Race: Mercedes Half Marathon
City: Birmingham, AL Date: 02/1/2013
Distance: 13.1 mi
Weather: Upper 20s (yikes!) at start, 40s by finish, but mercifully, sunny the whole time.
Course: Somewhat of a challenge in parts, but mostly through the town
Summary: Great race with friends!
When I (finally) landed in Birmingham, I took a cab from the airport to the hotel (a very short ride, in fact) and got probably the most memorable part of my trip: a 72 year old cabbie who was born and raised in Birmingham and gave me what I’ll call the “markety-elevator speech” benefits of his home town. Did you know it is the 4th largest city for finance? About there for health care?
But, I found it very cool to meet someone off the bat that loves his home town this much that he promotes it. So many times I meet people that talk poorly of their home towns – it was refreshing. He also told me something that resonated with me throughout the race, as well as my walk through town the day after: “people think Birmin’ham is flat – it is a lot hillier than people think it is – and, a lot richer than people think it is. You can’t tell that from downtown, but there is a lot of money here.” I could understand why he mentioned the hills – he is a very sharp guy and within about 30 seconds of meeting me knew I was in town for the race – but I didn’t get why he mentioned the second part of it until I walked around the city after the race. Made me glad I spent the extra day.
Remember the runner friends I mention frequently in these posts – the ones that encourage and support me? One of the biggest reasons I decided to challenge myself with this crazy 50-states goal – second only to keeping myself focused on running – was to actually meet some of those folks. I met two more this race and they were both just as wonderful, friendly and supportive in person as they had been on line. I actually chose this race because of one of them. She lives near Birmingham and has done the half marathon a couple times before and spoke highly of it so I thought it sounded like a good race to try. I figured – if nothing else – I could always drive down there (hey – I drove to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras Half in 2011, this is half as far) and have another adventure driving through the deep south. Fortunately, however, I was able to find an inexpensive flight that was cheaper for me to fly than to drive at the time, so I booked a flight arriving in the morning the day before the race and staying an extra day to sight-see, since I rarely do that (plus… that made the flight a little cheaper).
Months ago, I had set my sights on this race to be my new PR race. At the time, it had been about 3 years since I set that PR and I really wanted to break it. I figured it might help me feel better about the milestone birthday, too. I had it all figured out. That was, of course, until I broke my PR – substantially and unexpectedly – at the Annapolis Half Marathon in December. After that half, though, I ended up with a pinched nerve in my neck that sidelined me for a little over a week, and then I had what I’ll refer to as “scheduling” issues from the holidays and then work… so I didn’t get the runs in prior to this race I thought I needed, especially the long runs… I only had one double-digit run between the two half marathons and that was a brutally hilly 10-miler on the Martin Luther King holiday – a full month before this race. So… I spazzed about my race. Just a little. I just didn’t at all feel prepared and, although I knew it was all mental, I still worried. I worried that I would feel like crap. I worried I’d hit the wall. I worried that I would fall because my legs were not strong enough. With the help of friends, I brought myself off the ledge enough to keep (a little) perspective – I knew I wasn’t going to break the new PR – but I at least wanted to do it in less than 2 hours. And, not 1:59:59, either – like 1:58 or less. With the loss of training, I wasn’t even sure I’d make that.
I had to reset my goal. I just wanted to finish the thing running the whole way and not feel like crap after. If that was 2 hours, that was 2 hours.
but…. really… I wanted it in less than 2 hours.
When making travel plans for this trip, I decided that, when I could afford to do so, I would try to spend a little extra time in each city so I could walk around after the race and learn more about each town. I scheduled the trip to fly in early on Saturday so I had time to get my bib and associated stuff, check in to the hotel, sight see a little, have dinner, and pass out early. I had been under a lot of stress the weeks leading up to the race, so I hadn’t slept well leading up to the trip – all the more reason why the trip was something I really looked forward to – just going on a short vacation for a bit. I caught an early, early flight (7 am – thank you for the ride, T… especially since you’re not a morning person) from Raleigh to Charlotte (which, by the way, is a pretty ridiculous flight – the entire flight from nose up to wheels down is about 35 minutes) and then around 9 am from Charlotte to Birmingham – a flight right at an hour long. Short, easy trip, especially first thing in the morning on a Saturday when it isn’t that busy. The Raleigh to Charlotte part was uneventful, just the way I like it. However, the Charlotte to Birmingham portion was delayed due to a mechanical issue on the plane. I was not that crazy about taking that leg of the flight in a commuter jet (hate those things) so this news didn’t sit well. Once we finally got on our way, the flight was really bumpy. Thankfully, it was a really short trip. Once I landed, I got a cab – had a great conversation with the cabbie – and got to the hotel. The friends I had planned to meet already got their packets and had lunch by the time I got there, so I decided to check in to my room, settle a little, and then get my bib and go to the expo.
A week before I left on this trip, however, I had a random allergic reaction to *something* – I still don’t know what it was, but I believe it was something I had for lunch that day, and all signs point to raw carrots. My tongue began to swell, so much so that I had to go to urgent care to get liquid Benedryl and a steroid shot in my behind. Not at all a fun time and I HATE taking meds that make me sleepy. What a waste of a weekend. I had another episode two days later, so I’ve been hyper-sensitive to swelling around my mouth. The last thing I need is to have my throat close up during a 13.1 mile race, especially if it is between aid stations and nobody is around (this particular fear contributing heavily to my anxiety of not finishing or going well over the 2 hour mark – all this fear and anxiety, of course, before I was armed with the knowledge of the town’s medical prowess). As a result, I had been hyper sensitive about how I felt after I ate anything that week. I stuck to chicken and rice for lunch and dinner and when I did eat anything that could possibly be on the allergen list, I watched myself like a hawk for about an hour after I finished the last bite. It was a stressful way to live, but luckily, no incidents since the last episode on Sunday the 10th. So, you can imagine how freaked out I was when I felt a bump on the inside of my mouth that appeared there shortly after I got to the hotel – about an hour after eating some gluten free granola I had been eating all week that appeared to be safe for me. WTF? Now? Really? I had an epi-pen if things got out of hand, and, thanks to the Cabbie, I knew there were two good hospitals not too far away that would be able to handle things if I got into trouble. Still.. really? I waited for a few minutes – it didn’t itch or seem to be spreading the way the other two incidents did, but I took a Zyrtec, just to be on the safe side, and stuck around the hotel for a few more minutes, just in case.
About 30 minutes later, the bump was still there, but it still hadn’t spread and still wasn’t itchy or tingly like before. I called my dad (who is a pharmacist) to tell him as an FYI and just double-check on his opinion about the Zyrtec. I felt better just hearing myself say some of the symptoms out loud, and decided to go on to the expo.
The expo was held in Boutwell Auditorium, a theater that probably hosts mid-size concerts and events. It reminded me of the Raleigh Civic Center before they tore it down to replace it with the Conference Center we now have. The Expo was spread along the floor of the auditorium and the bib pick up was at the far end on the stage. I haven’t been to an expo set up this way before (most of the time, bib-pick up is in the front or they filter you in along the side and dump you out onto the expo floor), so it took me a few minutes of wandering to find it. Yes. It was on the stage which, yes, is elevated, but… it didn’t occur to me to look up there for the bib pick up. It wasn’t until I left the expo, walked around the lobby a few minutes and began to enter the expo again to ask for directions that I noticed it. I got my bib, shirt, and bag, and then decided to walk around the expo. I didn’t have any energy bars with me (because I accidentally left them on my counter at home) nor did I have a drink (because I didn’t want to pay to check a bag… even though I ended up having to check one anyway) so I thought I’d be able to get something to eat and drink along the route. I found some Gu Chomps, but no drinks (that I could find) or energy bars (that I could find that didn’t have gluten in them). I could see I was going to have to improvise…
By the time I finished at the expo, it was about 2:00 and I was starving. One of my gripes with all the iPhone apps that boasting “how to find places to do stuff” (closest restaurant movies, drug store, Starbucks) is that they give you the list… but you can’t see how far you are from it. Yes, the list says “you are .4 mi from x”, but I’m visual and I want to see it on a map – especially since I have problems with navigation. No filters. No way to sort the results. The few that *do* put it on a map only offer driving directions, not walking directions. I became frustrated that couldn’t find anything I wanted near where I was, so I went back to the hotel to get something at one of the adjacent places. Unfortunately, there was a break at the Comic-Convention going on there, so I had to stand in a long line behind costumed teens in big groups incessantly chatting about the convention and/or each other. Entertaining on some levels, but I was tired and hungry so my patience was a little thin. I ended up ordering a burger (no bun) and took it back to my room to eat it. I got suuuuupppppeeerrr sleepy while eating it, so I sat down on my bed to rest a little.
Three hours later, I woke up from probably the heaviest sleep I’d had in days. More remarkable to me than I didn’t move at all during that nap is that I took a nap at all. I *never* nap. That Zyrtec just wiped me out. As soon as I woke up, I got a message from one of my friends doing the race – she and her boyfriend were down in the lobby heading out to dinner and invited me. I decided I was going to stay in, but wanted to meet them so I met them in the lobby. After chatting for a while, I went back up to my room to wake up a little more and unpack my stuff to get it all ready for the next day. Soon, I found myself hungry again, and out of ideas, I decided to just order room service – another burger (no bun) and fries. Honestly, I was *sick* of burgers by the end of the day. I was still on East Coast time, and amazingly, still kind of sleepy, so I fell asleep quickly.
I set my alarm for 4:30 AM to make sure I had enough time to do stretches, hydrate, and meet my friends before the race to go over to start. I got up in plenty of time and although I was still a little groggy, I had almost 8 hours of sleep on top of the 3 hour nap from the day before, so I felt well rested. I took a quick shower, got dressed, drank some coffee and did my stretching routine. Because I had not had the mileage I usually have, I also had not stretched as much and my legs were really tight. The stretches felt both uncomfortable and good at the same time. It took me almost an entire hour to finally feel loose enough to run, but by then, I was ready to go. I ended up buying a box of Gatorade products from the hotel (some host hotels have offered boxed breakfast or products like this) because I never ended up finding a good drink for the race. It was 16.9 oz – what I usually take – but for some reason I was really, really worried about dehydration for this race, so I decided to take the Gatorade and a bottle of plain water that I had left over from the day before. As I emptied the “packet” bag I got from the expo, I discovered a Marathon bar from Snickers. I think they have gluten in them, but at this point, I was in no position to be picky and since I’m not Celiac, I technically could have it. I packed up my drinks and my bar and headed down to the lobby to meet the ladies from the run group.
I met my friends, we snapped a few photos and chatted about race attire, especially since it was going to be so cold at start and warm up quite a bit by finish. They were both running the full, and I was running the half. The course was a half marathon, but people doing the full ran it twice, so we all started together. The hometown friend described the course for us and we talked about our goals for the race. The other friend (I’ll call her the Marathon Maniac) was going to meet her Maniac group for some photos, so the hometown friend and I wished her luck and headed toward the start line. It felt very, very cold – so much so that my eyes were watering. I did not bring gloves to AL (because… I didn’t think I’d need them in the deep south), so luckily Track Shack provided some throwaways (which I ended up keeping!). I usually don’t run with gloves, but I was sooooo grateful to have these. I went to bag check to drop off my bag, and then we went into Boutwell to meet a friend of my friend who came in for the race and chat with her and her husband before the race…. and more importantly to stay out of the cold!
About 20 minutes before start, we decided to head out to start. I wanted to go to the bathroom one more time before start, so I split off and headed to the port-a-john line. After I finished, I didn’t see my friend and figured she had already lined up (because she’s fast and her goal time was 3:30, so she was likely way ahead of me) and I filed in to the 9:00mm pace corral and waited for it to start. I moved up until I got to a place where I could start to feel the body heat of others to stay warm. I only had a short sleeved shirt, long sleeved shirt, pants and gloves on, so I was freezing and ready to start warming up with a run. The start corral was under a walk way that had glass panels on the bottom and each time I looked up, you could see all the neon blue, green, pink and yellow we had on (including me). It was a pretty neat sight and I wish I had taken a photo of it…
The wheelchair participants started about 5 minutes before the runners. Between starts, the head of the Mercedes corporation in Birmingham came on the PA to start the race. He was, however, from Germany, and has a thick German accent. He thanked us for our participation, wished us luck and was to start the race. Although I have been in races that started this way before, it was noticeable – and somewhat anti-climatic – when it was time to start. He just said “ok… go”. haha. I actually heard other people around me say “that was it?”
The weeks leading up to this half marathon were so hectic and busy that I had little time for futzing around with my Garmin, let alone test it. I decided I would get a battery pack for my phone (I lost the other one I had) and use my phone to track the run. Good thing, too, because I don’t know where my Garmin even is at this point. Although I had a battery pack on, I decided to turn off the screen to save some power, which means the only method of knowing my pace at any give time was the audio cue I got every 5 minutes that told me my overall pace up to that point. It was disorienting for me because I’m a stat hound – I feel like I need to know my pace at all times so I can adjust it appropriately. Nonetheless, this was all I had, so I had to accept it. I crossed the start line, started RunKeeper, and then I was on my way.
The first couple of miles – like in most races – I spent getting through the pack. I wouldn’t say this was a huge race, but it was large enough that the beginning of the race had us all bunched up. The first audio cue came up – a little over 8:30. Great, I thought – 8:30! And then, I thought – ooooh… wait. I need to go slower. Even though I felt fine, it was just over a half a mile and I still had 12.6 to go. So… I tried slowing down. Second audio cue: just under 8:30 – huh? So I tried slowing down again and felt like I was going over 9. Third audio cue: Sub 8:20 (the 2nd mile was 8:19 over all). I was really getting worried about my pace being too fast though. I decided to just run what felt comfortable not to worry about it too much until I got to the 4.5 to 5.5 mile area or until it felt like I was dragging.
It was at this point that I really started to look at the town. The most noticeable thing to me about the downtown area was how quiet it was – nothing was going on. Granted, it was early on a very cold Sunday, but I was still a little surprised about nothing being open, no people about, and a lot of the buildings appeared to be empty. It actually made me pretty sad. Some of the photos you see in this post I took the next day and most of them were not on the route, but it should give you an idea of the kind of stuff I did see on the route
One thing I did worry about quite a bit was dehydration. I felt thirsty the day before – which I usually do after a flight – but I couldn’t tell if it was the medication, the flight, my being under hydrated generally or what. If you have read any of these blog entries, you know that I usually have to go about 2 miles in to the run. I didn’t have to go this time. I was happy, but at the same time worried. I brought 2 bottles of fluid for the trip – a 16.9 oz bottle of water that was about 3/4 full at start (I was thirsty before I left the hotel) and a 16.9 oz bottle of Gatorade I bought from the hotel. I decided to “pack” my Gatorade into my phone carrier (or, better, put my phone carrier around that bottle) and drink the plain water first. I have a tendency to be a very salty sweater, but I also believe too many sports drinks led to my dehydration issues in August, so I try to balance things a little. I sipped at thirst on the plain water until I got to just after the 4 mile mark – incidentally pretty close to the UAB hospital. By the time I got there, I had about 4 to 5 oz left of my plain water and I was sick of carrying two bottles, so I chugged the rest of the plain water when I saw a trash can ahead (hard to do when you’re running, by the way, chugging…) and tossed the empty bottle in the trash can. Ah…. felt so great to finally have one hand free!
We passed the 4 mile mark and I was starting to feel much better. I had a few moments at the end of mile 3 and the start to mile 4 where I was starting to feel sluggish, though, looking at my splits, you certainly can’t tell it (8:22 for mile 3 and 8:18 for mile 4) Mile 5 was 9:03 because I stopped to swallow the water I had chugged and throw the bottle away. Amazing how much a short stop can affect your overall time. After I got the water in my system, I felt better, though, it was around here that, according to the route map, we started climbing hills.
Remember the cabbie who told me that most people expect (as I did) Birmingham to be flat and are surprised at how hilly it is? Well… I honestly did not notice the hills. I’m not saying they were not there (believe me, I noticed them the next day), but there were not remarkable climbs that felt tough. Maybe I was zoned out in looking at the town. Maybe I was so focused on *not* feeling like crap at the end that I was paying closer attention to other things. Dunno. I just didn’t notice going up them. I did, however, get to a point where I felt like I had to go to the bathroom. One thing I liked about this race is that there were port-a-johns along the course at every water/aid station along the route – and there were a lot of stations! I counted 11 on the map, but I’m not sure if I remember quite that many – I was thinking more like one every 1.5 to 3.5 miles, depending on where you were. I found a port-a-john that I thought might be a good one – nobody was there – ok. I’ll stop. It wasn’t until I got up to it that I noticed they were both occupied… gah. And as I approached, a couple of others were approaching in front of me… gah!! I stopped anyway because I thought “ok… shouldn’t be that long, right?”
I waited for what felt like 5 minutes (it was probably only about 1 minute). My average time before the stop was 8:24. My average after: 8:56. boo! So, I abandoned it and went on to the next one. The next wasn’t until after the 7 mile marker, which is where I usually stop for refuel anyway, so it seemed like a good time to stop for restroom. Again, I found myself waiting, but thankfully, not for long. I went in, took care of business, and ran out (all things in order and no really embarrassing comments this time). I took water from an Episcopal (I think) priest, and went along my way. Because I stopped twice for bathroom, though, I decided not to stop to eat – this time, I was going to take small bites and just jog. It felt weird to run while I was eating, but I did it. I finished the last bite, washed it down with some Gatorade, and went on my way. At this point, my average time slipped all the way to 8:59. doh.
It was around here that I noticed that, somehow, I ended up at the top of a hill and was embarking on making my way down said hill. What? How did that happen? I swear I’m not an airhead, but I was racking my brain to remember the hill I climbed to get up here. It is hard to describe, but the way the hill was, when you look to your left, you see some parks and the road makes sort of an S shape around it (it looks different than that on the map, but that’s the way it appeared at the top of it). Grateful I was going *down* this hill instead of up it, though, I took a deep breath, held my body straight up, and let gravity help me. By the time I got to the bottom of the hill, I was at about 9 miles and the main thing that was running through my mind was “5 miles left… you can finish this”. I wasn’t really feeling tired necessarily, but I was starting to feel the miles a little at this point… and still confounded about how I could have possibly missed the hill getting to the top of that last one. Maybe I got a little *too* sucked in to looking around the town.
Mile 10 was relatively uneventful, other than the fact that I was stopping at every water stop. I saw a few more spectators around here, I saw people between water stops giving out stuff to runners – though, I didn’t take any of the things. I wasn’t sure what most of them were, but at one point I smelled beer, so I assume there was beer being passed out at some point. Mile 10.5 came and went without incident, though, I did think about and worry (a little) about the infamous 10.5 mile wall that tends to affect me, especially when I’m undertrained.
I wouldn’t say I felt wonderful, but I didn’t feel like I hit a wall (the photos of me after this point tell a different story, unfortunately). Mile 11… a little tougher than 10, but still, no wall. Though, I was saying “only 2 more miles… only 2 more miles… that’s like, 17 more minutes at this pace”. I knew I was going around an 8:30 pace because of how quickly my overall was dropping at this point. And how: mile 10 was 8:19. However – whatever momentum I had for the 10th mile deteriorated after I saw that 11 mile marker and the remaining miles were all just under 9:00.
I passed the marker for 12, and then for 13 (and incidentally, the photographers got a photo of me at this point with my eyes shut – *awesome*) and finally the finish at 1:57 and some change. Considering the stops, I was delighted with that time.
More than anything though, I was delighted that I didn’t feel like crap and delighted I didn’t have any allergic symptoms or have to stop.
I got my things from bag check (I have a recommendation for how they can improve on that next year – the only part of the race that seemed a little disorganized) and changed so I didn’t freeze too much while waiting for my friends running the full to finish. I walked around a bit after I changed to make sure I didn’t cramp, got some fluids in me and went to the finish line to see one of my friends finish in 3:30 – her goal and a new full marathon PR! I didn’t see the other finish, but she also beat her goal (substantially) and made another full marathon PR! I’m so proud of them 🙂
After the race, I went to the after party and met up with my 3:30 friend and her husband. She won age group, and I left after I saw her get the award. I went back to the hotel, showered, got something to eat and passed out again for *another* three hour nap. When I woke up, I was no longer hungry, but it was dark and I didn’t want to walk around alone, so I got a few snacks in case I got hungry later, played some games on my iphone and fell asleep early again. The next day, I got up early, did a shake out run on the hotel treadmill, checked out of my room, and walked around downtown for about 4 hours, snapping photos of the town until I got blisters and couldn’t find a drug store so I headed back to the hotel to hop onto free wifi and get off my feet. When I stood up to go to the airport, my legs were so tight I could barely walk… oof. I took a rather entertaining ride back to the airport with some crew from the airline I flew – they were great folks and had a great sense of humor… plus, the ride was free, so that certainly helped my finances just a bit.
Don’t try this at home, kids. Yes, while my overall fitness was OK, I did not feel quite as good as I usually do after a race. I’m not sure if it was the less training or if it was the Zyrtec in my system – maybe a combination of both – but I haven’t had a nap after a race since the 2nd one. I got lucky on this race, I think, and I don’t take that for granted. I don’t want to ride on luck because that causes injury and I don’t want that at all. My work schedule should ease a little the next couple of weeks which makes it easier to get some runs in to prepare better for Michigan… and finally take a swipe at that 1:50 goal of mine.