The 10 days leading up to this race had been somewhat anxious for me as the weather forecast consistently had a strong chance of thunderstorms. One of the few things out of your control on race day is the weather. All you can do is prepare for it both in your mental state and wardrobe choices. I did that.
The day before the race I picked up my race packet and officials described a contingency plan that had been developed in case of
bad weather. The weather forecasters had predicted a high chance for severe weather, including tornadoes, for race day and they wanted to have a plan in place to keep everyone safe. This plan basically revised the target marathon course closure for 4 hours 30 minutes. If you weren’t past the point where the h
alf marathon course split off (mile 11.2) at a 10 minute 20 second pace or faster, you would be diverted to run the half. There was no other update regarding contingency plans at the expo or on the website. I went to bed knowing these facts as truths.
I headed to the stadium in top secret fashion around 5:30 and was on a shuttle bus by 5:45. I saw massive amounts of traffic on I-24 but did not experience it. Upon arr
iving at Centennial Park, I headed to the port a johns and stood in line.
At around 6am, they started playing this looped statement that said “Attention runners, it’s almost time for the start of the race. Runners in corrals 1-15 should be in place by 6:45am. Runners in corrals 16-35 should be in place by 7 a.m.”. They played this OVER and OVER. It was maddening.
As it turns out – what the man on the tape was trying to say was “Attention Runners – The start time of the race HAS CHANGED FROM 7:00 AM TO 6:45 AM TO ACCOUNT FOR UNCERTAIN WEATHER. GET YOUR ASSES TO THE STARTING LINE IN TIME!!!” Furthermore – they sent out a twitter update.. at 6:41 AM central time saying that the race would begin 15 minutes early. That’s right – a Twitter update 4 minutes before the damn thing started. Of course, based on the looped statement I thought they were just trying to herd 32,000 runners (many of them newbies) into place to have an orderly start – so I went about my business.
So at 6:45 I’m standing in line at a port a john by the start. I hear them announce “when the gun goes off, it’s to start corral #1 only”. Keep in mind – I knew nothing of the change in start time. According to the race plans, the wheelchair division was to start at 6:45 am. No big deal. Until corral #2 starts, and then #3. I’m still standing in line when the 4 hour corral #8 (my corral) starts. Oh – and this one was out of TP too. Fortunately, one right next to it had a couple of squares. Yeah – this is probably too much information, but I don’t care and you’re still reading.
So I jump into corral 18 and start a little after 7 a.m. Keep in mind that I was ready according to the announced schedule, even with my TP emergency. I never thought I’d have that kind of emergency, but I plan in some buffer time for whatever crops up.
I’ve captured what things look like at the starting line. The sky is kinda gray, but the sun was peeking out behind me. I figured I’d finish around the 4 hour 30 minute mark and be safely back in my room before the sky opens. The start is VERY orderly. It wasn’t the cluster that the ING Georgia race start always is. I think this is because they stagger the start of the corrals by a minute or two. This made it so there was a lot less weaving to do to get around slower people. Also – it seemed that people honored their starting corral seeding. There weren’t nearly the number of walkers in front of me as in other races.
The early miles of the race ticked away. I was doing 9:45 miles and then walking through the water stops, so through mile 15 I was right on a 10 minute pace. The scenery was pretty cool running down broadway, through the recording labels, etc. The bands and volunteers on the course were good, too. Everything was going just fine.
Then mile 18 approached with a long uphill. I slowed to a
walk and powered up it. I knew the last 10k was pretty flat, so if I could save my legs here, I would be in good position for a solid all-around race. As I crested the hill, I noticed the clouds darkening and the wind picked up. Police offers that were once in standing in intersections were now seated in their cars and a series of buses were lined up going the other way around the 12 mile mark.
Around 18.5, officers began to announce “There is a fast moving storm approaching. We are not closing the course but advise that you seek shelter immediately.” I looked around and only saw a Rite-Aid. I pressed on. It began to rain and I snapped a few photos of me and the course around mile 19.5. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the rain at Ironman Lake Placid, so I was still in good spirits ready to turn in a good run.
Mile 20 was downhill across the Cumberland River bridge. The half marathon people rejoined the marathoners on the course as they prepared to turn right into LP Field and finish. I couldn’t believe that there were still people running (crawling?) the half when I was at mile 20. I made 2 right turns and suddenly it dawned on me that something was amiss. I didn’t memorize the course, but I knew that I had to run past the stadium to do the last 10k, but they just had me do a haripin turn that would have me going on the wrong side of the stadium. I asked someone and they said that they had closed the marathon course.
I was livid. There were a total of 3 claps of thunder while we were out there, and the rain had actually stopped by the time I got to the finish. I was really still confused because the plan presented was that they would close the course based on a 4 hour 30 minute finish time. I was ahead of that. I asked an official when they decided to divert people right there and he said “oh, 45 minutes ago or so.”
So there you have it. A great day wasted. I was handed a finisher medal that I didn’t earn and was walking on legs that were trashed for what amounted to a training run. 20.5 miles in 3 hours, 34 minutes. Someone owes me a 10k.
The real kick in the pants was that finish line was still in full swing. If there was truly a weather issue, the souvenir tent should have closed and packed up. The beer sales, masseuses, photographers, and all the other Competitor, Inc. Rock N Roll marathon bastions of capitalism should have ceased to operate and instead worked to move people to safety. Based on their actions, there was clearly no danger.
As with some of the reports of pre-race traffic issues I have seen, there were major post-race traffic issues that resulted in huge traffic jams leaving the stadium area. Again – if there was truly a weather issue, these people just became thousands of sitting ducks in their cars. If people had finished in a normal and orderly fashion, you would not have had a massive number of people leaving at the same time.
Fortunately, my top secret way in worked equally well on the way out. Here’s a picture of the skyline shortly after I was told to stop running. Looks kinda nasty, I guess. Nothing severe, though.
gt; Now for the ratings. These are on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the best:
Course: 5 — Scenic. Challenging. I think I could train to PR here fairly easily.
Spectators: 3 — They are ever-presented on the half marathon course, but virtually non-existent on the marathon only sections.
Organization: 2 — This was the 11th running and the organizers clearly never asked themselves “What if?”. It does not seem like they reached out to their fellow race directors for advice, either.
Overall: That’s a 3 friends. Will I run this race again? Maybe. It’s expensive, and focused almost entirely on people in the half-marathon. But there aren’t many opportunities to do 26.2 in Tennessee, and the post race night life is a definite plus. We’ll have to wait and see.