My husband, children, and I made a family vacation out of this marathon. We rented a spacious cabin in the Lookout Mountain area for about the same price we would expect to pay for a mid-range hotel. We arrived Thursday afternoon and within 30 minutes, my husband was asking if we could come back next year. The view from our balcony was breathtaking, there were plenty of books and board games to entertain us, and the owners had even stocked the refrigerator and pantry with breakfast food for us.
On Friday, we drove to the battlefield, toured the visitor center, and drove the course. I highly recommend that anyone running this race for the first time should familiarize themselves with the course -- both its physical layout and its history. I had been concerned about the hills. I come from Florida, and although I have some decent hills on my regular running route, I was afraid that I might be in over my head here. Driving the course gave me the mental preparation I needed. Learning the history of the Civil War battle that took place here 150 years ago was also great prep work. It made the race that much more interesting, and the educational aspect earned my daughter "excused" absences from school.
Here's something you don't see every day: three native Floridians!
The expo was held in a church gym. It was small and well-organized. First we visited the Junior Marathon table to pick up my daughter's race packet. In addition to her cool tie-dyed t-shirt, she got a mini 26.2 sticker, just the perfect size for her bicycle. (Quick side note: for the junior marathon, the kids had to log 25.2 miles of running before the race, then raced the final mile on the course to earn 26.2 total.) After picking up my daughter's goodies, we went to the marathon table, where I was quickly given my race packet, a ladies long-sleeved tech shirt, and my choice of a hat or gloves with the race logo! Given that I was only able to find one glove in my running drawer while I was packing, I chose the gloves. I thought that extra bit of swag was a nice touch!
Back at the cabin, I cooked a pasta dinner and went to bed nice and early. On Saturday morning, I woke up and got ready, then woke everyone else up. My 4-year-old son was angry about something or another, and we didn't get to leave as early as I had planned. It was a 45 minute drive to the race site, and I had read that traffic could be congested on race day. It certainly was, but we got there with plenty of time. Honestly, as chilly as it was, I'm not sure I would have wanted to arrive any earlier than we did. The field near the starting line was covered in frost. We huddled around a small fire pit with some other runners until they called the runners to the starting line.
I have never gone into a race feeling so prepared. The training had been hard, and I knew that I was as strong as I have ever been. There were no little aches or pains to worry about. I felt like I had a sub-4:00 marathon in me, but I had decided to shoot for a more conservative goal of somewhere around 4:05 to account for the hills. For the first time, I walked to the starting line without feeling nervous at all.
The race started with a blast. Not kidding. A cannon blast. How cool is that! The course starts with a short loop around a field, so I was able to toss my hoodie to my husband at about 3/4 of a mile in. Then we headed down a somewhat narrow service road to get to the loop that I'd be running twice as part of the full marathon. The first two miles had a lot of downhills, which meant that I really had to focus on keeping my pace in check. My pacing strategy was to run the first mile 10-15 seconds slower than goal pace, and the second mile about 10 seconds slower.
This photo is from the race site and really captures the beauty of the course:
I think I finally started to feel my frozen toes around mile 4. That's about the time that the course got nice and "wavy". There were uphills, but they weren't hard, and they were always followed by a nice downhill. We were running on a paved road through the woods, and there were frequent monuments and markers honoring the various battalions that had fought in the Battle of Chickamauga. Then I encountered That Hill #1 somewhere around mile 7. It was a little bigger and a little steeper than anything that had come before. I eased up a little on my pace going up, knowing it was too early to expend any unnecessary energy. I was looking forward to coming out of the woods to the spectator area at mile 8, and I was really hoping that my family would have chosen that spot to spectate. Not only did I want to see my childrens' signs and beautiful faces, I also wanted to hand off my gloves to my husband, as I had discovered that the gloves made it really hard to access my fuel. Unfortunately, they weren't there, so on we go.
The full marathon course took two little out-and-backs away from the half course between miles 9 and 11. After running with the half-marathoners, those out-and-backs felt a little lonely. One of them crossed outside of the national park onto a residential street and ran uphill alongside some railroad tracks. This was my least favorite part of the course, and all I could think about was how much it was going to suck the second time around. We came out of this detour right into That Hill #2, which was about as steep as they get. It wasn't that tall, but it was like climbing stairs. Once we got up that hill, though, the next couple of miles were easy and scenic.
Shortly after the 12-mile marker, we came to another spectator area, and my crew ROCKED it. They had signs and they cheered so enthusiastically. What a boost! I kept trying to get around the outside of the woman in front of me, but she was high-fiving all the spectators, so I settled in behind her so I could high-five my little ones and finally had off the gloves. My husband was thoughtful enough to offer me a Gatorade, but I didn't feel like I needed it.
Then the half-marathoners split off toward their finish line, and the crowd thinned out. I hit the halfway point at 2:02:17 feeling great! Now it was time to push the pace down into the 9:00-9:10 range for the next six miles. I returned to the wavy hill portion of the course, passing other runners but not getting passed. I felt myself struggling and slowing a little bit on the uphills starting at mile 16, but I made it up on the downs. Then I reached That Hill #1 again, right around mile 18. I just didn't have the energy to run up that hill, knowing I still had another 8.2 miles ahead of me. I'd seen other runners struggling with the hills, walking the uphill portions, and I gave in. I ran/walked That Hill, and hated myself the whole way. My pace for that mile was 10:30, slower than any miles I'd had during training.
After that, I had a hard time on all of the uphills, and I took frequent walk breaks. I had definitely hit the wall. When I felt like I was running hard, I'd look down to see that I was only running at a 9:40 pace. Finally, at mile 23 (during that second out-and-back portion I disliked), I covered my watch with my sleeve and decided that this was no longer a time-goal race, this was a lovely jog in the park. Mentally that helped a lot. The runners were spread pretty far apart at this point, but the ones ahead of me looked like they were struggling more than I was. I targeted the closest runner ahead of me, and gradually picked him off, then moved on to the next runner. I was back in control, even though I wasn't running my goal pace.
As we finally made the turn off the loop portion of the course, I heard something I hadn't heard in miles: runners quickly approaching from behind me. I had long since given up the 4:05 goal, figured 4:10 might not be possible, but thought I could come in just over 4:10. When I glanced behind me, I was mortified to see the two 4:15 pacers about to pass me. I asked one of them (a really kind older gentleman) if they were actually on target for 4:15 or if they were running a little faster. He admitted that they were a little ahead of schedule, but since they didn't have any runners pacing off them anymore, he'd try and get me to the finish line as close to 4:10 as possible. That meant picking up the pace through the service road. When that road ultimately took a strong uphill slant, I let them go on without me and walked most of that hill.
The next little portion of the course went through some quiet streets past businesses. As I was running through a parking lot, a volunteer yelled out "You're almost done! Listen, you can hear the announcer at the finish line from here!" Sure enough, I pulled out my ear buds, and I could hear. Sweet sweet sound! I entered the loop where we had started and heard the announcer talking about the Junior Marathon. No no no! They could not start my daughter's race without me! I hauled butt up the hill at mile 26, and loved every second of downhill for the last 0.2, sprinting to the finish line at 4:14:37 (nearly a 7-minute PR, not bad).
I hurriedly found my daughter in a bounce house, pinned on her race bib, and rushed her over to the starting line just in time. I have no idea how fast she ran her mile, but she finished powerfully, sprinting with beautiful long strides down that hill, passing a bunch of older boys in the last stretch (her favorite part, of course).
Proudly wearing our medals, my daughter and I marched into the "runners only" tent for some goodies. I had some yummy warm soup, a little banana pudding, some orange slices, and half a piece of pizza. It had become overcast since I finished, and the temperatures were dropping. We gathered our crew (which had doubled, thanks to some friends who drove over from Nashville for the day), stopped by the grocery store for cookout supplies, and drove back to the cabin to celebrate.
Apparently, I didn't eat enough at the post-race area, and I waited too long to eat back at the cabin. A few hours after the race, my stomach was definitely unsettled. Before long, I was puking. Think "The Exorcist". It took hours for my stomach to finally settle down....at which time, I happily inhaled two cheeseburgers, half a container of Pringles, and a beer.
I am not ashamed to say I also enjoyed an early Sunday morning beer while sitting in the hot tub on our balcony. I missed out on celebrating on Saturday, and this seemed like a proper start to the day. We had a lovely lazy morning, took naps after lunch, then headed to the Incline Railway at Lookout Mountain. We watched the sunset then headed back down the mountain to look for some dinner. Urbanspoon led us to an awesome restaurant called the Terminal Brewhouse. It was impossible to decide on what to eat because it all looked SO good. Plus they brewed their own yummy beer.
Recovering in style:
We took our time driving home on Monday, stopping in Birmingham to visit a few friends. My legs were only slightly stiff. About an hour away from home however, my throat got a familiar tightness. Seriously? I knew it was strep throat immediately. An hour later, I crawled into my own bed feeling feverish. I was waiting at the urgent care center when it opened Tuesday morning, and they confirmed it. Ugh.
On the one hand, I had the best family vacation and I set a marathon PR at a beautiful, well-organized event. On the other, I am very disappointed that I didn't reach my goal of 4:05. I know I CAN do it, and I felt like I did everything right leading up to the race.
And that's why I keep running these things. I keep chasing down the day that the stars will align and I will run the perfect race. I'm looking ahead to the Tallahassee Marathon in February. It's flat and fast, a definite PR race if I can stay healthy. I will MOST DEFINITELY run the Chickamauga Marathon again, only next time, I think I won't set a time goal. I'll just enjoy the ride.
So proud of my Junior Marathoner!