3 Bridges was my first marathon in December 2015. I wasn’t blogging about my marathons then, but it was a wonderful experience. The race was founded by Jacob Wells in 2013. He was a well loved member of the tight knit Arkansas runners’ community which I now enjoy being a part of. He was known for his joy and enthusiasm for the sport, and for the way that he was constantly lifting others up, encouraging and cheering them on in their goals. He tragically lost his life 10 months after the inaugural race due to cardiac arrest, but the race has continued on in his memory. The legacy he has left makes me really wish I could have met him. You would be hard pressed to find a marathon with more positivity, encouragement, high fives, and enthusiasm among runners and volunteers than you will find at 3 Bridges. I loved getting to be a part of this experience last year, and I loved it even more this year.
Being in the middle of December, this race is usually very chilly. About a week before the race, the forecast was calling for rainy weather in the 40’s – very similar to the conditions in which I recently ran LOViT. Wanting to be more prepared than I was for LOViT, I researched and ordered a good quality rain jacket that had good reviews from other runners. But every time I checked the weather in the following days, the forecast changed to something different. Cold and cloudy. Cold and sunny. But I couldn’t believe it when, nearing race day, they started calling for weather in the mid 60’s and 70’s with 80-100% humidity. This sounded more like a mid-summer Arkansas race than a winter one. The forecast didn’t change, even the night before the race when I left work in freezing cold weather. Well, there was nothing for it. I left my new rain jacket hanging in the closet, and dug out one of my summer racing outfits. I really didn’t know how tomorrow would go, but I would get out there and give it my best.
I got up extra early on race morning since I would need to arrive at a church parking lot early enough to take the shuttle to the start line – no parking is allowed at the start/finish area at Two Rivers Park except for official race crew. I went through my usual race morning routine of a breakfast shake and some coffee, and popped an Allegra to try and offset some stubborn sinus congestion that I’d been dealing with all week. This might be TMI, but since I’ve had more than my share of digestive issues and porta-potty stops at recent marathons, I decided to stash a few Imodium tablets into my waistband pocket to take before the race and see if that would help with my issues. I made sure everything else I would need for the race was packed – fuel, water bottle, change of clothes for afterwards – and headed out into the dark, damp, extremely humid morning.
Driving to the church in Little Rock brought back a flood of memories from when I made this same trip with Karla a year ago. I was a little sad that I didn’t have any family here with me now, but life gets busy, and when I run as many marathons as I’ve been running lately I can’t expect them to be at every one. I chatted with some other runners as we waited for the shuttle. Two of them had come from up north and were visiting Arkansas for the first time in their quest to run a marathon in all 50 states. They asked me if this was typical weather for the area. I laughed and said no… no, it’s not. This muggy humidity is more typical of a morning in July!
The shuttle finally arrived – a bus packed with runners that was decorated on the inside with plentiful Christmas decorations while Christmas music filled the air around us. By the time the bus picked our little group up, there was standing room only, making for an interesting ride over the hills of Little Rock. But we arrived safely at the start line with plenty of time to spare. I hit the porta-potties and then popped a couple Imodium, hoping for the best. It would be great to get through a race without the inconvenience of a porta-potty stop! I was a little bit chilly in the damp, pre-dawn breeze, but I knew I would warm up quickly as soon as we started running. This was such a contrast from last year when I was shivering in sub-freezing weather with Karla despite the long running pants and jacket that I was wearing for the occasion. Back then, there was a much appreciated heater in the tent at the start area along with several big pots of hot coffee, but there was no need for those amenities this year.
Soon it was time to make our way to the start line. There was a pre-race prayer and singing of the anthem, and then off we went. What a different experience from when I ran this race the first time, never having run on the Arkansas River Trail before. Back then, my numb feet carried me down a road they had never trodden before, heart pounding with excitement at starting my very first marathon, nervously wondering if my inexperienced legs would carry me all the way to the finish line.
Today, this was my familiar stomping ground. I’d come back to visit this course many times since that first running of 3 Bridges. I ran this very road just last weekend on a 12-mile run with my Pomeranian, Jasper. The familiarity was comforting and gave me confidence as I opened my stride to just under a 9:00 pace. The humidity and rising heat would likely prevent me from holding this pace for the whole race, but it couldn’t hurt to start strong.
It seemed like no time at all before that first mile was behind us and we were climbing over the Big Dam Bridge. Down the other side, and we were at the first aid station. I remember the aid stations being wonderful last year, with many people who didn’t know me seeing my “First Marathon” bib and cheering me on by name. But this year was extra special as I actually recognized some faces of the wonderful volunteers who were going above and beyond to take care of us, many of them distance runners themselves. This time I wasn’t wearing a bib with my name on it, but they still cheered me on by name. The Arkansas runners’ community is so tight knit, and I am so thankful to have become a part of it. The cheers and high fives lifted my spirits, and despite the high humidity, those first miles were pure joy to run.
I chose to focus on the positive in the weather… at least my feet weren’t numb, and my muscles didn’t feel like they were frozen solid like they did at LOViT a couple weeks ago. And it was freeing being in a tank top and shorts for the first time in weeks! I saw a runner ahead of me wearing a participant tank from Full mOOn, the overnight 25k/50k in July that is known for its difficult hills and swelteringly hot and humid weather. I sped up a little bit to catch him and comment on how much fun I had at that race. “Yeah, it was a fun race,” he agreed. We ran together a little while longer before I commented, “You know… the weather today really isn’t all that different than it was then.” He laughed and replied, “That’s exactly what I was thinking!”
The natural beauty of the Arkansas River Trail gave way to the urban scenery of North Little Rock as we neared the Clinton Presidential Bridge, the second of the 3 Bridges for which the race was named. The lead runners were already coming back from the turnaround. I was excited to see Tia Stone in the lead, an incredible runner who also happens to be a fellow Harding graduate. I cheered her on as we passed each other. I didn’t know this at the time, but she’d been sick earlier this week as well, and almost decided not to run this race when the forecast started calling for such unseasonably hot weather. It is a testament to her strong character that she got out there and completed the race anyway, and seeing her perseverance inspired me to keep giving this race my best effort as well.
Over the Clinton bridge I went. Last year, they had a guy dressed in a Santa costume waiting for us at the turnaround on the other side, and I was a little disappointed that he wasn’t here this year. Oh well. Around the roundabout, back up over the bridge, and I was off for the return journey.
I love out-and-back sections of race courses, because you get to see all the other runners – the faster ones and the slower ones. And this race was especially fun because I recognized so many faces. High fives and encouraging words were plentiful.
I passed the half marathon mark in under 2 hours, but at this point I could feel the rising heat starting to get to me and my legs starting to slow. At the start line, I remembered seeing several shirtless men and sports-bra clad women and thinking how ridiculous it was to be wearing so little for a December race. But as the temperature climbed, I started to worry about getting overheated, and around mile 15 I gave up on modesty and wriggled out of my tank top. I could carry it until we crossed the start/finish area at mile 20, leave it there, and pick it up when the race was done. My friend Wanda who I’d met at the Conway Running Club passed me around this point, looking a lot stronger than I felt. I was proud of her. She had trained so hard for this race, and it was paying off.
Going about the same pace as me at this point in the race was a blind runner and his guide. Running a marathon is challenging enough for anyone, but I can’t imagine taking on such a challenge without my sight. Seeing the two of them was humbling and inspiring, and took my mind off of my own complaints about the hot weather.
As we neared the aid station, I was a little surprised when the blind runner’s guide started talking to me. He was saying something about how this aid station had lots of Vaseline, and I’d better use some because we still had a lot of miles to go. O…kay, I was thinking. I must really look like I’ve never run a marathon or something. We’re over halfway there, and I’d just as soon get this thing over with. Why does he think I need to stop and use Vaseline? I thanked him politely, but blazed through the aid station without stopping, still having some Tailwind in my Orange Mud pack.
Soon we were back at the bottom of the Big Dam Bridge, and I did stop at that aid station – partly because I needed to refill my Tailwind bottle, and partly because that bridge looked a whole lot more challenging on the return journey with so many miles on my legs, and I didn’t mind the idea of taking a little breather first. My bottle was filled by the kind aid station volunteers all too soon, and up and over I went again, this time a good bit slower than when I crossed the same bridge earlier that morning. Besides the heat and humidity, there was now a stiff wind blowing, which was especially noticable out over the river.
Although my pace had slowed, I was still maintaining a positive attitude and finding plenty to enjoy about the race. It seemed to be going by a lot faster than it did when I ran it last year. I remembered having to stop and take a walking break at this point last year, but not today. I might not be running fast anymore, but I was still running, and feeling pretty good. Almost to the start/finish area, and then it would just be a short 10k loop to go before I crossed that finish line. I had just run that loop a couple weeks before with Jasper. Easy peasy. (At least, that’s what I told myself… in reality, the last 10k of a marathon is anything but easy, especially on a day like today!)
I was happy to get rid of my tank top that I’d stuffed in the waistband of my shorts right before crossing the last of the 3 Bridges at Two Rivers Park. This was really familiar territory now – I’d run this section of the marathon course even more times than the stretch after Big Dam Bridge. Shortly after crossing the bridge, I saw the lead runners again on their return journey to the finish line. Tia was still in the lead, looking so strong and determined! I was so excited for her as she ran that home stretch to a well deserved win.
Another aid station was coming up, and I wasn’t planning to stop. But then, another runner came up to me and said that I was bleeding and really needed some Vaseline, and asked the aid station volunteers if they had any. What? Bleeding? I guess I must have a high pain tolerance, because until this moment I had no idea of the severe chafing that was going on between my thighs, that had apparently been noticeable to the kind blind runner’s guide who tried to get me to take advantage of the Vaseline at the aid station before the Big Dam Bridge. They didn’t have any Vaseline at this aid station, so I just kept going. Nothing I could do about it at this point, and thankfully, it wasn’t bothering me yet. But Arkansas runners really take care of each other, especially at this race, and the runner who noticed my chafing caught back up to me about a half mile later just so he could give me a mini container of Vaseline that he’d managed to procure, and I accepted it gratefully. Maybe it would make my shower later that day a little more tolerable!
That last 10k loop is nowhere near as interesting and scenic as the rest of the Arkansas River Trail, and it is tough mentally and physically. I was so happy to get back to the out-and-back area where I once again started seeing familiar faces of other runners, and the monotony was broken by more cheers and high fives. Only 1.5 miles to go now. Those last couple of miles always seem to take so long. I distracted myself by thinking about where Josh and I would be on our easy 2 mile route that we’ve been running in the mornings lately before work.
When the Two Rivers Park bridge once again came into sight, I gave it all I had. Last year, I’d pretty much given up on running by this point on the course, choosing instead to walk/jog with another first time marathoner who was struggling. This year I didn’t want to leave anything out on the course. It might not be my best marathon time ever, but I could still give it my best and finish strong! Up and over the bridge I climbed, working up as much of a sprint as I could for the downhill finish.
The best moment of the whole marathon was seeing one particular familiar face waiting for me on the sideline – Joshua had made it to see me finish! I was all smiles as I made a slight detour to give him a high five before heading on to cross the finish line. I must have looked pretty spent, because the finish line volunteers kept asking me if I was okay and offering me water. It had been a very hard marathon. I don’t think I realized how hard it had been on my body until I stopped running and tried to walk like a normal person. I’m always stiff after a marathon, but I was really hobbling today, and was thankful to have Joshua to lean on for support. Physically, I was exhausted. But yeah, I was okay. It had been hard. But it had been a very good kind of hard, and I was so thankful for every mile of this very special race.
Do I wish I’d finished the second half faster? Yeah, it would have been nice to get a PR. But I really can’t beat myself up too much with the weather the way that it was, and overall, I was happy with my 4:07:11 – still much faster than my 4:58 from last year. And even though the second half was hard, a lot went right to make this a very good and memorable race. I might have chafed (my own fault for forgetting to put on Body Glide that morning) but I didn’t sustain any serious injuries or struggle with muscle cramping. The Imodium worked like a charm, and I loved that I got to spend my time out on the course enjoying the race instead of wasting time in a stinky porta-potty (it truly is the little things!) I was thankful for another safe, fun, and injury free marathon. My 12th in 12 months, which just so happened to earn me my 3rd star as a Marathon Maniac. I even managed to place third in my age group, earning me a beautiful award to hang on my wall. Really, under the conditions, I couldn’t ask for a better race to conclude my first year as a marathoner.
And at the end of the day, this race wasn’t about me or my performance. It was about celebrating the effort and accomplishment of every single runner who had the courage to toe the start line on that muggy morning, and their grit and perseverance in making it to the finish line no matter what the time on the clock. It was about celebrating the life of another runner who I’m looking forward to meeting in heaven someday, honoring his memory by encouraging each other and lifting each other up the way that he did. I didn’t know him, but from everything I’ve heard about him, I think he would be proud to see this legacy that he has left.
I’ve run a handful of races since running this one as my first marathon a year ago. But this one will always be special. And if God continues to grant me the strength and health, I look forward to running it again and again for many years to come!