That first hour on the road between Jackson and Mobile was terrifying, but once I was a little further south, the ice and snow were all gone, the sun was out, and it was a beautiful, if cold, day in the South. The ice and snow were just a memory. By the time I parked outside the expo in downtown Mobile, I could almost forget it was January except for the harsh wind that slapped me in the face as soon as I got out of the car. Oh well. I do not like wind, at all; I consider it one of the most demoralizing weather conditions to run in, but I would take it if it meant I got to take home at least one medal this weekend.
I had never been to Mobile. Forgive me for saying that I expect mid-size southern cities to be crappy – poor, ugly, not well-maintained, et cetera. This does NOT include Atlanta, which is fast becoming one of my favorite cities, or Nashville. I’m talking about the Birminghams and Little Rocks and Jacksonvilles and Montgomeries, and yes, I know there are awesome parts of every one of those cities but that does not keep my overall impression from being “crappy”. I expected Mobile to be this way too, because why wouldn’t it be? But no. It was clean, cute, historic, and had a downtown that would have been highly walkable if not for the frigid temperatures.
The First Light Marathon benefits the L’Arche charity in Mobile, an organization that provides services to adults with developmental disabilities. The medals are handmade by L’Arche clients. This is generally considered to be something that makes this race special. Marathonguide and other race review sites are loaded with comments about how these handmade medals are so much more meaningful than other races’ medals. I am an asshole because I don’t want my medal to be handmade by anyone, but especially not by an adult with a developmental disability. I cannot believe the number of people who could put a handmade medal side-by-side with, say, a Rock and Roll medal and say that the handmade one is superior. So I was not excited about the medal, but did not, of course, say so to anyone at the expo. They had also handmade a canvas… thing, I guess a plaque of some kind, with canvas stretched tight over a frame and painted in tie dye colors, for all Back 2 Back finishers. On the back of the plaque was a biography of the L’Arche client that had made that plaque. I felt like even more of an asshole for not going, “Awwwww,” about the plaque, but I did smile and say “Thank you.”
I was staying at the Holiday Inn downtown, which was one of the host hotels and was a block from the start line and like eight blocks from the finish line. I sat in the lobby and wrote my blog about yesterday’s race that didn’t happen while the hotel steadily filled up with runners. Lots of them were wearing the Mississippi Blues jacket, as was I. Hey, it is a nice, warm jacket and every time another guest came into the lobby, an icy blast of wind entered with them, so I needed the warmth.
Downtown Mobile had lots of restaurants that looked awesome, but I decided to eat in the Holiday Inn restaurant because I was too cold to go out. The night before in Jackson, I had eaten at the best marathon restaurant I’d ever eaten at, and last night in the Holiday Inn, I ate at the worst one. I ordered chicken alfredo, which should have been safe. They brought out a giant pile of linguini smothered in lumpy, room temperature cheese sauce with two thin, floppy chicken breasts the exact size of tilapia fillets perched on top. The whole mess was sprinkled with some kind of orange seasoning. I was dismayed to see that the chicken wasn’t cut up – you’d think for $17 they would have. I cut it up with resignation. My steak knife had a lot of trouble getting through the chicken. That was because it was the consistency of a rubber dog toy. Not a Kong, but the kind that costs $1 at the dollar store, the kind that no responsible dog owner would give their dog. If you had handed me a frozen chicken breast and said, “Cook this to the texture of rubber,” I would not have had the faintest idea how to proceed. The linguini was edible, barely. The chicken, no way. The waitress was so nice and overly helpful I did not have the heart to tell her how awful it was. I just asked for a box, trashed it on the way out, and dined on Sun Chips, Snackwells, and microwave popcorn from the machine for my pre-race dinner.
The morning was chilly, 24, with a 10 mph wind blowing but I had the clothes for it so I was okay. There are so many good things about having a hotel right by the start line! I got to relax in my 79-degree bedroom and read and drink coffee and use my own bathroom rather than a stinking, freezing, dark Porta pottie. The race was supposed to start at 7:30. I went down to the lobby at 7:15, and out to the start line at 7:25. Somewhere in there, I realized two things: 1) I hate winter races, and 2) I was so relieved that I was not starting the race on dead legs from the B2B, that I was GLAD the Blues was cancelled yesterday. Actively glad, not just accepting-the-cancellation-because-it-was-the-right-thing-to-do. Furthermore, I am not going to do any more B2B’s. I have a good job, I have disposable income, and I am almost done with the states, and I don’t have to do B2B’s! That’s it. No more. I stood and shivered on the start line and thought about how I didn’t want to do this race, but I did want the medal. I knew I was going to do it, but I wasn’t going to enjoy it.
The first part of the course went through some beautiful historic neighborhoods, with old, grand houses and giant, moss-covered oak trees. Then we went out onto a main road. There is a big gap in my memory as to what was between the main road and the I-65 overpass at Mile 10 or so. The course was flat until the overpass. Then we got to a couple of hills in a row that climbed around a park and golf course. The scenery was beautiful and I welcomed the hills to stretch out my legs. Despite the beautiful route, I was so not into the whole thing. I was stressed about a lot of things: whether I would finish in time to shower at my hotel (they wouldn’t give me a later checkout time than noon, which I think is pretty crappy for a host hotel), whether I would feel sick during the 4.5-hour drive to Atlanta, whether my flight would be delayed and I would have to worry about the dogs being stuck at home alone since Will left to go to California. My foot hurt but no more than it always hurts just walking around. Mostly I just didn’t want to be outside in the cold. It wasn’t even that cold, relatively speaking, high 20’s; I was just cranky because it was January and I knew that the next week temps would be in the 70’s every day down here and it just wasn’t fair. I could not imagine how bad I would have felt if I had run a marathon the previous day, especially one in weather as shitty as it was in Jackson.
After the golf course, the course went through the University of South Alabama, which was gorgeous and totally, 100% empty. Not a single person was moving around outside other than race volunteers and runners. Then came The Hill at Mile 18. This one was steep enough that it was referred to as The Hill or the big hill on most of the race reviews. Right before it was an aid station serving chicken broth. Oh yeah! Is chicken broth not the perfect winter marathon aid station food? Warm, salty, bland, totally balances out the viscous GU. I would like to say the chicken broth gave me wings and I was able to fly up that hill, but that would be a lie. I ran some and walked some just like everyone else.
There was lots and lots of downhill after The Hill, but I didn’t even enjoy that. My foot hurt, my IT band was twinging, and my guts hurt, like I’d been brutally beaten instead of just run 20 miles. Something definitely felt biomechanically off. I was running on old, pretty dead shoes because the orthotics in the new ones I bought last week didn’t feel quite right, so maybe that was it. No matter what the reason, when I got to Mile 20 I started really thinking about time. I was at 2:55, which meant sub-4:00 should be easily attainable. All I had to do was keep 10-minute/mile pace. But I was sore and now my stomach was sort of bothering me too. I always say I don’t care what my finish time is, but lately I have been caring, and really wanting to always be under four hours. There is a thing called 50 Sub-4:00, which is running a sub-4:00 marathon in all 50 states. I’m not saying that I’m taking that on after I finish my 50 states, but I’m also not saying I’m not. (Not that I’m counting, but I have sub-4:00 finishes in 20 of the 39 states I’ve completed so far. That means 19 I would have to repeat. If I was going to do that.) I always say it’s not worth it to me to get a good time if it means I will feel bad afterwards, especially not today with a 5-hour drive right after the race. But I wanted that sub-4:00 and so I kept going. The last few miles of the course were a repeat of a section we had already done, one of the most boring sections of the course, so it was even more difficult to stay motivated, but I managed.
As I got into the downtown area, I saw that it was going to be close. When I most wanted to slow down, I had to speed up. Well, okay, I did, and squeaked in with a time of 3:58:51. Totally unimpressive, but at least I was under 4:00. I got my medal, which did not look handmade (and I mean that as a compliment), and also my back-to-back medal even though I didn’t do the back-to-back. Now THAT is a nice medal, a shiny blue and yellow spinner medal with Alabama on one side and Mississippi on the other. Too bad I didn’t really earn it!
This race is supposed to have great post-race food. I guess the people who say that like red beans and rice more than I do. All I ever want post-race is chocolate milk and they did not have any. Hot chocolate is not the same. I took a corn muffin and jogged back to my hotel in an effort to get a shower before they kicked me out at 12:00. The corn muffin crumbled apart in my hand but I didn’t really care because I didn’t want it anyway. I got into my hotel at 11:41, in the shower at 11:44, and walked out my door at 11:58. Housekeeping was lurking outside my door like they were ready to knock at exactly 12:00. I was more proud of my record-breaking shower than I was of my race time.
The 4.5-hour drive back to Atlanta took 6.5 hours because I had painful, nauseating hiccups the entire way, and had to take several breaks to put my seat back and my feet up. Reclining made the hiccups go away, but they came back as soon as I sat up again. I hope that the next time I think about saving a couple hundred bucks by getting a cheap plane ticket that requires several hours of post-race driving, I remember how much fun that drive from Mobile to Atlanta was not.
This was supposed to be States #39 and 40 and Marathons #48 and 49, but it only turned out to be State #39 and Marathon #48. For some reason, missing out on Mississippi has fueled a reckless, budget-ignoring passion to do MORE races this year. All of the states! Not really; Hawaii and New Jersey for sure and most likely Mississippi, Florida, and Kansas are going to have to wait, but I want to knock all the rest out this year. The next one I’m for sure doing is Fargo on May 20, but I am pretty sure I’m going to find a way to do both Little Rock in March and Oklahoma City in April. Why is it that finishing one marathon only makes me want to do another one more, even when I do not actually enjoy either the marathon or its aftermath? That is one of the great mysteries of running.