The 2009 Georgia ING Marathon – Exploring the boroughs of Atlanta with friends!
A young race in a ‘new’ city doesn’t disappoint
Posted Tuesday, 14 April, 2009
Last week, on March 29th I had the privilege of traveling to Atlanta to run the 3rd annual Georgia ING Marathon. I’ve worked in Atlanta and I have a certain kinship with the place, so I jumped at the opportunity to take part in this event.
In addition to Atlanta’s familiarity to me, two of my friends were running their first marathons here as well. First marathons, like weddings and childbirth are unforgettable and I could not resist tapping vicariously into their maiden voyages.
The Georgia ING Marathon successfully uses the strengths of Atlanta the city like the New York Marathon uses the uniqueness of Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. In much the same way, the Georgia ING Marathon stitches together the different parts of the city and ties it nicely to the hub of Centennial Park.
I’ve spent most of my history with Atlanta out on the Beltway in the glass-sheathed office buildings, among frantic crowds of harried business-people. For the race I was able to stay right downtown close by CNN, the Philips Arena, the Georgia Dome, the new Aquarium and all the other amenities that, (in stark contrast to the outer loop areas), makes this center of Atlanta a compact walking city not unlike a Boston, Chicago or New York.
A rolling course through the Atlanta suburbs
From the green and artful core of Centennial and Olympic Park the Marathon course meanders out into the rolling, green and gentle topography of the inner suburbs. I really liked the course, but I’m from New England! Many of the participants I heard were bemoaning the ‘hills’, but I – from a Boston frame of mind – didn’t really see what the fuss was all about.
One of the things that I find unnatural and processed about the current evolution of our marathons is the attempt to make them, or somehow expect them, to be homogeneously docile, flat and entertaining. Like we are trying to create the marathon equivalent of a fast food hamburger that we can mass-consume.
Hey – folks, you’re in Atlanta! To expect a milquetoast flat course would be to insult the character of the place! I loved the course and found it to be varied and interesting – more so than many big city marathons that route the pack down super-highways and industrial parks to avoid a little scenic elevation gain and loss.
From the park the course explores many of the grassy and tree-lined suburbs. Each burg has its own flavor and character. The crowds were fairly thin in places and those spectators that were there seemed to be confused as to what to do – as if it was their first day on the job. As a relatively new race this is to be expected – there is no spectator training guide for marathons.
This will change rapidly as the locals start to appreciate and embrace their great fortune to have this human train of drama and achievement chug by their front door each year. I can remember spectators in Chicago as recently as the late 90’s with the same bemused looks on their faces – and look at the unstoppable rolling dreadnaught that race has become!
The crowds in Boston have 100+ years and many generations of marathon spectator training. Atlanta is fertile ground for growing its own crop. One of the powerful things about a new city marathon is the way it becomes the seed, the core, of a social manifestation, each with its own unique character like the seeds sprouting on a magical marathon Chia-pet. I have no doubt that the Georgia ING Marathon will exponentially feed a unique swarming of its own over the next couple years.
The power of the social network in the running community.
If you haven’t figured it out yet – runners are a tribe, and a special tribe at that. Haven’t you noticed that this thing that binds us together is stronger than the disparity of our cultures, nationalities and upbringings? I can be dropped into any group of runners and feel right at home – no matter how alien the situation.
This is a strong thing, a basic core and emotional, and human thing that binds us. It is no surprise that the tribe building power and ubiquity of the global internet and the new social networking facilities has become a thick humus of fertile ground for an extension of our running tribe. It was in this way that I met Shawn, Jason and Jenny.
Those of you that have been long-time readers of CoolRunning may remember me from the hundreds of race reviews and tongue-in-cheek running articles with which I salted these electronic pages a couple years ago. In 2008 I stopped being a frequent article writer and refocused my limited artistic intentions, attention span and free time on a new medium: the “podcast”. What is a podcast? Well in my case it’s a 40 minute interview show on running called “RunRunLive” that is available for free to anyone with an MP3 player or a subscription to Apple iTunes.
Since 2008 I have been delivering unbidden 40 minutes of running commentary (pun intended), or more appropriately ‘setting free’ 40 minutes of content into the global web. With this sustained act of egotistical selflessness (paradox intended) I have developed, not so much a following, but a role in the tribe that is the online running community.
With every community you get all sorts and with the running podcast, anyone who has a recorder and a computer can become the star of their own show. Through this new medium I came to know Shawn and Jason, a pair of brothers from Louisiana living in Atlanta that were on a crusade to run “a 10k, ½ marathon, marathon and beyond”. Having been to “beyond” a number of times with my running adventures I was more than willing to share my learning with them and became an informal coach.
The Georgia ING Marathon was their stated goal race. As usually happens within the great karma ball that is running, the PR director of the marathon, Jenny, was also a member of the online communal tribe and thus a plan was hatched. I was running Boston in April so I figured I’d burn up some frequent flyer miles, use the Georgia ING as a long run and pace Shawn in his first marathon.
IF you’re a runner and you’re not part of the online cacophony of voices – you should be. A good place to start is www.runningpodcasts.org – or follow me on Twitter @cyktrussell. You’ll find yourself right at home in a community that spans this Space Ship Earth.
The classic first marathon
As with most first marathoners, Shawn’s training was wealthy in enthusiasm and poor in execution. He trained hard and fast but suffered the inevitable too-much-too-fast injuries, (that his body will eventually overcome as it grows into the sport). In planning on a pace for this his first marathon we had no idea what to expect. A young, fit guy like Shawn could easily run a qualifying race with the proper training and experience, but… This left us with a fairly wide expectation band.
I met up with these guys, the first time in person, at the Georgia Dome packet pick up. We walked and chatted like old friends. Then I had dinner with another random runner I encountered in the hotel. His name was Pieter, he was from South Africa and he was running the marathon as a warm up for Comrades!
The next morning, as the glow of the morning sun was just starting to color the horizon – we were off on our first marathon adventure. The ½ marathoners were mixed in with the full-distance folks and it was a happy crowd that wormed its way out of downtown Atlanta. The young race is still working on their corale and start spacing. They thought there were too many last year – I think this year there were too few.
Especially on the early hills the less experienced and slower runners tended to ‘accordion’ on the ups and downs. Without qualifying standards it’s hard to get people to sort out at the start correctly. Asking people their expected finish time is probably an exercise in hopeful inaccuracy. You’d probably get a better number by asking the average finish time of their last three 10K’s. Then you could sort out the liars with a simple set of trivia questions like “Who was Clarence Demar?”
The result of this early crowding was that Shawn and I got off to a really slow start. I like to have a 2-5 minute cushion on my pace going into the high miles so I led us through 2-3 quicker miles after the 1/2 marathoners split off around the 7 mile mark. Shawn was breathing heavy, but running well.
The contest to see which neighborhood had the best marathon spirit manifested itself in a wide range of civic spontaneity – from the orderly Chamber of Commerce signs of Decatur to the Mardi-Gras men-in-dresses enthusiasm of college park. The ‘hydration stations’ (we used to call them ‘water stops’) were well distributed and fine.
I noticed Shawn beginning to flag around the half-way point. I knew he had a potentially painful adventure in front of him, and I as the pacer had some work to do. I came up with a strategy to get him through. I knew he might end up hating me, but he’d understand later, just like my wife got over hating me during child birth.
I knew it was too early in the race to start fighting the course. My plan was to distract him as much as possible and help him keep his mechanics clean. I figured if I could get him close to the finish with his legs still under him he might be able to gut it out – it’s amazing what you can do when you can ‘smell the finish’.
So began a long annoying chant. “Stretch it out!” “Run inside your head!” “Come on man, don’t fight the hills!” “Let it go!” “Let it come to you!” “Run Lightly!” “Watch your mechanics!” And so I tasked him through the wall at mile 17-18 and on into the no-man’s land of the high miles.
Once we got past mile 22 I changed my tone to one of challenge. “Come on, stay with me!” “Get Mad!” Don’t let it beat you!” “Anyone can run 5K!” But he started to fade at mile 23-24 and the light was going out in his eyes. You know that point in the first marathon where your brain says “Hey, stupid, this isn’t worth it, stop running”, and you haven’t yet learned to quiet that voice?
Somewhere after mile 25 the 4:00 pace group caught us, paused and passed like a crunch of stumbling rhinos. The light flickered and died. I yelled at Shawn – he looked at me and said “I know what you’re trying to do, but I can’t run anymore.” We commenced to walk. I kept an eye on Shawn to make sure his pasty countenance and shaky gate were not something really bad. There we were, wet, sad and shivering in the Atlanta morning – but we kept moving forward.
A long march later we turned the corner and ran triumphantly across the finish line. Call me old school but I see no shame in spending yourself in a righteous marathon. I see a strange quality of the heroic in making the race beat you. The lessons I have learned from limping, a beaten shivering husk of a man across that finish line have made me the experienced runner I am today. My success stems in no small part from my defeats.
Shawn spent a little time in the med tent getting rehydrated and warmed up. I’m sure he was sore for a couple days. I’m also sure that he’ll wake up on that 3rd day mad as hell and be down at the local track doing speed work by week’s end – and I’ll be seeing him up at Boston in a couple years with the rest of the veterans. I’ll be watching him disappear over the horizon in Framingham and up those hills in Newton and down into the geographic slump of Bean Town.
Jason finished later, tired, salt-crusted and mumbling about the injustice of God putting so many hills in Atlanta. Another first time finisher. Another stitch in the quilt that makes up the marathon tribe. Before I left to fly back the Boston they were already smiling, showing off their medals, taking pictures and making plans for their next race.
The stats -In the Third year of the event, here are some numbers…
• 15,000 Total Entrants (sold out field)
• 11,998 Total Starters
• 11,918 Total Finishers
• 99.3 Percent Finishing Rate (our 3 year average is now ~98%)
• Total Prize Purse: nearly $25,000
• Age of youngest marathoner: 17
• Age of oldest marathoner: 77
• Age of youngest half marathoner: 13
• Age of oldest half marathoner: 67
• Percentage of racers who are female: 52%
• Women’s half marathon, and men’s and women’s wheeler half marathon winners were all 3-peaters with victories in 2007, 2008, and now 2009
• U.S. states represented: 50 (plus Washington D.C. and the territory of Puerto Rico )
• Countries represented: 32
• Number of charities represented: 29 (that we know of)
• Number of volunteers: more than 2,000
• Temperature at the start: 44° F (cloudy and breezy)
• Temperature at the finish: 49° F (cloudy and windy)
• 1,500 schoolchildren from area middle schools finished the Final Mile of a half marathon as part of ING’s Run for Something Better
• This year added the 5K on Saturday as a racers warm-up, stay loose option, or for friends and family or those wanting to share in race weekend without the distance
• Approximately 30,000 bananas were consumed yesterday by runners
• The average runner takes approximately 39,000 steps running the ING Georgia Marathon
• The 26.2 miles of the ING Georgia Marathon takes runners past four college campuses in the metro Atlanta area - Agnes Scott College, Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), Emory University and Georgia State University
• There was an estimated 21,000 gallons of water served in cups on the marathon course, equal to 537,000 servings
• The 2009 marathon was the RRCA Southeastern Region Marathon Championship – awards are given to RRCA runners in different age-based categories
A triumph of the community – a solid new city marathon.
It is a tribute to the strength of our sport and the strength of our community that I can fly 600 miles and fall in step with a band of brothers (and sisters) and share in this intimate thing. I consider myself privileged to live in this tribe and to live in this age and truly blessed be present to see a new runner be bloodied and see a new race find its place. At the end of this last Sunday there were no strangers and like fox-hole war buddies Shawn, Jason, Jenny and I will have that universal bond of shared experience.
The Georgia ING Marathon is a young race that is still developing. It’s got a great course and good support and like any young thing I can’t wait to see what happens next!
For those of you looking to start running or run your first long race – reach out to the tribe – let them help you. We are all made stronger by the inclusion of more working symbiosis into the organism and community that is the global distance running community.
I’ll see you out there,