What an inspiring weekend the St. Jude Memphis Marathon (SJMM) was. This was my first time to have the opportunity to volunteer as a pacer. A lot of folks have asked me about what exactly a ‘pacer’ does. I guess in earlier years, only elite athletes had pacers. Basically, the super fast folks would have someone who helps them achieve their goal by running along with them and keeping up with the min/mile pace so they did not have to think about it. All they have to do is run and stay hip to hip with the person who is pacing them. These days, most marathons have pace groups. They are usually at popular times such as the Boston Marathon Qualifying times (BQ), the 4:00 marathon mark and for me, the last group that would come in for the marathon (as a pace group) so under 6 hours.
If you had told me 3 years ago I would be pacing a marathon, I probably would have laughed. I mean who voluntarily runs a marathon for fun?
Marathon Expo – Thursday 11/29
The St. Jude Marathon Expo runs on the Thurs and Fri prior to the Marathon weekend. As pacers we were asked to volunteer at the pacer booth in the expo for a 2 hour slot during the expo. I volunteered on Thursday from 1-3pm. I saw so many people I knew in just that two hours sitting in the booth. My EMBA colleague Rick who was aiming for his 2:00 half marathon, my former pilates instructor Wendy who was pivotal in me gaining my second dog (Wyatt) and my good friend Brad who was aiming for his 2:00 half marathon. It was great to be able to help provide support to the many runners stopping by our booth asking questions about the pace team and how to use us as a tool for their success.
Race Day – Saturday 12/01
Race day, the pacers were expected to report to the suite at Autozone park by 6am. I did not do a great job of planning the night before. I went to bed a bit late, for many reasons that stacked up throughout the week with the most prominent being my older dog Killian’s health taking a turn for the worse and me needing to devote time and energy to his care. Usually, the night before a marathon I am in freakout mode, but I simply fell asleep on Friday night and set the alarm for 4:15am the next morning.
Getting up, the weather was definitely warm…unseasonably warm for December. I decided to wear shorts for the race and then a tank with our pacer shirt over it. There is no way I would have worn pants knowing the temps would creep to 70F and I was planning to be out on my feet for well over 8 hours during the day. Getting ready was not too stressful other than the fact that I did not prepare…I did not discover that I had no body glide until 5:30am. I had thrown it away in D.C. during the Marine Corps Marathon. It was time to retire the old body glide since it had hit gross status…but I had never replaced it. I definitely was stressed knowing the heat would cause some major discomfort if I did not have this. Luckily, Adam had some at his house along with some samples so we packed up the car and then swung by his house to get his body glide as well as a small packet of chamois butter that I could stick in the pocket of my shorts.
For the 5:40 marathon time, here is what I loaded into what was a very small pair of shorts in the pockets:
2.5 packs of Gu chomps, one pouch of chamois butter, 3 sport legs tablets wrapped in an old gu chomps wrapper. It was almost as if I was preparing to be stranded on the side of the road!
The average temp for the day was going to be around 70F so my biggest concern was the heat and the side effects of that (mainly chafing). I was also a bit concerned with my feet swelling since I would be on them for at least 8 hours that day of which almost 6 would be the actual race. Last year, I ran St. Jude with very little preparation. I ended up losing 3 toe nails from that experience one of which was my BIG toe. I surely did not want to experience that again. I made sure to put plenty of body glide on my toes and wear my injinji ‘toe’ socks. I have found those socks make all the difference in preventing blisters for longer distance runs. I simply refused to go up from a 9 1/2 size shoe to a 10 due to my feet swelling so the socks have been a welcome solution (being a short person with big feet is not always a fabulous combination).
The official race start time was 8am. Our pace group was in the last corral so we went out quite a bit after the start. Each corral releases every 2 minutes (in waves). As pacers, we were expected to get down to the front of our corral around 7am and meet the group we would be helping. My partners (Kevin and Steve) and I went down and made ourselves comfortable with the crowd. Most of the runners in our group were first time half marathoners/marathoners. A large majority of the group was running the half marathon and there were a few marathon maniacs sprinkled in the group.
I thought about doing another course review for this year but I captured it well last year so I thought I would point out some highlights that I experienced doing this race not only for the second time but also as a pacer and in a slower group where I could generally enjoy things and soak everything up!
Link from last year’s race:
Highlights from 2012 SJMM:
- Of course the start of the race leading up to Beale St. and the run through St. Jude’s campus is very exhilirating. Tons of crowd support. I always cry when I run through this particular portion. It really humbles you as you prepare to go through some fatigue of a long run (you don’t even want to complain).
- You notice a big drop when the half marathoners split off around mile 12.5. Our group dropped to about 20% of its original size at this point. As you wind back through downtown near the FedEx Forum, you even see the half marathoners getting in their cars and heading home (don’t let it tempt you)!
- Between Mile 20 and 21 was where Steve and I started picking up folks who were slowing down (from earlier pace groups). It was near this point that we employed the 1:1 strategy. 1 minute walk/1 minute run. This was genious for the folks who were literally stopping in their tracks and considering walking the remaining 6 miles or so. I had never used this strategy before but can say it works well if you are running a 5:40 marathon (average 12:59 pace). Most of the people we picked up with our pace group were ladies and I could tell they loved how Steve called out…”Ladies, walk one minute”…”okay, let’s pick it up and run one minute”. You could see a smile come across the face of someone who was probably losing hope of finishing their marathon in under 6 hours.
- Somewhere around Mile 21, I could hear the Monkeys at the zoo (I promise I am not making this up or was I too delirious). I even pointed this out to Steve.
- Mile 22 had beer! (hashers. THANK YOU) Finally, I was able to have a drink of beer during a race 🙂
- Somehow I forgot the view of the pyramid from last year’s race as you come down the home stretch starting around mile 23 or so. Such an encouraging site plus you are down hill for the remainder of the journey.
I always like to recap races with pros and cons so I am going to do this again for SJMM as I had some different experiences this year.
- Awesome crowd support for the entire race (it doesn’t feel so bad when you are running the full).
- A great cause to support and run for with the bonus you go through the actual St. Jude campus which helps you realize what you are running for. The cheering section of volunteers, family, former patients is very inspiring and humbling.
- The Memphis Runners Track Club does a great job of the race crew for this event. The MRTC is a top notch track club and pretty much any race they touch will run flawlessly.
- Relatively easy course with some rolling hills.
- Elvis…singing…on Beale Street!
I don’t want to call these Cons, but I will call them Opportunities:
- This is the second year in a row I have had someone lean out of a car and yell at me or the group I was running the marathon with specifically on E. Parkway. Last year, the person yelled expletives directly at us. This year it was just a rude statement. I have never had that happen in any other city I have done a race. I am sure it was since we were in one of the later groups and that the roads were blocked off and people were frustrated but it still bothered me and it has happened two years in a row now. I am hopeful as Memphis adopts a more healthier lifestyle, that this will not happen as frequently.
- No water at Mile 20…nothing…not even an empty cup. I honestly felt awful for the group we were pacing. It was warm and they had already been out there a long time. I wouldn’t say it bothered me as much as others but the race is supposed to be supported for those finishing in 6 hours or under. I was really disappointed about this. The next stop made up with it big time though (with cold towels also).
- No water at the immediate finish line area. We got to the finish and there was no water available. Someone told me earlier finishers received a water bottle at the finish line around where they recieved their medal and space blanket. For our group, you had to then go up the stairs and wait in line for cold pizza and sodas for at least 10-15 minutes. This was just a different experience for me as I was out there much longer and to be honest, the cold drink was all you wanted after being out on the road from 8am-2:30 on a warm day.
In general, I would say most of my cons are what the racers in the later pace groups experience. I am not the fastest runner but usually I don’t have this experience when I finish around my average time. My guess is that organizers prepare more for the average finisher. It did make me feel bad for our pace group that they were kind of forgotten in a few areas. I still think the SJMM is one of my favorite races and I really hope I can continue to be a pacer for this race since it is in my ‘hometown’. I want to share some of my thoughts on pacing but also a 5:40 marathon time and the difference inexperience.
Pacing was a lot of fun. You get to meet a lot of new people. Motivating and encouraging others is a large part of your day and you happen to be doing it with something you love (running a marathon). I loved that part of the experience. It was so different than teaching someone something at work like handing off a project to them. I guess you could say that most people who would pace are passionate about running and passionate in general about encouraging and helping others to run.
5:40 marathon time. What does that mean to me?
Most people who have ever read my blog know that my first marathon time was 4:23:59. I would definitely say I fought hard for that one. It took me over a year working through training, learning, injuries etc to get to a 4:18:03 marathon this past October. I have to fight HARD for each minute. I wish I was blessed like some of my friends who can get out there and knock out sub 4 hour marathons or double digit PRs off their times, but it just plainly does not come that easy for me. I am comfortable in knowing it will take me likely another year or 2 to get to a 4 hour marathon. With that being said, I don’t always feel like crap when I finish in that 4:20 ish range but I don’t feel nearly as great as I did at the end of the 5:40 range. I had a bit of an Oprah-like aha moment the day of the SJMM. At the finish, I realized it is a different type of person that runs the 5:40 marathon. It is in no way to point fingers at a certain group or to say one is better than the other but I feel that those folks in the 5:40 group really soak up their surroundings and the experience but still challenge themselves. My co-pacer was doing something crazy like 100 marathons/ultra marathons in one year this year and he is over 60 years old. In a way, sometime down the road, I could see myself in my older years doing these longer marathons and feeling just a great accomplishment as the ones I have finished in faster times. It is in no way less gratifying, it is just a different experience maybe like having Italian for dinner versus going for Greek food. You enjoy both but for different reasons. I still want to try for my PR this coming up February in the Mississippi River Marathon but it won’t be the end of the world if I don’t get it. I can still feel a sense of accomplishment knowing that I will have finished a marathon and most importantly I want to try and enjoy the experience.
I want to close this with a comparison of what I looked like running my recent marathon PR:
Compare this to how happy I looked pacing the 5:40 pace group. I think there is a notable difference in the experience that words can not explain. That is what I love about being human, we can always adjust our goals and learn from our experiences.