Saturday, September 29, 2018

Race Report: Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon

Mississippi was originally to be checked off my calendar in January 2017, at the Mississippi Blues Marathon in Jackson, but when that got cancelled due to a freak ice storm crippling the south, I added the Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon to my calendar at the end of 2017 instead, and the stars aligned for me to get the anthem gig as well, after being so well received by the race directors of the Louisiana Marathon, who also owned this race.  The December race would be having its second running, starting in Pass Christian, and following the gulf shore all the way into Biloxi.

Kendra and I finishing a snowy Ted Corbitt 15K! (Photo by NYRR)
The weekend would start though, with a 15K race in New York - the annual Ted Corbitt race, which in this year's edition would be marked with snow flurries throughout from even before it's 8:30am start.  Because of my nagging left calf strain injury that had bothered me since the Flying Monkey Marathon three weeks earlier, I opted to stay very conservative with my speed and stuck with my friend Kendra, who was fighting a stomach virus the night before, but opted to do the race as well.  The chilly temps and the falling snow kept us at a very easy clip, and we finished the race in 2:19.  This still afforded me enough time to get home, (literally) thaw out, and then head to the airport for my 1:30pm flight out of LaGuardia.  I had ended up booking my flights rather late, intending to keep it cheap by flying into the larger hub of New Orleans, about a two hour drive away.

Thankfully, we had no real delays, and we were able to get out of the NYC and into New Orleans on time.  I drove to Biloxi as the sun was beginning to set, and in time to meet a couple other Marathon Maniacs for dinner at the Bacchus Seafood Restaurant on Biloxi Beach.  I had some delicious gumbo pasta, complete with gulf shrimp, okra, fresh crabmeat and fried oysters, a fitting way to carboload down in the Gulf Coast!  I retired to my Airbnb that night, to get sleep before my early morning alarm.
Mmmm... carboloading Gulf Coast style!
The next morning, I was up quite early to get out the door and to the parking area near the MGM Stadium, home to minor league baseball team the Biloxi Shuckers of the Southern League, where buses were organized to drive runners to their respective starts - marathoners out just west of Pass Christian and half marathoners out to Gulfport.  The 45 minute drive in the schoolbus was mostly spent asleep, though our bus driver seemed to get a little lost finding the start area; no worries, though, we found it and with lots of ample time.  It was quite the chilly morning as well, so many of us opted to stay inside the bus to keep warm, until we absolutely had to be outside.

Sunrise over the Gulf of Mexico
At about 7:45, I braved the cold and headed out to find Patrick, one of the race directors, out setting up the microphones, and introduced myself; about five minutes later, I sang the anthem to check off my 40th state and then we all rushed over to the start area on US Route 90/Beach Boulevard, huddled close together until the gun went off, as we aimed to elevate our core temperatures from our running.  We set off from Henderson Point, then ran eastward into the city of Pass Christian, pronounced "Pass Chris-CHI-Ann", a charming beach town with diverse residential architecture, from Greek Revival to Creole to Victorian. Over many decades, there have stood many gorgeous homes alongside beautiful live oaks that lined Scenic Drive looking out toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Ready to start!
Welcome to Pass Christian!
A little about Pass Christian: In 2005, this city along Mississippi's Gulf coast was almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Of the approximately 8,000 homes in Pass Christian, all but 500 were damaged or destroyed. In spite of the fact that the beachfront Scenic Drive follows the crest of a small bluff, affording it some elevation, most of the historic mansions along the road were severely damaged, and many were completely destroyed. This was actually the second hurricane to directly hit the city; Hurricane Camille, the 2nd strongest hurricane of the 20th century, had almost totally destroyed it in 1969.  Since Katrina, Pass Christian has slowly begun to show signs of recovery, with many buildings being rebuilt.

Massive oak trees in Pass Christian
We ran eastward into Pass Christian, swerving to the left lightly onto Scenic Drive at roughly the two mile mark past the city's public library and later past War Memorial Park.  It was around here when I met three friends from Charlotte, North Carolina, named Carlee, Lita, and Keith. It was Carlee's first marathon, and Lita's second - and after chatting with them quickly, they soldiered on, as I began to slow down a bit. I began to realize how much this race was going to be a bit of a struggle for me, as my injured calf started to give me issues. Because I favored my left leg, I was compensating with putting more pressure on my right leg, causing my right ankle to feel terrible.

Long Beach
We returned to US Route 90/Beach Boulevard at around mile 4.5, and a mile and a half later, we entered the city of Long Beach, once known as the "Radish Capital of the World," another residential community like Pass Christian still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. We passed by Long Beach's marina and the Gulf Park campus of the University of Southern Mississippi, with its beach-facing side a patch of centuries-old oak trees, among them a 530-year-old southern live oak with a nearly 20 foot circumference called "Friendship Oak," which survived both Hurricanes Camille and Katrina.  Since the 1950s, acorns from Friendship Oak have been gathered to produce seedlings for replanting along the Mississippi Gulf Coast to replace live oaks that were destroyed by both disastrous hurricanes.

Entering Gulfport, Mississippi
At mile 10, we entered Gulfport, the second largest city in the state of Mississippi after the capital, Jackson. From its beginnings as a lumber port, Gulfport evolved into quite the diversified city. With about 6.7 miles of white sand beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, Gulfport has become a tourism destination, due in large part to Mississippi's coast casinos. As we continued east past its 115 year old harbor, a seaport that accounts for millions of dollars in annual sales and tax revenue for the state of Mississippi, we ran by its adjacent Jones Park and the municipal marina. This park was named after entrepreneur Captain Joseph T. Jones, who co-founded the city of Gulfport and developed the seaport.  After Katrina, the park, considered a signature facility for the city, was under 25 feet of floodwaters, and required $40 million to rebuild. Reopened to the public in 2012, it was decked out in holiday decorations during the day of the marathon, even on its replica lighthouse at the center of the park facing the water. This was also where the half marathoners began their race.  We eventually hit the halfway point, and I clocked in the first half in about 2:30. I considered then about possibly having to walk the entire second half because of my pained ankle. I soldiered on forward, and at around mile 15, I ran into Carlee from early on in the race, who was having some difficulty herself - her friends had continued on, Lita en route to a potential PR. I decided to keep Carlee company, crossing over from Gulfport into Biloxi city limits a couple miles later, and keeping her mind off of the troubles one often feels in the second half of their first marathon.
Signage for the Gulf Coast as we enter Biloxi
The green doors of Beauvoir
At mile 19.5, we ran by the green gates in front of Beauvoir, the historic postwar home of former president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis. Several buildings in the estate, in particular the main house, were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and it underwent extensive restoration for three years from 2005 to 2008. It is now reopened for visitors.

Tree trunk sculptures along US-90
The closer we got to Biloxi, the more things there were to actually see during the race. There used to be massive live oaks that lined US Route 90 along the gulf shore, but because of Hurricane Katrina, many of those old trees were felled due to the saltwater storm surge.  Artists were able to take the remaining tree trunks and create sculptures of marine life. The renewed vision, created by wood sculptors brandishing chainsaws, high speed grinders, sanders, and chisels, gave these trees a second life, turning them into beautiful pieces of public art along the highway's center medians.
Sharkheads' shark mouth entrance!
Deep into Biloxi
As we got further into the city, buildings began to line the beach side of the highway. Notably one of these was a souvenir store called "Sharkheads" with a 32 foot tall giant shark mouth entrance. On our left was the Biloxi Lighthouse, completed in 1848, the only lighthouse in the US that stands in the middle of a four lane highway. Having survived Hurricane Katrina, it has been kept by female keepers for more years than any other lighthouse in the US.

The Biloxi Lighthouse
At the 24 mile mark, we ascended the looped ramp that took us onto I-110, where we would complete an out and back, before heading back down to Beach Boulevard. After coming down the ramp from the I-110 freeway spur, Carlee and I turned left onto Beach Boulevard, and came upon the final mile to the finish after passing my friend Brian along the road, who warned that his watch measured the course a bit short, before we made the turn onto Calliavet Street and then into MGM Stadium.  After passing through the stadium's entrance way, we made our way onto the field, where we made our way around the warmup track at the edge of the stadium all the way to the finish line, crossing together in 5:50. Carlee finished her first marathon, and I finished my 59th! Sure, my watch measured 25.77 miles, short by nearly half a mile, but I chalked it up to the weather messing with my GPS.  I guessed, hmm - maybe Brian's showed that too.

Carlee and I finishing the marathon!
After much needed food and beer, my customary headstand photo, and a shower back at my Airbnb, I drove to New Orleans and got some time to see my cousin Chrissy, her husband Adrian, and their kids Lily and JD before heading to the airport for my flight home.  It was a short visit, but at least I got it in since I was already in the area!

Victory Headstand in MGM Park!
There were already murmuring online from people who had run the race and measured the course short with their watches - it wasn't only me and Brian who had watches that didn't register the full 26.2 Tuesday after the race, we got an email from the race directors apologizing the discrepancy and fully explaining what had happened.  The course was certified and measured accurately, but on race morning, an orange cone was placed 147 meters short of where it was supposed to be (parallel to the second instead of third lamppost along the I-110 out and back) and it wasn’t until the race was over when it was figured out.

Race Director Jonathan Dziuba explained:
"Here is an explanation of what happened: I personally measured the course to be submitted for certification. We had access to Interstate I-110 for only a couple hours early one Sunday morning to do so. This required police escorts and for the interstate to be partially closed. There was not enough time to measure that portion of the course two times and then make a third trip to measure and mark the turnarounds. The next time we would have access to be on the interstate would be race morning. Due to that, I measured and set marks at every light pole and interstate truss sign along that portion of the interstate. (These are all approximately 260 feet apart on average.) Once the final distance of the course was measured and verified, I had made enough marks to be able to set the turnaround(s) race morning and knew which marks to measure from for those turnarounds. The marathon turnaround was meant to be set 105' north of the interstate truss that is just south of Percy St. That is the third interstate truss sign you pass when heading north from Hwy 90. I instructed the person measuring and setting the turnaround to go 105' north of the second interstate truss mark. It was my absent mindedness that lead to communicating to that person incorrect instructions. Because of the measurement notes and verification that the turnaround was marked exactly per my instructions, I know that the marathon course was 1,555' 1" short. That is approximately .295 miles. The half marathon was executed per certification and was correct."
Of course, this was pretty devastating as this was a hard fought race to complete, and Mississippi was hard enough to get out to for people traveling in from out of state.  The RD was extremely apologetic and followed up with a resolution email offering a hefty discount to their Louisiana Marathon weekend of races the following month, as well as another resolution a few months later for a discount to the 2018 edition of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon race (once dates and logistics were settled.)  While the course shortage left a poor impression on this organization for many runners, they vowed to ensure that the course length would be heavily scrutinized for race morning the following year to ensure the complete length was covered.  I, for one will still champion the races that they put on and all the efforts their team put in to create an awesome event for all participants and spectators.

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