May 4, 2013

Race Report: Country Music Marathon

When I arrived in Nashville, I quickly dropped my stuff off at the hotel but then immediately headed to the expo. I remembered long lines from last year, when I went in the evening, and hoped to avoid these by going in the afternoon instead. Bingo! It worked, and I walked right in and had my bib within about 10 minutes. I took advantage of the extra time I now had to explore the vendors, which seemed to me to be a better selection than usual.

One vendor that really intrigued me was HumaGel, a new all-natural sports gel company that prides itself on keeping their ingredients list entirely recognizable and pronounceable. It’s always struck me as funny how runners are so concerned with eating healthy, organic foods… and then we suck down Gatorade and Gu and all kinds of weird processed stuff. (Not to say that I don’t eat that stuff on the course too, but thanks to my job, I’m not exactly a paragon of natural food and home cooking!) The guys at HumaGel were nice enough to give me some samples to try out, and while I wasn’t able to use them in Nashville (more on that in a bit), I’ll hopefully give them a try at next weekend’s race and let you know what I think.

After the expo, I headed back to the hotel to finish up work for the day and also get in a quick 15 minute workout. While I’ve stopped doing the Insanity program, I really like the “Cardio Abs” video, and I figured it would be just the right level of exertion to work up a bit of sweat without hurting my performance the next day. Soon after I finished my workout, my roommate for the weekend, Zenaida, arrived. We hadn’t met before, but when Zenaida introduced herself via email and suggested sharing a room, I was totally game – it’s always fun to have company on a marathon trip!

We didn’t have anything specific planned for dinner, but wandered the streets and eventually ended up at Rock Bottom Brewery – which was actually the same place that Jocelyn, Emilia, and I went after the race last year! They had several pasta specials on the menu because of the race, so I happily chowed down on pasta primavera with red sauce while Zenaida and I got to know each other. Bonus: a flight of six beer tastings for only $6! It was the perfect amount to get me just a little bit sleepy and ready for bed without being too dehydrating, and I had plenty of water just to make sure. We were home and in bed by 9pm, which meant plenty of sleep before our 5am wakeup call!

I had heard lots on Friday about the forecast for rain, but since I had only brought a running skirt and tank top, I didn’t have any clothing options other than potentially layering the race tee on top. I chose not to do this, reasoning that once it got wet it wasn’t going to give me any warmth anyway. But when Zenaida and I stood in the drafty Sheraton lobby waiting in the long line for the shuttle bus, I started to worry. Was I going to freeze?? Everyone else seemed to be wearing tights and jackets, and while I thought tights were a bit overkill for temps in the 50s, a waterproof jacket would have been really nice to keep me dry. Instead, I settled for a plastic bag provided by the front desk – trash couture! Who says I didn’t learn anything from my month of focusing on fashion?

photo (1)

The race organizers charge quite a hefty fee for big tour buses that collect runners at each hotel and take them to the start and back from the finish, but my hotel had generously offered to provide their own shuttle to guests gratis, first-come, first served. However, as the race start approached and the roads began to close down, the shuttle’s trips started getting slower and slower – and it only had capacity for 11 people at a time. Zenaida and I got in line at 5:45am, which we thought was plenty of time for the two mile ride to the start, but with probably 80 people ahead of us, we didn’t reach the front of the line until 6:30am. We weren’t really worried, as the shuttle seemed to be taking about ten minutes roundtrip, but this time it didn’t come… and didn’t come… and didn’t come. Finally it arrived at 6:57am (yes, race start was at 7am, oops!), and we begged the driver to let a few more people squeeze in so more of us would arrive at least somewhat close to start time.

When the shuttle pulled out of the parking garage, though, we could see that it wasn’t just lightly raining – it was pouring. The drive to the park where the race started was very quick, and I found myself wishing it was longer. I had to go out into that and run for over four hours? Oh boy – I yawned the whole trip and kind of wished I could just go back to bed. I knew that I wasn’t going to PR that day, and lately, my goal with marathons is jut to have fun. Running in the pouring rain was likely not going to be that! Why hadn’t I just gone home for the weekend?? My time with friends in New York is already preciously short, and it was a bummer that this race wasn’t going to be as fun as I anticipated.

One plus side of being late to the start – very little waiting! Zenaida and I jumped into the nearest corral (which turned out to be #10) when we arrived, our own corrals (#4 and #7) having already taken off. It was still a few minutes in the drizzle before we reached the starting line, but when we eventually got going, I found that running in the rain wasn’t quite as bad as I had presumed. My feet were soaked before I even started running (just from walking from the bus to the start and then standing for a little bit), so avoiding puddles was pointless, and I was already about as wet as I could be. As they note in Alice in Wonderland, nothing to do but begin at the beginning, keep going until you reach the end, then stop! (A spectator echoed this sentiment with a sign that read: “How to Run a Marathon: Step 1 – Start running. Step 2 – There is no step 2!”)

On the bus, we had talked about the very likely possibility that many of the bands wouldn’t come out on the course. After all, musical/electronic equipment is very expensive, and very easy to ruin with water! We figured that the bands would stay home rather than risk ruining their stuff. However, at mile 2, I found a welcome surprise – two female singers had their equipment behind them, under a tent and covered with tarps, while they stood under giant umbrellas singing a gorgeous melody into wireless microphones. I was so grateful that they had found a way to come out and cheer us on, and this turned out to be the case all along the course – bands figured out ways to make do, and it was still definitely the “Country Music Marathon” 🙂

Photo Credit: Competitor Group

Around mile 3 we started up the first of the many rolling hills of the day – but when my new Garminticked off the time at the top, I found that I had actually maintained an 8:50 pace even without pushing it. As I told Zenaida at the beginning of the day, I had no time goals and was assuming I’d finish around 4:20 or so – a bit slower than last year’s 4:09. But I was feeling really good, even in spite of the rain, and seemed to have lots of energy. Obviously it was quite early in the race, but I decided right then that I was going to try to push it a bit and come in faster than last year.

The first half of the race was quite crowded, and I found myself dodging quite a few runners until the course split at mile 10.5 for the halfers to head home. The streets weren’t extraordinarily narrow, but we took a lot of turns as the course wove in and out of neighborhoods, and those tended to get a bit congested. Where I really had trouble, though, was on the downhills. The Nashville course is just constant rolling hills, and my hill pacing is generally a bit slower on the uphills and a bit faster on the downhills. Since just about all the hills in Nashville are extremely short (less than 60 seconds from bottom to top), I didn’t even slow down that much on the uphills (you can do anything for 60 seconds) – but I tried to push it on the downhill so that I was really using gravity to my advantage, and that didn’t seem to be what most other people were doing. Not a huge deal, though, and really, my own fault for getting to the start late and starting several corrals back from where I should have been.

At mile 8.5, we turned onto “Music Row”, where recording studios line the streets. I especially loved seeing the billboards out front congratulating artists on their recent hits! It made me really think about and appreciate all the hard work that goes into writing, creating, and producing the songs I love. Really, though, the first ten miles were uneventful – aside from a surprising amount of spectators on the sidelines. The rain was pouring down (I had stopped avoiding the puddles because my sneakers were already squishing and it didn’t matter), but that didn’t stop people from tailgating on porches, in tents, and just standing out under umbrellas to cheer on the runners. Some last minute signs reflected the conditions (“If you can run in this rain, you can do anything!”), but after some particularly deep puddles, I was surprised not to see a Finding Nemo-themed “Just keep swimming” sign! Some fellow racers seemed to feel the same, as they donned swimmies as part of their race day apparel 🙂

At mile 10, we went through a neat circle with tons of spectators, and I saw a tent in front of Barry’s Bootcamp where the staff had come out to cheer on the runners – some of whom were presumably Barry’s regulars. I hadn’t realized that the Barry’s trend had spread to Nashville, and I was excited. It seems like so many fitness boutiques start in NYC and LA, while other cities tend to just have big box gyms (24 Hour Fitness, Gold’s Gym, etc). I know that I don’t want to stay in NYC forever, so it’s nice to see small cities getting the studios/classes that I love! I gave Barry’s a fist pump as I ran by, and got a big cheer in return.

Half a mile later, we finally hit our first Gu stop – and I was relieved. I had initially planned to try out HumaGel for this race, but since I was wearing a trash bag over my outfit, it wasn’t easy to access the gels. Instead, I chose to rely on what was provided by the course organizers. Since I usually take a gel every 6 miles or so and I hadn’t had any yet, I quickly slurped down two for extra energy until the next gel stop (which later turned out to be at mile 17.5).

In the process of grabbing gel, though, I accidentally tugged a bit too hard on my headphones. I was wearing my Earhoox, which normally are awesome for staying put. However, with my head as soaked as if I were taking a shower, I found that the rubber was quite slippery when wet – and had to slow to a walk for about a minute so I could get the Earhoox to stay on the headphone and then get the headphone in my ear. (I never stress about walk breaks, even if I’m trying to go for a fast pace, since the break usually allows you to make up the time by running faster right after.) This was a longer walk break than I had planned, though – Earhoox sure are tricky when wet!

In the next mile, the half marathoners split off from the full marathoners. In some races, this can be a very tough mental challenge. When I’m not enjoying myself, all I want to do is split off with them and defect to the half! But in spite of the rain, I was in a surprisingly amazing mood – flashing huge grins to the volunteers handing us water at the split. I was loving the country music I was listening to on my phone (hooray for an all-Rascal Flatts playlist!), and while I was soaking wet, I wasn’t cold and I was having a great time.

But just a few steps later, my music paused. Oh – a text from someone? I flattened the plastic bag that was keeping my phone dry to peer at the screen. Hmm – the light was blinking, but it was dark. I realized that my headphones must have shorted out – perhaps there was a hole in the cheap plastic covering the wires? So this now meant no music for the rest of the race. Yuck! Luckily, this was the Country Music Marathon, so that meant I’d still have live bands every so often. I was sad not to get to rock out to my own country, especially since I was doing so well and running so fast – but it definitely wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I was already nearly halfway done with the race!

The next few miles were definitely pretty hilly – on the outbound at mile 12, I had a long steady descent, but that meant a long steady ascent on the way back at mile 15. Meanwhile, the short and steep little downhill that brought us into the 13.1 mile chip mat also seemed to be right next to a creek, so the road was flooded all the way across. No avoiding that puddle! I found myself ankle deep in water, which meant that my sneakers were now squishing when I walked. I hoped the blisters wouldn’t be too bad from this one, but I feared they were going to get me for sure!

As I began scaling the hill at mile 15, it occurred to me that perhaps the problem with my phone wasn’t the headphones, but the phone itself. Sure enough, when I peered into the plastic bag, I realized that the drops of water inside were not steam from being in a sweaty bag, but actual rainwater. Argh! Very very stupid mistake on my part, and I wished I had realized that sooner. I knew that there was an aid station at the top of the hill, so I decided to stop there and see if they might by chance have a (dry) plastic bag I could put my phone in to keep it from getting wetter than it already was.

I lucked out – the “aid station” turned out to be a medical tent, so they definitely had plenty of extra bags around. In fact, as soon as I yelled from a few seconds away that I needed a bag for my phone, they quickly produced a wad of paper towels as well – some to dry off my phone, and some to stuff in the bag and hopefully keep absorbing the moisture. The helpful volunteer explained to me that many, many people had been stopping by with rain-damaged phones and ipods, and suggested putting it in a container of rice as soon as I got home. In my positive mood, I didn’t stress about having potentially damaged an expensive piece of equipment; instead, I focused on the fact that others had made the same tactical error. I wasn’t the only dumb one! We all hadn’t considered the torrential downpour a threat! This cheered me up enough to pick up the pace as I came into mile 16.

We had a tiny downhill as we entered a park and got our pictures taken at mile 16 (10 miles to go!), and then some short uphills to get back up into the main part of downtown. However, it was while in the park that I heard thunder and saw lightning. Another calamity to befall me! I remembered that a few years back, Nashville had actually had to stop the marathon mid-race because of storms, but I couldn’t recall the exact details. Was it thunder and lightning, like we were experiencing now? Or was it a tornado sighting or something else more serious? I remembered how disappointed some of my friends were who ran that year and had their race cut short – it would suck so much to have made it to mile 16 (or further) and then be told that you couldn’t finish. Plus, my pace was still pretty far ahead of my wildest dreams – I was definitely looking at a sub-4 finish. I had better hurry up and get to the finish line so I wouldn’t miss my chance to cross it!

Mile 17 took us right past the finish and uphill – we were headed on one final loop before we’d circle back to LP Stadium. I remembered this hill from last year – it was long and steady, but there was Gu at the top. Woo hoo! I grabbed a pack as I went by (still easier than scrounging for the Huma gels I had brought), and decided a little bit further down the road that I was finally going to ditch the trash bag I had been wearing. I realized that my outfit underneath was already completely soaked through (my skirt poured water when I squeezed it), and so the bag was just providing extra wind resistance and an extra surface for water to cling to. Sure enough, when I ripped it off and threw it away (at the base of Mile Marker 18, so it would be easier for volunteers to find and dispose of), I felt so much lighter and freer. I saw a few others around me still wearing their trash bags, and I wanted to tell them how much more comfortable they’d be ditching them – but I didn’t want to tell anyone what they should do, so I stayed quiet instead.

Shortly after mile 18, we passed a homemade sign that said “1.2 miles to Mike’s house!” I had no idea who Mike was, but I was thoroughly tickled by the idea that they were having some kind of tailgate big enough to put up a sign directing runners there – these were clearly some fun people 🙂 Sure enough, as we wound through the neighborhoods and came across many tailgates, Mike’s stood out as having a big, boisterous crowd, plus a sound system and guy on microphone (Mike??) who called out individual runners and cheered them out. This was just what we needed as we crossed from miles 19 to 20, and I was so grateful for the support! In general, I was really impressed with how many spectators had voluntarily put themselves out in the rain for hours to cheer us on – it was so appreciated and definitely made the experience great.

Finally, we took a left onto 5th Street, which I recognized as the final out-and-back of the course, with a loop around Shelby Park to turn it into a lollipop design. Three miles out, three miles back, and I’d be all done! I focused on what a short time there was left to go, and started doing furious mental math to figure out what kind of finish time I could achieve. I generally add an hour to whatever my time is when I cross mile 20 (since that’s about 10 minutes per mile), but I was running faster than that today – about a nine minute pace at this point. I was definitely going to come in under four hours, but now I wondered if I could come in under a nine minute average pace? A 4 hour finish is 9:09 per mile, and mental math helped me calculate that 9:00 even per mile would be 3:55:48. If I wanted to be one second per mile faster than that (8:59/mile), it meant I had to finish by 3:55:22. I knew it was going to be close – no time to dilly dally!

I passed a water station with mile 25 on the other side of the road, and was definitely buoyed by the cheerleaders there. “We’ll see you back in just a few miles!” Knowing that I had less than 2.5 miles to get to the absolute end of the lollipop was comforting. I thought back to a few weeks earlier in DC, when Theodora had gone for a two mile shakeout run while I lazily stayed back in the hotel room to catch up on email, and how I was surprised that she was back in almost no time at all. That was how far I needed to go out! Easy.

It was exciting to see other runners making their way back, and I was happy to spot my friend Kino looking strong as always. I didn’t like that the slight decline we were currently on meant a slight incline on the way back – but hey, we were so close, it didn’t really matter! I tried taking advantage of the very slight downhill to pick up the pace, and was pleased when my next mile’s split showed me being sub-9 minutes. Throughout the next few miles, I was doing constant mental math to see if I was still on pace to hit 3:55:22. It was going to be really close!

I arrived at Shelby Park and we forked left around the pond. I knew from last year that right up ahead was going to be an aid station, so I tried to pick up the pace a bit to compensate for the walk break I’d take when I got there! However, another massive puddle spanning the whole road made me slow down. I tried to tiptoe/leap around the water, but ended up ankle-deep in water yet again. However, I was surprised coming out of the puddle to realize that my feet felt no heavier than before. Apparently my shoes were just saturated the whole race!

I hit mile 22 right after the aid station, just a few seconds over my 9:00/mile goal. I needed to push it! There were a few small rolling hills as we circled the pond, but I was grateful for the trees shading us from the rain ever so briefly. Not that it kept me dry (as previously noted, I was already soaked), but it was nice not to have rain pounding on my face for once 🙂 Before I knew it, I had hit mile 23 – which was now circling back toward the finish line. Yippee!

And what came next was “yippee” indeed – signs for the Nashville Hash House Harriers. I knew what that meant – BEER! The Harriers were nice enough to also be handing out water, but when I requested a beer, they pointed me to the last table, where a generous guy poured me a cup of the good stuff. (Okay, not quality beer, but better than water.) I only had a few sips, but the carbonation tasted amazing – I couldn’t wait to get to the finish line and be able to sit down and enjoy a real pint!

Tossing the cup to the side, I pressed forward – it was go time! For the next mile, I enjoyed getting to see those on the outward leg heading for the pond. I estimated that they were going to finish around 4:15/4:20, and it was neat to think that was my usual spot if I hadn’t been pushing it! I love being able to see tangible results of working hard, and it felt good to be so far ahead.

Mile 25 approached very quickly, and I was definitely buoyed by the aid station that was right there. It was hard to believe there was only one mile left! We still felt so far away from LP Stadium. We had to go through another series of rolling hills as we headed back down 5th Street, but I just kept remind myself that this was the final push of the race. Yes, the uphills were tough, but I had less than twelve minutes left in the race. I didn’t want to lose precious seconds when I could push it for just twelve more minutes! As a result, I passed several people who stopped to walk on the hills. Again, it reminded me of how I had walked them myself the year before. Not today!

Finally, we took a left onto Woodland – which meant we were headed downhill. I remembered from the outbound that after hitting the 26 mile mark, there would be a very short (less than 15 seconds) uphill, but then it was straight downhill to the finish. According to my watch, I had about 90 seconds from when I hit mile 26 to when I needed to cross the finish line if I wanted to be under a 9:00/mile average pace. So close! I crossed mile 26, grit my teeth for the uphill, and then started sprinting as soon as it changed back to downhill. I remembered my friends Jocelyn and Emilia being here at this point cheering me on, and how big my smile was – but today, despite me being totally thrilled with my performance and having had a fabulous time out on the course, I wasn’t smiling. Instead, I was grimacing as I poured all my energy into running fast and meeting my goal. With one final turn, the finish line lay in front of me, and I gave it everything I had to shave every single second off my time.

I crossed the finish line and stopped my watch – had I done it? I honestly didn’t know, and wouldn’t until I saw the official results. But it really didn’t matter – I had pushed it much harder than I had ever expected (I had told Zenaida I planned to finish around 4:20!), and I had done it in some pretty crappy conditions!

After taking my finisher pic, I hurried to get water, food, and a heat sheet. The rain had just picked up, and the area around LP Field seemed pretty windy. While for the most part I think RnR races are very well-organized, they always seem to manage the finish line poorly – making you go way too far to get those things I consider basic necessities. (And let’s not even talk about the many times I’ve finished in a reasonable time only to find no food left over because the half marathoners have eaten it all.) This time, there was plenty of food and water – but though I kept asking people where the heat sheets were, no one seemed to know. Finally, a volunteer chimed in: “Oh, we ran out of those a while ago. So many spectators wanted them to keep themselves and their families dry!”

Spectators? Taking heat sheets meant for the runners? I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised, as I’m constantly seeing runners letting their families into the finish areas to grab food and drinks, but I had finished under four hours, and was by no means at the back of the pack for full marathoners. So no one behind me was going to get one either? Just then, the wind picked up, and I started shivering. I looked like quite a sight – huddling for warmth and shivering as I tried to get through the crowds of people and get to the shuttle buses as fast as possible.

Unfortunately, I found that while my hotel had said they’d send their shuttle back and forth to the finish, they weren’t an official race shuttle, and so no one knew where to find them. With no phone to call the hotel and ask, and no previously-purchased ticket to ride the official shuttle bus, I instead walked back to the hotel, shooting angry glances at the many spectators/entire families I saw with heat sheets as I did so. By five minutes into the walk, I was shivering violently – was I even going to make it home?

Fortunately, a 45 minute shower warmed me back up (thank you to the hotel for not running out of hot water), and by evening I was back in business. Concert time! I grabbed a beer and listened to live music at some of the bars on Broadway, then headed over to watch Sarah Darling open for Craig Morgan. (If you haven’t heard her catchy hit single, Home to Me, go listen now!) However, I ended up leaving Craig Morgan early (I was exhausted and wanted to get to be), and bumped into Sarah Darling in the hallway! So cool.

In the end, I was thrilled with my Country Music Marathon 2013 experience – and even more so when I realized that I had met my goal of going sub-9 per mile! I was so glad I had a good experience despite the rain, and I’ve already booked my hotel for next year. Now – who else is in? The only thing that could have made it better was some post-race bar hopping buddies 🙂

Race stats:
Distance: 26.2 miles
Time: 3:55:26
Pace: 8:59/mile
Overall place: 608/2681
Gender place: 172/1225


4 thoughts on “Race Report: Country Music Marathon”

  1. SO fun to read this report of my hometown race! I didn’t run this year, but I’ve done the full a few times, and have also ran as a pacer for the half… and it’s always fun! I hated to know the weather was so crappy this year, but it’s been sounding like everyone I know had a fun time. It’s fun reading your report and being able to see in my head where you were on the course. I know that one inside out!

    And I totally agree about how poorly RNR handles the finish line. They are so bad about not catering to the runners!

    1. I was very pleasantly surprised how much fun I had! I really did not think it was going to be a good time but it honestly was 🙂

  2. Such a great recap! I LOVE how you remember every single detail. I am glad you had fun because you know I didn’t. 🙂

    Good luck this weekend in Puerto Rico! Looking forward to reading the recap.

    By the way, send you a message but wondering if you need a room for San Diego.

    1. Every race is different – I’ve definitely had my share that I didn’t enjoy! Hopefully your next one goes better. (Will email you about SD soon but waiting to hear from my friend about what our plans are and if I have my own room!)

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