On February 8th, I ran the Hilton Head Island Marathon. Deb wanted to visit Savannah, GA. Hilton Head Island is only about 30 miles away, but it’s in South Carolina, where I needed a race for my fourth circuit of 50 states. You might say this was a two-for-one trip.
Friday, February 7
I often have trouble sleeping when I’m on the road, but I usually sleep well at home. Thursday night was the exception. I was still awake at 2 AM. I fell sleep for about half an hour and then woke up again. My alarm was set for 4:00. At 3:45, I turned it off and started getting ready to leave. I was tired all day.
Savannah and Hilton Head Island are served by the same airport. We had to change planes in Atlanta, so we took an early flight out of Minneapolis. I’ve learned to book flights that give me long connection times, because you never know what’s going to happen. Our flight out of Minneapolis was delayed because of weather, but we still had plenty of time to make our connection in Atlanta. Our second flight got us to Savannah by mid-afternoon.
For the first two nights, we stayed at a Hilton Garden Inn that was just off of the island. From the Savannah airport, it was about a 40 minute drive. After checking in, we drove an additional 30 minutes to get to the Beach House resort, where packet pickup was held. Instead of T-shirts, our race packets included fleece vests. I have too many T-shirts already, so I like it when I get something different.
Deb was craving ice cream, so we stopped for dinner at Hilton Head Diner, where she was able to have a shake. After dinner, we relaxed at the hotel and did our best to get to bed early.
For the second straight night, I struggled to sleep. I slept for two or three hours at most.
Saturday, February 8
Saturday was race day. The race started and finished at Jarvis Creek Park. There wasn’t any parking at the start, but we were able to park at the high school, which was less than half a mile away.
Deb’s back was bothering her, so I drove to the race myself. Deb had a leisurely breakfast and spent the rest of the morning doing exercises for her back.
The marathon was relatively small, but there was also a half marathon and an 8K race. The start/finish area in the park was more crowded than I expected. I got there more than 30 minutes before the race, so I would have plenty of time to make a bathroom stop. At the time, the bathroom lines were short, but they got quite long later.
It was 40 degrees at the start, warming to about 50 during the race. I was feeling kind of frail from the lack of sleep, so I dressed on the warm side. I wore a tech T-shirt, tights, gloves, and a warm hat. Because I had to walk to and from where my car was parked, I also wore a Tyvek jacket until the race started.
All three races started together, which made me nervous. I never took the time to study the course map, so I had no idea where the turns were. Ordinarily, I would just follow the runners in front of me. That works great if everybody is running the same route. When different routes diverge, you need to be careful to go the right way. Not knowing what to expect made me nervous.
In my last race, I started too fast, ran positive splits by 11 minutes, and then missed a Boston qualifier by 28 seconds. I didn’t want to repeat that experience, so this time my goals were less ambitious. At most, I would pace myself for a Boston qualifier. For my age group, that’s 3:35. If the pace felt too fast, I wouldn’t fight for it.
Just before the race started, I took off my jacket and tied it around my waist. I was originally planning to wear it until I warmed up, but then I would have to tie it around my waist while running. Doing it before the race took less energy.
The race started with a two mile loop that brought us back to Jarvis Creek Park. I reached the one mile mark in 8:05. That was just a little faster than the pace I needed for 3:35. That gave me room to slow down. After getting back to the park, I checked my time at the two mile mark. My second mile was much too fast, so I made a conscious effort to slow down in the third mile.
In the early miles, my arms were cold. I regretted taking my jacket off before getting warmed up. I just had to endure the cold until I warmed up. I was a clear day, but the sun was still below the trees. Once the sun got higher in the sky, it was bound to warm up.
The aid stations used rigid plastic cups. With paper cups, you can squeeze them, making it easier to drink without spilling. The first time I drank water from one of the plastic cups, I spilled some of the cold water on the front of my shirt. After that, I slowed to a walk for a few seconds while drinking.
By the end of three miles, my average pace was just a little slower than eight minutes per mile. For a time of 3:35, I needed to average 8:10. I was telling myself to slow down a little, but I have a tendency to run at the pace of the runners around me.
I was already seeing runners coming back toward me. From the color of their race bibs, I could see that they were doing the 8K race. That also would have been obvious from how fast they were running. Halfway through the next mile, I saw the 8K turnaround. As I continued running straight, the runners still ahead of me were all doing either the marathon or half marathon.
At four miles, I saw that I was getting too fast again. In the next mile, I went out of my way to let runners go by me, instead of subconsciously matching my pace to theirs. By the end of my fifth mile, I had slowed down enough to bring my average pace up to 8:10.
I looked ahead and saw a big bridge. This was the Coligny Beach Toll Bridge. This bridge was the only hill on the course, but we would have to run over it four times. I started to wish I had waited until this mile to start giving time back. On the uphill side of the bridge, I did my best to maintain a consistent effort, even though it meant slowing down noticeably. I didn’t want the bridge to take too much out of me.
While I was still on the uphill side of the bridge, I saw a wheelchair athlete already on his way back. By the time I crested the hill, I saw the first runner coming back.
On the downhill side of the bridge, I sped up without really trying. I didn’t know if I would gain as much time on the downhill side as I lost on the uphill side. I just tried to keep my effort consistent. I saw two more runners on their way back. I could see from the color of their race bibs that they were doing the marathon. I assumed that meant we wouldn’t go too much farther before turning around.
After the bridge, I turned to enter a park. I was expecting to do a short loop and then return to the tollway. Instead, our route through the park was serpentine. Before long, I didn’t know which way I was going.
At six miles, I was pleasantly surprised to see that I had maintained my pace going over the bridge. As I continued running through the park, I still expected to turn back onto the tollway at any time. instead, I turned onto a bike path that seemed to be taking me in the other direction.
I saw a sign that read, “Mile 7.” At the bottom of the sign, it read, “Half.” Nowhere on the sign did it say, “Full” or “Marathon.” That was ominous. Did I miss a turn? Was I on a section of the course that was only part of the half marathon route?
I caught up to the runner in front of me and asked her which race she was doing. She was doing the half marathon. I asked her if she knew where the marathon and half marathon routes diverged. She didn’t.
Eventually, we made a left turn and got onto an out-and-back section. As I watched runners coming back from the turnaround, I scrutinized their race bibs. They were all doing the half marathon. After making the turn myself, I checked out the race bibs of the runners who were still on their way out. They were all doing the half marathon. No runner within sight, either in front of me or behind, was doing the marathon. That seemed like an unlikely coincidence.
The “Mile 8” sign also said “Half” at the bottom. By now, I was no longer checking my time at the mile markers. I was too preoccupied with the thought that I might be on the wrong course.
Eventually, I saw the “Mile 9” sign, which also said “Half.” Shortly after passing that sign, I saw one in the distance that had a “7” on it. As I got closer, I could see clearly that it read, “Mile 7 Full.” My heart sank. Clearly, I missed a turn where the marathon and half marathon routes diverged. Since then, they had merged together again, but I had run more than two miles farther than I should have. This is exactly what I was afraid of.
Mistakes like that rarely happen in road races. They’re more common in trail races. Trail runners call the extra distance “bonus miles,” since you get to run farther for no extra cost.
Time goals suddenly became irrelevant. My concern now was pacing myself to finish a longer distance. I’d finish the race, but I’d have to work harder to do it.
In the next mile, I crossed the big bridge again. I was careful not to expend too much energy, knowing I was running a longer distance than I intended.
I paid close attention to the distance between the “Mile 10 Half” and “Mile 8 Full” signs. They seemed to be about a tenth mile apart. I was running an extra 2.1 miles. To finish the marathon, I would actually need to run 28.3 miles.
Before the end of the next mile, the courses diverged again. I clearly saw the signs indicating half marathon runners should turn right and cross the road, while marathon runners should go straight. There was also a course marshal telling me to go straight. Why wasn’t there a course marshal at the turn I missed?
As I continued, I could see more runners a short distance ahead of me. Finally, I could follow runners who I knew were also doing the marathon. I caught up to two of them and asked them if they remembered where the marathon and half marathon routes diverged. They recalled a place in the park where the marathon turned to the right, but the half marathon turned to the left. I couldn’t remember seeing anything like that. I never saw signs, I never saw a course marshal, and I never saw a place where runners were turning in more than one direction. Maybe I had the bad fortune of following the runners ahead of me at a time when there went any runners in sight who were doing the marathon.
To talk to these runners, I had to slow down. The pace was uncomfortably slow, and I had to resume my own pace as soon as I could. That makes sense. We were coming up on the “Mile 9” sign. They had finished nine miles in the same time it took me to run 11.1. Clearly, there was a big difference in our pace. After that, I was continually catching and passing other runners. I wasn’t speeding up at all. I had been going faster all along.
Ever since discovering I had made a wrong turn, I was aware that I had to pace myself for 28.3 miles instead of 26.2. Ideally, I should’ve slowed down. I wasn’t actually sure if I had or not. I wasn’t going the same pace as anyone around me, and I stopped reading my watch a few miles earlier. I was just running.
When I reached the “Mile 11” sign, it occurred to me that I had run 13.1 miles, which is half a marathon. I couldn’t resist finally looking at my watch. I got there in 1:47:24. Had I not made a wrong turn, I would still be on pace for a Boston qualifying time. That was no longer relevant, but it made me realize I never slowed down, even after I stopped paying attention to my pace. Then it occurred to me that I could still break four hours if I didn’t slow down too much in the remaining 15 miles.
When I reached the “Mile 12” sign, I had actually run 14.1 miles. I was close to the halfway point of the 28.3 miles that I was actually running. I was well ahead of a four pace. It seemed inevitable that I would have to slow down, but I didn’t want to slow down any more than necessary. I started to work at maintaining my pace. I really wanted to break four hours. That gave me a renewed sense of purpose in a race that previously was just about finishing.
With each passing mile, I questioned whether I was running at a pace that would break me. I was past the halfway point, but I still had a lot of miles to run. I continued to pass every runner I saw.
When I reached the “Mile 16” sign, I still had more than 10 miles to go. I felt more tired than I should with that many miles left. I felt about like I should with only eight miles to go. That made perfect sense, under the circumstances.
Somewhere around the “Mile 17” sign, I started to get warm. The sun was at a higher angle in the sky, and it was warming up. I finally took off the gloves that I had been wearing since the beginning of the race.
We were now going south on the tollway, so I knew we would reach the bridge again soon. This was the same bridge, but now we were on the other side of the highway. I had been working hard to maintain my pace for several miles, and the effort was wearing on me. If I worked too hard on the bridge, it could break me. At first, I tried to take the bridge slowly enough that it wouldn’t wear me down. Even running at a slower pace was tiring on the long climb. I needed to take a walking break, but I wanted to be disciplined about it.
Ahead of me, I saw a pair of orange traffic cones on either side of the shoulder where I was running. It seemed like a good place to start walking. I forced myself to run to the cones. I was originally planning to walk from there to the top, but it seemed like I was walking for a long time. As the slope began to level out, I resumed running. From there, it didn’t take too much effort to get to the top. Then I recovered nicely on the downhill side.
The next few miles were a long out-and-back section. I was running through a neighborhood with more shade. I also started to notice a cool breeze. My hands got cold again. After making a short loop and heading back toward the bridge, I noticed the wind more. I was going to be cold for the next few miles.
At the “Mile 22” sign, I looked at my watch for the first time in 10 miles. I wanted to know if I could still break four hours and what pace it would take. At a glance, I saw 3:20 and change. I had just under 40 minutes to run 4.2 miles. I was pretty sure I was going faster than that.
I had to cross the bridge one more time. I knew I needed to take a walking break on the bridge, but I wanted to be careful not to lose too much time. The road was sloping uphill even before I reached the bridge. I had to keep running. I got onto the bridge itself. It was still too soon to start walking.
Looking ahead, I saw the back of a road construction sign. I force myself to run to the sign. Farther ahead, I saw a traffic cone. I walked from the sign to the cone. Then I ran the rest of the way to the top.
Once again, the downhill side was easy. I was just about off the bridge, when I saw the “Mile 23” sign. I resisted the temptation to look at my watch. I knew that mile was slow, and I didn’t want to risk getting discouraged.
In the next mile, I saw someone with a sign that read, “9:00.” Most races have pace leaders that keep you on pace to reach a target finish time, such as four hours. This race had pace leaders who targeted a specific pace. In this case, nine minute miles. I knew that pace was faster than what you need to break four hours. I gradually caught up to the group, and asked him if he was on pace. He said he was actually a little ahead of pace. If I just kept up with him the rest of the way, I would be assured of breaking four hours.
As I reached the front of the group, I saw my friend Shannon. I was going to run with her the rest of the way, but just then she had to stop to get a rock out of her shoe. I went on ahead.
I checked my watch at the “24” sign. I had more than 21 minutes to run 2.2 miles. I had yet to slow to a nine minute pace, so I knew I would do it easily. Nevertheless, I didn’t let up in my effort.
With about half a mile to go, I left the highway and entered Jarvis Creek Park. I could see the finish line, but first I had to run around a pond. I finished in 3:56:36. Breaking four hours despite the wrong turn gave me something I could feel good about besides finishing.
I waited for Shannon, the “9:00” pacer, and the other runners with him. I only ran with them briefly, but they invited me to join them for a post-race pic.
I needed some post-race food, so I had a banana and a slice of pizza. The runners doing the shorter races finished hours earlier, so I wondered if the pizza would still be hot. It was.
After I drove back to hotel and got cleaned up, Deb and I had a late lunch at Hilton Head Brewing Company. They were offering a 15% discount on the beer if you showed them a race bib. I had a beer flight and a half rack of ribs. Deb had this giant pretzel. Deb is sensitive to salt and found it to be too salty, even if she scraped off the salt crystals. She ate half and gave the rest to my friend Janet, who was sitting at the next table. Janet is a self-described saltaholic, but she also thought it was too salty.
Later, we had a full dinner at Salty Dog Café. Deb had read about their hushpuppies (served with honey butter) and their key lime pie. In addition to those, we ordered pizza, crab chowder, and key lime pie ice cream. We shared everything. I also had a bottle of the strongest ginger beer I’ve ever had. It made my eyes water.
I slept well that night. Better late than never.
Sunday, February 8
On Sunday, we had the luxury of sleeping in. After eating breakfast at our hotel, we drove to Savannah. Our first stop in Savannah was Forsyth Park.
The Gingerbread House is one of the many photogenic historic homes in Savannah.
Next, we stopped at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. We couldn’t tour the inside, because a service was in progress.
Our last stop before going to our hotel was Chippewa Square. This was the setting for the park bench scenes in “Forrest Gump.”
We stayed at the Hampton Inn – Savannah Historic District, which is two blocks away from the Savannah River. When we got there our room wasn’t ready yet, so we checked our bags and went to lunch.
My friend Bob ran a 24-hour race in Beaufort the same day I ran my marathon. Bob was flying home from Savannah in the evening and joined us for lunch and some afternoon sightseeing.
After lunch, the three of us took a carriage ride. It took us by several historic buildings and around several of the town squares. After our tour, we visited City Market and went to Leopold’s Ice Cream. By then, our room was ready, so we checked into our room before continuing our window shopping along River Street.
Later, Deb and I had dinner at Treylor Park, which specializes in comfort food. I had something called grilled apple pie. It was like a grilled cheese sandwich with cinnamon apples and bacon. It was an unusual flavor combination, which is why I had to try it.
Monday, February 9
Hampton Inn had a fitness center, so I was able to do a recovery run on the treadmill before breakfast.
After breakfast, we continued shopping along River Street. One of our stops was Savannah Bee Company, where Deb tried several varieties of honey and I had a mead tasting. Another was Nour-ish, where Deb was able to make her own lip scrub.
In lieu of lunch, we went back to Leopold’s Ice Cream. Their honey almond cream is the best ice cream flavor I’ve ever tasted.
At one of the tourist information centers, we learned about a free shuttle service that has two routes. One makes a loop through the downtown area. The other goes around Forsyth Park and back into the downtown area. We rode both of them. Most of the time, we just stayed on the bus and got views of some of the old houses. It was also an easy way to get to a few places that weren’t within walking distance of our hotel.
One of our stops was the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, where we finally got a chance to see the inside.
Another stop was Temple Mickve Israel. This synagogue was founded in 1773.
Besides the shuttles, the city also has a free ferry service across the Savannah River. We caught the ferry behind city hall.
After crossing the river to Hutchinson Island, we took another ferry and disembarked near a monument depicting the Olympic cauldron. When Atlanta hosted the 1996 Olympic games, the yachting events were held in Savannah. A short distance from that monument, we saw the Waving Girl Statue.
We did a little more shopping before finally stopping for dinner at a nearby tavern. Finally, when it got dark, we went up to Hampton Inn’s rooftop pool deck to see the riverfront at night.
Official Distance: 26.2 miles
Actual Distance: 28.3 miles
Actual Pace: 8:22
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras: 401
Sub4 Marathons: 253