Sep 6, 201211:52 AMOutside Columbia
Come Outside And Play, Columbia!
My obsession with the Heart of America Marathon began on Labor Day 2008. I was new to Columbia -- I’d just started grad school – and had wandered down to Seventh and Broadway to watch the finish of what was supposedly the hardest non-mountainous marathon in the country.
Thousands of people had completed each of the five marathons I’d run previously, so it was a little weird to walk right up and sit on the curb only a few meters from the finish line. There were no crowds, just a few bystanders who clapped politely for each of the 113 runners who came trickling in. An ice bath and a table piled high with bananas appeared to be the only post-race perks. Unless, of course, you count the results, which were hastily scotch-taped to CJ’s window.
There was no historic Olympic stadium (Stockholm Marathon). No beer tents (Nashville Country Music Marathon). No tuxedo-clad men holding sliver platters piled high with little blue boxes that contained Tiffany’s finisher necklaces (Nike Women’s Marathon). Everything about the race was simple, down-home, Midwestern.
Next year, I thought, I want to be a part of this.
I actually ended up writing about the race before running it. As Heart of America’s 50th anniversary approached, I was working at Vox and realized HOA could be a great feature story for the magazine. And so I spent the summer of 2009 researching the race history, talking to founders, winners and race directors. I spoke to running legend Hal Higdon, who won the race in 1968. Upon answering my call, he was alarmed to find out I was a girl. “Whitney is a boy’s name,” he told me assertively. Sorry, Hal.
Anyway, I ran the 50th HOA in my fastest time to date – 3:23. “The week after the Heart of America marathon … my quads ached, my hamstrings tightened, my knees buckled, and my blistered feet oozed and bled,” I blogged on RunnersWorld.com “A toenail on my left foot turned black and fell off. Walking was tedious; stairs were mountains too steep to contemplate.” Five days later I was in the emergency room with a kidney infection, likely due to dehydration.
Two years and two marathons later, I was back for more. I’d moved away from Columbia but was in town for Labor Day and decided to jump in the 2011 race on a whim and without much training. Fortunately, the weather was perfect and my blood was chock-full of red blood cells thanks to a year of living in the New Mexican high desert. I managed to place sixth overall (third in my age group) in a time of 3:48. I rewarded myself with Sparky's ice cream every day for the next week.
When I moved back to Columbia in March of this year, HOA was on my radar. I wanted to place among the top three women (secretly, I wanted to win, but that’s not the sort of thing you say out loud). Long story short, all those mornings of getting up at 5 a.m. (yes, even on weekends) paid off, and I won. I finished in 3:29:40, in front of a crowd that seemed even smaller than in 2008. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Race director Joe Duncan once told me: “People who come back to run year after year stress they like its simplicity; it’s a small-town, down-home tradition and a relief from big-city commercial marathons.” He’s right – and that’s exactly why I keep coming back to Heart of America. I’ve run 13 marathons now – seven of them in big cities (Nashville; Stockholm; London; Washington, D.C.; Boston; St. Louis; San Francisco) – and HOA is hands-down my favorite (it’s the only marathon I’ve run more than once). Sure, HOA is hot, hilly and – from about mile 19 to 25 – downright miserable. But there’s something magical about running into the fog at 6 a.m. and watching each runner’s red blinky light twinkle down Providence Road. There’s something peaceful about running parallel to the Missouri River, watching the current and the birds and the trees and thinking about all the people who’ve used that river on their way to new places, new adventures.
Hauling yourself up Easley Hill makes you feel on top of the world – both literally and figuratively, I suppose – never mind that sweat is cascading down your body and squishing out of your shoes. And 13 miles later, after you’ve passed at least a half-dozen types of roadkill and managed not to succumb to that fate yourself (some of the drivers on Route N are crazy), you make the final left turn onto Broadway. Your legs transform from lead into feathers the instant you see the blue finish-line arch, and suddenly, the torture of those past three hours disappears. Those last 500 meters don’t seem so damn impossible.
In fact, it’s usually somewhere between falling into a loved one’s arms after crossing the line and scarfing down that last slice of Shakespeare’s at the post-race party that you start thinking about next year. Who’s in?