State 18: Alabama (2012 Mercedes-Benz Half Marathon)

In March of last year, I flew to Atlanta to run the 2011 Publix Georgia Half Marathon.  I stayed with Nolan, a good friend of mine from middle school, whom I had not seen in over ten years.  This past weekend, I flew down once more to Georgia for a weekend of running, but this time to conquer its westward neighbor at the 2012 Mercedes-Benz Half Marathon in Birmingham, Alabama.  Despite his increasingly hectic schedule as a teacher, Nolan was down for another stab at 13.1 miles and graciously hosted me.

The weekend’s first highlight happened before I even arrived in Georgia, as I realized upon boarding my plane that I would be sharing it with Chef Art Smith, owner of several restaurants including Table FiftyTwo, just a few blocks from my apartment.  I should mention that he’s also a marathoner.   Ignoring all sense of etiquette, I gushed out “I love your restaurant” as I made my way towards the back with the rest of the riffraff.  He smiled and said thank you.  I should go his place again soon.

After crashing at Nolan’s place for the night and sharing the living room with his grey Manx cat, Cat, we had breakfast at American Road House before starting the roughly 2-hour drive to Birmingham.  Once there with our race packets secure, we realized what we confidently suspected from the beginning: there’s not much to do in Birmingham.  So we largely spent the rest of the afternoon at the hotel, watching movies on the paltry few channels available to us.  We were fortunate to find an excellent Italian restaurant for dinner about two miles away.  It was called Bettola and it was perfect for a romantic first date or a manly pre-race pasta gorge.

The Expo at Boutwell Auditorium

The next morning we were up at 4:55 AM.  With our pre-race meals being slowly digested, we sat in the hotel room for a while, waiting for the right time to leave.  A painful frost had cut across the entire United States and had lowered Birmingham’s mercury levels to about 20*F and neither of us were in the mood to stand outside unless there were damn good reasons.  We had donned a warm compression base, several layers of wicking gear and two pairs of gloves.  Nolan had bought an inexpensive winter hat with a bobble at Target the day before and said that one of us looked like a professional runner, while the other looked homeless.

And so around 6:40 we stepped outside.  I would insist that it wasn’t that bad, but that’s mostly because I train through Chicago’s winter, which can feel like it can break your bones.  For Nolan, it was the coldest temperature in which he had ever run.  So at the very least it would be a memorable race, come what may.

Showing off the free gloves at the start - no one there on account of frostbite

While the cold and slight winds had given Nolan reason to worry, I felt differently.  My last three half marathons had endowed me with a fulsome confidence.  I had run what I considered a fast time in Miami’s humid conditions and PR’d in California with very little training.  So as I lined up to start in Alabama, I decided that I was going to be aggressive.  It was cold, the course wasn’t terribly hilly and the winds weren’t enough to really slow us down.  But more importantly, I was energized and hungry for a fast time.  I felt like I did right before the Flying Pig – I knew that I would either cross the finish line with a new personal best or crawl across it with ears bleeding.

Nolan, however, wasn’t brimming with such self-assurance.  He had run his first marathon in Columbus Georgia last November and followed it two weeks later with a half marathon PR.  But since that race, his training had dwindled to just a few runs here and there, whenever he could make time for it.  Persistent knee and foot injuries would resurface on occasion to further hinder his efforts.  He was beyond unsure of his abilities, he was actually worried.  I tried to reassure him by telling him apocryphal tales of runners who would train for months and then fall short of their expectations, only to experience a huge surprise success on a later race with very little preparation.  When that didn’t appear to work, I told him Blake Lively would give him a sensual massage if he finished under 1:40.

2012 Race Swag and Finisher's Medal

There were about 5,000 runners with us in the chute, ready to start.  Since there were no official corrals, we weren’t shocked at the chaos that ensued down Reverend Abraham Woods Jr. Boulevard.  There were walkers alongside track runners, overeager runners sidestepping more cautious ones and lots of diagonal running.  I had to hop on the sidewalk more than once to pass slower groups running shoulder to shoulder.  Fortunately, the streets were wide enough to allow the course to thin out pretty quickly.  By mile 1 I had enough space to run consistently without having to change gears to pass people.  My plan to run without holding back was going well so far – my first mile was a 7:26, my PR pace.  I was definitely warming up, but the cold still found a way to mock me as I reached for a Powerade at the first water station.  The surface of the drink had iced, so I punctured it and lifted the cup to drink.  After two seconds of nothing, I got a frosty clump of energy drink in the face.  Lesson learned.

I continued running through Birmingham’s streets, noticing how dull everything was.  Nolan had pointed out the day before as we drove in that everything was brown.  From the buildings to the streets, the city had been smeared with an unappealing, dirt monochrome.  This uniform palette would characterize the next three miles of the race.  It wasn’t until the course cut through University of Alabama at Birmingham around mile 4 that trees began to sprout.  At this point, we exited the drab city and dashed downhill for about a mile through residential areas.  This was also where the course started to rise.  But despite the advent of hills, I was not backing down from my plan.  My watch read an overall pace of 7:15, daringly faster than my PR pace from December, a comfortable cushion for the slower uphill miles to come.

It seemed that with every hill, the race got prettier.  By mile 7 the course was legitimately scenic.  We had passed several neighborhoods and had entered a nice town square.  The last two miles had been generally uphill, but there were crowds in the street, braving the cold and cheering for runners.  This was enough to keep my legs from tiring.  A few miles later we enter a neighborhood that I believe is called Red Mountain (though it’s also likely that it’s just the name of the mountain).  Large estates lined the course, which had now taken a more serpentine path around three parks: Caldwell, Rhodes and Rushton.  Though the sun was out, the hills and trees were providing lots of shade – much to the chagrin of many runners who were still freezing.

Note the woman finishing the marathon with a baby.

Just after mile 9, the course wrapped around the Highland Park Golf Course for one last uphill climb.  My pace had dipped by only two seconds to 7:17 in the last four miles and the rest was mostly downhill.  In between breaths I crunched some numbers.  Damn, I thought.  I’m running a 1:35.  If I can push the pace a little on the downhills, I could probably dip below that.  My friend Brandon had been asking me for years if I had managed to break his 1:36 PR, and here I was, on my way to doing just that.  All of these thoughts made my legs feel much lighter and down I went.

As we ran back north, we were met with a slight headwind.  Even though I was already warmed up and even sweating, the cold would not let me forget it.  I typically run with my hands open, karate chopping the air in front of me with every step.  Around mile 11 I realized that my fingers were pretty cold, so I tried making a fist to warm them up.  My pinky was reluctant to move – I tried bending it but it was stuck in place.  Only two more miles of this, I thought.  Two more miles and I’ll be in the hotel lobby, breathing life back into my hands.

Those two remaining miles would be spent back in the depressing browns of Birmingham’s warehouse and industrial sector, which seemed to blanket most of the city.  What was left was mostly flat, so I couldn’t depend on a downhill grade to push me to my ambitious time goal.  My legs were holding up fine, but my lungs were starting to flag.  My breathing was louder than my footfalls and keeping the pace was becoming a struggle.  At the twelfth mile, a spectator yelled “Go Chicago!” after seeing my bright green Chicago Half Marathon shirt.  Back in the heart of the city, the last mile tilts slightly upward.  It wasn’t a serious hill, but just enough to make you feel it on your legs.  The relentless charge was now a teeth-gnashing fight against the clock.  I could hear the echo of speakers, announcers ticking off finishers’ names, a deep bass booming in the distance.

At the very top of this tiny climb I reached Linn Park, the music much louder.  I glanced at my watch and saw 1:34, the seconds too small to read and my arm shaking from running and perhaps cold.  A quick zigzag separated me from the finish banner.  I didn’t know how close to 1:35 I was, so I began my sprint.  Thirty seconds later, I threw both arms in the air.  1:34:39.  I crushed my personal best by 2 minutes, 39 seconds.  I barely had time for this to sink in before a volunteer handed me the race’s medal: the iconic Mercedes logo on a yellow ribbon.

For the first time after a race, I took a Mylar blanket.  I must have looked like an idiot because it kept blowing off my shoulders and wrapping itself around my face.  But I didn’t really need it except to provide another layer of warmth on my icy fingers.  Plus, the sun was out.  Nolan and I had agreed earlier to meet up at the hotel rather than stay and freeze outside.  But I had barely gotten a chance to get some post-race goodies when I saw him exit the finisher’s chute to the tune of 1:38 and change.  He had managed a seven minute improvement on a race with minimal training.  Anyone who thought my performance was audacious would have called it pedestrian after seeing his finish time.

With our accomplishments etched into the records of race lore and blood finally coursing through our face muscles, it was time for a delicious burger.  The place we had originally picked (Chez Fonfon) was closed on Sundays, so we went instead to Flip Burger Boutique, a casual gourmet restaurant owned in part by Chef Richard Blais, who won Top Chef All-Stars and is also a marathoner.  Later that night, back in Atlanta, we hit up some hot dogs at HD-1, also owned by the same Mr. Blais.

By any standard, it was a great weekend.  Not only did I come back home with a half marathon PR, but I got to eat delicious food, add a new state to the list and spend time catching up with an old friend.  It also got me thinking …

Just when you think you’re at a plateau, something like this happens and you realize you’re capable of so much more.  I expected to melt down toward the end of the race and surely Nolan wasn’t thinking he could run a 1:38.  So what stops us from going for that ambitious, damn-it-all time goal?  There’s a physical element to be sure, but there’s also fear, especially in long distances.  At first, it’s good to have that trepidation – you never know how your body will react the first, second, even third time you venture into the distance.  Once you find those limits, you assume they’re only barely static, that you can push them only little bits at a time.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  In fact, it’s a sensible, smart and disciplined approach to self-improvement.

But every now and then, maybe it’s a good idea to just abandon all restraint and see where wanton recklessness takes you.

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