The adventure started on the drive down Friday night. One reason this race is hard to pass up is it's only 3 hours from home. That means I can work all day Friday, drive to Greenville, and get to the expo before packet pickup closes. That still leaves me time to eat a good pre-race meal and get to the hotel in time for a good night's rest before a Saturday race. This time though, about halfway to Greenville, it started to snow. The closer we got, the harder it seemed to fall. Luckily, the temperatures had been in the mid to high 30s so it wasn't sticking on the roads. Still, I never said anything that night, but I was starting to worry the race might end up canceled. This picture is from our hotel window, just before we went to bed.
One awesome surprise was the proximity of our hotel to the race finish line and the departure point for the buses to the start line. For years, I've booked rooms with Choice Hotels, because they're usually reasonably priced with clean, comfortable rooms. When I made reservations for Greenville, I ended up at the Rodeway Inn. I never thought to check the location, just figured I'd find it when I got to town. So after we picked up our packets, while we were eating, I looked it up on my phone. When I saw it was right downtown, I told Janice, "This is really close to the finish line and the buses." Last year, I slept in my Blazer on the street in that same area. (Janice wasn't with me last year, so I didn't mind roughing it.) But when we got there, it was even closer than I realized. The finish line was adjacent to the hotel parking lot, and the bus departure point was a block away! This pic is from the hotel window of the finish line. Not bad for 60-something dollars a night.
And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books ~ Revelation 20:12
My bib number for the race was 2012, so I started looking for a Bible verse that corresponds to that number. I didn't have my computer on this trip, so I was fumbling through my Bible app on my phone before finding Revelation 20:12. So getting ready, heading out, and running the race, I thought about how grateful I am that my name is written in that book of life, and hoping and praying that others who are lost find their way to have their names written in that book as well.
I had several opportunities to share Amanda's story as well, starting before the race at our hotel. The regular breakfast hours began at 6:00 AM, but the staff got it out and ready for runners at 5. I took advantage and found biscuits with peanut butter and jelly pretty appealing for a pre-marathon breakfast. Also enjoying the pre-race fare were several women from Little Rock wearing TEAM 413 race shirts. They recognized me from last week's River Trail 15K and asked about the sign pinned on my back. So even before the buses loaded, I was able to share.
After breakfast, it was a short walk to the buses, only a block. So we left the hotel just minutes before 6 AM. I climbed aboard the first bus and saw my friend Rick in the first seat. I sat with him until the bus filled up and a race organizer boarded who needed the seat. Then I made my way to an open seat toward the back. I sat next to a man from Houston and we got to know each other a little for the next hour. The buses were supposed to begin leaving at 6, but we sat in place on the bus until 6:30, when the final bus was supposed to depart. This had a few people grumbling, but I don't think they realized just how much of a blessing this was. I knew, because I ran it last year, that when we arrived at the start area we would clear the bus and be left standing in the cold until the race started at 8. I was perfectly content to wait on the bus and minimize our time spent with almost 400 people trying to huddle around a fire for an hour to wait for the starting gun to fire. So, to the organizers who decided to postpone the departure of the buses I say, "Thank you! Great decision."
They had three fires going behind a long row of port-a-potties. Between the fires and the start line was a tent where drop bags were collected. An added amenity that I don't remember last year was a table with folks serving coffee. It might have been there last year and I just forgot, but this year, in the sub-freezing temperatures, standing on the snow covered ground, it was sure a welcome sight that I won't forget!
After the last buses unloaded, the obligatory Marathon Maniac photo was taken. I know several Maniacs didn't make it because they were waiting to use the bathroom, but we still had a pretty good group for the picture. Here's the Maniac photo and a 3600 video I shot to show the staging area for the start.
At 7:50, the call was made to head for the starting line, about 200 yards from the staging area. We migrated that way as a herd and lined up behind the start. I love this part of the event because you get to see so many people that you run into at races all over. Lots of well-wishing, luck-wishing, handshakes and hugs. The Star Spangled Banner played over the portable sound system, and a couple minutes later we embarked on our 26.2 mile journey.
From the start we headed sort of northwest, across Lake Chicot and into a wind that weather.com had assured me for days would not be present. It wasn't far to the left turn that would start us heading south around the biggest part of the lake, but it was plenty cold until we reached it and put the wind at our backs. At this point, we had a little more than 12 miles to go around North America's largest oxbow lake.
Those first few miles we ran on pretty much a southerly course, with the lake to our east and mostly homes to our west. There were a few residents out to ring cowbells and cheer us on, but most of the people we saw on this part of the journey were city and county police, fire, and medical personnel who served to control the traffic and keep us safe. There were lots of side streets connecting to the route, and these folks blocked them all to protect us.
Before I reached the first mile marker, my friend Rick had caught up to me and we stuck together for the majority of the race. We passed a couple of folks at one time on this part of the course who asked about my sign, giving me another chance to share Amanda's story. At mile 5, I took the picture below. The wind was still at our back and it didn't feel bad at all at this point.
At mile 6, we left the residential area and turned left onto highway 82. We were still on the shore of the lake, but now heading east with about 7 more miles before we reached the river for which this race is named. Though there were plenty of lake shore homes between us and the water, the four lane highway made this stretch a lot less scenic and made for a lot less crowd support than the first 6 miles. Through here, I was glad to have someone to run with. We reached mile 10 and I tried to post the pic below to Facebook, but had no service.
It was right at the mile 10 marker the highway was under construction and down to two lanes. Here again, the fantastic law enforcement folks kept us safe, allowing traffic to use one lane and us to use the other. We only had 3 miles left before we'd reach the bridge.
We got to the 13 mile marker and began the only ascent on the marathon course, the trek to the peak of the span across the Mississippi River. The bridge seemed longer than I remembered from last year. I was thinking it was right at 2 miles across, but I learned it was really closer to 3. The first mile and a little more was the climb, then it seemed to flatten out for a mile or so, then the descent on the Mississippi side was about a half to three quarters of a mile. At mile 15, I took another picture to update my Facebook friends, but again I had no service. This would be the last picture I'd take on the course because my battery was bad low.
When we finally reached the end of the span, we were a short distance from the mile 16 marker and aid station. The four or five miles from the foot of the bridge to mile 20 are really the least scenic of the entire course. But the good folks from Mississippi do a good job of breaking the would-be monotony with enthusiastic crowds at several cheering stations. There was a Mississippi State University cheering station, an Ole Miss cheering station, a group from the YMCA, and a couple of cheering stations from local churches that kept this stretch from being a killer that it might have otherwise been.
At mile 18, we passed a young lady who mentioned my sign. She told me she'd read my race recap from last year when she researched this race. Turns out she is a preacher's wife from New Orleans and this was her second marathon. Her second was supposed to be St. Jude, but she became a Memphis Marathon refugee when it was canceled last December and used this race as its replacement. She ran along with us and we talked about our Running with Amanda ministry and her running history.
My buddy Rick decided to pull back at mile 20 and ease it in. His goal race is in three weeks at Little Rock and this was serving as a training run for him. So my new friend and I pushed on. Here's where we turned off highway 82 and headed into a little more scenic part of the course. As we meandered through some really nice neighborhoods, several residents had set up unofficial aid stations. The first offered us small bottles of water. At mile 21, we were offered water and a choice of various other stuff I can't recall.
Here, my new friend told me to go ahead, that she was going to slow down. As I was leaving the nice people at their aid station, they asked about my sign and I again got to tell Amanda's story. We were still going through nice neighborhoods when I reached mile 22. There, another residential aid station offered something I'd never been offered on a marathon course before...hot chocolate! It was in a nice insulated cup with a lid you could drink through and everything!
Until now, I'd barely walked at all through the aid stations, just long enough to gulp down the water or powerade that I took. But this hot chocolate, something about it sounded almost heavenly. I decided to take it and walk just as long as it took me to drink it, all of it! And I did. It wasn't too hot to gulp, so I didn't have to walk too long. But it tasted even better than it sounded. It was AWESOME! Honestly, I'd never even imagined or thought about hot chocolate on a marathon, but it was the best thing anyone could have offered me at that point in the race. So, if you had anything to do with giving us hot chocolate on the course, THANK YOU!
I was 4.2 miles from the finish now and it was pretty obvious that I wasn't going to make that so elusive 4:30 goal. However, I still thought a PR might be possible as I again picked up the pace. When I reached the 23 mile marker, a Maniac grabbed the flag and started yelling that a 10 minute mile from here would get a 4:30 finish. I knew though, I didn't have any 10 minute miles left in me. I'd been hovering around an 11 minute pace for the last couple of miles. But like I said before, I'd already abandoned the idea of a 4:30 and still thought a PR might be possible.
At this point, I decided to walk through the rest of the aid stations, but I never had to resort to a run/walk routine. I was picking out short term goals -- a sign just ahead, a mailbox a little bit down the road, the next street, anything I could see that I thought I could reach without having to walk. We were spaced out enough now that I could only see a couple of runners ahead of me and I didn't have the energy to turn and look behind. But by the grace of God, I reached miles 24 and 25. Then, finally, I came around the curve and crossed the railroad tracks to start down the long, straight stretch to the finish line.
As I passed a cop and thanked her for being out there, she said, "Only three or four lights left." While that sounds like just a short distance, I was still far enough from the finish line that I couldn't even make it out. But the Good Lord kept me running. One of the ladies ahead of me stopped to walk or stretch or something. I really can't remember what she was doing. As I passed her, I tried to offer a little encouragement. Her reply was, "I'm so over this." But I kept going.
Finally, as I reached the marker for mile 26, I could make out the finish line. I still couldn't read the time, but I knew I wasn't going to make my PR. I finally crossed the line at 4:36:18, my second best marathon time and just shy of a minute and half from my PR.
They had lots to eat at the finish, but I wasn't really that hungry yet. They had donuts and chips and granola bars and pizza and ice cold water. I took a couple of pieces of pizza, a bag of chips and a bottle of water and headed out to cheer in my friends.
All things considered, I have to say I love this race. It's not too big and not too small. It's only a three hour drive from home. It benefits Teach for America, a charity dedicated to getting young, enthusiastic, and motivated teachers into high need districts to improve education. The organizers do a fantastic job and really take care of runners.
Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord. ~ Psalm 27:14
I didn't get that 4:30 finish time that I've been after since last fall, but I'll keep trying. I've got to keep things in perspective though. And that means stopping or slowing down to share when the opportunity presents itself. When Jesus Christ wants me to get a 4:30 finish, I'll get it. Until then, I'm just going to keep running and enjoy the race!
Next race: Little Rock Marathon in 3 weeks!
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