Weekend in Birmingham
Raymond Yu (Tower) and I spent the weekend of February 6-8, 2004 in Birmingham, Alabama. Why? Because for this weekend at least, Birmingham was the running capital of the United States. On Saturday the city played host to the US Men’s Olympic Marathon Trials and on Sunday, the city would host nearly 3500 participants in the Mercedes Marathon and Half Marathon. Birmingham got the bid to host the Marathon Trials because of their pledge to provide great hospitality, a spectator friendly course, fast times and the See One/Do One theme (the concept of piggy-backing the Trials with the community race the next day to get more attention for both events). From my observations of the weekend, Birmingham succeeded in their promises.
We were drawn to go to Birmingham because a friend of ours (fellow SHC coach Chris Lundstrom) was one of just 104 Americans to run a qualifying time of 2:22 or better to be invited to the Trials. Also in attendance in the Lundstrom Cheering Section were his fiancé, physical therapist, father, step mother and high school coach. Chris was able to secure us Family credentials which meant we were treated like VIP’s. We caught a crowded shuttle to the start line with other nervous wives, girlfriends, parents and friends. While the athletes warmed up in the 35 degree weather with 15 mph winds, us VIP’s drank coffee and ate Krispy Kremes in a warm hospitality tent. Finally it was race time. 86 runners toed the line…America’s best and brightest in the Marathon event. The energy and excitement was amazing as the gun went off.
From the start, the runners ran 9 miles into town. At that point they entered the “downtown loop”, which was 5.43 miles long. They would run this loop 3 times and then head to the finish line. Once we got dropped off by the shuttle in the downtown loop, Tower and I began to use our rental car to catch as much of the action as we could. It was non-stop for the next hour as we would run from one block to another and then to the car, drive a mile, hop out, cheer, back in the car, drive, hop out, cheer, run to the next spot, etc. In total we saw Chris 12 times in the loop. And we were certainly not the only ones doing this. Everywhere you looked you saw fans sprinting from spot to spot. Someone in the lead truck would get the crowd cheering wildly as the runners approached. There was live radio coverage so we were constantly able to hear updates on the leaders, their splits, the gap to the main pack, etc. The water stops were particularly interesting. At many major marathons you see “elite tables” where the elite runners in the race can have their own water bottles placed for in-race pick-up. But since everyone in the field was elite, how would this work? The answer: 13 elite water bottle tables with 5 or 6 water bottles on each.
The race unfolded in dramatic fashion. The Big Three favorites were Alan Culpepper (2:09:41), Meb Keflezighi (2:10:03) and Dan Browne (2:11:35). But early on Teddy Mitchell would take it out hard opening up a 125 meter lead. He had such a big lead that the media truck chose to drive between Mitchell and the main pack so they could monitor both. ’00 Olympian Rod DeHaven said on the radio he thought it was rather strange to go out that hard in the rather harsh conditions. By mile 7 we had a new leader. It was youngster Brian Sell who’s only previous marathon was a 2:19 effort just to qualify. Sell received a huge ovation as he entered the downtown loop with a big lead. Meanwhile our hero, Chris, was hanging tough with the main front pack but at 10 miles he began to cramp in his quads and was forced to ease off the pace after a 52:05 for the first 10 miles. It became apparent Chris was having one of those off days but he was determined to finish what he started . Like so many of us have done before, he fought through some difficult miles in the middle to get to that finish line at 26.2. At mile 18, we caught up enough to see the leaders. Young Brian had a 44 second lead and Tower and I began to speculate that he looked good and maybe could pull off a huge upset. Just a few minutes later, though, we heard that the Big Three (Culpepper, Meb and Browne) were moving up on the kid, apparently the three agreed to work together to reel in Sell. We listened on the radio to hear that the lead had shrunk to 15 seconds at mile 21. By mile 22 the Big Three caught and passed him. At this point Tower and I decided to cheer for Chris one more time and then sprint to the finish. We found a parking lot overlooking the finish line and headed for the 2nd level for a better vantage point. At the same time some small snow flurries began to fall. It may have been cold and dreary out but none of the thousand of spectators at the finish were complaining. The anticipation grew as first the media truck, then police cars arrived at the finish. Then a roar came from the crowd as Culpepper and Meb came into view. Culpepper would win in 2:11:40, with Meb 2nd in 2:11:45. Clinching the 3rd and final berth on the US Marathon squad to Athens for the 2004 Olympics was Browne in 2:12:01. The leaders ran 67 minutes for their first half and 64 minutes for the 2nd half. Amazing. Chris came in 54th in 2:26:59.
After this we realized just how valuable the family credential was. We warmed up after being outside for the past 2 hours plus with some hot food in the VIP tent at the finish. Then we got 30% off our merchandise at the marathon expo. Later that afternoon we attended the Awards Ceremony where the top 15 runners were recognized. Amongst them included, 43 year old Eddy Hellebuyck (8th), Cal-Berkeley grad Peter Gilmore (9th) and the hometown hero Scott Strand (who helped design the course) in 15th place. But the loudest ovation was not for any of these or for the Big Three but rather for young Brian Sell who showed so much guts and courage in leading this race for 15 miles. It was very exciting to be around such a knowledgeable crowd of running fans who really appreciated how hard this kid pushed the Big Three. And once again, the race officials fed us, this time free beer along with appetizers.
Saturday night, we ate at a local Fish House. Chris was re-fueling, while myself and Chris’ high school coach, Pat, were getting our pre-race meal in. Pat and I would run the Half Marathon the next day.
Sunday morning I rose at 5:50am (3:50am if your body is still on west coast time) and jogged to the race start line. The temperature on the bank clock I ran by said 27 degrees. At the start I met a guy named Eric who was also running the half marathon and had a friend who ran the Trials Marathon. Remarkably we also had in common pretty similar race pace goals. We ran together for 5 miles before we hit the hills. At this point Eric pulled ahead of me and I began to focus my attention on things like my hamstrings that felt like cramping, the hills (I thought all of the south was flat), opening a packet of Gu, and my gloves, which were soaked from spilling water. As the course neared its final 3 miles it flattened out enough for me to try to go hard again. I was also encouraged by the distractions on the course – I broke through the BE&K Construction Wall at mile 8, then almost slipped on the “red carpet” at the Royal Mile (mile 9). Mile 11 was supposed to be the Elvis mile but the King never appeared to cheer me home. Instead I had the always supportive Tower to take my picture and offer encouragement. In the end I finished in 1:21:38, 45th overall out of 2049 runners. Better yet, that same credential got us out of the cold and into a warm hospitality tent where I drank a mimosa for the 2nd straight morning and re-fueled with salmon, bread pudding, and assorted other goodies.
After a shower and a nap, we met up with Pat (Chris’ high school coach) and headed to the post-race celebration (Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q Post Race Party) at the Boutwell Auditorium. More free food –this time BBQ sandwiches, cole slaw and ice cream as well as a live band, free massages and kegs of Michelob. And even though we didn’t win the Mercedes M-Class, we still had a great time.
All in all it was a terrific weekend of running that only a running junkie could truly appreciate. Thank you, Birmingham!