It’s been a cold and snowy February here in Richmond, so mid-month I escaped to Birmingham, Alabama, my home town. As it turns out, Birmingham was facing cold temperatures too. Fortunately, things warmed up in time for me to run the Mercedes Marathon, in memory of my father, Ben McDaniel, who lost his battle to cancer in June 2013. And along the way, I remembered GRITS.
Years ago, when Steve and I first moved to Richmond, my mother came to visit. When Millie’s had no grits to offer with breakfast, and suggested “home fries” instead, Mom declared, “This is not the South.” Never mind that it was the capital of the Confederacy, never mind that Monument Avenue features the key Confederate generals in larger-than-life-sized statues. During the marathon, I found a number of ways in which the Deep South differs from Virginia. It’s not just the grits.
The race started at Boutwell Auditorium in downtown Birmingham. I saw my first concert, the Grateful Dead, here in the 70s. I stood in line for the ladies room and observed that they haven’t done a thing to the bathrooms since I visited them thirty five years ago. Well, that’s not entirely true. They have posted “no smoking” signs everywhere. As an asthmatic, I still recall that the air was not clear of smoke during that 1970s Grateful Dead concert!
I noticed that although the temperatures at the start of the race were in the upper 40s, and most of the race they were in the 50s, many runners sported long pants or tights. I wore my signature sleeveless mini-dress. I think this goes to show that what you are used to in your training runs makes a big difference in racing.
Another big difference I saw was that Birmingham has many more African American runners than you see in Richmond. More than would be accounted for in the increased population of African Americans. What’s up with that, Richmond?
The spectators at this race were great. In addition to the usual greetings, there were some special Deep South shout outs. My Dad’s favorite would have been “WAR EAGLE!” Dad used to say War Eagle instead of “Hello.” In Richmond, he was circumspect, lest people be confused, but in Birmingham, his booming “War Eagle” would be greeted by a return, “Hey, Ben, War Eagle to you, too!”
I heard War Eagles, and a fair share of Roll Tides, and I also heard these cheers:
- God’s Got this for You! (Momentarily, I thought I could stop and let God do the rest of the running; then I realized something about helping people who help themselves, and kept going).
- All Y’all are doing awesome! (Not just “y’all,” but “all y’all.” If it is a large and disparate group, “y’all” isn’t always adequate. The speaker wanted to emphasize that every single person was doing awesome, without exception).
The marathon and the half marathon started at the same time, with the marathoners completing a second loop of the same course. Because this was merely a “supported training run” for me, I was not trying to beat my “personal record” for the marathon distance, which is just under five hours. Instead, I wanted to be sure to run comfortably so that I would not have a long recovery time before running long again. On the other hand, I couldn’t run slower than a six hour marathon, because the race has a “balloon lady” who runs that pace, and if you fall behind her, they remove you from the course. I figured I could run the race in about 5:30 or so. The goal was to run the first 21 miles fairly slowly, and then pick up the pace during the last five miles.
The first lap went well. Maybe I went out a bit too fast for the first mile or so, which were downtown, so pancake flat. I don’t think I have ever run a race where I didn’t go out too fast. But I settled into a pace after a bit. I have to hand it to the race organizers. Birmingham is a very hilly city, but this race was not too terribly hilly. There were hills, all right, but there was not a single hill that was steep enough to warrant walking instead of running it. That was good and bad.
Lining the streets (it being a Sunday morning) were a number of church groups. They handed out gummy fishes (loaves and fishes, I guess) and held up inspirational signs. “Let us run with endurance the race God has set before us,” Hebrews 12:1, said one sign. No doubt the person holding the sign referred to the Mercedes Marathon race, but of course the meaning is much deeper. I reflected upon my journey this year—racing toward the 100K run, racing toward raising $100K for cancer research. My father said he used to try to run but could never muster more than a couple miles on the track. He was proud of me for my running. Proud of my running the race that Gold set before me.
I was running with “Tailwind” for my nutrition. It is a powder that you add to water and you don’t need to eat or drink anything else. I filled my four bottles with Tailwind water, but of course for more than five hours I would need much more than four 8 ounce bottles to drink. I carried extra powder in baggies and refilled the baggies at the aid stations. I felt a bit like a drug addict with cocaine—this white powder falling all over me. It took forever. I really like the nutrition, but I need a better “refill” method.
As I passed the famous Alabama Theatre and then began the second loop, I felt great. No tiredness, no aches. By mile 21 or 22, I was supposed to “surge” into race mode, picking up the pace. I tried, but doing this was difficult. I did run some fast stretches—on downhills. I did pretty well until mile 24. The bottoms of my feet were starting to hurt.
I noticed what looked like a finish line balloon arch down the road. “Is that it?” I asked a volunteer. “Yes,” she said. I guess I should have been more specific about what I meant by “it.” “It” was not the finish line, and when I got there, I despaired. Another mile to go. The good news is that I was not walking, I was just running pretty slowly. Like, the pace I should have run during mile 1. A volunteer handed me a moon pie, though, and that made me happy and nostalgic. I remember eating moon pies with my Dad as a little girl. I mustered up what grit and determination I had left, and kept running.
As I came into the finish line, a sign said “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” 2 Timothy 4:7. And that made me smile.
Mom’s had a hard time since Dad died last year. Later that day, I was walking like Frankenstein’s monster, and I settled into a recliner next to Mom to watch the Oscars. The doorbell rang. Mom said, “I’ll get it.” I said, “okay, I think you will be faster,” as she reached for her rolling walker. Mom: she’s got Grit. After all, she’s a Girl Raised in the South, too.