Marathon Route #7: Mississippi River Marathon – Lake Village, AR to Greenville, MS

 

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Free entry! Free entry! I must preface this post by bragging and disclosing that I won a free entry for The Mississippi River Marathon in a random drawing held at the Louisiana Marathon. Will this bias my review of the course and the race – quite possibly. However, you can now take my review with a grain of salt, a spoonful of sugar, or two tablets with lots of water and call me in the morning. Knowing I was traveling this year, the race director kindly offered to defer my entry for 2017. Quite frankly, I did not see myself making a special trip to Mississippi and Arkansas next year, so since the race was only one week off in my planned schedule, I just added roughly 900 miles of additional zigging and zagging into my trip. Thank fracking for low gas prices this year.

I have many great things to say about this race, but before I gush, I want to say the worst about this race and get it out of the way. This for me is not a “Destination” Race. If I was living in Maine, and wanted to travel to a race that would be both a challenge and a vacation, this race would not be it. The weather was so-so, the landscape, a bit on the winter drab side, the towns – Lake Village is not much more than an extended gas stop along the highway and Greenville wasn’t really much of a hotbed of activity either. That being said, there were many great things about this race.  Firstly, the race directors John and Jenn Conner.  Obviously, I was in contact with them a bit more than your average runner since I won the entry but it was more than that.  I showed up at the expo to pick up my packet and was warmly greeted with hugs and handshakes. This was not just me.  I saw them welcoming many runners warmly and conversing in a truly interested manner.  This is in direct contrast with a race director I saw recently who removed himself from general operations, looked annoyed when anybody (runner or volunteer) asked him questions, and was heard to be making fun of vendors at his own expo. John and Jenn were very involved in every aspect of the race and showed nothing but enthusiasm and gratitude towards all who participated. This makes an incredible difference. Secondly, my favorite perk in any race – free photo downloads! The photographers were great. They were extremely well placed.  Undeniably, one of the big highlights of this race is the bridge straddling the Mississippi and sure enough, not one but two photographers were there to capture the moment you cross with the bridge in the background. At the runner’s village, they had a finisher’s circle photo booth set up, a great place to get your picture taken with family, friends, and new running buddies,  without having to resort to the selfie stick or asking others at the finish line to take the picture. Thirdly, plenty of food and beverages left for people like me that finished after the five hour mark.  I can’t tell you at how many races I go to get refreshments at the end of the race, only to be told they ran out of beer, pizza, water, electrolytes – you name it. They had a wide variety of indulgent offers in the food tent from tamales (Greenville is home to a fairly large Delta Hot Tamale Festival in October) to pizza, to all types of fruit, granola bars, donuts, beer, and electrolytes. Although I don’t consider this a “Destination Race”  I do feel they have a great deal to offer and would recommend it to anybody within easy travel distance.

Course Review

If you like flat courses, you’ll like 90% of this course.  I know that there is a decent size bridge right in the center of the course, but the grade is not that steep and seems to stretch over about three quarters of a mile. It is also tough to get  lost on this course, I think there are only five turns in the entire route.  Lots of support at water stations, after mile two there were water stations at every mile with water and Powerade and porta potties. We were bussed to the start of this point to point race on Stuart Island where it was pretty chilly to start the day, so they had little bonfires lit to keep us warm as well as a hospitality tent to keep us out of the wind and collect drop off bags to be taken to the finish line. The first seven miles or so you run within direct view of the largest oxbow of the Mississippi River, Lake Chicot. As regular readers of my reviews know, I love a water view so this was a gorgeous way to start my race. This stretch was particularly wonderful since the first 9 or 10 miles we had the wind directly at our backs, pushing us along and helping us pick up the pace. Not only is the bridge a gentle climb, the downside of the bridge seems staggered in long flat plateaus, so no stress on your calves as you run downhill (unfortunately, also no momentum). This is where the real grind begins.  Miles 15 to 20 are some of the most boring, gray, fallow fields of mud, dust, and chaffe. This was exasperated by the 20 mile an hour winds that were helping us at the beginning of the race, now blasting us right in the face the entire 5 miles.You can never predict a wind like this but it made running this tortilla flat road equal to climbing 2000 feet over the same distance. Finally, we got a break from the wind as we entered the final 10k of the race, plunging into the neighborhoods and city streets of downtown Greenville, where we were finally greeted by some local residents.  It was a rather cold day and most of the support so far had centered around the fantastically enthusiastic water stations. Mile 21 had a lady who must run a catering company because she had an amazing culinary spread set up for us – crab and shrimp quiche, stuffed mushroom caps, chocolate covered strawberry.  I wanted to eat the whole table.  Instead, I took one last Gu and focused on finishing strong. A final run up Main Street and a fantastic finish set up in view of the levee.  I saw the race directors John and Jenn congratulating each of the runners crossing the finish line.  That’s what I call small town hospitality.

Lessons Learned

Start Using Drop Bags

This was a cold morning.  It would have been good to have extra layers to start the morning.  Even if I have disposable gear (cheap gloves or sweatshirts bought used at Goodwill) a lot can change between leaving the house and starting the race, temperature, precipitation etc.  It’s good to be prepared, but sometimes, even at the start line, you know you have too much and planning to use the bag just gives you another option than littering or carrying excess all the way to the finish.

Chapstick

There is a reason this is such a popular expo enticement from vendors and it’s not just because it’s cheap even when printed.  That full force gale in our face took a toll on our face and the lips seemed most vulnerable. My lips are naturally full and glossy, but the chapstick also has spf protection in many cases. Make sure I apply liberally in the future.

Physical Review

This was a challenging week for me.  After my phenomenal recovery and easy paced run last week in Oklahoma City, I was expecting to really ramp it up and PR at this race, even though I only had 5 days of rest in between instead of the normal 6.  Life had other plans.  Tuesday evening, my body started giving me early warnings that a kidney stone was on the way.  The following 24 hours were painful but even after I passed my first stone, something wasn’t right, I was more nauseous than I had ever been before with these stones and I wasn’t able to keep anything down, not even water. By day three, I was getting a little nervous.  I didn’t have abdominal pains but I knew something was not quite right.  I was able to take water, soup, and toast, but it left me feeling bloated and uncomfortable.  I got up on Friday, determined to at least get to Greenville for packet pick up, then I would go to emergency care.  Two hours down the road, I started to feel uncomfortable again so I stopped to get some electrolytes and that was when I passed a second stone.  Hallelujah!  This was, mind you, 18 hours before we started the race.  However, once that stone passed, my body snapped to attention and I felt strong going into the race. Fortunately, although they didn’t have official pacers for the race, I found a very consistent runner, Lisa Anstine, and rode her coattails all the way to mile 12, but lost her as we started towards the bridge.  This built a little momentum for me to battle the wind on the other side of the river. What I feel really held me back, as my legs began to stiffen in mile 20, was the fact that I hadn’t run all week, I hadn’t given my legs the chance to stretch all week long.  I did finish in 5:25:29, just a minute or so off of my personal record, but I was a little disappointed.  With some training and focus, hopefully we will get that PR celebration next week in El Paso, Texas!

 

 

 

 

Marathon Route #6: Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon – Oklahoma City, OK

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It was a somber morning over Oklahoma City.  The city was strangely silent.  The stars were still brilliant in the early morning indigo twilight heralding the dawn.  If you ever have the chance to visit The Oklahoma City Memorial, I highly recommend doing so at night.  The general design, so spare and dominating during the day, becomes so haunting and morose when seen with its nighttime lighting. The imposing, dark, time stamped monoliths, the lit chairs of those died that day (smaller chairs for the 19 children who perished), the Survivor Tree clawing at the heavens, impart forever the loss and heartache of a city and a nation.  Bitter winds tore at my back as I ran away from the starting area of this marathon route and I felt like I carried at least one of the huge gates with me for the first couple of miles. I cannot imagine the impact of starting this race surrounded by thousands directly impacted by this tragedy.

This week was a bit of a triumph for me personally. After straining/microtearing/shredding my left calf the week before in Memphis, I spent most of the beginning of the week in my medical compression socks, applying ice, and keeping my leg elevated.  Little stretches, self massage, and light walking seemed to do the trick.  On Wednesday, I could comfortably walk and lightly run, so I ran the Dam Bridge in Little Rock, AR (the only sightseeing I really did in that gorgeous city). Thursday, as I got into Oklahoma City, I called Red Coyote Running and Fitness, recently voted the number one running store in America, and asked about running groups.  They invited me to their free run that evening.  Whether it was the energy or the sheer size of the their amazing run group, I pushed myself a little more than I should have, but that ended up paying off in dividends.  I met some wonderful ladies who were very supportive and I felt very confident going into the weekend.  Knowing I had two official races coming up in the next two weeks, I decided to take it easy, downshift to one minute running and one minute walking and enjoy the city.

Course Review

We have already discussed the Memorial and the impact that has to start the course.  The first mile finds you cutting through the towering downtown landscape, past the Botanical Gardens and the Chesapeake Energy Arena, and into Bricktown, the former warehouse district cum entertainment center. There is a lot going on in that first mile, while you are still getting your bearings, stretching your legs, and finding a comfortable pace. If only the race director could find an extra mile to run in that part of downtown by weaving through some of those areas less directly, they could cut a mile out of some of the boring later miles.  As you approach the three mile mark, you get a beautiful approach to the Capitol Building, with functioning oil derricks decorating the park and causeway in front of it. Miles five, six, and seven take you through some beautiful, lightly hilly neighborhoods with gorgeous centralized parks.  After that we get into some boring miles taking us to the northern leg of the route.  This was combination of some industrial wastelands out by old rail tracks and urban sprawl of shopping plaza after shopping plaza.

Although the roads were in pretty good condition throughout the city, this is also where the roads were at their worst for cracking and heaving.  The intersections also have some odd dips that seem built in, perhaps to slow down traffic.  I totally misgauged one of those dips and ended up taking a digger, hitting hard on my knee and flat on my face in the middle of an intersection.  Fortunately, nothing too drastic, I brushed myself off and kept moving.  I would like to thank a car that was at that light that followed me to the next plaza to make sure I was alright.  I’m afraid I rudely brushed them off at the time, as I was still a little stunned and trying to figure out if I had done any greater damage.  I feel bad and I really appreciated their gesture.  If I had been injured seriously, I would have been very glad for their assistance.

Just after the half marathon mark, just as you are thinking I can’t take another plaza with their discount no name stores and various fast food chains and Chinese buffets, there is a slight rise to the road.  There is a little bridge that crosses a highway and as you reach the peak, you have the breathtaking Lake Hefner appearing like a oasis in the desert. Miles fourteen through seventeen take you on a well heeled path along the lake and into Stars and Stripes Park and around the edge of Lake Hefner Park. This is one of the highlights of the course. Just as you think you are about to plunge back into boring city sprawl, the run along Grand Boulevard has a lush and cool park where many people start hitting the wall at miles nineteen and twenty. Even as you do get back onto the more city block grind of Classen Boulevard, you have the skyline in front of you and start to pass some classic city landmarks like the Buckminster Fuller inspired Gold Dome and The Milk Bottle Building.  A little loop through one last neighborhood then you are cruising up Broadway to the finish line.

Lessons Learned

Park Near Finish Line Not The Start Line

You would think this is simple and self evident by now.  Sometimes it is a matter of necessity to be by the start line, but especially on these lone races, I do not need to be walking an extra mile or two to get a refill on water, or electrolytes, or change out of a stinky, salt coated shirt. Please learn this lesson now before you learn it the hard way.

Reach Out To Running Groups & Stores Sooner Than Later

This was the first city since Fort Lauderdale where I had support on the trail for one of my lonely marathons.  Why?  Because I stuck to my plan and ran with a local running group in the city I was running in.  When I ran with the group from Red Coyote Running and Fitness on Thursday night, I introduced myself to Gayle Sturdivant and let her know that I really didn’t know where I was running on the group run. Not only did she end up being my guide, she also helped push me to speed train that evening. Gayle in turn introduced me to Brandi Wilkins and Laura Chouinard at the Apres Run held at Red Coyote.  A picture of us and our huge cans of Negative Split (a locally brewed beer inspired by their running group) made it on to the local training site.  When I struggled over a bridge around mile 18 and went to beg some ladies to fill my water bottle at their massive jugs, as I explained I had 9 more miles to go, they said “Oh we know who you are!  Your picture was on our training page.  You’re running 50 marathons in 50 weeks this year.  Fill your bottle, take a breath, and you can RUN WITH US!”  These ladies only had a couple miles to go, but for most of them, this was the furthest they had ever run.  What a boon and a gift.  To put the icing on the cake, Gayle had missed the early morning run, so she contacted me on marathon day, while I was running, to ask if she could join me.  How could I say no? She caught up with our little group and ended up escorting me all the way to the finish line.  If I can get even a couple more folks to join me on future runs, I know this mission will be that much easier.

Physical Review

I feel great! Really!  I know many of you were concerned after I strained myself in Memphis, but taking the extra day off from running, icing the leg regularly, and keeping it elevated really did the trick.  My feet are hurting a little on the bones on the outside of my feet, but blisters are under control this week.  Ankles are good.  Even though I hit my right knee pretty hard on the asphalt, it seems to be holding up well with just some pain from superficial road rash (It’s just a flesh wound). Hips, back, and shoulders all seem to be doing well. I am very pleased with my time, if not my finish.  The finish for this race is 6:08:00, not a bad time for taking it easy.  First time running at a 1:1 pace for a long distance, but early on as I tried to speed up, it didn’t really seem to effect my overall mile time.  Although I crossed the half marathon mark under three hours, I was surprised not to do a negative split for the second half.  I had a good couple miles with my surprise running group and then by mile twenty three started to tire.  The last three miles were weak even with the minute of rest.  I will not be attempting 1:1 timing again unless absolutely necessary.

The week coming up is still a little messy for my travel itinerary. I am now doubling back to the Arkansas/Mississippi border for the Mississippi River Marathon.  I plan on counting this as an Arkansas Marathon.  I will be stopping in Hot Springs, AR for a much needed soak in National Park Baths and hopefully get that massage I have been promising myself. Thank you as always for following along and I love feedback so please let me know what you think. Until then, finish strong, my friends.

 

 

 

 

 

Marathon Route #5: St. Jude Memphis Marathon

Do you know that feeling you get the night before Christmas, your birthday, or the first day of vacation where you can’t really sleep because your body is coursing with adrenaline and expectations of the amazing times ahead? I usually get this the night before an official race day. It’s not that I can’t sleep, but my body wakes me up every hour on the hour as if my alarm clock has just gone off. In between these abrupt awakenings I have dreams of racing, usually down strange and unknown roads surrounded by shadows of my former self for competition. I have woken up in a complete sweat, as if I just crossed the finish line. I have not been able to generate this sort of excitement for the days that I am merely running the route of a marathon. Whether it is the competitive edge, the fact that I will be officially monitored, or the knowledge that I will probably make new race friends on the course that day, my race days have that little extra something that the my training days are lacking. This week, I decided I was going to change that. Memphis was going to be just as exciting and inspirational as any official race I’ve ever done. For the most part, I feel I succeeded.

Firstly, I talked to some people in marathon clubs that I belong to about the marathon before the race. They gave me some great details and positive reviews of the course and the crowd. Secondly, I utilized that information to try and visualize what the course looks like on race day as I was doing my pre-race review and drive around the course. Thirdly, I started saying to myself “This is an important race; Memphis is important to my overall strategy for the year.” Finally, I set higher expectations for myself in running this race route. I determined that this was going to be an ideal day to run a marathon, that I had no excuses not to do great, that everything was lining up to make this my best marathon ever. It may have worked a little too well, but we’ll get to that. I did fully wake up a couple times during the night and when I woke up in the morning I was filled with the anticipation of the coming day. The multiple wakings were counterbalanced by the fact that I went to bed nice and early and had a great night of sleep.

Course Review

I have determined that many race directors see their race as having friends over for a night of revelry. Your friends come over to the house and as they walk in the door you present them with the best of what you have – the finest scotch, the best champagne, meats, cheeses, fancy dijon ketchup, and little amuse bouche that overwhelm and satiate the palate, graciously getting us liquored up so that by the end of the night, we are all drinking Bartles and Jaymes and eating stale angel food cake slathered in peanut butter without a second thought. Memphis is a beautiful city. I enjoyed running throughout the many and varried neighborhoods throughout the city. However, the Kings Cut of this exquisite running roast is definitively in the first half of the marathon. The start line is by a very scenic park, Court Square, surrounded by historic buildings, with the river just out of sight. Just after hitting the one mile mark, you are feasted on the hot pink neon signs of a still smouldering Beale Street. After a mile of running through transportation graveyards, they lower the boom with an incredibly picturesque view of the mighty Mississippi laid out like a voluptuous lady girded in steel lingerie. This was by far my absolute favorite view from the five marathons I have run this year. I would have run up a hundred hills to see it, but another beautiful thing about this marathon is the fact that the hills are minimal and low and well spaced at their most arduous. After leaving the majesty of the Riverside, you run along the cityscape until it becomes just a little industrial. At that point, the race has you run through the Saint Jude’s medical campus. I’m sure on race day this is probably a huge race support center, manned by staff and families. Unfortunately, for me it wasn’t an official race day, so the gates were closed and I had to run on the outskirts of the medical campus. North Parkway was an enchanting road to run along with its hipster neighborhoods on a main thoroughfare. I’d like to mention at this point the roads and the sidewalks were fairly well attended in this city. I’m not saying that all the sidewalks were great, but certainly more than I could have expected. My largest complaint was the proliferation of Sweet Gum trees throughout the city. These pleasingly symmetrical trees, which I’m sure must look phenomenally colored during the normal race time in December, leave large spiky “gumballs” carrying their seeds littering the sidewalks and streets. After twisting my ankle on a pine cone last week, you can be sure that I avoided these little hazards like the plague. After that, you skirt the Memphis City Zoo, run through another well developed neighborhood on Madison and then do a large loop to take you back to run through an enchanting corner of Rhodes College and a lush introduction to the glories of Overton Park’s limestone running trail. After that it is your usual combination of various neighborhoods, business districts, and industrial areas that round out the 26.2 miles needed for the marathon distance. Friends who have run this race mention that past courses have made a second entry into St Jude’s Medical Campus and that was very energizing in the final few miles. Certainly finishing at the stadium has a very big league impact. Maybe race directors feel that in the last couple miles of the race, we are so focused on finishing, that we wouldn’t notice a beautiful portion of the city as much during that time as we do when we’re first starting out. An understandable perspective, considering during the last 2 miles, all I kept thinking was when is this going to end? This perspective may seem a little harsh, but I was running on empty and injured, so that may have skewed the finale for me.

Lessons Learned

My Body Is Changing
I have not stepped on a scale since the New Year. Losing weight is not a primary goal for my quest and I find obsessing about my weight is distracting from my other goals. Instead, I try and focus on increasing positive behaviors. Not eating the second slice of cake, getting water instead of sugary power drinks, eating appropriate foods throughout the day are all positive steps forward for me. Sure, I get disappointed when I see race photos of my gut crossing the finish line before I do but I believe that increasing my positive behaviors will lead to increased positive results. I saw two of those results this week. Firstly, I am running faster. Both at the group run I participated and during the first half of this run, I was able to pace myself better than in recent history. Secondly, clothes and accessories aren’t fitting the same. My running shorts were decidedly baggy and weren’t working nearly as well as “compression” pants. Fortunately, the Body Glide was working overtime. Secondly, my racebelt wouldn’t sit right. For the last four races, my race belt sat pretty comfortably on my ample hips, the little rubber studs keeping it right where it needed to be. Not this run, the belt kept trying to slip down off my waist. I would cinch it tighter and SWIPTZ it would try and fall of my my assignment dragging my not so compressing pants with them. Gear check now will include wearing my race gear my last run of the week before my marathon.

Pain Thresholds
You know when the Doctor or Nurse asks you the annoying questions “What kind of pain is it?” and “On a scale of 1 to 10, how much does it hurt?”, many of us are just thinking “It just hurts – make it stop”. This week at mile 13, I had to triage myself. I then realized that the next time I gave a medical practice a smart ass answer to those questions, I should be very glad they don’t slap me upside the head. For the first half, I was going at a good clip, averaging around 11:45 per mile (a projected 5 hour finish). The last 5 minutes before the half, I was really turning it on because I truly saw myself finishing well, and wanted to set myself up for success. Just after the half, I felt something in my left calf give. Right afterwards, it felt like I had a cramp in my calf. Another 5 minutes and it felt like my calf had a flap come loose. I started walking, but this was actually more uncomfortable then the light jog that I normally maintain. I kept walking, started massaging my leg, and stopped occasionally to do some leg stretches. It was at this point, I needed to be brutally honest with myself. What kind of pain is it? Well, it’s really a dull ache. On a scale of 1 to 10, how much does it hurt? Really, it feels like a 3. Something is clearly wrong, but I can keep moving. This is still at a level of discomfort with occasional throbs of pain. Should I continue running? After another two miles of stretching and massaging and refocusing my decision was yes. I have run further distances with greater pain and survived. The question will become how much damage did I do during the second half of the race and will I be able to recover before next week’s run?

Plan For The Best, Prepare For The Worst
I had been very happy with my fueling during the last few races, balancing my water with my energy drinks, the timing of my energy gels, and my pre-race breakfast. This week I was unprepared to meet my needs. I drank a lot more water during the first half, fortunately I was able to replenish at Overton Park, but whether it was the higher heat (Temps peaked at 64 degrees, a good 10 degrees higher than any race in the past 3 weeks) or the energy burned compensating for my injured calf, I felt dehydrated and that certainly hurt me in my last two miles. Especially on these lonely marathons, I need to insure better access to hydration when I need it. More waterbottles on my next belt!

Physical Review

Despite rolling my left ankle twice on the Mississippi Blues course, I was feeling pretty strong this week. I ran strong and consistent with a local group and was fairly careful on the two trail runs. Unfortunately, I may have pushed myself a little too hard. Today was spent icing and elevating. I may splurge when I get to Little Rock, Arkansas and get a massage. I will probably only run 2 times during the week at a much slower pace. Right now my goal will be to run the Oklahoma City Marathon at a 1:1 pace – one minute walking, one minute running. I will not try to break any records and I will make sure I have a backup plan in case my body lets me know it won’t take me the entire distance. I am still in good spirits. Despite the injury and not feeling properly fueled, I still finished in 6:03:35. This is a far cry from the 5 – 5:30 time I thought I might hit at the beginning of the day, but this is my best time so far this year for running a course on a non-race day. The visualization techniques I applied to increase my motivation worked a little too well. I now need to temper that euphoria with the realities of constantly engaging in these extended runs. Mentally, I took some time in Overton Park to wipe my face, refresh my liquids, relieve myself and prepare my body for a more rigorous 10 miles. I was very happy with my ability to triage and make that mental leap to take it easy and finish well. Special shout outs to two of my favorite running wives, Jennie Marvelle and Angela Pitteroff, for the memory of the Sugarloaf 15k where we all ran with little injuries and survived the course. You both were definitively in my thoughts the last 9 miles. A big thank you to all of you who read my blog and keep up on my journey. I hope to report a healthy recovery at next week’s marathon run.