On March 3, I ran the Little Rock Marathon. I also ran this race in 2013 and 2015. My experiences have been mixed. In 2013, I loved this race. I saw lots of people I knew, I ran a Boston qualifying time, and they had a great post-race party with food, a band, and an open bar. In 2015, I had a miserable experience. I got hypothermic running in cold, wet conditions. Then I had to stand outside in cold rain for an hour to retrieve my gear bag. They never sorted the bags, so they had to search the whole truck for each bag.
After 2015, I didn’t think I would ever return to this race. I decided to give them another chance because this year’s race was one of the quarterly reunions of the 50 States Marathon Club. I don’t go to every reunion, but this was my first chance to get to one since finishing my third circuit of 50 states last November.
There aren’t any direct flights from Minneapolis to Little Rock. One option was to change planes in Atlanta, but that’s pretty far out of the way and takes all day. Instead, I opted to fly to Memphis and then drive from there.
I wanted to arrive in plenty of time for the meeting of the 50 States Marathon Club, so I flew to Memphis on Friday and drove the rest of the way on Saturday. Because of a last minute cancellation, I was able to get a room at the downtown Doubletree, which is near the Beale Street entertainment district. I love eating dinner there, because most of the restaurants have live music. They also have some pretty good food.
I drove to Little Rock Saturday morning. It’s about a two hour drive. I stayed at the Doubletree, which is only a few blocks from where the marathon starts and finishes. When I arrived, it was too early to check into my room, so I parked the car in their ramp and walked to the Statehouse Convention Center to pick up my race packet.
I’m always scouting for new pizza places to try. For lunch, I went to Damgoode Pies. It seems like they were expecting me.
After lunch, I went back to Doubletree to check into my room. I was on one of the upper floors and had this view of a bridge over the Arkansas River that we would cross twice during the race.
In the afternoon, I went back to the convention center for a meeting of the 50 States Marathon Club. The agenda always includes recognizing people who have recently finished a circuit of 50 states.
After the meeting, I had dinner with my friend Jane from Australia. It’s a small world. I’ve seen Jane at three races this year, even though she lives on the other side of the world.
I got to bed early and slept reasonably well. The race didn’t start until 8:00, so I set my alarm for 6:00. I was awake before the alarm went off, but I felt well rested.
It rained for most of the night, and it was still raining when I got up, but the rain stopped by 6:30. Looking at the hourly forecast, it seemed like it wouldn’t start raining again until after 10:00. It was 37 degrees, with enough wind to make it feel like 22. I opted not to wear a rain poncho, because it’s not easy to take off. I didn’t want to wear a poncho for the whole race unless I knew it would rain the whole time. Instead, I dressed in warm clothes and wore a Tyvek jacket as my outer layer. I could take that off if I didn’t need it.
The starting line is right behind the Statehouse Convention Center, and they had port-o-potties and other facilities in a room on the ground floor of the convention center. I waited there with friends until it was time to line up.
Based on the information I provided when I registered, I was assigned to corral B. I saw very few people in corral A, so I was closer to the front than I expected. My goal for this race was to break 3:45. When I saw a 3:45 pace group, I lined up right behind them. Another runner asked one of the pacers if he was going to run an even pace. There’s a long uphill section in the second half, so the plan was to get a little ahead of schedule in the first half, so we could afford to slow down on the hill. Having run this race before, I thought that sounded like a reasonable plan.
About half a mile into the race, I started to notice some drizzle. I wondered if I would regret not wearing a rain poncho. I wasn’t expecting rain until at least halfway through the race.
Most of the course was the same as I remembered, but there were a few differences. Toward the end of the first mile, we crossed a bridge over the Arkansas River. The next two miles were in North Little Rock.
In addition to the long uphill section in the second half, there are a number of smaller hills. This bridge was one of them. On the first half of the bridge, I started getting hot. I also felt like I was having to work too hard to keep up with the pace group. As we reached the downhill half of the bridge, I had to ease up to keep from getting ahead of them. I also wasn’t hot any more.
About two miles into the race, I thought I felt large raindrops. It wasn’t rain. It was hail. For a few minutes, we were pelted with small hailstones. On the bright side, it stopped raining.
Just past three miles, we crossed the river again on the same bridge. So far, we were averaging 8:30 per mile. We needed to average about 8:34, so we were gaining four seconds per mile. That was right according to plan.
Over the next several miles, I sometimes felt hot, and I sometimes felt cold. It depended on the wind direction and whether we were going uphill or downhill. At times, I was tempted to take off my jacket, but I knew that would be a mistake. As soon as we turned into the wind again, I’d be freezing.
By five miles, the drizzle resumed. It gradually got stronger. I knew I’d be wet for the whole race. I just had to hope I would be warm enough.
By nine miles, I was starting to question whether my pace was sustainable. I was working harder to keep up with the pace group. I was tempted to let them go, but I didn’t want to ease up too much. Running faster would help me keep warm.
There was a half marathon that started at the same time as the marathon. We ran together for several miles, but eventually separated. Then there were far fewer runners on the course. Now I felt like I had to either stay with the pace group or risk having to run by myself.
At around 11 miles, I could feel one of my insoles slipping forward in my shoe. I wear hard plastic orthotics in my shoes, so I have to replace the original insoles with flat Spenco insoles. If too much moisture gets between the insole and the orthotic, the insole starts to ride forward. By now, my shoes were soaked. I knew this would be a problem eventually, but I didn’t expect it to happen so soon.
By the halfway mark, we were about a minute ahead of schedule. At this pace, we would finish in 3:43. Of course we still had a long uphill section ahead of us.
Now we were running into a strong headwind. My jacket was unzipped, and the wind was pushing my jacket back over my shoulders. I had to stop, so I could zip it up. I fell about half a block behind. Then I had to work hard to catch up.
There was an early start for runners who needed more than six hours to finish. They started at 6:00, which gave them an extra two hours. In the second half of the race, we started passing runners who took the early start. Many of them were old-timers who have done hundreds of marathons. I recognized several of them.
At 14 miles, we passed the Arkansas state capitol building. I remembered this part of the course. I knew we were almost to the long uphill section. Soon we started climbing. One of the pacers described this hill as a “small roller” before the real hill. It was only two or three blocks of gradual upgrade, but I found myself falling behind.
I didn’t panic. I tried to limit the damage. Soon, we crested that hill and had a short downhill section. Then I was able to catch up.
Shortly after passing an aid station, I saw what looked like another aid station. It couldn’t be an official aid station. Was it a beer stop? No, they were offering pickle juice shots. On a hot day, I would have tried one. In this race, I had no need for pickle juice.
At 15 miles, we began a longer upgrade. This one was a mile long. It still wasn’t steep, but again, I fell behind. There were a few curves in the road, so I couldn’t see the whole hill. That made it hard to budget my effort.
At 16 miles, I felt hail again. Just like before, it only lasted for a couple of minutes. After that, I don’t remember feeling any more rain.
After another brief flat to downhill section, we started uphill again. This was the last part of Kavanaugh Hill. It took us all the way to 17 miles. Before reaching the top, I fell behind again. Then we started a long downhill section. That’s where I was able to catch up.
Some parts of the descent were steep. I took short rapid strides and tried to let gravity do all the work. Running downhill, I felt my insole slipping even more. Sometimes, it will slip forward and bunch up under my toes. This time, it seemed to be turning sideways in my shoe.
At 18 miles, I heard the pacers talking to each other. We were still about a minute ahead of schedule with just over eight miles to go. Most of the hills were behind us now.
We continued running downhill for another mile. I got ahead of the pace group, but I knew they would eventually catch up to me. Running downhill was easy, but soon I turned onto a long out-and-back second that’s fairly flat. After all the up and down, my legs felt like jelly. I wondered if I could sustain the pace over the remaining miles.
Just past 19 miles, the pacers passed me. I couldn’t keep up with them, but I lifted my effort to stay as close as I could. Over the course of the next mile, I managed to claw my way back.
Once I caught up to the group, I fought to stay with them for as long as I could. With each passing mile, I gained in confidence. At 21 miles, I realized I could slow down by about 10 seconds per mile, and I would still break 3:45. With each additional mile, I could afford to slow down more. Knowing that gave me the confidence to work harder to keep up with the group.
In the late miles, I noticed a painful blister on the bottom of my left foot. I just had to tune it out.
We passed two beer stops. Sometimes I’ll indulge, but not this time. I was working too hard to keep up with the group. I couldn’t afford to take any chances.
When we finished the out-and-back section, we had about three miles to go. One of the pacers said there were still two more hills. They weren’t that big, but they would feel like Everest. I remembered that there were late hills. I didn’t remember them being particularly big, so I wasn’t too concerned. One of the pacers said there would be another beer stop after the last hill. I thought I might indulge in that one.
The first hill was actually a bridge. I fell behind, but caught up on the downhill side. Ahead, I could see a larger hill. I didn’t see any runners on the hill. Not remembering this part of the course, I asked if we would turn before the hill. No. We had to run it. One of the pacers said, “That’s it. That’s the whole race now.”
I fell way behind on the last hill, but caught up on the way down. We passed the last beer stop. I decided to skip it. We were still ahead of schedule, so the pacers said they were going to ease up. They encouraged us to go ahead and finish strong. With less than a mile to go, I went ahead on my own.
Soon, I recognized the Doubletree about a half mile in front of me. I knew the finish line was only a few blocks past it. I poured it on.
As I ran behind the Doubletree, I reached the 26 mile mark. There’s an unusual aid station there. One of the sponsors of the race is L’Oreal, and they have a lipstick station. Some women will stop and touch up their lipstick to look good in finish line photos. Also, the design of the finisher medal always includes a pair of lips.
I pressed on and finished in 3:43:38. My last three races have each been faster than the one before. I was within a minute of running even splits. That’s not bad when the only long uphill section is in the second half.
After finishing, we turned a corner and entered the ground floor of the convention center. That’s a major improvement since the last time I did this race. Finisher medals, space blankets, post-race food, tables, port-o-potties, and massage tables were all indoors.
This race always has ridiculously large finisher medals. It’s their signature. It’s almost as large as a dinner plate.
When I found a chair, I stopped to remove my left shoe. The insole had not only slipped forward, but was now wrapped all the way around the front of my foot. It looked like a green burrito. After fixing my insole, I walked quickly back to the Doubletree, so I could take a hot bath.
After a bad experience in 2015, I didn’t think I’d come back to this race. I’m glad I did. Not counting the weather, I have nothing but positive things to say about this year’s race. They moved the start to be the same place as the finish. That makes it easier to find a hotel that’s close to both the start and finish. Having an indoor start/finish area in a building adjacent to the start/finish area is a huge improvement. On a cold, rainy day, that was especially nice.
When I finished my third circuit of 50 states last November, I had already run at least four marathons in 26 states. This was my fourth marathon in Arkansas, giving me 27 states toward my fourth circuit.
I have to get up early on Monday. I still have to drive back to Memphis before flying home.
Distance: 26.2 miles
Average Pace: 8:32
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras: 368
Arkansas Marathons: 4