On February 22, I ran the Shelby Forest Loop Marathon in Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park in Tennessee. This is another case where I had never heard of the race before, but I was searching far and wide for a race I could do without spending an arm and a leg on travel expenses. The park is near Memphis. Not only was I able to get a good airfare to Memphis, but it was a non-stop flight.
The race website described the course as a road loop, but I wasn’t assuming it would be easy. I’ve done some “road” courses that were rugged and hilly, and I’ve done some “trail” courses that were paved and flat. I mentally prepared myself for something difficult. After entering the race and booking the trip, I became preoccupied with other races. Over time, I forgot that the website said “road loop.” I remembered that the race was inside a state park, and it has “forest” in the name. I started to assume it was a trail race. I think I even told a few friends I was doing another trail race this weekend.
A few days before the race, I took another look at the website and saw more detail about the course. Not only was it paved, but it was a fairly flat loop. It was also USATF certified. That meant I could qualify for Boston here. I had to get into a completely different mindset. For the first time in three weeks, I was running a course that was conducive to running a fast time. I set a goal of breaking 3:30, the Boston-qualifying time for my age group.
There aren’t as many non-stop flights from Minneapolis to Memphis as there used to be. The earliest arrival I could get was 5:30 PM. Packet pickup wasn’t until the morning of the race, but I still like to arrive earlier than that.
I didn’t want to drive too far to get to a hotel. The hotels closest to the race were actually the downtown hotels. I would have loved to stay downtown and go to a restaurant on Beale Street, but the downtown hotels were too expensive. On top of a higher room rate, I would need to pay $22 a day for parking.
I opted instead to stay at the Hilton Memphis, which is on the opposite side of town. It’s right on the I-240 loop, so I could get there from the airport in 15 minutes. I normally think of Hiltons as expensive, but this location was surprisingly affordable. I also didn’t have to pay for parking.
I got to the hotel around 6:15. After checking in, my next priority was dinner. Going to one of the downtown restaurants would have meant driving a long distance, finding parking, walking a few blocks and then trying to find a place where I could get seated without a reservation. It had been raining off and on, so I opted to eat at the hotel restaurant instead. They had a sandwich called The King, with peanut butter, bananas, and Nutella. I don’t know if Elvis ever had sandwiches with Nutella, but it worked for me.
Packet pickup started at 7:15, with the race starting at 8:00. The drive time was about 45 minutes, so I got up early and left the hotel around 6:30.
The rain tapered off during the night, but the temperature dropped into the low 30s. It was going to be another cold start. I fly to southern states for winter races, but apparently I’m not flying far enough south. I need to find more races on tropical islands.
According to the hourly forecast, it was going to be in the upper 30s for the whole race. That didn’t sound too bad until I noticed that we were also going to have 15 MPH winds, making it feel like 20. I once again had to bundle up. I wore tights, a long sleeved polypro shirt with a T-shirt over it, and two pairs of gloves.
The “loop” we were running was more of an out-and-back, with short loops at each end. Each circuit was just over two miles, with aid stations at either end. We ran this 13 times. Because it was a multiple loop course, I didn’t expect mile markers. I wore a watch with GPS, so I could check my pace.
This was a small race, with about two dozen participants. About a third of them were Marathon Maniacs, and we posed for a group photo about five minutes before the start.
When we started running, two guys went out fast. The faster runner was a 15 year old boy who was aiming to breaking the Tennessee state record. The other runner wasn’t quite as fast, but he still left the rest of us in the dust. I set my own pace, with a goal of averaging just under eight minutes per mile. At first, there was a group of runners right behind me. After about a mile, we thinned out. After that, I was running by myself.
The road we were running on is no longer used by vehicular traffic. Most of it looked like this.
There were a few sections where patches of moss were growing on the road. There were also sections where the road was still damp from overnight rain. I could tell that the traction was poor in a few spots, so I watched my footing.
I ran the first mile in 7:48. That was in the outbound direction. Coming back, I maintained about the same effort, but my time for the second mile was a disappointing 8:03.
Over time, I noticed that my times going out were consistently faster than my times coming back. The road was relatively flat, but it wasn’t perfectly flat. I suspect there was a slight downhill trend going out and a slight uphill trend coming back. I also noticed the wind more when we were coming back. We were partially sheltered by the trees, but it was probably a tailwind going out and a headwind coming back.
Going out, my mile times were consistently under eight minutes. The fastest was 7:38, and the slowest was around 7:52. Coming back, I was sometimes under eight minutes, but more often, I was in the 8:00 to 8:10 range. One time, I was 8:15. Overall, I seemed to be running fast enough, but I seldom looked at my overall time.
Even with all the layers I was wearing, I often felt cold. My hands were especially cold. I didn’t see the need to drink every mile, so I always skipping the aid station at the far end of the course. At the aid station in the start/finish area, I usually had a small cup of Gatorade.
Before the halfway mark, I was already feeling like the pace might be unsustainable. I felt like I was working much too hard to stay on pace. In the first half of a race, the pace should feel somewhat comfortable.
According to my Garmin, I reached the halfway mark in 3:43:11. I had been slowly accumulating a little bit of a cushion. Sometimes crossing the halfway mark can give you a confidence boost. Knowing the remaining distance is less than what you’ve already done makes it seem more manageable. I didn’t feel that way today. I still had half a marathon to go, and I already felt like I was fighting to stay on pace.
It’s not just that the pace felt too tiring. I also was lacking motivation. I thought there was maybe a 50-50 chance I could sustain the pace, but I would have to fight like mad. I didn’t feel like fighting. I wanted to slack off in the second half and just finish the race.
I knew if I slacked off, even for just a mile or two, I would have trouble picking up the pace again. I also couldn’t afford to give too much time back. I had a small cushion, but it would disappear quickly if I started running casually.
I had to take it one mile at a time. On the inbound half of the loop, I told myself I had to fight hard to keep from losing too much time. If I ran something like 8:07, I then told myself I had to work hard to make it up on the outbound leg of the next lap. If I was 7:45 going out, I’d feel relieved that I was still on pace. That’s how it went. One mile at a time.
I have a real fixation with breaking 3:30. I was overjoyed when I broke 3:30 in Marathon Bahamas. I was crushed when I couldn’t do it at Rock N Roll New Orleans. I was relieved when I was able to do it at Surf City.
If pushing hard in the second half would make the difference between the low 3:20s and the high 3:20s, I would have settled for high 3:20s. If it would have made the difference between low 3:30s and high 3:30s, I would have settled for high 3:30s. I might have even settled for 3:40s or 3:50s. I look at 3:30 differently. It’s the dividing line between my good races and my disappointing races.
I started to get the sense that I was physically capable of breaking 3:30, but I was having a psychological lapse. I didn’t bring my “A” game today. I wanted to phone it in, but I knew I’d hate myself if I did.
I kept gaining time on my outbound miles and losing time on my inbound miles. Overall, I seemed to be gaining time. Physically, it got more difficult as I got further into the race. Psychologically, it got easier as there were fewer remaining miles. At 21 miles, I checked my overall time. I now had a cushion of almost three minutes. With only 5.2 miles to go, that was significant. I could actually afford to slack off a little, but I was careful not to let up.
As I was starting my 11th lap, the leader was finishing. He finished in 2:45. He got the record he was shooting for. As I started my 12th lap, the next runner was finishing. I was still in third place, but the lead woman was only four or five minutes behind me. If I slacked off now, I could probably still break 3:30, but I might lose my hold on third place. That gave me a little extra motivation.
Going into the last lap, I knew I had it, but I didn’t let up. In my last two laps, I broke eight minutes in each direction. I fought hard all the way and finished in 3:26:51. I’m happy with that time. I’m especially happy that I was able to overcome all the negative thoughts in my head. I fought hard on a day when I wanted to give up.
Because it’s a small race, there weren’t any awards other than the finisher medals. That’s fine. To me, the result was more important than an award.
We also received gloves and bottle openers when we picked up our race numbers. A few of the other runners were wearing their gloves during the race.
After finishing, I stayed to have some post-race snacks and see the lead woman finish. She set a new course record. Then I got too cold, so I had to drive back to Hilton.
By the time I got cleaned up and dressed, it was already mid-afternoon. I didn’t eat any breakfast, and my only lunch was the post-race snacks. I was too hungry to wait for dinner. I had a coupon for a free appetizer at the hotel restaurant or lounge. It turned out one of the appetizers was grilled flatbread pizza. That worked for me.
I don’t know if I’ll be driving downtown for dinner. I may have wrecked my appetite with the pizza.
I’m pleased that I fought so hard to break 3:30 today. I’m not pleased that I needed to fight so hard. Increasingly, I’m finding that 3:30 is something I have to work for. A few years ago, my best races were under 3:10 and my solid races were under 3:15. Even on a bad day, I would beat 3:30. Now breaking 3:15 seems like an impossible dream.
I worry that age is finally catching up to me. In my late 40s, I was able to keep from slowing down. I actually ran strongest when I was 49. Since then, I continually find myself wishing I could run the same times that I ran the year before. Each year is slower than the previous year. At first, I blamed injuries that disrupted my training. Now I’m beginning to wonder. Maybe this aging thing is real.