May 1, 2013

Race Report: Big-D Texas Marathon

Okay, so it’s now been two weeks (and a whole ‘nother marathon!) since I ran Big D Texas Marathon on April 14. I wanted to post my race report the next day, but that happened to be the day of the Boston Marathon – and that was when I stopped thinking even a little bit about the race I had run and just started following the news nonstop. When I did think about the race, I couldn’t believe the petty concerns I had – they were nothing compared to what happened in Boston, and I felt obnoxious for even thinking it was a bad race. But now that some time has passed, I’m going to try to write the race report I would have written if it had been done on Sunday night, before Boston. Here goes…

The Big D Marathon has been on my list to do for a while – though honestly I’m not sure why. I think the name made it sound big and important, but when I actually reflect, I don’t know anyone who has done it or recommended it. Time for me to check it out and be the first! Since the race was on a Sunday morning, it was easy enough for me to fly back to Dallas on Saturday night and still get half a weekend at home, and I made the most of my time in NYC by going to brunch at one of my favorite spots in the city, Calle Ocho, along with two of my favorite people, Theodora and Ashley. Neither had been to Calle Ocho before, and I was pleased to introduce them to what makes the restaurant so special: eight different kinds of sangria, served in unlimited quantities, free with your meal. Hello, carb loading!

I was definitely a little tipsy when I headed for the airport (cheers for knowing to pack in advance of brunch!), but the plane ride sobered me up, and I arrived with a hankering for mac and cheese instead of the solo gourmet Italian dinner I had planned (seriously, if you ever go to Dallas, go to Nonna – despite Dallas not being known for their Italian food, I think they have the best pasta I’ve ever eaten anywhere in the world). Destination? Panera Bread. It definitely wasn’t as fancy, but the bowl of mac & cheese and the cup of baked potato soup (plus french baguette) were among the best carb loading I’ve done, and for $7, I was thrilled. I got to bed fairly early, excited about what the next day would bring.

I was very lucky that my hotel was only about a 10 minute drive from the start – but parking turned out to be a bit of a challenge. This race had more people than I expected! The race start/finish was in Fair Park (aka the home of the fall Texas State Fair), so there was tons of (free) parking available… but long queues to actually get into the parking lots. By the time I got out of the car, I was dashing to the start to make sure I would arrive in time for the packet pickup cutoff (twenty minutes before).

As it turned out, packet pickup didn’t get cut off at all – and I was little disappointed that I had sprinted there from my car. I later found out that the last thing I needed would be extra running! But for now, I got my bib, dropped my purse off at the gear check line, and then headed for the start. They were announcing 5 minutes until the full marathon start, and I was pleased to see that the half would start 30 minutes later, so we knew when we toed the line who we’d be running with for 26 miles. However, I was surprised to hear the following announcement: “Full marathon runners, your race begins in five minutes. If you are in the porta potty lines…” (and this is where I expected them to say “and are a half marathoner, please let the full marathoners go ahead of you”) “then leave the line and go to the start.” Huh! It seemed to me that if the half didn’t start for 30 minutes, they could have had separate bathrooms that were marathon only (and later opened up for halfers), or asked the halfers to let the marathon runners go ahead. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to use the bathroom, so it didn’t much matter – but I felt bad for those who did.

At the start line, though, there were other logistical matters. It seemed that this race had pacers (I was surprised, since it was such a small race) – but there didn’t seem to be much organization behind them. That is, the 3:45 pacer was literally right on the starting line (and unless this course was a lot harder than I’d heard, 3:45 is not usually a winning marathon time), and immediately behind him was the 5:00 pacer. Meanwhile, the 4:00 pacer was a few hundred feet back. Given that pacing usually requires math more complicated than “is five hours faster or slower than four hours”, I was a little concerned with how skilled these pacers were ๐Ÿ˜‰ But again, didn’t matter to me – I was going to run my own race.

At the start, I was thinking of a line from Alice in Wonderland, โ€˜Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: Then stop.โ€™ That was pretty much how I’d have to be running this race, since I had no Garmin after it got stolen a few weeks ago. I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal to run without my Garmin, until I got to mile 1 (judging from all the other runners’ Garmins beeping) and didn’t see a mile marker on the course. I knew it was a small race, and those sometimes don’t have many mile markers, but that’s typically more for trail races than road runs. Perhaps they were every two miles, or even every 5K? Although unlikely, I had seen that before.

We wove in and around the fair grounds, with spectators / half marathoners cheering us on, and I was pretty happy about this beginning of the course – until about 18 minutes in, when I saw a mile marker with a big “1” on it. Huh? I didn’t have a Garmin to measure my pace, but there was no way I had done an 18 minute mile (which is a walking pace), and was guessing I was doing around 9:15. Other runners confirmed that their watches were just coming up on two miles. I shrugged it off – perhaps the volunteer had inadvertently put the 1 mile marker at mile 2, and we’d be all set by mile 3? But when mile 3 rolled around (literally – we had a series of rolling hills to get there), I instead saw the 2 mile mark. Everyone was shaking their heads – there was no way that many Garmins were wrong – but the explanation I came up with in my head is that the volunteer putting the signs out had missed the spot on the map for where to drop the one mile mark and proceeded to put mile 1 at mile 2, mile 2 and mile 3, etc. In that case, we’d get to the mark for mile 25 and then be done. That had to be it, right?

Putting the mile marker questions out of my head for now, I focused on just enjoying the scenery and the podcast on my headphones. This course took me to parts of Dallas I had never been to before, and I was excited to go around scenic White Rock Lake especially. White Rock is often cited as a great destination for runners/cyclists, and I’m frequently asked by coworkers if that’s where I go on weekdays to get my “training” in. (Answer: Nope, I’m lazy and don’t train by running during the week.) But on the way there, I got to go through some pretty neighborhoods with friendly people who ahd come out to cheer and offer informal water/snacks to the runners. Thanks, Dallasites!

Around mile 6 (or was it 7? Who knew anymore!) we crossed a small bridge over a river, and I then found myself on the paved path that circled the entire lake. Now this was my kind of race! I always feel most at peace when I get to run next to a body of water, and Big D was no exception. Furthermore, the weather was incredible – the kind of blue sky, puffy white cloud day that just makes me so happy to be outside and going for a run. More aid stations with colorfully dressed volunteers (there was a contest for best aid station) awaited us every mile or two as we headed up to the north side of the lake, and I was also very happy for the flat course. I thought this was supposed to be hilly?

At the top of White Rock Lake, though, we turned onto a small highway extension – and the course started going up. Fortunately, it wasn’t too terribly long of a hill (I’d guess 1/4 mile) – so just enough to get your heart rate up but not enough to dreadfully slow you down or force you to a walk. At the top? Tons of spectators cheering us on. I have to say, for such a small race, Big D drew a lot of great crowd support! Of course it’s nothing like the mega marathons (Boston, New York), but I was pleasantly surprised at just how frequently we came upon cheering stations – at least every mile.

The next few miles were again residential, and these definitely had some rolling hills. I was fine with the hills; what I was not fine with was reaching the halfway point (marked by a chip mat) after we had already run 14.6 miles (according to those around me). I knew that the volunteers wouldn’t have set out the chip mat and set up in the wrong place, so this must indeed be the halfway point of the race. I asked the guy manning the equipment if he knew the course was off (“yup, everyone’s been saying that”) and if the organizers had let him know about any plans to correct it at the end. Surely they wouldn’t make us run 29.2 miles instead of 26.2? (I assumed that whatever had gone wrong would be duplicated on the other side of the course as well.) He had no idea.

Meanwhile, the 4:00 pace team leader, who I had been going back and forth with for several miles, took off like a shot, sprinting ahead so that I never saw him again. I could sympathize with his plight – how do you pace a race that turns out to be several miles longer than expected? Do you just stay at your planned pace and come in late, or do you pick up the pace so that you still finish in your desired time? And how do you do either if you now have no idea how long the course will actually be? It seemed that all of us were going to be “beginning at the beginning, going on until we came to the end, and then stopping.”

I was so glad that I wasn’t trying to run this race for time. I felt terrible for the many runners who had trained like crazy for this race and planned to PR or even qualify for Boston. This course was supposedly certified as a Boston Qualifier, but obviously something had gone wrong. I still clung to the hope that the organizers would somehow fix it at the end, though. Perhaps they could reroute us to take a shortcut? Or move the timing equipment to a different “finish line”? I knew that both of those were probably unlikely options, but it seemed to me that something had to be done, and I figured three hours (for the winners) would be enough time for the organizers to take some kind of action.

We came back down the highway hill to hit the lake path again, and I found myself relieved to be on flat ground again. All those ups and downs weren’t necessarily grueling, but they did take some energy out of me! The previously beautiful weather was also now getting a bit warm for my taste (though not awful), and I was looking forward to being done – whenever that might be. I passed the time admiring the stunningly beautiful mansions along the lake (sarcastic text to Blake: “You should buy one of these houses; they look REAL cheap!)

It was not long before I came to mile marker 19 – which seemed to be about ten minutes after I had hit mile 17. Hooray! The organizers had fixed the course and we wouldn’t have to run that much extra! I was thrilled – until I got another 1/4 mile down the road and saw mile marker 18. What the heck? It was clear that more than one mistake had been made in the course layout, and I was now kind of pissed at the race organization. This had been billed as a no-frills low-key marathon, but the price of entry was a not-cheap-enough-to-reflect-that $100. You mean that for $100 we couldn’t even get an accurate course? I was happy with the water stations, and didn’t even mind the lack of Gu (since it had been advertised as no-frills), but the course for a race needs to be accurate.

Speaking of Gu – since my Gu had all been stolen along with my fuel belt, and I had forgotten to pick up any new stuff in time for the race, I was running with just a granola bar in my pocket in case of emergencies. However, I decided while running that I really wasn’t in the mood for a granola bar, so I just slurped down Gatorade at each water station (whereas I normally alternate Gatorade and water at aid stations). It seemed to be working surprisingly well, and I was also pleasantly surprised that I hadn’t had to stop to use the bathroom despite my big day of drinking the day before. Three cheers for going against every bit of marathon advice ever!

When we finally turned off the White Rock Lake path and plunged back into a series of neighborhoods, I had no idea what mile we were at – but I knew we had to be nearing the end. On the outbound, the lake had been about an hour’s run from the start, so there couldn’t be much more than that left. (Unless there was another loop I didn’t know about – while we’re talking about poor preparation, let’s also talk about how I didn’t study the course map.) The neighborhoods just after the lake were filled with tons of spectators, though, and I was very grateful for the support.

As we continued on, the neighborhoods got nicer and nicer, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to admire the opulent homes. I remembered from the course description that Swiss Avenue was supposed to be prized for its beauty, and having never been down it before, I was happy to get to see it and admire “how the other half lives” ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m still working on closing the deal on a house upstate, but it’s nothing like one of these! Nice to daydream about having a place like that someday…

When I hit the mile 23 marker, I knew it couldn’t be that much further- somewhere between one and three miles depending. I set my expectations low, planning for the full three miles left, but couldn’t stop myself from hoping it would end sooner. Running without knowing how far you have left to go is tough! Meanwhile, while I hadn’t been gunning for any particular time, I realized that I could go sub-4:10 if the course turned out to be appropriate length. If it was longer, though, who knew? I was so glad that this wasn’t my “goal race” of the season, and it just further strengthened my belief that you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket by doing just one marathon per season – you never know what’s going to happen that day!

In the last two miles of the race, I caught up to a lot of half marathon walkers who were just finishing their journey. I cheered them on as I passed, but focused my attention more on the girl in front of me who seemed to be running at a similar pace (and therefore must be doing the full). Could I pass her? At mile 25, while she took a walk break for a water stop, I did! Buoyed by my success, I got an extra surge of energy that helped me to pick up the pace for that last mile. When you’re middle of the pack, no one is “in it to win it,” but it can still make you feel good to see if you have the ability to pass other people so late in the game – especially when you succeed. I wished her well as I passed, and while I didn’t stick around the finish line long, I’m sure we didn’t finish more than a minute or so apart. But hey, every minute does count!

In the final mile, we turned back onto the fairgrounds – and I saw the very same parking lot where my car had been parked. Okay, now I knew where I was relative to the finish line! The course was pancake flat from here on out, and I tried to push the pace just a little bit more to come into the finish chute. At long last, I reached it andย barreledย to the end. (Ultra)marathon complete!

As I collected my medal and drop bag at the finish area, I finally learned from other runners (some of whom were crying miserably because they had planned to PR) what the problem had been: the lead police car who was driving in front of the frontrunners had taken a number of wrong turns, adding an extra 1.5 miles onto the course! I couldn’t believe it – in all of my marathons and tales of marathons from others, I had neve heard of such a thing. I wondered if we’d get a refund from the race director (unlikely, since the money had already been spent), and assumed we’d at least get a heartfelt apology – but that didn’t come until several days later, when the race director simply explained what happened but otherwise didn’t say much. (In fairness, the tragedy at the Boston Marathon the next day may have delayed the response.)

In general, while I had a nice long run around White Rock Lake, I have to say I was pretty disappointed with the logistics of this race. Even if the police car went the wrong way, something was still screwy with miles 18/19 (without my Garmin, I couldn’t be sure exactly what). And once the police car did take us off course, it seemed to me that the organizers could have scrambled with some kind of last minute correction to fix it – maybe even moving just the final timing mat one mile closer and then asking participants to walk to the full finish area from there. Three hours until the winners arrived isn’t a ton of time, but it should have been enough to do something rather than ignore the problem and send an email days after the fact.

Again, I’ll emphasize that I had a really nice run (in part because I wasn’t going for a time goal), but that had more to do with the beautiful day and the fabulous spectators than anything on the part of the race organizers. While the race had advertised itself as bare bones/no frills, I think $100 is a steep entry fee to pay for what we got. Unless there’s some crazy discount code or other compelling reason, I don’t think I’ll be running another Mellew Productions race again – it just didn’t seem like good value for the money.

Race stats:
Distance: 26.2 miles
Time: 4:21:15
Pace: 9:57/mile (calculated based on 26.2)
Overall place: 137/318
Gender place: 40/111
Age group place (women’s open): 6/21


12 thoughts on “Race Report: Big-D Texas Marathon”

  1. Oh man, I would have been SO made if I did a race like this! I get mad when they’re not even signs at every mile – much less a completely wrong course!

    I’m glad you still enjoyed yourself – great attitude!

    1. After Boston, I was mad at myself for getting upset at all! But I honestly did have a nice time – it was a BEAUTIFUL day for a run, and it was so relaxing to get to Dallas early instead of having to get up at 4am on Monday.

  2. That would have been so annoying! I get why you didn’t post a recap after Boston, though. It does seem silly in light of that. But still. I’m glad you weren’t going for a PR, but bummer for those who were!

  3. Wow I’d be so furious if this happened. I am nervous about my first 26.2 attempt… can’t imagine running an extra mile or two! Those poor people hoping for a PR.

    I really like small, local races, but I’m glad that my first marathon attempt will be in Chicago. I think if things go wrong for shorter distances it feels like less of a big deal, but for long distances, you want to be sure everything is super well-run.

    1. Jen, your logic makes sense! I prefer the smaller races but you’re right that there’s a lot more variability when it hasn’t been planned by a huge organization.

  4. Hi Laura,
    I enjoyed reading your experience in your Big D marathon last year. I’m glad you enjoyed your run and hoping this year is not a 27.2 mile run. This marathon has been a challenge for me since the first one on 2010 when I walked at mile 25 and calling my wife telling her I couldn’t finish it. I made a promise to myself not to ever walk in this marathon. Last year was a challenge and I did it. I hope you run it again some time. ๐Ÿ™‚ happy running!

    1. Just read your race report – I beg to differ that your 3:30 time “was not that good”! Way to go on a long course, and here’s hoping that it is a more appropriate length this year ๐Ÿ™‚ I can’t run it Sunday, but will look forward to perhaps next year instead!

  5. What’s your next marathon? BTW, it looks like the big D marathon will be done under the rain. Hopefully I can achieve a good time with the help of the rain. Otherwise, it will be so hot and humid.

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