Sunday, October 22nd was the 59th running of America’s 3rd oldest marathon; the Atlantic City Marathon. This race is considered “pancake flat”, which makes it a great first marathon for a lot of people. It starts off on the iconic boardwalk alongside the water & grand hotels casinos before splitting off for a quick loop around the eastern portion of the city. Then it’s back to the boards for several miles before hitting the streets for a couple of loops through the western part of the city, and back to the boardwalk for the finish line. Straight forward, simple course – a PR in the making!
I chose to run this race after lots of research and consideration. I liked that it was fairly close to home & on a Sunday. This meant that we wouldn’t need as much in hotel & food accommodations & my husband wouldn’t need to take off time from work. I liked that it was flat. I had yet to run a truly flat course, and felt that this would really show what I was made of. I also liked my prospects. After going over the results from the previous years and taking note that it was two weeks out from the New York City Marathon, I figured that if I PRed and fought hard enough for it, I could make the podium. I was looking at 3rd place & the potential for prize money. But I would have to get under 3:20 to do it. So, when I started my training back in July, I set all of my paces to a 3:18 marathon & I focused on running hard, especially when tired. I knew I would need it.
I was staying at a hotel that was about a mile from the starting line. So at 7:20 I slowly jogged my way down to the start area, used the facilities, drank my water-downed Gatorade, stretched, attempted some drills (but the crowds of people ended up being too dense to get much in), and nervously paced back and forth until 8am. The race staff kept the starting corral closed off to runners, which was nerve wracking as the start time drew close. Throngs of marathoners and half marathoners pressed up against the metal barricades, watching the Pace Leaders wander back & forth, alone with their signs inside the corral. We kept asking each other what was going on, but no one knew. The pacers couldn’t give out any information, the police wouldn’t give out information, and we couldn’t find anyone that looked like they were officially with the race. Eventually we all just pressed through, many jumping the fences to get lined up.
I hemmed and hawed between Pace Groups. There was a very welcoming looking guy holding a 3:25 sign and an extremely chatty guy holding a 3:15 sign. I had met them both the day before at the expo & felt that the 3:15 guy had pretty much brushed me off. When I had stated that I planned on breaking 3:20, his response was “Aww girl, you just gotta get a 3:30!” I explained that I was already in Boston, but I got the feeling he didn’t think I could run faster. I didn’t feel like running with a guy who didn’t believe in me. I also don’t like chatty pacers, so I ended up deciding to try it out solo.
I lined up just behind the 3:15 group & realized that I was only three rows deep from the starting line. I had never started a marathon so close to the front before, and it made me feel a little nervous. I tried to take note of other women around me, but with backs to me, I couldn’t tell who was lined up for the half and who was there for the full. I decided that it didn’t matter; I had a long ways to go before it would matter & I would deal with it then. A few deep breaths. The National Anthem played. Bouncing. High knees in place. An air horn sounded followed by a barrage of hundreds of watches beeping and we were off!
I tried to stay in control. My head kept screaming at my body to wait, to hold back a bit. But my legs were fueled with nervous energy and they did not listen. I pounded away with the crowd off the boardwalk, through the streets, down the tunnel & toward the expressway. I flew through the first few miles too fast. I was running low 7s, but it felt like I was going for an easy stroll. Still, I knew this would bite me in the end. Marathon Rule #1: whatever time you take off at the front gets added on at the back with interest! I needed to be running even 7:35s, but I wasn’t able to slow myself down until the half way point, and I knew it was probably too late. This was now going to be a “hang on & hope for the best” run.
The boardwalk was slow, and tedious, and long. While it was a beautiful day for spectators, the incredibly sunny 70 degrees felt like torture to the runners. The boardwalk offered no shade and the pace felt harder and harder to maintain. The boards were soft and some were even loose and wobbly. The runners were all strung out, so it was a bit lonely. But then I saw the leaders finishing the half marathon. Two women who were running stride for stride passed & darted for the finish chute. They were halfers, which meant I was further up than I thought! As I reached the end of the boardwalk & was about to turn off, a spectator jumped up & down enthusiastically. “Go girl!” she screamed, “You’re the second one!” Second?! This was intimidating information since I still had 12 miles to go & no idea where 3rd place was.
The rest of the race was done in a panic. I was still running ahead of schedule, but I was starting to feel it. The water in the 2nd half of the race had a strange taste, almost like sulfur, so I couldn’t get it down. I was dehydrated. My stomach was cramping, my chest was hurting, my legs felt like shredded meat. The finish line felt like forever away, I still didn’t know where 3rd (or even 4th) were, my sports’ bra was chaffing.
And then came the positive splits.
Miles 20 & 21 were painful, but doable. Mile 22 brought on a massive wall. The only thing I could think about was stopping. I constantly argued with myself in my head. I was hurting bad, but I knew that if I walked I’d never get started again. Runners were dropping off the course around me and it took a lot of willpower to not join them. I counted ten steps at a time, pleading with my body to make it through the last five miles. My pace had dropped from sub 7:20s to 8:00, 8:09, 8:30. I wanted to cry. The last mile was incredibly difficult. Not only was it hot and painful, but now the boardwalk was crowded with people who didn’t seem to realize there was a race going on & I had to weave my way through them.
The inflatable arch marking the finish line was ahead, but didn’t seem to get any bigger. I was running and running, pushing the pace with what little umpf I had left, but it seemed as if I was running in place, not getting any closer. Suddenly I saw my family on the left side. My kids were screaming. My husband was screaming. People along the barriers were whooping and clanking bells. Did I blank out? This is the end. GO MAZY! I “sprinted” with every little thing I had left in my body across the timing mat.
A finisher’s medal was draped over my neck and a Gatorade shoved into my hand. I limped toward the barriers. I wanted to beg for help, but couldn’t speak, and didn’t really know what I wanted anyway. Someone gave me a bag of ice, a chair. I sat down & iced my hamstring that felt like it was on fire. My children clamored at the barrier excitedly, my husband snapped pictures. He was teary eyed. I was the 2nd Female Finisher and 20th overall. 3:18.17. I finally admitted to him that there was prize money for me. Six minutes later they announced the finish of the 3rd Female.
It was over, finally. I made the podium after all, in fact, I placed even better than I had planned. And I had set a PR. But I was still dissatisfied. While I did do well by the numbers & ran my fastest race, I couldn’t claim it as my best race. I made a lot of mistakes. I wasn’t prepared adequately (not enough sleep, hydration, or food), and I ran with my gut, not with my head. I am thankful I had the strength to pull off the last five miles when it got tough, and I’m lucky I was far enough ahead that my wall didn’t affect my placing. The 3rd place finisher ran beautifully even splits and her last five miles were faster than mine! While I am proud in my achievement, I am more proud of the fact that I have this experience under my belt & the knowledge (and confidence) that my training worked. While I didn’t pace myself evenly, I still walked away with the time I had spent three and a half months preparing for. I will humbly accept this event as a lesson & learn from it. Oh, and I am really looking forward to some down time & a beer!