Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,--Hebrews 12:1

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Mississippi River Marathon Race Recap

The Message & the Run

Well, it was just pretty much an awesome day! I ran the inaugural Mississippi River Marathon that started in Lake Village, AR and crossed the Mississippi River to end in Greenville, MS. It was a fantastically organized race that benefits a great cause. The weather wasn't the best, but not the worst either. It was my first marathon as a Marathon Maniac and my first sub-5 hour finish. To top it all off, I got to run most of the race with some great friends and met quite a few other great folks on the course. Like I said, just an all around wonderful day!
"The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part..." -- Job 42:12

Before we get to the race report, I just have to explain that it wasn't very long ago, just two or three weeks at most, I was wondering if I'd ever PR anything again. I was still trying to build back up after last fall's knee injury that sidelined me most of October and November. As last month whizzed by, I was running, but it didn't seem like I could get up any speed. Then, just like the Lord blessed Job with more than he had before his trials, he poured out His blessings on me and things began to click again. Last week He let me PR the 15K distance by almost 4 minutes, this week the marathon by 25 minutes! I give all the credit to Jesus Christ, because it certainly wasn't happening through my effort alone.

Before the Race

I had reserved a room for Friday and Saturday night when I thought my wife might be making the trip with me. When she decided not to go, I thought it silly to go to the expense, canceled the room and decided to sleep in my Blazer Friday night. That really didn't turn out to be too bad of an idea, and it sounded even better after a friend relayed her horror story of the night before while we were on the course.

Two friends, Elena and Sandra, fellow members of the Red Felt Running Club on Facebook, both from Louisiana, were supposed to be at the race. I'd met Elena at the End of the World Marathon in December, but had never seen Sandra in person. We ran into Sandra on the course and ran with her a while. When she told me where she was from, we realized we knew each other on Facebook. Then she told us Elena friend was sick on the trip up the day before. When they arrived, they were stuck in a smoking room and neither could sleep for the stench. Then, around midnight, one of them found a bedbug in the bed and it took over an hour to get into another room. Not a good night's sleep at all for these girls, so I was pretty happy with my accommodations in the back of my vehicle. :)
"And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus." -- Philippians 4:19

And God is like that sometimes. Every once in a while, something that seems less than a blessing turns out to be a blessing indeed. I love Laura Story's song, Blessings, that does a great job pointing this out. Several people told me I could have stayed with them when they found out I slept in the car, but God knew what He was doing. He showed me this is a way to get to do a few more races without going broke. When all was said and done, this race probably cost me a total of about $200. Staying in the Blazer one more time will have saved me enough to pay for another $200 race trip!

We were bused to the start, with the first buses loading at 6 AM. Parking for the marathon was inside the levee on a huge boat ramp. I waited just in front of the buses until some friends from the Cabot Country Cruisers came over the levee and boarded the same bus with them. It seemed like it took an interminably long time to drive the 26.2 miles to the start, but we finally made it, dropped off in the middle of nowhere on the banks of Lake Chicot. There was a house a few hundred yards off and some grain bins right where we were dropped. That was it. I mean, it was the middle of nowhere.

Waiting for the buses, I saw an older man wearing a "Vietnam Veteran" hat. I walked over and thanked him for his service and we struck up a conversation. He told me this was his first marathon and asked for advice. I gave him a few tips and wished him well before he boarded the bus. Once I boarded with my friends, I was in a seat by myself. A young lady boarded and asked if she could sit with me. Turns out she was from Northern California, but currently teaching in Marianna, AR. She was placed in the delta by Teach for America, the charity this race benefits. We had a great conversation about the state of education in the delta and across the country as we rolled to the start. These were the first two of several interesting people I'd meet before I crossed the finish line.

It was much colder than I'd anticipated (and much colder than the weather channel had predicted), but thankfully the organizers had arranged a bag drop at the start. That meant I was able to wear my jacket and long pants. As the start time approached, I was dreading stripping down to my shorts and sleeveless shirt, but at 7:30 I did. They did have two large fires going. That was a plus. As the sun came up, the wind picked up and made the 30 something degree temperatures feel a lot colder. So the 400+ full marathon runners huddled around the fires and tried to stay warm until the 8 AM start. Finally the time came to drop my bag and head over to the start line.

At the start line, I met another interesting man, Felix, who I sort of knew through Facebook. We're both members of another running group on Facebook. This was to be his first marathon, even though he'd run the 26.2 mile distance on a training run not so long ago. He told me he ran his first 5K last September and now, 133 days later, he was at the start line for his first marathon. It all started, he said, in 2009 when he had a disk removed from his neck. His physical therapist told him later that he wanted him to walk. So he started walking and asked the therapist, "How far?" He was told, "As far as you can." He told me when he reached 5 miles, he just took off running. Now, 3 and a half years later, he ran his first marathon. (He finished in under 4 hours!)

This was my first marathon as a Marathon Maniac, so I got in on my very first pre-race Maniac photo too. That's me on the far left as your looking at the picture. Several people asked us today what the Maniacs were and how to join, so here's a link to the criteria to qualify if you're interested.

The Race

" 9 Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: 10 If either of them falls down, one can help the other up." -- Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

The clock struck 8 and we finally got to start! The first 3/4 of a mile carried us across Lake Chicot on a sort of earthen bridge. There was a stiff NE wind cutting through us and I was in a hurry to get to the other side and head south. It felt a little better once we crossed, but the cold didn't quit biting. About the time we got across the lake, a good friend from the Cabot Country Cruisers, Janna, either caught up with me or I caught up with her (I can't remember which). We stuck together for most of the race after that. It's always easier to run with someone on these long runs than it is by yourself, so the company was a big part of what made this a great race.

By mile 3, two other friends, Carrie and Christie, had caught up with us too. We were clipping along, averaging close to a 10:15 pace, enjoying the company and conversation. A couple of ladies joined us for a while around mile 4, one of whom was running her first marathon. They asked us all kinds of questions, about the Maniacs, about strategies for running enough races to qualify, and several other things.
"Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up." -- Romans 15:2

The funniest thing I saw during this part of the race was at the water stop between miles 4 and 5. It was warming up by now and folks were shedding their throwaway clothes they'd worn to battle the initial cold. We were leaving the water stop when a volunteer, an older man, comes running from the aid station carrying a jacket and yelling, "Ma'am, ma'am, is this your jacket?" The lady had tossed it, but he thought she'd accidentally lost it. He had a sort of bewildered look on his face when she told him, "I don't want it anymore." It was really nice to see that sort of compassion from volunteers at a race, and it's one of the reasons I love living in the south. It's a place where kindness is still considered a virtue.

Miles 1 to 6 skirted Lake Chicot's western bank. A few residents of the homes to our right were out and braving the cold wind coming off the lake to cheer us on. Lake Village, AR went all out to protect us from motorists here, with police or firemen stationed at every intersecting street. Only the northbound lane was closed for runners, but traffic was minimal and very well controlled.

At the mile 6 aid station, I had to stop and use the port-a-john. I had once again over-hydrated. By now, it was just me and Janna running together. Carrie and Christie were up ahead of us. I told her to keep going and I'd catch up. When I came out, she was probably a quarter mile ahead and it took a pretty good pace to catch up with her before mile 7. We were still running along the shore of Lake Chicot, but now on HWY 82. Again, traffic control was fantastic! The westbound lane was closed for us to run in and policemen were alternating letting west and east bound traffic through.

Around mile 7 or 8 we met another first time marathoner. I noticed he was wearing the same brand shoe as I and asked how he liked them. Turns out this was his first time to run in them. He'd injured his foot in training, but wanted to run this race. A friend had recommended the Hoka's and he decided to try them. He said he'd trained too hard and too long to drop out without even attempting to run it. We had a great conversation for a while and offered all the encouragement we could before he dropped back or we pulled ahead (not sure which it was).

Around mile 10, we caught up with the race director and a couple of folks he was running with. We talked about Teach for America and I told him I'd met some of the teachers in the race. We ran together for a while and thanked him for putting on a great race before we moved on. Then a couple from Fayetteville, who were doing a run/walk routine, passed us. We ended up seeing them several times as we passed them then they passed us. Eventually the wife dropped back and ran with us for a while, but we were running from water stop to water stop (a mile apart) and only walking a short distance as we drank. After a couple miles, it was just me and Janna again.

We reached the Mississippi River bridge, the halfway mark, at 2:19 and still feeling good. The bridge is over two miles long and the wind was still whipping. It had warmed up by now though, and the only problem it posed was the resistance pushing against us. As we neared the top of the bridge, Janna and I took each others' picture. You can tell, it's a pretty nice bridge! It was here we met Sandra (the FB friend with the bedbug horror story I told earlier). As I was taking Janna's picture, she passed us and we caught up to her a few minutes later.

As we passed, we struck up a conversation about the wind. I didn't recognize her, but something prodded me to ask where she was from. When she told me, we realized we knew each other and then the bedbug conversation ensued. But she also told us another interesting story on that bridge. She had been talking with a guy we'd passed not long before, and he told her he had donated a kidney three months prior. It's just absolutely amazing the stories you hear on a marathon course. Donated a kidney and three months later running a 26.2 mile race!
"Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;" -- Romans 5:3

Another interesting thing about crossing the bridge was the climb...it actually felt good going up! I wanted to show you the elevation profile, but I can't find it right now. Anyway, it shows most of the course as absolutely flat, except for the miles from 13 - 15 when running across the Mississippi River. Up and down ~80 feet in that little stretch, then flat again. The course was so flat from miles 0 - 12, it was a relief to be climbing when we started up! If we hadn't stopped for pictures, I'm almost certain we'd have made better time climbing through the 14th mile than we did the flat 13th just before. With the stop, we still only dropped 20 seconds from miles 13 to 14. Once on the other side though, it was flat again.

When we started down on the east side of the river, we picked up the pace a little. The past few miles we'd been averaging just below an 11 minute mile. On mile 15, going down the bridge, we dropped to a 10:13 pace again. At this point it was just Janna and I running together, but we got another pleasant surprise when Carrie caught us just past the aid station at mile 15. We were walking to finish our water and Gatorade when she popped up behind us. Christie had gone on and we were now 3 again.

This started a 5 mile stretch on the Mississippi side of the river along HWY 82 before we'd turn off into more scenic neighborhoods of Greenville. It was probably the most desolate part of the course. Thankfully, a couple of groups tried hard to break up the monotony with their version of on-course entertainment. The most memorable was the group from the YMCA. As we passed, they put on the (oh-so-appropriate) song, YMCA by The Village People. But, when they tried to do the dance, one of the guys bumped the chair and knocked the CD player off. We didn't stop, but it looked like his CD player was busted up pretty good from our view. We thanked them though, and I told him it was a valiant effort.
"not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others." -- Philippians 2:4

It was somewhere around mile 16 or 17 we picked up another guy who was struggling a little. He ran with us for a couple of miles, but his was another interesting story. He told us he was only running to help his 13-year-old son finish, but that his son was "somewhere up ahead." It's amazing to me that a 13-year-old was out there running a marathon, but here it was, another inspiring story we never would have heard except between the start and finish of that 26.2 mile course.
" 6 “Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.” 7 But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you." -- Jeremiah 1:6-7

It reminds me of the Lord's call to Jeremiah when Jeremiah tried to back out, thinking he was too young. But God basically told him nothing was outside the Lord's realm of possibility. He showed He could use Jeremiah, regardless how old or young he was. It was just one more example in the Bible that shows nothing is impossible with God. And that 13-year-old boy, running his first marathon, inspires us to remember that all things are possible through Christ.

We lost our new found friend around mile 19 as we headed for mile marker 20. I've heard it said (and repeated it many times) there are two parts to a marathon, the first 20 miles and the other half. Basically what that means is the last 6.2 miles are just as hard (if not harder) than the first 20. This is a pretty typical place to "hit the wall" in a marathon. But today, we passed the 20 mile marker, turned off that long stretch of highway, and I was still feeling pretty good.

We'd completed mile 20 at a 10:47 pace, but we slowed a little after that. We followed that with an 11:13 pace for mile 21 and an 11:46 pace for mile 22. Then, the aid station at mile 22 gave us a real boost. There they were handing out Gu and orange slices and bananas and Skittles and peppermints and I took some of everything. A friend once told me to take everything they hand you to eat at a marathon and I was taking her literally by this point in the race. I figured those folks manning that aid station probably thought I was a homeless person stuffing everything I could into my pockets. As I left there, I thought about Dan Akroyd in the movie Trading Places when he was stuffing food in his coat at the Christmas party.
"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." -- John 16:33

Just after the aid station, we turned again. Here we met another Maniac and exchanged greetings. When I asked if he was good he replied with "Good is a relative term right now." And oh how true that is after 22 miles of a marathon. I was still feeling good for the number of miles we'd gone, but if I'd been feeling the exact same at the start, it would have been a bad omen. But that's when you dig deep and lean on Jesus. He promised us we'll have trouble in life, and I promise you'll have trouble along the 26.2 mile journey to complete a marathon. But just like He overcame the world, through Him you can overcome the struggles faced on the course. We were now only 4 miles from the finish and I was drawing on His strength more than ever!

We reached the mile 23 aid station, me, Janna, and Carrie. We'd been walking a few steps at every aid station from the beginning and we continued that here. It was now that Janna stressed to me that I could go on. She had told me that several times before, but she was a little more insistent now. She knew I was feeling good and said they didn't want to hold me back. It went against my grain, embedded in me from the old Marine Corps creed to leave no man behind, but I finally relented and left her and Carrie to finish without me. I didn't feel too bad, because both are more experienced marathoners than I am and I had no doubt they would finish. So I took off.
"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." -- Philippians 4:13

We'd finished mile 23 at a 10:58 pace and I repeated that for mile 24. Just a little over 2 miles to the go and I was starting to smell the barn. A little prayer and I began to feel even better. I stepped it up and passed several people in the next mile. Some walking, some dragging. I tried to offer a little word of encouragement to each one I passed. Some responded with a meek smile, some with a look of almost hate. I didn't take offense though. I'd been right where they were. In each of my 5 previous marathons, I was in no mood to be nice at mile 24. But Jesus blessed me with strength on this day and I finished mile 25 at a 10:19 pace.

Mile 25 was the last aid station, then only 1.2 miles to the finish line. I was feeling it now, knew I had a good PR going, and was either pacing or being paced by another Maniac we'd traded places with for many miles on the course. His name was George. I only knew that because Janna had called him by name and run with him before, but we were both huffing and puffing down the stretch. We made the last turn and it was a half mile or so to the finish. About halfway down the stretch, he stopped to walk. I asked if he was okay and he said he was while offering a few encouraging words. I kept going.
"for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith." -- 1 John 5:4

Coming into the chute, seeing that clock under 4:45, my eyes teared up a little as I finished. That hasn't happened since my first half marathon almost 3 years ago. Then, I felt like I'd accomplished something great. This time, I thought Jesus Christ had accomplished something great through me. Only a month ago, I never thought I'd PR any distance ever again. But I ended up beating my previous best by 25 minutes at the marathon distance. It was an awesome display of God's power. He certainly brought me back running better than I was before.

After the Race

They hung the medal on me and I grabbed a water, an orange, and a banana. Then I headed back down the road to cheer on my friends. It wasn't long before Janna and Carrie came in, then we stood around and brought in the other Cruisers. The picture below shows most of group who ran the full marathon, but was taken with a couple of folks still out on the course. This is a great group of runners, without whom I don't know that I would have ever been able to run a full marathon.

There was great food and fare at the finish. If you're a beer drinker they had that, but if you're not they had chocolate milk, water, vitamin water, powerade, and I don't know what all else. They had fruit, pizza, donuts, chips, and all sorts of snacks too. There was live entertainment and a pretty good crowd hanging around the finish line to cheer everyone in.

I have to say this was a great race, well run and loads of fun, that I will definitely run again. Thanks to all the organizers, volunteers, runners and spectators for making it memorable and fun! I also have to give thanks to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, for calling me and equipping me to hit the roads and run the race He's marked for me.


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