Finish Time: 3:24:33
Average Pace: 7:47/mile
Final Place: 1 out of 54
It all started with some text conversations on the morning of January 10, 2018. Friends of mine, Ed and Dedric, were in a position to offer me a free entry into the inaugural MLK Race for the Dream Marathon. A quick check of my calendar reminded me that I was scheduled for a 24 mile training run Sunday. I figured hey why not just run the marathon; sure it's an extra two miles but I'll be able to run with course support - a big plus given that the temperature was forecast to be in the teens. So there I was, with four days notice, registering to run a marathon that coming weekend.
Now to set the tone, I am in the meat of a pretty intense training block for my next scheduled marathon - Run Hard Columbia Marathon (South Carolina) in early March. I'm currently hitting the highest mileage I have ever reached in training. In fact, the week of the marathon would be a 100 mile week. Additionally, the prior weekend I had just raced a PR half marathon in 1:24. Needless to say, I was running on very UN-fresh legs. So the plan was to run this marathon as strictly a training run. I typically run my longruns at a 7:45ish pace. Given that I was going to log an extra couple of miles, I figured I'd run this marathon at an 8:00min/mile pace.
So I got up early Sunay morning. I had some oatmeal and a bagel and drove five minutes to the H. E. Holmes train station. Side note, it was kinda weird sitting on the train in running tights. After a quick seven minute train ride, I found myeself in front of Washington HS with ten minutes to spare before the race start. I quickly bumped into several of my local running friends and was surprised to see a relatively decent turnout given the frigid temps. Shortly thereafter the race started (on time!). I was pretty close to the back for the start because, again, this was just a training run.
The race starts from Booker T. Washington HS (Martin Luther King Jr's alma mater), heads north up Joseph E. Lowery before quickly making a left on Joseph E. Boone and then heading around to Donald Lee Hollowell Pkwy (Bankhead). I'm not naming these early streets simply to provide a navigation breakdown for you. What I'm doing here is highlighting what I believe to be the most important aspect of this race - This marathon takes places on the westside of the connector, and mostly to the South. Stated more clearly, this race takes place through black neighborhoods. Black neighborhoods that have historically been ignored when it comes to prior major running events in the city. The first few streets of this race alone are essentially a walking (or running) history lesson. If you don't know Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., Joseph E. Lowery, Joseph E. Boone, or Donald Lee Hollowell - do yourself a favor and start googling.
Okay so back to the race. Again, I was running this race as a training run so it was no big deal to me when I found myself needing to use the restroom three miles into things. No porta-potties, no problem. I just dipped right into the gas station, asked the attendent for the key (this is off bankhead in the English avenue neighborhood - you know the restrooms will be locked lol) and went to use the restroom. After dropping the key back off, I simply dipped back into the race. Along the way I bumped into more friends - Regina, David, and others. The race eventually loops back towards downtown and it's here (just before mile 6) that we reach Centennial Olympic Park and the half marathoners split off from the full marathoners. And it's here, that things got a lot quieter lol!
A couple miles after the split, however, the full marathoners joined back in with the half marathon and that's where things got a little wonky. The course signage and mile markers had been spot on up to this point, but once the races came back together most of the signage seemed to be denoting the distance for marathoners. This was fine for me, but many of the half marathoners became concerned that they were somehow off course. So as far as areas for improvement, this would be my first suggestion - when the courses rejoin, all mile markers should be clearly marked as marathon of half marathon.
From here the course routes around several other areas of cultural and historical significance - Auburn Ave, Grady Hospital, Georgia State, and the Georgia State Capital. Next up we hit Summerhill before looping around the former Braves stadium (now home to Georgia State football). Then a long stretch down Ralph David Abernathy before it turns into Cascade. While on Abernathy, I catch up to a couple of runners from New York. We exchange plesentries and talk about race goals and whatnot. I find out that these guys are from New York, and one of them was running their first marathon. The other guy was on his second. But what I found most interesting was that they were here because they received a phone call telling them that the race was expecting 10,000 registrations. "10,000!!??" I say.... ha! not in their wildest dreams. These guys either heard wrong and were flat out lied to. Needless to say, they were both surprised by the lower than expected turnout. Which leads me to my second suggestion - I think the organizers of this race could have done a better job of reaching out to the local running comunity earlier in the planning process. We probably could have gotten a much better turnout. Not 10,000 to be sure, but more than the few hundred that showed up.
Okay, so now I'm approaching the halfway mark when I finally reach another aid station. It had been a while! (third suggestion - the course definitely need more aid stations). So anyway, I reach the aid station somewhere around mile 13 and my fingers are litterally frozen stiff. So I stop at the aid station to warm my hands at the fire pit that they had built and to try to get to my s-cap. After dropping the cap on the floor, I spend the next two minutes trying to use my frozen fingers to pick it up so that I can take it. Five minutes later, I'm finally ready to leave the aid station. This is a training run, so again no big deal here. I get through the first half of the course in 1:47 (8:13/mile pace)... all good. Just like my long runs I planned to negative split the course for a final pace closer to 8:00 flat.
So after the halfway point there's a long climb up Cascade. I'm used to this incline because it's near my home and I run this street all the time. The people in front of me are clearly not feeling the same way I am, and I easily glide by them to the top of the hill. Right at the top of the hill there's another aid station. I decide to stop here for some gatorade. All of sudden I hear someone screaming my name as they are running from their car. And another person coming from my left... "Da'Rel!!!!! You're in second place!!" ... "Really!?" I say. To this point, I honestly gave zero thought to what place I was in. I mean I didn't consider it for even a moment. The two mad screaming people were Evelyn and Roy. They tell me that not only am I in second place, but the guy who's in first is only a few minutes in front of me and running at what appeared to be an 8 minute/mile pace. "Catch him!" they tell me. Okay.... I'll go get him. But first let me down these two tiny cups of gatorade.
Now plans have changed. I drop the pace to see if I can get a glimpse of this guy. After Cascade we take a right on Lynhurst which is entirely uphill. And then I see it, flashing lights about a mile ahead of me. That must be the lead car, which means there's my target. And now we are only a couple miles away from my subdivision where my wife and kids will likely be waiting to cheer me on. So I power up the hill, make the left of Mays and ease right up behind the race leader. I say hello as I come up on him, and I can tell that he's working hard. Then I feel kind of bad for saying hello. I cruise past him and for the first time in my life, I am now leading a marathon! How weird is this I thought. And I take the lead right as we are coming up on my subdivision. Sure enough my wife and kids are standing there with signs! I run over and give them hugs and kisses before saying, "gotta go, they're waiting on me" while pointing to the pace car and motorcycle police officer. My wife is giving me a confused look before I say, "Oh, yea I'm kinda wining the race right now. Gotta go!"
So now I'm running directly behind a Mercedes pace car with a motorcyle officer stropping traffic for me. Through my own neighborhood. This is just too surreal. Is this how the elites feel all of the time!?
Once we reach MLK Drive, I see Roy again and he's got his phone out taking video of me while screaming you're going to win! By this point, I knew I was going to win. That guy that I passed earlier was sucking wind, and I was barely working. From here on out I figured I could just cruise to a victory. I kept my pace in the low 7's all the way down MLK Drive to the finish. I'm getting a bit thirsty because I haven't seen an aid station since the 18 mile mark. There was one abandoned aid station at the 21ish mile mark. But there were no prepared drinks or people there. So it wasn't until about mile 24 that I was able to get another drink. I stop at that aid station where the ladies kindly tell me, "you're the first runner we've seen. You must be winning." This is all still so surreal. With a couple of miles to go, I see my wife parking at the library and frantically rushing the kids to try to make it to the finish line before me. I had no idea they were coming, but after finding out that I was winning, there was no way my wife was going to miss this. She gathered the boys, made a quick trip to the store to buy me some recovery snacks, and raced to the finish.
Coming around the finish was amazing. People were screaming for me. The pace car pulls over to the side, and then it's just me and the finish line. I could hear screams and see people, but by this point it was all a blur. I wasn't actually recognizing individual people until they came up to me after the finish. Congratulating me... man I still can't believe I've won a marathon. Never in a million years did I think that would happen.
Post race, the announcer was interviewing me and asking all of these questions but all I could think about was how cold I was. My face was 100% frozen so speaking was very difficult. And I was tired... even at training pace, 26.2 miles is a long way. Even longer when you're in the middle of a 100-mile week and 7 days removed from a PR half marathon.
The great thing about the finish is that we were able to go inside the high school and get warm. Because again, temps were in the teens outside! I was freezing. More congratulations from my family and friends ensued. The snacks from my wife were right on time because there were very limited offerings from the race. Interestingly there were no awards for the winners; however, I have subsequently received an email saying that there will be awards that'll be mailed out in the future. I did receive a signed print (free of charge) from Henry Blackmon, the guy responsible for all of the artwork around the race... a very kind gesture!
So that's it. I ran a very casual 1:47 through the first half, followed by a quicker 1:36 in the second half in order to win my first marathon in 3:24:08. I can now start conversations with "Hey you know one thing me and Meb both have in common..." It's no matter that his marathon wins involved fields of 40 thousand and my field was closer to 40.... people haha!! A win is a win!
Overall, I really enjoyed this race! I loved the course, and most of the logistics were sound... especially considering that this was an inaugural event. After fine tuning some minor issues, I see no reason why this race shouldn’t be a premier marathon in Atlanta for years to come.
-Hic Svnt Leones