Senior computer science major Anna Staats woke up to her alarm at 5 a.m. on Sunday, March 1. Her stomach felt off as she begrudgingly pulled herself out of bed, the idea of racing in the 2020 Publix Atlanta Marathon in less than two hours being anything but pleasing.
“Mom, I might drop out,” Staats said to her mother as she walked out of the bathroom.
The excitement felt the night before while watching the Olympic marathon trials was replaced by doubt. With worst case scenarios running through her head, Staats went through her pre-race motions, getting ready to take her place alongside the over 2,100 other runners in the Atlanta Marathon.
The Atlanta Marathon comes at an ideal time in the marathon racing season. For most marathoners, an early spring race like the Atlanta Marathon helps shake off the dust before their racing season picks in June and July. However, this year’s marathon was more than just a convenient racing opportunity for Staats. Racing in Atlanta meant that she could see her marathoning idols and run in their footsteps.
Staats trained for months in preparation for the Atlanta marathon. From 20 mile runs through Ellicott City and Patapsco State Park to 15 mile workouts at marathon pace or faster, Staats averaged 85 miles per week — around 12 miles per day — leading up to her marathon. She ran alone, in the early morning frost before a full day of classes, steeling herself for the 26.2 miles she would run in Atlanta. Despite rain, cold and exhaustion, Staats woke herself up each morning, laced up her Asics and slipped out of her campus apartment.
All those early mornings and long runs passed through Staats’ mind as her mom drove her from their hotel to the start of the Atlanta Marathon. She mentally prepared herself to make it to at least the half marathon mark despite her body’s initial protests when she woke up.
Upon arriving, Staats changed into her lucky socks, a pair decorated with waffles to represent the Waffle House that would be her prize at the finish line, and began to warm up for her race.
“Just gotta make it to the waffles,” she thought.
At 6:50 a.m., the gun went off and Staats jostled her way through the crowd of other runners before settling into her own pace. She describes feeling like she was on autopilot for the first eight miles, her legs easily ticking off seven minutes and 20 seconds per mile, until a house along the course snapped her attention away from the pothole filled road. Adorned with five Mike Bloomberg signs, the house annoyed Staats and she could not help but complain aloud.
“Are you kidding me, another Bloomberg ad?” Staats said, causing three runners near her to burst out laughing.
After running across a small bridge over a highway, Staats passed mile 14 and realized she only had 12 miles to go, a distance she had practiced so many times that it now seemed easy. She began counting down the miles, running them now at a pace of seven minutes and 15 seconds per mile. She grinded up the hills, telling herself that everything would get easier once she got to the top. With a total of 1,811 feet of elevation and descent, Staats repeated her mantra for every hill. Still, each one left her legs burning, both her quadriceps and her hamstrings wearing out from the constantly shifting terrain.
Even with such a difficult course, Staats realized at mile 16 that she was having a good day. She was on pace for a personal record by at least a few minutes and believed she still had more left in her and her legs.
“You can dig deeper. You can take more,” Staats said to herself.
A disorienting section wound through a grassy field and around a track, reminding Staats at mile 22 of the lactic acid building up in her legs and emphasizing how badly she wanted to be done. With just over four miles left, Staats’ mind was just as exhausted as her body. She could not distinguish between reality and the mental confusion that comes from running for over two and a half hours.
This feeling only got worse when Staats realized that the mile markers for miles 24 and 25, the ones she was relying on to start her kick to the finish, were missing. With no idea how much longer she had to go or exactly where the finish was, she hoped the crowd would flock to the finish line and direct her.
Staats’ fatigue only grew and she felt a wave of determination as she ran under the famous Atlanta bridge with its Olympic rings. The thought that Olympians ran under that same bridge filled her with joy; to be running the same course as such talented athletes felt like an honor to her.
More so, the thought of all the runners in the Olympic trials the previous day who were not unlike Staats, who had full-time jobs and still managed to train and qualify, made her only more determined to push her legs into a higher gear. She wanted to be like them — she wanted to run the trials and run alongside professional athletes despite being unsponsored.
As Staats crossed the finish line in Centennial Park, the announcer called her name and her final time of 03:12:29, a five minute personal record that placed her in third for her age group, runners 18-24 years old, and 13th for all women in the race.
After being handed a medal, a bottle of water and a thermal blanket, Staats found her mom who had finished her own half marathon just an hour prior. Although Staats had initially been motivated by the Waffle House near the finish line, the pair opted instead for a local breakfast spot in Atlanta to celebrate their accomplishments. As Staats refueled on breakfast foods, she could not help but feel hungry to experience the joys and trials of another marathon. Her morning may have started with doubts, but the race left her confident that she was on track for an even stronger performance at her next marathon in June.