Sunday, February 25, 2018

Well, I Wanted a Warm Race, Didn't I...? A1A Marathon Report

I have been complaining non-stop about the terrible cold in Michigan for months now, ever since that awful moment when I returned from my Christmas trip to California -- where the weather had been California-perfect -- at midnight to clean eight inches of snow off my car and then scrape the ice off the windshield. That was one of the most depressing experiences of my life, and it was followed by a six week cycle of extreme cold then a big snow dump. (Okay, I admit there was ONE nice week in there somewhere, but even the nice week resulted in a huge snow melt which resulted in mud. So it still sucked.) The A1A Marathon in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, had a forecast of 80 degrees and sunny. While I knew I was not acclimated to those temperatures, I didn't care. I was just excited about feeling the sun on my skin again.

The Fort Lauderdale/Miami area was pretty much the last large metro area in the U.S. that I had left to visit. It didn't disappoint, especially Miami. I suspected I would like it because it's hot and people speak Spanish everywhere, and sure enough, I did. I met my marathon friend Dennis at the Fort Lauderdale airport and started our adventure.  First stop was a Cuban restaurant for breakfast. Obviously people who know me can take one look at this place and know I would love it, and I did:

I had eggs and peppers on Cuban toast, which is like Texas Toast on steroids, and Cuban coffee, which is a little bit of coffee on top of a layer of sugar. SO GOOD. While we were standing in line, a guy with a big pack walked up and stood next to us. At first I thought he was a homeless dude who was going to ask us for money, but then I noticed that his gear was Deuter and North Face and he was clean, so I figured there was another story. When I asked him, he said he was hiking from one end of South America to the other, and came back to the U.S. in the middle for a family thing. It turns out he has a blog that is full of gorgeous pictures of South America, so if you like looking at those, check out this blog.

After the Cuban restaurant, we went to the expo and picked up our bags. The T-shirt is just OK -- one that I'll wear to a couple of upcoming spin classes solely to advertise "I just did a marathon" and then dispose of. The expo was good-sized. And the sun was HOT. I mean, it felt good, but my clothes were soaked with sweat and I felt like I was sizzling just walking around outside the expo. I realized that tomorrow's race was not going to be enjoyable, even though I liked the sun. I was totally unaccustomed to running in anything other than the 65-degree gym weather at Lifetime, AND I didn't feel like doing a marathon when I just did one a week ago. Oh well; all I had to do was finish and bring home the medal.

We drove to Miami in search of the Bay of Pigs museum only to find it was closed, but, hey, we were in Little Havana, which was where I wanted to go anyway. We stopped at a Cuban bakery -- just as good as a Mexican bakery -- and then walked around Little Havana for a while, just long enough to even get a little bit of an appetite for dinner. Verdict on Miami: I liked it.

Back in Fort Lauderdale, we found an Italian restaurant on Yelp and it was SO GOOD, one of those places where every bite is its own amazing experience and even as you're getting full, and then stuffed, you're wishing the experience wouldn't end. Way better than Shoney's in Greenville last weekend.

This race had an early start, 6:00 a.m., totally necessary because of the heat. I was up by 3:30 because I had to go to McDonalds. There were two cars in front of me in the drive-through line and the driver of the one in front of me laid on his horn and yelled out his rolled-down window, "Hurry up! I don't have time for this social shit!" I guess in his opinion the person at the window was talking for too long. This would be a good place to say that Florida has the worst drivers I have ever seen. The stereotypes are true. I remember thinking this on my trip to Jacksonville a year ago too. The two annoying things I saw the most often were driving too slow in the left lane and passing at excessive speed on the right. These were probably two related problems -- the old people with the mindset of "I'm going the speed limit and no one has any right to make me go faster" and everyone else with the mindset of "Get out of my way, old people!" who step on the gas with extra frustration as they zip by on the right. However, I also saw every other kind of assholery behind the wheel, and my conclusion after my time spent in Florida was that you should always expect a Florida driver to do something unpredictable and jerky if it's possible. If they can refuse to let you merge, swerve into your lane without signaling, or slam on the brakes with no warning and for no reason, they probably will; if they don't, let it be a pleasant surprise.

Anyway! Back to the race. The start and finish lines are about four miles apart, and the race gives the option of parking in either place, since they shuttle from both ends. The race website claimed that there were 13 shuttles and that they would run continuously from 4:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. We decided to park at the start because we thought the finish would be more congested. If you ever do this race -- PARK AT THE FINISH!! Parking at the start was a big mistake. More on that later.

It was very hot and humid at the start line. The day was bad even from the start because a runner collapsed while waiting for the race to start. I don't know what happened to him, but whatever happened to him, at least he did not have to do the race. This race started downtown and went three miles out to A1A. A1A is an iconic beach highway. (If driving it on a sunny weekend day, you can move at approximately three miles per hour through Fort Lauderdale due to congestion and beach party traffic.) It was tolerable as the sun was rising. Sunrise over the Atlantic is pretty, no doubt. At Mile 4-something, we turned into Hugh Taylor Birch State Park for a 2-mile loop. Many people enjoyed this part of the course; I did not. I was already hot and cranky and didn't feel like running, and I knew that the best parts of the race were almost over.

Around Mile 6, we were back on A1A, for a tedious out and back. Our route took us past lots of beach condos whose residents appeared to be mostly still asleep, or at least they were not out cheering us on. Then we left the beach and A1A turned into just a tedious highway past office buildings and shopping plazas. Thankfully, there was cloud cover for almost the whole race.

At Mile 13, there was a Marathon Maniac handing out popsicles. She had also been at Mississippi River Marathon the weekend before, and I had heard her talking about the popsicles. I just hadn't introduced myself because I had a spot under a tent where I wasn't getting rained on, and she was standing out in the rain. The popsicle was one of the few highlights of this race, both going out and coming back. Mostly I was just saying to myself, "I hate this race, I hate this race," for most of the 26.2 miles.

Around Mile 14, we did a loop through a neighborhood and then headed back. The scenery had not improved between the "out" and "back" portion. This really is a tedious course, even if I had been in a good mood and it hadn't been a million degrees out. The sun came out for real at Mile 23 or so, and those last three miles were endless. I walked... a lot. There was full sun and only occasional palm-tree-shadow-width strips of shade. My time was going to be disastrous and I didn't care. I knew I would be lucky to finish under five hours.

I did finish under five, but not by much. The medal was a blue jellyfish complete with plastic tentacles -- unique, but not one of my favorites. The finish line food was unimpressive, not that I could eat it anyway. I was way too nauseous to want to eat. When Dennis finished, we went to wait for the shuttle, and this was the final crappy thing about the race -- the shuttle took 45 minutes to arrive. What happened to the "13 shuttles running continuously" that we were promised? I don't know. Once on the shuttle, it took over half an hour to creep four miles in traffic. Some people on the bus were worried about getting to the airport on time. Thankfully, I wasn't late for a flight, but that didn't stop me from being annoyed.

Florida was State #47 and even though this race was fairly well-done, except for the shuttle issue, I can't recommend it. The pretty ocean sunrise didn't make up for the boring rest of the course. There's got to be a better Florida marathon than this one. Then again, most of the reviews are good, so maybe I was just cranky because I ran a marathon the weekend before, who knows?

Mississippi -- Completed at Last

I was pretty convinced that the universe did not want me to finish a marathon in Mississippi. The Mississippi River Marathon was the fourth Mississippi marathon I'd registered for. I'd missed all of the first three due to combinations of not enough money, injury, and weather, and I almost missed this one too. My flight to Memphis was cancelled on Friday because of a winter storm. I am now down to the home stretch of my 50 states goal, and I CANNOT miss a planned marathon between now and April 29 or else my elaborate finishing plans will be derailed. So I decided to drive to Mississippi. I had time off from work because I just finished class, and I like long drives, and Will was home to watch the dogs, so why not?

This was a new record in the "total number of hours spent driving for a marathon" category -- 28. Yup, 28 hours in the car through Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, approximately half of that through terrible weather -- relentless rain in the south; snow, ice, and sleet back in Ohio and Michigan. But it's worth it because Mississippi is done and now I never have to return!

The biggest thing that surprised me about this marathon was not how depressing Greenville, Mississippi was -- I knew that already. It was that this area could somehow produce people who were able to put on an event of this quality. They have almost zero to work with, and yet I have ALMOST NO complaints about the marathon! (I have one minor complaint that was not the race's fault -- you'll hear about that one later.) It was perfectly organized from start to finish. Communications were timely. Race instructions were clear and accurate. Shuttle buses were organized. The finish area was streamlined for runners' comfort. Every single thing was good except for the course and the weather.

Let me back up just a little and say that the Mississippi Delta is a depressing place. It's one of the poorest parts of the country, and it looks like it when you drive through. It was a warm, rainy, overcast day, and I drove for miles past swampy cotton fields, rusty trailers that looked like they had already been hit by hurricanes or tornadoes, stretches of empty store fronts with broken windows, overgrown cemeteries with headstones half-submerged underwater, empty lots serving as garbage dumps, and people walking along the side of the road in raggedy clothes, oblivious to the rain. I actually like swamps and think they're pretty, especially with all the cool birds that live in them, but overall this was one of the most depressing landscapes I've ever seen. Driving through it brought to mind all the bad images of the Deep South that lurk deep in my American psyche -- slaves in cotton fields, overseers with whips, people living in falling-down shacks with nine children and no electricity, bodies dumped in swamps and being eaten by alligators -- all of it.

I was hoping for better in Greenville, but Greenville wasn't better. It's right on the Mississippi River, reached by a state highway that runs through a few miles of strip malls and fast food restaurants before reaching downtown. Downtown is a Main Street with mostly-empty storefronts and broken roads. There wasn't really an expo, just packet pickup in one of the storefronts and a couple of vendors. People were nice and packet pickup was easy. I stayed in a hotel a couple miles from the start line and my pre-race meal was Shoney's because it was right across from the hotel and I was tired.

On race morning, it was pouring outside. I could hear the rain as soon as I woke up, and it was going to rain all day according to the forecast. That meant no phone and no music on a course that, by most accounts, was pretty boring. Oh well; it least the temperature was pleasant. Earlier in the week the forecast had said a low of 39, which would have been miserable in the downpour, but actual temperature on race morning was 56, which felt like summer after the terrible Michigan winter. I even decided to forego gloves -- totally not needed.

We boarded the shuttles in downtown Greenville for transport to the start line. This race had the best shuttle system I've ever seen -- all the buses loaded between 6:00 and 6:30, and they all left at 6:30. It probably would not be practical in bigger races or races in more urban areas to do it this way, but it worked perfectly here. The ONE thing that was even slightly unpleasant on race morning was that when I asked the shuttle driver if this bus was for the marathon or the half, she responded with, "What that sign say?" I hadn't even seen a sign, but when I looked, there was a small sign taped to the side of the door (on the opposite side from where I approached), that said "Marathon" (if I bent down and looked hard in the dim light from the street lights). If I were her, I would have just responded with, "Marathon," but whatever.

There were lots of 50-staters doing this marathon, and most were in the 40's like me. A lot of people leave Mississippi for the end, both because it's not a very exciting state and because it's not easy to get to. The shuttles drove us across the Mississippi River to the start line in Arkansas. This marathon is split between the two states, and 50-staters can use it for either state, but not both. The start line was a big empty lot, and it was a muddy swamp this morning. I sank into the red mud while standing in the Porta-potty line and was grateful these weren't new shoes. There were a few tents to stand under, but there were still a lot of people standing in the warm rain while they waited for the start.

The Arkansas part of this marathon starts in Lake Village, Arkansas, and goes along the shore of Lake Chicot, an oxbow lake (formerly a loop of the Mississippi River, now cut off from the actual river). There were very few spectators, and the town was quiet except for a few early-morning fishermen. It rained. I was bored. I practiced picking a target in the distance, like a house or a dock or a tree, and making myself run till I reached it. I was undertrained for this marathon, with no real long runs since the Honolulu Marathon in December and one pathetic 12-mile double loop around Stoney Creek in wind-chill-zero temps that were so depressing I walked a lot of it. I no longer really care about pace, especially not in this marathon when I knew I had another one the following weekend, and my chief goal was injury prevention. I am so close to finishing 50 states that I can't do anything to derail my finishing plans. So I trudged through the depressing fog and drizzle, ticking off miles, waiting to see something exciting, or really just anything that wasn't crappy.

At the half, we crossed the Mississippi River, but there was so much fog I could barely see the river. The bridge had about a mile climb followed by a two-mile descent. The bridge is supposed to be one of the highlights of this marathon -- face it, there is absolutely nothing else to see that's even remotely interesting, and no spectators, so the bridge was THE ONLY highlight -- but because of the fog, I thought the bridge was boring too.

After the bridge, we ran on a straight-as-an-arrow state highway for a long, long time. Trucks whooshed past us. Nothing to see but mile posts. I will say that the aid stations were perfectly organized. They were at every mile just past the mile marker, and each one had a Porta-potty. Not that I needed one, but it was nice to know they were there. And if this small race can put a Porta-potty at every single mile marker, why can't the bigger races do it? Who knows. This was also the only marathon I've ever been in where there was a person controlling traffic at every single street crossing, the whole race. I wondered again how a race in this part of the country managed such excellent organization. It just doesn't look like the kind of place where anyone competent would choose to live.

Around Mile 23, we took a turn through one of the "nice" neighborhoods of Greenville. It was a gated community, although the gates opened for any car, and the houses were large and set back from the road. Even the nice neighborhood was depressing. The road was in bad shape, and all of the front yards were submerged in water. When we came out of that neighborhood, we headed into downtown again to the finish. The 4:15 pace group was right behind me and I beat them in by a minute or so, giving me my fourth 4:14 in a year. At least I'm consistent!

I got my medal inside the same building packet pickup had been in. Post-race food was good -- pizza and everything else you could want after a marathon. I ended up getting an age group award -- second place -- despite my crappy time, and unlike every single race I have participated in, I could pick up my award and leave rather than waiting for an awards ceremony. I just printed a ticket at one of the computers they had set up, handed it to the person monitoring the awards table, and walked out with my award. Again, organization that far exceeded my expectations for this race.

I stripped out of my soaking clothes in a boat launch parking lot by the Mississippi River. There was no one there to notice except other runners doing the same thing. Then I started the long drive out of the South and back to civilization. I admit to having negative feelings about most of the South, and especially Mississippi. Not so much Jackson, which is an actual city, but most of the rest of it. Other than the race itself, I didn't see anything that made me change my mind. I'm glad to be finally done with Mississippi, and just being able to mark it off my map finally made the long drive, all 28 hours of it, worthwhile.