Monday, October 21, 2019

Race Report: Chattanooga Marathon

The Chattanooga Marathon was a very late addition to my race calendar.  As March was looking pretty empty, I actually decided to join the field barely a week before the race date itself. I was casually looking at ways to fill this hole in my schedule with a distance race, since Two Oceans Marathon in South Africa was looming in April, and I had still yet to run a marathon under 5 hours since restarting my distance runs in 2019, and Two Oceans has a strict 5 hour time cut off at the 42K mark of the 54K race.  Originally, I was considering the Snickers Marathon in Albany, Georgia, but after chatting with my friends local to the area, I ended up booking Chattanooga, while also including a brand new race the Atlanta Track Club was putting on, called the "Road to Gold," a test event for the club for the 2020 Olympic Trials which would be held exactly one year later.

The course for Road to Gold would be the final 8 mile loop that the Olympic hopefuls would be running to stamp their ticket to the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics later that year. Not only would the Road to Gold include some 1700 recreational runners, but elite runners hoping to make the Olympic Team, and wanting to test out part of this course, would start off the race.  My friend Winnie, manager of events for the ATC, also needed a national anthem singer for the race and convinced me to come down.  At the same time, as a bona fide race enabler, I got her to sign up for Chattanooga on Sunday too, allowing us a nice road trip just two hours outside of Atlanta.  I booked an easy flight down on Friday night for a decent price, and I was set for a 34 mile weekend... exactly the same amount of mileage I would be running in South Africa!

Landing Friday night was a breeze, and I took the MARTA straight toward Winnie's apartment north of town. Luckily, I had dinner on the plane ride over, so after she picked me up, we both went straight to sleep, as Winnie was going to be waking up only a few hours later in order to make it for her 3am call time at the race start.  I got to sleep in a few more hours, getting my friend Jim to pick me up at 5:45, making our way to parking at Mercedes Benz Stadium by 6:15, with ample time for me to get my bib at race central and then meet with the ATC crew handling the start shortly thereafter.

As runners began to congregate downtown, the chilly temperatures definitely pierced the air, and after a little delay due to some unforeseen circumstances (Bad Boys III filming right at our startline!) I headed to the mic to sing the national anthem.  We got to see the elite men and women start before we put ourselves behind the start mats and began our 8 mile run through the city.
Watching the Elites start

With Jim and Jessie, post race.
Like the several other races I've run in Atlanta, the course was hilly.  Most of the course contained elements of the other races I've run, notably parts along Peachtree Street and the stretch toward the Olympic Rings and Centennial Olympic Cauldron at Capitol Avenue.  I ran a surprisingly fast 8 miles, coming in at 1:15:52, a pace of 9:29 per mile.  After finishing the race, I headed over to the race central area to retrieve my race bag and commemorative scarf, also seeing the elites receive their awards. I met 2016 Olympian Jared Ward, who remarked that he really enjoyed my rendition of the national anthem, almost distracting him from the start of his race!  (Sorry Jared!)  I also posed for a few photos with friends Jim and Jessie, and caught up with my college friend James who was also running the race, before Jim and I headed to The Silver Skillet for breakfast, then back to his house until Winnie was done with her duties.

With Jared Ward after the race; and he commented on my Instagram post, too!

Mmm... dessert!
Winnie and I got on the road just before 1pm, and made our way out to Chattanooga in roughly two hours. We headed straight for the small expo at First Tennessee Pavilion, an open air covered pavilion adjacent to Finley Stadium, and home of the Chattanooga Market, a local food and arts market which runs every Sunday, May-November each year. We made our way to our Airbnb, a cute first floor apartment less than two miles away and rested a bit before we met up with my friend Ralph at Chattanooga Brewing Company for an early dinner, then retired back to the apartment for the evening.  After all, we had another early morning ahead of us the next day.

The race begins!
6am came too quickly, and we got ourselves dressed (in my case, bundled up!) and out the door to overcast skies, and the air saturated with humidity. Rain had been forecast for the area, and getting wet was going to be inevitable - however, what was initially thought of to be steady rain before dawn and throughout the day turned into a light drizzle from the 7am hour, not turning into any significant precipitation until around 11pm, some 3 1/2 hours after the race start. We sat in our car for a little bit until it was some 15 minutes til the gun, finally deciding to go out to the startline on Reggie White Boulevard - right between the stadium and the First Tennessee Pavilion, just a short walk away. They played the national anthem over the loudspeakers (yes, played it... I emailed them offering to sing it, but nope, they played an instrumental version.  Whatever.) and then we self-seeded within the corrals. Winnie and I found Ralph and we started the race shortly after 7:30am, taking off northward for about 1/2 a mile into the City Center, before turning right onto 11th Street, then right again onto Market Street.  It was 46°, super overcast, and rain in the forecast, especially for the later hours of the race.

The Chattanooga Choo Choo
Market Street is Chattanooga's de facto north-south "Main Street," where many locally owned establishments from mom and pop luncheonettes to clothing stores and other retailers are located.  Making our way southward along Market Street, we would pass by the famous Chattanooga Choo-Choo, once the Terminal Station for the city, the first train station in the south (built in 1908) to help open a pathway to connect the north from the south, mostly to connect the city of Cincinnati, to Chattanooga. After the decline of railroad passenger traffic after World War II and other means of travel becoming more popular (interstate road travel and flying), the station closed its doors to the public in 1970.  It was saved by the wrecking ball in 1973 by a group of businessmen who were inspired by the internationally known 1941 big band/swing song, "Chattanooga Choo Choo," made popular by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, renovating the station into a hotel and convention center. Within its grand Beaux-Arts style exterior, it contains unique accommodations - guests can stay in half of a restored Pullman train car - as well as amenities, such as the complex's fine dining venue, housed in a restored 1938 Class A dining car.

The Olgiati Bridge behind me
(Official Photo by the Erlanger
Chattanooga Marathon)
We continued on south, eventually turning right onto 20th Street, following the road underneath US-27 and onto the Riverfront Parkway on the west side of the city.  This road, barricaded from the Tennessee River by a largely industrial and manufacturing area, was nice and flat; as we continued north along the parkway, at one point reaching the 5K mark of the race, which I ran in a respectable 30:44 (9:55 pace). Eventually, the Tennessee River finally came into view, as did the span of the Olgiati Bridge, a simple steel girder bridge we would be running underneath. Of the four bridge crossings over the river in downtown Chattanooga, we would be crossing only two of them; this one and the Market Street bridge would be left to vehicular traffic.  This, of course, differed from Chattanooga's other marathon offering, the 7 Bridges Marathon, which takes runners across all four bridges, plus the two other bridges in the eastern part of the city near the Chickamauga Dam. This point of the race until the halfway mark (roughly the next nine miles) would be the section of the course that would be repeated twice, to begin again after a four mile detour after the halfway point of the race.

Running to the Tennessee Aquarium
Continuing along Riverfront Parkway took us behind the Tennessee Aquarium, one of the country's top aquariums, the building designed to serve as a cornerstone for redevelopment in downtown Chattanooga by reconnecting the city with the Tennessee River.  Its two buildings are organized the theme of water traveling through the Tennessee River system from the mountains to the sea. Along the river and across the street from the aquarium was Ross's Landing, the last site of the Cherokee's 61-year occupation of Chattanooga and is considered to be the embarkation point of the Cherokee removal on the Trail of Tears. Ross's Landing Riverfront Park memorializes the location, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The Market Street Bridge was to our left, the unique concrete arch bridge with a center steel-truss draw span, standing 70 feet above the surface of the Tennessee River.
The Market Street Bridge in view
Running on Veterans Memorial Bridge
Immediately behind the Market Street Bridge was the Walnut Street Bridge, the pedestrian bridge we would be running over when coming back from the other side of the river.  But first, we had to make the first steep ascent of the race, nearly 100 feet of rise over just 1/4 mile.  We powered through as we passed the modern wing of the Hunter Museum of American Art, an art museum with collections of 19th and 20th century American art situated on an 80 foot bluff overlooking the river and Downtown Chattanooga. A tiny bit more ascent was required as we rounded the corner and found the crest of the parkway, which overlooked Veterans Memorial Bridge, where we could see the faster runners running across.  We were finally treated to a bit of downhill as we made our way to a break in the siderail that took us down to Batter Place, where we ran to Georgia Avenue and the mile 5 mark of the race.  Turning left there began our trek across the Veterans Memorial Bridge, a steel girder bridge connecting us to North Chattanooga.  Year round, this bridge honors veterans by flying American flags, replaced twice a year.

The very wet Walnut Street Bridge
Once over the river, we ran along the right shoulder of Barton Avenue then made a u-turn to take the ramp downward along Frazier Avenue.  We followed Frazier Avenue to the small and compact center of Chattanooga's North Shore, being directed to utilize the sidewalks here instead of the roadway. Eventually, we turned left, onto the wooden planks of the Walnut Street Bridge.  As we passed Coolidge Park, we continued on southward back over the Tennessee River -- our run through North Chattanooga was very short. We hit the 10K mat, and I crossed in 1:03:37 -- a 10:16 pace. With the rain, it made the planks a bit slippery, so I went about running across the bridge a bit carefully.

Fort Wood
On the other side of the bridge, we continued down Walnut Street, enjoying the natural downhill, before turning left onto E. 3rd Street. We faced a brief one block ascent up to High Street as we continued southeastward, running nearly parallel to the section of Riverfront Parkway we had run early on before crossing the Veterans Memorial Bridge.  At Mabel Street, we turned right, and began our run through the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, passing first by McKenzie Arena (fittingly nicknamed "The Roundhouse"), the primary basketball arena for the UTC Mocs. The street became E. 5th, as it curved through campus, passing a few more of the university's athletic venues, then academics buildings. We veered right on Palmetto Street to begin running through the Fort Wood Historic District along Fortwood Street as the neighborhood became distinctly more residential.  At Fortwood Place, we turned right, running a block south, before turning right to run northwest on Vine Street.  Many of the grand homes in this area were converted into student apartments, designed in the Queen Anne, Tudor Revival, and Romanesque Revival styles.

We continued on back through campus, passing by the university's Fine Arts Center, then reached an area of some considerable construction - for a couple minutes, we were directed to the narrow sidewalks bounded by academic buildings on one side and chainlink fence on the other. After the library, we were finally back on the street, running a few more blocks before reaching a left turn at Lindsay Street, exiting the campus area.

Running along MLK Boulevard
Running four blocks southward on Lindsay Street, we then were directed to turn left onto Martin Luther King Boulevard to begin a 1.5 mile long run southeastward.  The nine mile mark passed, and eventually, we crossed the 15K timing mat - my split was 1:37:27, or 10:29 pace.  I had gotten slower, but I chalk it up to the hilly downtown area and bridges I had to run over!  We were now running through the heart of Chattanooga's black enterprise zone, once known as the 9th Street District, or the "Big Nine."  This area was a mecca for black music and entertainment from the early 20th century into the 1970s -- Tennessee's very own Harlem. When desegregation occurred in the late 1960s into the early 1970s, the Big Nine became a ghost town, with the black community scattering across the city, and the area becoming overridden with crime.  Colorful murals are a reminder of what once was - and over the last decade, the area has started to bounce back.

Chattanooga National Cemetery
After a slight ascent, and less than ten minutes after crossing the 15K mat, we crossed the 10 mile mat, recording a split of 1:45:12, or 10:32 pace. Passing over the railroad tracks meant that MLK Blvd turned into Bailey Avenue, and to our right was Chattanooga National Cemetery, a 120 acre cemetery with interments since the Civil War.  We would run the perimeter of the cemetery, turning right onto S. Holtzclaw Avenue. We would turn right again onto Main Street, just past the 11 mile mark.  As we continued northwest for the next 1.6 miles along Main Street, we would actually pass by our Airbnb. We ran through Chattanooga's Southside Historic District, once the urban center of industry in Chattanooga, which came to be known for its abandoned warehouses and old buildings during the mid-20th century. Today, revitalization has filled the neighborhood with the art, culture, cuisine and entertainment that has come to define the city.

We turned right onto Chestnut Street, to round our way up to 13th Street, and then left onto Carter Street, where we had run up our opening mile of the race.  The finish line lay ahead, but I was only halfway done; marathoners turned right onto Main Street to begin our second loop of the race.  It wouldn't be exactly same as the first; as we continued along Main Street to streets that were far less crowded, we crossed the halfway point timing mat to record our half marathon split.  I crossed in 2:18:17.  Pretty respectable - and it still gave me enough cushion for the second half to get my much desired sub-5 hour marathon that I've been wanting since the beginning of the year.

Running on the Tennessee Riverfront
At Riverfront Parkway, we turned left, heading south, the opposite direction of how we ran along this road two hours before.  We took a right turn onto W 19th Street, taking us through a highly industrialized area surrounded by huge warehouse buildings. The road was in pretty poor condition, too, so I had no idea where the route was taking us. We were directed up onto the paved sidewalk, along a pathway very heavily bounded by fencing on either side of us with an imposing blue gantry crane overhead.  With faster runners coming back toward us, we were now on the sole out-and-back portion of the race, taking us on the Chestnut Street section of the Tennessee Riverwalk.  We would run along this quiet paved pathway through the largely forested and isolated section of the riverfront, with views across the river to Lookout Mountain, bathed in cloudcover.  Eventually we would meet up with asphalt roadway (which I far preferred running over than concrete) as it took us underneath the US-24 highway and eventually to the turnaround point.  There was some hilliness here, but it wasn't incredibly difficult.  We made our way back to where we turned, but this time kept heading north alongside the river.
Clouds rolling in on Lookout Mountain
Rusting steel supply buildings along the race route
Over the next mile, we would run past the former Alstom manufacturing site, an area that the company had once invested some $500 million in in anticipation of a renaissance in the nuclear industry that never arrived. After selling it off to real estate developers in 2018, there are plans to potentially turn the area into Chattanooga's "West End," a huge multi-use district with new office space, residential, retail, and commercial ventures occupying the 112 acres of land.  While the overcast skies and existing imposing structures made it hard to envision such a site, it's easy to think it would create lots of exciting opportunities for Chattanooga's future.

Walnut Street Bridge, the second time.
At 16.5 miles in, we began to run along the Blue Goose Hollow section of the trail, taking us past townhomes and condo developments, complete with unique public art installations along the paved trail.  At mile 17, we returned back to the roadway to follow the course we had run in the first half of the race all the way to the finish.  The second time around of course, was a bit slower; and there were far fewer people to share the course with.  With the local police starting to allow more car traffic to utilize the streets, we were pushed to the shoulder at points, as we continued along the Riverfront Parkway. The rain also began at the mile 18 mark, and would continue all the way to the end.  My pace remained fairly steady around the 12.5 to 13 minute mile, save for the 11 minute mile I posted at mile 19, which I could attribute to the downhill along the Veterans Memorial Bridge that pushed me through. We pushed through North Chattanooga, now at this time of the day starting to be busy with people as we made our way over the Walnut Street Bridge back to the downtown, then passed the 20 mile mark, a timing mat recording a 3:41:17 split with 10 kilometers to go.  A sub 5 race was still definitely in sight, despite the obvious slow down in my pace.
Coming off of the Walnut Street Bridge
(Official Photo by the Erlanger Chattanooga Marathon)
The rain really started falling as we continued through the UTC campus and Fort Wood, before passing back through downtown and the MLK Boulevard stretch, when it let up a little. We then made our way around the cemetery.  From there on to the end, we would be on the flattest parts of the race.  The rain had begun to come down, making it a very wet last three miles, but I managed to pick up my speed after reaching 4:17:11 on my watch for the 23 mile mark with a little over 5K to go.  That sub-5 was mine.

My traditional Mile 25 photo!
The flatness definitely helped; my next couple miles would be at 11:30 and 11:13 pace, and while I was getting super cold, I knew I had that sub-5 in my sights.  I punched it and made my way through the Southside Historic District, and around Chestnut Street over to Carter Street with the finish line in view.  I ended up crossing the finish line in 4:56:49, finally getting the sub-5 that’s eluded me so far this year, and in inclement conditions. 

With fellow serial marathoner, Ken
I sought refuge inside the First Tennessee Pavilion as the rain started to come down harder again.  I found my friend Ken, who I had first met in the Bahamas back in January, not even knowing he had come here to run the race!  The bathrooms were actually nice and warm, so I ended up spending a bit of time in there, as I changed into some dry clothes.  A little while later, Winnie finished her race and after eating some post race food and her getting changed into dry clothes, we made our way back to Atlanta so I could make my flight.  Ken joined us on the ride up for his flight as well.

A photo with Ralph back in NYC!
Driving from Chattanooga to Atlanta was harrowing (thank you Winnie for getting us back safely!) and I lucked out on getting on standby for a flight leaving a bit earlier, at 5:30pm than my original 7:30pm flight... when checking the weather forecast, snow was supposed to come down quite heavily in New York City that evening. It turns out Ralph was on that same flight, and I even lucked out with getting a seat with extra legroom at the emergency exit.  It was good I got on that flight, as the later it got, the more ominous the forecast looked; the 5:30, 6:30, and 7:30 flights from ATL-LGA left and arrived on time, but the 8:30 and 9:30 flights would be delayed to the following morning.  Again, I managed to dodge a bullet!

The weather wasn't great.  Look at all those cancelled arriving flights!
A victory headstand with Lookout Mountain, and the theme of the day... clouds!

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