On March 23, 2014, I completed my sixth Publix Georgia Marathon with a finish time of 5:41:23, earning my slowest marathon to date, but enjoying a return to the marathon distance after a year of shorter races.
I suppose that we all go through occasional times when our motivation is nowhere in sight and we are not living from day to day as much as we seem to be sleepwalking from day to day. This past winter was one of those times in my world, as I approached my training with a half-hearted mindset and indulged in an unhealthy diet. I have come to think of life itself as an ultramarathon race where I keep moving through the joyful high points and the numbing low points with the same relentless forward motion, and I suppose that this winter was one of those times in an ultramarathon when I just want to step off of the trail, lie down on a cushion of leaves, and wait for the sweepers to wake me up. In fact, I actually did step off the route and lie down for a few minutes when I ran out of energy during a 22-mile training run just three weeks before this marathon. I eventually picked myself up off of the ground, dusted the pine straw and leaves off of my running clothes, and resumed my run, remembering that the best course of action in all endeavors is to keep moving and keep smiling.
As I spent the past several weeks searching for ways to motivate myself into a return to decent fitness, my offbeat sense of logic decided that the best motivators would be a finish and a medal at this latest Publix Georgia Marathon, even if I showed up undertrained for the event. A couple of well-meaning friends reminded me that I had the option to downscale my race distance from the full marathon to a half marathon at this event, but I remembered my regret from scaling down from the marathon option to the 12-mile option at the Mystery Mountain Marathon this past fall, and I decided that continuing to settle for half measures would not snap me out of my complacent lull. Instead of dipping my toe into the icy cold water on the shallow end of the pool, retreating, and returning to the serenity of a comfortable lounge chair, I decided that I would be better off jumping into the deep end of the pool with a loud splash and being forced to swim and adapt to the conditions. I may not have been in ideal shape, but I was ready to be a marathon finisher again.
|Photo courtesy of Amy Delmas|
Common sense had not entirely forsaken me on the morning of the race. Knowing that the key to finishing this marathon would be to save my energy by starting at a conservative pace, I lined up with some friends in the 5:30 Pace Team. As we started our race in Centennial Olympic Park and made our way through downtown streets with a two-minute-run/one-minute-walk interval routine, I enjoyed the camaraderie of the group and I eased into the pace with a sense of optimism about the day ahead. The 50-degree morning temperatures were pleasantly cool, and, since weather predictions indicated that the temperatures would remain almost constant, the conditions were shaping up to be perfect for a marathon finish. Since a marathon finish, however slow, was my only goal this time around, I was happy just to enjoy company and conversation in the midst of thousands of fellow runners.
I was repeating my strategy from the previous year by not carrying any food or water and, instead, relying on the plentiful aid stations that were placed every couple of miles along the course. As I ran with the pace group along the first few miles through downtown Atlanta, midtown Atlanta, the historic Martin Luther King, Jr. neighborhood, and Little Five Points, the occasional small cup of Powerade was more than enough to keep me in good energy and good spirits. The sight of Atlanta Falcons Cheerleaders in the Little Five Points area was an additional motivational boost, of course.
The Mile 7 split, where half marathon runners turn away from the marathon route to begin their return to Centennial Olympic Park, is always a comical, yet uneasy point of the race for me, as I joke with friends about how this is our last chance to scale down to the half marathon, and as I realize that miles of difficult hills lie ahead. The increasingly arduous inclines in the neighborhoods around Ponce de Leon Road that normally mark the beginning of my energy drops during this race did not faze me at all this time around, though, and I credited the 5:30 Pace Team for helping me reach this point in the race with plenty of running mojo in store. I had a tendency to run slightly ahead of the pace group, but I always kept myself in check by staying with them during the walk intervals. The occasional greetings from friends who were cheering the runners at different points along the route provided another source of positive vibes, and the encouragement of a fellow ultramarathon runner at the start of a long straightaway into the city of Decatur kept me smiling at a point in the race when I am normally burned out.
My pace group and I reached the halfway point of the race in Decatur at the 2:38:00 mark on my watch. The decision to have a few minutes banked for the challenging hills ahead was a wise one, and I remained pleased with my decision to stay with the group. I knew from past experience that my relative lack of endurance would result in some energy drops over the next few miles, because I was rusty on the long distances. This awareness kept me grounded whenever I was tempted to run too far ahead of the group on the luxurious downhill stretches, and I knew that the moment was approaching when I would be struggling just to keep up with everyone. My favorite part of the course, a series of turns through the beautiful Emory University campus, turned out to be even more fun when I caught up with a friend with whom I had not run since my early ultrarunning days and spent a few minutes talking with him.
As I left the Emory University area just before Mile 17 and made my way to the daunting “It’s about to get real.” section into the Druid Hills neighborhoods, I started to feel cramps in my upper leg muscles. I shrugged off these pains with the realization that this is what happens to an undertrained runner who has spent the past several months completing distances of 13 miles or less when he decides to run a marathon. I resolved to take in more nutrition at the next aid station course, and soldiered on. The next two miles went by uneventfully, but the understanding that I had not properly prepared for this distance became increasingly evident with each hill.
By the time the pace group reached Mile 19, my energy level was starting to take a nosedive. I told the Pace Team leaders that I was going to back off the pace somewhat, but that I would keep the group in sight and catch up on the descents when I could. Despite my self-doubt, I still continued with the group for a couple more intervals.
A few minutes later, a series of sudden excruciating cramps up and down both of my legs stopped me in my tracks. I leaned over and massaged one leg while pain erupted in the other leg. I walked a couple of steps, only to feel the cramps return in full force. A couple of friendly runners stopped and asked me if I wanted them to call for help. I reassured them that I would be okay, but that I would have to walk slowly for a short while. After I smiled and resumed walking, the cramps shot through my legs again, and I doubled over in pain. Two of the runners offered me a handful of jelly beans, and I gratefully accepted, sensing that some added sugar and sodium would get me through. After I thanked the runners profusely, but encouraged them to go on without me, I continued my slow walk and saw the 5:30 Pace Team run over the next hill and disappear from my view.
An often-repeated motivational quote surfaced in my mind. “We cannot change the direction of the wind, but we can adjust our sails.” I knew all along that I would succeed in crossing the finish line of this marathon, but I would have to adjust my sails to do so, in figurative terms, and adapt to the new conditions. If this meant continuing at a slow walk for the next mile until cramps subsided, then I was good for the challenge.
After walking nonstop for a short while, I was able to resume running on the downhill stretches. Whenever I felt the leg cramps returning, I would simply slow to a walk and maintain a consistent pace. A benefit of the relaxed speed was that I was unaffected by some of steepest hills of the course that climbed into the Virginia Highlands neighborhoods, and I was able to pass several exhausted runners along the way. I enjoyed an extended downhill run that led away from Virginia Highlands and into Piedmont Park. I encountered a visibly discouraged runner who told me that she was trying to finish her first marathon. I walked with her for a couple of minutes, offering encouragement, and then made the most of a good descent once we turned at the end of a short out-and-back section. I caught up with the runners who had helped me earlier when I was suffering from cramps, and enjoyed conversing with them for a while as we ran and walked through midtown Atlanta streets on the way to the Georgia Tech campus. As I made my way through Georgia Tech, I took advantage of the last two notable downhill sections, because I knew that I would be reduced to walking for most of the final mile. All the while, I kept hoping to catch up with the 5:30 group, even when I felt my energy failing me.
The greatest joys of running and the greatest disappointments of running both lie in the fact that we can only take out what we put in, in terms of being rewarded for our efforts. I knew that I was achieving the slowest road marathon finish of my running career by a considerable margin, but I also knew better than to complain about the results that I would not get from the work that I did not do. I remembered a weekend in January when I used icy weather as an excuse to oversleep on a Saturday morning instead of joining my training group. I remembered another winter weekend when I had traveled to my hometown for the funeral of an old friend, but had failed to make up my training run on the following day. I remembered yet another weekend when I had just flat out not felt like running. I was now steadily making my way to a marathon finish that would give me a much-needed shot in the arm of motivation and confidence, but my leg cramps and my inability to run for most of the final section were the price to pay for my lazy training and unhealthy nutrition choices over the winter.
I adjusted my sails to adapt to the direction of the wind, though, and I was able to jog a few brief sections during the last mile, when the CNN Center that overlooks the finish area at Centennial Olympic Park remained maddeningly in sight the whole time, but seemed never to draw closer. I happily reassured myself that, despite my slow pace, I had still not lost my endurance during my extended vacation from distance running. I was also invigorated by the sight of a few friendly and familiar faces cheering me on as I neared the park. Finally, I realized that I was having fun, albeit an offbeat sort of fun. Struggling to complete long distances on foot may not be most people’s idea of a good time, but I remembered that this is the sort of thing that I live to do. Like a samurai who has finally found a battle after years of aimless wandering, I was once again doing something that I had been put on Earth to do.
I crossed the finish line at 5:41:23 on the timer, just 11 minutes behind the 5:30 Pace Team, but over 70 minutes slower than my marathon finish from the previous year on this course. I shrugged off the notion that this was a bittersweet victory, though, and simply decided to file it as another victory under my belt. I reunited with some friends from the pace group at the finish area and congratulated them before driving home with a medal earned and some lessons learned.
Thanks to the countless volunteers, police officers, and race organizers who make the Publix Georgia Marathon possible. Thanks as well to all of my running friends who kept me company or volunteered at points along the course. I am writing this report a day after signing up in a discount registration blitz for my seventh race on this course in 2015, and I look forward to another fun race, and to faster finish times in my future.
See you on the trails.