The Mercedes Half Marathon was my second half marathon. My first one, the All-State Half Marathon in Atlanta, was a bit of a tragedy. I didn't train properly, hydrate adequately, or pace appropriately, and it showed in my results - I finished in 2:11:06. This time, at Mercedes, I was better prepared and felt confident that if I stuck to the game plan, I could break 2 hours (my goal, for the second time).
Note: This race was interesting for me because not only was I running the half marathon, I was also running the first leg of a five-man relay team completing the full marathon; my leg was 10K. So basically, I was running a 10K, then handing off the baton and continuing the race for an additional 7 miles.
This presented an immediate conflict. See, I needed to pace myself for a half marathon, but I also wanted to run an impressive 10K for my team.
I arrived in Birmingham on the Saturday before the race (which was at 7am the following morning). I got into Birmingham around 5pm, the expo closed at 6pm, and guess who was responsible for picking up not only my bib, but the bibs for the rest of my relay team members... yes, this guy.
So I park my car and run straight to the expo with my bags in tote. The expo was extremely underwhelming, and that's putting it mildly. It was tiny, and had just a handful of vendors. Pretty pathetic really. I do hope they put a bit more effort into the expo in coming years. To me, expos mark the official start of the race; they set the tone. Anyway, I made it in time, picked up the bibs and headed back to the hotel to read, eat, and go to sleep by 9pm. The one good thing about the expo being so small was that I could capture the entire thing in one shot.
But, of course, I didn't make it to sleep by 9pm. It's 9pm by the time I eat my usual race day eve meal - PIZZA! Then I decide to read until the rest of my relay members get in town, which didn't happen until about 10pm. Then, of course, we stay up talking until about 11pm. So I made it to sleep sometime closer to 11:30. Not ideal, but I'm okay.
Alarm clocks start going off around 5-ish. We slowly start to move, dragging around the room going through our individual morning routines. After getting dressed we decide to get a bite to eat. But, of course, the host hotel doesn't have any breakfast (continental or otherwise) available for the runners and nothing in Birmingham is open at 6am on a Sunday morning. Soo... I ended up eating the crust off my leftover non-refrigerated pizza from the night before. Yeah, I know. But, at least it was carbs! right? No? Okay, well anyway, let's get on with it.
I left my relay members shortly before the race start line as they went off to their respective relay locations. I stood in the middle of a pack of people waiting for the race to start. I was nervous and cold (it was in the upper 30s). Could I meet my 2 hour goal? Especially given that I told my teammates that I would run a 50 minute 10K for my portion of the relay. As I'm considering these concerns, I notice the crowd starts to move, and we're off!
I started slightly behind the 2 hour pace group. My plan was to keep them in sight for the first few miles and then, somewhere in the last few miles, I planned to pass them, thereby guaranteeing my 2 hour goal.
... but 3 miles into the race, I was feeling good, really good, as I passed the 2 hour pace group way earlier than I originally planned to. I knew I wasn't pushing it, so I figured why not?
There was nothing scenic about the course, but I had some great music, and the first 10K went by like a breeze. There were no hills, and the crowd was thin enough for me to move around and find my stride. I made it to the 10K point in 50:49! First goal - check!
When I hand off the "baton" to the second man in my relay team (Juan), he takes off! He's pretty quick and his portion of the relay was only 5K, which he finished in like 20 minutes or so. Fast.
Something about seeing how fast my teammate was running motivated me through this part of the course (or maybe it was the half of a gel pack that I swallowed). It's right at about the 6 mile mark that the "hills" kick in. I say "hills" because while everyone around me was complaining about them, my fellow Atlanteans would consider these minor rolling hills. Plus, I was pumped and still feeling good. I ran through the hilly section strong and by the time I got to mile 9, I knew I was going to hit my goal... by a lot. I hadn't seen the 2 hour pace team in a few miles by this point. They were a good bit back and I was still full of energy. Relaxed even. The crowd support through this section was great, perhaps the best on the course.
Around mile 11 or so, the race began to split with the marathoners on one side (they were doing a double loop) and the half marathoners on the other. Though I was feeling good, I was happy to be on my side of the street. The crowd support was sparse by this point, and it was here that I popped a few lifesaver gummies (my go-to snack for a quick burst of simple sugar at the end of a race).
I cruised through the last 2 miles with no crash. I felt like my splits were pretty even, and I still had enough energy for a decent kick through the finish line. I felt great, and not only did I set a personal record and break my 2 hour goal... I broke 1:50! My finish time (and current PR) was 1:49:20!
After the race, I met up with my teammates and we celebrated with some great (and free) post race barbecue - nice touch Mercedes Marathon! The medals were cool; they were basically Mercedes hood ornaments of varying sizes - the full marathon being the largest and the relay being the smallest. Since I ran the relay and half marathon, I received two medals! Cha-ching.
Overall, it was a great race and experience. My only knocks would be the expo and the city itself, but the race organization was spot on - great course support, cool medals, and an excellent post-race meal to boot. There's not much that can be done about the subpar views around Downtown Birmingham, but the expo can definitely be worked on. Either way, there's a chance that I'll be back again...this time for the full marathon. We'll see.