As I prepared for my first 26.2 of the season, I began drafting a post last Tuesday with the intention of gathering my thoughts on the upcoming race. Including Columbia, I am signed up for four spring marathons. For Columbia, my goal was to run the pace I’ve been running on my recent long runs and just see what happens to determine what kind of shape I’m in. I never published the post.
The afternoon after I began writing it, my left hamstring/popliteal tendon (still not sure which it is) started acting really strange on my final workout before the race. I did a seven mile general aerobic run with two miles at marathon pace. I felt great; the marathon pace miles were a breeze. When I slowed down, something tightened up in the back of my left leg. It was almost to the point where I couldn’t even walk, and it felt like a cramp. I stopped, stretched, and it subsided enough that I could resume running and make it to my car, but I was pretty concerned. I skipped a few of my recovery runs after that to let it “heal” and prayed it was just my body throwing a taper tantrum. I’m still not sure it was. I never published my original post and I stopped talking about the marathon altogether because I was a kind of terrified. Ready or not, race day arrived, and it was a success!
It’s a 10 hour car ride from Allentown, but count on at least 11 if you are hydrating for a marathon. We left the day before the race, which is risky to spend the day before a marathon cooped up in a car. In hopes of minimizing the damage, we took lots of breaks and made sure to hydrate well. It’s a relatively easy drive, with no big cities along the route to cause major traffic issues. Once you hit Columbia, the city isn’t too difficult to navigate and we found our way to the expo with ease.
The Expo and Course Preview
The expo was open the day before the race with convenient hours (12-9pm), especially for those coming in from out of town. They also had race day packet pick-up available, which is a relief in the event that a complete traveling disaster were to strike. We didn’t spend much time at the expo, just long enough to grab our bibs and packet but there were a decent number of vendors present. We decided to drive the course before checking into our hotel and finding some pasta.
The course is two loops, which I seem to prefer in a marathon. I’ve done three marathons with double loops (Long Branch, Marshall, and now Columbia) and I like knowing what to expect during the miles later in the race, whether it be good or bad.The map on the Run Hard Columbia site is easy to navigate, so we hopped in the car for a preview. I knew before getting to Columbia that the course would have some hills, but I was not prepared for what I saw on our drive. Lots of long climbs, both steep and gradual made frequent appearances throughout the entire course. As we were driving, I can’t remember the amount of times we would make a turn and would either go silent or say something like, “oh shit” when we saw yet another climb. Between the hamstring ordeal and the hills, I was feeling intimidated, defeated, and unprepared at this point.
The race began and ended at the State House on Main Street. It was about 35 degrees and sunny as we lined up at the start, so I wore shorts and a tank top. Within an hour, temps would start rising. The high for day was predicted to be 70 degrees so I knew the chill in the air would be temporary. As the race began, I ran the first few miles with my two friends, Mark and Bill. We only really stayed together for the first mile or so, and we went out a little faster than I’d planned. I was tempted to really crank out some fast miles because I thought I would suffer on the hills either way, but I slowed down after the first mile to conserve my energy.
Within the first two miles, my hamstring let me know it was there and not feeling 100%. That scared me a little, and it made me a little cranky for the better part of the first loop. It never increased in pain, it just let me know it was still there so I kept my pace controlled and even. Other than my first mile, my Garmin registered a 7:27 pace for the first half marathon. However, my Garmin was off from the first mile by about a tenth of a mile for some reason or another, so I knew I was running closer to a 7:30-7:36 based on elapsed time.
When I began writing my unpublished post from last week, I stated my goal time of 3:18-3:20 for this race. I’ve been doing my long runs between a 7:30-7:40 pace and wanted to run somewhere in that neighborhood for this marathon. At the start, I told Bill and Mark that I was going to run a 3:18 if I felt good once I started. As I hit the half marathon mark, I wasn’t sure what to think. I was beginning to feel less cranky and kind of forgot about my hamstring by then, but I knew I had to run the exact same loop one more time. As I was thinking about my pace and how I felt, I realized how much I enjoyed the course during the first loop, nasty hills and all.
As we departed the half marathon point and went head to head with the hills for round two, I finally felt awake and warmed up. I zoned out and when my Garmin beeped to indicate I’d hit mile 14, I realized I was going a little too fast (7:01 for that mile) and slowed down. The hills waiting for me between miles 23-25 were no joke and I needed to save some energy if I wanted to meet my goal. Once I hit mile 17, I was cruising around a 7:30 pace and still felt strong. I kept waiting to crash and for the hills to eat me alive. Around mile 20, I was starting to just feel ready to be done running.
I began negotiating with myself, trying to keep the pace below 7:45 for as long as I possibly could. I was successful until the final incline. A little before mile 23, (which was mile 10 for the first loop) the course dumps you out onto Gervais Street, one of the main roads in Columbia. The entire stretch is a climb, and the descent is after the finish line so you don’t actually get to reap the benefit of the downhill when you run the second loop. It’s long and decently steep and you’re tired, with less than a 5K to go. Honestly, to have to run a hill like that at that point in a marathon is just downright mean. It looks so deceiving. As you approach it and begin ascending, you can see what you think is the entire hill. Just before mile 24, you hit the top and realize that your legs get a break for a few quick steps before the climb continues for another significant stretch. When you finally reach the top, the course changes direction and loops to the right. The race finishes with a slight uphill grade followed by a false flat. Mile 24 was my slowest mile. I was negotiating with myself the entire way up that I’d already run really well through that point and to just hold on to an 8 minute mile until the top. It ended up being close enough, registering as an 8:02.
Most of the course is run through residential neighborhoods. Very pretty, but a small field meant not a lot of company on the course. I felt a little like I went to South Carolina and ran a marathon all by myself, because once you hit the halfway point, everyone really spread out and I didn’t see many other runners. There were lots of volunteers at almost every turn to make ensure you knew where you were going, and there were frequent aid stations so when the heat hit, you could stay hydrated. There were cones marking the entire course, and the ground was marked with chalk in areas that could potentially be confusing so there was no question as to where you should be going.
As I started approaching the finish line, the course loops onto Main Street. For a smaller marathon, I couldn’t believe the size of the crowd as I came down the street. At this point, I didn’t care how tired I was: I knew I was going to break 3:20, but since my Garmin was off by .3 of a mile at this point (so much for running the tangents of the course!), I wasn’t sure how close to 3:18 I actually was. I didn’t even try to do the math since things get a little weird in your head around this point in a marathon (you can easily convince yourself that 2+2=5 without thinking twice) so I just ran.
There was also a marathon relay and a half marathon going on simultaneously, but we all wore different colored bibs. When people saw me coming and saw my bib, they got pretty excited and started cheering for me. At first, I thought it was just because they realized based on my bib color that I was a marathon finisher. As the crowd got a little crazier the closer I got, I started to wonder how many females finished ahead of me. I only remembered passing one other female at that point, and I never saw her again. I knew I was going to run a PR, so I was super excited – but there was no way it could be fast enough to win the race. The crowd’s reaction had me questioning how many females finished ahead of me at this point.
When the finish line was close enough that I could see the clock, I saw that it could be close to the 3:19 mark so I picked up the pace and happily crossed the finish line at 3:18:46. I’m still on cloud nine, and still can’t believe it all actually happened. I didn’t really feel great during the first loop, but by the half marathon point through the finish line I felt strong. Both Marshall and Rocket City were extremely flat courses, so I was nervous that I might completely blow up on a hilly marathon course. I train on hills often, but I don’t always opt for the hardest courses when I race. Columbia is where the Women’s Olympic Trials were held in 2000, so I always knew this course would be challenging. I didn’t expect it to be as hard as it was.
It wasn’t just me running a PR that day. My friends also ran incredible races and both PR’d. Bill ran a 3:17:02 and placed 2nd overall in the master’s division, and Mark ran a 3:25:29 and placed 3rd in his age group. It was PR’s and awards all around, and it was 70 degrees and sunny. I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in front of the State House in Columbia, basking in the sun. I’m proudly sporting a sunburn on my shoulders. After the intense winter we’ve had and the crazy weather we’ve endured up north, it was amazing to run in a tank top and shorts. I forgot what that felt like.
The funniest part about the race was the finish line. I crossed, and one of the officials approached me and said, “I am in no way trying to be offensive but I have to ask for the purpose of awards. You ran the full, correct?” Half delirious, I looked at him and said, “I really want to say some clever comment about having to run all of those hills twice, but I don’t have the energy to come up with anything. So yes. I did.” That’s when I knew I likely placed somewhere, whether it be overall or in my age group.
The post race celebration had the typical food spread: bananas, bagels, apples, oranges, chips, etc. The awards ceremony began at noon, and they started by presenting the half marathoners with their awards. At this point, I thought I was the 3rd overall female. When they started calling names for the top three females and my name wasn’t called for 3rd, I figured I’d miscounted and likely placed in my age group…until they called my name for second place! It was really exciting. The first place female won by a LOT (3:04!) but I was still excited. I was 2/72 females, and 12/208 marathon finishers. It was a small race, but a huge accomplishment for all of us.
As for my hamstring, I guess we’ll see how that is when I try running this afternoon. It was present during the race but never increased in pain (although it’s more of just a little nagging sensation), and I completely forgot about it around mile 10. After the race, I stretched out for a long time and took an ice bath back at the hotel to speed up overall recovery. It just feels sore right now, like general muscle soreness. I’m hoping to chalk it up to phantom, pre-race pains but I have quite the track record with injuries so I’m proceeding with caution. I’m also using it as a good excuse to get a massage this afternoon.
Yes, there are hills and the weather could be hot since it’s down south. There’s also that 10 hour car ride. Yet despite all of that, I absolutely recommend this race. This race almost didn’t happen because the old race director canceled the original race back in October. So major shout out to the new race director, Jesse Harmon, for putting together a first-class event in just a few short months. What a great experience!