Jacksonville Marathon: Surviving 26.2 miles

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JACKSONVILLE—Happy New 2015! I continue our U.S. trek: After braving the 2C cold in New York and spending 30 hours in Washington, D.C. to view the White House and the National Mall, we traveled down south.

We’re in Florida where the weather is like… Cebu’s. Yes, it’s winter-time in America but it’s sunny in Jacksonville.

Tony and Sol Baluyot are my wife Jasmin’s relatives. Tita Sol is the younger sister of my mother-in-law, Malu Mendez. When we planned our Christmas trip to the East Coast, we made sure that we’d spend time at the Baluyot home in Jacksonville, where they’ve resided since 1977. I had never been to Florida and the last time Jasmin visited was 25 years ago.

This city is special. Jacksonville is the largest city in the entire U.S.A. in terms of land area. Based on Wikipedia, it covers 1,935 sq.kms. (compared to Cebu City’s 315). The nearby city of St. Augustine (about 45 minutes away) is historical because it’s the oldest city in the country.

Talking of sports, I’ve always envisioned on doing a “42 on 42.” That’s running the marathon when I’m the same age as the marathon distance. And so when Jasmin and I finalized our vacation, I googled “U.S. marathons in December.”

Would you believe, of the 52 Sundays in the year, the Jacksonville Marathon would fall on exactly the time that we’d be in the city: Dec. 28, 2014. Plus, and this would take on a stronger significance, my father-in-law Jack Mendez passed away last July. To run an event with the words “Jack” and “son” on them, this would be special.

And so it was set: six years after my last 42K (the Quezon City Intl. Marathon), I’d be running the distance again.

We arrived from Newark Intl. Airport (New Jersey) via United Express on a Friday afternoon. Hours after we were picked up at the JAX (shortcut for Jacksonville) Airport, I visited the Town Center Mall with Tito Tony to register onsite at the 1st Place Sports Running shop. I paid the $80 registration fee and got my bright orange-colored “Jacksonville Bank Marathon” shirt. This is it. Two mornings later, I’d be on the road by foot.

The Jacksonville Marathon, now on its 34th year, is a Boston-qualifying event ran on a flat course. The average temperature, reads the website, is 56 degrees F. That’s 13 Celsius — perfect for running.

The day before the race, Jasmin and I had to celebrate an important occasion: it was our 17th anniversary. We had dinner with the family at P.F. Chang’s.

On Dec. 28 (race day), I set the alarm at 4:59 but woke up much earlier (like all excitable marathoners do) at 2 a.m. I ate four slices of bread with peanut butter and drank coffee and orange juice.

Before 6 a.m. and with Tito Tony and Jasmin, I arrived at The Bolles School, the city’s most exclusive (and expensive) school, for the start.

(More on The Bolles School, I got an email message from Bill Byrd, now residing in Cebu but previously a Jacksonville resident, who said: “You might be interested to know that BASIC tuition at the Bolles School for grades 7-12, is $41,000.00 per school year–Again, that is just basic for room/board, and books… Don’t know if you have ever followed Major League baseball at all, but one famous former student from The bolles School is Chipper Jones all-star and future hall of famer, 3rd baseman for Atlanta Braves.”)

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The forecast: no rain. Good news because the year before, the runners were drenched with rain. I checked the history and it was varied. Some years, it was as cold as 9C; some, as warm as 25C. I prepared for the “worst:” Before leaving Cebu, I bought gloves, arm sleeves and a beanie totaling P300 from Gaisano Country Mall. These would be used at the start but disposed of after the body warms and sweat begins. I never got to use them. The weather was warm in Jacksonville. At 6 a.m., it was still comfortably cold (at 15C) but it would reach 24C later in the morning.

Jasmin joined me at the start and took photos. She left. I waited for an hour inside the indoor gym. I sat down, stretched and, with 15 minutes left, took a blueberry-flavored Gu gel. At 6:50, I took my position at the starting line. A few thousand stood ready for the race. Apart from the marathon, there are two other distances: half-marathon and the 5K.

Three minutes before gun start, the national anthem played. It can’t get better than this, I told myself. As the dawn’s early light arose, the anthem played, “Oh, say, can you see by the dawn’s early light…” At 7 a.m., the starting gun fired and 3,000 runners were off… The roads here are all asphalted. (If you’re a runner, you’ll know it’s softer than cement.) The best part: Residents along the route stood outside their homes to cheer. Many prepared placards to display. Since Americans don’t use the metric system (kms.), one poster read: “In a scale of 1 to 10, you’re 26.2!” That’s the marathon distance in miles. Another read, “Go, Random Stranger!”

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The race was well-organized. The registration process (both online and onsite) was easy. You can even register an hour before the start! (Something we can learn for the Cebu Marathon.)

Along the race route, uniformed policemen with their police cars were positioned all over. They’d block the side roads. One unexpected act that they did: they cheered you on. Not all police officers but some would greet “Good morning!” (We should request our Citom guys to do the same!) The course was flat and every mile had a marker with a digital clock. Water stations (with Gatorade) were plenty. These were all manned by volunteers —  hundreds of volunteers who did their work with greetings and smiles.

My first half was relaxed. The clouds covered the sun (sunrise here comes late, at 7:22 a.m.) in the first 13 miles. There were portions that were foggy; it was very scenic running in the inner roads amidst the Florida homes. I ran the first 21K in 2 hours and 14 minutes. I felt terrific (like many of us do halfway through the race.)

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But when I reached the 20th mile (Km. 32), that’s when my legs started to harden and ache. I’d stop every few hundred meters to walk and stretch; I slowed down. This was understandable because I only did one 30K in Cebu (with fellow CERC members Steve Ferraren, Roy and Rosan Trani, Jesse Taborada and Dodong Sulatre). As a final “long run,” I planned a 34K run (three weeks before race day) but Typhoon Ruby disrupted this plan.

The one thing that helped was the Bodivance cream (P55 per sachet in Runnr) which I applied to my muscle-fatigued legs. (Thanks to Dr. Tony San Juan for the suggestion.)

With hydration, I made sure to stop and drink at each station (found in every two miles). But if there’s one recommendation that I’d like to offer the organizers, it’s this: it would be good to offer bananas or chocolates in the last six miles. Though I took Gu (the energy gel) every 45 minutes, it wasn’t enough. By Mile 21, I had a case of “hypoglycemia” (hitting the wall) and I felt disoriented. It was at this point that I took more walking breaks.

My strategy: not to think of the remaining distance (let’s say, six miles) but to target a signage or a police car with blinking lights at a far distance and run without stopping towards it… then “reward” myself with a short walk upon getting there.

When I reached Mile 23, my legs started to cramp. Oh, no. This is the big challenge with running; unlike basketball or football, you can’t “run the clock.” You’ve got to run or walk and move forward to finish. Meaning, if you sprint so fast and you’re about to break the world record but you collapse 100 meters from the finish line, you can end up being the last finisher.

With those cramps in the last 5K, I walked, slow-jogged and made sure that I didn’t make any abrupt steps. Mentally, I told the cramps to stop. (After over four hours on the road, you can get desperate.) Plus, the previously cold skies weren’t cooperating. It was getting Cebu-hot, about 25C. The sun was starting to bake our weary backs.

Finally, seeing that “Mile 25” signage was a beautiful sight. At the last bend, we turned inside the The Bolles School as we entered a patch of grass before circling the rubberized track oval until the arms-up-the-sky finish. I finished in 4:47. Whew. Agonizing. Disorienting. Leg-cramping. But painfully fulfilling. This Sunday, it’s your turn with the Cebu Marathon.

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One thought on “Jacksonville Marathon: Surviving 26.2 miles

  1. Congratulations, john! I am sure daddy is very proud and happy for your finishing the Jacksonville marathon. Well done!

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