Monday, January 5, 2009

Mississippi Blues Marathon Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 4; 1st Edition
26.2 miles raced in 2009
Race: Mississippi Blues Marathon
Place: Jackson, MS
Miles from home: 1752 miles
Weather: 60s; cloudy; 98% humidity

If you know much about my running preferences, "98% humidity" will more or less tell the tale of my racing effort at the 2nd Annual Mississippi Blues Marathon on January 3rd. Fortunately, there was so much more to this weekend than just the race itself.

At the Dallas White Rock Marathon expo where I had been invited to speak a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure some spending time with Bill Rodgers. When we realized we would both be going to the MS Blues Marathon, Bill had said that he was looking forward to seeing me again. Now, known as one of the nicest running celebrities out there, I assumed Bill was simply being that: nice. I mean, the man has run nearly as many marathon as I have but has done that at an average of about an hour faster (although he has never done Leadville!) Him being happy to see me again actually seemed to be what I should be saying to him. Nevertheless, I was excited to know that he would be in Jackson at the same time.

I had been invited to Jackson, not to speak this year, but rather to give the course, in its second year, a little run-through and give its organizers my thumbs-up (or down, if the case called for that viewpoint.) Having never raced in Mississippi (or even set foot in the Magnolia State) I was more than happy to accept their invitation.

Now, I had just come off a pretty busy year of running and I knew that the changing of the calendar does not automatically give you fresh legs. As such, my goals for the race were semi-modest: I just wanted to break three hours. However, I knew the course, which the race organizers unapologetically admitted was not a personal best course, would present some trouble in doing that. But we shared the same philosophy in marathon courses: if they were all easy then there would be no challenge. Then again...oy....(elevation profile below)

On the night before the expo, after arriving in Jackson and seeing the last play of the disastrous Rose Bowl on the big screen TV of a smoke-free sports bar (who says Mississippi isn’t concerned about health problems), I was indeed for a treat. Bill walked in escorted by the ever-affable organizer of all things expo-related, Bryan Lagg and surprised me with a hearty handshake and a half-hug. Pretty hard not to be in hog heaven when embraced by one of the greatest marathoners of all-time. Having just flown in from Boston and its 5 degrees of blustery coldness, Bill said he was excited to go out and stretch his legs on ice free streets in the morning. Would I care to join him? Yes, Bill. I think I would enjoy that very much! (I refrained from saying “Um, duh!” to keep up both the illusion of my eloquence and hide my open-jawed wonder that I was going to go for a jog with Bill!)

The next morning broke with Bill and I sharing a breakfast at the hotel which included not only sausage and eggs but also grits. Bryan told us later that we should have really confused the hotel by asking, with our northern accents, for just one singular “grit”. Soon thereafter, we were out on the course which ran right past our hotel around mile 6. Having familiarized myself with parts of the course the previous night, I took Bill out to check out the hills we would be encountering. While Bill would “only” be doing the half, the two courses mimicked each other for the first 10 miles or so, which allowed us to gain knowledge of what lie ahead of us the next day.

On the run, I picked Bill’s brain about various running topics involving performance-enhancing drugs and how with his hand-crafted shoes in the late 70s and early 80s he felt that he was in no way at a disadvantage with all the advances shoes have made in the past three decades. We briefly spoke about politics, a cute girl that ran by and how Bill (a former smoker) praised my father for quitting the awful habit cold-turkey about 20 years ago without a single relapse. For all intents and purposes, I was just out for a run with another friend. Only every once in awhile would my brain scream: “BIL RODGERS! BILL RODGERS! BILL RODGERS!”

Carrying my hotel keys and my cellphone in my SPIbelt, I decided to surprise my friend Christine (a huge Bill fan) with a call from the man himself. At one stoplight, I handed my phone over to Bill who amicably talked to a surprisingly calm Christine for the next minute or so. When the light changed, we took off again and I said goodbye to Christine. Her boyfriend later informed me that he was shocked at how she had not by squealing like a schoolgirl. Christine said she was doing so inside.

After our run, Bill and I headed over to the expo where would be signing our books side-by-side at one table. I had an internal debate over whether I would be absolutely and irrevocably ignored by the race patrons because I was sitting so close to a legend or if I would be actually benefit from the crowd he would draw. I think it was a little of both. All I know is that Bill would sign someone’s book or poster and almost always add something akin to “…but Dane is the one who did 52 Marathons in 52 Weekends in one year. You should ask him about that!” Figures. I always have to bail Bill out because his marathon knowledge is so limited. :)

After an extremely pleasant day talking to all the various runners, the invited runners went to dinner where I got to meet some of the elite female runners who themselves had just gotten in a few hours prior. Amongst them were Kim Duclos, Barb McManus and Heather May. We got to know each other greatly over dinner and shared many good stories. But now it was time for sleeping.

Race Morning:

While I always despise getting up early, we were all very pleased with the 7 AM starting time. You see, while the temperature was a few degrees higher than most of wanted, it was the humidity we were all dreading. And with the possibility of the heavy cloud cover burning off later in the day the last thing we needed was the combo of heat AND humidity! So after some mingling with some of the very truly elite men brought in by the race to just tear the courses records asunder, we were escorted to beginning of the race. Wearing elite bib number “14” I felt slightly like an imposter next to all these runners who could really fly. But in talking with Jeff Galloway (who is also just unfailingly polite and knowledgeable) prior to the race, he made me feel good by saying: “They don’t invite people to races who do not deserve to be there. Enjoy it!” So, I took Jeff’s words to heart and reveled in it. The gun fired right on time and away we went.

First 6 miles: 12:53, 6:37, 6:46, 6:35, 6:34

Kim took off with the lead pack but Barb, Heather and I hung together. Heather said she was hoping for the low 2:50s, Barb said a sub-3 would make her happy on this day and I said I wanted to be right around there as well. So, we decided to run together. As the two ladies are just tiny little things, I told them they were welcome to use my 6’1’’ frame as a wind block if we encountered any along the way.

Almost immediately, I was sweating. I told the ladies I would hang with them as long as I could but I could tell that this race was going to be about self-preservation. If the promised hills were indeed challenging, they and the humidity would have me dragging at the end. We made a promise to make sure we all properly hydrated and watched each other along the way. As we passed dozens of large homes and snaked our way into downtown Jackson, Heather and I pulled slightly ahead of Barb but I knew she was not far behind.

Half-Marathon (1:27:13): 6:49, 6:38, 6:44, 6:39 6:38, 6:09, 7:21

The rolling hills allowed us to keep from getting bored but they definitely added some difficulty to our race. We were told that from about mile 12-19 we would receive the only respite from these rollers. As the miles ticked by, Heather and I said we were looking forward to that stretch but were happy to have these hills to keep us from getting bored. Of course, if they had been a little less high, we would not have complained!

As we started a long climb up to a highway stretch, we saw the turn-off for the half-marathoners. I turned to Heather and said: “This is where I always hate those lucky SOBs”. With a fast mile followed by a slow one we realized that one of the mile markers had been placed slightly off which was no biggie whatsoever. When you are running almost exact splits you know that a really fast mile is usually going to be followed by a slower one to even it out.

Approaching the halfway point we went down a hill and began running near a stream. Almost immediately the temperature dropped 5-10 degrees. The slight cross breeze helped the cooling effect more and I thought I might just hang with Heather the whole way!

Mile 20: 6:38, 6:47, 6:58, 6:54, 7:00, 7:13, 7:20

Two more miles passed and I realized Heather was no longer following by half a foot but leading by half a foot. Soon thereafter, I could tell I needed to pull up some. I bid Heather goodbye and said I hoped I would see her within a few miles.

As promised, the next few miles, while relatively unscenic along the highway, were rather flat and straight. Unfortunately, I could see Heather inching away ahead and my energy was ebbing. Turning off the highway onto Ridgewood Road and into a neighborhood area, the final hills lay ahead. Right before mile 19, I slowed to a walk. I could tell that any hope of catching Heather and helping her finish strong was now gone.

Miles 21-24: 7:28, 8:02, 7:57, 8:41

As I passed a runner here and there, I took some solace in the fact that I was not the only one dealing with what was becoming a tiring day. Turning around I saw Barbara had made up the ground between us and would soon be passing me. Pleased that she holding on so well, I tried staying with her for a bit until my stomach needed to empty itself. Yuck.

As the hills worsened, I was again slowed to a walk. My right hamstring, which had never really been a problem in any other race, began to ache. Deciding self-preservation for the races down the road was far more important than saving-face in Mississippi, I walked every uphill that popped in front of me.

The Final 2.2: 8:17, 8:38, 1:45

As I often do when I am trying to take my mind off of a tough race in the latter stages, I turned to good old math in the final few miles. I knew in all of my marathon, I had never run a 3:06. So, figuring out what sorta slowish miles I could run to get this goal, I tried to enjoy the last few miles which once again presented runners with a few tough climbs.

As I neared the finishline, the announcer Dave Ragsdale told the crowd that I had run 52 Marathons in 52 weekends and was looking quite fresh. "Perhaps this will start another streak!" he said. I am pretty sure the finishline photo will have a picture of me laughing hysterically at that notion.

Time: 3:06:14
Place: 25th

All in all, this was indeed a challenging race. It is very hard for me to adequately say exactly how hard it would have been if not for the humidity and since this sort of high humidity is not normal for this time of year, it is not the sort of weather that I would factor into my difficulty rating.

However, for a race in only its second year, the Mississippi Blues Marathon is in full swing. With guitars given to the male and female overall winners, nifty vests given to all participants, cool guitar medals for marathon finishers (and half a guitar for the half finishers!) there were plenty of great ideas abound for the race.

The volunteers were well-schooled in the little things that matter to runners and while the course could use some slight modifications to make it more enjoyable (and I am not saying the hills need to go - rather the highway stretch) it was one I enjoyed challenging myself on. Spectators could have been more plentiful but where they were they were extremely friendly and encouraging.

However, the fact that they race increased by nearly 25% in its second year is a very telling factor of how great a race this can be. While most people want to be part of a race's inaugural year, numbers usually drop precipitously for the 2nd running. This was obviously not the case here in Jackson and I predict big things for the race weekend in 2010.

Hopefully, I will be there to enjoy its continued success!


Stacey said...

Sounds like a GREAT race! Bill cool!

Anonymous said...

Hey! Nice blog! ! I don't know how you remember that much detail about a marathon! However, I did manage to get a good look around at this one more than others. Great to meet you in Mississippi and hope to see you around again!

Dane said...

Thanks Stacey!

Great to see you found your way over here, Kim. Drop me an email when you can!

Yellow Scuba said...

Great report, Dane. I'm sorry it wasn't the day you'd hoped for, but you made the best of the race and the weekend, as always. And, big thanks for the surprise call from Bill! :) Someday I just have to meet him!! Maybe in Berwick in November!

Laura said...

Great report! I was trying to do that one but couldn't get the travel plans to work. Hope to see you at a race soon though :)

In the Moment Running said...

Just heard you speak in Carlsbad. I was also at MS Blues and the guy in the audience in Carlsbad that ran Rock n Roll AZ last week prior to doing Carlsbad this week. Race report for MS was right on! The temps were about the same in MS and Phonenix but the difference between 98% humidity and 10% are like night and day and of course after running the hills in MS, Phoenix was pancake flat! Really enjoyed your talk! Going to order th book!