Topping the Podium at Kiawah Island
by Jason Altman
Having run the Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon four weeks prior, I went back and forth on whether to run the marathon or the half marathon at the Kiawah Island Marathon. The Knoxville Track Club was sending a large group to the race, so my family and I had planned back in the spring to make the trip for the December 10 race. I went ahead and signed up for the full marathon; I figured that since I had run Chickamauga, it was kind of like a very long run at a hard effort with four weeks to taper prior to Kiawah. I took four days off after Chickamauga and then did three very easy runs that first week. My legs felt surprisingly fresh. The next week I did a 20 miler at easy, comfortable pace which also went well. The following week I did an 18 miler with a progression run at the end, so I felt fairly confident of my chances going into Kiawah. Of course, even though I felt recovered, you never know what you’ll feel like until you get into the race.
I lined up next to Alan Horton at the start line. Alan, a good friend and someone with whom I have logged many a training run, had been signed up for the half marathon, but changed to the full at the expo. He wanted to get a Boston Qualifying time so that he can run Boston in 2018. Even though he hadn’t done a long run over 15 miles recently, he certainly has the talent as evidenced by his marathon personal best of 2:21 back in 2006, which qualified him for the Olympic Trials. Alan said he was going to go out at 6:40 pace for the first mile and see how he felt from there. My plan was to try and run right at or under 2:40, or a 6:05 pace per mile. Having run 2:42:19 at Chickamauga, I figured that with a flatter course and more company, I should have a good chance to improve upon my time.
The marathoners run with the half marathoners for the first five miles. Naturally, many guys take off like they are shot out of a cannon. I heard someone snicker “must be half marathoners”. I’d say that there was a group of 30 or so in front of me. Most of which I assumed were in the half, but wouldn’t really know until we made our first split.
Mile 1: 6:04
Right on target. I settled in with a guy and a girl both running the half.
Mile 2: 6:06
Her name was Paula Pridgen, from Charlotte. Her goal was to break 1:20 in the half marathon for the first time, so this was the perfect pace for both of us.
Mile 3: 6:04
The guy seemed to know her, and they conversed for quite a bit. He ultimately started to pull ahead a little; I never got his name and don't know how he finished.
Mile 4: 6:03
Pace is good. However, I'm questioning my sanity. The goal for the year was to recover from the knee scope, get back into shape, and give myself a shot to win Chickamauga. Mission accomplished. Why on earth was I torturing myself with 26.2 again instead of just 13.1? I could be one of the first dozen folks at the beer tent! I could cheer on all the other KTC folks as they crossed the finish line. The thought of switching crossed my mind a couple of times. Of course, I'd have to explain to the course monitors why I was wearing the wrong bib. And if I was to run the half, I would have wanted to go out 20-25 seconds faster per mile. No way could I make up the lost time by switching at mile five and negative splitting the half marathon. Also, if I run twice the miles, I can eat twice the food the rest of the weekend, right?
Mile 5: 5:56
Whoa, a little fast, but still feeling ok. The split is in less than a quarter mile, so let's go ahead and tackle the full marathon. As we approach the split, Paula and the other men in the vicinity move to the right. Me, myself, and I move to the left. They make their turn and I'm off on the marathon course. Paula would ultimately win the half marathon in a time of 1:19:30. As I make the turn, I look ahead and cannot see anyone in front of me. There is a water stop pretty soon and one of the volunteers informs me I'm in third. Not bad. Considering I was hoping for a top five finish, grabbing a podium spot would be awesome.
Mile 6: 6:04
Still in no man's land.
Mile 7: 6:08
At a long straightaway, I can see a green blur in the distance. Definitely a runner; he is dressed in neon green tights, neon green top, and a green hat. I can't tell if he is coming back to me or if the view was just long enough for me to finally see him. The good news is that now I have a carrot dangling in front of me.
Mile 8: 6:06
I'm not going any faster, but I'm certainly gaining ground on him. Just before mile 8.5 there will be the only true turnaround cone of the race and I'll have a good idea how far back I really am.
Before I can see the turnaround, here comes the leader. His name is Kipkosgei Magut, a Kenyan athlete who ran at Belmont University in Nashville. My best guess is that he is a quarter mile ahead of me. Next I see the green carrot I've been chasing, Fernando Gallardo, a 43 year old out of Anderson, SC. As I make the turnaround, I start zeroing in on Fernando. However, my concentration is quickly broken as I see Alan is next, behind me in fourth place. My guess was that he was one minute behind. Certainly a little too close for comfort; it seemed to light a fire under my rear end.
Mile 9: 5:58
I really don't mind out and back sections. I enjoy seeing the other runners who are always complimentary. It also breaks the monotony of staring at the pavement. As I'm inching closer to Fernando, people start yelling "Good job guys!" No real chance of sneaking up on him I guess.
Mile 10: 6:00
There is a timing mat at mile 10. Fernando would cross in 1:00:53, I was just two seconds back in 1:00:55. I'm immediately up on his shoulder. He was severely overdressed. Sure, it was chilly that morning, but I couldn't imagine running a full marathon in full tights and multiple layers up top. He had a face mask on too. This was Kiawah, not Antarctica. He didn't put up much of a fight; we were running on the bike trail (the runners going out toward the turnaround were on the main road), so it was quick, narrow turns. I surged ahead to have more room to maneuver and soon couldn't hear his breathing or footsteps.
Mile 11: 6:08
Holy crap, I'm in second place. I'm confident that Alan will gobble Fernando up too. When I checked the final results, I saw that Fernando ended up finishing 23rd in 3:02:07. He was gobbled up by many a runner over the last 15 miles. Around 11.5, we join back up with the half marathoners for a little over two miles. It is miles 11.5 to 13.75 for the full, and 5.5 to 7.75 for the half marathon.
Mile 12: 6:07
The half marathoners are great. They are mostly staying to the right-hand side, allowing me to pass on the left. Several are yelling ahead to others as I pass "Everyone move to the right, marathoner coming through!" Others are offering words of encouragement as I'm passing them. Still others are trying to be helpful, albeit confusing. "You're in second. Only a minute back!" yells one while someone else said "You're in second, only five minutes back!"
Mile 13: 6:09
The half marathon timing mat is coming up. As I approach it, there is a group of about a dozen walkers heading straight for it. I'm sure that they don't realize it isn't for them, but I had to yell ahead and squeeze in between a couple just to get close enough to get my timing chip to register for a split. My split came through at 1:19:15.
We are approaching another split between the full and the half, where I'll turn right and do a loop through a neighborhood that the half marathoners will not do. As I make the turn, I'm a little sad to lose the company, but know that I'll get to run the last 5 miles or so with them again, so I’m looking forward to that.
Mile 14: 6:04
A random spectator yells "Looking good!" to me, so I ask, "How far?" He responds with "Almost to mile 14." "No, no, how far is first ahead?" I ask. "Quarter mile." he replies.
Mile 15: 6:10
The neighborhood is very pretty, however, there are quite a few turns. I keep looking ahead and hoping to see someone ahead of me. I'm back in no man's land; I can't see what is in front of me, and cannot hear anything behind me. Just keep grinding out 6:05's I think; run your race and we'll see what happens in the last 10+ miles.
Mile 16: 6:07
As I hit mile 16, there is a long straight away in the neighborhood. BINGO! I can finally see Kipkosgei. It seems with each step, he is getting a little closer to me. I remind myself not to get too excited. Keep hitting your pace instead of letting adrenaline carry you too fast to catch up which could lead to an eventual burnout.
Mile 17: 6:10
I feel like I'm doing a good job holding back; perhaps even a little too conservative right now. Even with that 6:10, he is getting closer to me. As I'm approaching mile 18, I am creeping right up to him. What to do? Maybe he is complacent and will turn it on if he realizes that he has someone coming up on him. Do I sit behind and try and outkick him in the last couple miles? What if we allow Alan to catch up while we go conservative here? We turn left onto the greenway that parallels the main parkway through Kiawah. As we hit mile 18, I come shoulder to shoulder with him.
Mile 18: 6:10
He mumbles something I didn't understand as I pull even, and I respond with a "Good job, man." He immediately falls right behind and sits on my shoulder. Perhaps he is wanting to draft off me for a bit; I figure it is only fair. If we are going to work together, it should be my turn to lead.
Mile 19: 6:03
After we hit 19, he pulls even with me again. Shoulder to shoulder. I feel really good at this point; I feel pretty confident that if we are still together until the bitter end, that I can surge late for the win. But heck, you never know what will happen in the last 10K of a marathon.
Right when we are at about 19.5, he immediately drops back. Perhaps trying to keep the pace at that point was too much for him; I think he put up as much fight to hold the lead as he could, but he didn't want to burn out for the last few miles of the race.
Mile 20: 6:12
There is a timing mat at mile 20. I crossed in 2:02:34. Kipkosgei came through in 2:03:22.
At this point, the bike lead slows down to talk to me. He says "Alright, in about half a mile, we are going to join the half marathoners again. I'll do my best to get them over to the right and keep you safe. There is some road, some bike trail, and a little off road." I give him a thumbs up. I ran the last five miles of the race the day before the marathon. I wanted to familiarize myself with the terrain, the turns, the bike trail sections, etc. so that I would be better mentally prepared in case I was zoning out toward the end.
We turn right and he starts ringing his bell and yelling ahead to the half marathoners. This section is the last 5+ miles for both of us; 21-26 for me and 8-13 for them.
Mile 21: 6:03
Holy Crap. I'm leading this marathon. I've led wire to wire at a couple in the past; honestly, it can get a little boring and complacency sets in. I've also lost a marathon that I led for 24 miles; not a feeling I would recommend. The fact that I was anticipating third or second for so long of the race, I have an incredible amount of adrenaline right now having taken the lead with just over a 10K to go.
Mile 22: 6:02
The route takes us very close to the finish line before we head toward a small loop on the west side of the island before finishing. At around 22.5, I see my wife Kristy with our boys walking toward the finish line. I know that once she saw the bike lead, she would get nervous with anticipation. When she finally saw me behind him, she'd get ecstatic. She told me I looked great; I told her my Timex watch had died at mile 19 (I wear two during races; the Garmin seems to be more reliable, the Timex offers live tracking so she can see where I'm at during any given moment). She doesn't tell me that anyone is right behind me, so I feel confident at this point that no one is within striking distance as long as I can maintain the pace.
Mile 23: 5:59
Talk about a shot of adrenaline when you see your family!
The cottage that we are staying at is right by mile 23. As I pass it, I think just 3 more miles and then I can come back for a hot shower. About this time, a second bike lead, this one a female, joins us. The male zooms ahead to forewarn half marathoners that we are approaching, as we are coming up on a narrow greenway around a golf course. The female hangs right in front of me for protection. Truthfully, my body feels compelled to hang as close to her as I can; if my pace falls off, then I don' t have the protection. It's almost like an invisible tether that is pulling me along.
Mile 24: 6:00
What is happening? Every marathon I have run, my pace starts declining the last 2-3 miles. I'm clicking off the miles here and still feel really good. So good in fact, that I feel like I have an extra gear left in case Alan, Kipkosgei, or anyone else were to come up alongside me.
As I'm passing the half marathoners, several yell "Congratulations!" or "Here's comes the winner!" Easy now...a lot can still happen in the last couple miles; but I do appreciate the encouragement.
Mile 25: 6:06
OMG. I'm still feeling good. The last two miles are almost completely on bike trail. It is a narrow path, but the bike leads are still doing well keeping the half marathoners out of my way. There is a clock at mile 12 for the half marathon (mile 25.1 for me). Some quick math (yes, my brain is still working at this point) and I calculate that I should be able to be just over 2:40 if I can keep the pace going. The rational side of me thinks that I have this one in the bag. The paranoid side of me thinks to keep pushing the pace because I could have a companion at any second. It's funny; as I'm passing folks, I can hear the echo of their footsteps behind me. Occasionally, a spectator will yell "Good job guys!" and my heart will skip a beat thinking that someone has joined me at the front. Reality will set in each time and I'll realize that I'm all alone in the marathon, and that they are just encouraging the half marathoners too. Here we come up on mile 26. All I can think about is the excitement Kristy and the boys will have when I enter their view. We are still on the greenway until just after 26, but we will soon thereafter take a right onto the road and a quick left into the finishing alley.
Mile 26: 5:57
I make the right and the spectators start cheering loudly. It's go time. Time to hammer it home. I make a wide left turn onto the final stretch. The race officials are signaling for me move to the left-hand side so that I can break the finish tape. I would end up running the last stretch at 5:40 pace. I broke the tape and pumped my fist in the air. HELL YEAH! I could not believe that this just happened. A reporter from the Charleston paper stops me in the finishing chute for an interview, but midway through Kristy and the boys come up on the side of the fence and I stop the interview for a hug, kiss, and a picture.
Official finish time: 2:40:13
As I'm finishing up the interview, I see Alan crossing the line at 2:43:13 for second place. KTC takes the top two spots! Kipkosgei would end up finishing fifth overall in 2:48:21.
Wow. What an amazing day. What began as an afterthought and a slight chance at finishing in the top five, had turned into an unbelievable race and my time had exceeded my expectations. I have a good friend who has won many marathons and he once told me to race and compete when I'm healthy and able. You never know what the future will bring, so take your chances while you can. I certainly am glad that I took a shot at Kiawah and nailed it.