State #20: Alabama
Rocket City Marathon
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.
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.
The Expo and Pasta Dinner
All 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.
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
As 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.