During the week before this race, a handful of friends offered me good-natured encouragement by saying, “This marathon is probably just a warm-up for you, with all of the ultras that you’ve run this past year.” Each time, I smiled in a sheepish manner, shrugged, and replied that a marathon is still a marathon.
Any experienced marathoner knows to respect the distance. Covering 26.2 miles on road or trail is never a routine endeavor. When the event organizers emailed participants beforehand with cautionary advice regarding the predicted 80-degree race day temperatures after several weeks of comfortable coolness, I remained optimistic and excited, but I also realized that my plans for a personal record on this particular course could fall through in a bad way. The 2012 Publix Georgia Marathon would be my 30th race of a marathon distance or longer and my 4th time racing this course, but the weather would be roughly 20 degrees warmer this time around. This year’s event would be challenging even for runners in ideal condition, and I was far removed from being in my best shape.
Months ago, when I proclaimed that I would be striving for a sub-4-hour time at this year’s Publix Georgia Marathon, I failed to anticipate setbacks to my training and my running fitness. In November, my first attempt at a 100-mile ultramarathon with the Pinhoti 100 in Alabama had resulted in a DNF when I reached the Mile 75 aid station behind time cutoffs. A longer-than-expected recovery time and a poorly-disciplined holiday diet ethic took their toll as I started off a new year weighing almost 20 pounds heavier than I had before the Pinhoti race. I had suffered from running burnout a couple of times in the past, but my state of mind throughout January and early February hovered at a new low point, and I ambled, sloth-like, through several weeks of apathy where the last thing in the world that I wanted to do was wake up early for training runs. All of my efforts to lose my holiday weight failed time and time again, and I explained to friends, only half-jokingly, that my body was no longer listening to me as I approached the age of 40. My finish times for the Atlanta Half Marathon in late November, the PT Solutions Resolution Run 10K on New Year’s Day, and the grueling Hogpen Hill Climb 18K in late January were disappointments, so I dismissed these race experiences as “training runs” and I felt no inclination to relive the poor performances by writing race reports about them.
I gradually realized that my love of endurance running came with a steep price tag. The recovery process for each subsequent marathon and ultra race over the past couple of years had exacerbated my lifelong food addictions to result in diminishing returns with both running speed and weight maintenance. I have always had a propensity to gain weight, and, since my 185-pound weight loss in 2005, the struggle to keep that weight off has been a daily battle. The energy demands of ultrarunning added a new variable to the challenge. I felt a need to eat more carbohydrate-heavy foods to fuel my long-distance runs, but I also became slower over time as my weight increased. I had successfully lost weight over long stretches while running ultra distances, but the juggling of these two tasks was a physical beatdown that always resulted in burnout and subsequent weight gain that negated my efforts. With each new cycle of gaining weight and losing weight, the weight loss became more difficult.
In the Atari 2600 video games of my youth, there was no peril that could not be immediately eliminated by a simple push of the reset button. When the multi-colored ghost monsters surrounded my Pac-Man in a corner of the maze or when a giant truck in the far lane of the freeway literally flattened my hopes for a high score at Frogger, the reset button was always there to wipe the slate clean and give me a fresh start. I needed to find a real-life reset button for my running and my overall fitness, so I began researching different ways to change my lifestyle.
Since most of my diet consisted of foods that are enhanced to trigger the quick-reward responses in my brain, I wondered if I could push a reset button by eliminating those foods from my everyday life. A few running friends steered me in the direction of a Paleo “caveman diet”, where meats, fruits, nuts, and vegetables replaced grains, refined sugars, dairy, and processed foods. Paleo information websites and friends who practice these diets warned me that I might initially experience drains in energy as my body adapted to the absence of processed foods, but these energy levels would soon normalize. I decided to try this approach, and, on my 40th birthday in early February, I started the Paleo diet.
A month and half later, my first impressions of the Paleo approach are resoundingly favorable. I have lost all of my holiday pounds and I now weigh the same that I did in early November when I attempted Pinhoti 100. My energy level is consistent throughout the day, and I no longer have sugar crashes or food cravings. I am rarely hungry. I feel alert in the office on weekday mornings after eating protein-heavy breakfasts. I no longer have the “running to stand still” feeling of being an exercise addict on a daily basis to keep from gaining weight. I am oblivious to doughnuts in the office break room, and I walk by the Easter candies in the Target store across the street from my apartment without temptation. I have become faster during short weekday afternoon runs, and my intense treadmill incline workouts have become more effective.
The only times when my Paleo house of cards topples to the ground are during long-distance runs of two hours or more, because my body experiences an energy drop after a couple of hours without adequate carbohydrate or sugar sources. The excellent book, The Paleo Diet for Athletes, by Cordain and Friel, acknowledges the dilemma, as do the many informative websites on the subject, but I am still experimenting with the proper balance for my personal running needs. The Publix Georgia Marathon would be the first real test of how my new post-reset-button lifestyle blended with endurance events. Two other variables, the effect of the 80-degree temperatures on race day and my purposeful three-month break from long-distance races after Pinhoti, would factor into the equation as well. In other words, I woke up on the morning of the 2012 Publix Georgia Marathon with no idea what to expect.
For all of my previous road marathons, I had utilized Galloway intervals of four-minute runs and one-minute walk breaks. Since I had experienced positive splits for my two previous races on this marathon route, where the punishing hills of the second half crashed my pace after going out too eagerly in the first 13 miles, I decided at the last minute to pursue a more conservative approach by starting this year’s race with Galloway intervals of three-minute runs and one-minute walks. I assumed that the drawbacks of more frequent walk breaks would be negligible on my overall pace, but I would have more energy in store to stay at a consistent speed on the hills of the second half of the course. After greeting a few friends from my training group by the Galloway Tent in the Centennial Park start area, I made my way to my corral and set my stopwatch for the new intervals.
I had already taken the weather predictions into consideration, but I was nonetheless surprised at the warm temperatures as I stood in the race corral and began the gradual march to the start line behind faster groups. In past years, I would have been wearing a large lawn trash bag over my upper body as a shield from the stabbing cold in the corral, but I was now about to break a sweat before my first running step. I was wearing the black running clothes that have become my trademark for fall, winter, and spring races, and, even though the lightweight black shirt rarely feels stifling except during the hottest races of the summer, I wondered if the decision to wear it would haunt me later. Despite the unexpected warmth of the early morning, however, I was still energized and motivated as I moved closer to the start. I had eschewed the standard pasta dinner carbohydrate load the day before in favor of sweet potatoes, roast chicken, and an apple, and enjoyed another sweet potato with a banana and a small helping of more roast chicken for breakfast. Since my everyday Paleo-friendly meals were deliberately skewed to a more low-carb approach to speed my weight loss, I would later regret waiting until the day before this marathon to noticeably bump up my carbohydrate intake, but I felt wired and ready to go as I pushed the start button on my stopwatch and began my race. After my extended break from long-distance races, I was happy to be back in the fold.
My running seemed effortless during the first mile of the race, as the route turned through Georgia State University and between downtown Atlanta skyscrapers before daylight emerged from the horizon. I was not feeling an overall marathon personal record in the cards, but my comfortable pace ensured a new record for this particular course.
The positive momentum continued along the second mile as I spotted a couple of friends and wished them well. The rolling hills of Piedmont Road provided just the right variety of terrain and, although I was already covered in sweat so early in the race, my hopes for a strong marathon finish were still climbing. Daylight greeted me on a fun downhill just before the race route turned toward the Martin Luther King, Jr. historic area. As per the instructions of Paleo diet for endurance athletes, I was adhering to my normal running fuel routine for marathons by consuming a Honey Stinger gel at each half hour mark during the race. I enjoyed the first hit of quick sugar just before the third mile of the course, and chased it with two cups of water from the next aid station. I remained in good spirits and waved to bystanders as the route weaved into the neighborhoods of Little Five Points.
My stopwatch malfunctioned halfway through the sixth mile, destroying my set intervals and my running timer. The current time on the watch restarted as 12:00 am on January 1, and I was unable to set the intervals again. I tried in vain to switch modes on the watch, and then shook my head in a state of bewildered “WTF?” annoyance. I did not know if I had accidentally pushed a button to kill the preset modes on the stopwatch, but I did know that my running strategy was blown apart in an instant.
A marathon is not a Burger King, and you cannot always have it your way. I shrugged, laughed at my predicament, and focused on recapturing the positive mood that I had enjoyed thus far. I momentarily entertained the idea of trying to run the rest of the race without walk breaks, but my conservative mindset prevailed, and I roughly improvised new 3/1 run/walk intervals by glancing down at the skewed current time of my stopwatch ever so often and counting the minutes. Without the watch alarms to alert me, I occasionally got caught up in the moment and accidentally ran for longer periods of time without walking, but I always restricted my walk breaks to a minute or less when I took them. I noted the official race times at each mile marker and guessed that my actual running time was five or six minutes behind the official clock according when my corral group had crossed the start line.
After passing several smiling volunteers at the half marathon/marathon split, I ran by a couple of comparably somber-looking race officials who were calling out to the runners to be careful in the warm temperatures. One of them advised, “Today is not the day for a time record. Be careful out there and slow down if you need to slow down!” The temperatures were indeed climbing noticeably higher, and the record pollen count for Atlanta on this day was also becoming evident.
Candy and Brad, two friends who were using the marathon to train for the Umstead 100 Mile Race, caught up with me, and I leapfrogged with them for the next several miles by passing them on my improvised run intervals and being passed in turn during my walk breaks. As we climbed a few challenging gradual hills in the Candler Park neighborhoods before settling into a long mostly-flat straightaway in the city of Decatur at Mile 11, the rising heat was starting to take its toll on me, and I was grateful for each humorous encounter with these two friends.
The unshaded straightaway by the Decatur railroad tracks sapped my motivation in a short time, since I now felt as though I were running Atlanta's infamously hot July event, the Peachtree Road Race 10K, stretched out to a marathon distance during the month of March. Memories of my three experiences with heat sickness from the previous summer started to plague me, and the need for caution asserted itself. The apathy of my running burnout from a couple months before resurfaced in my head, and I thought to myself that I would rather put on a frozen fish outfit and walk into a polar bear den than continue for the next 15 miles. Candy asked me if I felt okay as she and Brad passed me again during one of my walks, and I told her that I was just not feeling up to a marathon today. I assured her and Brad that I would drop out of the race if I felt sick, and I watched as the two of them plowed ahead.
|Photo courtesy of Kim Purcell Pike|
I ran most of a fun downhill stretch through the Emory University campus, but settled into a walk break when I felt exhaustion surfacing again. A race official commented on my pale appearance, and asked me if I were okay. When I gave her a lackluster thumbs-up, and told her that I was still moving, she instructed me to have the volunteers take a look at me at the next aid station.
I was unsure of whether my low energy was due to my recent diet or to the uncanny high temperatures, but I decided that, either way, I should take it easy on the hills that loomed ahead. Since my improvised running intervals were now in disarray, I decided just to walk the steep hills and run the descents for the remainder of the race. My hopes of a strong finish had fallen from view, and I now envisioned myself reaching the end with a time of six hours or more, but I was beyond caring. Having decided that I did not want to rationalize a road marathon DNF in my blog after the race, I resolved to keep moving, regardless of slowness. A snail’s pace marathon finish would still be a marathon finish. When I arrived at the next aid station after a long gradual climb on Lullwater Road, I grabbed two cups of water and soldiered on.
There is always something exhilarating about crossing Mile 17 of a marathon and starting the single-digit 9-mile countdown to the finish. The benefits of my treadmill incline workouts manifested themselves as I power-walked the hills and still managed to pass a few runners. The long and gradual downhill runs became tougher as the temperatures continued to rise, but I stayed with the plan, assuring myself that every step brought me closer to completion. I exchanged well-wishes with a handful of runners whom I knew, and shared some gallows humor with others who appeared just as exhausted as I was, but the next few miles through Druid Hills and Virginia Highlands were mostly a sweat-obscured blur of brisk downhill paces and laborious climbs. I do remember one college-aged volunteer cheering at us runners and telling us, “You’re not dreaming about running a marathon. You’re actually doing it! Way to go!” His encouragement put my day back into perspective. Despite my disappointment at my pace, I was, indeed, finishing something that had seemed impossible to me just a few years ago.
My spirits were lifted even more when I reached a challenging out-and-back section at Piedmont Park and realized that I was not as far behind some of my friends as I had previously thought. I needed the motivational shot in the arm, because the remaining four miles of the marathon left the shade of the Virginia Highlands trees for the wide open pavement stretches of the city streets. Kim and Marc, two friends from my trail running group, were cheering the runners at Piedmont Park, and the sight of them put a smile on my face. Marc, a college friend with whom I had recently reconnected, paced with me for the next mile out of Piedmont Park. I was incredibly thirsty during this Piedmont Park stretch, so I stopped at a water fountain to drink, and was dismayed to find that the fountain did not work. I gave a middle finger to the fountain in frustration, and then resumed moving with Marc keeping me company up the steep hill outside the park.
As I alternately ran and walked through the streets of Atlanta for the next two miles, I thought of myself as a large earthworm slowly drying on an exposed slab of concrete under the hot sun. Two more cups of water at the downtown connector bridge aid station at the Georgia Tech campus hit the spot at the perfect time, and I broke into a downhill run through the streets of the campus. As I ran by a fraternity house and saw several students basked out on the lawn in armchairs to watch the race, I waved and yelled to them, “Biology graduate, 1995! Get out while you still can!” The students laughed as I ran by, and I continued moving down Techwood Avenue by the stadium. I was probably not going to win any spirit awards from the Georgia Tech Alumni Association, but I was about to finish the marathon.
The remaining two miles of the route were slow-paced as the noon heat baked the streets, but I was reassured by the mile marker clocks notifying me that my finish time would not be quite as pathetic as I had imagined earlier. My stopwatch had completely stopped working altogether by this point and only displayed a blank screen, so I could only hope for the best as I summoned all of my remaining energy for the final straightaway back to Centennial Park. I spotted a couple of acquaintances cheering me on at the final stretch that led to the last turn to the finish line.
I crossed the finish line in 5:13:09 to earn my slowest road marathon time by fifteen minutes. Considering the circumstances, the only thing that surprises me was that it did not take me even longer to complete this marathon. I had shown up for this race after experiencing a too-little-too-late return of enthusiasm after a poor training season of sluggish running and burnout following my 100-mile attempt months before, I had lost weight rapidly in the month before the marathon after pushing the reset button on my daily diet choices, I had not been acclimated to the high temperatures that arrived in Atlanta just a couple of days before this race, and I had spent the last 20 miles of this race mostly running blind after losing my stopwatch intervals. I gratefully accepted my finisher’s medal, though, and made my way to the post-finish area as an endurance runner once again.
Resolving to stay the course with my Paleo diet, I miraculously turned down the bottles of chocolate milk that were offered at the post-finish area, and then gave away the candy bars and processed food from the finish lunch bag provided by the race. I kept the banana from the race bag and ate it on the way back to my truck, where a sweet potato was waiting for me. The sweet potato turned out to be a great recovery food, and I felt surprisingly good a half hour later when I arrived home.
I am thankful to the race organizers and volunteers of this year’s Publix Georgia Marathon for sponsoring another outstanding event that placed emphasis on safety and fun. I am already registered for next year’s event as I write this report. My admiration goes out to my talented running friends from GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society) and from my Galloway training group, many of whom earned impressive finish times despite the conditions.
My initial hopes for a personal course record may have evaporated under the sun, but I do not consider the 2012 Publix Georgia Marathon to be a failure. I marked my return to the sport after a break and rediscovered the steel inside myself that compels me to keep putting one foot in front of another against the odds. I have placed my highest priority on weight loss and overall fitness for the next several months in lieu of race finish times, but it feels great to be racing again just the same.
See you on the trails.