This morning, I ran the Little Rock Marathon. I also did this race in 2013. This is the largest marathon in Arkansas, and it’s popular among 50 staters and Marathon Maniacs. Many people who are doing the states choose this as their Arkansas race. That makes it kind of a de facto reunion. It’s a race where I can count on seeing people I know.
I waited longer than usual before planning my race schedule for March, so I thought I had missed the boat on this one. I was afraid the downtown hotels would already be booked. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were still rooms available at the downtown Doubletree, so I reserved my room and entered the race. I should have priced flights first. Ouch. Flights to Little Rock were expensive.
When I did this race in 2013, I was able to save money by flying to Memphis and driving from there. I couldn’t get a direct flight into Memphis that arrived early enough in the day. Flying to Memphis by way of Atlanta was just as expensive as flying into Little Rock. I swallowed hard and booked the flights, even though it was more than I’m usually willing to pay.
The earliest arrival I could get was 3:05 PM. That made me nervous, since packet pickup ended at 5:00, and there’s no race morning packet pickup. I would be OK if both flights were on time, but a delay could cause me to miss packet pickup. I don’t like to count on my flights being on time, especially during the winter months.
Both of my flights were on time. Doubletree had a free airport shuttle, and all of the race activities were within walking distance, so I didn’t need to rent a car. When I got to Doubletree, they didn’t have any rooms ready, so I checked my bags and walked over to the expo. I got there before 4:00. As it turned out, I had plenty of time, but things could have been tight if my flight had been delayed. Fortunately, Atlanta had good weather that day. Friends who were trying to fly through Dallas weren’t as lucky.
Later, I saw an email from the race management. To accommodate people with flight delays, they kept packet pickup open until 10:00. I give them credit for that.
After getting back from the expo, I had to wait until almost 6:00 before I could get a room. The lobby and lounge were packed with other guests waiting for rooms. Apparently, they didn’t have any clean linen and were waiting for linen before cleaning the rooms.
I was worried that the delay getting a room would mess up my dinner plans, but I found out some other Marathon Maniacs were having dinner at Flying Saucer at 6:30. I joined 12 other runners there for good food, good drinks and good company.
The Little Rock Marathon is known for its gigantic finisher medals. They’re in constant competition with the Texas Marathon to see who can have the biggest medals. For some people, this is part of the appeal of this race. For me, the novelty has worn off. I already had a medal from this race and two from the Texas Marathon. How many three pound medals do you really need?
While I’m not excited about big medals, I do like finisher medals with creative designs. Every year, this race has a theme, and they design a new medal that’s consistent with that theme. This year, they had a pirate theme.
A few days before the race, I got an email indicating the medals wouldn’t arrive in time for the race. The medals were designed, ordered and manufactured on time, but shipment was held up because of a labor dispute. I wasn’t too concerned. I was going there for the race and the camaraderie. I assume they’ll eventually mail the medals to all finishers. I hate to think how much that’s going to cost. Did I mention they’re three pounds each?
The marathon didn’t start until 8:00, so I didn’t have to get up outrageously early. I woke up at 5:30, had a light breakfast, and left the hotel at 7:25. I had to walk about nine blocks to get to the start. Before lining up for the race, I checked a gear bag with warm clothes to wear after the race.
The temperature was in the mid-30s. Once again, I didn’t fly far enough south to escape the cold weather. It was drizzly when I left the hotel, and there was about a 50% chance of rain throughout the morning. I didn’t know if the drizzle would stop, continue, or turn into rain. I dressed for continued drizzle.
The good news is that there wasn’t a thunderstorm. The race director made it clear in pre-race communications that the race wouldn’t be cancelled for cold, and it wouldn’t be cancelled for rain. Lightning was another story, as it poses a safety risk to be runners and volunteers. I could understand that.
My goal was to break 3:30. Last week, it took an all-out effort to do that on a flat course. This course has a few hills, so I knew my work was cut out for me. In one way, this race would be easier. Last week, I was running by myself, so I had to work continually to set the right pace. This week, I could settle into a pack of runners who were going my pace and let myself be pulled along by the crowd. Accordingly, I lined up with the 3:30 pace group.
The course is a loop that starts and finishes downtown. The first half is relatively flat. The second half includes one long hill and a few shorter ones. That suits me well. I had several miles to get warmed up before reaching the first big hill.
The early miles took us back and forth through the downtown area. We started on Capitol. After about a mile, we made two quick turns and came back along Sixth. We got to see quite a bit of the downtown area as we traversed back and forth on different streets. After about a mile, I started to get ahead of the 3:30 group. When I realized I was going too fast, I backed off. After that, I was usually just ahead of them. I could hear the crowd cheering them on.
After about six miles, we moved into neighborhoods adjacent to the downtown area, but it was still fairly flat. I never ventured too far from the pace group. Having done this race before, I knew that it doesn’t really begin until about 11 miles. That’s when we turned north and started the hilly part of the course.
First, we ran by the state capitol. The capitol is on a hill, so it was uphill on the approach and downhill as we left. At about 12 miles, we started a longer hill that goes on for about three miles.
The hill starts out fairly gradual, but gets steeper. As I started working harder, my glasses fogged up. Then it started to rain. The drops were cold, and my hair was getting wet. Between the fog on the inside of my glasses, the drops coating the outside, and the drops coating my watch display, I could no longer read my watch.
I was cold, I was tiring, and I couldn’t tell how much I was slowing down. I started to get pessimistic. To keep my composure, I reminded myself that I was still in front of the 3:30 group. As long as I was ahead of them, I was still on pace.
I was relieved to reach the top at 15 miles. Then the road turned downhill. When I did this race in 2013, I found the downhill to be uncomfortably steep. My downhill running has improved since then. This year, I enjoyed most of the downhill, although there was one section that still struck me as steep. We ran downhill long enough for me to recover from the long uphill section. I also gained a little time.
The hill bottomed out at about 16 and a half miles, and we began an out-and-back that’s fairly flat. This is where you get to see friends who are running faster or slower. I greeted anyone wearing a Marathon Maniac shirt with a “Go, Maniac!” shout out. I also heard several people yelling to me. Because of my limited visibility, I couldn’t always tell who it was.
At this point, I was about a minute ahead of schedule. My first goal was to reach the turnaround, which was between 19 and 20 miles. I knew there were a couple hills between 23 and 24, but my hope was to preserve my one minute cushion until I got there.
I expected to get a psychological lift when I reached the turnaround. After that, we would be heading back toward downtown and the finish. It didn’t turn out that way. As soon as I rounded the turn, I noticed I was running into the wind. I realized I would be running into that wind for six miles. It wasn’t strong enough to be tiring, but it was cold.
By the 20 mile mark, I was starting to slow down. It’s not that I was tiring; my legs just wouldn’t respond. They didn’t feel sore or stiff; they just didn’t work. I suspect I was experiencing a symptom of hypothermia. I wasn’t getting as much blood flow to my legs.
The next mile was slower still, and the 3:30 group passed me. There wasn’t any way I could pick up my pace to stay with them. I realized at this point that all I could do was keep moving at whatever pace I could manage. Now my only goal was to finish.
In the last few miles, there are a few small hills. They’re not that big, but at this point in the race you feel them. Normally, I would worry about losing time here. Instead, I just kept plugging away.
Around 24 miles, I saw a sign. It said, “You look like crap. You deserve a beer.” Clearly this wasn’t a motivational sign. I looked ahead and saw the secret aid station of the Hash House Harriers. They had Coke, Gatorade and beer. Earlier in the race, I skipped a beer stop. This time, I had nothing to lose. The beer tasted good, and it was a welcome distraction.
Soon, we were back on downtown streets. I saw tall buildings ahead, but I didn’t really know where I was. Then I recognized a building that I had seen from the window of my hotel room. I looked to my left and saw Doubletree. Now I knew where I was.
We were running down Third. We had to run all the way through downtown before approaching the finish from the other side. I heard voices behind me talking about the hills and how they were still on pace. I was about to get passed by the 3:35 group.
With about a half mile to go, we ran through an intersection I recognized. We were near the spot where the race used to start. Most of the course was the same, but the start and finish were different this year.
Next, we went under the freeway. Under the bridge there was an aid station. Sort of. It was the lipstick station, a signature of this race. They had the good sense to set up under the bridge, where they were sheltered from the rain and wind.
Two blocks later, we made the first of two quick turns. Then we were running toward the finish. Several runners passed me in the last mile. I did my best to encourage them to finish strong. Then I caught up to a guy who was walking. I told him to finish strong. Then I said, “You don’t want to finish behind a guy wearing cheetah tights.” That’s the first time I’ve played that card to try to motivate someone. It worked at first, but after a block he started walking again.
I kept plodding forward until I reached the finish. I wasn’t able to speed up at all. My legs didn’t have any faster gears. When I crossed the line, I tried to stop my watch. It was still running. It took a few attempts to get it to stop. My hands had been numb for at least two hours. They were like lifeless stumps. I later learned that I finished in 3:36:17.
Although the finisher medals haven’t been delivered yet, the race managed to get some plastic medals on short notice. They might not be as gaudy as the big medals, but they were easier to wear.
With hands that barely worked, I was selective with finish line snacks. I asked the volunteer with the bananas if she could start peeling one for me. Once she got it started, I was able to manage. Then I got some soup in a Styrofoam cup. It was mostly broth and rice. I could barely pick up the cup, but I was able to pour it into my mouth a little at a time. It felt good to get something warm into my stomach. I also got some chocolate milk and trail mix. For the time being, I had to carry those.
Before leaving the finish area, I also got a heat shield. I desperately needed it. Usually, I use one of the pins from my race bib to pin the heat shield in place. I didn’t have the fine motor skills to remove a pin, so I had to use one hand to hold it in place.
I had three options on how to proceed next. The first was to head to the medical tent to get warm. If I did that, I might be there a long time. How long to stay and what happened next might not be my decision.
My second option was to retrieve my gear bag and put on some warm dry clothes. That really wasn’t a viable option without the use of my hands. I wouldn’t be able to untie the bag without help. It was doubtful whether I could put on my warm-up clothes without help. It was also doubtful whether putting warm clothes over my cold wet ones would be worth the time and effort.
My last option was to retrieve my gear bag and walk back to the hotel as quickly as I could in the clothes I was wearing. I chose this option. It probably wasn’t my wisest choice.
When I got to the gear truck, I saw a line. The line at a gear check isn’t usually more than five or six people. This one was long. As I tried to find the back of the line, it kept going on and on. It was at least a block long. I got in line, not knowing how long I would be there. The line didn’t move very fast. The runner behind me kindly pinned my heat shield in place, so I had two free hands.
After 30 minutes standing in line in the parking lot, I realized that the feeling was coming back to my hands. Those heat shields really work. I drank my chocolate milk. With effort, I tore open and ate the trail mix.
When I got close enough to the front of the line, I realized the problem. The bags were all in one truck, and they weren’t sorted. The volunteers had to search through the whole truck to find each bag. Normally, bags are sorted so the volunteers can look at your bib number and go right to your bag. When they realized this wasn’t working, they tried picking up the nearest bag and asking if anyone in line had that number. That was worse. Only the people in front could hear. Also, runners were still finishing. There was no guarantee the owner of a particular bag was anywhere in the line.
I eventually got my bag, but it took an hour and 15 minutes. I was shivering, but started making my way back to Doubletree. Then it started raining again. That was a cold walk. I felt bad for people who were still waiting in line.
This is a popular race. Races generally get popular for good reasons. Historically, this has been a well-run race. Last year, there was a thunderstorm, and there was some confusion about whether or not the race was cancelled. I won’t say too much about that, because I wasn’t there. This year, they had the gear check fiasco. I don’t know how that happened, but I hope they get it figured out. What happened this year was unacceptable.
Aside from seeing friends, I had another reason for choosing this race. In the past, they’ve had great post-race parties. This year, instead of a catered dinner, dance and open bar in a large ballroom, they decided to have a block party. I didn’t know that when I entered the race.
Later in the afternoon, I checked out the block party. There was nobody in the street. The adjacent bars and restaurants were no busier than usual. It was forty degrees and drizzly. That’s not the greatest weather for an outdoor party, especially after we all spent hours in the cold this morning. I found a few friends at one of the bars and had a beer with them.
Later, I met a few other Marathon Maniacs, and we had dinner at Gusano’s, a Chicago-style pizzeria I discovered two years ago.
My flights for this race cost a pretty penny. It’s been a long time since I spent this much to travel to a race that wasn’t overseas. I got to see some friends, but overall, the experience was disappointing. Based on my experience this year, I’m not likely to come back. There are lots of other races.