After months of training and lots of sweat and a few shed tears race day was finally here! I spent the day before the race leading a hike and then driving from Cosby to Knoxville and back home for the expo. While I was kind of stressed that my entire day was consumed by only two things, it helped to keep my mind off the upcoming race. Here is my experience running the Knoxville Marathon. Spoiler alert - I'll be back next year!
PreRace: We arrived about 30 minutes before the start and immediately got in line for the Port-A-Potties. I hopped back in line just in case I'd need it before the race started. Since I've never run for that long before, I wanted to make sure I wouldn't need to use them along the course! After queuing through the line twice, I went over to the starting line to get into my corral. A friend of mine was running as a pacer for the 4:00:00 group, so I ran over and said hello and got some last minute advice from him ("After mile 20 it's going to suck," he says. "Power through and look for the beer cooler at mile 22 and you'll be fine!") The national anthem is sung and then we're off!
Miles 1-3: I tried to stick between the 4 hr and 4:15:00 pace group at the beginning to avoid taking off too fast. The first mile is mostly uphill and then we go down and back up. Undulation is the theme of the Knoxville Marathon - lots of rolling hills! I kept my pace steady for the first mile but was shocked to see I was running a sub 9-minute mile for mile 2. I tried to dial it back a bit before we got to the Sequoyah Hills portion of the race. Mile 3 along Kingston Pike included lots of church goers in their Sunday best cheering for us as we ran by.
Miles 4-7 (Sequoyah Hills): This beautiful neighborhood is part of the Dogwood Trail - a driving tour through Knoxville people take to see the beautiful blooming trees. It's a nicer upscale neighborhood with the greenway system running up the middle of the street. There were a ton of inspirational signs throughout the neighborhood including my favorite sign of the race - "This would be MUCH FASTER if you drove!" There were tons of spectators and cheering sections, snack stops and water stations, and also the first relay exchange station. Another great sign just after the relay exchange said "If you were running the relay you'd already be done!" From here - we ran up a huge hill with a huge reputation - Noelton Drive. Lots of funny signs were here too - and some spectators set up a couch and a firepit with margaritas in their driveway just in case you wanted to go ahead and call it halfway up the hill.
Miles 8-11 (Third Creek Greenway): After exiting the neighborhood out onto Kingston Pike, we ran through the Third Creek Greenway system in Bearden. I loved being here again as I had many a nice walk on this greenway system when I used to live out in Knoxville. The familiar territory was super comforting. The race pack had thinned out a big after climbing Noelton Ave., and my legs were still feeling amazing. By the time we reached Tyson Park I had high fived so many spectators and enjoyed the race so much I was shocked I had already run 10 miles. Around the end of the stretch my stomach was starting to let me know it might be time to take a pit stop, but it wasn't bothersome so I pushed on.
Miles 11-14 (Fort Sanders/World's Fair Park): The hills started feeling harder here. I had been running consistently and comfortably to this point, but I could feel my legs starting to slow down a bit on the uphill here. We ran past the site of an epic house party in the Fort, evidenced by the many abandoned red solo cups and beer bottles (this neighborhood, for those who don't know, is where college students cram as many people into one house as possible while going to UT). There were also what seemed to be tons of turns to take in this neighborhood as we zig-zagged the streets. I think the turns are always harder on my body than the hills are! By the time I finally reached a good downhill stretch they were directing the half runners up the hill and the full marathon runners downhill. I yelled to the volunteers "WHY AM I GOING DOWN?!" and they were laughing and wishing me luck. Holy crap, the race REALLY thinned out now. I continued running down with only 2 runners in my immediate sightline. I crossed the half marathon checkpoint and asked the guy for the time and he just shrugged and said "I don't know? 2:04, 2:05, 2:06, something like that." Seriously dude?
Miles 14-18 (Fourth and Gill, Old City): This is where I met the struggle bus. I desperately needed a bathroom break but after the guy at the half point not even knowing the time (despite having the computer next to him) I was afraid to ask a volunteer where the next rest stop was. Not knowing how much longer I needed to "hold it" probably would have wrecked me. Thankfully around mile 14.7 there was a set of four Port-a-Potties and there were two open ones! No waiting! Afterward I felt much better, but was getting a bad stomachache. For these four miles I struggled, trying to drink water and eat my Honey Stinger chews, walking a little and stretching to try and alleviate my cramp. Around mile 17 the 4:15:00 pace group passed me and I was surprised to see them BEHIND me. I lost them around mile 3 and thought they were ahead. I was a little disheartened because I really wanted to keep up with them, but trying to run too hard on my stomach cramp just made me feel a lot of pain. I alternated walking and running with a couple running their first marathon together so it was nice having some familiar faces with me.
Miles 19-25 (Island Home): After finally alleviating my stomach cramp after alternating with the walk/run method I was finally able to keep running again. I did stop and walk through the water stations on this stretch and I needed to stretch my legs on mile 21 and 24, but I finally was feeling strong again. I also saw my friend who was pacing the 4 hr group and we high fived. By the time I ran through the beautiful Island Home neighborhood (with many supportive spectators and adorable kids giving high fives), I finally felt like I was back to my old running self. Toward the end of this section we ran up Sevier Ave. to Gay Street, and through Market Square. All the spectators here in the square were eating brunch and cheering us on. I also had a traffic cop start cheering for me and telling me I looked strong. This was the rally I needed. Hitting mile 25 there was a view of Neyland Stadium and our finish line and I started getting pretty excited!
Miles 26-26.5 (FINISH!): Running down through the starting line area there were tons of spectators cheering and yelling "almost there!" Usually I hate hearing this, but now I couldn't stop smiling! As we rounded the corner to head down the hill to Cumberland Ave. I remarked to another run this was the most painful downhill I've ever run in my life! From here, there was a smaller than I remember uphill finish into Neyland Stadium. There were a LOT of people walking in this section and I pulled out my phone to text NoKey I was on my way in while dodging the crowds. The last .25 miles of this race were so emotional. I felt the tears and the gasping of breath coming but tried to shake it off as I entered the stadium. I heard the announcer say my name and hometown as I readied to run through the finish and I felt like I had run the entire race. I remember screaming "I DID IT! with my arms raised high. I finished with the couple running their first marathon together and hugged them and congratulated them, as I know they were struggling like I was.
The after party involved me eating a ton of food and chatting with other fellow racers. I met the 4:45:00 pacer and found out he and his father were also going to be running the Millinocket Marathon in December so we talked for a few minutes before heading home. We made the decision to walk back to the car instead of taking the shuttle, which I credit to helping my legs stay loose after the race. I also walked my dog before we went out for a huge dinner at the Chinese place here in town. Other than a few kinks in the middle of the race, I had a really REALLY enjoyable race and I'm so happy I ran my first marathon. The training was long and difficult, but in the end I finished strong and I cannot wait until next year.
Credit, again, goes to my amazing coach Abby from Back At Square Zero. Without her encouragement I really have no idea if this race would have gone as well as it did. If you're thinking about training for a bigger than you're used to race, please check out her site - you'll be glad you did!