March 19, 2017: The Publix Georgia Marathon

Goal A: To have fun running the marathon from Atlanta to Decatur and back

Goal B: To run a negative split race (faster second half) 

Goal C: To improve on my time in my first marathon, 5:01:28

After successfully completing my first marathon at Chickamauga in November, I immediately resolved to take on the hills of metro Atlanta in the Publix Georgia Marathon.  I've run the half marathon in 2015 and 2016, and decided that I was ready to take on the challenge of the full 26.2 route.  Even before I began training specifically for today's race, I had run every single block of the marathon route at one time or another, but never all in one go.  The course has a reputation as one of the most challenging city marathons in the country, due to the hilly terrain that is a hallmark of our city.  As a result, the race doesn't draw the elite marathon runners.  For instance, the course record is 2:18:50, blazing fast by regular human standards, but 16 minutes slower than the world record, and 10 - 15 minutes slower than the course records for many other city marathons.  Nonetheless, it is a badge of honor for Atlanta runners to conquer the hills of the Georgia Marathon.  Today was my day!

On North Avenue, in the 3rd mile.
Photo by Malisa Anderson-Strait
Although I was assigned a bib in wave C (of 5 waves), I elected to begin in wave D, as the 4:45 and 5:00 pacers were starting in wave D.  Our wave began the race at 7:09 am, just as the sky was acquiring its first colors of the morning, a beautiful dark blue without a cloud in the sky.  It was quite chilly and a little windy, around 45 deg F at the start, so I wore two shirts and running tights.  I also carried two water bottles containing about 32 ounces combined of slightly diluted Powerade.  I started with the 5:00 pacers, although I lost sight of them almost immediately after the start.  However I rigorously followed a 3:30 run / 0:30 walk interval plan from the beginning, and within a mile or two, the 5:00 pacers passed me on the left side of the road.  One of the pacers, Linda Bode Phinney, in the Tucker Running Club, told me yesterday that they would run at a steady 11:26 min/mile pace.  I had printed out a marathon pace plan from, programmed with an aggressive negative split, so my plan meant that I would be about 90 seconds behind the 5:00 pacers by mile 4.  I was relieved to see them pass, knowing that I had not started too quickly.  I passed the 5K mark at 35:05 (11:18 min/mile pace, a little faster than planned) and the 10K mark at 1:10:23 (11:20 min/mile pace), but I felt good and probably would not have been comfortable running much slower.  Somewhere in the second mile I caught up with Malisa Anderson-Strait, another friend in the Tucker Running Club, and we ran together until the half-marathon / marathon split at the mile 7 sign. 
On the Jackson Street bridge crossing Freedom Parkway, in mile 4 (from the marathon Facebook page).
This morning quite a few runners stopped to take photos at the bridge. 
Near the mile 8 marker, a woman was cheering for us at Candler Park, jumping up and down and shouting "You're awesome, you're running a marathon today!!"  I couldn't resist saying  "I'm running the half - did I miss a turn?"  She looked shocked, probably trying to decide what to say, and then I told her "I'm kidding, I'm running the full!"  She replied "You might as well keep going ahead!"  Somewhere in the ninth mile, I passed one of the 5:00 pacers.  I just hoped that wasn't a mistake, the plan was to eventually catch up to them but no earlier than downtown Decatur at mile 13.  However, the run-walk intervals were comfortable and so I continued forward.  To my surprise, in the tenth mile I passed Tes Sobomehin Marshall (runningnerds and Run Social director, and a newlywed).  I think that she was pacing a friend.

As we approached the mile 10 marker on East Lake Road, we encountered the first long significant uphill section of the race.  I slowed down a little, probably took one extra walk break in that section, not wanting to be the least bit tired before reaching the mid-point of the race.  Nevertheless, mile 11 was tough.  Moreover, my fingers were frozen, and I could hardly pull the Shot Bloks from the pocket of my running belt, or get them out of the package, even though I had opened the end of each package before the race had begun.  I remembered then that the temperature was forecast to drop in the first hour or two after sunrise.  It was a huge relief to reach the highest elevation of the race route near the East Lake MARTA station, at the mile 11 marker.  Upon crossing the city limits of Decatur, we were welcomed by signs along the race route, one about every 50 feet or so.  I don't remember many of the signs, but they were all either encouraging the runners or touting the attractions and qualities of Decatur.  Along College Avenue, Elisabeth of the blog Running on E was there to greet runners - nice to see her for a second! 

The cheer groups were small in the first part of the race, although quite a few people were watching and cheering from their homes.  A few small groups set up some unofficial water and food stops along the way.  When we reached Agnes Scott College at the beginning of mile 13, an enthusiastic group of students greeted us with an official water stop as we ran the curved drive at the front of the campus.  Shortly after leaving campus, we reached the easternmost end of the race route, and turned left onto Commerce Drive, under a railroad bridge.  Although we were running uphill for a moment, I was looking forward to this stage of the race, making a triumphant run into downtown Decatur.  Quite a few people were cheering us on, just as I had hoped.  On East Ponce de Leon Avenue, a group from Decatur United Methodist Church was cheering, holding ersatz stone tablets a la Charlton Heston: "Thou shalt not thirst" and "Thou shalt finish" were memorable.  There was a fairly large and enthusiastic crowd for the few blocks that we ran through downtown Decatur.  
The hill at the 1:49:32 mark was truly as steep as it appeared in the screen shot above. 
I crossed the half-marathon timing mat at 2:23:11 (10:56 min/mile pace for the first half).   That was several minutes faster than planned, but when I checked my timing from Chickamauga, my half-marathon split was 2:21:30, so I seemed to have a bit more self-discipline this morning.  Knowing that the next three miles would be net downhill, I started to speed up after we turned north onto Clairmont Road, running close to a 10:00 min/mile pace.  As we made a left turn at the busy intersection of Clairmont Road with North Decatur Road, we encountered another enthusiastic cheering group and water station.  In fact we enjoyed many outstanding cheer groups in the second half of the marathon route, perfectly situated, as that was when we really needed their encouragement.  

The sixteenth mile of the race ran through the Emory University campus.  By this time the temperature was a few degrees warmer, and my fingers had thawed out, thank goodness.  For the past mile or so, I had spotted the 4:45 pace group just ahead of me, and on Haygood Road, I caught up to them.  They were running 3 minute run / 1 minute walk intervals.  Without thinking, I passed them.  I didn't think that was such a good move, but I managed to stay a bit ahead of them for the next seven miles.  I could hear the pace leader announce walk breaks and run transitions throughout, so I was never more than a couple of hundred feet ahead of them.  Unfortunately, my Garmin battery was running low.  I figured that if my watch stopped, I would just follow their cues, as they and I were both on 4-minute cycles.  However, their running intervals were a little faster-paced than I preferred, so I decided to stay with my plan as long as my watch was working.  

The Emory campus was fairly quiet as we arrived in the sixteenth mile.  As I passed the Dobbs University Center where my very first 5K started and finished in October 2013, I saw one of the students in my Chem 222 class this semester, cheering loudly as I passed.  That student is getting an A!  I turned at Asbury Circle in the center of campus, just as the clock in the tower at Cox Hall was sounding 10:00 am.  That put me nearly 10 minutes ahead of the plan, but I was still feeling good, and running strongly.  Shortly after Asbury Circle, we passed the Chemistry buildings, and then the classroom in which I'm teaching in the Psychology and Interdisciplinary Studies (PAIS) building.  Leaving campus, the wonderful downhill ride ended with a fairly steep climb into Emory Village, at the mile 16 marker.  The next 10.2 miles were going to be tough.  At least I was well-prepared for everything that we were about to encounter. 

Turning onto Lullwater Road, we went up-up-up through the beautiful Druid Hills neighborhood.  Those hills were no joke!  I took a walk break through a water station hosted by the Girl Scouts, who passed out cookies for nutrition.  The mint-flavored Oreos tasted really good!  Finally we reached the intersection with Ponce de Leon, where the road continued to go up-up-up.  Fortunately I did a 3-mile shakeout run in this area on Friday afternoon, so my recollections of the elevations were fresh.  Turning north at the corner of Oakdale Road, the road started downhill, but only for a moment, then up-up-up again!  The cookies might not have been such a good idea, as my stomach churned a bit, but then the feeling subsided, fortunately.  At this stage, it seemed that some of the mile markers were missing, although there was a clock at about mile 18.  Turning onto North Decatur Road for one block, then we headed south again on Springdale Road.  As I suspected, the uphill sections were much tougher after 18 miles than they were when I would start my training runs at Emory, when those hills were encountered in miles 1, 2, or 3.  The mile 19 water station was sponsored by Clif Bars, who had erected a giant balloon arch across the entire roadway!  Too bad they were passing out gels, which I declined.  Turning right on the By Way, up-up-up, we finally reached Briarcliff Road, which we ran for just a few hundred feet, before turning right on Stillwood into the Virginia Highland neighborhood, crossing the timing mat at the mile 20 marker (3:36:41, 10:51 min/mile pace).  Wow, I was far ahead of plan, I think 13 minutes ahead of the plan.  Despite the challenge of Druid Hills, I had run strongly.  Surely I could run the final 10K in less than 83 minutes, beating my goal of 5:00! 

I had forgotten that the first part of Stillwood was a nice downhill run.  But that lasted for only about a block, as the road ahead soared up into the sky.  I could see one of the wheelchair racers struggling up the hill.  He had a bicycle escort encouraging him, and I eventually caught up to him as he neared the top.  I was so happy to have the traction of my feet on the road, as I was certain that I would not have had the arm strength to roll myself up that hill.  Many people in this neighborhood were lining the street, cheering us on through one of the toughest parts of the race.  The road took a right turn onto Los Angeles Avenue, where Bob Wells from the Atlanta Track Club training programs recognized me.  He was wearing a wave A bib, but apparently decided to stop and cheer the other runners on for a while.  Deep into the Virginia Highlands neighborhood, we ran through a huge cheer group and water station manned by Emory students.  I cheered for them as I ran through, shouting "Go Emory!!" and was rewarded with a tremendous cheer as I ran through the entire station.  Thanks Emory students, you were the best cheer group today, among many outstanding groups! 

21 miles down, and I was still feeling pretty good, despite the challenge of the hills.  We entered another one of my favorite parts of the race route, paralleling the half-marathon route for about 1/2 mile, crossing the Park Avenue bridge into Piedmont Park.  In past years there have been outstanding cheer groups on the bridge when I've run the half-marathon, but today it was silent.  Perhaps they had left after the half-marathon course had closed, about an hour ago, at least in this section.  As we approached the Active Oval, the 4:45 pace group caught up to and passed me.  We ran together for a short time, but they pulled well ahead before we left Piedmont Park.  

Exiting through the 12th Avenue gate, we ran/walked up one of the most brutal parts of the race route, the 12th Avenue hill.  This is at mile 9 of the Hotlanta Half, difficult enough in that race, but after 22 miles, it was as challenging as I had expected.  It seemed to take me forever to get up that hill.  I would run for a minute, then walk 30 seconds, then try to run again for a minute (or less).  At that point I knew that I wasn't going to catch up with the 4:45 pacers.  But fortunately that wasn't really my goal, I was still going to break 5:00 with some minutes to spare, as long as my legs didn't fall off.  I didn't realize it until after I had finished the race, but I covered that mile in 12:12, faster than it had felt at the time.  In the Chickamauga marathon, I was running 13 and 14 minute miles by that stage of the race, on a relatively flat course.  Unfortunately I ran out of my own water at this point, and had to rely solely on the last two water stations for hydration.  However I had been taking some water or Powerade at virtually every water station to this stage, in addition to what I was sipping between water stations, so my overall hydration level was fine. 

Race route according to my Garmin.  There was one spot where the reception must have taken a strange reflection from a building, and then the watch died as I passed the 25 mile marker, but it's basically a closed loop, with the finish line just a few hundred feet from the starting point. 

The next two miles were challenging, running at about a 12 min/mile pace.  The net elevation changes were uphill, although there were some downhill sections on Spring Street.  Finally we turned right onto 5th Street, rejoining the half marathon route for the rest of the race.  As we headed into the Georgia Tech campus, I had hoped that I could speed up in some downhill sections on Techwood Drive in the 25th mile, but I was struggling quite a bit by this late stage of the race, taking walk breaks every couple of minutes.  At least I was still moving and was upright!  In contrast to my experience at Chickamauga, I didn't have trouble transitioning to running after walk breaks, so that was a big improvement in today's race.  Shortly after the last water station - and oranges! at Georgia Tech, we reached the mile 25 marker, just as my watch died, at 4:35 elapsed.  But by this point, I didn't really need the watch anymore.  I had relied on the watch to signal walk breaks and to monitor my heart rate in the early miles, but now that I was near the end, I didn't care if my heart rate reached a maximum heading into the finish line.  The race volunteers were encouraging us to keep pushing our way up Marietta Street.  If I hadn't run the half-marathon finish on this street in the past, I probably would have had a lot of trouble finishing.  But today I had a good sense of exactly how things would go, and ticked off landmarks as we drew closer to downtown Atlanta and Centennial Olympic Park.  Finally I caught sight of the building marking the corner of the last turn into the park, knowing that the finish line was only 0.1 mile away.  The crowds were pretty large at this point, and I tried to acknowledge them with a thumbs-up or a wave.  As I turned the corner, I thought that I heard the announcer call my name.  I put every last bit of energy into the finish, and heard my name again as I drew near the finish line.  I could see 4:57 on the clock, so I was going to smash my chip time goal of 5 hours, as I had started with a 9-1/2 minute delay in wave D!  I even managed to finish before 12:00 pm, which was my dream goal!  Crossing the finish line, I celebrated with both hands in the air, then again, and for good measure after walking 15 seconds, one more time!  Sort of like I just won the entire marathon!  4:48:13 chip time (11:01 min/mile average pace), 4:57:53 on the clock.  That went better than expected!!  With the watch failing at the 25 mile marker, it took 13 minutes to run 1.2 miles, so I ran about an 11 min/mile pace at the end, which was much better than the final stage at Chickamauga! 
Thanks Bonnie for capturing my photo at the finish!
Video link here
The only goal that I didn't quite achieve was the negative split, running the first half in 2:23:11, and the second half in 2:25:02.  But the two halves were close enough so that I was very pleased that I had executed a solid plan.  Now I just have to decide which race will be my fall marathon!!
Showing off the medal at the post-race lunch, at Ted's Montana Grill.
In contrast to my post-race barbecue rack of ribs after my first marathon,
I ate relatively healthy today, enjoying a bison burger and asparagus instead of fries,
but indulging in one delicious chocolate cookie for dessert! 

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