America’s Friendliest Marathon

According to its website, the Richmond Marathon is “America’s Friendliest Marathon!” The quotation marks clue the reader in to the fact that this is an unofficial designation, and can a marathon itself really be friendly anyways? Anthropomorphization knows no bounds. I was skeptical.

Regardless, in early 2015 I signed up for this race with the intention of avenging my two barely-over-3-hour marathon efforts and finally breaking that barrier. Shortly after signing up, I discovered that a friend of ours would be getting married that weekend. I took advantage of the option to defer my entry to 2016 for a small fee.  Then in between, I got my sub-3 at the DC Rock and Roll marathon in March. All pressure was off.

Keli was running the half. We would be staying with friends of friends–the friends would be there too, running the half, and the friends of friends would be running the 8K. Our hosts picked up our packets for us on Friday and prepared a nice pre-race pasta meal at their home–they were super friendly. I slept well, getting close to 8 hours of sleep (a rarity before races and a good sign).

Race morning, we were able to park in a a garage, quite literally, 1 block from the starting line (smaller marathons are the best). The temperature was probably high 30s and was looking to warm up a little but stay below 50 for the duration of the race, which was a good sign for me. We spotted a gsp puppy (good sign), and I was able to relieve myself of a little weight in the port-a-potty (another good sign). Tired of good signs? Bad signs included (1) the fact that I accidentally dropped my clif block shots in said port-a-potty and (2) it was a bit windy, which could make things tougher. I still had 3 gels, so all nutrition was not lost.

The half-marathoners head off in several waves beginning at 7:30am, the marathon at 7:45am. I jogged up the sidelines two blocks and watched Keli and crew run by, then went back to wait by the start. Around 7:40am I noticed that there seemed to be more runners yet to start then could feasibly cross the starting line by 7:45am. Just at that moment, I overheard another marathoner ask about this, and I learned that the marathon in fact started two blocks away (this is the problem of having gracious hosts take care of all details for you). I made a dash for the real start, snaked my way through the crowds and hopped the barricade for the first wave with about 30 seconds to spare. Game on.

Oftentimes when a race has both a marathon and a half marathon option (my sample size was 2 before Richmond), the two races share the first ~12 miles and then deviate. A marathoner in this situation has to deal with the crushing reality that he/she has another 14 miles while watching the half marathoners peel off for their final mile. The worst. Richmond is great in that the two races run in parallel for just the first 2 miles. Then the marathoners split off, do their thing, and the two courses share the final 5 miles. Jealousy is less prominent.

The first half was relatively uneventful. You have about 2 miles in the less scenic downtown area, but you quickly get into some nice residential neighborhoods. You cross the St. James River just before mile 8, then you get the next 1.5 miles running right along the south side of the river on a heavily shaded wandering road, with zero urban sights in view. It’s lovely and it’s early enough in the race that you should probably still be feeling good.

I took down a gel around mile 5 then again at 10. Around the halfway mark I spotted a “candy tent” and snagged a handful of gummy bears to make up for the aforementioned port-a-potty gummies. I crossed the halfway mark at a 1:27:30 which was faster than I was planning, but I was feeling in control so I didn’t panic. yet. At mile 15, we turned north back over a bridge.

The next 3 miles were tough. It was a very slight but steady incline and it felt like we were going into a headwind the whole time (despite a 90 degree turn halfway in the middle). It might have actually been a stiff crosswind on the bridge, but bridges are agonizing. I had picked up one of the race’s gels, an “Accel Gel” before the bridge, and had it soon after the bridge. Its metallic aftertaste prevented it from receiving my official endorsement. One final gel at mile 21 represented the extent of my fueling, which seemed to work well.

We joined up with the half-marathoners at mile 21, and the course did a good job of having a line of cones down the middle of the road to keep the two groups separate. By this point, I knew sub 3 was assured, a PR was also virtually assured, and if I didn’t crash much, sub-2:55 was also very likely. And here is where the race really starts to get, dare I say, friendly. Though not pancake flat, it’s about as close as you can get (blueberry pancake flat?). I kept up very even splits from 21 to 25, and then began to push it after mile 25, which is slightly down hill (fastest mile for me!).

The final quarter mile is steep downhill; gravity does all the work if you can just lift your feet and deal with the debilitating knee pain (Strava said I was running a 5:17 mile pace at the end). I spotted Keli and crew on the sidelines, veered to the side to get some high-5’s before the final push and crossed the finish line in 2:53:12, a new PR by 5 minutes, bringing to an end what can only be described as the friendliest marathon I have ever run.

We made a quick exit, showered, rehydrated, caffeinated, and were ready for a productive day of beer mile training.

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