Monday, February 11, 2013

Race Report: Inaugural Mississippi River Marathon

Another weekend, another race: the inaugural Mississippi River Marathon.

Self portrait pre race

I must begin with a strong and enthusiastic endorsement for this race. In an inaugural year, I would guess it's 50/50 at best that things will go smoothly. In my opinion, MS River got it 100% right, so kudos to them and the event organizers Start2Finish for their work and planning. It definitely paid off! With just over 400 runners in the full, it was a small race, but felt big time with the attention to detail and support they provided the runners.

First benefit of a smaller race: I parked about 500 feet from the finish line which was also about 500 feet from the buses that took us to the start of the point to point race. #winning (Yes, I know hashtags do nothing in a blog. Roll with it.)

The big yellow buses, ready to go

Second benefit: the pre-race gathering of marathoners felt a little bit like a gathering before a long-run-Saturday. It's not every day that sunrise at the start line is next to rice silos, but chalk one up for a uniquely Mississippi Delta experience:

Add the considerately placed bonfires to keep us warm, and it was a friendly, almost partytime atmosphere while we stood in line for the port-a-potty, dropped our gear bags, and walked over to the start line.

Another cold race day - in the 30s at the start

Not related to being a small race, but a HUGE thing they got right - aid stations and port-o-potties at every mile. Every one, people. I know port-o-potties may seem like a weird thing to get worked up over, but if you've ever needed one in the middle of a run and not had one, you know it's not weird at all. And the aid stations at one mile intervals ended up being the glue that kept my mental state together between mile 18 and the finish. More on that in a moment.

Now to the mopey whining, accompanied by a dose of self pity. It was a tale of two races, soundtrack by Bob Seger: "Running Against the Wind." Again. Seriously. I can't catch a break with the wind. Check out the flags:

Tale of two races: What I did wrong

My first mistake: I had no plan, no strategy. Which on one hand seems about right for me, and on the other, is a shocking lapse. I had focused so much energy on running a Boston Qualifying sub-3:40 in Houston three weeks earlier; upon achieving that, I clearly spent too much time enjoying the afterglow. Which meant on race morning for Mississippi, I literally walked up to the start line thinking, "I wonder how I'll do today?"

Start line: What'll I do today? DOH
Stupidstupidstupid rookie mistake (made worse by the fact that I'm no longer a marathon rookie). I had no idea whether I planned on trying to improve my time from Houston, back off just a little but still run a sub-4:00, or just enjoy the run and the scenery for the experience while marking one more state off the long quest for the 50 State Marathon club.

My second mistake: I went out waaaaaay too fast. My splits on the first five miles illustrate my second mistake in black and white:

Sub-8:00s, anyone?

My third mistake, which directly contributed to my second mistake: not enough rest between races, pushing too hard on what should have been recovery days (or even a recovery week). By mile 6, my legs told me I had arrogantly assumed I didn't need a break in my training. Arrogant, egotistical, stupid, naive, etc., etc.... over 26.2 miles, you have a lot of time to think of synonyms. But they all added up to the same thing - I just didn't have the oomph in my legs or the spring in my step to keep up the sub-8:00 pace I set early on, or even the 8:20 pace I needed to improve on my time from Houston.

Tale of two races: What I did right

It took me about two days of mental self flagellation to realize that some things did go right. Now that I figured them out, they kind of offset my annoyance with what I did wrong. Kind of.

My first got-it-right: By mile 12, when I realized how physically demanding it was to keep that BQ pace in the face of a sustained 10-15 mph head wind, I made the call. This wasn't going to be a better day than Houston; it wasn't even going to be a BQ. So back off now, and do what I could to enjoy the rest of the race. I wish I'd made the call around mile 8, but hey - mile 12 was better than making the call at mile 20, right?

Trucking right along... until I made the call

By the time I got to mile 16, not only was I not at a BQ pace, I couldn't even keep running. I began walking through the aid stations, getting some blessed relief. (Side note: what nobody tells you when you're all amped up about a flat, fast course is that the lack of any elevation change means the exact same spots on your feet take a pounding for a straight 26.2 miles. DOH.)

With the aid stations a mile apart, I was able to mentally break down the last 8 miles, promising myself a one minute walk break if I would just keep running to the next aid station. Mental game, yes, but one that I played with success.

My second got-it-right: Even before I fully backed off the punishing pace, I made a mental effort to note what was cool and unique about this race. Like, the start line was in Lake Village, AR, right on Lake Chicot, the largest oxbow lake in North America. And the first several miles were right on Lakeshore Drive. Lakeshore Drive, Lake Village, AR, but still - Lakeshore Drive. Eat your heart out, Chicago.

We came off of Lakeshore Drive and headed down US 82. About mile 8, as we ran with fertile fields of the Arkansas Delta on the right, here comes a small plane practically dive bombing out of the north directly across the highway, just barely ducking under the telephone lines to crop dust a field, then pulling an incredible vertical climb to just clear the top of the lines on the opposite side of the field. Repeat three times, and you start to think the people running 26.2 miles aren't crazy at all. It's the guy in the twin prop plane playing chicken with live wires who's the real nut job.

Definitely one of the coolest moments, and to me a huge draw for this race, was running across the mighty Mississippi on one of the most beautiful cable stay bridges I've ever seen. With recent rains the river ran strong and swift, and it was impossible not to be impressed by its awesome power. (On a side note - can't wait to see the professional photos, as they picked a sweet spot just over the crest of the bridge to capture a moment. #winning Yes, again with the hashtag.)

Image courtesy of Google Images
My third got-it-right: This one took me a couple of days and the perspective of a friend to figure out. Today, I realized that MS River taught me that every race has its own purpose: not every race can be a PR, not every race is one in which I can improve upon the last. Sometimes, I just need the race to be an affirmation that my mind and body can make it through 26.2 miles, or that there is nothing that can compare to seeing places through the lens of running a marathon. I think I'm lucky that I figured this out with MS River, because it's true of every race I run. And since I'm only 4 states into a 50 state plan, there are at least 46 to go that will have their own purpose.

There's more than just a lesson about a marathon in there, huh?

It took a little bit more mental endurance this time than I expected, but that made it just a little bit more rewarding, too. Two donuts and one cool finisher medal later, I'm ready to sign up for the next one.

Shipley Donuts. That's right. #winning

Land of Oz, here I come. Who's in?


  1. ya know.....if you planned it right, you could come visit me for say, 10 days, and get in a Cali and a Nevada marathon! ;)

  2. I just saw your recap on MS River Marathon's twitter. I ran the same race, well the half, and loved it, too! I'm amused because we used the same Google image for the bridge. :) Congrats on your BQ!!