The Atlanta Marathon was a tough and hilly city course as Aaron finished under sub-4 to cross Georgia off the state list.
Race Background and Training
When I was first given the idea by Christie to run a marathon in each state, one of her first requests was when we travel to Georgia, that we visit the highly-acclaimed Georgia Aquarium. Even though we both lived in Baltimore (which is also known for its aquarium), the Georgia Aquarium features one of the largest tanks in the world, housing multiple whale sharks!
I registered for this race a year in advance (March 2018), put it on the calendar, we made accommodations, and then didn’t really think about it too much until a few weeks leading up to the race. Having completed the Frozen Heart Trail 50K race in February and not really run a BIG race in a BIG city for quite sometime, I was looking forward to a “traditional” type of marathon.
With only a month between a 50K and this marathon, my training was sort of on cruise control. I basically repeated the training schedule I had between the Carlsbad Marathon and the Frozen Heart 50K (another 4 week period) which consisted of a lot of easy runs, a tiny bit of speed work, and a few medium-long runs (nothing over 15 miles). My goal for Atlanta was to run by feel, having just marathon PR’d in Carlsbad only two months ago.
What I did not realize was that this city road race would give me an unexpected challenge.
With a week to go before the race during the marathon taper period, I sat down and took a look at the actual course for the first time since registering for the race. In addition I also read reviews about the marathon from previous runners as part of my pre-race preparation.
No matter what review I read, the consensus was “this is a HILLY course”. My brain was sort of dismissive of this, thinking “ha…I run in the mountains all the time as part of my training. How hilly can this be?”. Also having conquered one of THE hilliest road marathons in America (The Morgantown, WV Marathon), I was not really not concerned with hills.
The problem was that when I ran the Morgantown Marathon, half-way through the race I slowed down a great deal and ran just to finish thanks to the humidity and hills that day (clocking in my slowest marathon time yet of 4:29:09). Having run my past two marathons at under sub-4 hours, my sub-conscience wanted to try to run under 4 hours again. That is where the challenge would come for this race…running a marathon under 4 hours on a hilly course.
Road Trip and Visiting the Georgia Aquarium
We split our road trip down to Atlanta into a two-day drive. None of us had ever been to Atlanta before, so we soon learned how big a pain in the butt the traffic on I-85 can be (especially on a Friday afternoon). Still, we made it to Atlanta without incident with just enough time to pick up the race packet on Friday evening (the race would be on Sunday morning). Packet pickup was on the north-end of the city at Atlantic Station, and there was plenty of parking available via a parking garage (first 2 hours free). Having driven all of Friday, we did not feel like hanging around the shops for too long, so after grabbing the race bib and included long-sleeve shirt, we headed to our hotel on the south-side of Atlanta close to the airport.
With Saturday being our only real “free” day in Atlanta, we spent it learning how to get around the city and visiting the center of Atlanta. We used the MARTA rail / train system to get in and out of the city and it was a breeze. It definitely beat driving and worrying about parking. We took the MARTA to the Peachtree Center stop, which put us within a 10 minute walk of the Georgia Aquarium and Centennial Olympic Park, where the marathon start and finish would be held.
I remember thinking walking the streets of Atlanta for as big of a city as it was, it didn’t feel crowded at all. In fact it felt empty at times walking along the side streets, until you reached the Olympic Park area (adorned with monuments and tributes to the 1996 Summer Olympics which were held in Atlanta). Even then it was not crowded at all. Maybe that was because everyone was at the Aquarium!
We devoted all of our time that day to seeing every facet of the Georgia Aquarium. We got there right when they opened and it was already packed. However we were prepared for that having dealt with crowds at the Baltimore Aquarium before. Honestly the Georgia Aquarium does a great job of keeping everyone moving, so it didn’t feel as crowded as it actually was.
As for the aquatic and marine life on display, it was AMAZING. The visit was worth it just to see the giant whale sharks swimming around in a vast tank. There were multiple viewing angles to take in these amazing creatures, including an underwater walkway tunnel. We also saw the seal / sea lion and dolphin show…both of which were excellent and very entertaining. Lunch at the cafeteria naturally cost another mortgage, but the silver lining was being able to sit in the large ball room area and watch the whale sharks and beluga whales swim by the glass areas while eating. Despite the crowds it was an awesome experience and I highly recommend visiting if you travel to Atlanta.
That was basically our whole Saturday which tired everyone out. We returned easily to our hotel via the MARTA line and I enjoyed a pre-race dinner of steamed vegetables, rice, and chicken from the local Chinese delivery place.
Race Day Morning
With a race start time of 7 a.m., that meant a 4 a.m. wake up time for me. I learned that the MARTA line would start service early around 5:15 a.m. solely because of the marathon taking place (with an expected 10,000 total participants between runners of the 5K, half marathon, and marathon). I spent an hour enjoying my traditional pre-race breakfast of coffee, a banana, and a whole wheat bagel with almond butter before getting dressed and ready to head over to the MARTA train station. My one gear alteration would be that I would not be using a hydration pack. Even though I prefer them, they were banned from this race for security purposes, so I chose to carry a bottle of liquid in my running belt. Come to find out I saw some people with hydration packs at the race, but I’ve never been one to go against the rules.
The weather was chilly. The forecast was to be in the low-50s and sunny that day, however in the morning it was breezy and cold (30s). As I took the MARTA line and arrived at Peachtree Center to walk to the marathon start, I remember thinking I was glad I had brought along a jacket, pants, winter hat, and gloves to wear prior to the race start. The race organizers included a drop bag at packet pick-up, so after I did my race warm-ups and with 30 minutes to go prior to race start, I took off my jacket and pants, stuffed them in the drop bag, and checked it in at the drop tent to pickup after the race.
I also made conversation with a half-marathoner who has run a half in every state and was running the half-marathon here for fun as it is his hometown. When he found out I was running the marathon to check Georgia off my state list, he said “You picked a good hilly one for it!”. These were some true words of warning.
The next 30 minutes was rather cold standing there waiting for the race to start. There were five or so corrals for all the runners (marathon and half marathon runners would start together). I was in corral C and stood there waiting as more and more runners started to fill in. Despite there being many runners, it was spread out enough so that we did not feel like we were packed in like sardines.
After a singing of the national anthem, the race began for the first corral. A good 8-10 minutes passed by before my corral made its way up to the starting line and was given the command to go. I made note of this as the racing timing clocks I would see throughout the race would not be a true indicator of the time, and to go by my watch for pacing.
It was still dark as the race began, and I felt a bit stiff as we started out. I immediately thought I should have run a bit more to warm-up, but there was no bother thinking about that now. The wind blew slightly and I found myself shivering a bit from nerves and the cold, but by mile 2 I had warmed up enough and began to ease into the running zone.
Running by feel and not paying attention to my watch that much, I noticed that nearly every street intersection we passed and a policeman / policewoman stationed there for safety and traffic control. Choosing to practice what I preach through the Run with a Smile mindset, I planned to thank each and every police officer I ran past. While it would be a sort of game to play while running, it also reminded me that if it wasn’t for the police and volunteers, races like these would not happen at all.
For the first half of the marathon I was on cruise control. Running in a large, but not massive, crowd, I passed chunks of runners at a time especially on the hills…which I began to notice were plentiful. I continued to thank all of the police officers I could. Some nodded silently in acknowledgement while others said “You’re Welcome!” and gave me a high five as I passed by. As for scenery we ran through the streets on the north side of Atlanta which led through several parks and nice housing areas. The sun had come out and the sky was blue so it was shaping up to be a beautiful day for a race.
Nearing mile 13 which found us back in the city by the start / finish area, the half marathoners split off towards the finish line as us marathoners were directed to turn right and continue on the course. As soon as you made that turn you were hit with a fairly big hill. I remember commenting to two other runners close by that this was a “Welcome to the Marathon” hill. There were also much fewer marathon runners than half-marathoners, so the crowds thinned as we hit mile 14.
Around mile 14 and 15 we ran very close to Mercedes Benz Stadium (home of the Atlanta Falcons and where Super Bowl LIII was held a little over a month ago). It was cool to see up close as the stadium is a really neat piece of architecture. Then around mile 18 or so the race got real.
The Hills Hit Home
It was at this time the hills began to take their toll. I realized I had been running the race at well under 4 hour pace, with splits averaging around 8:35 min / mile. The hills in the race were not HUGE, but they were constant. Each mile had a significant hill as part of it, followed by some downhill, so this was truly a rolling hill race with not many flat portions at all. Around mile 22 the course ran along the inside of a ball field / park track and I could tell I was starting to slow down a good bit. I tried not to look at my watch, but gave in and saw this split as 9:55.
Knowing that I had a bit of time to play with, I figured that if I could keep a decent pace in the 9-10 minute range with 4 miles to go I would still come in under 4 hours. The one thing I told myself was to not stop and walk, as it would only make it harder to start running again with so few miles left. I also realized that over these past few tough miles I had not been as thankful and encouraging towards volunteers as I had been early on in the race. I told myself “these people probably do not get many expressions of gratitude since they are stationed at the last miles of a marathon where people are digging down deep to finish”. So I resumed my #RunwithaSmile mindset and continued to thank as many people as I could (no matter how it would affect my finishing time).
The last 1.2 miles was up a long, gradual hill. While nothing like the one that kicks you in the stomach to end the Morgantown Marathon, it was still a challenge as I felt my feet sort of starting to shuffle thanks to the tiredness of my legs. I could hear the crowds cheering at the finish line as I made my way up the hill, so it was go time as I picked up the pace to make the final turn. Closing in on the finish line, I could see the clock read something close to 4:05:00. Knowing I had started the marathon 8 minutes or so after the clock started, I knew I was going to hit under 4 hours for a third straight marathon. At this time I saw Christie and the girls cheering for me right near the finish line. I gave them all high-fives and made my way across the final timing mat with an official finishing time of 3:57:17.
Post Race Reflections and Lessons Learned
After crossing the finish line the race organizers had everything VERY well organized. They kept all the runners comfortably moving giving us our finisher medal and swag towel. We were also navigated through a “fuel tent” and given a bag to stuff full of as much food as we wanted (I grabbed bananas, muffins, sports drinks and a few other goodies).
I felt sore, but kept walking and moving as I’ve learned from past mistakes as to not cramp up. I feel that with every marathon I run my body gets more used to the immediate race recovery. It was a beautiful sunny day so we all spent some time admiring the scenery and blooming trees around the marathon finish area before starting the walk back to the MARTA station to begin our journey to our car and then home.
While the Atlanta Marathon is not the hilliest race I have encountered it definitely took me by surprise as to how hilly it was. Thankfully the roads I run on at home are nearly all hills so it was not a shock to my system and I was very happy with my finishing time. I would not recommend trying to run the Atlanta Marathon for a personal best, however I would definitely recommend running the marathon for a great, big-city road race experience. It was very well-organized, well-set up, easy to get to using the MARTA public transportation system, and full of very friendly volunteers and great course support throughout most of the race.
Oh, and bonus points for a spinning finishers medal!
Official Race Results
Overall: 373 of 1,593
Male: 297 of 1,072
M 35-39: 54 of 172
Photos from Race Day
This race is part of Aaron’s 50 Marathons in 50 States Challenge:
Click on a state to see a recap of that marathon.