Race Review: Rocket City Marathon

State  #20: Alabama
Rocket City Marathon

12/14/13

My fall 2013 marathon season has officially come to an end. After quite an interesting year, it ended on a positive note in Alabama with a new PR of 3:22:03 and 3rd place in my age group! Several of my friends also attended the event: Mark ran the race and also achieved an incredible PR of 3:27:51, and Bart Yasso flew down to be the guest speaker at the pasta dinner.

It’s always a unique experience when Bart is present, because I get to experience the event differently than if I were traveling solo. His company and stories about his experiences are always unmatched, and he always introduces us to some of the most interesting people. While attending the race festivities throughout the weekend, I had the opportunity to meet some truly inspiring new friends. I’ve met some really cool people at the last two marathons and it’s been another facet of the sport that I’ve been enjoying.

Getting There

Huntsville is just a hop, skip and a jump away from Allentown. I was fortunate to have no travel delays and landed in Huntsville ahead of schedule. It could have been a total disaster since I flew out on Friday for a Saturday race. By the time my friends landed, we had ample time to check in at the hotel, clean up, and take a short nap. Later in the afternoon we headed off to Bart’s shakeout run, the expo, and the pasta party. Downtown Huntsville is cute: Big Spring Park is in the center of town and is lined with trees decorated for Christmas. It looked like different local groups decorated their own tree lining the path that winds through the park. It’s a small city, with only a few tall buildings but lots of beautiful historic homes lining the streets.

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Christmas trees in Big Spring Park

The Expo and Pasta Dinner

20131216-142315.jpgAll race related activities were held at the Holiday Inn in downtown Huntsville, and it seems as though it’s been held there since this race began 37 years ago (I’m sure this isn’t the case, but it’s clearly been an iconic part of the race for many years). This is the last year the Holiday Inn will be open, and the hotel closed its doors after the runners checked out on Sunday. Since I’ve been frequenting the small town marathons lately, I didn’t have high expectations for the expo. It was small, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were several vendors set up with some great deals on gear. The southern hospitality kicked in from the time I entered the city, but the volunteers at the expo were truly some of the kindest and friendliest people I’ve met.

The pasta party was quite the event, and the people down south really know how to throw a party. Though it had the usual pre-race foods (pasta, red sauce, salad, etc), the dinner began with a fashion show with items from the new line of Nike apparel. Bart was the guest speaker, so we sat with him and the race directors during the dinner. I knew this marathon was going to be special after being introduced to the crew responsible for organizing it. The race is conducted by the Huntsville Track Club, and they are dedicated to hosting a high quality event. The husband and wife team, Dink and Suzanne Taylor, are in charge of the event and put on a quite the class act. From start to finish, their personal touches set this race aside from others. There is no half marathon, and everything has a true old school feel to it.

Race Day

The race morning weather forecast looked evil, with rain looming over the day like a black cloud. It was pouring as we left the hotel and headed to the starting line, located outside of the Holiday Inn. I obsessed about what to wear since we were running in the cold December rain, and ultimately chose a long sleeve tech shirt and crops. Almost as if on cue, we pulled up and the rain stopped completely. I couldn’t believe it.

The Holiday Inn allowed us to use their facility to stay warm and dry before the race, which was an added bonus. With 10 minutes to the start, the race officials fired a gunshot to warn runners to make their way to the starting line. Just like the Marshall Marathon, I found myself lined up with the 3:25 pacer. After getting to Huntsville, evaluating the course and taking note of how I felt, I decided to attempt a PR and had several goals as I began the run:

  • Goal A: 3:19. I would start the race and see how holding a 7:30-40 felt. If it felt like a lot of work in the first few miles, I would abandon this so I didn’t burn out.
  • Goal B: Break 3:24:45. If I started with Goal A, I would already be on pace for this and could hang on somewhere in the 7:45 range be successful.
  • Goal C: Break 3:30. Hang on to 8 minute miles.
  • Goal D: Run another Boston Qualifier (sub-3:35)
  • Goal E: Finish in under four hours (I had to face reality: it was my 7th marathon of the year after two significant injuries. I had to have some sort of realistic goal in the event my legs decided to say “eff you, I hate you“).

3:22:03 meant that the winner was Goal B. The first two plans resulted in a PR: Goal A was a reach goal, and Goal B was more realistic. Under the right conditions, both are attainable goals. I was on pace for Goal A  through mile 21 and held a solid 7:35 through that point. I kept a solid sub-8 minute pace through mile 24, and the last two miles were a little over an 8 minute mile.

Five different plans might be overkill, but it’s my little secret to avoid mental breakdown when hitting the inevitable wall in the marathon (or any race). No matter how hard you train and prepare, there are always uncontrollable variables and a good chance that you could have a less than perfect day. Even on an optimal day, there’s a good chance there will be a moment (or many moments) when you are doubting yourself or begin to feel fatigued. If I run with one rigid, specific goal time in mind and start to get off pace it’s likely that I will feel overwhelmed and to lose confidence in myself. Regardless of how unprepared I may seem before a race, I always have a loose plan to resort to in the event that I feel like complete shit.

It’s difficult to describe the course in detail since it’s very residential. The developments are beautiful, and there are lots turns. I realized this early on so I gave it my best effort to run the tangents, but my Garmin still registered 26.34 miles at the finish. I don’t think the course was long so much as I probably was not careful with the turns when I began to fatigue. It reminded me very much of training runs through Bethlehem but without the monster hills. I enjoyed the course, but it was the atmosphere that the race directors and local track club set that made this race truly special.

The volunteers and police officers assisting with the event are top notch. When looking for volunteers for the aid stations, Suzanne recruits spirit teams and offers a monetary award to team that does the best job motivating runners. The local high schools and businesses get involved and they are a welcomed sight along the course, since there are few spectators. Aid stations supplied Powerade and water, and two of the stops provided GU. Along the course, there were volunteers with stopwatches that registered your time chip. They read your personal splits out loud as you ran by. Since there are a numerous turns, there are many areas that require traffic control. The Huntsville Police department was at every single turn and made sure that the runners always had the right of way and could proceed safely. I never felt confused as to where to go or worried that I would be hit by a car.

Until mile 21, I had my sights locked in on that 3:19. Once you hit mile 20, it’s a slight uphill grade almost to the finish line. This course is by no means hilly, but there is a slight grade that was enough to get the better of me by mile 21.  Somewhere after mile 24 you emerge from the residential area and hit downtown Huntsville as you near the finish.

The Finish Line and Award Ceremony

20131216-142302.jpgAs you come through the chute at the finish line, the volunteers personally walked with each runner to make sure they were physically okay. There was mylar blankets, water and Powerade at the finish line, but the post-race food spread was set up inside the hotel. That was especially nice because of the damp weather situation and provided a comfortable place to relax and stretch. The food selections ranged from the typical post race bagels, chocolate milk, bananas and fruits, to volunteers preparing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on various breads and serving piping hot vegetable soup.

The award ceremony was also located in the hotel, and was held after the finish line was closed. It began at 2:30 and there was an incentive for all runners to stay: a random drawing. At the end of the award ceremony, two random runners were chosen to walk away with checks for $500. Each. You would not believe the amount of people that didn’t stick around! As the overall and age group awards were given, you could really see how close knit the running community is in this town. The members of the track club announcing the winners spoke personally about the local runners if they were award winners.

Post Race Dinner and Party

Since the Holiday Inn was closing, the course will be changing next year. To celebrate the end of an era (the course, the hotel), there was a post race dinner that runners could pre-purchase tickets for. After the dinner, there was a free party for all runners. Since I knew I would be in town, I attended. We had the opportunity to mingle with other runners, and meet people that you otherwise would not have had the chance to meet.

I loved that this event was just a marathon. No relay, half marathon, 5K or 10K along the route. I am not discounting other distances, but I often like when races (whether it be a 5K or a marathon) have their own day. I highly recommend this race to anyone considering running their first marathon (or maybe just anyone who fancies a weekend in Huntsville). It is truly a marathon for runners.

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Marathon on Deck: Rocket City, Alabama

I’m finding it increasingly challenging to sit still this week. It’s not really the fact that I have to run a marathon this weekend. It’s the fact that I have to run a marathon on Saturday. For some reason, Saturday races always seem little more stressful. I never think about it when I’m registering for a race, but as it gets closer I get anxious. I’m still excited about it and it’s already Thursday, so now all I have left to do are some shakeout miles and some last minute errands. I planned to run the Rocket City Marathon over the summer and booked my airfare back in July. I’m on edge because I’m flying out the day before the race. I had a bit of a catastrophe with a similar situation when I was flying to Washington for the Vancouver Marathon, and arrived later than anticipated.

I’m aware of how risky my travel arrangements for this weekend are, particularly since it’s December and we’ve had some recent snow squalls. Last weekend, it iced so badly that the Dallas Marathon and St. Jude Memphis Marathon were actually canceled. This is the latest I’ve run a marathon in December. Last year I ran Rehoboth, but that was a week earlier. In my defense, I booked my December flight in the middle of July, during a heatwave. Snow and travel delays were the last thing on my mind. Lesson learned. Now all I can do is prepare for the unexpected and pray to God that everything goes off as scheduled. 

The Good: My flight leaves at 6:05 a.m. from Allentown. If all goes according to plan, I could be in Huntsville by 11:11 (fingers crossed). If all doesn’t go according to schedule, it does leave some time to get things sorted out. I land in Detroit before 8 a.m., and I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t know that it is a 9 hour and 27 minute drive from the airport in Detroit to Huntsville, Alabama. Oh yeah, and the expo actually goes until 9 p.m. Winning.

The Bad: My flight goes through Detroit. Why did I think flying across to Detroit and then down to Alabama was a good idea? There’s a flight that goes through Atlanta and a few of my friends are on that one, but did I pick that one? Nope. Way to go, Allison. Let’s also discuss the fact that I’m traveling on Friday, December 13th. Friday the 13th. I’m not really superstitious, but really? There is no race day packet pickup, and friends can’t pick up packets for anyone else. So even though I have people heading down there separately from myself, it might not even matter. There is a little bit of a silver lining, though. One of the friends heading down on the flight through Atlanta happens to be Bart Yasso, and he is the guest speaker at the race. I am hoping that if I get delayed, maybe the race director would let him pick up my stuff. I mean, it is Bart Yasso. If he stole my packet and ran the race, I’m fairly certain that people would be able to figure that one out pretty quickly.

Okay. Breathe. Focus. I should probably start packing. I’ve done all of the planning I can do. The rest is out of my hands. 

In a perfect world, I’d like to get to Alabama, grab my rental car and run a few shakeout miles before going to the expo and settling in to the hotel. I’m also supposed to be attending the pasta dinner. Who knows what tomorrow will bring. Whatever it is, I will make the best of it and make it work. I’m trying my best to replicate race week from before the Marshall Marathon in terms of running/cross training efforts, food, and rest. I got a pre-race massage last night, and I’m sporting my sexiest pair of compression socks. The best thing I can do right now is focus on the variables that I’m in control of and take care of myself. I don’t care if delayed we get on the way home – I just want to get there on time.

So on the bright side, there’s this:

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That’s right. 93 feet of elevation change from the start to the finish. It’s a freaking fast course. When I initially signed up for this race, I targeted Rocket City as one for a PR and set a goal time of 3:25. Until a month ago, when I ran Marshall  in 3:24:45. Now what? Should I just shoot for the 3:30 range and call it a season? Or use the McMillan pace calculator with my 5K time from Thanksgiving week and shoot for the goal race time it spits out for the marathon? I feel as though I’ve written this same crazy, indecisive post before. Oh wait. I have. Twice.

Part of my plan is just to see how tomorrow goes. If the traveling goes off without a hitch, then I can evaluate how I feel and go from there. Most likely, I will get up on race morning and prepare as usual, show up at the starting line and do what feels good that day. So, I’m Huntsville-bound and ready to knock off another state!

As Easy as Pie…for Breakfast?

Last week, I shared a recipe using wheat berries as a base for a hot cereal. While I’m still really digging that, I’m still kind of stuck in Thanksgiving mode. I love the flavors, warmth and comfort that Thanksgiving foods represent. I opened a huge can of organic pumpkin to make a Pumpkin Roll for Thanksgiving, and didn’t want the leftovers to go to waste. Thanks to my sister-in-law, I learned that Wegmans was stocking the holiday flavors that the non-dairy milk brand, So Delicious, puts out each year. Coincidentally, one of the flavors is Pumpkin Spiced Milk. Hmmmm. Sounds like I need to come up with a recipe for a pumpkin inspired baked oatmeal while I’m on a breakfast kick.

Oatmeal? Baked? What? A few summers ago, my yoga friends and I discovered the baked oatmeal phenomenon. There’s a great little cafe in Emmaus called “Baked“, and it serves baked oatmeal as one of their specialties breakfast items. Of course, after eating there a few times, I had to recreate my own version of this fun twist on classic oatmeal. It’s super easy: rolled oats combined with a liquid (milk, almond milk, soy milk…pick your poison), a sweetener, and whatever “fixings” you like. Mix it all together, dole out individual servings, and bake it. The result? A cross between oatmeal “cake” and a bowl of hot cereal. It’s filling and versatile, since you can really add whatever ingredients you want. So, Pumpkin Pie Baked Oatmeal. Enjoy. Or, come up with your own variation and share the love!


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Pumpkin Pie Baked Oatmeal

Serves 4

  • 2 cups of rolled oats (I love the Bob’s Red Mill brand!)
  • 2 cups milk of choice, divided (needless to say, I chose to incorporate the Pumpkin Spice milk)
  • 1 cup of canned pumpkin
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • 6 tablespoons of 100% maple syrup, divided (or sweetener of your choice)
  • 3 tablespoons of chopped walnuts, divided (or pecans…or your nut of choice)
  • 2 teaspoons of cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon of kosher salt
  • 4 oven safe bowls
  • Butter, oil..something to grease the bowls with!

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine the oats, 1 cup of the milk (I used 1/2 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk and 1/2 cup Pumpkin Spice milk), the canned pumpkin, vanilla extract, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, 4 tablespoons of the maple syrup, and 2 tablespoons of the chopped walnuts. Mix well to combine ingredients.

Grease your bowls (I used 8oz glass pyrex dishes greased with a teensy bit of butter) and distribute mixture evenly between bowls. Bake at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes. Using a knife, carefully loosen your oatmeal from the pyrex, and flip into a cereal bowl. Top each serving with 1/4 cup more of milk, 1/2 tablespoon of maple syrup, and a sprinkle of chopped walnuts.

You can add anything you want to the oatmeal mixture or as a topping to jazz it up. Raisins, brown sugar, nut butters, shredded coconut, chia seeds, etc. The possibilities and variations are endless. I was just aiming to use up my leftover pumpkin puree, so I stuck with the traditional pumpkin pie flavors.

Too much work to prepare in one morning? I made all four servings, covered them, and put them in the fridge. In the morning, I used my toaster oven and baked them on 375 for 20 minutes in there. Voila. Easy, healthy, filling breakfast.

Thanksgiving, The Turkey Trot, and The “Peak” Week

The Rocket City Marathon is less than two weeks away, and I’m getting excited. Excited to add another state to the “completed” list, take a trip to Alabama, and wrap up the Fall 2013 marathon season. Last week was my “peak week” of training for the race, topping out at 51 miles. It included a track workout, the Bethlehem Turkey Trot, a general aerobic run, a recovery run, a medium long run, and a long run. I’m enjoying being back into a routine, but looking forward to starting fresh and scaling back my mileage after the marathon as I begin to prepare for my spring races.

It was a nice change of pace to get out on the track last week. By the time I was scheduled to complete track workouts in the spring and fall, I was injured. Prior to Marshall, I did several tempo runs, but zero work on the track. Last Monday, I headed to Muhlenberg for an 8 mile run with 5×800 meters at 5K pace. I realize that a few track workouts probably won’t change much at this point, but I enjoyed it anyway. I’m looking forward to spring track workouts as I begin preparations for Boston (and my other spring marathons, of course). My new gym has an indoor track, so when the outdoor tracks are covered in snow, I won’t have to worry about suffering through intervals on a treadmill.

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Thanksgiving rolled around, and I always run on Thanksgiving. I did a seven mile general aerobic run that included some of the infamous Honeysuckle Road hills. It was dark out when I began so I only did part of my run on the mountain, but it was enough to get some hills in and kick my ass before spending the rest of the day eating. As I descended the mountain and headed home, I was confronted by two dogs. Honeysuckle Road is somewhat of a back road so I understand owners letting their dogs out. The dogs jumped the electric fence and growled at me in the middle of the road until their owners called them in. The owners saw me, but they didn’t acknowledge my presence or seem to think there was a problem. This wasn’t my first encounter with dogs while running, and it always gets me fired up.

WARNING: If you are a dog lover, you may want to skip the following rant. Maybe it means I’m a terrible person, but I’m not a dog lover. I like my friends dogs, but I really dislike strange dogs. I’ll admit it: I’m afraid of them – particularly larger breeds. Personally, dogs off a leash in an area where they can end up in the middle of a road or chasing after pedestrians, runners, and cyclists is unacceptable. I’m sure Thursday wasn’t the first time that those dogs jumped the electric fence, especially since the owners didn’t seem concerned by the situation. It’s dangerous for people passing by to be confronted by dogs (particularly aggressive dogs), and dangerous for the dogs to be in the middle of the road. Never mind the people or animals they are chasing after: they could end up being the cause of an accident, or get hit by a car. I’ve been out running in the parkway or on other local trails, and owners are constantly walking their dogs without leashes. I disagree with this. You never know when even the best behaved dog is going to take off after something, or just snap at someone. It’s just my opinion, but dogs belong on a leash or in an area where they can’t roam free.

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After my encounter with the dogs, I finished my run and headed over to the Bikram studio for a sweaty Thanksgiving day yoga session. It was good to warm up after being out in the cold and great to stretch out from the run. I had a different instructor this time, but she was just as good and my positive opinion of the studio remains unchanged. Seems like a lot of work for a holiday, but I was showered, cleaned up, caffeinated and cooking with my mom by 11:30 a.m. Between the good company of my family and friends, the delicious food, the run, and the yoga, it was a great holiday.

20131130-142958.jpgThe Bethlehem Turkey Trot was held on Saturday. I’m not really sure why it’s not held on Thanksgiving – maybe because they don’t want to compete with other local races. I couldn’t decide between Saturday’s Turkey Trot or the Pumpkin Pie 5K on Thanksgiving. Based on what I’d planned mileage-wise for the week, the Turkey Trot fit better into my schedule and is closer to my house. I’ve done both races in the past and know that both courses are a little bit hilly. On one hand, the Turkey Trot has better shirts. On the other hand, if you place at the Pumpkin Pie race, you can win a pie. I really like pie. Since I had the track workout earlier in the week and overindulged a lot little on Thanksgiving goodies, I wasn’t sure if a fast 5K was in the cards. After some debate I chose the Turkey Trot since it fit into my schedule, was closer to home, and has decent swag.

The morning of the race was cold and sunny, but thankfully no wind. The race start was 9 a.m., which meant I could sleep in. The start is behind the Hotel Bethlehem and is flat for about the first half mile, as it begins on Old York Road. As you turn right onto Union Boulevard, the climbing begins. There’s a hill on Union, and as you climb it you turn right onto Main Street and continue the ascent until the corner of Main Street and Broad Street. It’s not that it’s a particularly steep hill, it’s just long. Once the downhill on Main Street begins, it’s easy to kick up the pace because it’s downhill shot for the rest of the first mile and into the second mile. The second mile starts flat and heads towards the towpath, but turns around at the cul-de-sac to head back. Around mile 2.5, you’re climbing again as the course loops around the Bethlehem Library. From the top of that hill, it’s all downhill to the finish.

The first set of hills seem so easy because it’s at the start of the race and your adrenaline just takes over. I was on pace to PR until I hit the library hill at mile 2.5 and started to lose time. I lost the chance to PR at that point, but I knew could still get relatively close. I ended up running a 20:40 (15 seconds off of my PR), placing 1st in my age group, the 4th female overall, and the 44th finisher out of 1,398 runners. I haven’t touched my 5K PR in a long time, so I was thrilled to come close and to win my age group! Such a fun morning.

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Between the track workout, my Thanksgiving run, and the Turkey Trot, last week was pretty eventful. At this point, I have one more key workout (another track workout) and it’s all about the taper to Rocket City!