Monday, March 21, 2016

A Beautiful Beast -- The Georgia Marathon Race Report

State #32, Marathon #40, and a surprise B.Q., how nice is that? And it's the second time it's happened in less than a year. I ran 15 marathons before I qualified on #16, and then I ran 18 more before I qualified again on #35, and now I qualified again. I have seen a lot of people get faster as they get older over the years, maybe I will be one of those. Wouldn't that be nice?

Anyway, the Georgia Marathon was not originally on my race calendar. I decided to do it three weeks ago. The decision was based on a combination of factors: unexpected tax refund, Southwest fare sale that actually included a destination I wanted to visit, and a daily worsening itch to do another marathon. Atlanta is one of the only large U.S. cities I haven't visited, although I do have a many-years-old memory of sprinting through their airport and being the closest to missing a connecting flight that I have ever been in my life.

The reviews on were unanimous in emphasizing the difficulty of the course. It was described as follows: "All reviews of this course warn about the hills and they do not exaggerate." "This is a great event but you need to be prepared for the HILLS!. They are tough!" "Every other mile had one of those hills you love to hate." "Make no mistake, however; this is a hilly, hilly beast. Believe everything you read about how hilly it is. This is NOT a PR course." "The course is challenging. Do not underestimate it. Study the map and elevation charts closely. the last four miles are unrelenting, full on punishment." Et cetera. So I knew what I was in for. I don't train on hills; we don't really have any where I run. I like them and much prefer them to a flat course with no change in elevation, but I am by no means used to them. So I wasn't expecting a good time at all. But I thought the course would be a great tune-up for Boston, and a reality check so that I would have a little more information on how I would handle the Boston hills.

I flew into Atlanta early on Saturday morning. I was staying with a new friend, Dennis -- a stranger I met on the Internet and never even talked to on the phone before accepting his invitation to stay at his place! Well, he's a Marathon Maniac so I figured he would be cool, and he totally was. He picked me up at the airport and we went to the expo. The shirt is cool -- long-sleeved grey tech shirt. The expo was surprisingly small for a big city marathon but at least had lots of free samples of real food. We snacked our way through it and then went out for my second breakfast at this great diner, The Silver Skillet. It's been there since 1967 and looks like it hasn't changed since then. Atlanta is beautiful! Flowers were blooming everywhere, and it was so nice to be in a real city again. Yes, yes, the traffic sucked. But I believe that traffic is the price you pay to live in civilization.

A couple more runners showed up at Dennis's house later. Marathon runners are kind of like Cavalier King Charles Spaniels in that if you throw a bunch of them together, even if no one knows anyone else, they can all be expected to get along immediately. It's not like putting a bunch of German shepherds who are unacquainted with one another in a pack, where you can't really predict what will happen but there will probably be at least a couple of minor fireworks in the beginning. I know that it is not possible for ALL members of any group of people to be cool and easygoing, but nevertheless it has always been my experience that all marathon runners are. I don't know why; I suspect it is because running long distances keeps you humble and makes you realize that you can't control everything, so you might as well just accept stuff and not worry about it too much.

We went out to dinner at a great Italian place. I was virtuous and only had salad pasta with chicken and did NOT have dessert even though I really wanted to. (I have not forgotten about the unpleasant experience at Rehoboth Beach, which I have concluded after much deliberation was caused by the bread pudding the night before.)

The next morning we were out the door at 5:30. We parked at the MARTA (train) station and took the train downtown where the race start line was. The course is a loop and finishes at the same place it starts, in Centennial Olympic Park. Temperature was low 40's and windy. It was chilly at the start but chilly at the start usually = comfortable during the race. I really don't like to be comfortable at the start because if I am I know that I will be hot later. The race started at 7:00 a.m. and it was dark for the first two or three miles. The course was hilly from the beginning and I swear there was not a flat part anywhere. It was constant up-and-down. But the good thing about it was that none of the hills, up or down, lasted very long, so I could always recover immediately. I sort of wondered what this constant up-and-down would do to my legs. It turned out, nothing. My legs felt so strong the whole way that I felt like they had springs inside them, or were operating like pistons outside of my control. What a great feeling. This is a course that could destroy legs and mine, untrained on hills as they are, handled it totally fine. Maybe elliptical + spin twice a week is a good way to go? It certainly looks that way!

The course went through all kinds of different neighborhoods, all of them full of beautiful houses. There must be ugly parts of Atlanta but they were not on display, possibly the first urban marathon I've ever done that doesn't include at least one stretch of ugly or an industrial area or something. And every neighborhood seemed to have its own beautiful park. Weather was ideal, a little windy but the wind direction always varied because of the number of turns. If we were faced with a headwind, we would soon turn in a different direction so it became a crosswind or a tailwind. And the scenery was so distracting and pretty that I really didn't mind the wind or the hills. At Mile 7 the half-marathoners split from the full. There were 1400-something runners in the full and I don't know how many in the half.

I judge urban marathons by really only one yardstick -- how comprehensive is the tour of the city they give you? Georgia Marathon gets an A+ here. The neighborhoods we went through, in order, were Five Points, Midtown, Little Five Points, Decatur, North Decatur, Druid Hills, and Virginia Highland. Some of the landmarks the course passed by or through were the MLK, Jr. National Historic Site, the Carter Center, Emory University, Piedmont Park, and Georgia Tech. I couldn't imagine a better Georgia experience, and am so glad I went for this one and didn't hold out for Savannah Rock and Roll.

I continued feeling great all throughout the course. My Garmin said 1:45 at the first half. I knew the bigger hills were in the second half, and they were. Almost all of Mile 17 was a long slog up a surprisingly steep residential road in Druid Hills, and then there was the infamous Mile 23 climb out of Piedmont Park up 12th Street. You exit the park and look up and up and up and can't believe you're going up there. Then once you get up, after a brief reprieve, the last two miles to the finish are another long grind uphill, though thankfully not as steep as the 12th Street one. But I am proud to say I ran the entire course, and passed people on all of the hills. In fact, I was pretty much passing people all the way through the second half. My time at 20 miles was 2:42, which meant I had almost an hour to run six miles if I wanted a BQ time. I DID want a BQ time, and I was feeling so good I decided to go for it, and push even harder as long as I could. I don't know how that was even possible -- maybe I just had a good day? -- but it is a great, great feeling to find your body able to do what you want it to do and have it feel, not quite effortless, but almost effortless. I remember that from my first BQ marathon too. It makes all the 3:30 a.m. alarm clocks and saying "No thanks" to dessert for the last year worth it. (Yeah, this last week was an exception but thankfully the cumulative effect of all the months before it won out, and I am now all kinds of motivated to eat clean in the month between now and Boston.) I felt like an Amazon warrior cruising up those hills and chicking guys right and left. I'm pretty sure I was smiling for some of my race pictures, which is rare! Especially the end ones where I totally knew I was going to qualify.

This marathon also has the best finish line announcer I have ever seen. He called out names and numbers and found cool things to say about almost every finisher, and he kept it up for hours. As I came into the finish line chute, which was downhill, I tried to sprint. He got all excited and started yelling, "There's a finish! There's a finish!" and then my calves spasmed, both of them at the same time, and I almost fell and had to slow down. Oh well. I finished with a time of 3:35:49, my third best time ever and good for a BQ, and picked up my medal (too big, barely able to fit in my display case), and then ate. Chocolate milk, a banana, pretzels, M&M's, a Kind bar, and a cup of mandarin oranges. There was plenty of food although it wasn't the buffet kind of finish line food that I have gotten spoiled with recently.

After everyone else finished, we stopped at Atlanta's gourmet donut shop (one strawberries-and-creme, one chocolate banana fritter), and then went out for post-race dinner at a taqueria once everyone had showered and put their feet up for a while. I had a chicken-stuffed avocado, an enchilada, beans and rice, and chips and salsa, and then a baklava sundae from another diner on the way back to the airport. The food was delicious but my stomach was an uncomfortable churning mess during my 2-hour flight back to Detroit. Oh well, it was worth it!

In summary, a great weekend: beautiful city, beautiful course, BQ, awesome new friend. I totally recommend the Georgia Marathon for 50-staters and for anyone who enjoys big urban races and hills.

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