Saturday, November 8, 2014

Race Report: 2014 Soldier Marathon

Today I ran the Soldier Marathon in Columbus, GA.  I did this race as part of a weekend double.  Tomorrow, I’ll be running the Peachtree City 50K.  Columbus and Peachtree City are about 90 miles apart, making this a convenient double.

Earlier in the year, I learned that this was the race where my friend Laurie was going to finish running marathons in all 50 states.  I met Laurie last December at the Rehoboth Beach marathon in Delaware.  The next day, we were both stranded in the Philadelphia airport for several hours, when the airport was closed down by a major snowstorm.  I did this race last year and liked it, so I decided to come back and celebrate Laurie’s accomplishment.

The race starts and finishes next to the National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning.  There’s a Hampton Inn right next to the museum.  Last year, I wasn’t able to stay there, because they were already booked.  This year, I made my reservation early.  Staying at Hampton Inn meant I could walk to the race from the hotel.

I flew to Atlanta on Friday, arriving in the early afternoon.  From there, I had to drive about 100 miles to get to Fort Benning.  After checking in at Hampton Inn, I went over to the National Infantry Museum to pick up my race packet.  While I was there, I was able to take a tour of the museum.

I didn’t see anyone I knew at the expo, so I went to a nearby restaurant for a quick dinner by myself.  When I got back to the hotel, I heard a lot of activity in the dining area where they serve breakfast.  There was a large group of runners who knew each other.  They invited me to join them, and I stayed to talk until I needed to get to bed.

I went to bed early, but woke up during the night and couldn’t get back to sleep.  I felt like crap, but I knew that I could still have a good race.

Last year, I had to leave early to make sure I could find parking near the museum.  That wasn’t an issue this year.  I was able to eat a light breakfast at Hampton Inn and then walk to the start.  It was 38 degrees, so I wore an extra layer of clothes and brought a gear bag to check them before the race.

There was a Marathon Maniac group photo 20 minutes before the race.  The gear check was right next to the starting line, so I was able to wait until after the photo before checking my bag.

My goal was to break 3:30.  Last year I did this race with an ailing hamstring and couldn’t quite make my goal, finishing in 3:34:06.  This year I had a second chance, and I was going to take it, even if it left me with tired legs for Sunday’s race.  There wasn’t a 3:30 pace group, so I lined up between the 3:25 and 3:35 groups.  I would have to set my own pace.  This race wasn’t as crowded as my last two, so I was able to get into a good rhythm right away.  Once the gun went off, I was focused on running.  Any thoughts of feeling tired were gone.

The first seven and a half miles are through Fort Benning.  Some of the soldiers stationed there run the race. Others come out to cheer.

When we passed the first mile marker, I could tell that it was way off.  My watch read 9:22, but I could see the 3:25 group just ahead of me.  Clearly, I ran the first mile in no more than eight minutes.  The 3:25 group must have started fast and then eased up in the second mile.  I wasn’t running any faster, but I suddenly caught up to them.  I eased up, so I would stay behind them.  I reached the two mile sign in 15:20.  I heard the 3:25 pacer tell his group that they had run that mile in 7:40.  I decided to ease up some more and let them pull away.

Early in the third mile, there’s a noticeable hill.  The drill sergeants line up here to “motivate” the runners to get up the hill.  I picked up my effort on the hill.  Although I needed to slow down, I didn’t want to slack off in front of the drill sergeants.  I backed off after cresting the hill.

By the time we left Fort Benning, I was consistently running 7:45 per mile.  To break 3:30, I only needed 8:00 per mile.  I was running fast, but it felt surprisingly easy, so I stayed with it.

Next, we followed a combination of paved roads and bike paths that led us to the Riverwalk.  The Riverwalk is a paved trail that runs alongside the Chattahoochee River.  The Chattahoochee forms the border between southern Georgia and Alabama.  This far south, the river is wide.  It’s hard to believe it’s the same river that flows through Helen, GA, where I had dinner four weeks ago.  This is the most scenic part of the course.  There wasn’t any wind, so the water was as smooth as glass.  You could see reflections of the trees on the water.

We followed the Riverwalk until we reached downtown Columbus.  For a couple miles, I settled down to eight minute miles.  Then I resumed running 7:45s.  After about five more miles, we reached downtown Columbus.  We ran past a softball complex, and I could smell the food people were grilling for their tailgate parties.

Next we crossed the river and ran briefly through Phenix City, AL before returning to Columbus.  We were only in Alabama for about a mile, but they really turned out to cheer.  There were dozens of school kids in uniforms, a color guard and a band.

This part of the river has a few sets of rapids.  Running alongside the river we had good views.  I could also see the rapids from the bridge, as we crossed the river again to return to Georgia.

We looped through downtown Columbus for a little over a mile before returning to the Riverwalk.  I started to pass other runners.  I wasn’t going any faster; they were going slower.

As we got back onto the Riverwalk, we ran a section of boardwalk with a canopy of trees.  We didn’t run this section earlier.  This part of the course used different routes for inbound and outbound runners.  By now, I was expecting to get warm, but I was still comfortable.  I never needed to take my gloves off.  We had a light breeze that kept me from overheating in the late miles.  I could now see ripples on the water.

The inbound and outbound courses merged together at 20 miles.  For the outbound runners, it was just past the halfway point.  In the next mile, I saw five runners I knew who were still outbound.  One of them was Laurie.

At this point, I could have slowed to 8:30 per mile, and I would still have broken 3:30.  With another race on Sunday, it was tempting.  I was passing most of the other runners, but then one caught up to me.  As he reached me, he said, “I have to know.  I’ve been working hard to catch up to you for a couple miles now.  How old are you?”  He wanted to know if we were in the same age group.  As it turned out, we were.

I slowed briefly, so we could talk.  Up until now, it hadn’t occurred to me that I could place in my age group.  Realizing that we might be completing for a spot in the top three, I had to go for it.

I picked up my pace.  At first he stayed with me, but I eventually pulled away.  I ran a 7:30 mile.  Then I ran another one.  When I reach the 24 mile mark, I realized that if I kept up the pace, I could break 3:25.  Then I saw the 3:25 pacer ahead of me.  There wasn’t anyone else with him.  That’s actually not unusual for a fast pace group.  Some runners can’t maintain the pace.  Those that can go off on their own to see how much faster they can run.

Ordinarily, 3:25 would not have been a big goal.  Then I realized it would give me a BQ-5 for 2016.  I’ll have other opportunities to get a faster qualifying time, but it would be nice to get one now.  For the next mile, I worked to reel in the 3:25 pacer.  I was gaining ground, but it wasn’t easy.

At 25 miles, I realized I was just barely on pace for 3:25.  The 3:25 pacer was still ahead of me, but I was getting close.  I finally passed him in the last mile.

I was getting close to the finish.  To my left, I could see Hampton Inn through the trees.  As I ran past the hotel, I knew how close it was.  The second to last turn brought me onto the driveway that goes in front of the National Infantry Museum.  Then I made the final turn onto the Avenue of Flags.

At that last turn, there was a soldier who told me to push hard all the way to the finish. I did.  I crossed the line with a gun time of 3:24:03.  My chip time was 3:23:44.  I ran the second half faster than the first half.  That’s not bad for a race where I seemed to run the first half too fast.

The finisher medals are designed to look like dog tags.  I like this design.  It’s unique; it’s appropriate for this race; and it’s something you can wear comfortably.

After finishing, I looked back to see that the next finisher was the 3:25 pacer.  The runner in my age group who had been chasing me finished right behind him.  He also broke 3:25.

After picking up my gear bag, I went through the food line.  There were lots of good post-race snacks.  I had a peanut butter banana frozen yogurt bar, a bagel with peanut butter and jelly, an egg and cheese burrito, and a can of Dr. Pepper.  That’s enough food that I didn’t need to stop anywhere for lunch.

Next, I checked the results board.  I took second in my age group.  The runner who was chasing me took third.  I couldn’t stay for the awards ceremony.  I needed to get back to the hotel to check out.

I didn’t have time for an ice bath, but I took a hot bath and stretched.  After packing up and checking out, I returned to the finish area.  I got there in time to see my friends Tom and Fran.  I had seen Tom on the course earlier.

I was able to pick up my age group award.  Here’s what it looks like.

As I was walking back to my car, I saw Laurie reaching the final turn.

I drove to Peachtree City to check in at Hilton Garden Inn, where I’m staying for the next two nights.  Later, I returned to Columbus for Laurie’s post-race party.

I’m hoping I can sleep better tonight.  I have another race in the morning.  I didn’t do myself any favors by going all out today.

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