It seemed like a good idea last October. After a year back in Chicago, I realized I just couldn’t handle the heat and humidity like I used to – especially when it came to running in such toasty weather. So as much as I wanted to run another marathon now that I am back in the U.S., I didn’t want to run a fall marathon, which would mean training throughout the hot summer. No, I decided to do a spring marathon instead, thinking I could handle winter running much better.
Any other winter, I probably could have. But not the multiple-polar-vortex-third-snowiest-ever-and-counting-winter that hit Chicago this year. As the date of the Georgia Marathon (my guinea pig for a spring marathon) drew near, I drew more and more worried. My training was nowhere near ideal. While I managed to get in all of my long runs, I was lucky to get in one midweek run each week and couldn’t do any speedwork whatsoever with the mix of snow and ice that covered Chicago’s sidewalks all winter. And in the week leading up to the Georgia Marathon, I found myself recovering from an exhausting week at work and the invigorating Women in Travel Summit. I got in one run on Tuesday and then arrived in Atlanta well after midnight on Thursday, leaving me completely wiped out Friday morning. Saturday wasn’t much better so I woke up for Sunday’s marathon with no test runs under my belt in Atlanta. I was nervous, to say the least.
My hotel (the Hilton) was a short distance from Centennial Olympic Park, where the race would both start and end. The forecast called for mid-50s throughout the morning with a chance of rain – much improved in my mind from the earlier forecasts showing sunny and 70. For someone who hasn’t run in weather warmer than 40 since about October, 70 would be nearly impossible.
I made my way through downtown Atlanta in the dark, following herds of others heading to the park as well. Compared to the Chicago Marathon, it was mercifully uncrowded and I managed to drop my bag at the gear check and use the porta-potty a couple times without waiting in line at all. I easily found my corral – the entrance to which was in front of the Hilton Garden Inn, making me totally re-think my choice of hotel! The corrals were lightly filled – for a race with less than 20,000 runners (for the marathon and half-marathon), there were 14 corrals, which nicely spaced people out. The gun went off right at 7:00 and by 7:09 I had crossed the start line – faster than I thought, since I needed to check-in online for my Southwest flight home the next day at 7:15. I actually carried my phone the first few blocks until 7:15 rolled around and I could check in to get in the first group! (yes, I am a dork).
Since sunrise wasn’t until about 7:30ish, we ran the first few miles in the dark, which was a first for me. The hills didn’t waste any time appearing and I soon got into a rhythm of running slightly slower uphill and then speeding up a bit for the downhills. There were very few truly flat sections. I kept track of my pace by mile on my Garmin, aiming to be as close to 11:00 minute miles as possible. The strategy of just focusing on one mile at a time made the whole race go a lot faster than past marathons.
At mile 7, the half marathon group split off from the marathoners and the course became incredibly sparse. I was already feeling the effect of the uphills in my legs and was seriously wondering how I would make it through the entire 26.2 miles. But by mile 10 or 11, we entered the Atlanta suburb of Decatur, which was both flat and entertaining, the combination of which worked wonders to raise my spirits. The city had placed signs along the entire course within the city limits both promoting the city and encouraging runners (example: You can’t stop, you’ve come so far, but if you do, we have lots of bars). Yes, all of the signs tried to rhyme!
It was in Decatur that I passed the halfway point and I was feeling pretty good. I was at 2:27, which had me on pace for a 4:54 finish. I took a quick porta-potty pitstop without losing much time and had plenty of downhills to even get in a mile or two under 11:00. A nice chat with a cute guy helped too.
Unfortunately, by mile 18 in the Druid Hills area of Atlanta, it was a totally different story. My left hip had started to hurt – not just muscle soreness pain but real pain pain. And then my left knee started to hurt. And there were more and more uphill sections and my legs just didn’t want to run up them anymore. My hope of finishing at a nice 11:00 pace (about 4:48) faded fast and I started to wonder if I could even finish in 5 hours. As the 5-hour pace group flew by me, I knew the answer was likely no.
I continued to focus on just one mile at a time and let myself walk more and more. I thought back to when I ran the Minneapolis Marathon, which was pretty much entirely uphill the last two miles. I walked a ton toward the end of that marathon and still finished in 4:54 so I thought I could still do it. As I reached mile 22, though, my legs failed me. If I had been able to pick up an 11 minute pace – or even 11:15 – I could have come in under 5 hours, but I just couldn’t do it.
So I walked all the uphills for the last four miles and shuffled my way along the flat portions and downhills (which didn’t seem to be many!). I managed to run the last quarter mile so I could at least run through the finish line, where I ended up coming in at 5:09:58 – my worst marathon finish time since I finished in about five and a half hours in my very first marathon when it was 85 degrees out.
Disappointing, but not unexpected.
As I lay in my hotel room in pain – serious pain, not just muscle soreness – I really only have myself to blame. I didn’t train properly for the hills and I probably hadn’t been running long enough again after my year-long layoff during my career break trip to appropriately start training for a marathon. I am also ten pounds heavier than I was when I ran my previous marathons, which means my legs were supporting ten extra pounds throughout this race.
All that said, Atlanta was fairly awesome as a marathon host city. Despite the killer hills (and even an Atlanta native told me they kicked his butt), the course was quite scenic, winding through historical sites, upscale neighborhoods, wooded parks and the cute town of Decatur. The volunteers out on the course were awesome; they really kept me going. I was near tears on a couple of occasions, hobbling toward the water stations, and volunteers would shout out their encouragement and it pushed me to shuffle on. Likewise, while there weren’t a lot of spectators along the course, those that were out were great, many offering up their own treats and all yelling words of encouragement. I was also impressed by the way so many runners shouted their thanks back to both the volunteers and spectators.
And the finisher’s medal was really cool:
I also learned after the fact, that there were only about 1600 people running the full marathon. While in Chicago, runners in the 4:30 to 5:30 finish time range have plenty of company, the back of the pack was a bit lonely in Atlanta. A lot of tables at stations toward the end had already been turned over by the time we got there and there were only about 100 bags left in the gear check by the time I picked mine up (and all of them had been consolidated to just two tables).
So what now?
I rest up for a week and then slowly work my way back into shorter distance running while doing some serious strength training to prepare for my Grand Canyon trip in May. And, start to really get serious about getting back to my pre-trip weight. I have been half-heartedly “trying” to lose weight ever since I got back and clearly have not been successful. And while I know many people will tell me I should just accept my body the way it is, I don’t feel entirely healthy and just don’t feel good about myself at this weight, so it’s time to make a change.
And as for another marathon?
It is definitely in the plans, I just don’t know when or where yet.