Race Recap: Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon

Well guys, my first experience as a pacer was interesting. I paced the 3:25 group at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon Sunday morning in Biloxi, Mississippi. Technically, the race started in Pass Christian and ended in Biloxi.

We went over to Biloxi Saturday afternoon and hit the expo on our way in. The trip was really quick (less than an hour and a half!). I picked up my bib and pacer singlet at the expo, as well as a sweet Run Mobile bottle and some Goodr sunglasses from the Fleet Feet Mobile booth (I couldn’t resist). Um … the sunglasses are AMAZING! I ran the whole marathon in them and they are so comfortable.

We spent the night at the Beau Rivage, one of the host hotels. The hotel was very festive and done up “real nice” for Christmas.

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We walked all around and looked at the lights and the casino before settling in for the night. The air conditioner in our room was either broken or disabled and it was approximately one thousand degrees in our room (a slight exaggeration, but not a major one). I tossed and turned all night and eventually got up around 3 a.m. so that I could take an ice-cold shower. I don’t usually sleep well the night before a race anyway, so that wasn’t really a big deal.

The silver lining was that I was so excited to get outside into the 30 degree temps and run! Ha.

We left the hotel around 5:45 to make the trek over to Pass Christian for the start. I had a 26 mile car ride to mentally prepare myself for the race and see firsthand just how far we would be running. It was far … a long, long way to run. We arrived at the start line around 6:30 for the 7:00 start. I picked up my pacer sign at the gear check, waited in line for the bathroom and then before I knew it, we were lining up and taking off. Everything was seamless.

The weather was perfect! It was mid-thirties at the start and warmed up as we went. There was little to no wind (which on a point to point course could’ve been a major problem). Gear wise, I went with a long sleeve shirt under my singlet, shorts, tall socks, gloves, my rocking reindeer hat and my new Goodr sunglasses. I also held a hand warmer for the first few miles (and yes, just one … for whatever reason, I just assumed that a package of hot hands would have two in them since you have two hands, but apparently that’s not the case).

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We started right on time and I started right on pace. I planned to run even splits. I needed a 7:48 average to finish a few seconds under 3:25. I was determined to nail those splits and run exactly what I needed to run. Certain pacing companies won’t let you pace again if you don’t come within one minute of your goal time. I don’t think that was a stipulation here, but I still wanted to make sure that I ran what I was supposed to since there were other runners who were counting on me to do just that.

The course was beautiful. We ran right along the Gulf the entire way! According to the race website, the course is a “fast, flat, BQ-friendly path along the coast from Pass Christian to Biloxi. The course is a USATF Certified Boston Qualifier route and offers unobstructed beach views and a takes you past some of the coast’s most historic and beautiful homes.” There were aid stations and porta potties every mile and a half along the entire course. The aid stations had water, powerade and gels.

I wrote down the times that I need to be at in 5 mile increments and tucked the paper away in my glove for reference. For anyone that in interested in the actual details of my splits, here they are …

7:50, 7:47, 7:46, 7:47, 7:47
7:47, 7:47, 7:45, 7:47, 7:47
7:48, 7:50, 7:49, 7:51, 7:47
7:49, 7:50, 7:47, 7:50, 7:45
7:44, 7:45, 7:45, 7:38, 7:37

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I had a decent sized group for the first half of the race. Several of the runners seemed very appreciative of my consistent pacing. I was appreciative that they were appreciative. It was a nice little cycle of appreciation. One guy did ask me how many marathons I had paced, to which I had to awkwardly explain that this was my first time pacing, but he didn’t seem bothered by the response. So … since it was my first time pacing a marathon, here are a few random observations:

  • Running while holding a three-foot pole is difficult. I was SO OVER that pole by the end (heck, even by the middle) of the race. I hit a couple of people with it (sorry guys!) and kept shifting it back and forth, from right hand to left hand. Super annoying. Let’s go with signs taped to our backs next time!
  • Taking gels and water while holding a three-foot pole is even more difficult. I somehow managed to take the majority of a gel at mile 8 ish and at mile 16 ish, but it was NOT easy. The good news is that I feel like taking gels and water during a regular marathon will be super easy now in comparison.
  • Most of the people around you are going to be wearing headphones.
  • Most of the people around you are racing and not exactly looking to chat it up. I tried to make casual chit-chat, but no one was real big into it.
  • A marathon is a long, long way to run, regardless of what pace you are running. While physically I felt fine, mentally I struggled. I questioned why in the world I willingly signed up for this, why I was planning to do it again in a few weeks, why anyone would EVER want to run this far. Ha. Lots of negative thoughts that I really wasn’t expecting. I mean, I expect these thoughts when I am racing a marathon, but I wasn’t expecting them here. Perhaps I need to work on my mental game a little bit.

Basically everything was smooth sailing up until mile 23. My group dissipated between the half way point and mile 20, but I still had about 3 runners with me at mile 20. By mile 23, I had no one. I hated to be running alone, but I knew that my job was to keep running the pace regardless of who was or wasn’t with me. Oddly enough, while I was running by myself, I ended up with a bike escort, as apparently I was the third place female.

I was using my Garmin to keep the pace steady and the mile markers along the course all seemed in line with the mile splits on my watch. My watch was beeping a little before the mile markers the further along we got, which was to be expected, as it is almost impossible to run the tangents perfectly over the course of a full marathon (so keep in mind that up until this point, I expected my watch to measure a tad long when we got to the finish). I picked the pace up ever so slightly between miles 20 and 25 to account for the minor discrepancy between my mile splits and the course mile markers.

The course was essentially a point to point course for 24 miles with an out and back stretch for the final two miles. At mile 24 we ran up the interstate on ramp (gotta love that) and ran on I-110 for what I assumed would be one mile. You could see the finish line at MGM Park as you ran up and onto I-110. I was running alone (expect for my bike escort). We came to the turnaround before I expected to and so I asked the bike escort (several times actually) if this was right. He assured me that it was. My watch eventually beeped to signal the 25th mile, but I never saw the 25 mile marker on the course. I had very uneasy feeling at this point. Half a mile later, we arrived at the 26 mile marker. I looked down to see 25.5 on my watch. I knew I had [inadvertently] cut the course somehow, but I was confused as to how. I debated just stopping right there and waiting for the clock to catch up so that I could cross at 3:25, but ultimately decided that would be silly, so I ran on into MGM Park and crossed the finish line.

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As I ran into the finish, the announcer said, “Here comes our 3:20 pacer! Wait. No. 3:25?! Someone is a little ahead of schedule aren’t we?” At this point, I was really upset. I felt like I had royally messed up and I was still very confused as to how. I stalked my pace the entire race and I knew that I had averaged EXACTLY what I needed to. After talking to other marathon runners and other pacers, we learned that the course was marked incorrectly and everyone ran short. Selfishly, I was relieved to learn that it wasn’t just me, but I also feel terrible for … well, everyone that raced … but especially those that got PRs or qualified for Boston.

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Finish line confusion. Me being like, “What exactly just happened?!”

As of today, the race organizers are standing by the fact that the course was certified and that runners’ GPS watches are not always accurate. While I agree with these statements, there is no doubt in my mind that we didn’t actually run the certified course. You can actually see where the turnaround should’ve been on the certified map (below on left)and if you compare that to all of the runners’ Strava data (below on right), it is very apparent that the turnaround was not in the correct spot. Lots of runners have questioned it, but the race organization is adamant that the course was certified and thus, was correct.

The race director sent out a heartfelt, sincere apology email to the marathon runners Tuesday afternoon. He wrote, “I am deeply sorry for this series of events. I am sorry that I didn’t recognize it earlier and that our responses have not been on point due to that. I always trust my staff and my people and they confirmed they did exactly as instructed.  It wasn’t until later that I realized my instructions were wrong. I have always taken a great deal of pride in the fact that runners can have faith in us to have a correct, safe and complete course no matter what. It’s painful to let so many down in that regard. Unfortunately, BAA does not currently allow exceptions for people not running the complete marathon distance at a race even if it is the event producer’s fault. For those runners who were able to make your BAA qualifying time, I am deeply saddened by my mistake especially for you.”

I was torn about how to eloquently word this post, but at this point, I think it kind of just is what it is. I feel that I did my best and did everything I could’ve done given the circumstances. It was a little bit crazy and not how I expected that to go down, but definitely an interesting experience. Pacing was fun and I hope that I get the opportunity to do it again one day!

6 thoughts on “Race Recap: Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon

  1. Congrats on pacing and placing at the short marathon! It stinks that this was your first pacing experience and it turned out like this. I’d be very turned off at the person who remarked “Aren’t you a little early?” when you crossed the finish. You had a bike escort and you were just doing your job.

    I feel bad for anyone who BQed if Boston does not accept the time. I know it’s the runner’s responsibility to know the course but to have a whole section knocked off sounds like the race’s fault. GPS isn’t always accurate but if it were right, you’d have people between say, 26 miles and 26.5 or something? EVERYONE wouldn’t be short.

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  3. Wow, what a story. You certainly did your part and you did an amazing job of being exactly on pace. It really is extremely upsetting when the course is short and doesn’t count for BQs. And then there is simply nothing that can be done. Glad you enjoyed the experience and I know your group must have appreciated you.

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