Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Race Recap: State #10: Mississippi

Race: Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon
Date: December 11, 2016
Result: 5:44:00

The night before the Iowa race back in October, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when an advertisement popped up for the inaugural Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon.  My Louisiana friends Blaine and Liz were running the half in preparation for their Goofy at Disney World, and my need to get a third race in before the end of 2016 ultimately led me to commit that night. The need to save on costs was also there because of the family Disney World trip being only three weeks after, so I had to go it alone.

After crunching the numbers, I found the cheapest way to get down there was to fly into New Orleans Saturday afternoon and fly back home early Sunday at 5 pm. With a 7 am start time and Biloxi being about 90 minutes away, I worried about the slightest hiccup on race day possibly causing me to miss my flight home, but I thought it was a challenge I was up for.  I thought maybe since there were basically no turns the entire race as well as a totally flat run at sea level, I could get the race done in about 5 1/2 hours. Even if I'm not ready for it, I could always treat it as my long training run for Florida.

Before flying down I thought about watching the Matthew Broderick classic flick Biloxi Blues again (and by classic I mean forgotten) since that was the only thing I knew about Biloxi but never got around to getting a copy on my phone.  The only thing I remember about that movie was that Park Overall was in it, and I had a thing for her in the late 80's.  Now that I think about it, as a 12 year old, I had a thing for any female who was on TV in the late 80's.

"Black, Silver or Orange?" The Avis guy was giving me my pick of color for my car rental. "Uh, whichever's parked the closest, I guess...." A few moments later, I found the push button start of the black Mustang and was peeling out of the parking lot and heading to Biloxi as daylight was quickly giving way. Google maps saved me a half hour by taking me off the congested interstate and I was zooming through quiet two lane roads to get to the expo before dark.

Made it to the motel moments before sunset
After checking in at the Quality Inn Biloxi a few ticks after 5 pm, which I booked since it was next door to the convention center, I hoofed it over to the expo to grab my packet and saved $5 on parking. The parking lot was packed, which I found surprising since there were only a few hours left until the expo closed at 7. Turned out there was a high school cheerleading competition going on in one of the other rooms.  I followed the arrows to the expo and found a cavernous room with far more floor space than vendors and effortlessly picked up my packet as well as a souvenir $25 visor to keep the inevitable sun out of my eyes tomorrow. I didn't stay longer than 10 or so minutes since the last thing I ate was a snack box on the plane for lunch so I made a beeline to the car in search of dinner.

I'm pretty self-conscious when it comes to eating out at a restaurant alone so I decided to grab something fast. There was a mall nearby which gave me a chance to pick up some souvenirs for the kids at home so I wandered the mall in search of some carbs. Surrounded by cheerleaders filling up the other tables around me in an unfamiliar food court, I felt pretty alone sitting there with my greasy three-item combo over noodles from Mandarin Express so I called Mae to see how they were doing. They were visiting my mom for my dad's memorial service and had trouble seeing through the windshield on the drive down since 1) there was a snowstorm that I left behind and 2) the windshield wiper motor was broken.  I also found out that our main shovel broke and she and the kids had to shovel our driveway with the kiddie shovels. I felt even more guilty about being here so I finished my dinner and went to the bookstore to get the kids something. Ironically I settled for some stuffed Pokemon pictured above, assembled in Oak Brook, IL. I was also missing my company holiday party for this, which was also being held in Oak Brook, IL.
pre-race dinner

As I was laying out my clothes for the next day I looked in the envelope that had my bib to make sure there were safety pins in there.  Panic set in as I realized there weren't any.  Oh crap, how the hell am I going to get this bib on me without safety pins?  I chuckled at the idea of going outside in search of four liberals who wore a safety pin as some sort of secret code and taking it from them. In the meantime I texted Blaine to see if he could bring some extras from his home in Metairie since he was driving up in the morning. It was a good thing I did because he didn't realize the last bus for the half left at 6:15 in the morning and they weren't planning on getting here until 6:30.   I set my alarm for 4:00, 4:05, 4:10 and 4:15 and was out like a light before 9.

Good morning Mississippi!
After ignoring all my alarms I managed to get up a little after 5 in the morning.  I studied the map for the first time to see what I was going to be dealing with all morning and into the afternoon. The route ran west to east, from Pass Christian to Biloxi, with 25 miles of uninterrupted beachfront between the two.  The shuttles to the start line left the Coliseum at mile 19, and with a 7 am start, the last shuttle left at 5:45 am.  So much for my free continental breakfast that started at 6 am...  I packed up my gear and checked out of my motel room and went down to the lobby to see if there was any possibility they put out breakfast early at 5:15 in the morning.  No dice on the breakfast, and no staff at all in the lobby.  I printed my boarding pass for my flight that evening, tossed my keycard onto the front desk which landed perfectly on their keyboard and drove next door to the Coliseum parking lot waiting for Blaine and Liz to arrive.  They pulled up right around 5:35 and he came through and saved the day with a handful of safety pins.  Since this was a point to point race we had different buses to get on so we wished each other luck after hurriedly exchanging hellos.

I loaded into the shuttle at 5:40 am and found a seat in the back next to a guy whom I said good morning to and not much else. He seemed pretty focused, or dazed, not sure which.  The 40 minute ride was spent reflecting on the day in front of me, and also eavesdropping on the runners behind me - a guy from North Carolina who is close to Boston Qualifying and younger woman looking to also complete all fifty states were chatting it up most of the way there. That's one thing I noticed about the race - almost everyone I talked to were seasoned veterans at this - one woman was running her 11th this year!

We made it to the start line a few moments before sunrise as I waited and swapped various marathon stories in the bus with a few others that weren't quite ready for the near-freezing temps. I apologized to these runners for bringing down the cold weather with me from Chicago.

As we were staging ourselves for the race I noticed the five hour pacer was wearing a Ragnar shirt and I immediately had to show her my Ragnar socks. We Ragnarians are a crazy breed and an instant connection is made whenever I run into another. We briefly talked about which Ragnars we had conquered and found out we had both done the Napa race where it was really hot. Shannon is a Houston based runner who simply crushes it all over the country. Maybe someday I'll be able to use her talents on a Slightly Unstable Ragnar team!

This was by far the smallest marathon I've ever been a part of. With less than 600 finishers it felt like a friendly neighborhood 5k at the start. Since there was no PA system we all sang the national anthem and began our journey right at 7.  I forgot to turn on my GPS watch and before crossing the start, I hesitated to see if I could locate the satellites first, but went ahead anyway. Good thing I did, because mile after mile I kept checking and I never did lock in a signal. Time to research and upgrade my watch, I guess. It served me well for the last four years.

My watch for 5 hours be like
One day I will break 5 again
Smile for the camera, guys!
The first few miles of the course had us running in front of these big beautiful homes with huge front lawns that looked like plantation homes. The Gulf of Mexico on my right was calm, and the sunlight that gleamed and dazzled off the waters made it too bright to look at directly. The sands were white and this clearest of days made me wish I had brought my sunglasses. Off in the distance beyond the horizon the silhouette of a large waterfront building I assumed was a resort casino loomed and it quickly became my point of focus.  I assumed it was near the finish line in Biloxi and I imagined myself as Stephen King's Roland the Gunslinger, trying to get to the Dark Tower that was beyond his reach. There were no crowds, no funny signs, no spectators besides the police officers blocking off the roads for us, each of whom I thanked. Each volunteer station which was spread out every 1.25 miles was comprised of a folding table of water and a folding table of blue Powerade. The volunteers were great. One station got a little silly and had great energy when they saw I was taking a picture of them.

I spent the first 10k of the race well ahead of a 5:00:00 pace, but my lack of training clearly began to catch up to me around mile 8. That was where Shannon and her crew blew by me and my pace began to drop into the low 11's.  Since I had no GPS watch I was doing lots of math in my head the whole time.

I finally got to my personal Dark Tower but was disappointed to see that it was only mile 13 as I was in Gulfport, where the half marathon started at the same time as the full.  Oh man, this is going to be a long day. It's mentally defeating to see that your eyes on the prize was only looking at the halfway mark. I was also really hungry and all I had to eat was the Acai & Pomegranate Honey Stinger energy gel that they handed to me back near mile 10.  I started counting cones to help pass the time and began calculating how many cones they'd need to cover the course. With a cone every 20 yards, I calculated they put down about 2,500 cones. Then I started thinking about the factory that made the cones, and how long it took to manufacture those cones. Your mind really does wander during these things.

By mile 19 I saw the Coliseum and my car and I thought about just jumping into my car and driving to the finish but in reality there's no way I would intentionally cheat myself out of earning a medal. I just couldn't live with myself.

95% of the course looked like this
The 5:30:00 pacer who was running alone had to stop and wait at the 20 mile marker since he arrived ahead of schedule and he waved me to keep running and push through.  He looked so happy, I thought.  At this point I was doing almost 15 minute miles and calculated and recalculated my finish line ETA and figured it wouldn't be possible to meet up with Blaine and Liz in New Orleans before my flight - I would have to go straight to the airport. You ever watch the Flintstones, and when they're driving in their car, the backgrounds repeat over and over again?  It felt like they were doing that to me with Waffle Houses.  I kept passing Waffle House after Waffle House, with such consistency I could have used them as mile markers. As scenic as the run was, it does become as much a mental grind as a physical one as it felt like I wasn't going anywhere. I started to look out at the water with spite and curse its seeming infinite span.
oh noes - down my phone goes
When I saw the photographer ahead at around mile 23 I picked my pace up so it looked like I was actually running in the pictures. Unfortunately this extra bounce in my step bounced my phone right out of my Camelbak front pocket, tumbling onto the asphalt behind me, forcefully pulling the earbuds right out of my ears. "I hope you got that!" I yelled out to the photog who looked mildly concerned/amused. I did like that they give you the pro pics for free which is such a great benefit. I'm so sick of marathonfoto.com emailing me that my marathon pics are about to expire when I can still find pictures from my first Chicago marathon in 2012..

A final out and back loop for the final mile sent us to the finish line at MGM Park, where the Biloxi Shuckers play AA ball in the Brewers organization.  We ran along the warning track towards first base and I made sure I had enough energy to cross the finish without too much of a struggle. My run was complete! It was a very chill scene, with a band playing in the outfield and plenty of gumbo and sandwiches handed out to all the finishers. After getting my medal and quick picture at the finish line I poured myself a cup full of Coke followed by another full cup of Coke (maybe the two best cups of Coke I ever had) and had to bypass the line for food since I had a flight to catch.  Following the signs to the shuttle, I sprinted towards the bus, running faster than at any point in the race, and was the last rider on as the shuttle returned us to the Coliseum. There was a shared sense of accomplishment that could be tangibly felt throughout that bus.

When I got back to the car, I checked my messages and saw that my flight along with all the other flights to the Midwest had been cancelled. So much for staying on the cheap side of things, as my hotel and car rental costs instantly doubled.  Well, there are worse places to be stranded at. Although famished and completely spent I was able to make the drive back on I-10 to New Orleans without any issues... almost.  I had to pull over for a few minutes and stretch before getting on the highway because the left side of my ribs locked up when I turned to reach into my backpack that was sitting on the driver's seat.  Ouch.
Catfish  meuniere

On the plus side of my flight getting cancelled I did get to have at least one good meal while I was down there and met up with Blaine for a late lunch, my first meal of the day, at Mandina's, a local neighborhood joint in New Orleans. We talked running, racism and Pokemon Go over a fantastic plate of classic creole fare.

I can really see this race growing into something big. It didn't really seem like an inaugural race because it was so well run. The weather was cordial, although we were lucky to have cooler than normal temperatures and it can also be frustrating running into a headwind the entire length of the race.  But it makes sense to finish in Biloxi, so maybe if they made it an out and back from MGM Park along Route 90 it would be an easier race to run and manage. But still, it was a great experience to be a part of.

Registration: $134.06
Flight: $33 (United) after refunded cost of return flight (Spirit)
Hotel: Quality Inn Biloxi Beach: $88.48
Car Rental: $62.93
Gas: $16.40

Unexpected expenses:
2nd hotel night: Hilton Garden Inn New Orleans Hotel $123
Extra day car rental: $75.67
Return Flight: $162 (Delta MSY > ATL > ORD)

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