The Lady and I registered for this race shortly after moving to Athens. We anticipated using the race as a check-up on our Big Sur training, and to start getting to know the South we’d just moved into a little better. The last time the two of us had raced in downtown Atlanta, it was Thanksgiving morning of 2010 and we were about to kick off this grand running adventure of ours with our first-ever half marathon.
More than anything, we were excited for a quiet evening to ourselves in a lovely hotel. It had (and continues to) been a rough couple of months of training. We’d both experienced extremely bipolar weeks of training, where one workout would feel fantastic and the subsequent workout would be a miserable crash-and-burn. I was just hoping to get sub-1:55; even sub-2, to my battered running psyche, seemed challenging.
Needless to say, while we were definitely excited for the race, neither of us had the sunniest of dispositions going in.
Saturday, March 21
First things first–we had to make the roughly 90-minute drive from our abode in Athens to the downtown Atlanta area.
[ASIDE: When folks ask “How’s Atlanta treating you?”, while I know what they mean it’s still an irksome question, given the cities’ geographic and cultural distances. It’s akin to how folks used to ask “How is Philadelphia treating you?” when we lived in Pittsburgh. Yes, we were asked that question many times.]
We arrived in the early afternoon and checked into our hotel room immediately. It’d been a busy week, and we just wanted a few minutes of quiet before strolling out for the Expo (which was all of two blocks away; score!).
Our hotel room’s balcony overlooked Olympic Centennial Park, and the start/finish lines. This came in handy later!
The Expo itself was fairly uneventful, and even kind of disappointing relative to other expos we’ve attended. The Air Force and Marine Corps expos, for instance, seemed to have a lot more booths for other races as well as general apparel shops. Not that this expo felt sparse, but at the same time there just wasn’t much that piqued my interest. So after picking up our bibs, swag bags, and looking around for a bit, we headed back the way we came.
After a quick conversation with the Brooks rep outside, we settled on Waffle House for our midday pre-race snack; it was too early for dinner but we were already starving. It was actually fantastic–the staff were incredibly cordial and friendly, and the place was already swarming with other runners. We took it easy on the processed sugar and stuck with plain waffles, and spent the next hour chatting with a lively Manhattan-ite runner-turned-corporate who was organizing some of the post-race goodies. After a lovely conversation and walk through the park on our way back to the hotel, we stopped in at the hotel’s own restaurant, which was running dinner specials specifically for the runners: lots of pasta! After a brief wait, we were seated and enjoyed a delicious pre-race dinner.
We felt pretty good; surprisingly, not too jittery. Probably because we’d set expectations so low leading up to the race. I kid you not, we spent the remainder of the evening working on wedding thank-you notes (because we are woefully behind; we celebrated our 1-year wedding anniversary last week…). It took a little while to fall asleep–not used to sleeping with downtown noises outside anymore!–but I felt calm and good and sleep came reasonably soon.
Sunday, March 22
Daylight Savings had literally just hit exactly two weeks previous, so it was dark when we woke up at 5am (which was a lot later than we usually wake up for races; booking a hotel 10 feet from the starting line FTW!). We took our time getting dressed and eating our pre-race breakfasts, and making sure all our gear was charged, packed, and ready.
One small wrinkle: it was raining.
You better believe I busted out the GT banner!
It wasn’t raining hard, nor was it terribly cold out; the closest I can describe it would be a “steady drizzle” with zero wind and temperatures in the low-50s. Standing in the rain was a bit on the chilly side, but not painfully so; at the same time, since our hotel was literally at the starting line, we could camp out in the dry parking deck all of 20 feet away until the last possible moment.
The Lady and I decided we’d run the race together, barring anyone spectacularly imploding or fantastically sprinting. We told ourselves we wouldn’t have a time goal, that we’d “go by effort” and “have fun.”
I’m still trying to figure out exactly what those mean in the context of “currently standing at the starting line of a race,” but that was our plan. I was still thinking 1:55 would be nice. I was also thinking how all the other runners in Corral A (oh yes, we were right at the front) were probably going to pass me up in the first few minutes.
Here’s where I have to give major, major props to this race and its organizers: every single aspect of this race was flawlessly planned and executed. The corrals were clearly marked, volunteers were omnipresent and helpful, and they weren’t kidding when they advertised a 7am start time:
Thus, in pitch darkness and steady rainfall, the race began!
I wish I could say that I settled right into a rhythm and rode that to the finish. The truth is a lot messier. My brain would not shut up. I felt pretty awful at the start and it didn’t much improve for awhile. I couldn’t stop mentally taking my temperature: My legs are on fire, am I going to implode? I’m breathing every other step instead of every three steps, am I going to implode? I just got passed, does that mean I’m about to implode?
I was helpless before the onslaught. I haven’t been doing nearly enough yoga, which has really helped me in the past get my internal monologue under control. I was out of shape, at least mentally, and I’d had enough bad workouts this training cycle to generate just enough doubt that I couldn’t simply dismiss the thoughts as fatalistic nonsense.
Georgia Half Marathon course. A nice tour of the downtown area.
So I tried to make peace with it. Acknowledge the thinking, let it do its thing, and try to enjoy my surroundings.
7:47, 7:51, 8:05
The Lady and I were cruising along at a decent clip. It was a touch too fast for my liking, but I more or less said “the hell with it” and put keeping up with her as my primary goal. I felt blah, but not in a rapidly-falling-apart way, more of a “yeah this hurts but I’ve been here plenty of times before, I know I can keep going” way. Hard to explain.
It didn’t help that the first few miles were pretty effing hilly. But soon enough we entered the Little Five Points residential area, which featured at least a bit more rolling landscape. It was at this point that started feeling noticeably better, noticeably calmer.
It was pitch black until about 8am.
8:13, 7:56, 8:04, 8:13
The Little Five area was even more beautiful than I remembered. Maybe it was the overcast morning coinciding with the now-damp surroundings, though I also noticed several parts of the trail that I knew from memory used to be slums had now been (or were literally in mid-process of) being gentrified. It all looked amazing! I couldn’t believe how much of it had been built up in the better part of the last decade. I had fun trying to identify which parts were familiar, and which were completely new to me.
Around mile 10, we arrived at the part of the race I was most excited about: we were running through the main artery of the Georgia Tech campus! Right as we approached the 5th St Bridge, this song from Big Hero 6 came onto my playlist; I almost sprinted through I was so pumped up.
Unfortunately, the lovely rolling hills of Little Five had come to an end, as our arrival at Georgia Tech also heralded the return of downtown Atlanta and its gnarly hills.
8:09, 8:00, 8:07
Mile 12 was truly the first time the whole race I’d felt in pain. While on one hand it was a pleasant surprise I’d lasted for so long, on the other this last mile was really going to be rough. The Lady started pulling away, and while I tried to keep up I nonetheless loosened my grip somewhat.
We turned a corner, and overhead I could see the Omni Hotel sign. Almost there!
I don’t know if it was because I suddenly saw how close I was going to be to 1:45 (I’d been consciously ignoring my watch the entire race, focusing almost exclusively on just sticking with The Lady), or because I really wanted to catch up to The Lady, but I threw everything I had left into that final 0.1, averaging a 6:30 pace and finishing the last couple hundredths of a mile at a 5:10 pace.
The face(s) of pain.
I didn’t quite beat 1:45, but I did get 1:45:08, which was easily 5-10 minutes faster than I’d been hoping for all week. It was good enough for 61st in my age group (83rd percentile, w00t), 349th of 2,587 men (87th percentile, w00t!), and 459th overall (92nd percentile, WOOOOT!).
We r winrars!
Certainly not the worst elevation chart ever, but also not trivial!
Medals are legit.
The finish line was all of 20 feet from the starting line, so we pretty much rolled ourselves back up to our hotel room to get cleaned up. Though we did take advantage of the balcony to watch the finish line for a bit and cheer on the other half marathon finishers, as well as the full marathon finishers who had just started to appear:
Check-out wasn’t until noon, so we had plenty of time to relax, recoup, and enjoy the feeling of having performed way better than we’d expected (The Lady stayed one step ahead–she finished 2 seconds before I did!).
While I hurt pretty much the entire race, it was manageable. It was one of the most evenly-paced races I’ve ever run. The majority of my half marathons, even my current PR, show an unmistakable slowdown around mile 11 before the final push kicks in during mile 12. There was no such yo-yo-ing here; any fluctuations in pace were largely a result of terrain.
The mental self-talk is still a problem, one I haven’t yet found an answer for. This spring has been such a bear getting settled in our new environment, that while I have no doubt marathon training has been a net positive, it’s been difficult to keep the motivation and the positive attitude when all I want to do is sleep. It was a big relief to throw down a very, very solid performance in the midst of mediocre-at-best performances. A 1:45 may be 4 minutes off from my PR, but it’s nearly 8 minutes faster than the last half marathon I ran back in October 2014, and on a much tougher course.
Sub-1:40 remains elusive, but if nothing else this shows I still have some fight left in me. I’ll get it eventually 🙂