Thursday, March 21, 2013

Publix Georgia Marathon 3/17/13 (Race Report)

On March 17, 2013, I completed my fifth Publix Georgia Marathon with a finish time of 4:28:51, earning my second fastest marathon time and a new personal course record.

Minutes before the start of the Publix Georgia Marathon at Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, I made my way my designated corral to look for the 4:10:00 Pace Team, with whom I had decided to run so that I could top my previous personal marathon record, 4:20:10, that I had earned at the 2009 Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon.  After searching for a short while for the trademark pace signs and realizing that there was no pace team to be found in the corral, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision simply to run happy with no specific pace in mind.  I would use my stopwatch to follow the Galloway intervals of four-minute runs and one-minute walks to keep some energy in reserve for the duration of the race, and just plow forward with no concern for a finish time.  With my orange clothing, I was showing a complete indifference to the Saint Patrick's Day holiday, so a similar dismissal of any pace goals suddenly seemed refreshing.

During the weeks leading up to this event, I had gradually overcome my burnout and started to rediscover the joy of running simply for the sake of running, with no competitive aspirations in mind.  This paradigm shift, driven by a combination of economic realities and a simple desire not to let my running seem like a job, has been governing my 2013 race schedule.  I have signed up for only half as many races as in previous years, and will be enjoying longer breaks between race events in the latter two-thirds of the year to prevent future burnout.  The idea of simply enjoying long runs on local routes with friends instead of crowding races together seems like the best idea for now.  My upcoming Umstead 100 race in early April that I signed up for during a rather overconfident phase this past fall has fallen from the pedestal of priorities, and I am approaching that event with a “Whatever happens will happen.” mindset.

As I approached the start line with my corral, I was amused at the sight of a few outlandish Saint Patrick’s Day costumes in the crowd, and told a few friends that people-watching would be my only goal of the day.  The Publix Georgia Marathon has always been a fun race for people-watching, even when it does not take place on a holiday.  The route twists, turns, and climbs through several prominent Atlanta landmarks where different volunteer aid stations compete for the most fun themes and designs, and where friendly faces can be found on every corner to encourage weary runners to keep moving.  The strong spirit of fun and commitment that the local running community invests into this race is what always brings me back, despite the peripheral hassles of an inconvenient race number pickup location, parking fees, and traffic.  Regardless of my level of fitness or lack thereof, I always find something to smile about when I cross the start line and am on the scenic course with a simple task of moving from one point to another in front of me.  Over the years, the Publix Georgia Marathon has become an outstanding local event.  Reminding myself just to enjoy the tour, I turned on my stopwatch and ran across the start timer.

The first two miles of this course are deceptively easy, as runners follow downhill roads out of downtown Atlanta and through Georgia State University.  After standing in 55-degree coolness for a couple of hours with friends at the start area, my body warmed quickly during my first few run intervals, and I knew that the rising temperatures would sneak up on me, as they always do each year during this late-March race.  Slow and easy is the name of the game on this gradual downhill stretch, though, and I enjoyed the relaxed effect of getting my mind around the feel of the race after the short warm-up.  I was not carrying any food or water with me on the course at all this time around, since past experience has taught me that I can usually find plenty of both along the route.  I took a couple of swallows of water at the Mile 2 aid station and kept running as the course descended to one of its lowest points on North Avenue before leading runners along a gradual uphill stretch to the historic Martin Luther King, Jr. neighborhood.

I always love running through the mix of historic buildings and revitalized construction along the Edgewood Avenue trek that leads the way to Little Five Points.  I heard a female voice along this section and discovered the source as I ran by a band that was fronted by an attractive blonde who was singing and playing keyboards.   I let my mind wander into the landscapes of infatuation for the next half mile or so before turning off of Edgewood Avenue into some beautiful Little Five Points neighborhoods.  I noticed at each subsequent mile marker that I was cruising along at just under 10-minute miles just by running comfortably and adhering to the intervals.  I knew that I would be thankful later on for not starting out too quickly, and I was soon grateful that I had failed to locate the 4:10:00 Pace Team before the race start.

A long and gradual hill to the Carter Center is the first ominous hint of challenges to come farther along the course, but I soldiered effortlessly on the climb as I joked with other runners on the narrow road.  An aid station around the corner offered cups of jellybeans, so I accepted one and took my first mouthful, pleasantly surprised to find that these were gourmet jellybeans.  Enjoying the mix of chocolate, cinnamon, and other such flavors, I continued to finish the cup as I arrived at the Mile 7 split where the half marathon runners turned left for their journey home and the rest of us continued east toward Candler Park and Decatur.

The most mentally grueling section of the Publix Georgia Marathon for me is the stretch of rolling hills from Mile 7 through Mile 11, because fatigue starts to take hold while I realize that I am not even at the halfway point of the course yet.  The uncertainty about whether or not I can finish the race always festers in my psyche during this time.  My mind was assaulted with simultaneous self-defeating assertions that this day was just not my day, I was just not feeling it on this day, I was burned out on running, everyone would understand if I dropped out of the race right now, today’s poor performance would not define me as a runner, I might have been coming down with an illness, I had put on too much weight over the holidays, the mile markers were placed too far apart, I was still recovering from the Mount Cheaha 50K race three weeks ago, I did not want to get heat exhaustion on this first hot weather weekend of 2013, road marathons were the devil’s work, humans were meant to sprint short distances instead of running 26.2 miles on pavement, my choice of running attire was not working for me, my new shoes were uncomfortable, the Top 40 songs that the aid stations were playing from the loudspeakers always sucked, the people behind me would soon pass me, I would end up with an embarrassing finish time if I managed to finish at all, and I was envious of the dogs that were lying on the front lawns of the houses along the route.

I was thankful that the IT band injury that had plagued me all winter was not a problem during this race, but I was also paying the price for my loss of fitness and weight gain that had come with the slow recovery from that injury.  During a road marathon, just 10 or 15 extra pounds can make a drastic difference, and, although I was much lighter this time around than I had been for previous races on this course, I still berated myself for not exercising harder during the injury recovery.

I stayed true to my four-minute runs and one-minute walks through these early sections of the route, though, and the miles somehow stacked up one by one behind me in my wake.  An ultrarunning friend, Mike, was riding his bike up and down the course to encourage friends, and I appreciated his company every time he stopped by.  My spirits were eventually lifted when I spotted a handful of friends from previous races and leapfrogged with them by moving slightly ahead during my run intervals and falling behind during each subsequent walk interval.  As I ran down a long straightaway leading to Agnes Scott College in Decatur, I congratulated one friend, Charlie Gregory, a runner from my Saturday morning Galloway training group who was completing this race as his 100th marathon.

As the route turned through downtown Decatur and crossed over the half marathon timer, I noticed by my watch that I had completed the half distance in less than two hours and 10 minutes.  I felt better halfway through the race than I had in previous years.  I am sure that weighing roughly 50 pounds less than I had the year before helped a lot, but I also credited my resolve simply to run by feel without pushing for a particular time.  I was fatigued, but I still felt as though I would be able to adhere to my run/walk intervals indefinitely.  I was starting to pass more runners at Mile 14, as the route followed a generously flat road leading away from Decatur.  A couple of cups of Powerade from an aid station just before Mile 15 gave me some quick energy that I would need as I approached Emory University.

Photo courtesy of Di Sha
One of the two noticeable improvements in this year’s course became evident as I took an unfamiliar turn that led me straight into the prominent entrance gate of Emory University.  The scenic run through the campus that followed was one of my favorite sections of Publix Georgia Marathon, although a couple of hills served as a premonition of the Druid Hills sections on the other side of the campus.  The infamous Druid Hills route greeted me soon enough as I left Emory and began a determined climb up Lullwater Road.  My nonstop run along this initial hill of Lullwater Road was soon rewarded when I reached the next aid station, where volunteers gave me Oreo Cookies.  Mike rode alongside me on his bike as I reached the end of Lullwater Road and climbed a gradual ascent on Ponce de Leon Avenue before turning once again into the Druid Hills neighborhoods.

My ability to run the hills had improved over the past year, so I was able to stay true to my run/walk intervals without taking additional walk breaks on the climbs this time around.  As I soldiered on through Mile 18 and Mile 19 and the countdown in miles took me closer to the finish, my confidence started to soar.  A series of steep hills along the Mile 20 stretch did not slow me down at all this year, and I casually took on the challenge with my normal intervals.  I knew that I would be rewarded soon with a long gradual descent once I reached the Virginia Highlands area.

The midday temperatures were rising along with my confidence, though, and I could feel the sun beating down on me on the exposed roads once I reached Piedmont Park.  My disposition was given a small boost when I realized that a particularly irritating out-and-back section in the park was shortened for this year’s race to make up for the extended trek through Emory University a few miles before.  Even so, I was noticeably battered by the heat by the time I left the park for the final four miles of the race.

I started to establish modest goals using my run/walk intervals, telling myself at the beginning of each run interval that I only had to run four minutes before taking a break.  This strategy was a lifesaver, and I soon found myself passing many runners who had resorted to walking up all the hills.  My body temperature was starting to rise with the heat, though, and staying true to my run/walk intervals took all of the energy that I had to offer.  I reached the Mile 24 aid station in a daze, downed two cups of Powerade, and kept moving.  I still had the presence of mind to thank police officers and volunteers who were monitoring traffic at tricky intersections, but I was also surprised that I could even remember my own name at this point.

I calculated my pace for only the second time of the entire event, and realized that I was not quite moving fast enough to beat my previous marathon record of 4:20:10.  I accelerated all that my legs would allow, though, because I was determined to finish this race in less than 4:30:00 and earn my second fastest time, along with a new Publix Georgia Marathon personal course record.  Keeping up my run/walk intervals in the heat was quite a beatdown, but I did not give in, because I knew that the intervals would get me to the finish line in the most efficient way without collapsing.

The final mile of the Publix Georgia Marathon is an exercise in mental strength, since the CNN Center building that stands by the finish area can be seen the entire time.  This CNN Center building seemed never to come closer, but my run intervals kept me passing other runners along the way.  During the last half mile, I summoned the rest of my energy and ran nonstop to the finish area at Centennial Olympic Park.  I crossed the finish line in 4:28:51 to earn my second fastest marathon time.  For the first time in my running history, I had placed in the top half of the overall finishers for a pavement marathon.

This race had taken a lot out of me, and I almost passed out after walking away from the finish line and collecting my medal.  I was apparently not the only one, though, because a guy walking in front of me suddenly leaned against a truck and broke down sobbing.  I stopped to congratulate him, and walked with him for a short while to make sure that he was okay before continuing on my own into the park and struggling to stay upright and coherent while I congratulated a few friends.  When I reached my truck, I had to sit for a few minutes and gather myself before driving home.

I believe that I could have finished this marathon in close to four hours had I kept up the same peak fitness that I had during the fall season for my Pinhoti 100 training.  As is, though, I am grateful that I did not experience any IT band pain during this pavement marathon and that I stayed true to my established run/walk intervals without taking any additional walk breaks.  When I talked with friends at the finish area, I told everyone that I was going to drop out of the Umstead 100 race in early April, but I have since changed my mind.  My fitness is not ideal for that race, but I am going to drive up there and give that race my best effort before taking a two-month break.

Thanks to the race officials, police officers, and countless volunteers of the Publix Georgia Marathon for making this a fun and safe event.  Since I was one of the first 100 people to sign up for next year’s race with the half price registration blitz a few days ago, my plans are set to enjoy this race for a sixth time in 2014 and take the long tour through this city once again with a smile on my face.

See you on the trails.