It’s always easy to write about races I like and First Light is no exception. I keep coming back to Mobile, for the race, primarily, but also for the graceful ambience and gentility that permeate this small Southern city. Although this was my fifth First Light Marathon, I think I enjoyed it more this time than on my four previous visits.
My excursion began on Friday afternoon with a pleasant drive to Tallahassee so I could spend the evening with my son and his family and babysit my 4 year old granddaughter Julia Kate. Staying in Tallahassee helps to break up the long 6 ½ hour drive into two easy segments. The next morning, after a pre-dawn coffee and bagel with my son while the rest of the family slept, I headed west to Mobile.
This is the third year I have stayed at the Holiday Inn on Government Street. Although there are many hotel choices in this city (the marathon had even arranged special rates for runners at the downtown Hampton Inn), I prefer staying at the Holiday Inn because the race begins immediately in front of the hotel. When temperatures are frigid, this is a real boon. I can wait until the very last minute to venture outside. This particular Holiday Inn is also very clean and quiet, has a restaurant inside, self-parking outside, and comes equipped with a microwave and refrigerator in each room.
I arrived in Mobile around 10 am central time and was able to check in to my room right away. After depositing my suitcases and paraphernalia in my room, I headed to one of my favorite bookstores, Bienville Books on Dauphin Street, a few blocks away. I had a list of authors and titles that I hope to find there; in addition to new bestsellers, Bienville Books has an array of gently used fiction, nonfiction, and collectible first editions as well as regional items and several genre specialties. An hour later, I had spent $35 for a dozen or so books, definitely a productive visit. There were no worries about how to pack everything in overloaded suitcases since I was driving. I simply loaded the books into the trunk of my car.
The race expo opened at noon in the atrium of the Government Plaza building downtown. Several young women in elaborate pastel colored gowns posed in the foyer to greet visitors. Over the past few years, the expo, although still quite small, has expanded and now includes a number of sponsors and exhibitors, including Publix Supermarkets and several local running stores with any last-minute supplies that a runner might need – gloves, energy bars, socks, and so on. Actual packet pickup is fast and straightforward; one table has bibs (inside a functional backpack-style carryall), another has long-sleeved tech shirts (royal blue this year), and a third has older shirts available for purchase. There are maps of the marathon and half-marathon available as well as samples of chips, sunflower seeds, and trail mix. No chip timing here and no money prizes. This is a relaxed and relatively low-budget race, with all proceeds going to L’Arche Mobile, a supportive community for people with intellectual disabilities.
After the important business of getting my bib and shirt, I suddenly realized how hungry I was. There are plenty of places to eat in Mobile but I had always wanted to try a restaurant called A Spot of Tea, located on Dauphin Street just a few blocks away from the bookstore. This restaurant offered an array of sandwiches and soups. I ate my fill and still had enough to take back with me for a snack the following day. The rest of the afternoon was spent productively exploring the Museum of Mobile. I had visited this museum on a previous visit and enjoyed the displays so much that I felt it was time for an encore.
Although I don’t usually attend pasta dinners, I did manage to go to this one. First Light is very popular with 50 Staters and Marathon Maniacs and many like myself return year after year so I wanted to check out who was there. I was hoping to see old and new friends and sure enough, at the several tables reserved for Maniacs, I saw a number of fellow club members, including Betty, Carol, Steve, Sheila, Wendell, and Phil. The evening passed pleasantly and it was soon time to head back to my room to make preparations for tomorrow.
On race morning I was up early to eat my bread and drink my coffee. I waited until 7:05 to go downstairs, however, since the race did not begin until 7:30. I posed with other Maniacs at 7:10 for several photos and then made my way towards the back of the throng of participants, looking for familiar faces in the crowd. Sure enough, I saw Larry Macon and Jerry Lopez and we chatted about upcoming races until the Star Spangled Banner was sung, the signal for the race was sounded, and we took off.
The weather prediction for race day was hot and humid with a chance of afternoon showers. The rain did not materialize until much later in the evening, but the hot and humid part was spot on! By race start, temperatures hovered in the mid-60’s with 100% humidity. This was just fine with me – I like the heat. I wore a short-sleeved tech shirt and my Maniacs windbreaker for the first couple of miles and then tied the jacket around my waist for the rest of the day. No mittens needed and no scarf. I was completely comfortable. However, a lot of people were definitely feeling the brunt of the heat and by midpoint in the race I began to pass a number of people who had slowed down because of the escalating temperatures.
This race series includes a half marathon, a relay, and a 1.2 mile fun run in addition to the marathon and is one of the few remaining races that includes a category for racewalkers. I was tempted to sign up as a racewalker but resisted; my racewalking form is pretty abysmal and I wanted to be able to run the downhills if I felt able. The time limit for the marathon is a generous 7 hours and the race director has been know to allow an early start for those who request one. Half marathoners split off from the marathon just after mile 8; after that, there are times when it gets a bit lonely in some sections but there are plenty of chalked arrows on the streets, signs on posts, and volunteers pointing the way so it is pretty hard to get lost (even for me).
While First Light is primarily a city marathon, run on asphalt streets, there is enough variety of landscape to keep things interesting. The course passes through several neighborhoods, by a number of lovely ante-bellum mansions, along several parks and golf courses, through Spring Hill College and the University of South Alabama, and by the Botanical Gardens and Mobile Museum of Art. The final 6 miles are the hardest for me because they are along busy city streets with nothing much to gaze at. Although it seems like the four miles on Spring Hill Avenue will never end, eventually we turn on to Lafayette and then the final stretch along Dauphin Street, with the tall buildings of downtown and the finish line at Bienville Square visible in the distance. The good news is that those final miles are mostly downhill; however, by that time I am way too tired to run at all. But what a rush to finally cross the finish line and be rewarded with a L’Arche Mobile member placing the coveted wooden hand-crafted medallion around my neck. Then it is on to the food table and some great barbeque and cole slaw. Only preliminary results are posted so far but it looks like I finished in 5:45 hours, placing third in the senior grand masters category for women.
This race is especially noteworthy for the excellent volunteers and police who actively cheer on runners and walkers. There are not very many spectators, at least not compared to much bigger races, but the ones that do come out are extremely enthusiastic. In lots of races, spectators cheer only for their friends and family but in Mobile, spectators graciously cheer for all participants. Maybe it is that renowned Southern hospitality but I felt like I was warmly welcomed and encouraged every step of the way.
This race is definitely recommended for walkers. Do either the half or the full but be sure to put it on your race schedule and include some time to explore the city and its offerings.