Thursday, November 15, 2012

Crushing Hills Hidden Tiger: The 2012 Atlanta Marathon Recap

--No growth without assistance. No action without reaction. No desire without restraint. Now give yourself up and find yourself again.

Li Mu Bai, Crashing Tiger Hidden Dragon

--The wonderful thing about tiggers is tiggers are wonderful things! Their tops are made out of rubber.  Their bottoms are made out of springs. They're bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun! 

Oh but the most wonderful thing about tiggers is I'm the only one!  

-Tigger, Winnie the Pooh

A few Sundays ago I ran the 2012 Atlanta Marathon. It was my 18th marathon and I crossed another Georgia marathon off my quest to run all the marathons in Georgia. I have actually run the Atlanta Marathon twice before--as my first and as my 7th-- but the Atlanta Track Club two years ago moved the date of the race from Thanksgiving and completely changed the course. So in my mind it was a new marathon with an old name which meant I had to run it.

Originally, before I damaged the nerve in my foot and back when I was in what I viewed, "the shape of my life," I had ideals on nabbing a money spot for this race. I never had ideals on setting a personal best in Atlanta since it is touted as one of the hilliest road marathons on the East Coast. However, this race pays out 8 spots in the Open division and 3 deep in the Master's division for both men and women equally. Even better, and finally a real life instance where with age comes privilege,  there is "double dipping" for the "mature" runners: meaning you can take a top 8 payout as well as the Master's payout. In stalking last year's results a top 3 female masters spot was well within my capabilities. But then, if you've been keeping up, I dropped my foot and I didn't even know if I would ever be able to run a marathon again-- or run at all for that matter.

My training  though, as it happened, wasn't all that bad. I've definitely had worse and given that my anterior tiblias was completely paralyzed for the entire month of June it was way better than I had expected. Once enough nerve function came back I was able to ramp up my miles fairly quickly to be back to the mileage I had been logging in May. By the end of August I was logging 70+ miles a week. Which, honestly, is probably where I would have been even if I hadn't had to sit out of running all of June. I peaked at 81 in mid September and managed to get in 5 runs over 21 miles in the 2 and half months prior to race day. My last long run was 25.75 miles, 3 weeks out from race day. The problem, at least from my perspective, was that all my miles were slow, some even what I would call slog. I couldn't tell you the single average pace of any run. I knew, without a doubt that I could complete the distance but I just didn't feel like I was as sharply trained as I had been last year at this same time. I felt like I was the same pencil but with a rounded, dull tip. Not to mention, I still have some goofy nerve sensations in my right ankle and foot from the damage.

To further complicate matters it turned out that I had not one but two interviews with two different companies scheduled for Monday. As in the day after the race.  One was scheduled in the morning and the other, a second interview with a company I was extremely interested in working for, was scheduled for in the afternoon.So understandably, the marathon fell low on my priority list. I knew I could still run it, based on that I had done training runs of a close length and managed fine but I didn't want to risk a leave it all on the course type of effort and go for broken. Maybe there are some people who can bring their A game two days in a row but I was not willing to gamble that I might be one of them. However, I figured I could bring my B+ game Sunday and still pull an A+ effort on Monday.

So what does one do to squelch their competitive side and make a race a non race and just a fun run?

They wear a costume!

The marathon was, after all, three days before Halloween. It seemed the obvious thing to do. In fact, so obvious I assumed that the majority of the racers would also be in costume too.

And, I really couldn't have been more wrong about that. 
Volunteers in costume? 
Other runners? 
Not that I saw.
Good thing that I neither embarrass easily or care that people laugh at me. Though in Sunday's case, I chose to think they were laughing with me. I don't think I have ever smiled the entire 26.2 miles of any of the marathons I have done. I was seriously giggling running to the finish line.

The weather was perfect race morning --50's, little drizzly at points. Ryan, still a bit with a fun over from his evening out with the super friends Batgirl and Aquaman (aka Wes and Pookie), kindly drove me to Atlantic Station where the start was and dropped me off. 
While walking to the start he kept commenting that I was the only one in a costume. I had told him, when he had questioned me on the amount of time I was putting into making my costume earlier in the week, that there would be lots of other runners in costumes. I had explained, there would probably be more runners in costume than not. So he was pretty quick to point out, many times, that there was not anyone else in costume but me.

 Yes, I know my costume doesn't look like much but I spent a lot of time sewing tiger patches on that shirt and making my tail and tiger mittens and tiger head wear.  After all that time I spent putting into making my costume there was no way I wasn't going to wear it and I wasn't going to regret wearing it either for that matter.

Staying at Pookie and Wes's house--who live in town-- made getting to the start easy and seamless. Parking was plentiful and Ryan walked me up right up to the start. I was in corral A, which it felt like everyone else was too. It was packed! I squeezed my way in and lined up near a guy holding a 3:40 pacer sign. I asked a guy standing next to me with a 3:40 pace group sign on what that pace was. "8:24" he said. Hmm, I thought, that sounds doable. He asked me if that was my goal. I told him no, I had no goal other than to have fun. I had even left my watch at home. 

No one commented on my costume. Maybe they couldn't tell it was a costume. But I didn't feel silly or ridiculous. I just felt like me. Which right, is a bit silly and ridiculous.

Okay, so I really tried to pay attention to how this one started and I am pretty sure it was just "Runner's take your mark, Go!" No gun, cannon or horn. And we were off. I pretended to hit my watch that I wasn't wearing since that was what everyone else did when they crossed the start line.

 It was still a week until we would "fall back" into Daylight's saving time. So with a 7 am start we were running through the city in darkness for almost an hour. 

I love that! 

There were clocks on the course. So I noted that my first mile came in at 8:2x. I felt comfy and easy so I felt like this was a good pace. I had heard that this course was tougher than the old Atlanta course and the Publix course in the spring so I was fine with whatever. I had told my sister, Wes and Ryan that I would probably be in the 3:35-3:45 range. And if nothing else I didn't want to have to run longer than 4 hours so I was going to do my best to pace evenly and comfortably. I had marked the course map for them with potential times so when they sobered up enough to go for their ride they could find me easily. 

Sometime in the first few miles I would see a guy up ahead of me that looked way too fit to be running in the 3:40 group. I don't mean this as an insult to any 3:40 runner but I just happened to notice that this particular guy had muscles on muscles. There was also something vaguely familiar about him but I didn't know what. It didn't matter because he pulled on ahead and somewhere before the 3rd mile I found an open porto potty. I guess maybe I was too over hydrated. 

I passed the 3 mile clock in around 25 minutes. I'm not sure what that pace is but I had gotten behind the 3:40 group. But having relieved my bladder I felt instantly lighter and faster and quickly caught back up to them and passed them easily and effortlessly. 
Somewhere in mile 5 we run up past the Capital building. This use to be the middle of mile 25 (or 12 for the half) of the old Thanksgiving course. I always hated that hill. But at mile 5ish it was nothing! Then we turned and rolled down hill towards the Ted, running under the Olympic rings and past the old finish line area of the old course. I saw a clock, which I assumed was the 6 mile and it was around 48 or 49 minutes. I asked a runner near me if we were on 3:30 pace and he said, no just over. I was pretty happy about that. I figured if I could maintain that I would finish in around 3:35, at the faster end of my goal. I knew I would be out of the money spot but I also figured word had probably gotten out and all the fast girls had showed up anyway and it would be a faster field than the previous year.
Shortly after that I saw up ahead a runner in a bright yellow shirt that I was almost certain was my friend Anthony who always see at the Georgia marathons. I started dropping the pace a little to try and catch up to him. I was happy to find my effort was well worth the while because it was him! The next few miles flew by as I caught up with all that was going on with Anthony. 

Around mile 8 or 9 I met this guy at an aid station (Same guy I had spotted early in the race and thought that dude looks too fast to be running with us pokey puppies!):
For those non runner readers that is Dean Karnazes. He graciously posed for a picture with me at the finish at the Volkswagon tent. Actually he graciously posed for pictures with lots of people so I wasn't really all that special--but I was the only one in a costume! Anyway, Anthony and I ran about a mile or so with Dean and chatted with him about running stuff and his concern that the New York marathon would be canceled the following weekend. And as most people know, it was. After a bit he dropped Anthony and I and pulled ahead and I didn't see him until after I finished.

Around mile 11 Anthony decided to pull back and dial the pace down. We said our well wishes to each other and I pushed on ahead. I had thought I had crossed the half mat in 1:45xx but according the results it was 1:44:55. I must have sped up a lot after the 6 mile point. Didn't ever feel like it though. I never realized I had been on or even under the 3:30 pace. I was just having fun and avoiding the hurt locker.

I would occasionally walk through an aid station and at times-- on the absolutely relentless hills-- thought I might walk but inevitably I would have the thought of a walk break and there would be a group of spectators who would see me and start screaming "Go Tiger Girl!" or "Tigger is Great!" So I would feel too guilty to take a walk break after all the special attention. Which, by the way, was awesome. I might have to wear a costume for every race I do. I can't say if this was just my particular costume or running a marathon in any costume will illicit such response but it was hilarious to see people--not even out to spectate the race but walking their dog or driving to the coffee shop--watch the expressions on their face change from bland normalcy to first a mix of shock or confusion and then break into a smile and start to laugh and cheer. Making people laugh and smile for 26 miles is awesome!

Shortly after I passed through Virginia Highlands, mile 14 or 15 I saw my friend Shannon out for a ride. She kindly took a few pictures of me running over the next few miles.

I almost had a low moment when we ran down into the park. Only because in the Georgia marathon I always have a valley of darkness moment running through the park. And also, I swear the park sits at the bottom of a hole. It is downhill in and then always an awful uphill climb out. But the tour of the park ended up being so fun because of all the spectators and cheering and shout outs.

Around mile 17-18 Ryan, my sister, Shannon and Wes caught up to me. I had to laugh because their original plan had been to all wear their costumes for their hangover bike ride but only Ryan was wearing his! He wasn't too bothered about being the only one in costume either. 

Pookie kept saying that I "was ahead" of my prediction but I was certain that I was not and told her that was on 3:35 pace! She told me that they had been "chasing me for miles" and that it was a good thing I wore a costume because people remembered me. Pookie would ask "Excuse me but did you see a woman in tiger costume go by?" And the response was, "you just missed her by 2 minutes!"

Wes pulled up along side me while I swear I am running up the longest hill ever and tells me that Phil is beating me and wants to know how can I let this happen? He seems really disappointed and I wonder if there had been wagers placed. 

Wes and Pookie had made much of a  (non existent) competition between me and Phil--who I have only met a few times. When I was shopping at Hobby Lobby the week prior for my costume fabric Pookie had told me about Phil's training. His plan was to run as little as possible prior to the race so he wouldn't injure himself training. While Phil is obviously a top athlete, an amazing cyclist and definitely has youth on his side, the less is more ethic has never really proven a good training strategy for a marathon. I told her, in jest, that my goal would be to beat Phil since I had no other goal. But then Wes told me Phil's plan was to run 3:20 and he had some of his team pacing him. So my plan to "beat Phil" was no longer in effect since I had no designs on 3:20 or even 3:30 for that matter.

Nevertheless Wes rode up ahead and then returned a few minutes later. Phil is about 1-2 minutes ahead of you, he reports. Phil said this is the furthest he has ever ran in his life. I can't believe he is beating you, Wes says while I struggle up the infinity hill. 

We still have 8 miles left, I tell him. Anything can happen and we aren't even to the hard part yet. 

After a bit they pedal on and I am alone again. I am still having a blast and feel really good. Yes, my legs are tired but for being 19 miles in I know I am doing just fine and can certainly hang in there for another hour.

My only real trouble was the excessively cambered Atlanta streets. They are domed. So not only is the Atlanta course hilly as hell, it is on heaped up in the middle cambered and potholed roads. It is a little awful. I couldn't find a comfortable spot to run on and it put  lot of stress on my good ankle. I decided middle of the road was my best bet even if it put me right next to unforgiving Atlanta traffic. At least in my tiger costume I was hard to miss.

Around this time a woman runs up beside me. This is first woman I've seen that wasn't a relay runner all day. She grunts something at me as she comes along side me. I don't hear her clearly but think she called me a bitch. I say, I'm sorry, I didn't hear you? She says again, this course is a BITCH! I laugh. Oh yeah that. She pulls ahead and I wonder if I should try to keep up with her. I decide against it since that would mean possibly calf cramps and a hurt locker experience that I was definitely trying to avoid. But yeah, right she was, the course was an absolute bitch. But you know, like a lot of bitches, a really pretty one. I have to say of all the marathon courses I've run in Atlanta this new course is by far the toughest but it also offers the best views and highlights of the city. You start in Atlantic Station, run out south through downtown to the stadium  and then snakes you through all the cute old neighborhoods, all the way out almost to Buckhead and then wind back to Atlantic Station through midtown. No hill was left un-run. Of this I can assure you.

Around mile 20 I see a guy on a bike pulling a kid in a trailer. I realize it is Wes's friend Jon. We say hello and chat for a minute and then he tells me Phil is right up ahead of me. Again with the Phil competition. And sure enough, I see him with a group of runners around him. After another minute I am right up next to them and pass them shortly after. I wish Phil the best and advise him, "the faster you run, the sooner you are done!"

At mile 24 I am running up (of course it is up) the Peachtree Road race's famed "Heart Attack Hill" and I see my friend Jason  and we swap high 5's. I tell him this course is kicking my ass! Heart attack hill  isn't ever so awful for me, you have to run up in the old Atlanta marathon at mile 20, but I start to worry that I am going to have to run up the one that comes after you cross over 85 and takes you back up into midtown. I start to think about my walking strategy but the next thing I know the course hangs a right and we run DOWN a hill. I have never been on this road, still have no idea what that area was that we ran through those final miles because they all blurred by. 

One minute I am running up some awful short hill thinking my hamstring is contemplating a cramp and the next I can hear the roar of the finish line and see the mile 26 sign. Wow! And I feel good! I can't believe it is almost over.

I run the last .2 fast, with a huge smile and with out stretched airplane arms around the fenced in corners and nail a round off over the finish line. Ta da!!

I spot the clock and see 3:32!  What a pleasant surprise. I was really expecting 3:35xx. 

What a fun, bouncy, pouncy, happy and self restrained race I had!

And they gave me a pint glass! 

According to the unofficial results my time was 3:32:22 and, get this, I am listed as 8th female (4th place master's). I still have to wait until they finalize the results but if the current posted results end up being correct, I still made it to a money spot ($150.00) after all!

What a bonus that would be to an already spectacular race day!

Celebratory beers, burgers and Falcon football after the race:

My mantra of the last year or so has been to give 100% of what I have every time I toe the line. But I fully admit not giving a 100% to the Atlanta marathon. I was saving a bit of myself, banking on that a little self restraint would pay off in other more important areas. I had a great race and definitely one of the funnest times I've ever had a marathon. As an athlete though, it is hard to not say if only I had done this or that and my result would have been superior. But the race result was not my current focus so I can't allow myself to speculate a such. As it turned out, I had the exact race I planned and to ask for any more would be greedy.  More importantly, I had 2 great interviews the Monday after the race. The second of which, while driving home from the interview, I got a call from my recruiter that they wanted to hire me! So I am happy to report that I am now fully employed and have joined the ranks of the darkthirty runner.


  1. What a Cinderella story come true! Congrats!

  2. You rocked this marathon on a course that is crazy tough. Way to go, Natalie!

  3. This was both fun and funny -- my idea of a great blog to read. And wow, great job on a tough course! Now I want to run a marathon in a costume, because that just sounds FUN. Congratulations on the money!

  4. Great race, great costume, and congratulations on the job!!!

  5. Nice job Nat! I saw you out there on the course as I was waiting for my relay leg to come in. I was also quite lucky to see the round off at the finish. Too awesome! I kind of thought there would be more costumes too. Very odd...