When my friend, Amanda (who lives in Nashville), told me she wanted to train and run her first 13.1, I gladly volunteered to run it as well. I poked around on the Web and somehow found the Scenic City Half Marathon in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in late February. It was on a date that would work well for her schedule, it was close-ish to the Music City, and it slid right into my training plan for Flying Pig (with minimal rearrangement). We were set, and she began her training regimen. But like it has a tendency to do, life got in the way. Due to impending job interviews, she had to back out near the end of her training.
I was still determined to run the race. I’d already paid for it, and I was curious to see where my new-found speed would take me. I’ve set some goals for PRs this year, and I’ve been training harder than ever before. That means lots of hills and speedwork – two things I used to avoid.
I took off work Friday and drove down to get a good night’s rest before the game. Packet pick-up was held at the historic Chattanooga Choo Choo, which is a thing that exists. I think it was an old train station that’s been converted into a convention center-type building and maybe a hotel. I’m not really sure. There’s a Wikipedia page you could read if you’re really concerned.
The race field isn’t that big, so I was curious about how well-organized the event would be. I walked into the Choo Choo and discovered a mini expo of sorts. There was a staff full of happy volunteers helping people in neat, alphabetical lines. That’s where I met Courtney, a friendly volunteer who let me know she would be manning a turnaround point during the race.
It had been raining for several days prior to race day in the Chattanooga area, yet despite a dampness in the air, it wasn’t cold. I checked the weather one last time before falling asleep, and there was a 20% chance of precipitation the next morning. Rain isn’t such a big deal for those of you without glasses. But for those of us with vision that isn’t the best, running in the rain sucks. It’s annoying. You’re constantly trying to wipe water and/or condensation out of your line of vision.
Despite the comfy beds of the downtown Marriott (thank you, Priceline), I found myself in familiar night-before-a-race territory: waking up every hour. I finally rolled out of bed at 6:45 and got ready. Even with the lack of sleep, I wasn’t tired. My hotel was half of a mile from the start line at Finley Stadium, home of the UT Chattanooga Moccasins football team. The walk added a built-in warm-up to my morning.
There was a 5K race going off 15 minutes after the start of the half, so there were a ton of people milling about outside the stadium and inside a pavilion across the street. And since I didn’t know a single person running either race, I just wandered around taking pictures and generally acting creepy.
When we lined up for the race, organizers had placed people holding pace markers behind the start line. It was a great touch – especially combined with the repeated warnings to line up correctly. I stood next to the 9:00/mile pace marker – the first time I would try to run that fast for this long. With blatant disregard for some of Dan Solera’s Rules for Racing, I fully expected to PR this race. Even more than that, I wanted to finish in under 2:00:00 for the first time.
After rousing renditions of both God Bless the USA AND The Star Spangled Banner (Nooga don’t mess around), we were off. The course followed the curve of the Tennessee River around the western side of Chattanooga before curling up into the bluff areas north of downtown. We ran past the Tennessee Aquarium and up a fairly large hill – all on a four-lane highway. After cresting the top of the incline, we began a gradual descent toward an industrial part of the city east of downtown. I recently bought a Garmin to track my pacing, and around mile 3, I glanced down to see I was running in the mid-to-upper 8s. I panicked slightly because I always have a tendency to start races way too fast and burnout toward the end. I needed to find a pacer – and fast.
As I’m wont to do, I name the runners who are pacing around me in a race. There was Vol, a woman who, despite not wearing a single article of orange clothing, reminded me of a Tennessee Volunteers fan. She kept spitting like crazy over and over. And there was That Guy, who was pacing just ahead of me and for whom I didn’t feel like putting forth the effort to give an actual name. Sorry, That Guy.
And then there was Connie. I didn’t name her that. Several people had shouted out to her, and she was a spunky little woman who was cruising along with little effort. At mile 4, I took a quick water/walk break and then decided to approach her to see if we could be race friends. Our conversation went something like this:
“‘I’ve heard people yelling, ‘Go Connie’ at you. Is your name Connie?”
“How fast are you running this?”
“I lined up with the 10:00 pacers, but I’m going faster than that. You?”
“I’d like to run a 9:00 pace. I’m looking for a pacing buddy.”
“Cool. Let’s do that.”
Hold up a minute. This woman lined up with the 10:00 group, and on a whim, she decides to trim off an entire minute? Well, okay. Let’s do that then.
Like I said, Connie is a slight woman, but she has a big personality. She talked and talked about Chattanooga, pointed out where she worked, commented on the course and the revitalization of the areas where we running, and gave me restaurant tips for after the race. The conversation made the miles melt away, and before I knew it, we were climbing a steep hill back into the arts district. We were running somewhere in the 8:50 range, and I still felt awesome. I took a walk break when I felt I needed it, and then caught back up.
We crossed the Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge into the North Shore area of Chattanooga, ran for a short stretch down a gentrifying street, and turned back toward downtown across Veterans Bridge. At the end of the bridge, we began to retrace our steps back to where we started. I took one last walk break through a water stop, but Connie continued on. With less than two miles remaining, I was thrilled to have some legs left. At mile 12, I decided to pick it up a bit, and my last split was the fastest of the race.
I made one last turn back toward the start/finish line and glanced at the clock. I was elated (even though my Garmin had let me know I’d probably hit my goal).
Official chip time: 1:55:54
I had PR’d by nearly 20 minutes. I was so happy that I gave myself an uber-douchey fistpump. Volunteers cut off my shoe chip and placed the medal around my neck. Connie finished about 30 seconds ahead of me (and won her age group). And Amanda had come down from Nashville and saw me finish, which was awesome.
After stretching and showering, Amanda and I headed out to grab some food and check out the city. We took a free trolley toward the river and the arts area. Chattanooga is not what I expected. There seems to be a huge investment in preserving the historic parts of the city while complementing them with modern touches.
The people were friendly, and that seemed especially true for the race volunteers/organizers. I can’t say enough good things about how well this race was run, and if you ever want to run a fun half in a cool city, I would recommend Scenic City in a minute.
Keep running, friends.