Running The Richmond Marathon: A Retrospect
The other week I was doing some deep cleaning and came across this race photo. It resurrected lovely memories from one of my most unpleasant finishes. It also reminds me of how much has changed over the years--to both me and marathons.
Note the slant of the sun. This shot was taken in the last miles of the course, with the sun already inching toward the western horizon. The Richmond Marathon used to start at 12:30 p.m. on an October Sunday to allow locals time to go to church before downtown streets closed. This made weather a wildcard. It could be the cool fall day long-distance runners dream of, or it could swampy. I got both, with heat at the start but a cool breeze at the end.
Now almost every marathon starts early morning to accommodate bigger crowds.
Note the bib number. This race had less than 500 marathoners the first time I ran it. You could sign up race day, especially if you ended up not running that much more popular marathon two hours north in Washington, D.C. Organizers made sure Richmond was held the weekend after the Marine Corps Marathon, which I’d done the year prior.
The bib number served another purpose. The race was sponsored by The Richmond Times-Dispatch, which published a special section in that Sunday’s paper. Spectators could look up every runner by number and call out their name as they passed. I must have been easy to find, because a lot of strangers yelled “Go Anne!” during the first half of the route.
Now you typically can put your name on your bib or shirt if you need crowd support. And you must sign up well before race day. Not to mention you can track a runner with an app.
Note my form and race nutrition. I trained smarter, not harder, for this one. And I trained and ran it all alone--no music, just my thoughts. I think that made a huge difference because I paid very close attention to my posture and foot strike. I hugged corners to shave a few seconds where I could. I lifted my legs to avoid tripping. I did not allow self-doubt. The first half of the course was relatively flat and along primarily cobblestone streets in historic sections of the former Capitol of the Confederacy. If you weren’t careful, you could roll an ankle on the uneven surface. I think my hesitancy cost me minutes, but I remained on track for my goal: beat my last marathon time.
Once you finished a downtown loop, the half marathoners merged left to the finish line while we full-timers kept straight to cross a causeway over the James River and head into the suburbs. I don’t recall all of the details along the way, just that we eventually ran through a park and a woman offered me something called Gu. “I’m not gonna need it, but you might,” I remember her telling me at Mile 19. I'd trained only with watered down Gatorade, so I didn’t want to try something new. But I immediately regretted not taking the gel sooner when we approached the next 1.5 miles known as “Lee’s Revenge.”
Now they give out energy gels on many marathon courses. And you can read reviews online to know course conditions and hilliest parts.
Note the latter course and finish. "Lee's Revenge," named after a certain Civil War general we no longer cast in the same light, was where everyone hit the wall. Even winners admitted to walking this stretch to conserve energy for the end miles. There was an official water station at the bottom and top; otherwise, aid stations stretched out every 3-4 miles. All along "Lee's Revenge" were children still in their Sunday best handing out orange slices and flat cola in front of their houses.
Once I crested that massive hill, a police officer gave me verbal instructions to get me back to downtown through windy streets full of Antebellum homes. Roads were no longer closed, but he stopped traffic at one busy intersection, so I didn’t have to break my stride. Some of the families that had cheered me on at the beginning were still there to push me to finish strong.
I honestly don’t remember much about the end, other than I’d made it with an hour to spare. Back then, marathons had tighter time limits and this one stopped the clock after 5 hours and 30 minutes. Most of the crowds were gone by the time I came through the finish shoot and got my medal. It made reuniting with my husband and elementary-aged daughters easier.
Now courses typically stay open much longer, and my finish time would have put me ahead of half the pack instead of pulling up the rear.
Note an odd perk. In race literature, organizers noted that VCU Medical Center was offering free emergency medical care to all race participants the entire day and evening. I joked about the odd perk until I found myself passed out in the medical tent. I hadn’t properly hydrated and had depleted my blood glucose—something that Gu would have helped prevent.
I eventually came to and we walked to a friend’s apartment, so I could change before driving home to Elizabeth City, N.C. Only I passed out again at her place. And then again on the way home while attempting to eat a small hamburger from a drive-thru. I was so out of it I couldn't remember how to swallow.
Now medical tents are a mainstay—and well used by those of us who push too hard for too long.
I would return to the same course a couple of years later to give it another go. The field by then had doubled and start time was pushed back to 8 a.m. That helped me to remember to take in electrolytes and water. However, despite knowing what to expect and staying hydrated, I didn’t PR as I'd hoped. Turns out when you drink more, you stop to pee more too. But I at least didn't end up on a cot unable to stay awake.