The half marathon is a perfect race distance. Ultramarathons and marathons are more fun for me, because of the epic scale adventure of each experience, but I am just happy to complete those races in one piece. When it comes to competitively racing against others, the 13.1-mile half marathon distance appeals to my skill level. Unlike the local 5K and 10K events, where the races are over before I hit my stride, the half marathon distance allows me an opportunity to ease into my comfort zone speed before intensifying my focus and pushing myself to run faster. Although I was recovering from the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon that I had completed less than two weeks prior, I still welcomed the opportunity to test myself against others at the Atlanta Half Marathon.
The Atlanta Half Marathon, an annual Thanksgiving morning event sponsored by the Atlanta Track Club, lives up to its slogan by inviting the runner to “Earn your turkey!” The 2010 race would be utilizing an out-and-back loop course that differed from the traditional point-to-point route in previous years, but the goals would be much the same for most of us who wanted to enjoy a run with few friends among the thousands of participants and to burn a few calories preemptively before joining our families in front of a massive table spread of turkey, dressing, and pumpkin pie.
I arrived at the Turner Field start area of this event just after 6:00 in the morning dressed appropriately for the uncommonly warm 50-degree temperature and I welcomed the rare opportunity to run a Thanksgiving race in shorts and a short-sleeve running shirt. The start area was crowded, but I encountered a few friends as I waited in the bathroom lines and then found a place in my specified race corral section. In the minutes before the race start, I talked with a friend, Lee, about the possibility of beating my previous half marathon time record (1:55:45 from the easier Atlanta Half course of 2008) and we both agreed that this race was probably too crowded and hilly to have any finish line expectations. Visions of a new personal record for the half marathon distance were still dancing around in my head, though, and I made a silent promise to adhere to a pacing strategy that would allow me to beat my previous record. For the first seven miles of this course, I planned for an average minute-per-mile pace of just under 9:30 before accelerating to a significantly faster speed to benefit from the momentum of passing the halfway point after the crowds had hopefully thinned.
For the first few miles, I enjoyed a 9:20 average pace and utilized Galloway intervals of running for four minutes and walking for one minute. I have run a half marathon in the past without using the intervals, but I decided to err on the side of caution this time around, since I was was still recovering from the full marathon a week and half ago and since I was preparing for the Pine Mountain 40 Mile Trail Run in early December. I have learned to appreciate the Galloway intervals as a forced pace strategy to keep myself from going out too fast early in a long distance race and I knew that this half marathon would probably not be an exception. I had unfortunately neglected to program my Garmin watch for the run/walk intervals before this race, so I had no beeping interval alerts. I was still able to follow the interval plan by watching my time, although I accidentally ran through a few walk intervals during the race when my thoughts were distracted.
The new course for the Atlanta Half Marathon was invitingly scenic as the race took us through the downtown area beside Centennial Olympic Park, behind the athletic center at the Georgia Tech campus, and through the recently-constructed Atlantic Station area, where families waved at the runners from their condominium windows. My first encounter with the Millennium Gate, a classical Roman-style monument arch within the Atlantic Station area, was an unexpected highlight of the race.
The first noticeable hill climb of the course greeted me on the sixth mile of the course on 14th Street and I enjoyed the subsequent downhill run into Piedmont Park. I was carrying an Ultimate Direction handheld water bottle with a couple of Crank e-Gels, but I took advantage of the Powerade offered at a race aid station as I entered the park. Piedmont Park is one of my favorite places to run with my training group on weekends and I took in the fall leaf change scenery of the park as I proceeded along the narrow paved path with 10,000 close friends. I passed by a small group of runners in Thanksgiving costumes. A few of the runners wore Native American headdresses, but I wondered why one of the runners in their crowd was dressed like a penguin. I then realized that my fatigue had gotten the better of me, because I had mistaken a turkey costume for a penguin costume.
After exiting the park, runners received a painful dose of reality with some insidious hill climbs on Juniper Street as we made our way back into the downtown Atlanta area. The eighth mile of a half marathon is always a tricky part of the race for me, because I know that I still have five miles to cover as fatigue is starting to set in. I took some Jelly Belly Sport Beans from an aid station volunteer, rubbed dirt on my worries, and soldiered on.
When I run a half marathon race, I am certain that I will complete the distance, but there is always the question of whether or not I will embarrass myself with a slow finish time. As I encountered hill after hill along the eighth and ninth miles of this course through downtown Atlanta and through the historic Martin Luther King, Jr. neighborhood, the temptation to slow to a permanent walk for the final miles of the course seeped into my psyche, but I knew that sticking to my run interval plan would get me to the food and friends at the finish line faster and that it was best to keep pushing through with my 9:20 pace through the increasingly warm and humid morning.
My initial goals for the race had called for pushing myself to run a sub-9:00 pace during the last four miles of the course, but each new hill along the final miles of this half marathon stole a small piece of my ambition. As poet Robert Burns would say, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. The hills of the course sapped energy and the race was still too crowded even in the final miles to really open up my run. As it was, I still had to be careful for runners behind me when I started each Galloway walk interval, because I did not want anybody running at my heels to be taken off guard when I abruptly started walking.
When I realized for certain that my hopes for a finish time of less than two hours had evaporated, I decided to dispense with the Galloway run/walk intervals for the final 1.5 miles of the course and push myself through the pain by running nonstop to the finish. This was easier said than done, because I soon found myself running up the toughest hill of the course with minimum energy in reserve. I put one foot in front of the other for the uphill and looked down at my feet as I ran, oblivious to the view of the State Capitol building next to me. When I rounded the final turn of the course and made my way down Hank Aaron Drive to the finish, I tried to run myself into exhaustion so that my finish time would not crawl too far over the two-hour mark. I saw Wayne, a friend from the GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning and Trailrunning Society) group, cheering me on beside the Olympic rings as I accelerated on the downhill to the finish line.
I crossed the finish line of the Atlanta Half Marathon with an official time of 2:02:47. During the final mile and half of the course, I had lowered my average pace time from 9:20 to 9:13.
I received my race medal, grabbed a bagel and some cookies at the food lines, and spotted a handful of friends before making my way to my truck. A pleasant afternoon with my family awaited me, along with the familiar joy of negating the health benefits of a long run with delicious food. I looked forward to ending the day with an excuse to run again.
See you on the trails.