The Georgia Marathon, March 18, 2012 – Hot, Humid, and HILLY! – Oh, Yes, and I Officially Get My 50 State Finisher Trophy (Atlanta, GA)

First, the marathon – it was great, even better than the two previous times I did this race, back in 2009 and 2010 (when it was sponsored by ING instead of Publix Supermarkets, the current sponsor). In fact, the race experience is much improved, from the extensive expo held at the spacious World Congress Center downtown to the frequent email updates from the race director to the generous time limit of 7 hours. In addition to the full marathon, there was also a half marathon. Both races began at 7 am but the half marathoners split off at mile 7.

Atlanta is a reasonable 6 hour drive from my home so it is a practical way to get in a race without the expense of air fare. The start and finish lines are close to a number of downtown hotels and, while parking and driving can be a bit of a hassle in any city, especially one with lots of traffic and one-way streets, it is much easier to get around Atlanta than some other big cities. Once my husband and I made it to our hotel, the Embassy Suites, we never had to worry about driving except to go home because everything related to the race is within easy walking distance (including several good restaurants – and with my husband along, that is very important).

We drove up Saturday morning, checked into the hotel, dropped off our suitcases, and headed over to the Expo. While it was fairly crowded, getting my packet with bib and attached chip and gender specific short sleeved navy tech shirt was quick and easy. After browsing the merchandise and and stopping at various vendors, we found the booth for the 50 State Marathon Club. This race was to be a reunion event for 50 Staters and the one where I would be officially recognized for completing a marathon in every state. Readers of this blog may remember that I was supposed to receive my trophy last December at the Tucson Marathon reunion but my husband was too sick to come with me. This was a major disappointment to me since he has always been my most ardent supporter and champion, so I decided to postpone getting my award until the next reunion. That turned out to be here in Atlanta, and now my husband was here with me.

I remembered that the last 2 times I had done this race, the weather was freezing cold. In 2009, I was so cold I kept my heavy hoodie for on the entire race; the wind was raw and blustery and I never seemed to warm up. That year there were no refreshments for back-of-the-packers like myself and I later learned that the wind was so strong that it had blown over the water bottles and food and volunteers just gave up and put everything away after 5 hours. In 2010, everything was better; the weather, while still cold and a little drizzly, was less bone-chilling, and there was water and bagels left for those who took 5 ½ or longer to finish.

This year it was warm at the start, in the upper 60’s, and the temps slowly rose to the mid-80’s by the end of the race. It was humid as well. But, heck, I live in Florida and much prefer heat and humidity to cold and wind so, dressed only in capris, short sleeve shirt, singlet, and mesh vest, I was prepared. This course is very hilly, most of Atlanta is very hilly, but I like hills (especially when they are in low-altitude environments), so again, I was prepared. The course is invigorating and fun, taking us through 3 college campuses (Emory University, Agnes Scott College, and Georgia Tech), several attractive neighborhoods like Decatur (with amusing signs) and Druid Hills, a number of historic sights including the Martin Luther King Historic Site and the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum, and some pleasant parks (Olmstead and Piedmont). No signs or chalk marks designated the course, yet finding my way was not a problem. There were supportive and enthusiastic volunteers and police at EVERY bend in the road and at EVERY major road intersection. Orange cones marked a separate lane for us on the busier roads. Aid stations were well-spaced and supplied with plenty of Gatorade and water, GU, and some even had orange slices and hard candy and pretzels. Because of the heat predictions, there were several stations that had cold wet towels available to racers in the later stages of the race. These felt wonderful on my face, arms, and neck.

Every mile was marked and several had timing clocks so it was easy to keep track of how I was doing. While there were corrals that went all the way to the letter P (I was in L), the marshalls were not obnoxiously strict about who entered where (as so often happens at Rock ‘n Roll events) and we were not made to wait 10 or 15 minutes between starting each corral (like at Tulsa and Dallas White Rock). It took me only 9 minutes or so to cross the starting mat. The half marathoners left us at the 7 mile mark and at that point the course thinned out considerably, but with approximately 1800+ full marathoners, there were still a good many of us around. I never felt abandoned or alone on the course.

During the out and back through Piedmont Park between miles 21 and 23, I had to be careful to make sure I was following runners and not people out for a leisurely stroll; that is always a problem in a public area like a park on a beautiful spring day, but there were enough people in front of me to reassure me that I was heading in the correct direction. The finish line was in Centennial Olympic Park and I crossed the final timing mat in 5:39 chip time, just two minutes slower than my previous two Georgia Marathons. Not bad considering how hot and humid the day turned out to be. The medal is a large orange and green peach with a cutout cityscape of Atlanta in the center on an attractive lanyard. Water and chocolate milk (hooray! a great way to rebuild muscles after a race) and a cloth bag of goodies from Publix were given to each finisher. It looks like Publix turned out to be an excellent sponsor of this race; my heartfelt thanks to the race director and his corps of dedicated volunteers as well as the several police departments that contributed to the success of this race. Results were posted that evening, another plus.

My husband met me at the finish line and snapped a few photos of me approaching that final .2 mile. It was a great race and I heartily recommend it – but be aware – there are LOTS of HILLS. I met one racer who was checking in with a friend on his cell phone. He described the course as a roller coaster of hills and that is a good description.

Now to one of the main reasons I chose to do this race for the third time: the 50 State Club Reunion and the Award Ceremony. As reunions go, this was a relatively small group, only around 50-60 members and their guests, but I saw several people I knew, including Sheila and Wendell from Canada, Winston from Alpharetta, GA, and Cheryl from Pensacola. There were several dozen of us who had completed the states and were to be given recognition along with our trophies. As we each rose to come to the front of the room and receive our awards, we were asked a couple of questions, everything from “what is your favorite race in your home state?” to “how much do you estimate your races and travel have cost you?” My question was “How long did it take you to complete the 50 states?” and that was simple to answer: just under 5 years. I began my quest when I was 60 years old and finished in Anchorage, AK, last June, a few months after turning 64.

But I did have a relatively amusing story to relate about my racing experience. I explained to the group that my very first race was the Tom Walker Half Marathon, a small race put on by the Florida Track Club and held in a tiny town about 10 miles from my home. I was 59 years old and very nervous about coming in last, since I planned to walk the entire 13.1 miles. My husband drove me to the start and promised to pick me up 3 hours later. He was as good as his word. He met me at the finish line, congratulated me and said, “well, how was it?” I responded that I had an absolutely great time and I could hardly wait to do another race. He then said (and this has gone down in the history of our marriage as famous last words) “Now, don’t get carried away!” I obviously didn’t listen to him because I did ‘get (just a little) carried away.’ Since that first race 5 ½ years ago, I have completed 19 half marathons and 110 races of marathon distance or longer. But to many of the members of the 50 State Club, I am just a newbie, since many have completed the 50 state circuit numerous times and several have completed marathons on the seven continents as well. It was good for my spouse to hear this; it makes my numbers seem relatively tame by comparison and helps bolster my desire to do more states, provinces, and countries.

A couple of other random thoughts about this past weekend:

During the last few miles of the race, another walker/runner, Diane from Nashville, met up with me and said hello. We had met in Tupelo last Labor Day Weekend and I had learned there of her experiences at the Last Annual Vol State Race, a 500 k foot race across Tennessee, from the eastern border of Missouri to Castle Rock, GA. It is a long way to go especially in the heat and humidity of July. Diane walked the entire distance and it took her 9 days (the race gives you 10). She is trying to talk me into doing it this year. I am seriously thinking about it (so much for not getting carried away). I am trying to convince my husband to crew for me (and he is seriously thinking about it).

For pleasure reading I brought with me a book I simply cannot put down. It’s called A Few Degrees from Hell: the 2003 Badwater Ultramarathon by Darkside Running Club founder Scott Ludwig. No, I am definitely NOT considering trying to get into Badwater; trying to walk 135 miles in the desert in July is definitely not for me, but I am mesmerized by the experiences of those who do this race, both the ones who successfully achieve the distance and those who attempt it. Scott finished 6th in the 2003 Badwater and in this book he tells his story and the stories of other participants, mostly in their own words. It is fascinating reading and highly recommended (as is the movie Running on the Sun, a documentary on the 1999 Badwater race).

Oh, and I certainly cannot forget about the restaurants we ate at this weekend. On Saturday before the reunion meeting, we had an excellent meal at Max Lager’s, a nearby micro-brewery, and for our late lunch after the race on Sunday, we had a delicious repast at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, conveniently located in the lobby of the Embassy Suites. Our breakfasts and snacks were also courtesy of Embassy Suites (one reason we like to stay at that family of hotels).

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Little Rock Marathon – March 4, 2012

Readers of this blog already know that the Little Rock Marathon is one of my favorite races to do. It is always superbly organized, exceptionally friendly to walkers and slower runners, and it gives you a lot for your money. This was my fourth time to do the marathon and it did not disappoint on this, its 10th anniversary.

My plane left from Jacksonville at 8 am, so on the Saturday before the race I drove to the JAX Airport and waited for my plane. Turns out there was ‘weather’ in Atlanta, thunderstorms and poor visibility, so Delta was trying to get people headed to Atlanta on earlier flights. Although I had checked my suitcase, I was still able to get on a 7 am flight and had a longer layover than planned at the Atlanta airport. That was okay with me – it gave me a chance to have several leisurely cups of coffee in the Skyclub and eat some breakfast. On to Little Rock around 11 am and fortunately weather was not a problem there. I met my friend Deb at the LR Airport and we headed to the Marriott Courtyard downtown, a hotel conveniently located right at the start line of the race.

After checking in, we walked to the nearby expo at the Statehouse Convention Center where we picked up our bib, chip, tee shirt, and checked out the vendors. This expo is small but tightly packed with booths and people. For those participants taking the early start, there is a mandatory meeting each year where people are cautioned that the early start is not an alternative start but is meant for people who will take at least 6 hours (give or take 15 minutes or so) to complete the race. At the meeting, everyone has a chance to ask questions, and first-time runners/walkers are given lots of encouragement and assurances that they are just as important as the elites. There are even pacers for 6 hour, 6.5, 7 hour, 7.5, and 8 hour people – that is a very rare occurrence but exceptionally welcome.

We were hungry after picking up our packets, so we stopped at a local pizza place for a late lunch and then back to the Marriott to get our stuff ready for the next day. An early night as usual; I set my alarm for 3:30 and woke up at about 3:15, ate my breakfast, and got dressed. I was ready to go about 5:30 and even had time to get my return boarding passes before heading for the starting line. After some announcements and songs, the race started promptly at 6 am, with all of us early starters gathered together in the ‘elite’ corral. The weather was in the upper 30’s but it was supposed to reach 70 degrees later in the day. The most notable feature was the wind. Compared to Cowtown in Ft. Worth, the wind and temperatures were mild.

The course was the same as in previous years, with the first few miles running past the Clinton Library and then over a bridge into North Little Rock. It began to get light just as we turned back towards downtown. We passed by Little Rock Central High School (famous in Civil Rights history), the State Capitol, and the Governor’s Mansion, through several neighborhoods, and along an out-and-back in Rebsamen Park that seemed like it would never end. After we exited the park, we headed back towards the downtown area. There were several memorable hills that come around miles 24 and 25 but I knew that this was leading us to the end of the race and I tried to kick it into higher gear at that point. There is also a ‘lipstick’ aid station where we could pretty ourselves up for our finisher photo but I am always concentrating far too hard on getting to that finish line to stop. And it would be a lost cause anyway, since lipstick would not be enough to make any real improvement in my looks at that point. Crossing the finish line here always seems like a real achievement (okay, it IS an major achievement), and the medal is always huge. This year Little Rock outdid themselves; the medal is awesome, purple and silver and sparkly. Oh, and the center spins, although it was taped down to keep it from breaking.

I finished in 5:48, under my goal of 6 hours. There was an array of snacks at the finish line – bags of chips and pretzels, cups of water (but I would have preferred a bottle), Little Debbie cakes, and such – but what I really appreciated were the yogurt and chocolate milk. I’ve read that these are the perfect foods to begin the recovery process after a long workout or race and I am always surprised that more races do not offer them. There was also beer but I decided to make the chocolate milk my beverage of choice this time. I made my way back to the hotel with my hands full of treats and and my medal. After a shower and nap, I checked in with my husband to let him know how I did, and then waited for my friend to return. One of the positive things about Little Rock is the smashing good party they have post-race. Free to runners if they sign up when registering, the meal is served buffet style, with an open bar. This year the Whole Hog Café hosted the party, with pork and chicken BBQ, cole slaw, potato salad, and brownies, plus salad and pasta and breadsticks from Olive Garden. It would have been a perfect meal if only the entertainment had not started during the meal. The band is always so loud, and this year was no exception. I would much prefer to talk to my table mates, but I could not hear anything but the loud music so my friend and I picked up our platters and headed back to the hotel so we could eat in peace.

The bottom line – this race is a wonderful experience and I would highly recommend it.