Monday, October 4, 2010

Miles, a Mayor, and Even Banana Pudding

“I’d love to come in at or under an hour, 45 minutes, but I don’t think I can,” I told my wife. She, being the ever-believing optimist, said, “You can do it!” I think I snickered as I struggled with the laces of my running shoes. However, I had voiced the thought, and now it was camping out in that mental woodland we try to avoid. Every time it tried stepping out into the light of a cranial meadow, I shoved it back into the forest’s dark shade. The time seemed out of reach based on my past half-marathons.

Ah, but I love Montgomery. I really do. I may complain about the
heat and politics of “sweet home,” but I love Alabama’s capital city. Montgomery is truly a place—a location that occupies more than its geographical boundaries. From the way it has embraced all aspects of its history to the Renaissance-like renewal of its downtown and Riverwalk regions, the city surprises you. It feels like a place that is successfully bridging its past, present, and future. In fact, you can literally see this in how recent additions to the city, such as Riverwalk Stadium, actually emerge from historic and preserved buildings. In this city, restoration and progress are partners, not rivals.

All that, and a few personal favorites are found here, too: restaurant (Saza), theatre
(Alabama Shakespeare Festival), hotel (Renaissance). Maybe my feelings about the city come out in my running; I seem to run well in this land of a Confederate White House, Rosa Parks, and a state constitution that is longer and more complex than an ultra-marathon.

I first ran in Montgomery’s series of parks found on its east side. The paths in Blount Cultural Park called my name until I answered, discovering other nearby parks in the process. Then, in 2009, I ran my first (and Montgomery’s first) half-marathon. I remember being so happy to have completed the distance that I allowed myself to eat anything I craved the rest of the day.

This year, as I joined more than a thousand others at the starting line, that 1:45 idea stood at the edge of the forest, plainly in sight but knowing the light of day was off limits. After a moving introduction of true heroes—soldiers representing Hope for the Warriors—and comments from an enthusiastic mayor (he’ll return later), we were off.

“Pace, Kevin, pace!” my mind shouted. I still get excited at the start of a race. Even
though I’m paranoid about starting out too fast and not finishing, I get caught up in the excitement. Running is often an individual and introspective sport. Racing, however, can be incredibly social. You immediately share something in common with everyone around you, and the interaction is often laden with laughter. I don’t talk much, but I listen. That, combined with the fact that everyone around you is running, can make you feel like a thoroughbred just released from the starting gate.

I’ll spare you the mile-by-mile details, but Montgomery does a great job of hosting this event. Everything from jumprope troupes, college bands (loved the Abba tunes, Huntingdon!), and random residents handing out oranges and even cold beer make this course a blast. But the organizers here do something else that I love. Every mile marker has a running clock, making it easy to determine your pace at every stage. I’ve run in bigger events, but Montgomery is the only place I’ve seen this.

As I approached the first mile marker and saw my pace, the thought I’d voiced stepped clearly out of my neuronal woodland and into the sunlight. “I wonder if I can run a 1:45 half.” Like the “Little Engine That Could,” my wondering became a mantra, and it grew louder at every mile marker.

At the nine-mile mark, my wondering stubbornly hung around, even though I’d need to complete four miles in about 31 minutes. Unlikely, but not impossible. “I wonder…” my mind shouted. At the 12-mile mark, I knew the answer. No, not today. The final mile would need to be about a 6-minute event, a pace that I occasionally reach in my dreams. However, a personal record was possible. My wife awaited my arrival in Riverwalk Stadium. She took pictures of other runners while she kept an eye on the clock. When it ticked past 1:46, she groaned. But then, #109 showed up in her camera lens. I ran down the ramp into the outfield of the Montgomery Biscuits’ home field and crossed the line at 1:46:22.

If you don’t run, you may not appreciate this, but I had cut more than five minutes off my half-marathon time of three weeks ago. So, even though I was tired, I triumphantly high-fived the mayor, who greeted all the runners at the finish line. (Way to go, Mayor Strange!) As if to celebrate my accomplishment with me, Dreamland, a legendary Alabama barbecue restaurant, handed us heaping free samples of its banana pudding as we walked back to the hotel. On the elevator, another runner and I smiled, shook hands, and congratulated each other on the race, a perfect conclusion to the morning.

I still wonder if I can run a 1:45 half-marathon, and I’ll keep wondering until it hopefully happens. And with how things seem to go, it may happen in Montgomery…unless those murmurings about a full marathon there next year grow into reality. Hmm, I wonder if I can run a sub-four-hour marathon…

In conclusion, to the city of Montgomery, AL, THANK YOU! For the second year in a row, you have put on a first class event. The organization is phenomenal, the volunteers and police officers are the best, and the community is one of the most supportive out there. To everyone who yelled encouragement, handed out water, beat a drum, suggested I “use my arms” to get up and over I-85, or provided commentary on runners’ fashion sense (or lack of it), you truly make this one of the most enjoyable events in the country.

My vote: go for it! The “Montgomery Marathon” sure has a great ring to it!

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