Although I’ve run off and on for fifteen years – and usually more on than off – I’d never consider myself a runner. I’m good at buying fancy shoes and spending hours compiling a variety of music playlists to listen to while I run, but I don’t put much credence in my actual athletic skill. I just kind of muscle through it and hope I don’t die.
Almost two years ago I ran the Savannah Rock and Roll Half-Marathon (which is one of the least rock and roll things I’ve ever accomplished), and I always intended to run another half, even though the Savannah race didn’t work with my schedule last year. When an email came through that there was going to be an inaugural half-marathon in Atlanta at the end of the summer, I ponied up the cash without much consideration to what the conditions were going to be like on race day. August 24. Today.
For the uninitiated, Atlanta in August features less-than-ideal running conditions. Since early May I’ve headed out most mornings at 7:30 a.m. (race start) in order to replicate the conditions I’d be running in on the day. In a hyphenated word: sauna-like. There’s a good reason why our local running store emblazons this message on all its shirts:
I knew the weather was going to be my biggest problem. I didn’t breeze through the Savannah race, but I put up a respectable time, and that was due in large part to a brisk dawn that gave way to a gorgeous, low-humidity morning tailor-made for running. It was nice to imagine that such a thing would repeat itself here, but I also find it nice to imagine winning the lottery or having Jessica Chastain invite me to star as her love interest in her next movie. I don’t think for a second it’s going to happen, but it is nice to dream. So I woke this morning at 5:00, wolfed down a bagel smeared with peanut butter (carbs, natch), and, with shoes laced up and nipples freshly bandaged, I hopped in the car and headed for Underground Atlanta and the start line.
After a brief navigational hiccup (the Underground Atlanta parking garage is something even Google Maps can’t find), I arrived to a growing crowd …
… and race conditions that, high humidity aside, actually felt pretty comfortable.
I queued up at the start line, trying to figure out where to stand since this inaugural race didn’t have corrals, instructing us only to “line up according to ability.” With no obvious way to judge the ability of my fellow racers, I opted instead to stand near people who share more superficial characteristics with me. In other words, I gravitated toward older, balding, slightly overweight men. I don’t know about their abilities, but physically? That’s my tribe.
Once in line I stretched and people-watched and wished I’d had a second bagel. With three minutes to go, the announcer told us they’d play the National Anthem and then we’d be off. At the time, I didn’t know if Creed had ever performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” *, but this was a suitably horrifying doppelgänger. As the final note faded away in all its testicle-crunching glory, the starter’s pistol banged and the crowd of runners shuffled forward.
As I take the first few steps of the race, let me spend a couple minutes explaining something important I’ve neglected to mention thus far. When I was twelve I was diagnosed with severe asthma. Severe enough that I was hospitalized for a week in 8th grade and sidelined from strenuous activity through high school. I’ve never been an athlete (although I played a mean tee-ball as a 7-year-old), but any inclination to run I might’ve had was essentially squashed by my need to suck on an inhaler every time I broke a sweat. I was never supposed to run a half-marathon.
So as I eased into my pace to the euphoric opening notes of Cloud Cult’s “No One Said it Would Be Easy” …
… I had to’ve looked a little silly: a 41-year-old man grinning goofily and mouthing the words to a song no one else could hear. But there was a very real sense of lift-off, of finally outpacing that sick kid who couldn’t have run if he’d wanted to.
The details of the run itself probably aren’t worth going into. However, a few things:
1) As it turns out, humidity wasn’t the killer. It was the hills. See the red on the route map below? Guess where the hills are.
Based on this one experience, I’m not sure there’s a way to create a race course through downtown Atlanta without coming off like a complete sadist. Every downhill stretch was tinged with angst because I knew I’d only have to run up the other side. This was especially excruciating in the last tenth of a mile.
2) There was a beautiful, shady two-mile stretch on the Atlanta Beltline, which I’d never seen before. I’ll be returning soon.
3) Starting in mile 9, the insole of my shoe began bunching up and shifting to the outside of my foot. You wouldn’t think such a little thing would make such a big difference, but it was a pretty awful way to gimp through the last four miles.
4) After five years of fairly regular trips to the city, I still have a very poor grasp of Atlanta’s geography. Every time I thought I knew where we were, I was wrong.
5) After four races, I have yet to master the art of choking down the water handed to me at hydration stations. Usually it gets dumped down my front. But see the red stretch immediately following mile 10 above? That was me struggling to breathe after a Dixie cup of Gatorade went down the wrong pipe. At least I found my mouth. That’s progress.
6) Early in the first mile I passed a guy running barefoot. I admire his choice, even if I don’t fully understand it.
7) Knee-high socks on women and men. I don’t get it.
My final race time – almost exactly two hours – was worse than I wanted, five minutes slower than my Savannah time. But with a decidedly hillier course, I s’pose I can’t be too disappointed. After all, I was never meant to be a runner.
* Because I’m cruel, I’ll leave you with video of Creed singer Scott Stapp moaning his way through the National Anthem. You’re welcome.
Bruce Springsteen – The River (1980)