In the friendly, neighborly South, introductions usually include a “Where’re y’all from?” And like most Army kids, that part is usually followed by a slight hesitation from me and a “well…”.
I sense I’ll have that same hesitation when talking about marathons from now on. “How many marathons?” Well…
It looked like a marathon. It quacked like a marathon. It hurt on the uphills like a marathon. I crossed the finish line like a marathon. But. Well… Let me just tell you the story.
After the first wave of polar vortex back in December derailed the Fayetteville Half Marathon and many other running events across the country, I gathered my motivation and courage to click “register” on my spring race — the Little Rock Marathon. I had 12 weeks and I was barely in shape for a HALF, much less setting a new PR for a full, but I knew how to train and I knew it was possible to be ready. So I did it. I put in the miles. And the cross training. And the rest. And the conditioning. Despite an Arkansas winter covered in ice and snow and otherwise unpredictable weather, I trained. I felt stronger than I ever had during long runs. And I felt proud of myself for getting to the track for shorter runs during the week — runs I used to skip thinking I’d “make up for them” on the weekends. Race day was getting closer and closer, and I was so ready.
10 days out — we started watching the weather. Clear and cold. YES. I was pumped. I could layer and control my own body temperature — and there would be no chance of being “hot”, my running kryptonite. 7 days out — a tiny chance of precipitation arrived on the scene, but it was small and not expected until late Sunday — well after the race. But by about 5 days out — it became clear the polar vortex may have identified its next victim. As race day approached, the forecast got worse and worse — and the chances of it somehow being wrong got smaller and smaller. It was GOING to rain. And it was GOING to be cold.
That’s part of the deal with marathons. You sign up to run in the elements — sometimes those elements are sunshine and a cool breeze, sometimes they’re a headwind, rain, and bitter cold. This ain’t no treadmill.
After a quick consultation of the internet to confirm the water resistance of my new watch, I packed enough layers and clothing options for twelve people and we headed to Little Rock.
In my opinion, the Little Rock Marathon is the perfect combination of all the best qualities of a marathon. It’s BIG! And has all the energy and perks that come with being BIG! But it’s not in a city that’s so big you spend all your time and energy navigating the logistics of public transportation, overpriced parking (if you can find parking at all), and just the marginally-organized chaos of thousands of people who run 26 miles for fun. It’s spectator-friendly, has a different theme each year to keep things fun, it’s perfectly scheduled in late winter so I never have to do a long run in the heat, and the distance from Fayetteville to Little Rock does not require the purchase of a plane ticket. I love you, Little Rock Marathon!
I ran the half in Little Rock two years ago, and Jeff and I are both very familiar with the area — so navigating the food and hotel situation that weekend was no big deal. We made plans to carb up with friends in the river market Saturday night — within easy walking distance of our hotel. New friends, old friends. Running is such a good conversation starter.
Race morning is always equal parts flurry of activity — and downtime. I made a game time decision on clothing, filled my belt with Salted Caramel GU and jumping beans, tied and retied my shoes four times, then sat and waited on the overpriced bagel and peanut butter I’d ordered from room service.
This race would be a group activity. My friends David (coworker/friend who you may recognize from last year’s Fayetteville Half and Hogeye Half), Kyle (friend of mine from college who also has family ties to Jeff’s hometown, Smackover), and Greg (running friend from Fayetteville) were all running the full. Greg has been battling IT band issues and wouldn’t be pushing any set pacing plan, but David, Kyle and I were planning to run together. Sub-5 hours was the goal — and it would mean a PR for each of us.
The start line was a big mob of people trying to stay warm, wait in line for the bathroom, speculate on the day’s weather, and show off their costumes. The theme this year was EPIC — and there were superheroes from Superman to The Tick. Jeff made it his personal mission as the day unfolded to snag at least one photo of each member of the Justice League of America.
The wave start was new this year and the cold magnified the time we actually spent in the corrals, but after about 30 minutes we were across the start line. Here we go! The pacing plan was to use the first mile to warm up and navigate the crowd, then settle into an 11ish/mile pace. After standing at the start for so long it took longer to warm up than I’d anticipated, and I was getting nervous when my feet were still numb after three miles — but we were right on track. The pace felt good, the rain was nothing more than a drizzle, and we had each other to rely on for a push if we needed it.
At some point during the first five miles, we ran into a friend of Kyle’s and chatted for a minute before continuing on. David just shook his head. “Arkansas.” He’s not from here and continues to be entertained by the small-town quality of the entire state! Of COURSE Kyle ran into a guy he knows in the middle of thousands of runners in downtown Little Rock. Arkansas.
As they usually do, the first five miles flew by and we were feeling great. I even cut the corner extra wide at the Governor’s Mansion to go shake the man’s hand at mile 9. Jeff braved the weather to meet us wherever he could and it’s always nice to see a familiar face among the thousands of spectators lining the route. Usually, runners shed clothing as the day progresses and the weather warms up and Jeff can usually arrange to meet me around mile 20 for one last check-in before the push to the finish, but we knew we couldn’t rely on seeing him after about mile 13 when the full marathon course veered away from downtown. We were on our own after that, and the day was only about to get colder and wetter.
The Little Rock Marathon is famous for two things: the medal and the “hills”. We Northwest Arkansas runners scoff at their claim of “hills”, but deep down we’re all a little scared of miles 14-16. The three of us knew it was coming and we’d all trained on hills. We agreed that there’d be no chatting for a while — heads down, grit through it. Our pace slowed a little during those miles, but not as much as I’d thought it might — and we’d factored that into our overall race plan. We felt strong. And after three-ish miles of steady, grueling uphill — we were really looking forward to that downhill on mile 17.
But we didn’t get to enjoy it. Right around the 16 mile marker, we overheard a volunteer and a police officer talking about the weather getting worse and possibly cancelling the race. WHAT? We all shared a nervous look, but kept moving. About a quarter mile later, it was confirmed. A police officer parked near the course was using a megaphone from inside his car to give us direction: Event cancelled. Race over. Lightning in the area — take cover if possible.
We couldn’t believe it.
We were told there would be further instructions at the next intersection, but — now completely deflated — we walked for a minute, processing what was happening. What a disappointment. We trained so hard. We were having a GREAT race. And we’d just finished the hardest part of the course. Sure, we were soaking wet and getting colder by the minute — but we didn’t want to quit.
The race had published an “Alert” system with all of our registration materials.
- Yellow Alert Level: Moderate (less than ideal conditions)
- Red Alert Level: High (potentially dangerous conditions)
- Black Alert Level: Extreme (event cancelled, extreme and dangerous conditions)
Runners were to be notified by colored signs at aid stations. I remember seeing Yellow Alert signs early in the race, but with the weather – that was to be expected. I don’t remember seeing any Red signs, but I absolutely remember Black signs — during that last mile when we walked/ran to the point we would ultimately leave the course. There was no doubt — cancelled.
We officially stepped off the course at 17.76 miles. At the corner of Cedar Hill and Rebsamen Park Road – it was unceremoniously over. We were pointed toward the nearest Walmart and were told buses would be taking us back to the Finish Area to meet friends and family.
I’m not gonna lie, that half-mile walk to Walmart was pretty pathetic. Running had been keeping us warm(er) and now that we’d stopped, we were really getting cold — and the temperature was still dropping and the rain was getting heavier. Add all that to the news that our solid, strong, headed-for-sub-5 marathon had just disappeared into the cold, foggy air. We weren’t happy campers.
We stood at Walmart, anxiously awaiting a bus, for what felt like HOURS but was probably only 40 minutes or so. Runners just kept coming. Hundreds of them, headed from the course. Those with phones or cash could call family or buy a snack — but most of us had carried only the essentials and had to settle for a long, cold wait. David had his phone and enough battery for a quick phone call to Jeff to give him the headline — cancelled, we’re headed to the Finish Area.
Eventually, two buses showed up and it was like a scene from Titanic. “Women and children first!” We all piled on, packed as tightly as we could manage. There were folks needing to stand, needing to sit, needing to prop up various limbs — what a sorry sight. I’ll bet we smelled pretty ripe, too.
I assumed the bus would drop us at the Finish Area, we’d find Jeff, and that would be the end of it. But the bus dropped us about 50 feet short of the Finish Line and the fences lining the chute had been opened — allowing runners to rejoin the race and run across the Finish. I remember thinking it was odd that a “cancelled” race still had the clock running and was letting people finish. We were mixed in with half marathoners and what we assumed were marathoners who had been so close to the end when the alerts went out that they just went ahead and finished.
Finish line, medals — the whole nine. It felt weird. And the volunteers really had no way of knowing who had actually run the whole course and who had just taken a bus from mile 18 straight to the finish line.
We found a spot inside at the River Market to huddle and thaw out — and it wasn’t long before we met Jeff, posed for a quick photo, and went our separate ways. Kyle was headed back to Benton and David, Jeff, and I had to try and outrun the storm that was rapidly taking over the state of Arkansas.
There was no sub-5. There was no real marathon finish. There was no taking to social media to share my shiny new marathon PR. There was no celebratory greasy cheeseburger and peanut butter milkshake at The Purple Cow.
Instead, there was this.
We made it to Russellville before we called it quits for the day. Taking a chance that Colton’s would have a bar, we stopped in for some cheese fries and a glass of wine — beer for Jeff — before heading across the street to our hotel to watch the Oscars and get some sleep. But even THAT didn’t go smoothly. After I spent an hour torturing myself by reading the hundreds and hundreds of comments on the Little Rock Marathon’s Facebook wall — disgruntled and unhappy runners… wow — the storm knocked out the power in our hotel. Do you know how dark it gets at 7pm in the middle of a thundersleet storm? Yep. No Wi-Fi. No Oscars. Just a golden opportunity to go to bed early and get some sleep.
Things always look better in the morning, right? By morning, our power had been restored and the sleet had stopped. Jeff carved the car out of the icy parking lot while I hobbled around, still captivated by the post-race conversation unfolding via social media.
Oddly enough, the message now was — “the race was never cancelled”. It was “rerouted” and any talk of cancellation was just a miscommunication. If you’re at all interested in the gory details, feel free to click here or here.
As far as I’m concerned they can call it a reroute or a cancellation or a miscommunication or whatever else comes to mind — it doesn’t actually change my experience. It doesn’t change the 18 solid miles I spent with my friends on a challenging course in challenging conditions. And it doesn’t change the fact that I’ve got an “Unofficial Marathon Finisher” time of 4:09, a 2.5-pound medal I didn’t exactly earn, and a fierce resolve to get back to Little Rock next year and finish what I started. EPIC? Indeed.