Monday, January 26, 2015

Race Report: 2015 Rock N Roll New Orleans Marathon

On January 25, I ran the Rock N Roll New Orleans Marathon.  This was the third time I ran this race.  For Deb, it was her third try at a New Orleans vacation.  Three years ago, we planned to go to New Orleans together, but Deb had to cancel at the last minute.  We went to New Orleans together last year, but Deb got sick in the middle of the trip and had to stay at the hotel for the next day and a half.

This is one of my favorite races.  I like the course; I always see a few friends here; and New Orleans is a nice place for a mid-winter vacation.  Last year, Deb and I took a city tour on the first day of our trip, but had to interrupt our plans the next day when Deb got sick.  This year, we picked up where we left off.

We had a non-stop flight, arriving in New Orleans Friday afternoon.  We stayed at the Hilton Riverside, which is centrally located between the convention center, the start of the race, and the French Quarter.  Everything was within walking distance, so we didn’t need a car.

The Hilton was the host hotel for the marathon, so we were able to get a discounted room rate.  Sometimes I can get room upgrades at Hilton when I check in.  They didn’t have any executive room available, but we did get a room with a river view.

After checking in, we walked to the expo at the New Orleans Convention Center.  Doing packet pick-up on Friday freed up the rest of our trip for shopping, dining and sight-seeing.  Although the convention center and the French Quarter were both within a mile of the Hilton, they were in opposite directions.  Neither of us got enough sleep Thursday night, so we were both tired.  After the expo, we stayed in the downtown area for dinner and went to bed early.

Saturday, after having breakfast at the Hilton, we walked into the French Quarter.  To me, the French Quarter never gets old.  Maybe it’s because it’s always lively.  Maybe it’s because it feels like visiting a European city.  Maybe it’s because Deb loves shopping at French Market.  Or it could be that we really like stopping at Café du Monde for beignets.

We spent the morning shopping and looking at the artwork around Jackson Square.  Then we went shopping at French Market.  After a not-so-nutritious lunch of beignets and hot cocoa at Café du Monde, we took a carriage tour of the French Quarter.

Our tour included a stop at St. Louis Cemetery No.1, the oldest cemetery in the city.  After walking alongside the river, we went shopping at Riverwalk.  Riverwalk is a fairly new mall that’s connected to the Hilton.

After spending all morning and afternoon on our feet, we both had sore legs and tired feet.  We spent the evening at the hotel and organized our clothes for the race.

The race was on Sunday.  Deb was volunteering in the start area, so we both had to be up early.  The starting line was about five blocks from the Hilton.  The race didn’t start until 7:30, but Deb had to be there at 5:30 to check in for her volunteer shift.  I got up shortly after Deb left.

It was about 46 degrees, but it was a little bit windy, so I waited until closer to the start before leaving the hotel.  I allowed about 45 minutes to walk to the start, check a gear bag and get to my start corral.  Half an hour would have been plenty.

I wore the same Mardi Gras mask, hat and beads that I wore last year.  I resisted the temptation to wear tights.  Although there was a cold wind before the race, I knew it would get into the upper 50s by the time I finished.  It was also a sunny day.

My goal was to break 3:30.  That’s my default goal.  While I’m not in peak shape, I felt I should be able to do that in New Orleans, since I did it in tougher weather conditions last week in the Bahamas.

I was in corral 2, which is the same corral where the 3:30 pace group lined up.  As I entered the corral, I saw Deb holding the corral 2 sign.  I knew her volunteer assignment was start corrals, but I didn’t know she would be in my corral.  That was cool.

I started out running next to the 3:30 group, but got ahead of them in some of the early turns as the course wound its way through the downtown area. My first mile was 7:47.  After that, I settled down.  I stayed in front of the 3:30 group, but I was never more than about 30 seconds ahead of them.

The next six miles were an out-and-back through the Garden District.  Right away, we passed a stage with a nice lively jazz band.  That was my favorite music on the course.  Later, there was one block where construction forced us to one side of the street.  By then the packed had thinned out enough that it didn’t seem to cause any noticeable congestion.  On my way back from the turn, I saw some friends who were still on their way out.

After the Garden District, we ran through the Warehouse/Arts District and back through the Central Business District.  This is the easiest place for families staying in the downtown hotels to come out and watch for their runners.

Next, we entered the French Quarter on Peters Street, running past landmarks such as Jackson Square, Café du Monde, and French Market.  At the 10 mile mark, we turned left onto Esplanade, which would take us to City Park.  At this point, I was about 30 seconds ahead of the pace for 3:30, but I was having to work harder to maintain the pace.

Around 12.5 miles, the marathon and half marathon courses split.  The marathon course turns left, while the half marathon proceeds straight toward the finish in City Park.  Just before the split, I saw two guy in costumes standing on the median to our right.  I remembered them from last year.  They were handing out Jell-O shots.

Up until the split, the course was the same as in previous years.  The second half of the course had a few changes this year.  The first difference came shortly after the split.  Instead of turning right onto City Park Avenue, we continued straight to begin an out-and-back.

Toward the end of the out-and-back, I saw a table with a sign that said “Beer.”  As I got closer, I also saw someone in the middle of the street holding a tray.  He had martinis in small plastic martini glasses.  I don’t usually drink martinis, but it’s a tradition in this race.

At 14 miles, I noticed that I was only ahead of a 3:30 pace by 18 seconds.  I picked up my effort.  I was able to stay on pace, but I was working too hard.  At this point in the race, it should have felt easier.

We turned left onto City Park Avenue, but it wasn’t long before I noticed another difference in this year’s course.  Instead of running along the west side of City Park, we entered the park.  While we were in the park, we reached another beer stop.  It might not have been wise to have a Jell-O shot, a martini and a beer in the space of three miles, but this is a party race.  I wanted to break 3:30, but I wasn’t going to take myself too seriously.

After running through the park, we followed the east side of the park until we reached Lake Ponchartrain.  Then we turned right to do an-out-and-back alongside the lake.  By now I was hot.  There was a breeze, but it was at our backs.  I realized I was paying a price for the hat I was wearing.  It was making me hot.  Last year, I was similarly overdressed, but I was in good enough shape to overcome that.  This year I wasn’t.

Many of the runners around me were beginning to slow down.  I worked hard to keep up with the runners who looked strongest.  As I made the turn between 20 and 21 miles, I was almost a minute ahead of schedule.  Then it got difficult.

Coming back we were running into the wind.  I had mixed feelings about that.  On one hand, the cool breeze would keep me from overheating.  On the other hand, running into it was more tiring.  It wasn’t a strong wind, but it was enough to require a little extra effort, and I didn’t have anything left.

I was still passing the slower runners, but the faster ones were now pulling away from me.  I was curious to know my pace, but I missed the sign for 22 miles.  A while later, I realized I had also missed the sign for 23 miles.

It was obvious by now that I was slowing down significantly.  Runners I passed earlier were now passing me.  As I approached an aid station, I heard a voice behind me say, “Aid station, up ahead.”  I realized it had to be a pace leader talking to his group.  Then it occurred to me that it had to be the 3:30 group.  Although I was slowing down, I was still ahead of them.

The pace group passed me right at 24 miles.  I still had a nine second cushion, but I couldn’t keep up with them.  I tried to pick up my pace, but my legs wouldn’t respond.  They felt like they were made of lead.

Last week, I fought like mad to break 3:30 in Marathon Bahamas.  I’ve always viewed 3:30 as a line in the sand.  As much as I wanted to fight for it, there was no fight left in me.  I kept slowing down.

I ran the next mile in 8:36.  I was now off the pace, and there was no way I could make it up.  It was a struggle to keep moving.  Knowing I couldn’t break 3:30, I just wanted to finish.  As I got closer to the finish, I could hear the crowds.  We took a different route into the park, but still finished in the same spot as last year.

The 26 mile sign was right at the last turn.  I didn’t want to know, but I looked at my watch anyway.  I ran that mile in 9:36.  I pressed on for the last two tenths and finished in 3:31:48.  That’s not a horrible time, but I was disappointed that I couldn’t break 3:30.

There were a few differences in the finish area this year.  In the past, the finisher medal for this race was on a string of Mardi Gras beads.  This year, the medal was on a more traditional ribbon, but you could go to a tent in the finish area to get beads for your medal.  I think that was an improvement, as the string of beads sometimes breaks.

There was also a finisher jacket that you could pick up at another tent.  I just found out about that a week before the race.  I’m not sure, but this may be something new for all Rock N Roll marathons.

After getting some post-race food and my gear bag, I saw a sign pointing toward the shuttles that take us back to the start.  Last year, it took a while to get onto a bus.  This year, the loading was quick and efficient.  The buses dropped us off near the start.  From there, I had to walk about six blocks to get back to Hilton.

Deb finished her volunteer shift after all the corrals started.  While I was running, she was able to take a trolley into the French Quarter to do more shopping at French Market.

Later in the day, we had an early dinner with some friends from Augusta at Daisy Duke’s, a restaurant in the French Quarter.  I had their New Orleans sampler.  It had a little of everything, and it was all good.

This race was an indicator of how much fitness I’ve lost recently.  A couple years ago, I could break 3:30 even on a bad day.  Now I need a good race.  After my heroic effort in the Bahamas last weekend, I didn’t have enough gas left in the tank to do it again so soon.

My next race is the Surf City Marathon.  That’s another race with a fast course.  In 2012, I broke 3:10 there.  This year I’ll be happy if I can break 3:30.  I’ll need a better race than I had yesterday.

While my performance was disappointing, the race wasn't.  I like the changes in the course.  I also like the jacket.  My only complaint about last year's race was a long delay to board a bus back to the start.  They fixed that.

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