November 12, 2016: The Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon

37 months ago, I finished my first 5K.  I trained nearly six months for that first race, using a couch-to-5K program to improve my fitness from barely able to run for 60 seconds straight to running 3.11 miles in less than 30 minutes.  

This weekend was the culmination of four months of intense training, to complete my first marathon.  I chose the Chickamauga marathon for several reasons:
1) it was close to home, only a 2-hour drive;
2) the route was not too hilly, at most gently rolling terrain; 
3) a few friends have run Chickamauga for their first marathon, and have had good experiences; and
4) runners completing their first marathon receive a framed bib!

Two of the pacers at bib pickup the night before the marathon.
Bonnie noted, "There are two ways to run a marathon!"
Their choice of shirts was completely uncoordinated. 
The weather was forecast to be in the mid-40's on race day, but in fact it was 52 deg F at the 7:30 am start.  The race began with a stirring rendition of the National Anthem, followed by a loud cannon shot, to send off more than 1200 runners in the half and full marathons combined.  We began with a loop around Barnhardt Circle, with residents of the town of Fort Oglethorpe cheering us from their homes.  The loop was a nice way to spread us out before getting onto the smaller roads of the race.  The second mile was on an unused road, with quite a few potholes.  A runner about 25 feet ahead of me slipped and fell into the gravel along the side, but fortunately he popped back up immediately and had resumed running before I caught up to him.  At the 2-mile mark, we turned onto the paved roads of the park, and the surface was quite good for virtually the rest of the race.  Marathon runners wore light blue bibs, whereas half-marathon runners wore yellow bibs.  It seemed like I saw mostly yellow bibs on the runners around me in the first half, but the final results showed 350 marathon finishers to 898 half-marathon finishers.  
My primary goals for the race were to finish without injury, and wanting to do another marathon in the future.  Secondary goals included running a negative split race, and I hoped to finish somewhere in the 4:30 - 5:00 range, although that was a very soft goal.  It appeared from the beginning that some of the pacers went out much too quickly.  I couldn't find the 4:45 pacer before the race began and so had lined up near the 2:30 half-marathon pace group.  I covered the first mile in 10:06 and managed to slow down after that, running most miles closer to 11 minutes, at least for the first 21 miles.       
In the first mile
There were aid stations every two miles or so, which were stocked with Powerade and water, with enthusiastic volunteers at each station.  On the second round, the aid stations also offered orange slices, banana portions, gels, and around mile 22, a Twix bar.  I carried two bottles of slightly diluted lime Powerade and four packs of Shot Bloks, taking one approximately every mile beginning with mile 3, per the advice of the Atlanta Track Club training coach, Amy Begley.  I also took at least one cup of liquid at each aid station, generally alternating between Powerade and water.  That was just enough to carry me to the end of the race, as I drank my last water and took the last Shot Blok somewhere in mile 25. 
I wasn't sure if I wanted to carry an extra bottle for the first 13 miles, but that was definitely the right call!
From the first week in the marathon training program to the last, our coach kept reminding us of the importance of hydration and nutrition during our runs.  
There weren't too many spectators along the route, except where we crossed Lafayette Road, the main north-south road through the park.  Around mile 6, and on the second loop in mile 18, two women dressed in hoop skirts helped to direct runners through the first split, where the half-marathon runners ran a few hundred yards out-and-back whereas the marathon runners made a right turn.  There were two more splits where the marathon runners took longer routes.  At the marathon out-and-back in the tenth mile, I saw the 4:15 pace group followed closely by the 4:30 pace group, ahead of me by a few minutes, followed by the solitary 4:45 pacer, still several minutes ahead of me.  There were spotters at the end of each turn manually recording bib numbers.  Several years ago, the first woman to cross the finish line was found to have cheated - and was detected after race officials realized that she would have set a world record by running the second 13.1 miles of the marathon in 47:30.  Around mile 11, the marathon runners took a left turn, crossing a railroad track to leave the park for about one-half mile, passing by several private residences before re-entering the park and rejoining the half marathon route after one full mile.  As we crossed a timing mat at the 13.1 mile mark, I was pleased to see exactly 2:22:30 on the clock - my slowest half-marathon time just under an 11 min/mile pace, but right on track for a realistic 4:45 finish if I could maintain that easy pace.    
Mile 8

The park was quite nice, with fall colors in the foliage.  I even spotted a few deer as we ran, and occasionally heard animal rustling sounds in the woods.  There were monuments along the roadway along with signs marking the location of various units on specific days of the Battle of Chickamauga, September 19 and 20, 1863.  There was a horrendous loss of life in this key battle of the Civil War, with thousands of soldiers killed on both sides and over 30,000 total casualties.  At the time it was considered a Confederate Army victory, delaying the Union Army advance into Georgia until the summer of 1864, but with such terrible losses for the soldiers, it is difficult today to imagine this as a victory for anyone involved.  It was a bit eerie to be running through a battlefield, but the race officials preserved some solemnity by asking runners to throw their cups and any other trash into the garbage boxes instead of littering along the road.  

Shortly after the marathon runners had crossed the 13.1 mile mark, the half-marathon runners returned toward the start-finish line, at a point where they had covered about 11-1/2 miles.  I looked back at them for a moment before focusing forward on our second loop.  For the first few miles of the second loop, I felt that I was maintaining a similar pace to what I had managed the first time around - and the Garmin stats showed that I was no more than a few seconds slower for the first few miles of the second loop.  Mile 17 was my last sub-11 minute mile, but I was still going fairly well until somewhere in mile 22, when the pain in my legs began to overwhelm the endorphins accumulated to that point of the race.  In the 23rd mile on the stretch just outside of the park, I was in a group of seven runners, and we were all limping at that stage of the race.   For a moment I thought to myself, here are the walking wounded retreating from the battlefield, then putting that thought aside, remembering that we were on a recreational run, vs. the soldiers 150 years ago just trying to stay alive after enduring a terrible battle.  

To this stage, I had run the race on a fairly rigorous run-walk plan, 3:30 run with 30 second walk breaks.  In the final miles, every walk break was a relief, but then it was quite painful in the first few steps transitioning back to the slow run.  In fact somewhere in the 25th mile, I decided that the transition back to running was so difficult that I was better just maintaining a slow jog for the rest of the way.  The mile back along the broken road was lonely and difficult, but remembering that I had seen a runner fall in mile 2, I watched the ground carefully as I plodded along, and managed to get to the main road without incident.  Mile 25 was the slowest mile of my race.  But midway through mile 26, I could hear the announcer in the distance, with Barnhardt Circle just a few hundred yards away, although the race route was not a direct line to the finish, far from it!  A young woman came up behind me in the second half of the 26th mile and passed me, but I was in no condition to try to keep up with her.   Turning right onto Barnhardt Circle, I soon spotted the sign for mile 26.  Although I wasn't able to move too quickly at this stage, I was excited to see the finish line banner across the field, only 0.2 miles to go!  I've heard other marathoners say that the extra 0.2 miles can be the worst, but for me I think that it was helpful that I had the hope of the finish line in sight for the entire distance.  As I turned the corner, spectators were lining the road cheering me in.  I was wearing sunglasses and so no one could tell but I felt tears welling up in my eyes, realizing that I was about to become a marathoner!  The announcer called my name about 100 feet before the finish line, I raised my left hand to acknowledge the announcement, and then heard the announcer call out another name.  I knew that meant that someone else was hot on my heels!  I managed to speed up just a little bit, crossing the finish line at 5:01:58 on the clock, just a second ahead of a younger man. 

Thanks to Bonnie for taking these incredible photos! 
I heard Bonnie call my name from the right side of the finish area, as I bowed my head to accept the finisher's medal from the first volunteer.  Then a second volunteer on my left handed me the framed bib.  I smiled and told her "I will treasure this!" then continued on to accept a bottle of water from the third volunteer, and a hug from Bonnie.  My chip time was 5:01:28, just missing the five-hour mark.  But I couldn't be disappointed, I had just accomplished something that I would never have dreamed of doing a couple of years ago!  I kept walking for another couple of minutes to maintain some equilibrium.  I actually forgot to turn off my watch but the battery must have expired within a minute of finishing!  My legs were really tired, but I remembered from training runs how good it felt to stretch afterwards.   After the "big-five" stretches, I felt much better, no worse than after a long training run.  
Stretching after a run is incredibly rehabilatative!
There is a lot of good news here:
1) The Atlanta Track Club training program prepared me very well for this challenge.  Thanks Coach Amy Begley and the many run leaders who encouraged us through Saturday morning long runs and Thursday evening speed workouts!
2) The Brooks Launch shoes and Balega socks provided great protection for my feet!  After the race I was amazed to find only one very small blister on a toe, and no new damage to toenails. 
3) Body Glide liberally applied completely saved me from chafing.  Nipple guards, purchased after suffering my first bloody nipples on a 15-mile training run, protected those areas on every subsequent long run, and this weekend as well. 
4) Although the last five miles were really tough due to sore legs, I never felt like I hit the dreaded marathon "wall".  Taking a Shot Blok at every mile marker as well as a cup of water or Powerade at every aid station was the key, in addition to the two liters of liquid that I carried at the start. 
5) No significant injuries to report.  My left Achilles tendon is a little sore and so I will take good care of that over the coming weeks, to ensure that doesn't develop into a more serious injury.  That probably means no races until the Galloway Half Marathon in mid-December, and only easy and relatively short runs for the next couple of weeks.   
6) I was able to walk normally on Sunday, enjoying a two mile walk in the caverns to see Ruby Falls, and another two miles walking at a relaxed pace in Chattanooga.  

Bonnie made a fun video of some highlights (link)


kurokitty said...

Congrats on a great race!

EB said...

Congrats, Frank! Excellent recap. You should be very proud of the race.