My Other Hometown Marathon - The Inaugural Little Rock Marathon/Relays
By Mark Higginbotham
Growing up as an Army brat, I think I lived everywhere once. I was fortunate to have been able to complete grades 10-12 in one place: North Little Rock, Arkansas. My mom and little brother David live in Little Rock, so I was really looking forward to this race.
My plan was to run and walk the Little Rock Marathon as an easy endurance-building training run, and experiment with pacing and energy management using my HRM (heart rate monitor).
Having scouted the course last month, I knew it would be a good, hilly, training run. I was also very excited about running by the Arkansas State Capitol, where my mom used to work, and the Arkansas School for the Deaf campus, where my late father had been the superintendent. The course goes right by my mom's condo twice, on the out and back segment. And, I was really looking forward to running past mom's church, Pulaski Heights Baptist. Since the course ran right in front of the church's front steps, their plans for an informal Sunday morning service included joyful marathon choir singing and cheering.
Mom had prepared lasagna and an eggplant casserole, with a terrific salad and bread. My mama really loves me! She and my father-in-law, Trezzy, had never seen me run a marathon. Tracye made two posters: A "Go Memphis In Motion" poster, and one that said, "Run Mark Run!" My wife really loves me!
Trezzy took me over to the expo Saturday afternoon, where I scored some $45.00 Asics trail shoes and completed my registration. I introduced him to Bill Rodgers, whom I had met in March. Trezzy, 73, who has a wonderful sense of humor, told Rodgers, "You won't have to worry about me tomorrow; I have decided not to run this time." Bill said he had a great time at the Germantown Half and hopes to return.
Trezzy and I drove to the starting area at 6:30 a.m. The race started at 7:00. It was 63 degrees, with 79% humidity. Perfect. Not! Thank goodness it was overcast. News helicopters where hovering on both ends of the staging area, waiting for some great "Eye-in-the-Sky" shots of the over-the-bridge start. Someone told me (unofficially) that the marathon drew over 2,700 participants, including the relay.
I saw my teammates Jennifer Jones, Laura Simpson, and Billy Gray. Billy introduced me to his brother, Kevin, who was running his first marathon. I gave him some unsolicited advice in hopes of helping Billy corral his early-race exuberance. Laura did a half-marathon relay with her dad, Joe Simpson.
When the gun went off, I started walking forward from the very back of the pack. As I passed some walkers, I got reacquainted with Arkansans I had met when I attended Dave McGovern's race walking clinic here two years ago. Some of them were walking their first marathon. They all remember me because I was "The Runner" who was attempting to "try" to race-walk. It wasn't pretty.
As we crossed the bridge over the Arkansas River and headed into North Little Rock, the fire department had positioned their ladder truck by the end of the bridge, with the ladder extended way out over the road. There, perched twelve feet overhead in the bucket, was the mayor, reading the names off of our race bibs and yelling enthusiastically into a bullhorn, "Mark! Welcome to North Little Rock! Have a great race! There's Patti. Go Patti!" Two miles later, before we crossed back over into Little Rock, he had relocated to another street and cheered us on our way again. Now, that's good politickin'.
We ran through the River Market and on through a neighborhood with beautiful, old architecture. Then I came upon a young lady (in a 4-person relay) who was grimacing noticeably in pain. I slowed down and asked her, "Are you okay?" She replied, "My hamstrings are really tight. I've only been running for four months." I suggested that she shorten her stride, run tall, and pull her hips more up under her. She looked down and drew her thoughts inward momentarily while making the adjustments. The stress went away. She looked back over at me real quick with this look of true amazement, as if to ask: how did you help me do that? Before she could ask, I said, "I coach runners. Have a good relay and keep running."
The course continued on past the governor's mansion and historic Central High School en route to the capitol. I remember looking up at how brightly its golden dome shined even on an overcast day.
Soon I was running up Markum Street, past dad's old school. Mixed with sorrowful tugs of my heart for the loss of my dad were wonderful memories of the times we would walk over to the school's Olympic-sized indoor swimming pool for a family swim. We had the place all to ourselves. Mom orchestrated many large and memorable family reunions and Christmases at their home, which was on campus.
Now I was going up some pretty good hills. They were getting longer. Arkansas is the "Natural State," so naturally if you do not train right, you will not have much fun on a hilly course. Four months of stair climbing, and getting my weight down to 202, had me feeling hill-ready and hill-fit. As I approached an area called "The Heights", I started up a really long, gradual, and winding grade. I mixed walking with running according to my HR. A few neighbors came out to cheer everyone up the hill.
My excitement grew as I neared mom's church. Long before I could see it, I heard their enchanting church bells chiming out wonderful old Baptist hymns. This prompted surreal memories of my first marathon, where I was in an altered state of mind at mile 23 on Union Avenue, with church bells ringing, while I felt as if I were moving in extreme slow motion. Suddenly I heard loud cheers from the huge crowd up ahead and spotted the posters. I stopped to kiss Tracye and my Mom, and high-fived David and Trezzy. This was the highlight of my marathon, and the best crowd support along the route.
Next I ran through a beautiful area with many shops and nightspots, including The After Thought, where my brother (a professional bass player and singer) frequently plays jazz with his trio.
After a hard right turn, the course drops down hill for one mile. I made up some time. About two-thirds of the way down, I passed greenie Sarah Harris and her friend Patti, without knowing it. Sarah screamed, "Mark!" I eased on the brakes and asked, "What happened to that 5.5 hour easy pace you gals were planning?" (Sarah had run Boston hard two weeks prior). I don't think they were going too fast, I was just really going easy. We stayed together for a half-mile, and then I let them go on while I took a longer walk break to rest my legs after running semi-fast down "the mountain."
Soon I was passing mom's condo and my family and some of their neighbors were out front cheering enthusiastically as I approached. They were on the opposite side of the road. I crossed over, hustling to get out of the way of a fast approaching runner with excellent form. It was Bill Rodgers. I said, "Way to go Bill!" He pointed at me as he ran by and yelled, "You're looking good! Have a great race!" Mom goes, "Was that Bill Rodgers?"
I laughed and joked, "Yeah, that's my buddy Bill."
I headed into the familiar, flat down-and-back portion of the course, which I had run on several occasions whenever I was in town visiting my mom. My cruise control was now set at a comfortable 10:45 pace, including walk breaks at each mile marker. At mile 17, I passed Patti and Sarah. Patti had really slowed down and Sarah was cheerfully encouraging her on.
I passed speedy greenie Tim Verner, saw my friend Tom Webb, and then passed Joe, Billy, and Kevin heading back as I was going out. They all looked great! I somehow missed Jennifer. She had a wonderful, emotional second marathon. After the race she wrote, "I just ran into my husband's arms where he had fresh flowers waiting for me, and I kissed my little girl, and put my medal around her neck."
Heading into mile 19, I noticed my hips and lower back were a little tight, but I was moving efficiently. My right heel was beginning to talk back to me after mile 20, so I took a short stretch break. As I was stretching out the back, this guy kneeled down beside me and mirrored my position. I was in a half-squat position, and was hanging onto a guardrail while pulling back on my outstretched arms to pop and stretch my lower back. He said, "Does that work? I said, "Yeah, but drop your rear down lower and pull back hard." As I got up and moved on, I heard him going, "Oh man, this feels so good!"
I greeted Pam Fant, and encouraged Barbara Colton, who was running with a newfound marathon friend. My walking friends were coming by now, and we exchanged mutual encouragement.
My fueling, electrolytes, and hydration were fine, but I was feeling the gradual energy robbing effects of heat fatigue. My Camel-Bak had been sucked dry way back at mile 16, so I kept pouring water into my body using a 20-ounce water bottle, and refilling it at every opportunity. Had the sun come out and stayed out, it would have been brutally hot on this open road. Mr. Sun had peeked through the clouds earlier, but then he mercifully stayed hidden for the rest of the day.
My pace had slowed by mile 22. The temperature was in the high 70's, and my HR was high, so I switched to a steady, slower running pace, and took walk breaks every five minutes. I was cruising easy now at 12-minute per mile pace. For about five miles, this tiny, redheaded lady had stayed in front of me. She would run real strong and bouncy at a good pace for about two minutes and then she would walk for thirty seconds. I was slowly reeling her in with my steady pace and longer walks. As I passed her and several other runners, I noticed their breathing was very labored. Most were struggling in the heat and humidity at the back of the pack. My feet were tired of pounding the hot asphalt. I used the grass by the side of the road whenever it was available.
When I got back to the condo, I handed Tracye my Camel-Bak and waist belt. David handed me two sweat towels. I toweled off and cleaned my glasses with one, and kept the other with me. I posed for pictures, and then I kept going. "See you at the finish line," I said. There were 2.2 miles to go.
The first mile was flat. The last one was not. About a half mile from the finish line, there is a monster hill that is a quarter of a mile long and really steep (Billy Gray would later write, "The course designer did have a sense of humor - adding a steep hill at mile 25!"). As I was walking fast up that final steep incline, I looked over to my right and saw the bright, shiny dome of the Arkansas Capitol beckoning me home. Now I could smell the finish line. It was hot and sweaty and rank!
At the top of the hill, I turned right and ran up a slight upgrade. I saw Tim there. He was walking back to his car, and we congratulated each other. He later told me, "You had your game face on." I gathered my energy for the sweet victory lap with one last, short walk break near the top of that grade.
Fifty yards ahead, a volunteer was motioning to me to turn right. When I turned the corner, I could see two rows of multi-colored balloons about one hundred and fifty yards ahead, with the capitol looming magnificently in the background. All marathon finish lines are a beautiful sight to finally behold. This one is exceptional. It offered a perfect down hill grade all the way to the finish line!
I ran in strong. Hundreds of spectators lined both sides of the street. They wildly cheered me in - all the way to the balloons. I spotted my family on the left and waved and smiled as I ran by, capping a marvelous workout on a beautiful course, on a hot and memorable day.
Comments posted on our Memphis In Motion Marathon Network, about the Little Rock Marathon/Relays:
Jennifer Jones wrote: "Three words for Little Rock: 1) Beautiful 2) Hilly 3) Impressive."
Laura Simpson wrote: "If you decide you want to do a half-marathon next spring (or even 1/3 or 1/4 of a marathon), they have 2, 3, and 4-person teams), this is a great race. Little Rock is scenic and beautiful, and the crowd support was amazing."
Billy Gray wrote: "We received a finisher's medal and a T-shirt that stated, "I ROCKED", and we did!"
Tim Verner wrote: "It was hilly. It was hot. It was one of the best training marathons I have ever had the pleasure of running. They did a fantastic job." (Tim ran a 3:42, not a bad training run).