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!

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