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Dodging cancellation hurdles to make 50th marathon memorable

By R.L. Bynum

WARNER ROBINS, Ga. — The pandemic and climate change sometimes make it challenging to just get to the starting line for a marathon.

I trained for months to run the Charleston Marathon, which was scheduled for Saturday, but it got canceled because of pandemic-related staffing shortages. I know of one runner who trained for Charleston and switched to Sunday’s Jekyll Island Marathon, only to have that canceled as well because of a terrible weather forecast.

I planned to run the San Francisco Marathon in 2020 and 2021 but it got canceled both years because of the pandemic. Hopefully, I get to run that race in July.

I was able to switch to the Museum of Aviation Marathon, which was scheduled for the same day as Charleston would have been run. I was fortunate in many ways. We got ideal conditions for the race, which was my 50th marathon, (38 degrees at the start and 46 degrees at the finish with partly sunny skies), and it would have been a cold, rainy mess if it had been run Sunday.

After getting temperatures in the 60s at the Battleship N.C. Marathon on Nov. 8, 2020, and rain with plenty of standing water at the Oak Island Marathon on Feb. 13, 2021, it was nice to get decent weather.

I was so bummed out when the Charleston Marathon got canceled because my training had gone so well. It would have been very frustrating if I didn’t have a payoff for my good training. And the payoff was thrilling.

I won my age group and easily earned a Boston Marathon qualifying time with a time of 3 hours, 47 minutes and 52 seconds. I finished 22nd overall and all 21 runners who finished ahead of me are younger.

It was the first time in 5½ years that I finished a marathon without walking and my best time since finishing the Sunburst Marathon in South Bend, Ind., on May 31, 2014, in 3:43:33.

While it was a longer drive to get to Warner Robins and the course wasn’t as scenic as Charleston, it was mostly flat and the organizers did a superb job.

The double-loop course starts and finishes outside of the Museum of Aviation, with nearly all of the course going through Robins Air Force Base. If you need crowds to keep you going, this isn’t your race.

On Friday, we got there early enough to tour the museum and I channeled Rob Gronkowski in those USAA commercials. I knew that packet pickup on Friday was only available to military and dependents. Since I was there anyway, I went over to see if I could get my packet and, as I expected, I had to wait until race morning.

You get the solitude of a solo long training run with the mentality of a race. There were times when I couldn’t see anybody in front of me or behind me, be it a runner, race official or base employee. That’s where my running mix of music was helpful.

Also helpful was the fast course. There are some decent and testing hills toward the end of each loop but nothing I hadn’t dealt with during my months of training on the hills of Durham.

Running marathons is always a balance between grandiose time goals and fear that going out too fast will lead to an unpleasant last few miles.

I’ve had my share of frustrating finishes in recent years, so I was determined not to go out too fast. Over the first couple of miles, it felt like I was driving 35 mph on an interstate highway. I was full of energy but also determined not to go out too fast, targeting an 8:45 per mile pace.

I started with miles of 8:41, 8:35 and 8:46, so I was happy to down-shift and not use too much energy early. I only ran eight miles slower than 8:45 pace.

There is a clear conclusion that also leads to much speculation from me because my two of my fastest three miles were mile 26 (8:21) and mile 25 (8:11). Not going out too fast paid off.

Logic tells me that going out faster wouldn’t have been good for me at the end of my race. But there is always that question: Could I have run a better time if I had shifted to a higher gear earlier?

I decided at around mile 18 that I was done holding back and started pushing. I ran an 8:18 mile 19 before dealing with the late-loop hills, which led to successive miles of 8:40, 8:37 and 8:50.

After running on those hills during the first loop, I knew that, if I was struggling, it wouldn’t be fun scaling them on the second loop.

It was so satisfying to crush those hills. While I have plenty of sympathy for the several people walking because I’ve been in that situation, it was nice to be the one running past the walkers rather than the reverse.

It was a fairly boring course for the most part, with large planes providing the most interesting views. On each loop, you also run across the runway. But at least the hills were coupled with the most scenic part of the course. There were two pretty ponds, a golf course, a horse farm (with a sign telling you not to feed the horses because they might bite you).     

After the race, it was another race to get a shower at the motel and start the drive back to the Triangle to cover UNC’s home men’s basketball game with Georgia Tech. The game started at 8 p.m. and I got there minutes before it started.

It was a capper to a satisfying weekend.

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