Friday, December 6, 2013

Atlanta Half Marathon 11/18/13 + Helen Holiday Trail Half Marathon 11/30/13 (Race Report)

On Thanksgiving morning, November 28, 2013, I completed the Atlanta Half Marathon with a finish time of 2:29:34 as a volunteer leader for the 2:30 Pace Team.  Two days later, on November 30, I completed the Helen Holiday Trail Half Marathon with a finish time of 2:44:13. 

Photo courtesy of Martin Kratzer Photography
After several humbling months of injury and inactivity, I am now training consistently again, and I am well on my way down the long road that will return me to peak fitness.  Unfortunately, the ability to function in sub-freezing temperatures is still not in my bag of tricks.  Many runners proudly claim that they love racing in cold weather, and that they would take winter temperatures over the summer heat any day.  I agree with this mindset, but only to a certain point.  I can stay outside all day in 30 to 40-degree weather, but temperatures in the low 20s push the envelope of my comfort zone a little too far.  When I found my way to the Atlanta Track Club Pace Team tent in the parking lot of Turner Field next to the start area of the Atlanta Half Marathon early on this 23-degree morning and waited for my fellow pace leaders, one friend observed, “Jason, you look like you’re getting ready to rob a train.”  Sure enough, I did look the part, since my face was covered in a polyester Inov-8 head wrap that resembled one of the cloth masks worn by Jesse James and other legendary train robbers in centuries past.  I will admit that the idea of holding up a train simply to come in from the freezing cold and stand by burning engine coals sounded quite good to me at the time. 

Thankfully, the brutal chill was somewhat alleviated when I took one of the 2:30 pace flags and made my way to the middle of a crowded corral to join my fellow Pace Team leaders Miranda, Crystal, and Dan.  The Atlanta Half Marathon, with its runner population of nearly 11,000, is the perfect race for those who want to be in close proximity with others for the duration of the event, so the human windshield stayed in full force as we crossed the start line and enjoyed the first couple of miles that led through downtown Atlanta.

In recent years, I have settled into a Thanksgiving tradition of volunteering to help lead the 2:30 pace team at this race event, because I enjoy the camaraderie among the runners, many of whom are participating in a half marathon for the first time.  In the past, the comfortable speed of this pace group has helped me to recover from longer-distance races during the fall season.  This time around, however, the half marathon distance would be the farthest distance that I had completed in several months, and I would need the pace to guide me to the finish.  In a sense, I felt as though I were a first-time half-marathon runner myself.  The 2:30 pace team has an established two-minute-run/one-minute-walk interval routine, so this strategy falls in line with the Galloway training that I utilize for many pavement races. 

The race course of the Atlanta Half Marathon features a luxurious downhill stretch for a long while after the roads leave the downtown Atlanta area to circle the western perimeter of the Georgia Tech campus.  The first notable hill greets runners just after five miles, as we leave the Atlantic Station and climb over Peachtree Road before descending into Piedmont Park.  After we run through Piedmont Park at the seventh mile, the rolling hills hit full force and keep on rolling for the remainder of the race.  Since the Pace Teams must maintain close to an even speed throughout the event, the ability to keep everyone running consistently up and down the hills in the final miles can be a challenge.  This year, my ability to keep myself running happily during the final miles was a challenge in itself.  My interval timer was keeping me grounded while the other pace team leaders checked their GPS watches to assure us that we were maintaining close to the 11:27 minute-per-mile pace necessary to hit the finish line at the right time.  Since I love motivating others, I took advantage of every opportunity to take my mind off of my own rusty endurance skills by complimenting the first-time half marathoners around me. 

Photo courtesy of Miranda Byrd
Our group crossed the finish line together at 2:29:34, and we posed for a photo after collecting our impressively-large medals.  I had completed my longest running distance since my fascia tissue injuries had taken hold during the early summer months, and my legs felt as though I had just completed a 50-mile ultramarathon.  As I returned my pace team flag to the Atlanta Track Club tent and congratulated others, I felt the need to keep walking so that my legs would not seize up with pain in the cold weather.  Fortunately, I was back to my good old self after an hour of rest, and I felt great for the rest of the day as I spent the holiday with my family just north of Atlanta.  The next day, I spent most of my time relaxing on the sofa in my apartment to watch movies, because I only had this one day to rest before my next half marathon the following morning. 

The Helen Holiday Trail Half Marathon, which takes place at Unicoi State Park in Helen, Georgia, was an inaugural race organized and directed by one of my good running friends, Sean “Run Bum” Blanton, and the entire event encapsulated the fun-loving aesthetic of his epic sense of adventure, while providing an excellent opportunity for beginning trail runners to discover the addictive charms of racing through the woods.  The 40-degree temperatures, while chilly, were noticeably more forgiving on this day than they had been on Thanksgiving morning, but my friend, Kate, and I were thankful for the 10:00 AM start time as we carpooled to Helen from Atlanta.  When we arrived at the start area in a field next to the Unicoi Lodge, I was thankful that I did not have to stand outdoors to help assemble a pace group, and I enjoyed remaining inside my warm truck until it was time for Sean to greet the crowd with his introductory speech. 

As the race started, I settled into the back of the pack with another of my local running friends, Elizabeth, since we had both decided that we would be taking plenty of long walk breaks on this trail course.  The first mile of the course consisted mostly of road running to thin the crowd before we turned onto a generously wide single-track trail into the woods.  An easy trek around the beautiful Unicoi Lake was just what the doctor ordered to get the blood flowing in my legs and to ease me back into running mode so soon after the half marathon two days before.  After circling the lake, we crossed some paved roads and continued to enjoy the wide trail that took us into picturesque marsh areas before ascending a few long graduals switchback climbs. 

Elizabeth and I had settled into a strategy of walking almost every notable incline, and, although my pace seemed sluggish compared to the effortless running of my pre-injury days, I was still happy that we were passing a handful of other runners.  Since this was my first time running on the trails of Unicoi State Park, and I had no idea what obstacles awaited me later in the course, I was content to save energy by running and walking at a conversational pace the entire time.  I kept commenting on the beauty of the terrain, because this course displayed the north Georgia mountains at their best on a sunny day.  Since Sean had described the course as a series of “30 to 60-second climbs”, our inability to reach the top of each peak within any remote semblance of that time frame became an ongoing joke. 

Photo courtesy of Wayne Downey
The climbing was balanced out by some of the most fun downhill stretches that I have ever encountered, since the wide trails provided ample room for me to watch my step and to pass by, or be passed by, other runners.  All the while, the glorious scents of late autumn, namely fallen leaves, crisp air, and burning fireplaces in the distance, kept a smile on my face.  After roughly seven miles of running and hiking up and down these scenic trail hills, we turned onto a paved road leading us through the town of Helen.

Helen, Georgia, a former logging town that was subsequently transformed into a re-creation of a Bavarian village, always impresses me with its well-played balance of rustic charm and tourist trap atmosphere.  A notable feature of this small community is a funnel cake business that I always loved visiting during my nutritionally carefree days, because these fresh funnel cakes are usually worth the six months that each one probably takes off of my life.  Since the race course veered along the outskirts of Helen’s main street, however, I was spared the dilemma of even having to decide whether or not to halt my run for a funnel cake stop.  Temptations always seem to find their way to me instead of the other way around, and, as we climbed a hill to the second aid station of the course, I found myself staring at a vast table spread of fresh pumpkin pie and various other baked goods.  Since I had finally rebooted my Paleo diet over the past month, and stuck to the plan even on Thanksgiving Day, I simply grabbed a banana, thanked the volunteers, and resumed my run.

After a mile and half of gentle climbs and speedy descents, Elizabeth and I arrived at the Mile 9 water crossing, where we quickly made our way across 20 feet of a calf-deep mountain stream.  After running for a short while, though, my shoes and socks felt completely dry. 

The Helen Holiday Trail Half Marathon ultimately ended up being slightly short of a half marathon distance, but we resumed our casual pace of downhill running and uphill hiking to conserve energy for the unknown terrain that lay ahead.  I was proud that my legs were still functioning after completing a half marathon so soon before, but I also realized that it would be quite a while until I had my full ultramarathon mojo back.  This particular race lived up to its promise of being a perfect light course to introduce runners to the trail, though, and my high spirits soared all the while because of the easy trail stretches.  I will not go so far as to say that the trails of this course were groomed, but they were noticeably less technical in nature than the terrain that I am accustomed to running. 

The finish area greeted us much sooner than we expected, and I thoroughly enjoyed an easy descent that took us into the open, where we ran around the perimeter of the parking area field and crossed the finish line.  I had completed this race in 2:44:13 and placed 151 out of 190 runners.   I gave Sean a high-five as I passed through the finish chute, and then enjoyed hanging out with other runners for a few minutes while I ate some orange slices from the food table. 

Since I have been completing short distances now that I am running pain-free again, it was a tall order even to finish two half marathons back-to-back.  I am grateful that I made the most of the Thanksgiving holidays by completing both the Atlanta Half Marathon and the Helen Holiday Trail Half Marathon in one piece, and returning to my workout routine immediately after.  It is a blessing to be running consistently again. 

Thanks to the Atlanta Track Club for another perfect Atlanta Half Marathon and thanks to Sean Blanton and Run Bum Tours for their brilliant inaugural event with the Helen Holiday Trail Half Marathon.  My plans for next year’s Thanksgiving break are already written in stone.

See you on the trails.


1 comment:

  1. Jason
    Awesome write up my friend! It was good seeing you out on the trail you really have a relentless spirit about you that has always inspired me glad to hear you back training & pushing forward!
    Let's hit the dirt soon!