The Soldier Marathon

As I made my way to Columbus, Ga for The Soldier Half Marathon, I knew very little about the history of this race, I was just excited for another weekend on the road. 

Pulling up to the National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, I was struck by the size of this majestic structure. I am a history buff, and love learning, so the chance to spend some time here was exciting. 

This is one of the reasons I run and look for destination races – I have seen so many places that I would have never visited otherwise. 

The museum, which is free to enter (there is a suggested donation of $5) contains  beautiful exhibits covering 200 years of military history. In addition there is an IMAX theater and an combat simulator (there are fees for these attractions). I would encourage anyone in the Columbus area to check this out! 

My last stop in the museum was the actual packet pickup – organized and efficient, and I left with a ton of goodies including a commemorative coin (actually a poker chip) a NICE bag, a beautiful custom poster, and a very soft t-shirt. 

The next stop was my hotel. Organizing my gear on the second bed, I pinned my bib to my race shirt, and then prepared to attach the “Fallen Hero” tribute bib to the back. 
The Soldier Marathon provides this bib for runners to run in someones honor. If any runner does not have a relative or friend they wish to dedicate their race to, there is a list of names with pictures and personal information that runners may select from. 
Before the race I had talked to a former student about running in honor of her cousin, CPL Gary Allen Koehler, who gave his life during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was 21… a US Marine… and a Hero. Tears filled my eyes as I carefully placed the bib on my jersey. 
Settling in to relax, I took a closer look at the materials that came in my swag bag. Tucked in with the race flyers and samples were FOUR letters. The first from the race director was appreciated, but not unusual. The second and third were from the mayors of Columbus, Georgia and Phenix City, Alabama (where the race would cross over for part of its route).
The fourth letter was the one that stopped me in my tracks. It was from Major General McMaster and Command Sergeant Major Carabello of the US Army. It started with “In our thirteenth year of war…”. 
Thirteen years, how many had lost their lives during that time so that I may live mine in peace and freedom.
Race morning was a brisk 37 degrees! The crisp air bit at my skin but the blue sky promised a beautiful day for running. The Soldiers at Fort Benning were all smiles welcoming us at the start line. 
The hill at mile two was NO JOKE – I wanted to walk, but was spurred on by the Drill Sergeants shouting at us… “Walking is authorized but not suggested!” I did my best to run. 
I distracted myself reading the names of the Fallen Heros on the backs of my fellow runners, and many commented on mine. 
That is when it really sunk in how important this is – the writing of these names. We can #neverforget on our social media… but these men and women, young and old – deserve us to see their names, and honor their sacrifice.
The payoff for this climb comes at mile six… a long and speed fueling drop. 
At every turn, soldiers cheered us on. At every water station men and women in uniform offered up hydration and bountiful words of encouragement. I had not felt this motivated and inspired during a run since last October, at the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington DC. 
It occurred to me that this race might be a great alternative to those unable to run the MCM, or unable to get in. There has been a great deal of speculation that this popular race would be moved to a lottery system, due to its popularity and issues with registration. In October, Runners World reported that in 2014 this will be in effect. 
While The Soldier Marathon has the same inspirational feeling that MCM is known for, there are a few more reasons runners may want to consider running this race: 
  • There is the option for a half, where the MCM offers only the full or a 10K. 
  • The cost is much less, the early registration for Civilians is only $45 for the half and $60 for the full. 
  • The field is smaller, however the medal is too. This is the trade-off for the fee for those that run ONLY for bling. 
Don’t get me wrong, I loved MCM and would do it again – but for those wanting or needing an alternative – this is one that should definitely be considered! 
Post race amenities at the race were well organized. After receiving my medal and water, I got a Peanut Butter Honey Banana Popsicle from Planet Pops, which I devoured while I waited while in line for my massage at the recovery tents.  This thing was AMAZING. Full disclosure, after my massage I went back and tried one of their other flavor, Raspberry Lemonade. 
I did a little research and found that these are hand made, artisan ice pops. Their only store is in Downtown Columbus, and the next time I am driving through I will stop in to try another flavor… looking at the flavor list, the Coffee and Cream pop is a must to try!!! 
A long food line offered hot sausage and cheese burritos, hamburgers, chips, candy, bagels with peanut butter and jelly, soda, Gatorade .. the line seemed to go on forever, but ended with a giant cooler filled with ice cold Michelob Ultra!
Sitting down to stretch, I saw a familiar face. I chatted with this woman (who I have now identified on the Half Fanatics Facebook Page as Suzane Daphne) about races we have been at together. 
Turns out she is another runner from Florida, who I had just run with the two weekends prior. We quickly learned we would see each other again the following weekend in St. Augustine. You cannot live in this runners world for two long without this happening, and it is so fun when it does! 
I loved everything about this run. Walking to my car I stopped and listened to the soldiers who were cheering the full marathon finishers around the final curve. There is something so humbling about listening to these brave men and women in honor shouting out praise, admiration and encouragement. It was my honor to run this race, next year – I will take on the full. 

The North Face Endurance Challenge: Pine Mountain

The North Face Endurance Challenge can be summed up in one concise thought:

As my 44th half marathon, it was hands-down the hardest race I have ever completed – and by far my favorite race to date. 
In honest reflection I know that I did not necessarily choose this race for the right reasons. When you are running 52 races in 365 days – often trying to do weekend doubles –  factors like date and proximity drive the decision making process. 

Needing a Sunday race, this weekend, that worked with my Saturday half in Darlington, SC had left me with limited options. 

My budget required that I stay about an hour away in the small town of Newnan- making the drive to Pine Mountain early in dark of morning. 

I had posted these race directions to my Facebook page a few days before the race when I was getting ready – I commented on the first aid station being at mile 5.3 – and drew attention to the final line of the instructions: “This section seems to be the longest and never ending 2.6 miles. The last .25 is in the field of the event site so keep some juice in the tank to kick in at the field where everyone will be watching.” 

Funny, I thought. Little did I know what was coming. 

The shuttle location was in a dark parking lot, on an unlit road with a VERY small sign.  I passed it twice before I saw another car pull in and took a gamble that anyone else out here at this time was also headed to the race.  I do not like feeling rushed on race morning, and knowing I needed to both get my packet and check a bag, I was nervous about time. 

The waiting school bus quickly took us to the start and the anxious nerves instantly dissipated when I reached what we reached the very impressing start line village. A large circle of tents set up for vendors and services sat in the glow of the start/finish gate. Nestled in the middle were multiple fire pits. The welcome brisk morning invited the early arrives to huddle around them, trading stories of how they came to the decision to run this race.

The packet pickup and bag drop were at the same location and took a matter of seconds.  The high quality North Face technical shirts could be screen printed on sight with the race distance and date – while I skipped this option I was perused those which had been dropped off the previous day and was impressed with the work. 
Wandering the runners village I was drawn to the recovery tent.  Packed with pre and post race nutrition – I imagine this had been a fascinating place to be the previous day when the full marathon, 50k and 50 mile races had taken place. 
Immediately next to this was an Ice bath station.  I should have known when I saw this what I was in for. 
With the sun now up and the crowd growing my excitement began to build. Not only was this my first double of the season – we would be sent off by the encouraging words of one of the greatest men distance running has ever known – the ultramarathon man himself, Dean Karnazes
Hurrying to put my phone away after we took off – I accidentally snapped this shot. It was a happy accident, because with the time clock looming over me and the difficulty of this course, I did not take out my phone for the duration of the race.  Needless to say – no pictures could have done this course justice. It was breathtakingly beautiful.

The beauty however is not the only thing that took my breath away, the massive climbs and rough terrain quickly separated the pack, and throughout the race a handful of us pushed forward with every bit of endurance we could muster. 

Running most of the race with a woman named Heather – we traded stories of success and challenge, discovering that we have been at many events together – as well as future races we have planned. Even though this race was handing our egos to us on a silver platter – there was talk of training for the 50K race a year from now. 

I fell twice, hitting my hand hard both times, ripping the knee of my running pants and taking a good about of skin off my right leg. After the second fall my hand began to swell – I commented to Heather that I was just happy it was my hand and not my knee. As long as nothing happened to sideline me from future races.

The reality that my shoes were not made for this terrain was painfully obvious.  Not a seasoned trail runner – I had worn my road shoes on this trail – big mistake. I asked Heather how many pairs of North Face Trail Shoes they sell from runners that are battered and bruised after they complete this course. 

The route was IMPECCABLY marked. At any moment where we even began to wonder if we were on the right path we instantly saw the multi-colored ribbons answering the unasked question. The three aid stations were filled with gels, chews, and fluids. The volunteers at these stops made us feel the victory of our accomplishment with their encouraging words. 
The words from the instructions echoed in me – those last 2.6 miles were the longest I have ever run… I knew I was pushing the 4 hour time limit and I ached with every step.  My feet were wet my hand was throbbing – but as I crossed that field, the announcer was there – microphone in hand to congratulate me by name.  Finishers medal around my neck – I went directly to the medical tent to get ice 

I made a lot of mistakes before this race – and I paid for it the week following. 

There are a few things I know for certain – I will be back, I can’t wait to see how training right will impact my performance on my return. 

My new shoes – already ordered from the North Face Website, as we speak should help greatly. 

As fate would have it… they coordinate beautifully with my brand new Half Fanatic Diva shirt!

 The history of this event, as described by its founders is to “build lasting relationships with runners by creating an authentic experience with the North Face brand”. For me they have done exactly that.