According to Google Maps, the drive from Fairport, NY to Nashville, TN is 787 miles or 11 hours and 53 minutes. This is a long haul by car, but the cost of flying gave me heart palpitations, and, considering layovers and connections, flying the friendly skies would take nearly as long as driving. Plus, after a long winter, I needed a chance to clear my head, and what could be better for that than a solo cruise to a 26.2 mile date with destiny? So, after saying good-by to the Better Half and following a half day at work, I pushed the accelerator down on my Subaru Legacy and rolled west across the NY thruway, took a left onto I-71 South at Cleveland and carried on until I arrived at a budget hotel in Hillsboro, OH at sunset on Thursday night. There, I had a nice meal at a Bob Evans Restaurant and slept well. On Friday, I ate oatmeal and a banana at the hotel’s free breakfast buffet and cruised through KY, stopping at a nacho stand run by a very kind mother-son team just outside of the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, KY. They assured me that I was going to have wonderful time in Nashville and run “super fast.” Sounds good!
I crossed into TN and arrived at the race expo at the Nashville Convention Center at about 2 PM on Friday. Parking at the convention center cost me about $28.00, and that was a little painful. Inside, I caught up with my “Unofficial Coach”, Bobby N., a tireless “St. Jude Hero” fundraiser, who had just flown in from downstate NY and is a veteran of this course. I mentioned to Bobby that I harbored an aspiration of a new PR on this course, and, in his direct but well-intentioned manner, he told me to forget it – too hot and too hilly. This turned out to be good advice. On my way out, I gave my metered receipt to another runner just pulling up in a battered SUV with NJ plates, so that he could use the two hours of remaining time on it. “Wow, thank you! That’s sooooo cool!”, he said with a big smile. At least two of us got to park for that price!
My training cycle had been reasonably solid through the long Upstate NY winter; however, I was concerned that sitting in the car for that long drive down may result in a stiffening of the muscles and cramping on race day. Furthermore, due to concern about severe heat and humidity, the start time for the marathon was moved back one hour to 6:45 AM CST. Of course, for me as a New Yorker, this means I’ll be starting this 26.2 miles jaunt at 5:45 AM (EST)!* Can I do it? Well, only one way to find out!
*Editorial Note: An observant reader pointed out that, going from New York (EST) to Nashville (CST), I actually gained an hour of sleep! It’s funny how the mind works!
I caught up with my friend, Bill C., whom faithful readers might remember from my Monroe Half Marathon write-up from last Fall. Unfortunately, Bill was suffering from a stress fracture in his left foot and was tentative about completing the full marathon. Despite the pain, his plan, as always, was to give this race everything he’s got. He’s done this marathon before and reminded me of a few things: (1) hills; (2) heat; and (3) humidity. And, of course, that this race is a blast! Bill took me for a pre-race tour of a portion of the course in his sweet, silver, two seat convertible Nissan roadster – what a treat! I saw the sites, including the inviting bars and honky-tonks with trademark neon signs, not to mention throngs of partying tourists and pedal-powered carts of giggling bachelorettes. Later, we had a great dinner and conversation before turning in early. I set the alarm for about 5:30 AM CST and was out like a light, despite the anticipation of my date with destiny in the morning.
Get Up! It’s Race Day!
Bill doesn’t drink coffee, but, at 6 AM, he had a beautiful pot of strong Starbuck’s coffee brewed and ready for me. I drank two black cups and loved it! I had a big bowl of Quaker oats with peanut butter and a banana, and I was all tanked up. I suited up in my black compression shorts, new dark blue Nike shorts, red Sehgahunda shirt, and my orange Air Force Marathon hat. On my feet, I had my new New Balance 860v7s. Bill’s friend, Jan, motored us to as close to the start line as possible, we jumped out, posed for a quick snap, and jogged to the start line. Let’s rock-n-roll!
After a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem, we were all set to go! Thanks to Bill’s sage advice, I got my corral assignment switched from somewhere in the teens to Corral 4, near the very front. As a result, we started much earlier, perhaps 30 – 60 minutes or more. Bill’s rationale: starting earlier increased our opportunity to cross the finish line before the temperature gets perilously high. Sure enough! After the big start we were out of the chute and trucking while most everyone else was still waiting behind the start line.
My marathon strategy was simple and, I think, tried-and-true: go slow and steady in the early miles and have something left in the tank during the final stretch, when the sun would get hot. I made a decision to drink water at every available station and down nutrition whenever offered. This wasn’t as much based on any science; intuitively, it just seemed like this plan offered the best chance of being upright at the finish line. My first mile clocked in at a 10’02” pace; this might be a little too slow. I finished my second mile in 8’44”; this might be a little too fast. I ran my third mile at 9’01”, and this seemed just about right. With considerable variability, I remained at around this pace for about the first 13 miles. Bill ran at a faster pace – perhaps around 8’35” or so, and I watched him slip away during those first couple of miles, not to be seen again for about 11 miles.
By “variability”, I am referring to hills. And, man, were there hills! Not steep, sharp angles, but, rather, long, multiple-block inclines; the kind of hills where one does not see the crest when beginning the ascent. Marathons are as much mental as physical, and, as I submerged into the demands of these long hills, I simply told myself that “this hill will never end” and “this is my sole purpose in life now – to go up this hill.” I am sure these self-statements sound counterintuitive to some, like “negative speak”. After all, wouldn’t it be better to tell myself, “Oh, it’s not that bad” or “I’m almost to the top”? But, for whatever reason, there seemed less chance that I would quit from sheer exhaustion or lack of mental fortitude if I resigned myself to the notion that I was in this for literally the foreseeable future. This is a kind of self-hypnosis, I think, that a marathon runner must foster in order to cope with the demands of the course; a riff on Mr. Miyagi’s “wax on, wax off” as a way to endure the sheer enormity of the task.
As mentioned, I made the decision to take advantage of every aid station on the route. In addition to water, I had the following: orange slices, a “glucose shot”, Gatorade (regular and extra salt), individual salt packets (to replace the salt lost through profuse sweating in the climbing temperature), Gummy Bears, cold sponges, ice for under my hat, and cold towels for around my neck . At about mile 4, I had a chocolate Gu that I had brought myself. Despite all of this, I was worried about depleting energy, especially as I reached the half way point. At one point, a Good Samaritan – a man of about 30 – gave me a word of encouragement as I passed by, and I impulsively yelled out to him, “Do you have any nutrition?” He reached into his bag, pulled out a banana, and tossed it to me. Perfect! “Thank you!” I yelled, and he gave me a smile and a “thumbs up”. I ate that while continuing my run. When I finished the banana and was running with the peel in hand, a kind woman motioned for me to toss it to her, indicating that she would be sure it got thrown out properly. I gently lobbed it by her feet and thanked her; she gave me a sweet smile and wave. Where would I be without kind people? That’s as true in a marathon as in the rest of my life!
Around half way, I met up with Bill, who was watching from the sidelines. He bowed out at the half way point, due to severe pain in his fractured foot. I know this decision bothered him, but this was a very smart thing to do; now, he can fully heal and not risk a season-ending deterioration of his condition. Despite his pain, he ran with me for about a half mile, in order to assess my status and provide encouragement. Buoyed by this support, I took off on the second half of the race. The great music provided by live bands along the course (e.g., covers of Guns and Roses, Tom Petty, and Johnny Cash), cheers from the crowd, and intermittent showers of water from sprinklers arranged by people along the route kept me feeling strong. I had a blast for quite a few miles; here is a brief video summary of the race that gives a good feel of the fun to be found along the route.
Identifying the toughest part of the race is easy: the four mile round trip to Shelby Bottoms between miles 21 and 25. I’m glad Bill didn’t show this to me during our preview drive during the previous day. If I had known what a brutal stretch that was, I may have been too discouraged to finish it. It was a long, hot road near the end of the race, with minimal spectators to provide diversion or trees to provide shade from the sun, which was now good and hot! All I could do was buckle down and chug it out. I finally rounded the community baseball/softball diamonds that composed the “lollipop” portion of this leg of the race course at mile 23 and headed for the finish line. My pace dropped considerably on this section, with mile 24 being my slowest (12’26”). Plenty of fellow runners were dropping out and/or walking by then, so I knew I wasn’t alone in my pain. At a makeshift station near the exit of that loop, a young man was offering ice cold beer; tempting, but, no, this doesn’t sound like a good idea for this old man.
As I closed in on the finish line, Bill greeted me again with welcomed words of encouragement. I was almost there! In that final mile, the crowd and excitement grew and, as I entered the chute, I resumed disciplined race form and picked up my pace. I made it! My official chip time was 4:27:55, (overall standing: 581/2445; division standing: 21/103; gender: 357/1310).
I met up with Bill and Jan, picked up my finisher’s jacket, and cruised back to Bill’s house to take a long, hot shower. I felt like a million bucks after that shower; no injuries and only mild to moderate soreness. My hosts took me to an incredible sushi restaurant for dinner at Nama Sushi Bar and ice cream at Jeni’s Ice Creams. Both were terrific! To close out the day, we took a fun tour of Vanderbilt University. I spend my week in the university world, and I have associates at Vanderbilt, so this was a great orientation to a beautiful school. We ended the day visiting with Bill’s gracious neighbors, who gave me an ice cold, craft-brewed IPA, and this tasted great.
It is a profound blessing to live in this great country, have the freedom to travel, engage in the leisure of road racing, enjoy good health, consume all the clean water and nutrition one wants, and run 26.2 miles injury-free. It a special blessing to do these things in the company of good friends, and that was how I spent the 2017 St. Jude Nashville Rock-n-Roll Marathon weekend. It’s not lost on me that St. Jude is the Patron of Hopeless Cases, and, while I am far from “hopeless”, I am inspired by the goodness that I see in events like this marathon and in time spent with friends. Thanks for reading this race report and see you out there!