Before the Race
This is the first marathon/out of town race I've done that was on a Sunday, so it REALLY took the pressure off in terms of travel and logistics. I was able to sleep in (without an alarm!) on Saturday morning (side note: probably the first time in months that I haven't woken up with an alarm) and take my time packing and running a few last minute errands. My incredibly sweet and generous running buddy/friend MSN was kindly taking care of Roxy and Bali for us overnight which also took a huge load off. Roxy has had a rough past couple of months and I cannot express how much this meant to me.
We got on the road just shy of 2:00 for the 2hr 15min drive to Chattanooga. Packet pick-up was being held in Coolige Park (site of the finish line/party) from 2-6pm and I knew to expect a pretty chill scene so I wasn't too worried about crowds, logistics, etc even with a 1hr time change over to Eastern Time. We found pick up without incident and Matt dropped me off so I could go take care of everything. (Truthfully, we also didn't want to have to pay for parking since we weren't sticking around so he was staying with the car!)
There were absolutely ZERO people in the marathon packet pick up line and the volunteers were incredibly friendly, answering questions about the course, parking, and Chattanooga in general. The vibe from both the volunteers and runners was super relaxed and friendly; I chatted with a guy running the marathon who had just driven in from South Carolina, made small talk with a few others, purchased a couple items (marathon tank top...yes, please!) and headed back to the car.
Next stop was the hotel, which was less than 2 miles from the start/finish. Hotel options in the downtown Chattanooga area were really limited/expensive (read: more expensive than staying in downtown Atlanta and this is a MUCH smaller city...) which was pretty surprising to me, though Matt had already warned me of this since his job is actually home-based out of Chattanooga. We opted for the Chattanooga Marriott at the Convention Center which was just OK considering the price. Don't get me wrong, everything was clean and the beds were comfortable but the bathroom was TINY and the walls were paper thin. I would have rather stayed at the Hampton Inn but the downtown location was more than $200(!!!!) so at $150 the Marriott was a better deal. (There were some lower cost host hotels...Delta Queen and Chattanooga Choo Choo to name a couple but neither had a TV in the room and that was not cool with me)
View from our room
After we got checked in (and were denied a late check out...boo...no post-marathon shower for me), I checked out the swag bag:
Gender specific tech tee, a couple gels/snack items, the pink tank I picked up in addition as well as the shot glass (classy, I know). Not too much paper which was a ++
They also had a pretty cool photo/small poster printed that might make a nice addition to our "workout room" (which is where all my race stuff is displayed)
After settling in back at the hotel to watch the FSU/Miami game and try to rest, we were clued in as to how thin the walls really were in the hotel. Let's just say that our neighbors were very...ummm...amorous...multiple times...and I was actually woken up at 1am with their theatrics. That not withstanding, I had a hard time settling down and woke up many times during the night, also paranoid that I had slept through the start despite setting my cell phone, the hotel's alarm clock and putting in for a wake up call. It was one of those nights that seemed to be a million years long if you know what I mean.
With a race start of 7am, I wanted to head out by around 6 since we had been warned of potential parking/traffic concerns (Matt was just dropping me off) and since I knew we had to cross a bridge to get to Renaissance Park I didn't want to get stuck in bridge traffic. Luckily, we had absolutely ZERO issues and even with leaving a few minutes late and having trouble getting out of the parking deck at the hotel, I was there within minutes. This was actually the first time Matt has brought me to the start at any longer distance race and in keeping with the theme of the week, I got a little emotional. I calmed down quickly though and felt mentally ready to tackle the day. While eating my PB&J waiting for the start I actually saw a shooting star and it made me feel good about the day to come.
I ended up wearing a throw-away cotton l/s shirt on top of my tank and arm warmers but no gloves and this ended up being perfect while waiting around in the 40 degree temps. Especially since the start was delayed by 20 minutes (pet peeve and no explanation from anyone other than the DJ who was already announcing at 6:30 that the race would be "starting a little late").
After the unexplained delay and the movement of the start line (?), they played the national anthem and we were off in the dark! I had asked at packet pick up how many had signed up and they said ~500 for the full and guessing by the size of the crowd I would guess the same or a few more were running the half. There was a 4:30 pacer and a 6:00 pacer (and a few faster) so I tucked in a bit behind 4:30 not ever intending to stick with him.
I mentioned that I had been undecided in my race day strategy and I pretty much didn't know what I was going to do until I started running. I had trained with intervals on my long runs but know I am also capable of running longer distances without breaks. I really didn't want to start with the intervals, feeling that if I ran conservatively I would at least give myself a bit of cushion to use later. Truthfully I was afraid that if I went with intervals from the start I would still end up tired later and not feeling like I had pushed to my full ability. Based on the outcome of the race, I'm still not 100% sure I made the right decision to go "off plan" BUT I know I absolutely left it on the course for that day and I don't regret how I handled myself.
So...once I started running I was feeling really good and my goal was to run by feel and not let my heart rate get elevated. Since it was dark it was easy to do this without obsessing over the Garmin readings but when I did look down I saw I was running in the 10:30s with pretty much zero effort. The course was also really flat at this point which was in my favor. As we crossed the first bridge in the dark with steam/fog coming off the river it was truly breathtaking. Several people were taking pictures but I was focusing on not wasting energy and just being present in the moment. I think I said out loud "we are so lucky". And we were (and ARE). I mean, as runners we get to experience things that others will not and the ability to see this landscape from the vantage point(s) we were afforded was not lost.
The first several miles ticked by QUICKLY...I lost the l/s shirt around 1.5-2 miles and I hit 5K around 32 minutes. There was an out and back section at this point and while I am not usually a fan of out and backs it was a really nice distraction and pretty much occupied my mind with people watching for a good 2 miles. After this we started to hit some hills and I was still maintaining said pace with little effort. I adopted an impromptu mantra "BELIEVE" as I knew I was off plan and needed something positive to focus on so I would not doubt myself/psych myself out and would end up chanting this out loud at several points on the course. Feeling good, I was also a little worried b/c my watch was off the mile markers by .15 at MILE ONE and I am pretty darn good at running the tangents so I was afraid of how much extra length I was going to end up running. Pretty much everyone else's watches were doing the same but it turns out the half course was long (according to race directors) and I did notice the margin of error started to decrease in the later marathon mile markers...
We were now headed back to the park and the sun was rising and I could not BELIEVE how quickly 10K was gone. I made the decision that at the 1 hour mark I would start on my 6-7/1 intervals knowing that while I felt good now I had a LONG way to go and I had absolutely not trained to run this marathon at a 10:30 pace and I needed to watch my energy. You cannot afford to get tired early...that would lead to disaster in the end. I do remember hitting the 7 mile mark at 1:14 and I said out loud "you're either going to thank yourself or regret that later" haha! There had been regularly spaced aid stations to this point (22 total on the marathon course!) with water and powerade but the one right around this point was totally out of fluids. Not sure what happened there and made me super glad that I had my handheld. (Side note: After having a bad experience at RnR Nashville in 2010 with inconsistent aid stations and fluid availability I carry my handheld in pretty much every race for this reason. It allows me to remove one more variable that is out of my control and spend my energy focusing on the run instead of worrying) I'm pretty sure I had already removed my arm warmers by this point too as the sun was out in full force with not really a cloud in the sky.
We now headed away from scenic downtown on an ugly/boring stretch of road. The half marathoners broke away around mile 9 to head back along the river walk and we stayed on this industrial, boring, exposed highway for MILES. Runners ahead and orange cones marking the course/protecting us from traffic as far as the eye could see. I just focused on keeping the same company in my sight and on my intervals. There was zero shade and we must have been running due east b/c I was running straight into the sun. Somehow though despite the sun it never really got hot AT ALL for which I am so very thankful. At some point between mile 11 and 13 a food truck serving Argentinian cuisine drove past...huge Argentine flag and "Taste of Argentina" painted on it. And...I fist pumped the driver who in turn honked. Yes, I have a slight obsession with Argentina and that totally made me happy :)
Chugging along some winding roads, I was trying to run straight and not necessarily follow the curve the best I could but truthfully the curves were sometimes so deep gravity would literally pull you in. It was really odd and unlike anything I had experienced before.
I was surprised at how quickly the miles were continuing to tick by and was mentally in a very good place. And then we were running along the dam (maybe?) and I saw an impossible looking bridge above me...and then I saw runners on it and knew I would be there soon.
See mile 15.78 for reference...
And it felt pretty much as bad as it looks on that elevation map. I knew I could EASILY walk that entire bridge but dug up my mental reserves and bargained with myself to run 1/walk 30 seconds for as long as it took me to feel in control. Only had to do a couple of those before I was back to my planned intervals, but man that took a LOT out of me. My secondary goal was not to get passed on the bridge either. I had been only passed by 2 people (men) after the half split between 9-10 and I didn't want to start giving up ground here. And I succeeded and was rewarded with a second wind and a nice downhill to follow.
Around mile 17-18 though I started to get horrible leg cramps. My quads and hamstrings and glutes started to seize up on me, forcing me to stretch on the side of the road and walk more than I wanted or "needed" to at that point. I was actually kind of scared that this would not go away and I was still feeling pretty good otherwise (eating and drinking, no nausea or otherwise). I got passed by 2 more males and 1 female during this stretch BUT not again for the entire race after that and I ended up later picking off over 12 men and 4 women (yes, I was counting...the mental math kept me preoccupied) so it didn't turn into a total death spiral.
The river walk sections offered flat terrain and shade and beautiful/peaceful views. Around mile 20/21 I saw that the aid station had coke (real Coke!) and I deliriously asked these very attractive guys manning the station if I could have some. Ummm...yes, it's for the runners. It totally made my day though and on that note, post-half marathon split the aid stations were something that you would expect at an ultra...besides the normal water/powerade/gels there were pretzels, various types of candy, pickles, pickle juice, goldfish crackers, coke, fruit, and cookies. At almost every aid station! I didn't really partake of anything other than the coke but it was SO thoughtful and awesome to have all those options. Plus the volunteers were helping fill our water bottles and I think we were all getting a lot of individual attention b/c there was never really a a crowd at that pace. At the mile 23 station I was smiling again and one of the ladies said "you are really polite and happy for having run 20 miles. You are the happiest person I have seen come through here today" And you know what my bitch self said?, "thanks! but it's 23 miles" HAHA It was just total gut instinct! Oh well :)
You can see above what greeted me at mile 24 at which point I said some very foul words out loud! And then at mile 25 there was a mini "split" with a course marshall. One way was a ramp (longer), the other way was stairs (shorter but ummm STAIRS at mile 25). I asked the marshall which way and he said I could go either. I told him I was taking my chances and I took the stairs backwards :) I had turned on my music at mile 21 but unplugged again when I got to the final bridge (pedestrian only) over the park. I ran pretty much the entire last mile and I know this is going to sound corny but it was almost like coming into a dream sequence. There were a couple runners in front of me and people on the bridge (some formal spectators, some marathoners who had recently finished, others who were just checking out the area) were cheering for each and every one of us. It was sincere encouragement and human interaction at some of its most pure and I thanked each one and congratulated each marathoner. I have NEVER been part of a race where the energy was so sincere I could hear the music from the post race party in the park below and as I rounded the corner into the final stretch Katy Perry's "Firework" was on, which was actually a huge part of my first marathon "sound track" back in 2010. I could feel my calf muscles cramping up as I entered the finisher's chute and I actually worried that I might fall over but there it was I done and smiling :)
I was immediately greeted with a medal and a "7 Bridges Marathon" water bottle filled with water (nice extra perk!)
And then promptly found a spot not far away to totally lay down on the grass!
Matt seemed overly concerned about my use of sunscreen at this point which was seriously sweet but even being out in the sun for all that time I just ended up with a little additional tan, no redness or burn...so no worries!
I went in search of food/drink shortly after this but the choices available did not really appeal to me: water/powerade, pizza, apples, bananas, oranges and then these packets wrapped in foil. I asked a volunteer what it was (biscuit maybe?) Nope. Wait for it. BREAKFAST BURRITO. barf! I made a face, told her I was sorry and then took two orange wedges. I'm not one for much solid food after a run anyway but given the awesomeness of the aid stations I guess I was expecting a little more from the finish.
Matt agreed to pose with me but I don't blame his reluctance as I was pretty stank at this point!
We headed home shortly afterwards but not before stopping at a random gas station so I could change (thank God for the Shower Pill) and pick up both a chocolate milk and a fountain coke. Now THAT is post-marathon nutrition, people! I napped for most of the afternoon after we got home and have been hobbling around work for the past couple days but have otherwise felt pretty darn good. Got a massage scheduled for Thursday night and been trying to keep my immune system boosted and plotting my training schedule for Wine and Dine Half Marathon just under 3 weeks away.
Oh and the time goal...you didn't think I wouldn't come clean about what happened did you? Well, despite being on pace for oh so very very long, I did not meet my "A" goal. I'm not sure if it was the first hour of running (I suspect NOT given that I felt very very effortless during that time) or the leg cramps that forced me to walk more than I wanted...but I did come in faster than Chickamauga and I very much crossed the line happy and with a smile...so "B" and "C" accomplished. I haven't looked back at my Garmin for confirmation pretty much b/c I think it might make me sad right now and I actually have pretty much nothing but love for the race on Sunday. (Well, maybe not mile 15.78 and 24...) It's gotten me thinking though about what's in store for the future and I do think it's going to be focused on improving on the half for at least the next little while. I truly love the long run and the feeling of accomplishment but the solitude of the marathon is very very challenging for me. I'd also like to break 1 hour in the 10K and I think it's definitely a possibility with the right course and the right training. Will there be more marathons in my future? Absolutely. But my feeling today is that it may need to be a "major" race (NYC please!) or a race I ran with a partner.
Thank you for sticking with this marathon of a post (pun intended) and for all the support and encouragement both online and off. I'll be back soon with official pictures and details about my plans for Wine and Dine and beyond.