A Glorious Day at the Beach: The Bi-Low Myrtle Beach Marathon, February 19, 2011

This race turned out to be an unexpected pleasure. Last year the city canceled all the events because of an unexpected snowstorm (just a few inches, but in the South that’s enough to disarm folks unused to getting around in snow). This year the weather was close to perfect – perhaps some thought it a bit too warm and humid with a fairly strong headwind but I thought it was just fine (although it might have been nice to have the wind behind me once in a while).
It took me exactly 8 hours to drive up to South Carolina, even with several pit stops, and I found my way to the host hotel, the Sheraton, without any difficulty. My room wasn’t ready yet so I left my suitcase in the car and walked over to the convention center next door to pick up my packet and wander around the small but organized expo. Lots of goodies, including a big beach towel (appropriate for a marathon in a beach town), a colorful short-sleeve tech shirt, and a backpack with zipper. Towel, shirt, and backpack were color-coordinated in bright tropical colors. Afterwards, I wandered down to the oceanfront and explored a little, then back to the hotel to check in and get things ready for race morning, and then once more outside to locate the marathon start. This took me a few blocks in the opposite direction of my earlier walk, at an entertainment complex called Broadway on the Beach, a good place to explore if I had had more time here. Unfortunately, I was on a strict time schedule, so returning to Myrtle Beach is on my list of places to revisit.
Race morning weather was in the 50’s and felt warmer. I jettisoned my jacket and decided to simply wear a throwaway top over my usual tee shirt and vest. No mittens or gloves needed, no scarf or vest either – it was great to dress lightly. Both the marathon and half marathon began at 6:30 am, and participants for each race were told to line up in their respective sides of the street. For the first mile or so, racers kept to their ‘side’ which lessened congestion considerably. Half marathoners split off from the full course just past mile eleven, but because there were about 1700 full marathoners, there was never a feeling of being alone on the second half of the course. Any concerns about getting lost were needless. There were always people in front of me to serve as my guides. And there was great traffic control, plenty of aid stations, some with fruit but all with water and Powerade, and enthusiastic volunteers and helpful police. Spectators were primarily tourists at the hotels and condos along the route; they clapped and smiled, rang cowbells, and waved with enthusiasm. The course is open for 8 hours, so it is a wonderful race for walkers.
Although the course did not go on the beach and there was no real boardwalk, the course was varied enough that I did not get bored. Pretty flat, with only a few minor elevations, no downhills to speak of, I could easily understand people getting a PR here. Unfortunately, that was not the case for me, perhaps I was still fatigued from Mercedes, but I did finish in 5:47 gun time. My watch said 5:45 but I can’t corroborate that because it seems there was a snafu with the timing device (a foam rectangle attached to the bib, different from the one used in Waco and others I’ve used) and chip times did not register. There were several timing mats on the course but apparently splits never registered at all. To me, this was a minor inconvenience, but others might have found it more problematic. Neat medal in the shape of beach sandals, gold for marathoners, silver for those doing the half. As a result of this race, I was left with a very positive impression of Myrtle Beach and a definite hope to return, both to do the marathon again and to spend a bit longer exploring the town itself.

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There’s nothing like a Mercedes — Marathon, that is – Birmingham, Alabama, February 13, 2011

This race has a certain cachet among marathoners. People come from all over the States and several countries to do this race. The medal is stamped with the Mercedes Benz symbol and is heavy and impressive. I couldn’t resist. So, on Saturday morning, I took two short flights to get to Birmingham, found the hotel shuttle to the Sheraton (the host hotel), checked in, and walked the couple of blocks to the expo at Boutwell Auditorium. Hereit was small and crowded and dark but there were more vendors than I had expected. This was the 10th year of the Mercedes Marathon and it was easy to see that the race organizers really have everything down pat. Packet pickup was straightforward, with long sleeve tech tee, chip, and bib in a goodie bag filled with samples and ads. I quickly walked through the booths to see if there was anything that caught my eye (nope) and went outside. A kid’s fun run was taking place in the park across the street so I mingled with the crowds for a while and then decided to visit the Birmingham Museum of Art, right next to the Auditorium. No admission fee and 3 floors of paintings, sculpture, and artifacts from the Orient, Africa, and the Americas to explore. I spent an enjoyable hour browsing through the collections before returning to my hotel.
Once back in my room, I realized how exhausted I was, so I called my husband to let him know I arrived safely, bought lunch at Subway next door, and returned to my room to read and relax. The weather on race day was supposed to be in the 40’s in the morning, warming to the 60’s by early afternoon, so I decided what to wear, put sunglasses in my vest pocket, attached bib to vest and chip to shoe, set the alarm, and went to sleep. It was only 6 pm but I fell into a heavy slumber and awoke just before the alarm went off at 4 am.
This race has a half marathon and relay in addition to the full and most people do the half. There were about 7200 racers and only about 1000 took part in the full. Here the course is open for 6 hours and the race directors are very strict about that BUT (unlike some races with a 6 hour time limit), this course remains open for the full 6 hours, with volunteers, aid stations and police support. Vicki, the balloon lady, is the person who walks the 6 hour pace and as long as you are in front of – or at least beside – her, you are allowed to finish the race and get your medal. Vicki has balloons tied to her waist (and this year she had balloons shaped like the numbers 1 and 0 to present the tenth anniversary of the race) so she is easy to spot. She is also a neat person; we met at the Darkside 8 hour track race last spring and have seen each other at several races since then. Occasionally we keep pace with each other during a race and chat a bit, but I made sure I stayed well in front of her in this race.
The course is a double loop that winds around the city, through several residential and business areas and parts of the University of Alabama at Birmingham campus. During the first loop, all the half marathoners made it a bit crowded but it was easy to see where to go. At the end of the first loop, half marathoners were told to stay to the left while full marathoners were told to keep to the right. At that point, about 3 hours into the race, everyone around me moved to the left and suddenly I was ALONE in the right hand lane! A spectator laughed and said, “Go Marathoner!” and I gave him 2 thumbs up, but I was a little nervous about finding my way around the turns and angles of the course with no one in sight. I guess I moved a little faster than I normally would to try and find other people on my side of the road. There were some markings, small blue arrows, on the ground, but they were faded and not readily seen. Fortunately, I did come upon others doing the full and managed – between helpful volunteers and police and keeping an eye on folks in front of me – to complete the race without getting lost.
The miles for the most part seemed to fly by and, except for the normal fatigue I feel towards the end of a race, had no foot or shin or leg problems. Once I passed mile 20, I got a renewed sense of energy and the final 10k was the proverbial piece of cake. As I crossed the finish line, the announcer mentioned me by name (always a good thing), told everyone that I was 63 years old, and the spectators gave a cheer – that made me laugh and I raised my cap to them. A volunteer placed a medal over my head and congratulated me and then it was water, banana, a hat, some BBQ, and a shower and nap.
In sum – if you can do a marathon in 6 hours or less, this is a great one to do. Very good support from helpful volunteers and police, the host hotel was excellent (convenient to start/finish/expo, extremely gracious staff, and a free shuttle to and from the airport), Birmingham is a lovely southern city with a number of things to see and do, and even though it was a double loop course, it was not boring. Only a few things could stand improvement – mark the course better or use signs is the biggie. And if you are like me and tend to trip easily, be careful because some of the streets have cracks and potholes.
And a great medal!

The Tallahassee Half-Marathon, February 6, 2011

I don’t usually bother with half-marathons unless they are local races and I happen to be in town with nothing else to do. Even though I began my racing career 4 years ago with a half-marathon, I just cannot seem to get excited about them now – they are over too quickly. However, I must confess that at some point in my future, I feel sure that I will come to the realization that 13.1 miles is the perfect distance for me and then I will do as many as I can. But right now, the longer the distance the better and the more challenging.
Then, why do the Tallahassee half? Simple – it gives me a chance to visit with my son and his family and get a training walk in as well. And I can usually convince my son to walk/run it with me. He can do this with no training at all – at 26 years of age, all things are possible. At any rate, we have made this a family tradition for the last 4 years and I enjoy it.

Packet pickup this year was at Tallahassee Community College. There is no real expo but just a few local charities and vendors with tables set up in a hallway. It took us about 5 minutes to get our bib with chip and tech shirt.

The race begins and end on the track at Florida State University. Since Tallahassee weather is usually very cold in February, it’s good to be able to stay warm in the gymnasium and use the indoor restrooms while waiting for the race to start. The course is an out-and-back on city streets with a small section of trail. I think Tallahassee is a beautiful city but this race does not go anywhere near the downtown area with the Capitol and other stately buildings or the attractive parks and scenic areas of the city. Of course, that would have made the course very hilly, and runners like this race because it is so FLAT. Many who do the full marathon manage to qualify for Boston.

Although the full marathon course is open for 6 hours, I have heard from other walkers that aid stations and police close up around 5 hours into the race. For that reason, I would hesitate trying the full, even though I could probably beat that 6 hour limit. Plus, I doubt my son would be willing to do a full 26.2 without training, and I certainly relish the time spent with him on the course (although this year he ran a good bit and stayed several feet ahead of me most of the time).
Even a Florida Gator will concede that the medal is attractive, with a cute little groundhog, and a scarlet and gold lanyard (FSU colors).

A Texas Toughie: the Waco Miracle Match Marathon – January 30, 2011

It calls itself the toughest little marathon in Texas and rightly so. The initial 12 miles are fairly level but the final half of the course is hill after relentless hill. Those hills are steep and they seem to never end. Respite comes around mile 24 as the final two miles of the course wind around the Brazos River – and not a moment too soon.
There are pros and cons to this race. The big draw for me was the promise of fajitas at the finish line. While not the best I have ever eaten, there were indeed fajitas, and they tasted heavenly after a difficult course.
A little background first, however. We left on Friday morning to fly into Austin, one of our favorite cities. We rented a car, spent the night at the Embassy Suites (one of our favorite hotels in Austin), and the next day drove to Waco. Aside from a Dr. Pepper Museum and a Texas Rangers Museum, there is not much to see or do in Waco. The downtown area was pretty deserted. After checking into the Waco Hilton (one of two hotels near the start/finish line), we scouted around for packet pickup. Originally this was to be at the Hilton but it was later changed to a clubhouse in a local park. It was probably within walking distance from the hotel but, since we were not sure of its exact location, we ended up driving. Only a couple of vendors as well as sponsors Scott and White Healthcare and Waco Firefighters had booths so it was a very small affair. Since we had a car, we decided to drive the course and see what it was like. This always feels like a good way to get familiar with what to expect even though I seldom remember everything.
Back to the hotel to get my stuff ready for the next morning – it was then I discovered that our hotel bathroom had ANTS! Not one (is there ever really just one ant?) but whole trails of them winding through the backsplash and around the door. We called the front desk and eventually a maintenance person arrived with some Hot Shot which he sprayed all around the area. He mentioned that this was a common problem at the hotel – that was definitely NOT what we wanted to hear. Not much sleep that night for me!
Race morning dawned warm and humid, about 60 degrees, my kind of race weather. I dressed with just a short-sleeved tee under a long-sleeved tech shirt with a light jacket and my crops and cap. No gloves or hand warmers or heavy vest this time. The first 6 miles are a loop around the Baylor University campus. As we return to the starting line area, the half marathoners break off from us, and those doing the full turn down a relatively flat stretch along the main drag of Austin Avenue. From there the course follows Lake Waco and through a community college campus and then those hills I mentioned earlier.
While the hills were steep and never-ending, compared to the 7500’ hills of Ghost Town a few weeks earlier, they were the proverbial piece of cake. I did not have to stop mid-hill to take a breath but continued on with my usual steady pace. I chatted for a while with a Galloway run-walk fellow who, as usually with the Galloway followers, got ahead of me when he ran and fell behind me when he walked. He joked that, while he alternately sped up and slowed down, I was just like a metronome, with such an even speed, he could use me as his pacer. That’s not the first time I’ve had the term metronome applied to me – LOL. Only problem I had during this race was my shins – road races seem to be especially hard on them. Trail races, on the other hand, are so gentle on the feet and legs that I really prefer them (although tripping over roots and rocks is a hazard of a different kind).
Things to note about this race:
• course is very well-marked, with white chalk marks on the road the entire way. Since getting lost is one of my concerns, this was very much appreciated by me. Orange cones helped to give us some separation from the traffic.
• I finished in just under 6 hours, but the course stayed open for the full 7 hours, even a bit beyond since I noticed that one of the finishers took almost 8 hours. Again, keeping the course open the allotted time is a hallmark of a well-organized race, so that too is much appreciated.
• Aid stations had water, Gatorade, bananas and oranges, and candy (including Snickers bars – yum!) and the aid stations were plentiful, especially at the end (about every mile) when they are sorely needed, especially since it was so hot and humid.
• This is a very small race, with under 200 marathoners. The half had more entrants and there was a relay section for the full, but the marathon is essentially a very small field. I was alone for many sections of the course (not a problem for me as long as I don’t have to worry about losing my way but it may be lonely for folks who like lots of noise and chatter around them).
• There were hardly any spectators, although there were some stalwart people who sat on their porches or rooftops and waved and called out supporting words to us. Again, the lack of spectators was not a problem for me at all, but it may be disconcerting for some racers who rely on spectator support to get them through the hard parts.
• Volunteers at aid stations and police doing traffic control – there were lots of them and they were all terrific!
• Schwag included a short-sleeved cotton tee shirt (good), big finisher’s medal with colorful lanyard (nice), and black windbreaker that was way too big and had a dark emblem that was invisible on the dark jacket (not so good).
Rather than spend another night in Waco as we had originally planned, we decided to drive back to Austin and finish our trip there. Would I do this race again? Probably not. This was my 4th Texas race, and Austin remains my #1 favorite, followed by the Texas Marathon in Kingwood.  I’m certainly glad I had the opportunity to test my abilities on this marathon, but once was enough.