from Centennial Park.


  7. Congrats on your 10th. Looks like you had a good run.

  8. Nice work on finishing #10!

    I ran it as well and knew there were hills - but those were some SERIOUS ones! That one at 19 just kept on going, but the one that got me was the hill at 25.

    Again, great job!


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