Thursday, July 6, 2017

Race Report: First Light Marathon

We last left off with my final race of 2016, ending the year with a ton of amazing accomplishments.  Not only did I run 22 half marathons and 20 full marathons, I was able to finish my 50th state for half marathons in July in Missoula, Montana (where I got to celebrate with over 30 amazing running friends!) and then later that month, run an ultramarathon - the San Francisco Marathon from the finish line to the start and back to the finish!  The second half of the year was also bursting several international races - half marathons in Ireland, Canada, and Denmark, and full marathons in Germany, Portugal, and Italy!  And, I got my national anthems challenge started, singing all over the country, and racking up states nicely!

Singing the "Star Spangled Banner" all over the country!

I took a nice long four week break after the Jeff Galloway 13.1, keeping my calendar free of races through the rest of December, returning back to the roads during the first full weekend of January.  I was going to start off 2017 strong, with a double marathon weekend.  I would be heading back down south, revisiting two races I did almost exactly two years ago, when I ran double half marathons at the Mississippi Blues Half in Jackson, Mississippi, and the First Light Half in Mobile, Alabama.  But this time they would be fulls!

January was off to an interesting start weatherwise, nationally.  A weather system in the west coast came ashore in the early part of the week, impacting the Northwest and Southwest with significant snowfall totals, then went on to strike the Southeast , morphing into a nor'easter.  Dubbed "Winter Storm Helena" by the Weather Channel, it brought unprecedented 30 degree temperatures and an ice storm to the unready states of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. All day my flights had been listed as being on time, despite cancellations already starting to build up. In fact, United cancelled all flights out of Newark heading down to Atlanta, where I was headed to connect to my flight to Jackson.

I arrived at JFK and made it to my gate just as the flight was about to board, and we were still good to go to head to Atlanta.  Uniquely, we were flying down in a massive 777-200LR, being repositioned for an international flight out of Atlanta that night. Apparently, it had arrived from Tel Aviv that morning.  It was an uneventful flight, however I decided to get WiFi messaging so I could keep up with others on Facebook Messenger to see if my flights would end up being cancelled, as Atlanta was seemingly beginning to shut down.  While I was in the air, my connecting flight to Jackson did get cancelled, as Jackson Airport was shut down because of the icy weather there.

Jackson flight cancelled :(
We landed around 8:30, but ended up sitting on the tarmac for another 40 minutes because of a plane in our gate.  Apparently, planes readying to take off were needing to be deiced, and it led to a jam up of planes having to stay at their gates before being able to line up for the deicer.  Steady rain was falling at the Atlanta airport, turning into freezing rain in the frigid winter air.  When we finally deplaned, the Atlanta Airport was eerily quiet.  I have never been to this airport and seen so few people wandering about.  Since my flight was cancelled, I put out a plea on social media to try to find accommodations for the evening (as it turns out, several of my Atlanta-based friends had either gone out of town that weekend, too, or were in living situations that weren't amenable for last-minute guests).  Meanwhile, I headed from Terminal E to Terminal A, so I could see Black Sheep friends De Moe and Laura before they headed back to Baltimore (they were to be on the same Jackson flight as I, and decided to just head back to where they had come from... ultimately, with the deicing lines, their plane heading back to Baltimore ended up on the tarmac waiting to take off for another TWO hours). 

Ice covering tree branches in Atlanta!
I grabbed food at the airport, and when 10pm rolled around, social media was abuzz when the Mississippi Blues race director announced the cancellation of his race due to the ice. So, I'd be SOL anyway, even if I had made it to Jackson.  During this time, my social media plea worked and I managed to secure a room at a friend-of-a-friends townhome in the Kirkwood neighborhood of Atlanta, taking an Uber there around 10:30pm.  So many thanks to Colleen, a friend of my friend Melissa's from college, who kindly provided me a guest room at her place.

But what about my second race?  Well, thankfully, Mobile, Alabama, where the Sunday race was located, was largely spared by the ice storm.  Earlier in the week, when the forecasts were looking dire, I got in touch with my friend Cozette, who did live in the Atlanta area and was planning to drive down to Mobile on Saturday morning.  Riding with her would be my "plan B" to get down to the second race, if I was stuck in Atlanta.  I had planned to ride back to Atlanta with her after the race anyway, as my flight back to NYC would be out of there Sunday evening. So I arranged for her to pick me up from Colleen's on Saturday.

Driving down to Alabama!
The next morning around 11:30am, Cozette gingerly made her way from her sister's place in Lawrenceville into Atlanta to pick me up.  We very carefully drove out of the disturbingly desolate  streets and highways of Atlanta, making sure not to hit any wet-looking patches on the road.  There was only one truly scary moment, as we took the offramp from I-20 to I-85, we skidded a little and saw four cars damaged and abandoned on the side of the road.  As we left the Atlanta metropolitan area, the roads were absolutely barren.  Finally got to be devoid of icy patches by the time we made it past Newnan, about 30 miles outside of Atlanta..  We stopped right after the Alabama/Georgia state line for a bathroom-slash-finally-catch-our-breath-and-unclench-our-assholes-now-that-the-roads-are-better-break, and then again in Montgomery for lunch, arriving in Mobile around 3:30 in the afternoon.  The drive after getting into Georgia was quite fun, as we sang along to music on the radio, as I posted Facebook videos of our shenanigans along the way.

We headed to packet pickup at the Mobile Government Plaza Atrium, then headed to our respective hotels, before freshening up and heading out to dinner at Felix's Fish Camp Restaurant in Spanish Fort, AL, with new and old running friends from all over the country who had come in to do the race, many having been in Jackson and driven in on very icy roads, some with standstill traffic along the highway earlier that afternoon.  Among them was Seth, who would be rooming with me in Mobile.

Friends gathering at the race start
Early the following morning, we woke up at 6:30, and were out the door at 7 to drop off my bags at Cozette's hotel (logistically, this worked out the best, as I would get a shower in at her hotel where check out was at 2, before we'd drive back to Atlanta) and then head to the race start, where it was a pretty cold 27° with an 8 MPH wind, so it felt more like 18.  I had arranged with the race director to do the national anthem at the start, marking off Alabama as an anthem state (yay!), and then we were off!

Having done this race exactly two years prior, I remembered it being a nice flat course for the half, and a really pretty course with the majestic oak trees lining the street.  When I ran the half, I was on my second day of a double half marathon weekend, and feeling pretty sore - this time, though, I didn't have that issue, though I was coming back from a cough/upper respiratory ailment from a cold that I had the week prior. I decided to take it pretty easy, not pushing it faster than 10 minute miles, and followed a strict 9:1 cadence, and later a 4:1 cadence that would eventually just be whenever I felt like it, which seemed to be successful when I ran my two near-PR setting marathons in December.  

Peeking into Magnolia Cemetery
Running along the perimeter of the cemetery

Historic Magnolia Cemetery sign
The course made its way down Government Street looping down South Broad Street into the Washington Square neighborhood, where we would make our way around the historic Magnolia Cemetery.  Through our residential surroundings, we rounded Virginia Street and up Ann Street, turned right onto Selma Street, and zigzagged until we got back onto Government, where we would run a nice length to the 10k mark.  All the while, we'd go over some small speed bumps in the road (to reduce driver speeds in this family-centered area), complete with signage warning of the slight road hazard. We continued on, taking a slight right onto Old Government Street, and then onto Fulton Street up to Dauphin Street.  We turned left onto Dauphin, a street we'd return to much later in the race, and then headed up Mobile Street alongside UMS-Wright Preparatory School, an independent co-ed prep school, before the split off from the half marathoners at the 8.5 mile aid station, aka the "red dress station" (where all the volunteers, men and women, wore red dresses!)  Everything seemed quite similar, and nice and flat like I had remembered it from two years ago.

Majestic oak trees all along the residential Washington Square neighborhood
Speed Lumps!
We turned left, and took Old Shell Road to a rather nondescript part of town, before making a left onto Gage Avenue (however, we could see the cones set up further down Old Shell - eventually, we would be making our way back along this street in the opposite direction headed back to the finish in a few hours.)  We would return to different part of Dauphin Street, passing the Dauphin Square Shopping Center, before encountering something never seen at all in the half marathon course - our first big hill, crossing over the I-65 overpass.  However, that was minute compared to what was coming up.  As we crept further west on Dauphin, past the Spring Hill Golf Course, the hill got steeper, reaching a crest of 173 feet. Despite this uphill, we were treated to a beautiful canopy of oak trees as far as we could see on both sides of the divided street. At the top of the hill, we turned onto the aptly named Hillwood Road.  We'd ascend even further as we made our way around Country Club Road and eventually Bit and Spur Road, reaching the highest elevation point of 238 feet, just past the halfway point of the marathon course. We were treated to a nice 100 foot downhill for the next 3/4 mile, as we headed northward on S. University Boulevard, which promptly retreated back upward as we made our way into the campus of the University of South Alabama (USA).

Running through the campus of the University of South Alabama
Mascot statue at USA!
Unexpectedly, we encountered a slight detour as we continued along USA South Drive.  At mile 15, we were detoured into a parking lot due to construction on the road, but soon enough we were back on course, heading north along Aubrey Green Drive, and passing some heavily wooded areas just north of campus and west of USA's Technology and Research Park.  Like in South Carolina, there was an abundance of "Beware of alligators and snakes" signs as we went through this marshy area.  We soldiered on, heading to the main road, at University Drive, heading north.

Beware of Alligators and Snakes! (even when it's 30 degrees outside?)
That nasty hill along Museum Drive
At that point of the race we were 16.5 miles in, and my ankles were beginning to hurt... the bit of a break I took, as well as running in brand new shoes was likely taking its toll.  We were finally heading back in an easterly direction toward the downtown area, making our way through the Parkhill neighborhood, and passing Langan Park and the Mobile Museum of Art along Museum Drive.  Here, we encountered the steepest hill of the course as we made our way out to the residential neighborhood of College Park.  At mile 18, we were treated to delicious cups of chicken broth, which were absolutely welcome while running through this chilly morning.  After a short jaunt through, we make our way through part of Spring Hill College, including a really pretty tunnel of oak trees, and then back out into the residential areas surrounding the college. We then retraced our steps from Old Shell Road back toward where the half marathoners split off.  At around the mile 20 mark, I finally saw Melinda, and she would stay within view for the remainder of the race.  As my ankles were crying out in pain, I was also able to get an Advil from an "unofficial" aid station in front of someone's house (thank you!), but wasn't able to ingest it until we reached the mile 22 mark where there was a water station. We reached the Red Dress Station again, but this time, we turned back down toward Dauphin Street, and followed that for the last 3 1/2 miles back to the finish line to downtown in Bienville Square.

Beautiful trees through Spring Hill College
Dauphin Street's oak trees

Victory Headstand!
My pace had slowed to 12 and 13 minute miles by the end, and so I struggled as I came down Dauphin Street, mostly alone. I finished in 5:21:14, much slower than in Kiawah Island, but considering the dramatic travel weekend I had to go through, and the cold weather, I was content.  I retrieved my race medals, thanked the race directors for giving me the chance to sing the anthem at the start, quickly scarfed down red beans, rice, and sausage (I remember how delicious this was two years ago!), and then got my headstand photo in front of the Christmas tree.  I shuffled off to Cozette's hotel, where it took awhile before I got to go upstairs to manage me being able to get a key.  I quickly showered, and then we were out the door at 1:50pm, and on the road back to Atlanta.  We made it back to Atlanta and tot he airport with more than enough time to spare, despite the hour lost changing from Central to Eastern time. Luckily, my flight was delayed half an hour, too, due to late arriving crew.  Exhausted, I slept for practically the entire flight.  I arrived later that evening at LaGuardia to a snowy New York City, and was in bed by midnight, ready to start Monday up again anew.  And my first marathon of the year was checked off!

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