Running Stories

Southern Hospitality

Registration for this marathon literally took months as I waited for running partner Kevin Krause to decide on the next marathon after our March 2010 run in New Jersey. I went on to do 3 other marathons while always telling him, “Let me know when you sign up for another and I am in!” Kevin enjoyed several months off while occasionally discussing potential races. Since it was his daughter’s last year in high school cross country competition, talk increasingly focused on a December marathon. Finally, on September 23rd AFTER Kevin had registered, I paid my money for the Rocket City Marathon in Huntsville, Alabama on December 11th. Five marathons in one year would be an all time high.

When I signed up, I had what I thought was a good idea. I would fly to Washington, D.C. for the winter board meeting of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. As the Michigan representative to the board, I could easily fulfill my obligations from December 5th to the 9th. At its conclusion, I would simply fly from DC to Huntsville to meet up with Kevin, run the marathon and drive home. So, flights were booked and a running plan was mapped out.

After a recovery week following a marathon in Moline, Illinois on Sept 26th, Mary and I went over to participate in the Betsie Valley Half Marathon, a fundraiser for the Thompsonville, Michigan library fund, on October 3rd. Mary walked in the 5K and I ran the 10K. To my surprise, I felt extremely good and posted a 10K time of 49:59. The fall scenery on a beautiful sunny day was a great way to kick off my marathon training.

Training over the next 2 months continued to go well. Wednesday trail runs around the Brown Bridge pond got faster and faster. Long runs around the Kingsley area were consistently strong. The 15 to 16 mile runs were particularly good, especially in November. The last mile was usually the fastest mile. The mileage of 4 previous marathons ended up to have a positive effect. Making sure to use the rest days in the plan wisely, I felt like my 48 year old body was stronger than ever rather than breaking down.

I got to my national board meeting without a hitch except for the weather. The lake effect snow machine had kicked in over Michigan and our house in particular. Each night I called Mary, each night we had more snow and each night I felt even more guilt sinking in. Mother Nature was messing with my previous “good idea” to the tune of some 30 inches of snow. Committed and with a bit of a head cold, I headed to the airport on Thursday, December 9th.

During my late afternoon layover in Atlanta, I called Kevin to check on his progress. He had made it to Huntsville a few hours earlier. He briefly commented on how friendly everyone was treating him. We had experienced similar southern hospitality in November 2009 when we traveled to Georgia. We agreed that southern hospitality was real and not a myth or one time phenomenon.

Sitting down on the small commuter plane that would take me from Atlanta to Huntsville, I struck up a conversation with the gentleman sitting next to me. He introduced himself as Bob Lee. Seeing what must have been a strange look on my face, he explained, “Yes, that’s Robert Lee. It is the south you know!” He went on to explain that he was not a direct relative of the famous general. For obvious reasons, his name was simply a popular one below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Bob was returning from a couple weeks working on military defenses in Alaska. He explained that Huntsville was home to a large part of the nation’s defense industry hence the reason for the name “Rocket City”. Over the next hour, we continued to talk by moving the conversation to jobs, running and family.

When he offered to give me a ride to my hotel because it was on his way home and he didn’t want to see me waste my money on a taxi, I quickly accepted. An hour into our meeting he was no longer a stranger and, after all, it was the south. His wife Lisa was also a great ambassador for Huntsville. They suggested that I go to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center the next day. Lisa also informed me that Huntsville had the largest number of PHDs per capita in the nation. In Huntsville, you see, it IS Rocket Science! Upon arrival at my hotel, Bob got out to set my luggage on the curb and shake hands. It was truly southern hospitality at its finest. He was tired from a 24 hour journey home, had not seen his wife in 2 weeks and still took the time to be polite.

The next morning, Kevin and I asked the desk clerk for a local breakfast recommendation. We ended up at the Blue Plate Café in Huntsville. It is a 50s styled diner with great food and a strong number of locals at the breakfast hour. We witnessed one such gentlemen getting out of his car with vanity plates that read, “Wizard”. He looked every bit the part of a Rocket Scientist and PHD!

After a brief drive around town, visit to the local running store and a Wendy’s baked potato for lunch, we made our visit to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. Not wanting to be on our feet for more than a couple hours the day before a marathon, we didn’t have enough time to take in all the 1500 exhibits. The biggest highlight was walking under and around a complete Saturn V rocket. Outside (yes, the Saturn V was completely enclosed inside a building!), there was also a more modern “full stack” in the form of the Space Shuttle Orbiter, external stack and 2 solid rocket boosters. A SR-71 Blackbird sat in the parking lot. This is a U.S. Air Force spy plane that once flew coast-to-coast in less than 68 minutes. It was a quick up close look at the evolution of our country’s space travels and a peek at many different rockets developed in Huntsville over the years.

Back at the hotel, we just had to stroll down the stairs and around the corner to the race expo. A local vendor had a great sale on running clothes. All items were $10 each. Running garments were literally flying off the hangers. I came to my senses after about $80 worth of items, all for family (still carrying around some guilt). I was disappointed to find that my race shirt was too large. I didn’t expect them to replace it as the custom is to wait until after the race to see what is left over. After casually mentioning how much I liked the shirt and how far away Michigan was, I did convince them to make an early switch. Southern hospitality strikes again!

At 3:30 pm, we joined a small group of runners for a leisurely 3 mile run through some of Huntsville’s historic district. Our guide was a local runner and helicopter engineer. We learned that the pond across the road from our Holiday Inn was actually the pond around which Huntsville was founded by John Hunt in 1805. Originally, the name for the new community was Twickenham. The name was not well liked and later changed to Huntsville. Many area businesses still incorporate “Twickenham” into their names however. We jogged past the birthplace of Taloula Bankhead and also Alabama’s first bank. It was a good way to stretch the legs and get a feel for the community we would be running through the next morning.

Huntsville is in the central time zone so an alarm really wasn’t necessary on the morning of the race. We were both up by 5 a.m. with 4 hours to kill. Sadly, the head cold I had been fighting for the last couple of days was still with me and cause for some concern. I always want race day to be “perfect” on all levels but it never is in one way or another. So, this was just something to be dealt with as best possible.

Our hotel was packed with runners as the start line was right outside. With temps around 45 degrees at the start, southerners used to their warm climate were trying to stay warm until the last minute. Being “Yankees” from up north, Kevin and I opted to leave the hats and gloves in the car. The weather was near perfect, especially if the predicted rain held off until the afternoon.

Finally, the 1500+ runners were unleashed to the streets of Huntsville. Once again, I was off to chase my marathon “moby dick” the ever elusive sub 4 hour mark. I needed to maintain a 9:10 per mile pace and despite the head cold and long week on the road, I felt relatively good.

Wearing our Marathon4Kids race shirts, Team M4K ran together. Consistency was the theme of the day as the miles clicked off at 8:57, 8:59, 8:54, 8:59 and 8:58. This took us through the historic district, around the pond and through residential neighborhoods. As advertised, the course was mostly flat with only some small hills. Every time it looked like we may have a big climb the course would take a left or right to a flatter road.

Miles continued to click off, 9:07, 8:49, 8:59, 8:58, 8:59, 8:57, 9:07 and 9:00. We were running strong at the half way mark. I was almost 2 minutes ahead of my goal. I chewed a Cliff Bar for some on the run carbs. A passing runner commented on our shirts so I explained the goal of raising money for Big Brothers Big Sisters. He got a surprised look on his face when I mentioned Traverse City, Michigan. He exclaimed, “I am from Empire!” The man went on to explain that he had left the area 20 some years earlier. Regardless, the marathon world is certainly a small one.

Huntsville continued to float by as we took advantage of some good downhill grades. The pace slowed ever so slightly as we posted mile times of 9:08, 8:45, 9:05, 9:05, 8:45 and 9:03. Still, with 19 miles behind us, I added a bit more to my time cushion. The 4 hour pace group was still somewhere in the distance behind us.

The proverbial and dreaded marathon “wall” arrived in mile 20. I started to get a little nauseated and let Kevin go on ahead. Struggling to fight through it, I kept him within eyesight as I posted 9:27, 9:27 and 9:18 over the next 3 miles. Sadly, I wasn’t winning the fight however.

Somewhere in mile 23 while the route joined back up with earlier parts of the course, the 4 hour pace group passed me. I couldn’t stay with them and my heart sank as “moby dick” once again disappeared beneath the surface of the scattered marathon runners stretching out before me. Mentally, I checked out of the fight. Verbally, I muttered a few choice expletives. Physically, I began to walk. I convinced myself to save some energy, enjoy what is left of the day and prepare for the 780 mile car ride home. I finished mile 23 in 12:08.

The next 3 miles were a combination of shuffling, walking and wondering if I ever would get under the 4 hour mark in the future. I spent time trying to imagine how I could get in better shape than I was. The nausea and diarrhea were bad enough at mile 24 I needed to take advantage of a porta-potty strategically placed along the route. This stop was at a small park. Resuming my journey, I watched a young boy who was maybe 5 or 6 years old join his father for the last couple miles of the race. We spent some time passing each other as the youngster needed to walk. It was refreshing to see a father who was worried more about time with his son than the time on his watch. Rejuvenated, albeit ever so slightly, I did pass them by (about all I passed in the final miles!). The final 3 were a consistent but disappointing 13:59, 13:57 and 12:38.

The all important .2 miles arrived mercifully on the other side of the Holiday Inn at which it began. Twickenham, Huntsville, Rocket City, marathon 17 and state 16 was over. My watch read 4:16:52, a respectable time for me despite the struggles. I was handed a nice finishers running hat and a volunteer put the medal over my neck. I didn’t think I was that bad off but the volunteer who draped me in the post race tinfoil blanket for warmth also asked if I needed help to sit down. My pride politely shook off this offer of southern hospitality.

Without stopping, I shuffled off to our hotel room fighting through the throngs of finishers warming up inside and getting something to eat. All I had the appetite for was a shower (the last act of southern hospitality – a late hotel check out – a marathoner’s best friend) and a car headed north. Kevin was in the room and showered. He had finished in 4:03. Cleaned up, we pointed the car north at 2 p.m. EST.

Normally, the story would end here. The “rest of this story” lies in our race to beat a winter storm home. Over the past couple days, a blizzard had inched its way across the Dakotas, Minnesota and it now sat in Wisconsin. Kevin drove the first shift while I checked the weather radar on my Ipad. Almost the whole state of Wisconsin was covered in snow and moisture stretched all the way down to Alabama.

Trading places behind the wheel every 2 hours, stopping for just one meal and a few tanks of gas, we made good time. It rained almost the entire 660 miles to Grand Rapids, Michigan. There, 120 miles from home, we lost our race to beat the snow BUT most importantly NOT the wind.

Roads were slick and snow packed but visibility was relatively good. Driving cautiously anywhere from 25-40 mph, it took 3 hours to cover the final distance. It was 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, December 12th when we pulled up to the end of my home road, Palomino Drive. The wind had begun to pick up and the drifts were too much to risk going down the road in Kevin’s car. With 7 days of dirty (and sweaty) clothes in my hands and slung over my shoulders, I made the hike in the foot deep snow down the road to home. As glad as I was to be home, Mary was doubly as glad to have me take over the snow blowing chores!

In closing, the Rocket City Marathon was a very well run event. Huntsville had a great feel. We left with nothing but good memories of our brief visit. After each state, I ask myself if I would ever want to return for a longer visit. Huntsville gets a resounding, “YES”. It was clean, well organized and full of friendly people. Now, will I leave Mary behind for another December marathon? To that, I say a resounding, “NO!”

A couple days after the race, I received a message of congratulations from Bob and Lisa Lee, my escorts from the airport on my FaceBook page for Marathon4Kids. They had taken the time to search for my results in the paper. While hundreds of miles separate our two regions of the country, the World Wide Web extends the reach of honest southern hospitality. It’s not Rocket Science. It’s just good people doing what comes naturally.