Monday, February 11, 2002

RR Birmingham Marathon

Mercedes Marathon
Birmingham, AL

This trip/race fell into place because I wanted to run one more marathon before taking a few weeks off for a ski trip to Colorado. Initially I had planned to go to a race in Myrtle Beach, SC but when I met up with my friends from the 50 States Club at Disney, Edson, my friend from NYC indicated that he was going to run the inaugural marathon in Birmingham. I decided to run that race instead and share a room with Edson.

That meant leaving my sports manager behind but she didn’t mind since it was only going to be a one-night trip. Besides she slipped up in her duties at the Ocala Marathon last weekend! She slept in and didn’t get to the finish line until after I had finished? But you have to remember that sports managers have a tough job. They have to travel all over the country and world going to places that they may not want to visit. They always have to eat pasta (or Italian) the night before the race even if they don’t feel like it! They sometimes have to get up at 3am to drive the runner to the start line and wait around until the race starts to take his warm-up clothes. But mostly they just pull the covers over their head when the runner rises at 5am and tries to dress in the dark so as not to wake them as he slips out into the dark to walk to the start line! And then they MUST be at the finish line to cheer the runner in and take a finish photo. The real good sports mangers will also appear at various spots along the course to cheer the runner on but that type of manager is difficult to find (especially after 100+ races). Typically they stay in bed or go back to bed right after the start while the poor runner is out there on the course busting his ass. And then they will be upset and look for sympathy because they have to wake up (again) in 3 hours and hustle out to the finish line before the runner finishes. Yes sirree – a tough job! So I took pity on my sports manager and gave her the weekend off.

I arrived in Birmingham late Saturday afternoon and headed straight to the Sheraton Hotel and race registration. I had to check to make sure that I had arrived in Birmingham, AL and NOT Birmingham, England because the first two runners that I met at registration were friends from London, England! Small world – especially for runners! After picking up my race package I found Edson and we decided to go to the race pasta party. We don’t normally go to those dinners but they were offering a great pasta buffet at the McWane Center followed by a free movie at the Imax Theatre. The movie was about the Shackleton expedition to Antarctica and the spectacular scenery brought back fond memories of our marathon adventure to Antarctica. During dinner we met up with another friend, Don Lang, from the 50 States Club and my English mates again.

Sunday was M-Day. Do I ever like these kinds of races. The start line was right in front of the Sheraton so Edson and I slept in until 6am and then walked out the front door at 6:55am and strolled over to the start line. No lining up for a porta-potty or freezing our butts off waiting for the gun to go off! We lucked in with the weather. It was supposed to be cool and rainy but instead it was cool and sunny at the 7am start. It warmed up for the next hour but then became overcast and cooled off again. The only negative weather factor was a strong wind that always seemed to blow INTO our face no matter which direction we ran? We got off to a fast start – first mile in 7:59! We wisely slowed down to an 8:10 pace over the next 4 miles. Edson and I ran together until 5 miles and then he dropped back and I never saw him again until he crossed the finish line about nine minutes behind me. We had looked at the course profile the night before. The course was very hilly with lots of BIG hills staring at mile 6 and continuing all the way through to mile 23 with the toughest/biggest hills in the first half. At mile 5 I felt that the pace was too fast but the hills soon corrected that problem. From mile 9.5 to 11 we climbed the toughest BAH (Big-ASS Hill) of the course. I had forgotten how big the hills in Birmingham are! I pushed as hard as I could up that BAH and still could only manage a 9:30 pace. I was able to make up some time running down the backside of that BAH and crossed the half in 1:50:54.

I still felt OK but was concerned about how much toll those hills had taken on my legs. I had really wanted to break 3:40 in this race but that meant that I would have to run negative splits i.e. run the 2nd half faster than the 1st. This is difficult enough to do on a flat, fast course but I still had another 10 miles of hills ahead of me. But what the hell –give it a try - at least to mile 20 and then reevaluate! The challenge became very difficult at mile 15 when the course turned directly into the wind for the next 5 miles. And my right leg started to hurt for the first time in the race. But it was only a MINOR pain/discomfort and the massage/pressure trick on the IT band got rid of it. Fortunately I found a big, fast runner who was running an 8:20 pace and tucked in behind him until mile 19. At that point we had to climb another big hill and he faded. As I pulled out to pass him I thanked him for being a great windbreak for 4 miles and continued to push on.
Mile 20 – 2:49:02! A quick calculation determined that I would have to run exactly an 8- minute pace with a sprint at the end to beat 3:40! Not likely to happen with still more hills and a strong head wind to overcome. Just as I was making a decision to back off the pace a ‘grayhead’ (a runner with gray hair who looks like he is in my age group) blew by me. Heh! – What’s this shit! I ain’t letting some old fart beat me at this point of the race!
So I tucked in behind him with a strategy to stick close and pick my time to make a move. It didn’t take long as we approached another hill at mile 21 and he stopped to walk. I passed him and continued to push hard for the next few miles to kill any silly notion/incentive he might have to try to catch me again.

Mile 24 –3:23:06. No way in hell I can break 3:40 - BUT – if I continue to push hard I can still run a negative split which is something I haven’t done in years! I am hurting but still feel good! (Only runners will understand that oxymoron). The pace drops to 8:14 over the next mile. I can taste that negative split now! Push harder – hurt more! Remember those famous words by Maddog “PAIN IS TEMPORARY – MEMORIES ARE FOREVER!” I am blowing by people on the final mile who are clapping and congratulating me on a great finish – that keeps the juices flowing and the legs churning. I am again rewarded with my fastest mile of the race – a 7:52! As I approach mile 26 I see another ‘grayhead’ about 100 feet in front. Can I do it? Only 285 yards left in the race and he has 100 feet on me! I am gaining but is there enough distance/time left? I don’t think there is anyway I can push the body faster?
I beg/plead for the old bod to find some more speed. I believe I ran that last 285 yards on pure 100% adrenaline as I caught and passed ‘grayhead’ 50 feet before the finish line and continued to charge across the finish line in 3:40:44! I almost collapsed as I crossed the finish line and my right hip/leg was screaming at me in pain for that maniacal push but the pain faded quickly to be replaced with the memory of my accomplishment!

Later when I checked the results I discovered that ‘grayhead’ was indeed in my age group and I had beaten him - but only for 4th place. 3rd place had run a 3:29 so neither of was in contention for an award or silverware. But I didn’t care. I was very, very happy with my performance and time. I had run negative splits (1:50:54 and 1:49:50) for the first time in many years. And most importantly my right leg had experienced very little pain during the race and I am optimistic that it is finally healing?

Nicole and I are leaving on Tuesday for Colorado. I plan to ski a lot with our son Jason and do very little running for two weeks which should give the leg lots of time and rest to heal properly. And my next marathon is not scheduled until March 24th in Thailand so it will have an additional 6 weeks of rest from racing.

But back to Birmingham. The course is tough as described but the race was well organized and supported for an inaugural race. There were water and time clocks every mile and the locals were very supportive along the course. There was a great post-race party at the Sheraton. I don’t normally go to the award ceremony but I had a late afternoon flight and nothing to do so went to the party. There was lots of food, beer and entertainment. After the wards were completed at 1pm there were only about 30 runners left to drink the last keg of free beer and believe me we made a gallant effort.
I give the race high marks!

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