February 16, 2013

Mississippi River Marathon, February 9, 2013

Let's start off by revealing that I knew nothing about Greenville, MS, before I went there for this race. And there's a reason for that. It's a tiny town. Smaller than the small town I grew up in, and thanks to wikipedia, I now know that Greenville's population is 35K.

Travel: Driving in from Birmingham was easy, with not much traffic at all. We left around 2 p.m. on Friday, and arrived about 7:30 p.m., just in time for the expo. The drive took a little longer than we anticipated because the main road leading into Greenville had lots of small towns with stoplights. So although there wasn't much traffic, the stop-and-go of the road made it slower than the GPS first estimated. 

When making my reservations, about three weeks before the race, I found out many of the hotels had sold out early. Yup, should have done that sooner, but I knew it was a small race. I just didn't realize how small the town was. We finally found a non-smoking room (a couple of places still had smoking rooms, blah) at the Days Inn. They gave us about five bucks off the price because we were there for the race, and the total after taxes was $62. I was excited that it was cheap, but we got exactly what we paid for. Kind of sketchy on the cleanliness and brown water that I refused to brush my teeth with. I'm not sure if that is just normal for the water system, but it came out brown every time I turned it on. We were rationing our tiny little spring water bottles like they were gold. It got the job done of housing our family through the night though. 

Sketchy face/hair/photo to match the sketchy room.

On our way back home we wanted to visit some spots along the Natchez Trace, so we found Stinkin' Jim's horse farm that rents out cabins. For 40 bucks, we got two double beds, fresh air, and less funk than the Days Inn. We were happy campers. Put this on your places-in-Mississippi-to-visit list. 


One last tip for traveling in Mississippi, carry cash! Many of the small towns we stopped to eat in did not take debit/credit cards at their restaurants. In one town, we went to three restaurants that did not take cards before we finally just found an ATM so we could eat. I'm sure the fast food chains take them, but the local restaurants we went to did not. And Stinkin' Jim's only takes cash too. 

Expo: I slipped into the expo about 30 minutes before they closed up shop. The expo was in Greenville's mall. Do not expect to also eat there, like I did, because there is no food court. They have a couple of sit-down restaurants attached, but no serve-and-go places. 

The expo itself was pretty tiny. The booths on the left were either always empty or had already cleared out. There were about three active booths on the right along with packet pickup in the back. I bought some more Hammer gels (loving those right now!) and scored some free cow bells for the kids. 


My favorite part of the expo was this map on which the runners could star their hometown. It was fun to see where people came from. 


So now I want to know who the two other people from Birmingham are. If you are one of them reading this, please tell me!


Weather: The day of the race brought perfect temps, low of 31 and high of 57. I wore compression tights under my shorts, which I think was a little bit of overkill. Should have just worn shorts and compression socks. Live and learn. My gloves came off about mile 3 and got stuffed into my tights for the next 23 miles. The most unanticipated (for me) negative weather effect was how hard those winds would be along the stretch of highway we ran for about 14 miles. There were just no trees or anything to block the blasts. Brutal. I hate to admit this right now, but I would take hills over wind. Don't tell that to the monster hill right in front of my house. 

Race-day transportation: We had gotten lots of emails from the race the week prior, detailing things we would need to know for the race. This was a point-to-point race starting in Arkansas, crossing the Mississippi River, and finishing in Greenville, MS. At one point, they gave us the option of taking the provided buses to the start or driving ourselves, but we got an email the week of the race telling us that we all needed to take the bus to prevent traffic issues. I was planning to do that anyway, so no big deal for me. 

We had to meet the bus by 6:30 for a race start time of 8 a.m. Buses were not coming back and forth, so if you missed it, you missed it. They had plenty of space on the buses. I got there about 6:25 and boarded with no problem. 

Buses pulling up to the start line in Arkansas.

Once we started off on the bus, and I realized we were taking our marathon route, I got a little nervous. There was a lot of running along a long, boring road. It was flat, but you could see so far ahead of you that it might feel like it was never going to end. 

Start line: We pulled up to the start-line camp, which was some port-o-potties and a couple of bonfires in the middle of a field. Watching the sun come up beside the grain bins was pretty cool. It felt very Arkansas, and I loved it. 




The start was just up the country road. 


I also got to meet my blog friend, Scott. Shout out to my fellow Alabamian. Having someone to talk to at the start took away some of the nervous pre-race jitters. 



Course: The course was marketed as one of the flattest in the southeast, and I concur. That hill that looks like a Swiss Alp in the middle is just a bridge, not very steep. If you look at the scale, it's only about an 80-ft. climb. 


On the first half of the course, there was a crop duster plane that kept swooping over the highway to dust the crops. In a visual way, super cool, but in an I-love-to-breath way, I was nervous about inhaling pesticides. The other cruddy part of running highway was exhaust fumes. Plus, there were some spots where we were limited to the gravelly shoulder of the road. The bottoms of my feet felt bruised in spots after the race, and I'm pretty sure that was the only thing that would have caused that. 

I loved running beside the lake in the beginning. Gorgeous to the max. I felt sorry for the half marathoners who missed out on this part of the course. They started at the bridge at the halfway point and finished on the same course as us. The lake and the bridge were the most scenic parts of this course. The rest of it was just really flat and boring. 

Beautiful lake with Cypress trees.

Happy at the bridge.

Here is an example of how the course went on forever with no end in site.

My family's view of the course while they waited for me. Snooze fest.

Finally a curve in the road. I was so happy!


There were plenty of water/Gatorade stops along the course. At least one stop that I saw in the first half was handing out GU. I don't remember seeing another one, but I was pretty focused on just getting my water and going. The longest stretch without water was the bridge (probably too dangerous too add a water stop), which covered about a two-mile span. Basically, you will not get thirsty on this course.

Starting at the first mile marker, my Garmin read the course was long. I was pretty close to the start line (not a ton of marathoners), so I don't think starting my watch early was the problem. At the finish, my Garmin read 26.59. For a fairly straight course with few turns, this seems like an excessive amount of overage.

The miles were clearly marked throughout the race, but somehow (maybe I overlooked it maybe it wasn't there) I missed any sign telling me that I was on the last mile. There was a very long stretch of straight road that led to the finish line. So I could see the finish banner but had no idea how far away it was. Because my watch was over on mileage, I was positive that I was going to make it under 3:40 (spoiler: I didn't), but the road just kept going and going and going. Please add more markers along this finishing stretch to let runners know how far away that finish line is!

One thing they could have used more of was police support or cones. About two minutes before I came through this lane, my husband saw a car hit a runner. This was at the end of the race heading into downtown, just before the finish line. 


And here is the same spot looking the other direction. You can see that the cones are far apart and traffic is all around. The car pulled out from a side street or parking lot and pulled into the runners' lane, hitting the runner and knocking him down. The runner got up and kicked the car and yelled at the driver. When my daughter said that didn't seem very nice of the runner to do that, my husband told her that he wouldn't have even been that nice. 



The course could either use more cones or more people standing around in bright vests directing traffic to not go in the coned lanes. At the end of a marathon, my thinking skills are not the best, and I'm not sure if a car pulled into the runners' lane if I'd be able to react fast enough to get out of the way. That's kind of why I love races -- because you usually don't have to think about any of that. 

My race: As I mentioned above, I started noticing that the miles were running long from the first mile. I heard someone in front of me joke that this first half was the half of the marathon with the long miles, but they never got shorter, or even on, for me. I would blame it on the wind blowing me backwards, which it felt like it was doing, but it started before the major wind kicked in. 

My toes were numb for the first three miles or so, but everything was feeling great. I had my sites set on making it to the bridge and then starting on my new playlist. At mile 10, I caved to the music. The wind was fierce and not letting up, and I just needed something to push through. I tried eavesdropping on conversations to make the time go faster (thank you, random talking strangers), but I eventually got to a point where people were either too far away or too blasted to talk anymore. 

The music was perfect the entire time. The only songs that just weren't very motivating for this race were Rocket Man (too slow! originally added it because it reminds me of the twins -- they love it!) and What Makes You Beautiful (which reminds me of my daughter and car dancing). Sorry, kids, but they have to go for round two tomorrow at Mercedes Marathon.

I first saw my family at about mile 17, where they handed off some coconut water. I was trying to avoid Gatorade during the race, and the coconut water worked really well as a substitute.


I took four Hammer gels, one every five miles, and then I ate half a pack of Honey Stinger gummies at mile 23. Next time I want to bring all gels, and I didn't like the chocolate Hammer gel. It was just too thick, and I felt like I was choking on it. 

My family was a great support crew after mile 17. I saw them about five more times before the finish, and my kids even decided to run me to the finish. Remember that start line that was deceivingly far away? Well, they were fooled too. They thought they would run it in with me, but they quit before the finish. It looked so close you could taste it or at least hit it. 

I have a surprisingly large number of things stuffed into the back of my shorts.

Right after they left my side, I pulled out my ugliest faces to sprint to the finish under 3:40. At least I know I wasn't wasting any time smiling or looking cool at the end.


I was faster in the first half of the race than the second half, but none of my miles read 9:xx. They were all in the 8:xx region, which I'm super happy about, and I never stopped at any water stops (or at all). So there was no regret there. Basically, I ran faster than at Savannah, but with the extra mileage, I still fell short at 3:40:12. Just 12 seconds short of Boston. Can it get any stupider than that?!

They print out these little stat cards for you at the finish. I must have wadded mine up in BQ-attempt anger. I was originally 5th in my age group, but it turns out we were the fastest age group. The top three women bumped up to top three overall, which left me in second place for my age group. Thanks, speedy ladies. 


After party: This was by far my favorite part of this race. The after party was fully stocked with pizza, moon pies, bananas, beans and rice, chocolate milk, and chips. Then if you walked further down, local vendors were selling tamales and crab etouffee (yes, I did have to look up how to spell that). 

Plus my family was there to make me feel better. Can I get a fake smile with that failed BQ attempt? 


I loved this station where you could type in your race number and print out the paper result. 


The bestest best part was the local blues band that hit the stage. Not pictured: very awkward post-running dances by me. The stanky leg is pretty great recovery exercise. 



My husband told me that they were having an additional party at 5 p.m. Huh? That's just how they do it in Greenville, I guess. Don't stop, can't stop. The awards were also not going to be presented until 3 p.m. A loooong wait, so I got mine to go.


Here it is testing out the front door. Too much? 


Swag: There wasn't much to the swag bags for this race. The plastic disposable bags came with your long-sleeve shirt, bib, some ads, and a little pack of GU chomps.

My only complaint here is that the shirts were unisex. Guess what, y'all. Unisex is not unisex, it's men's. And in case you needed additional evidence, here is the tag on the shirt we received. 


Using the word "unisex" to describe these shirts is my new biggest pet peeve. Just say that you are providing men's shirts. I swapped mine out for a larger size so my husband could wear it. Whenever I get men's shirts, I just end up not wearing them because the sleeves are way too long.


I like the medal artwork and the nice thick ribbons. 


Overall: I can handle a lot of things during a race, but a long course is quite irritating. I told some of the race workers about it, and they just shrugged it off and said that the course was certified. I'm sure people complain a lot about that kind of thing in marathons, but this overage seemed excessive to me.

On a less windy day, this course might have been ideal in terms of elements -- flat, perfect temperature, but it was pretty boring for about 14 miles in the middle. If you can handle that, you're golden.

Entry for the full marathon was $100 (not sure what it was before the price increase), and staying in Greenville is relatively inexpensive. This was the inaugural year for the race, so it will most likely keep getting better.

In case they want my unsolicited advice on how to do that, here are the things I would recommend: more cones or law enforcement out to protect the runners, gender specific shirts, figure out why the course is running so long, and more markers at the end to know just how far away that finish line is.

Things to keep: the fantastic after party, runner discounts at local establishments (thanks!), and the start by the grain bins in the middle of a field.

My favorite quote: "The world is my urinal," said the random stranger exiting the bus at the start line.

My new favorite idea: If you don't have gloves that are touch-screen friendly, just cut a hole in the tip of one of the fingers. Genius! Tip shared by Scott (pictured above at the race start).