America’s Marathon Weekend Part 2: My mindset made all the difference at the Publix Atlanta Marathon

Crowd of runners waiting to start Publix Atlanta Marathon, with screen showing Top 5 men's and women's runners and times from the Olympic Marathon Trials on a screen.
As we waited in the starting corrals for the Publix Atlanta Marathon, we could see the Top 5 men’s and women’s finishers and times from the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Marathon the day before. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

It’s hard to be disappointed in a race performance when you don’t set a time goal.

So, as I made my way up and down the hills of Atlanta during the Publix Atlanta Marathon on Sunday, March 1, I was never miserable. I was happy, enjoying the course, seeing new things and appreciating the support from enthusiastic volunteers. I was smiling as I took on 26.2 miles.

I did want to beat my time from October’s Marine Corps Marathon — where I got off track from my goal early, felt pretty terrible, dealt with some crazy weather and ran my slowest marathon time, 5:34:45. However, leading up to that race, I posted about my training weekly — adding pressure for myself to meet my sub-4:45 goal. This time, I stayed more under the radar, so even if I hadn’t beaten my Marine Corps time, I don’t think it would have been as much of a letdown.

Instead of being disappointed that I ran my second-slowest marathon on March 1, I’m proud that I beat that Marine Corps time and that I felt good and finished with negative splits. I’ve been feeling positive about my race experience in Atlanta, and my mindset made a huge difference.

I didn’t set a time goal for this race because I knew it would be hilly. Even though I made some effort to do some hill training, I doubt I did enough, and I live in a flat area — so I really have to make an effort to run hills. I also felt like I’d stressed myself out too much during my training for Marine Corps.

I also didn’t follow a distinct training plan this time around. I made a point to run and get long runs in, but I didn’t stress myself out. My longest runs were one 20-miler, three 16-milers and a nearly 16-miler at the Phunt Trail Race.

Olympic rings in Centennial Olympic Park, shown at night.
I realize there’s a guy walking through the picture, but here are the Olympic rings at Centennial Olympic Park. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

I ended up with 423.36 training miles over sixteen weeks, with my highest-mileage training week totaling 37.5 miles. Compare that to my training for the Marine Corps Marathon — I ran 481.41 training miles and my highest-mileage training week totaled 48.4 miles.

Still, I was five-and-a-half minutes faster on the tougher Atlanta course — which I credit to my mindset and the more ideal weather. My time in Atlanta was 5:29:15.

I went to the start line on Sunday with plenty of time on my feet from the preceding few days. In my last blog post, I wrote about my experience at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Marathon and the race expo.

My friend and host, Jessica, was one of the 5:30 marathon pacers, and her husband, Adam, was one of the bike volunteers for the race, so they were able to park in volunteer parking, and I rode with them. It was nice to not have to worry about getting into downtown.

I saw it was forecast to be in the 60s later in the day, but it was chilly in the morning, so I decided to bring a drop bag. That’s something I don’t usually do, but it worked out fine.

I hadn’t eaten, and I usually do eat something small before a long race like this, so I was considering getting a little food and some water at Starbucks, but they weren’t open. I was able to find some cups of water that were available in the runner village area, and I decided to have one of my gels early on in the race to make up for not eating that morning. It didn’t end up being a problem, although not eating before a marathon isn’t something I’d recommend.

Selfie of Vanessa Junkin in race corral.
Here I am in the starting corral before the Publix Atlanta Marathon.

For some reason, I was assigned to the E corral, but I figured I’d be finishing between 5:00 and 5:30, so I wanted to start in the D corral, where both of those pace groups would be. At the expo, I signed up for the 5:00 pace group and got a 5:00 bib to put on my back. I felt a little weird as I didn’t want to look like I was super off from my pace group, but I was glad to start in the D corral — and while I was much closer to 5:30, I did come in between 5:00 and 5:30, as expected.

I’d heard at the strategy session I attended that the first mile was mostly downhill and not to start out too fast. So, I didn’t sprint in the first mile, but it was still my fastest full mile logged on my watch (I think my final mile was likely faster), at 10:52.

By Mile 3 or so, I was already feeling some different muscles that probably aren’t normally used in my flat runs. However, I knew I needed to save something for the hills ahead, so my pace never really felt difficult until I pushed it at the end of the race. I walked hills when I needed to, and I tried to keep up a somewhat comfortable pace.

During the first several miles, I spotted many of the sites where I’d run with Jessica and her friends two days prior. One of those was the Jackson Street Bridge, where Jessica had said many people take photos during the race — and of course, she was right. I didn’t stop as I already had my photo from that spot. We also ran past Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth home, Ebenezer Baptist Church and Revolution Doughnuts.

Runners run past Ebenezer Baptist Church.
I ran past Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church, during the Publix Atlanta Marathon.

It was fun seeing so much of Atlanta, and that made the hilly course much better — I was enjoying seeing all kinds of different things. We went through various neighborhoods, lots of colleges and some park areas.

I’d started the race wearing shorts and a long-sleeved shirt under my Eastern Shore Running Club singlet. Shortly before the Mile 4 marker, I took the long-sleeved shirt off, put the singlet back on and tied the long-sleeve shirt around my waist.

I believe during Mile 7, I heard my name — a surprise for running in a race far from home. I turned around and it was fellow BibRave Pro Zenaida (read her race recap here)! We were able to get a selfie together and then continued on.

During Mile 9, I decided to stop at a porta-potty. Yet again, I wouldn’t be able to finish a marathon without stopping for the bathroom. (I still haven’t done that…)

I’d been contemplating stopping before, but it wasn’t super urgent, so I wanted to get to one without a line. I saw a couple porta-potties at a construction site and decided to stop there. The first one I went in was actually so gross that it didn’t even meet my mid-race standards. I was going to head back onto the course, but then someone left the other one, so I went in there. (The actual race porta-potties were nicer.)

During my bathroom stop, the 5:30 group had passed me. I worked on catching up to them. They were doing three-minute-run, one-minute-walk intervals.

Selfie of Vanessa and Zenaida.
Zenaida and I got a selfie on the Publix Atlanta Marathon/Half Marathon course.

The pacers — there were two 5:30 full pacers and two 2:45 half pacers with a big group — were doing a good job pacing and I enjoyed having them in sight, but I didn’t want to do 3/1 consistent intervals the entire time because I knew that if I were going downhill, I needed to run. I didn’t want to “waste” my walk on the downhills when I’d need it for the uphills. I did run with them at times, and I believe I was with/right behind the group when we crossed the halfway point.

The last couple miles of the first half seemed especially tough. A hill near Georgia Institute of Technology seemed particularly bad, but on Strava, it only showed up as a 1.1 percent climb.

Just before we hit the halfway point, the half marathoners split off to finish their race. After that, the field got a lot smaller.

After the halfway point, I passed the 5:30 group. I was feeling pretty good and wanted to run as much as I could. Of course, I only wanted to run when it made sense, because I knew I wasn’t going to help myself out by running hard up hills with miles in the double digits remaining.

Gold Olympic rings and the Olympic cauldron are shown, with a runner in front of where the photo is being taken, too.
This was the only place I stopped to take photos on the course. I was already at a water stop, and I just thought it was such a cool view with the Olympic rings and the downtown in the distance. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

I was still ahead of the group as I made my way across a pedestrian bridge near Mercedes-Benz Stadium and up a hill afterward. We then continued to a college area, which included Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College and Spelman College.

I was feeling good, but unfortunately, I had to make another bathroom stop. Again, I got passed by the 5:30 group while using the bathroom. It took me a lot longer to catch up this time — I didn’t catch up until the end of the race.

Even though I didn’t really have a time goal, I did want to catch back up to the 5:30 group. I didn’t feel terrible, and I continued to run when I could and walk up the hills when needed.

Vanessa Junkin runs with another runner behind her. They have just gone under gold Olympic rings.
I ran under the Olympic rings during the Publix Atlanta Marathon.

It was starting to get warmer. I’d started to get warm when I took off the long-sleeved shirt just before I hit the Mile 4 marker, but the second half was warmer than I would have liked. At some point — I believe either at the water stop during Mile 16 or Mile 18 — I started taking Powerade and water at the aid stations instead of just water. I figured I would need the extra electrolytes, and I didn’t want to wait till I felt like I needed them. There were a lot of water stops, which were much appreciated, and I got water at and walked through all of them.

I also took my gels throughout the course — I ended up taking three of the Untapped syrup packets I’d brought and one Clif Shot I got from an aid station. I was thinking I would take the Clif Shot so I could save one of my other syrup packets since I’d taken one so early, but I ended up not taking that one.

The hills continued, but I’d reached Mile 20 without hitting the wall — and I never ended up hitting the wall. For some reason, I was coughing a lot, and although I’d taken my inhaler twice before the race, I did end up taking it again during the race, which I think helped. But overall, I didn’t feel bad.

I was still able to run when the course was downhill or flat (and there was hardly any that was just flat), and I was choosing to walk the uphills. It wasn’t like at Marine Corps, where I kept feeling like I just had to walk, and I walked long stretches of pretty flat terrain.

Vanessa Junkin looks focused as she nears the finish of the Publix Atlanta Marathon.
I was focused as I made my way toward the finish line of the Publix Atlanta Marathon.

During Mile 22, we made our way to the Atlanta Track Club’s outdoor track. Jessica had pointed this out driving past on a previous day, but for some reason, I didn’t realize we’d actually be running on the track. We ran on a tiny bit of grass, ran around the track for about 200 meters (half a lap) and came out on the other side, where there was an out-and-back portion on the road. At this point, I was getting pretty close to the 5:30 group, and I saw Jessica on the out-and-back, letting her know I was coming for their group.

Around this time, I also talked to a guy wearing a Marathon Maniacs shirt and mentioned I lived in a flat area. I was enjoying this small track portion of the course, as I knew it was one of the few flat areas. He asked if I did my hill training on Interstate ramps. Nope — no Interstates in Salisbury. I mentioned parking garages (which I might have only done once in this training cycle) and bridges.

During the second half, I also talked to a runner who was wearing a birthday girl crown and was running the race for her birthday, and a runner from Texas. I’d told the Texas runner I was from a very flat area of Maryland, and she said she was from a very flat area of Texas.

Vanessa Junkin smiles as she crosses the finish line of the Publix Atlanta Marathon.
I smiled as I crossed the finish line of the Publix Atlanta Marathon in 5:29:15.

I saw a lot of the same people throughout the second half, but I think I was able to pass some people toward the end.

At some points, I doubted my ability to cross the finish line under 5:30, but as I got closer to the end, I was thinking I could do it. With nothing left to save my energy for, I picked up the pace as I got closer to the end, even running up a hill. I ran the last full mile in 11:29, my fastest mile since the first one, and the last 0.66 (I ended up with 26.66 on my watch, probably because of the tangents and all the turns) in 6:35, a 9:56 pace.

For such a hilly course, I also think I was able to keep my pace relatively consistent, aside from the miles that included bathroom stops. I did notice that although there were many uphills, it seemed like there were just as many downhills. I knew I couldn’t sprint the downhills because I didn’t want to ruin my legs, but it did help even out my pace from walking the uphills.

After speeding up as I neared the finish, I crossed the finish line just after Jessica and the 5:30 group, with a time of 5:29:15. I was excited that I’d had such a strong finish and that I was able to finish under 5:30 and beat my time from Marine Corps.

Vanessa Junkin posing with finisher medal after finishing Publix Atlanta Marathon.
I continued smiling after receiving my finisher medal.

I had conquered a tough course! On the Publix Atlanta Marathon website, the total elevation gain for the full marathon is 1,811 feet. I also noticed this there were 26.62 miles listed — close to the 26.66 miles I’d logged. I assume if you took absolutely every tangent, you could probably end up with 26.2 miles, but there were a lot of turns. The course map can be found here.

This was my 12th marathon and the eighth state in which I’ve completed a marathon. For many of my races — Marine Corps, Shamrock, Freedom’s Run and Louisiana, to name a few — I recalled the second half being much tougher than the first half for me.

At Marine Corps, it was getting worn down by the weather and my painful, shriveled-up feet. At Shamrock, I had a breathing issue. The second half of the Freedom’s Run course was much more hilly than the first half. And I remember starting with the 4:15 pacer at the Louisiana Marathon, only to finish in 4:53.

It was a nice change to feel pretty good throughout — a feeling I did have at Freedom’s Run in October 2018, where I had a similar finish time (5:26). At both of these races, I think it was important that I saved some energy so I’d be able to tackle the hills. As I ran the Publix Atlanta Marathon, it, for the most part, felt like it was going by quickly, even though I was moving more slowly than many of my other races. This is something that I’ve found happens a lot in my running, because running more slowly can be more pleasant.

Selfie of Vanessa Junkin holding finisher medal after Publix Atlanta Marathon.
Of course, I got a selfie with my medal after finishing the race.

Despite feeling good, I still finished toward the back of the pack — which doesn’t bother me. I finished as No. 1,818 of 2,105 finishers, according to the results.

However, by the time I crossed the finish line, I’d moved up 158 places from the first split, at the 5K mark. At that point, I was in 1,976th place of 2,141 runners. By the halfway point, I’d dropped back to spot 1,994.

At my last marathon, I found myself wondering why I chose to run marathons as my hobby. This race helped remind me why I choose to run so many marathons. I enjoyed the course, the volunteers and the experience. At one point as I neared the finish, I gave a double fist-bump to a woman who was holding pom-poms and giving everyone compliments.

Another time in the race, probably within the last three miles, a woman said there was a downhill coming up, and my response was “yay.”

There were volunteers who cheered for me by name, since my first name was on my bib.

Race bib and finisher medal shown on top of gray Publix Atlanta Marathon race shirt.
Here are my race shirt, finisher medal and bib.

There was also a tall building that had “You got this” illuminated on its high-up sign.

It was such a fun opportunity to have the Olympic Marathon Trials and the “regular person” marathon, as I had affectionately called it, in the same weekend.

My next marathon will be the Philadelphia Marathon in November, and don’t expect to hear too much from me beforehand. It worked this time!


Mile 1: 10:52
Mile 2: 12:14
Mile 3: 11:42
Mile 4: 12:49
Mile 5: 11:27
Mile 6: 12:27
Mile 7: 13:02
Mile 8: 11:39
Mile 9: 14:31 (bathroom stop)
Mile 10: 12:17
Mile 11: 12:45
Mile 12: 13:21
Mile 13: 11:49
Mile 14: 11:43
Mile 15: 11:50
Mile 16: 15:32 (bathroom stop)
Mile 17: 12:02
Mile 18: 11:58
Mile 19: 12:13
Mile 20: 12:41
Mile 21: 12:32
Mile 22: 12:52
Mile 23: 12:13
Mile 24: 12:20
Mile 25: 12:12
Mile 26: 11:29
Last part (watch had 0.66): 6:35 (9:56 pace)
Total: 5:29:17 / 26.66 miles / 12:21 pace

Official Splits
5K: 36:38 (11:47 pace)
10K: 1:15:47 (12:12 pace)
Half Marathon: 2:45:19 (12:37 pace)
20 Miles: 4:14:02 (12:42 pace)
40K: 5:13:51 (12:38 pace)
Finish: 5:29:15 (12:33 pace)

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8 thoughts on “America’s Marathon Weekend Part 2: My mindset made all the difference at the Publix Atlanta Marathon

  1. Congrats on completing another marathon! I ran that course (I think it’s the same) when it was the ING Georgia Marathon and those hills are no joke. It was a cold and rainy day and it was one of my slowest marathons.

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