While hardly a racing veteran, I've done enough marathons, half-marathons, 5- and 10K's that I know what it takes for me to really love a race, and it doesn't always come down to my chip time. Several factors need to come together for me to not only appreciate that an event is more than just another run, but to know before I even toe the line that it's a race I will definitely want to do again.
As soon as we arrived at Turner Field and saw the droves of runners - some in turkey get-up, others in Pilgrim or Indian-inspired attire - I knew it was going to be a fun day. Everyone was smiling, albeit shivering, and excited. Journey blared from the speakers. The port-a-potties were plenty and the lines were small. All in all everything made for an easy, unfrazzled start.
I positioned myself toward the front of start wave B with the 1:45 pace group, figuring I could stick with them for a couple miles to prevent from going out too fast. The gun went off for start wave A at 7:30 and we were at the line and off by 7:35. My goal was to make miles 1-5 feel easy. I wanted to settle into a natural pace and avoid the urge to get impatient and pass people. That lasted 2 miles.
When I felt myself having to shorten my stride and really hold back, I decided I was warmed up enough and made my way around the pace group to go find the next one. A few other 1:45-ers went with me. The weather conditions were absolutely perfect: brisk, clear, no wind. I'd barely started to break a sweat in the first couple miles so I knew I could start to push a little and find my goal pace. Having forgotten my watch like the genius I am though, I had to rely on my legs' natural stride and the music on my ipod. Prodigy is a good pace-setter.
I had anticipated some decent hills and did most of my longer runs around my own neighborhood, which include some killers. I figured whatever the course had in store, I'd be more than ready for. What I didn't expect was for the first half to be mostly flat or downhill. Someone who doesn't know Atlanta better would have been lulled into a false sense of security. I knew better, so I had to get into "cruise" mode for miles 6-8. I focused on maintaining effort on hills (keeping the same breathing rate, even if it meant slowing a little) and opening up my stride while resisting speeding up too much and pounding too hard on the downhills.
It was around mile 7 that I wished I could actually capture the moment I experienced on film. We were coming up over a hill on a bridge that crosses the highway, just as the sun was rising up above the buildings and the boys choir in the Rolling Stones song "You Can't Always Get What You Want" fades to the simple 2-chord progression on an acoustic guitar. Talk about a picture perfect moment- the still morning air, feet moving seemingly in unison, poufs of vapor rising up over the sea of runners like a morning fog. Usually, I just run. And I definitely don't really soak up my surroundings when trying to PR, but this particular scene was just too perfect to ignore.
Those few minutes of calm soon gave way to a rising chorus and the mile marker that indicated it was time to dial it up a notch. I knew that miles 8-13 were mostly uphill (how kind, they gave us a .1-mile downhill just before the finish line), so it was time to put my hill work to the test. Each hill felt progressively harder but I had a song to match each climb that gave me the adrenaline I needed to push through and not care if I felt like I might puke. I can't believe that my eyes only watered and my stomach only threatened to revolt just once during the whole thing. I was in the glorious negative split territory despite the elevation changes and I was NOT going to let that slip.
By mile 12 the course clock read 1:37 or so, which I knew was 5 minutes ahead of my actual time, so I pushed hard and I would guess that I probably clocked a 7-minute mile for the last one. Again, no watch on me, so I was just running by feel. And I have to say, I highly recommend it. Say what you want about treadmills, but they have helped me hone my stride and be able to tell how fast I'm going at any clip.
Coming up over the last bump, the Olympic rings are overhead and I thought about the amazing gift that is this body, and all we are able to do with it. Sure, yesterdays' run was no herculean feat by elite standards, but that's not to say that people crossing the finish line weren't pushing themselves just as hard as the athletes that have competed in Olympic stadiums around the world. About half the field consisted of first-time half-marathoners. On Thanksgiving, a day that has become purely about indulgence and excess; ridiculous amounts of food followed by insane squandering of money on Black Friday. These first-timers, instead, chose to wake up at 5:00 AM, stand in the cold for an hour or more waiting for the start, and run their butts off for 13.1 miles. We are amazing, weird, and dedicated creatures, us runners. And I'm always proud to be a part of such a huge team.
As I approached the finish line, the course clock was closing in on 1:45 which I knew meant I had to run it hard to make my goal. Officially, I PR'd by about 4 minutes, crossing the line in a time of 1:39:51.
It was such an amazing day and a fantastic race. I wish I could retrieve the visual memory I have of the event and put it on video for you. The people cheering, the dogs barking at us (and each other) in Piedmont Park, the guy who I ended up pacing with who ran the whole way carrying an American flag in honor of a fallen soldier. Never have I experienced such an inspiring race and I can not wait until next Thanksgiving.