It’s been a while since I’ve written here, and to be honest, once I started the travels for my last couple races, I just didn’t have the time or the right device to do the few blog posts I planned to do justice. So my apologies for the delay, but I hope you enjoy reading about my November running adventures.
After experiencing the love and support of the Meg’s Miles group for the last almost-three years, and then having been surrounded by these same people at last year’s Anthem Richmond Marathon (where I ran the half marathon), I was beyond excited to return to Richmond in 2016 for a bit of a reunion with so many people I have connected with (both online and in person) during this year’s race. With the emotions and excitement that peaked with Ken’s triumphant marathon finish last year, I couldn’t imagine that this year would be able to come close to the overall feelings from the race weekend last year. However, I was proven wrong, and the 2016 gathering of Meg’s Miles family had its own special moments, discussions, hugs and more to make this event just as unique and just as special – in its own way.
After flying out of Grand Cayman on a Thursday (the race is Saturday, so I needed to be there for Friday’s packet pick up!), I was eager to arrive, after having seen many group members post their airport photos throughout the day. Being in a place where my first flight leaves mid-afternoon makes for a long morning when you look at picture after picture of airplanes, suitcases and arrival shots. After a bit of a delay with my connecting flight – and a lot of patience from me – I arrive to be met by my friend Keith. Keith was at this point just days away from running his first marathon (which was very much inspired by Ken’s race last year). He and I ‘chat’ a lot on social media and through messaging, and I was very excited to see how he was doing with this imminent deadline approaching. From all appearances, he looked as ready as possible and in great spirits about the event. Perhaps he may have just been a little too excited about the fact that it would be over and he would be a ‘one and done’ type of person. Either way, he was ready, and I was looking forward to being a part of his cheer squad for the big day.
Originally, I registered for the half marathon, but once the marathon craziness took over my brain, I upgraded to the full marathon for Richmond. Now I also was registered to run the Philadelphia Marathon just eight days later on November 20, 2016. So I took a bit of a different approach to this race than I may have it I wasn’t looking at a second marathon so close to it. My goal was to finish strong while leaving something in the tank for the following weekend. This meant it would be foolish to try and push for a really great time. However, my competitive nature always has me pushing a bit – even when I don’t mean to. I was looking to be strong, try to run the whole distance and overall maintain a fairly steady pace.
Before the race, I went to do a two mile shakeout run on the Friday morning at Meg’s memorial. This was the first gathering of all the group, a chance to reconnect, remember Meg, share in laughter and a few tears and get some of the nerves for the next day out! We had so many people there who were attempting new distances during the weekend, and it was the perfect way for them to relax a bit, surrounded by the support of friends and with a gentle run to release some energy. We continued the conversation over coffee at a local coffee shop; everyone bid farewell with most headed to the expo for packet pick up before attending the pasta dinner for our group.
I have to say, the expo at Richmond is a nice size event for a medium size race. Held at the Arthur Ashe Athletic Centre, the race organizers (Sports Backers) organize free shuttle buses to the expo for those staying in downtown hotels. There are lots of booths, plenty of activities, some great speakers (including Bart Yasso, who I did get my requisite selfie with…again!) and a nice flow of traffic for all those in attendance. Meg’s Miles had a booth there, and they were able to tell race participants a bit about Meg, her story and encourage people to consider the new Virginia license plate that features a woman running against the Richmond skyline.
After concluding our business there, Keith, his family and I made our way to the pasta dinner, which was hosted by Coolspring Baptist Church, where Meg attended prior to her death. The church has done this dinner for the runners for the last two years, and do it completely complementary as a way to thank all of us for running for Meg. Not only was there great food to eat, the approx 150 people in attendance were able to enjoy a lot of time socializing, continuing to build friendships that were sparked because of the tragedy of Meg’s death. A few people spoke on what the event, the weekend, the group meant to them, and one person did a very special thing in recognizing all those who were first time half marathoners or marathoners at Richmond since Meg’s death. When he finished calling those folks up to give them a pin as a memento, the rest of the room was all but empty, and about 80% of the attendees were on the stage. I’m sure if he called up anyone who ran their first half or full marathon because they became a member of Meg’s Miles, he would have had everyone but maybe 3 or 4 people up there. What an incredible testimony to Meg’s legacy that so many people have improved their health and increased their confidence in themselves through their running – because they heard about her story. Even Meg’s mother, Pam, was on the stage as she was preparing to run her first marathon in memory of her daughter.
With full bellies and hearts, we headed back to get some sleep. That 5:15am wake up would come all too quickly, and it’s important to try and get as much sleep as possible the night before a race. My running outfit was laid out, and I had nothing more to do for the evening.
Once the alarm went off (much too soon, as was expected), it was go time. I got dressed and knowing it was pretty cold temps, donned my ‘throw away’ robe, a long terry cloth bathrobe that I bought for $4 at the Humane Society thrift store. Best deal ever! And I was warm up until I took it off at the start line.Keith drove us there, and I knew that he wasn’t going to drive us back. During the ride, he was trying to look at possible excuses for not finishing, including the ‘I haven’t gone with a meal that long so I’m not sure how I’ll manage to be on the course for seven hours!’ excuse. I wasn’t buying it and continued reminding him that he was ready for this. We checked my gear and headed to the Marriott, where many other folks were hanging out before the start of the race.
A couple of us needed to go to the ladies room, and the line in the hotel was stupidly long. So after a few pictures, we headed to the start to find out how long the port-a-pot lines were. They were shorter and were going much faster than inside. Business accomplished, we headed to our respective corrals, eager to get moving and ease some of the pre-race anxiety. Once the guns go off, it’s pretty fluid start (they don’t hold corrals for set intervals like Tulsa and Philly do) and I had crossed the timing mat to start my marathon in about five minutes.
The first stretch had us running down Broad Street for a little over a mile, where we were in the opposite lane of the half marathoners (separated by a median in the road). I saw a few others from Meg’s Miles in the half marathon side, and they jumped over to run with me and chat until we took our respective turns to our race courses.
Once the course turned left (right for half marathoners), we headed into some beautiful neighborhoods, and there were a few spots with decent crowds. I’m sure the chilly temps (about 35 at start) kept some people inside, but in all honesty, it was a great day to run. The course took us toward the James River, where I ended up talking to a couple of runners for a few miles. This was a nice way to spend some time, as after crossing the river, we were on a secluded road by the river. Coupled with the beautiful fall colours on the trees, I could easily have been out for a morning run with a friend! It was so beautiful and peaceful, and I think this was my favourite part of the race course. Luckily, it lasted for a while, and I was sad when we came out and headed back into ‘civilization.’
Granted, I did then appreciate the cheering crowds and the extra boost it provided. I even saw Santa Claus here, who apparently is an annual fixture. I think this was around mile 13 or so.
Just after mile 15, which is about where things get pretty challenging in a marathon (both physically and mentally), you cross the Lee Bridge. This for me was the single most difficult section of the marathon, as the bridge not only went on for about 28962838 miles, but we had a lot of wind – cold wind – keeping it real for us marathon runners. My fingers were cold, and the wind made me use a bit more effort than I had wanted to.
With the Lee Bridge in your rear-view mirror, you see crowds cheering for you, which gives a nice boost mentally. You also see that you have some uphills in front of you, which can be a bit demoralizing. Luckily I knew this was coming and was determined to not let it get to me. Run the mile you are in; don’t anticipate what is to come. I was ready for the hill but hadn’t dwelled on it during the race. So when I crossed the bridge (finally!) and said my prayer of thanks, I grit my teeth and made it up the hill and over to Main St. Once there, you are actually on the half marathon course for a while, and I knew that part from the previous year. So I was just ready to make it happen until the end.
While there are ample aid stations for water and Gatorade, I was very disappointed that there were NO bananas or pretzels at any official aid station along the entire marathon course. I am really frustrated that US races don’t want to give out real food and rely instead on gels and other sponsored items. As someone who gets sick with any sort of gel, I really struggle at these races to ensure proper hydration and with eating enough so I don’t have a medical issue along with the way. Please consider offering at least one stop where you have some proper food like bananas and pretzels/saltines for runners! (Note: the race does coordinate two junk food stops at miles 16 and 22. There were a lot of candy items available, but sadly none of the items that I prefer to eat. For the record, I did have some gummy items at both, as I have tried those on long runs before and could handle them.) I did graciously accept pretzels and swedish fish from spectators at several spots, and am truly grateful that so many people want to support the runners in this way.
We continued past the Arthur Ashe Centre, up toward Bryan Park, but unlike the half marathoners that had to run through the park, the course took us to the right and avoided the uphill I remember from last year. Thankfully! At this point I was at mile 21, and I started playing a little leapfrog with the 4:15 pacer group. I actually heard them long before I saw them (the pace leader was shouting all the encouragement!), so I knew I was doing pretty good. I had passed them about mile 3 of the race, and wasn’t aiming to break records with my pace, so I knew they were always ‘around.’ This meant I still had a really good chance to run a 4:15 race.
As is the case with any marathon, miles 22-24 just are HARD, and my mind wandered all over the place. I didn’t really pay attention to where I was running; I simply was focusing on continuing forward and trying to convince myself to run to the next aid station before I slowed to a walk for a few steps. Along this stretch, there were some decent cheer efforts, including a beer stop that I tried to enjoy on the run. However, I seem to have spilled most of it on myself before I actually got any in my mouth (which is why I always walk through water stops!). Still, that one sip had me looking forward to my post-race beer at the finishers festival!
Heading toward that mile 25 marker, you make a left turn onto Grace Street, and you can all but taste that finish line. The crowds get thicker and the knowledge of that final downhill gets you pumped for the last steps of your marathon. At the 25 mile marker, I notice our ‘Meg’s Mile’ sign and smiled. Shortly after, I saw a few people from our group cheering runners on, and they increased the volume when they saw me. As with any effort that taxes your body and mind so far beyond what you are used to, running a marathon can make you very emotional. When I saw them and realized I was truly in that home stretch, soon to be surrounded by all the friends of the group, I started to tear up. If you know anything about running, however, crying and running do not mix well – I wanted to really crank up the speed and unfortunately, I wasn’t able to breathe enough to hit the pace I wanted in the final half mile. I soon caught my breath, make the final turn onto 5th Street, and saw the finish line at the bottom of a serious downhill. Just a short distance from the finish, the Meg’s Miles group erupted into cheers for me as I completed my race.
In all the races I’ve done, the post race at Richmond is one of the nicest. After you cross the final timing mat, you receive a fleece finishers blanket, a hat, your medal, water and then you can get your gear from gear check and head to the finishers festival. Runners have a special tent filled with pizza, bananas, granola bars and more to enjoy, and you receive one beer (on tap!) at the beer truck. Free massages are available, but the line was again too long for me to want to stay for it. I instead headed back to the finish line to be part of our ‘epic cheer squad’ and watch for other runners to realize their dreams.
One after another, I was witness to so many first time marathoners finally seeing that they could do it. Let me tell you, it is a powerful thing for someone to reach that finish line they have been dreaming about, training for and anticipating for six or more months! I screamed for several hours, as we waited for the final member of our group – Keith – to make his way down the hill toward his finish line.
In a scene reminiscent of last year’s race, we saw our final runner and a couple others who found him and offered encouragement starting the descent toward us. Many members of the group decided to run with him for those final moments.
I chose to stand on the side and continue cheering. While Keith looked like he was done, he mustered up that final bit of energy to run down the hill. Along the way, he was greeted by his two sons who ran with him the final 200 yards in support of their dad. In all honesty, the noise was incredible as we cheered Keith on to his 6:58 finish. He was surrounded by friends, and Bart Yasso even came to congratulate him on his finish. As this was happening, several more runners completed their races, and they were greeted at the finish with our crazy group all cheering for them like they won the event. This is the spirit of Meg’s Miles. And this is the spirit of Meg, according to those who knew her. Always the encourager, always someone who celebrated achievements.
My time was not exceptional – I did manage to finish with a 4:15:08 time, only nine seconds slower than Chicago, and on a hillier course. In all, I was much happier with this effort than I was with my Chicago race. And I felt like I had something left for the following week, which was definitely a win for me!
By the way, I’m already registered for this marathon in 2017… It will be the 40th anniversary of the event, and I can imagine that ‘America’s Friendliest Marathon’ will go all out to make this a fantastic event for all participants!