Thursday, December 21, 2006

Tucson Marathon 2006

Many years ago, my marathon mentor, Jay, told me about the Tucson Marathon. It’s a fast one, he said. But it’s downhill, and will kill your legs if you’re not prepared. I put the race on my “someday” list. Then late last year, Jay told me that he was going to run Tucson again this year – and I immediately put the marathon on my calendar. For the entire year, I thought of Tucson as my target race for the year - the one where I might have a chance to run fast.

But fast is a relative term, and my definition of fast has never matched that of others. I’m conservative in my estimates of my own running ability. I’ve never had Olympic style aspirations, just a desire to do the best that I can on any given day, without taking risks that might have me walking the last part of a 26.2-miler. Been there, done that. But on the other hand, I don’t agree with the philosophy of many of the 50-staters, who go out to bag marathons, not caring at all about finishing times. After all, for me a marathon is a race, not just another daily run.

The last couple of weeks leading up to the Tucson Marathon, on December 10, have been a disappointment. I’ve targeted this race as my best chance for a fast time this year, and yet, in the end, my training has taken a nose dive off into never-never land. I ran the Valley of Fire Marathon in Nevada on November 18, in a birthday celebration, and in a time of 4:31. It was a slow course, and I expected a slow time, but the result was a good 15 minutes slower than I expected for that day. It’s always a struggle to run a race that you know will be slow: your head “gets it”, but your heart always has a harder time buying into it, and you end up wondering if you aren’t simply getting slower and slower.

To make matters worse, the three weeks following Valley of Fire were just awful for training. The first week post-race, Mick and I were traveling. Not only were my chances to run greatly curtailed, but every time I did get some time, it rained. And rained and rained and rained. And then when we got back to Colorado, it snowed. And snowed and snowed and snowed. And, atypical for Colorado, the snow stuck. So my running for the last two weeks leading up to Tucson was all on snow and ice, in frigid temperatures, and I spent my time slipping and sliding, and I just kept getting slower and slower. Finally, to add insult to injury (or more properly, injury to insult), a week before Tucson, I fell during a run, and it was a hard fall, and it hurt badly. I cursed (and limped) the rest of my way home from that run. What else could go wrong?

Finally, race weekend rolls around. Bright and early Saturday morning, I leave for Tucson. I’m surprised every step of the way that something more isn’t going wrong. Despite all that has gone wrong, I still cling to a hope that this race will somehow be fast. It’s a crazy hope, but this is my last shot for the year. This will be my eighth marathon this year, and I have not yet run faster than last fall’s Marine Corps Marathon. If not Tucson, then what?

Having just passed my 50th birthday, I’ve been secretly worrying that maybe my times will all be slower. When I started training with my coach nearly five years ago, he told me that once a runner starts working on speed, s/he will have somewhere around seven years to get faster. Since then, I’ve read similar estimates, but with a range of five to ten years. I’ve started to think: have I reached my potential, in just the five years? And I worry that all of the energy, time, money, and dedication that I put into running are just an unfounded conceit. Maybe the miles, the times when I really don’t feel like running the two hours that my coach has assigned, the painful massages, the trips to Boulder to see the chiropractor, the hours on the acupuncturist’s table, the time reading and studying race reports and race reviews: maybe this is all a colossal waste. And then what?

These are the thoughts that occupy my mind as I sit at DIA, waiting for the flight to Tucson. The boarding area fills up with a bunch of people who look like runners. You can pick them out by the tell-tale signs: the running shoes, the duffel bags, the race t-shirts, the ultra-fit bodies. I’m impressed to be in the company of so many others seeking the same fast race that I’m seeking. This trip starts to feel a bit like a pilgrimage.

These are still my thoughts as we approach the landing in Tucson, and I look down on a landscape that is alien to me, mountains to the east, mountains to the west, and in between, desert that is punctuated with Chinamen’s hats: little uplifts that break up the landscape. These are my thoughts as I grab my bag and make my way to the rental car pick-up area, and I listen to other marathoners in line around me.

But my mind is distracted as I pull into the IHOP, where I’ll meet my brother Scott, who lives in Phoenix, and who has driven down to spend the afternoon with me. I haven’t seen Scott in more than a year now, so it’s a nice little reunion. Scott comes to the expo with me, which is a nice expo for a race of this size, then drives the course with me. We take note of the ups and downs, and Scott, getting into the spirit of the thing, starts to point out landmarks for my reference. We go back to my hotel room, and turn on the tube, and there, completely by happenstance, is the coverage of Ironman Hawaii. All of the athletes are impressive, but I find one story most inspirational – the 76-year old former nun who finishes just a minute under the cut-off time. If a 76-year old woman can complete an Ironman, what is there to hold me back?

Mick calls, and we talk about the race. Mick decided late in the game that he would like to come to this race with me, but it was just not logistically possible with all of his other commitments. So instead of being here to support me physically, he’s calling often to support me emotionally. He says, “I think you are going to be fast tomorrow.”

Scott heads back to Phoenix, and I meet up with Jay and his family for the pasta dinner. A speaker gives instructions for the race, and warns everyone against letting the downhill in the early miles suck you into running too fast. “Slow down!” he says, over and over. I glance at Jay, who is looking at me, shaking his head. “You’re not going to do that, are you?” he asks. I assure him that I am not. I’m here to take advantage of the downhill.

We talk awhile before heading off, and Jay asks me about my goal for tomorrow. I don’t normally have a specific goal going into a race, preferring to just see how the day goes, and to go as fast as possible without risking a major bonk in the second half of the race. But tonight, I tell Jay, “I’d really like to run 3:49, even if it’s 3:49:59, just so I can say that once in my life I broke 3:50.”

There. I’ve said it. Putting it out there scares me, because it means I have to own it. I’ve already feared that I’ve jinxed things by telling another friend that I’m hoping for a PR, and that I’ve delayed sending in a Boston entry in the hopes that just possibly I might come out of the day with a faster time. Jay just smiles and nods. “This is a good course for it.” And then we wish each other good luck, and head our separate ways.

At the hotel, I talk to Mick one last time for the day. Again, he says, “you are going to run fast tomorrow, I know it.” The thing is, Mick usually has a better sense than I of how my marathons will go. I wonder if he’s just being nice, but I know that’s not like him.

In the morning, I check the temperature on The Weather Channel. Fifty degrees. Just perfect. That is, until I walk out the door, and the wind greets me. As I drive through the five a.m. darkness to the buses that will take us to the start, the signs are not good: flags are flying straight out, indicating that the wind is strong and coming straight out of the south.

We will run directly south for much of the day on this point to point course. My heart sinks.

But the Tucson Marathon has a treat in store: the buses to the start line are not the typical yellow school buses used by every other marathon. Today we get plush tour buses! Wow! A comfy seat, warmth, and a smooth ride. And leg room, to boot! And to sweeten the pot just a bit more, when we get to the start line, the buses stick around, so we get to stay inside in the warmth until the last possible moment before the race starts. This alone already makes Tucson one of my favorite marathons.

The time on the bus is good for me. I’m warm and relaxed – so relaxed that I nap while we wait for the sky to lighten. We’re in a really beautiful area in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, just outside the old town of Oracle. It’s oddly beautiful – all cactus and scrub oak and desert. It’s not surprising that this place that seems so desolate to some was the home of Edward Abbey, and is also the home to Biosphere 2. When I close my eyes, before nodding off, it’s completely dark outside, and then later, when I open them, it’s dawn. What an odd way to wake up for the second time of the day.

The race start goes off on time, at 7:30, after an obligatory recorded rendition of the national anthem. This is not a huge marathon – just under 1200 people will finish today – but the road is a narrow, asphalt country road, so it takes nearly a minute to cross the start line. I’ve been watching Pam Reed, the race director, walk back to her truck from the start line, and almost forget to start my watch. Pay attention! I tell myself. You only get one chance at this race – don’t blow it from the start.

Having scoped out the entire race course with Scott yesterday, I know that the first mile is a rare uphill mile. But that’s okay – it will keep everyone from going out too crazy fast. I remind myself to look around, since it’s really beautiful – if stark – country.

A woman running near me says, “oh no, I don’t know what I did with my pack of gels – I must have left it on the bus.” A guy nearby offers her one of his gels, and I chime in and offer her one, also. “Thanks, but I’m okay,” she says, “I’ll just wing it”. I run along and think about how upsetting it would be to have your entire race plan changed by just one little lapse like this. And then I think that offering and actually giving are two separate things. I fish through the pockets of my Race Ready shorts, and pull out a gel, and pick up my pace just a bit to catch the woman. “Here!” I tell her. “I always bring extra.” She thanks me and accepts the gel. I figure that it never hurts to build a little karma early in the race..

The first mile rolls, and when we hit the big uphill, I think, “uh-oh, this is steeper than I thought from driving it”. But then before I can even adjust my stride, it’s over. I think that the big hill must still be coming, but no, that’s it. Pretty soon we’re passing the first mile marker. I hit my split button. 9:02? For an uphill mile, it’s much faster than I expected, and I’m pleased. That big hill must be in the second mile.

This is desert/mountain country, and there are just a few Edward Abbey-type people sitting or standing at the end of driveways, big dogs at their feet and tin cups of coffee in hand, watching us run by. Other than that, just stark scenery. I see a woman slightly ahead of me with a bouncy gait, and I watch her for a minute or so before I realize that she’s running on a carbon-fiber prosthetic leg. I’m mesmerized by her. I run close behind her for a short time, but then she gradually pulls away in front of me. I’m impressed beyond words. I say a quick prayer that I might be given so much courage if I ever lost a limb.

I’m waiting for that big uphill, but it never comes. We pass the mile 2 marker, and I hit the split button again. 8:10. What the heck? I almost laugh out loud. This must have been some serious downhill, since I just don’t run 8:10 miles. I hear Mick’s voice in my head: I think you’re going to have a fast race. A few seconds later, someone is saying, did I miss the second mile marker? Yep, I say. About 33 seconds ago.

We’re now in the little town of Oracle, and the road has widened out a bit. It’s still downhill, and still easy running. There are a few more people out on the few street corners, and I wave to a couple of firefighters sitting in chairs out on the driveway of the firehouse. My heart rate monitor finally registers (I have a new strap, after the old one died just ten days ago, and this one seems to take a bit longer to connect with my watch), and I’m exactly in the zone where I want to be. Pretty soon we pass mile marker number 3, and I almost laugh again. 8:28? This is so far outside my experience that I don’t even know what to think. Mick’s voice is there again: I just know you’re going to run fast! Again, somebody says, did I miss mile marker three? Yep, I say. About 18 seconds ago.

I think about the advice from last night’s speaker, and wonder if I shouldn’t slow down. But it’s just a fleeting thought. I feel great, the pace feels good, and my heart rate is exactly where it should be. Why on earth slow down? When I hit my split button for mile 4 and see 8:06, I’m almost giddy. What on earth is going on?

It’s way too early, but I start to think, yes! I can run 3:49 today! Maybe even 3:48! But it really is too early to have these thoughts, so I just watch the road. In these early miles, the road curves around and turns a bit, and I think that if Mick were here, he’d be telling me to run the tangents. So I try to look up the road and pay attention to the tangents, and my legs keep churning. Just before mile 5, we make our biggest turn for the day, off these little rural roads onto Oracle Road, where we’ll be until just before the finish. I hit my split button again, and see 8:11.

By now, this is all beginning to seem like a dream. I stare at my watch for a moment trying to make sense of these crazy splits. My accumulated time is 41:57, and I can’t even compute what that means. I work and work at trying to average it, but I don’t have any experience with these numbers. I run 9 minute miles! Not 8:something miles! Who knows how to do math with 8:something miles?

Oracle Road is a major north-south road in Tucson, and we’re far north of the city now, where it is sometimes a two-lane road and sometimes a four-lane road. When it’s two lane, we get a coned off stretch of good asphalt shoulder; when it’s four lane, we often get the use of both the shoulder and a lane of the roadway – all coned off. In these early miles, the coned-off shoulder is a bit narrow for the number of people out here. It’s plenty wide to run, but a bit tricky to pass, especially when people are running together.

Still, the other runners all seem to be friendly. I only talk briefly with people, but everyone is nice. There’s a woman in a yellow top from Phoenix who is running her third marathon; she tells me she’s hoping for a time better than her previous best of 3:57. I’m still trying to figure out what my crazy splits might mean for a final time, and I just say, if you keep this pace up, you have that in the bag. She takes off in front of me. But that doesn’t mean I’ve slowed down too much: my splits for miles six through twelve are 8:30, 8:24, 8:30, 8:30, 8:35, 8:36, and 8:23.

I have no idea what is going on. My heart rate is right where it’s supposed to be, and my legs feel great, and it feels like easy running.

At some point, I calculate that I’m running an average of under 8:30 per mile. That just seems insane to me, and I don’t even know what 8:30 translates to for the 26.2 miles. Maybe 3:45, I guess? I’ve never had a reason to figure out what an 8:30 pace would mean. For a moment I allow myself a brief fantasy of finishing in 3:45, but then I tell myself to get real. I’ll do well to finish in 3:49, and if I can hold on for 3:48, it will be a stellar day. I have never even dreamed of running 3:45. Okay, I’ve thought about it a few times, but those thoughts have been in the same realm as thoughts of winning the lottery. Pure fantasy.

But I keep thinking that I’m running on borrowed time. The weather is almost perfect. Almost. At mile five, we go by a time and temperature sign, and it’s still just 53 degrees. The sun has risen over the Catalina Mountains in the east, but some thick clouds are hanging over the mountains, obscuring the sun. This keeps the temps nice and cool. But the damn wind is only getting stronger and stronger, and I start to think that it’s going to totally tank my day.

We’re running almost directly into the wind, and when we make a slight turn just after mile thirteen, we are going smack dab into the full force of the wind. It’s coming on gangbusters. I think that it’s a good thing that I’ve had so many fast miles in the first half of this race, since I definitely start to slow at the beginning of the second half of the race.

The halfway point is not marked with a sign, but I run over a mark on the road that says 13.1. I look at my watch, and it says 1:51 and change, and I think that the halfway point must be up the road further, since there’s no way I’ve run the first half in that kind of time. But nope, that was it.

Later, I’ll read that the wind averages 16 mph with 26 mph gusts. For now, all I know is that it’s a serious pain to contend with. The good thing about the narrowness of our running lane is that you often have someone directly in front of you. I start to strategize on how to draft behind people as much as possible.

But the field seems to keep opening up in front of me, and just when I think I have a big guy to block the wind for me for the next bit, he seems to take off and leave me to battle the wind on my own. People chatting me up now tend to open with, “I could do without this damn wind!” The gusts sometimes cause me to kick myself in the shin.

My splits start to show the effects of running mile after mile into the wind, and I’m happy that I haven’t been able to calculate a finishing time based on those crazy 8:30 and under miles from the first half of the race. Miles 13 through 17 are still downhill, but much flatter than the first half of the race, and they go by in 8:42, 8:35, 8:52, 8:48, and 8:52. I’m trying to chase down guys to draft off, but I have a dilemma. Since they’re all running just a bit faster than me, my heart rate is getting a little out of the zone where it should be. I finally make a decision and decide to take the risk with my heart rate, and to try to stay in contact with people. It seems that I don’t really have a good choice, and I’m tired of racing conservatively. Sometimes you just have to take a chance.

And sometimes you have to remember to look around. Every once in a while, I remember to look up, and it’s beautiful scenery. The clouds hovering around the top of the Catalinas make the vista spectacular. I am stunned, over and over again, by the stark beauty of the desert. There is no grass – anywhere! How do people live here? But the cacti are so majestic – and so iconic – that it almost feels like I’m running through a movie set.

Tucson is not a good marathon for spectators. Oracle Road is just too busy and well-traveled to allow people many good opportunities to support runners. So I’m pleased at the number of folks who still attempt to cheer us on. As the miles tick away, we’re running into civilization with strip malls and commercial developments and heavier traffic. The aid stations have been plentiful – about every two miles, and more frequent in the last 6 or 8 miles. The volunteers are, as always, great. The cops directing traffic at the busier intersections as we approach town have a tough job, but they still smile when I thank them for their help, and some even offer up encouragement.

The road turns a bit somewhere around mile 17, and the wind turns to our sides for the next several miles. This is heaven! Miles 18 through 20 go by in 8:47, 8:50, and 8:41.

I’ve been wondering if I’ll have anything left when I hit mile 20 today. Will I be able to turn this into a race at that point? Or will my legs be trashed from the downhill miles, and my game plan ruined by letting my heart rate stay up at the bottom of the red zone starting around mile 14 and 15? I’ve been praying that all those days, weeks, months, and years of running and running and running will pay off today.

It helps that the road becomes more steeply downhill again with mile 20 through mile 24. I tell my body that it’s time to go, and my legs respond. Wow! I’m sailing again! Counting steps and listening to my breathing, I’m focused on getting to that finish line. I’m vaguely aware that I’m passing people now, at first just a few, then more and more, but today I’m not so much thinking about picking them off as I am thinking about avoiding them. People walking or slowing seem to weave, I notice, and they are also apt to just come to a dead stop right in front of you without warning. So I’m being vigilant, and playing human pinball, just trying to avoid obstacles. Miles 21 through 24 go by in 8:22, 8:15, 8:08, 8:17.

Each time I hit my split button, I try to calculate my finishing time, but it’s an exercise in futility. My mind just won’t compute with these numbers. I know now that I have 3:49 in the bag, and probably 3:48. But can I hope for more than that? I don’t have any idea.

Mile 25 flattens out, and I feel the effects of the miles and miles of downhill, and the wind, and the heat. Sometime in the last ten miles, the clouds have dissipated, and the sun has come out. It’s not really all that hot – around 65 degrees at the finish – but combined with the wind, which is now directly in our face again, it’s not as comfortable as it was in the early miles. My split for mile 25 is 8:44, but it’s not the split that I see when I look at my watch – it’s the accumulated time of 3:33 and change.

Since I’ve had such a hard time doing mental math, I’ve finally figured that I would just add ten minutes to my mile 25 split and then have a good estimation of my finishing time. My mind tries this on, and when I come up with 3:43, I think Holy Shit! I hear Mick say I know you’re going to be fast. And I say to myself Run Judy Run!

This mile is harder than any other of the race. In a cruel twist, the final mile is uphill. I count steps and look for the yellow sign on the side of the road, but it doesn’t come and it doesn’t come and still it doesn’t come. I know that we will have a ninety-degree left-hand turn right before the finish, and every possible driveway seems like a false alarm. Finally, finally, just at the turn, there is the 26 mile sign. I capture a split of 9:18, and think that the 3:43 is out of the question, but then I see the finish sign much closer than it should be. Later, I’ll figure that the 26 mile sign was probably off by at least a tenth of a mile. But now, my thoughts are on that finish line. I’m in a sprint (my heart rate average for this stretch is my max heart rate - no wonder I feel like hurling), and I’m starting to let myself believe. Believe in the impossible, in the fantasy. I cross the finish in 3:43:47 – a PR of almost seven minutes.

I can hardly wait to call Mick, but it takes a while to get back to the rental car. Jay has finished about ten minutes in front of me, and I run into him and his family in the finish area. I’m so excited that I can hardly contain myself, and I tell anyone who even glances at me that I had a fabulous day. The beautiful thing is that everyone seems to be as happy for me as I am for myself.

When I finally get to call Mick, he says, “See, I knew you would be fast today!” And for once, I don’t say, oh no, I’m slow. Today, I believe. Today, I am fast.

For my birthday, a few weeks ago, a friend gave me a gold-colored gift, because, she said, I had entered the Golden Years. I wasn’t so sure how I felt about that. Is Golden Years just a euphemism for old and decrepit? Today, this race, this thing that was too good to be true, too good to even be a dream, has changed me. If this is the beginning of the Golden Years, then Wow! Maybe there are more great things in store. Running anything faster than 3:48 or 3:49 was always tucked away in the back of my brain, just like the fantasies of winning the lottery. Something that you might dream about, but not really believe in. But now, maybe it’s time to re-think all those fantasies that live in the back of my brain. Maybe they are not all quite as far-fetched as they once seemed.

And maybe it’s time to buy a lottery ticket.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Valley of Fire Marathon (November 2006)

What better way to commemorate the finale of your fifth decade on Planet Earth than to run a marathon with some friends?

That pretty much sums up my day at the Valley of Fire Marathon on November 18th. Mick and I have met up with my friends Melissa and Michele (“M&M”) and their respective significant others, Buddy and John, in the metropolis of Overton, Nevada. When we drove in yesterday – Friday - the day was bright and sunny and warm, but this morning, it’s dead cold – the kind of cold you get in the desert that you know won’t survive the sun’s daily morning assault, but it makes you shiver all the same. It’s that kind of cold when we start to load up the car to drive to the marina where busses will pick us up to take us to the Valley of Fire State Park, where the race is held.

A marina, you ask? Didn’t you just say you are in the desert? Well, yes, but we’re also just north of Lake Mead. This is a weird but beautiful part of the world.

The bus delivers Melissa, Michele, John, and me to the race start/finish area; Mick and Buddy are following on bikes. In fact, we watch for them as we stand around waiting for the race to start, but don’t see them before the race director marches us all uphill to a blue start line painted on the two-lane asphalt road. The roadway between the start line and the finish line – 385 yards, to be exact – is festooned with American flags flying on both sides of the road. In keeping with the patriotic spirit, we all sing the national anthem together. What a hoot! If I do say so myself, as an impromptu a capella chorus, we do a damn fine job.

Just as we’re wobbling about the land of the free, I look around and see Mick riding up the hill behind the assemblage, but it’s too late to get a last minute good luck kiss from him – the race is on!

Somehow, Melissa and Michele and I have all worn color-coordinated clothes today, with a black and pink theme. It’s easy for me keep my eye on the two M’s as they pull away from me right from the start. For a few moments, I feel like I’ve missed out on something – last minute good luck wishes? – but then I get to work, and focus on getting myself up the hill.

For up the hill it is. This course is nothing but hills. It’s an out and back route, all on Nevada state highway 40, through the heart of the Valley of Fire State Park. I decided that I wanted to run this race more than a year ago, after viewing photos of the scenery on the race’s website. I’ve been forewarned that this race will not be fast. I know that the first half of the race is a net elevation gain, but with plenty of ups and downs to make the return trip a challenge. I know that we’ll be in the desert, so we have relentless sun from the get-go. I know that there will be little shade on the course (actually, there’s none at all, with the exception of a few very brief places where we run through narrow road cuts, and we have shade from the rocks on either side of us).

What I don’t know is that the race course is drop-dead spectacular from start to finish, with no exceptions. Those beautiful photos on the website? Well, it’s like that the entire 26.2 miles!

It seems that everybody out here today is here for fun. People seem to smile more than normal, and everyone I talk to is friendly. There is a group of four women all wearing identical neon orange tops and Race Ready shorts (just like mine), and they run together for much of the journey, and they are friendly, laughing, talking, every time that we pass one another. There are two more women running together – these two are both wearing identical red singlets, and I keep them in my sights for the entire first half of the race. It seems more like a party out here than a race.

Which is a good thing, all things considered, when I start to take note of my splits. My first few miles are actually faster than I anticipated (there’s a great steep downhill in the second mile, which helps the split for that mile, but makes me think, “boy is that gonna suck going the other direction), but then they all fade away in the wrong direction – heading from 9 minutes to 10 to 11 to 12 to 13. Ah well, I tell myself. This is not a day for speed. This is a day just to enjoy being out here. And I do enjoy it.

Given that this is an out-and-back course, and there are three different races being run simultaneously, there’s plenty of opportunity for fun. The 10k crowd turns around right around the 3 mile mark, so I shout encouragement to everyone on their homebound journey. And then the half marathoners turn around several miles up the road, and I repeat the process. Other than the race leaders, who are all focused and serious-faced, all of the runners going the other way are smiling and having fun. When I say “looking good” and “good job” to them, they pretty much universally return the compliment.

Mick rides up and keeps me company for awhile before riding off in search of M&M. Later he’ll come back to ride with me a few more times during the day, and I love getting the immediate feedback on how the race is going. It’s like having my own personal sports commentator, telling me how far ahead M&M both are, and if this next hill ends pretty soon or not, and the names of the kids working the aid stations. Buddy rides by me once, and looks like he’s focused but not having so much fun – I think he’s not really a cyclist, and these hills are taxing him. I pass him at the 8 mile mark on the course, where he’s stopped, and he says that he’s done. That’s it. Can’t go anymore. Mick happens to be riding next to me at this point, and Buddy hands Mick a gel. “Will you give this to Melissa if you see her?”

Around the 10 mile mark, the race leader passes me going in the other direction. Ummm…that would mean that he’s already 6 miles ahead of me?!? Holy Moses is he smoking! The next few full marathoners trickle by in the other direction, the first 10 or so all serious and focused on the road in front of them, not responding to my cheers. “Great job!” “”Way to go!” But then come the people just out having fun. And they all start to return the greetings. It’s like a party. Really. Everybody is SO friendly. I’m almost tempted to yell to them, “and it’s my birthday!” It just seems like this is one huge birthday party.

But I don’t yell this – because it isn’t really my birthday, yet. More’s the pity for me on this. If I ever had age group award aspirations, this is not the day for them. It turns out that Valley of Fire has ten-year age groups, which means that M&M and I are all in the same age group. How weird is that? In another couple of months, after Michele’s next birthday, we will all run the new Georgia Marathon in Atlanta, and we’ll be in three separate age groups. But here we are today, just one big happy age group.

Around mile 10 or 11, I start running alongside a guy who has passed and repassed me a number of times. It turns out this guy is running is 73rd marathon. This is my 26th, which I thought was quite a lot, but now it’s all in perspective. The time goes by quickly while we run along, chatting. But he drops off at one of the aid stations, so I’m on my own on the long downhill to the 13 mile turnaround.

The turnaround on this course is at the 13 mile mark, not the 13.1 mile mark. This allows the race coordinators to double up on all of the mile markers along the course. These mile markers are among the best I’ve ever seen in a marathon – they’re large and marked on both sides of the road with flags. How could you miss one of them? The aid stations are like clockwork also, every two miles without fail. Not only does this race offer spectacular scenery, it also has great organization.

After the turnaround point, I start to count people. I’m actually pretty far back in the field of just over a hundred marathoners. My heart rate has been abnormally high throughout this race – something that I finally chalk up to the combination of heat and hills – so I’ve been holding myself back. At the turnaround, I decide to just let go a bit, and focus on picking up the pace some. So I start to pick out runners in front of me to pass, and start working my way up through the crowd.

Crowd? Well, um, actually, no. In this second half of the race, it actually gets a little lonely at times. The field is spread far apart on the course, and all of the 10-k and half marathon racers are long gone. The road is open to traffic, and sometimes it’s nice to have a car go by, just because the people tend to smile and shout encouragement.

I’ve started to pick off people, but early in my second half a couple of women catch up to me and overtake me. In a normal large race, this wouldn’t even register, not at this point – 14 or 15 miles – in the race. But today, I’ve set a goal for myself: to pass as many people as possible on my return trip, and to not allow anyone to pass me. These two chatty women are making me miss that goal, and it starts to really annoy me.

They pass me once, but I keep them in sight and pass them back when they stop to walk through the next aid station. But then, after several minutes, I can hear them catching me again, and it’s really, really annoying, but there they go again, and I can’t match their pace. I keep them in sight, but I just can’t catch them. Then two miles down the road, they pull off at the aid station, and one of them heads into the port-a-john. Aha! I pick up my pace and run just a little harder. I listen for their steps behind me for the rest of the race, but this time I’ve left them behind for good.

I’m surprised, and disappointed, that I just can’t get my pace up to a “normal” marathon pace; it seems that the hills and heat have just zapped my ability to get my legs to turnover. The heat is not crazy debilitating heat like Madison – it never gets above 75 degrees – but it is constant, 68 at the start, then climbing quickly and holding at this temp. My legs finally respond, and I run my first sub 9-minute mile in mile 19 of the race.

I’m passing people fairly regularly now, and it gives me something to focus on. I catch a couple of guys somewhere around mile 19, and drop one of them quickly, but the other one hangs with me. He picks up his pace and stays with me for a mile or more, until we hit the aid station at mile 20, where he stops to walk. He’s another true nut job (I say that out of complete respect!): this is his 157th consecutive month of running a marathon or longer distance. That’s more than 13 years! And this is his 200-and-somethingth marathon. He chats away and tells me much of his life story, and the mile goes by more quickly than any since before the turnaround.

The final miles are hard, and rewarding, and still fun. I’ve already passed one of the women in red – I followed them both to the turnaround, but one of them took off like a rocket at that point, so I could only catch the other. In the last few miles, Mick rides up and accompanies me the rest of the way to the finish, with stories of Melissa’s finish (7th woman overall and second in AG!) and Michele’s cramping before her finish (12th woman overall!) When Mick reaches me, I’ve just passed two of the women in orange. They’ve apparently split up – now, where are the others? These two greet me as I go by.

That great downhill in mile 2 truly does suck going up the other side, but I run it all. It doesn’t seem that big of a deal to me – just slow, putting one foot in front of the other – but Mick says to me proudly when I crest the hill, “you’re the only one who ran the whole thing!” Victories – you gotta take ‘em where you can get ‘em. And now I know what waits me on the other side: a beautiful long – maybe a mile and a half – sweeping downhill, all the way to the finish.

And I let go with everything I have. It’s a delicious feeling, to know that as slow as this race has been, I can finish strong. I pass lots more people on this stretch – people cramping, walking, just gingerly jogging along. I feel almost guilty to feel this much glee, and to feel so good at this stage of the race when these people are so clearly suffering. Melissa meets me with about a mile to go, and jogs alongside for a moment, handing me some wildflowers she’s picked for me. “How do you feel?” she asks. I point to the woman in orange just a short way in front of me. “I’m going to catch her!” Later, I will think that this is an odd response, but at the time it’s the only thing in my mind. Focus is good. And effective. I pass the woman in orange, who says, in what seems to me to capture the spirit of the day, “You go girl!”

And so I finish my 26th marathon in my 21st state on the last day of my 50th year on Planet Earth. My time is one of the slowest I’ve run – 4:31:23 – but today, it’s not about the time. It’s about being able to come out and run with my friends in a spectacular setting in a well-organized race and just enjoy the day. Later, we all head into Las Vegas for a fun show and a fabulous dinner with an incredible 12-layer chocolate cake for dessert; it’s a wonderful celebration. But it would have been just fine without all of the hoopla. This is the thing that makes my day so special: running with my friends. It just doesn’t get any better than this. Okay, maybe, a slightly faster time….but I’ll leave that for the next half century.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

My Trip to Oz (aka the Wichita Marathon, October 2006)

“Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife... `From the far north they heard a low wail of the wind, and Uncle Henry and Dorothy could see where the long grass bowed in waves before the coming storm.” - The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum.

This is mostly what I know about Kansas: that the wind can be brutal. For my Kansas marathon, I’ve selected the Wichita Marathon on October 22. This choice is, at least in part, driven by the reviews of the marathon from past years that all proclaim that this point-to-point course is typically blessed with a tailwind for most of the 26.2 miles.

Too bad that the typical tailwind decides to stay home this year and send its wicked witch stepsister – the one from the northwest, the direction that we run – in its place.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The real story of my Wichita Marathon experience is about a warm and generous woman, the Sunflower Runner (aka Mary) from my internet running group, who, at the last minute, offers to open her home to me. Up until this time, I’ve been planning on going solo for this race; it just hasn’t worked out for any of the usual suspects to accompany me to or meet me in Wichita. That’s okay – I travel alone enough to be comfortable with it – but the offer of home and companionship and a home-cooked meal is far superior. And meeting Mary and her family and friends makes the race on Sunday morning a completely different experience from the solo journey that I had planned.

When I reach Wichita on Saturday afternoon, it’s cold and a little rainy and very windy. Not cold as in “a nice cool day for a marathon”. But cold as in “brrrrr, whose idea was this anyway?” I’m hoping that the conditions improve, and by Sunday morning, they have improved - some. It’s no longer raining. But it is still very cold – just barely over 30 degrees when Mary and I leave her home to drive to the race start. Yes, this remarkable woman who has given me food and shelter is also providing taxi service to the race start at oh-dark-thirty on this chill morning. We pick up Mary’s friend Cheryl on the way to the start. Cheryl is a new runner, and even before I showed up on the scene, Mary had planned to introduce Cheryl to the marathon by coming out to cheer on runners together. Suddenly, I have not only a taxi driver but an entire cheering section for the day!

The start of the Wichita Marathon is in the town of Derby, which turns out to be a bedroom community just south of Wichita. We get to wait in a nice warm school building, with more than enough actual flush toilets (such a treat! Indoor plumbing! And no waiting!) until just minutes before the race start. Mary knows everyone, so I get introductions to lots of the local fast runners. There are actually three races taking place: the marathon, a half-marathon, and a marathon relay, which consists of two-person teams. All races start together, and follow the same course route.

It’s dark when we go inside the school, and light when we come outside again 45 minutes later for the race start. It’s still cold, but I make a last minute decision – one I’m glad about later – and leave my jacket with Cheryl. That leaves me wearing just shorts and a singlet and a lightweight long-sleeved technical shirt. Once I get moving, I’m happy with my decision. The important items – my gloves and headband – will stay with me for nearly the entire race.

The race starts on a wide, flat street, and I’m happy that I don’t notice any wind. The first mile feels unusually good, and I’m happy when I punch my split button to capture an 8:50 first mile, and a heart rate (HR) of 150. Just perfect.

But then we make a turn, and I realize that we’ve been running with the wind at our back. The first part of the course is a fish-hook, heading in the opposite direction from where the race will finish. As we finally turn north after a brief jaunt eastward, it becomes clear that the wind is, indeed, going to be a factor today. But how much so?

The first ten miles of the race seem to just melt away. These first miles snake around through some different residential areas, where a few intrepid folks stand at the end of their driveways to cheer for us. We have coned off lanes on busier streets, and the full roadway when we meander through some of the side streets. For a while, I run with a younger woman named Amy, and she provides a nice companion. But Amy has a cough that gets worse – she’s just returned to running after some time off – and I lose her after the first few miles. After I lose Amy, I see Mary and Cheryl along the course, and it’s huge fun to have a cheering section, long before I expected it. Around mile five, a guy named Jon falls into step next to me, and we run well together for the next couple of miles; it seems that the mile 7 marker comes long before I’m expecting it. But Jon is feeling his oats – he wants to break 4 hours today, something he hasn’t done before – and he takes off. Shortly after Jon leaves me behind, there are Mary and Cheryl again! And I thought I was coming to run this race alone!

In these early miles, the course rolls gently, never anything really steep, but never totally flat, either. It’s nice going – or would be, without that confounded wind. It’s not a killer wind, but it’s just strong enough to be annoying.

At mile 8, we’re at the highest point on the course, and you can see all the way to downtown Wichita. It’s an impressive view, from good new roads that connect some new residential subdivisions. I’m chilly, and wondering if I did the right thing when I tossed my l-s shirt to Mary when I saw her along the course a mile or so back. It’s too late now to change my mind!

One of the great things about the Wichita Marathon is that the miles are well marked, and there is someone calling out splits at every single mile. I’ve never experienced this before, and it’s pretty cool. My HR is right where I want it to be, but my splits are a bit schizophrenic. My ideal pace for the day would be around 8:47/mile. My first mile seemed to indicate a perfect day for a PR, but after that, my splits are all over the place – and, sadly, the direction is all more than 9 minutes/mile. I chalk it up to the wind, but that doesn’t help the disappointment that I feel each mile when I hit the split button. My effort feels like I’m sailing along like a Hobie cat on the waves. My splits tell a different story – more like a battleship slowly making way.

At the mile 10 marker, we pass a group of people cheering, including Mary and Cheryl. Some other folks shout “Go Judy!” and I wonder if my personal fan club has been talking about me. But then I remember that my name is on my bib (thanks, as so much of the good parts of my weekend are, to Mary). It’s only the second time that I’ve had my name on my bib, and I love the feeling. There’s an immediate connection with these great folks who are standing out in the cold, cheering us on.

The next ten miles are tough. We turn onto the McConnell Air Force Base, and the road goes bad. The road is unmaintained asphalt, which means potholes, uneven surfaces, and way too many opportunities to trip or twist an ankle. A guy from Arkansas joins me and starts to chat, but I can’t maintain a conversation – I’m spending way too much energy just keeping myself upright.

The course is still rolling, and eventually we hit better maintained roads. Because we’re on the AFB, there aren’t many spectators, but the folks working the aid stations and time checks are great. We pass the half way point, where the half-marathoners peel off, and the relay teams make their exchanges.

It’s kind of fun to see the AFB and all the buildings and monuments that are old airplanes. When I ran the Air Force Marathon last month in Dayton, OH, I didn’t see much of the Wright-Patterson AFB because of the low-hanging fog that lasted for most of the race that day. Today, it might be breezy, but it is clear and bright. I’m perfectly comfortable now in my singlet and shorts. I like running through the memorials, and then past the Kansas Air National Guard Museum. What I don’t like is that my splits continue to be 15 or 30 seconds slower than how my effort feels. It’s all wind. Out here on the AFB, there is nothing at all to block the wind that feels like it’s coming all the way down the plains from Montana.

We leave the AFB shortly before the 20-mile mark. I look for Mary and Cheryl – I’m getting to that point in the day where a friendly face can do *so* much to bolster you – and there they are, just where Mary said they would be! We shout and hurrah each other. I get a huge boost from seeing them, and I feel ready to race. Mary asks how I’m doing. I shout out to her that I’m a bit slower than I wanted to be, but now I’m feeling great.

And the truth is that I *do* feel great now. Everything changes in just a few miles. Now, we lose a little in elevation and enter a park, where there’s shelter from the wind. Mary and Cheryl keep turning up, over and over again, and it’s so much fun to see them. It’s like a boost of adrenaline each time I see the bright yellow jacket that Mary’s sporting. There she is, taking yet another photo!

And it helps that I’m passing people left and right. What a rush! More and more and more. Nobody passes me.

We run for a while – around three miles - on a bike path. I have mixed feelings about the path – it’s sheltered from the wind, but the asphalt is old and buckled and makes for poor footing again. But Mary has figured out how to get out on the path at multiple points to cheer for me, so I mostly just love this section of the race.

Just at the 25 mile mark, we emerge from the bike path onto Douglas Avenue, and I recognize this as the final stretch of the race. I pass a woman – have I mentioned that I’m passing people left and right? – but this woman surprises me and doesn’t let me go. The footing here is a bit better than the bike path, but it’s not great – lots of potholes and road cracks to dodge. And now this woman just won’t go away. She surges ahead of me, then I push it and take the lead, and then I feel her on my shoulder again. It’s an outright race!

There’s less than a mile to go, and I wonder if I can hold off this woman for that long. And then I have a sudden flash, and I know that I cannot wonder this – I have to believe! After the first half, with all those 9:09 and 9:20 miles earlier in the day, I began to believe that breaking 4 hours today would be a tough goal. But now, I’m flying, and I’m racing, and I’m starting to believe that 3:55 is within my grasp. And I know that I can beat this woman – but only if I believe in it.

So I push, and I push, and pretty soon, I don’t feel this woman on my shoulder quite so close. We make our last turn on the course, and enter marathon hell: the final two blocks of the race are on cobblestones! It’s miserable, but by the second block, I’ve found a concrete strip about 12 inches wide on the side of the road, and I’m taking advantage of this. Better to run on a tightrope than on those nasty cobbles.

There’s the finish banner, and the finish chute, and I give it everything I can to finish in 3:55:51. This is not my best time, but given the conditions for the day, I’m thrilled with this finish. If not for the demon winds, this very well might have been a PR kind of day.

The finish of my marathon is like the best parts of my day: shared by Mary and Cheryl, who meet me as I receive my medal. My Wichita friends grab water and Gatorade and food for me, while handing me my warm clothes. It’s still chilly, although the day sports a perfect blue cloudless sky with full sun. I see Jon, who has finished in just over four hours. He’s set a PR for the day, but is still a little disappointed in not hitting his sub-4 goal. But then Mary hussles me home to shower and change so that we can get back to the awards ceremony. We both think that there’s a good chance that I’ve won an age group award.

But they never call my name at the ceremony, and I think that it’s a lesson in hubris, to have been so confident in something that was not a guarantee. Mary sends me on my way with a cooler full of snacks for my drive back across the Kansas plains. The drive is uneventful, like all good drives, save the shared phone calls with friends (including Mary!) and family from around the country. Later, the race director will call me to tell me that they somehow screwed up, and I actually won the award for third place in my age group. But it hardly matters at all, since I’m home again, and the entire weekend has started to feel like a dream.

Aunt Em cried,”Where in the world did you come from?” “From the Land of Oz,” said Dorothy. “And oh, Aunt Em! I’m so glad to be home again!” -The Wizard of Oz

Friday, September 29, 2006

Air Force Marathon 2006

It was August, and I was in a fog. My friend Theresa – we had been friends since junior high school, and I had thought of her as my best friend since our college days together – lost her battle with cancer on July 20th, and, although I knew it was coming, her death floored me. I could function, to be sure, but I was on autopilot. Eat, drink, work, run. Those were all things I did by rote, no need to think in order to do them. But those things that signify life to me - thinking, planning, scheming, looking far into the future, figuring out the next steps in these days we have on planet earth – those things did not come naturally to me anymore. In fact, they didn’t exist in my world.

But gradually, the rhythm of life started to return, and the things I had planned before Theresa’s death rolled around on my calendar. First up was Pikes Peak Ascent; although I really didn’t feel like running it at the time, it turned out to be a good, life-affirming experience for me. And then, a week later, Hood to Coast. With eleven very alive and lively female teammates, I felt that the fog – like the fog in Mist, on the way to the Oregon coast, in the mid-morning hours of the relay - was starting to lift.

So finally, in late August, I decided I needed to find an answer to the question that everyone was asking me, “what marathon are you running this fall?”

I checked out the schedule on, and for some odd reason, the Air Force Marathon caught my attention. Maybe because of the connection to Theresa: the two of us had traveled to Washington, DC, last fall for the Marine Corps Marathon, and it had been a great experience. That day was a PR day for me, and I called Theresa my lucky charm. Something about running another marathon sponsored by the military just seemed “right” to me, even though I’m not really a big rah-rah military kind of person.

And then I saw that the Air Force Marathon is in Dayton, Ohio. My good friends Jonni and Jim moved from Denver to Dayton last fall, and I’ve missed them immensely. Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to be with friends. I didn’t care that people told me that the course would be boring. I didn’t care that people told me there are better, faster marathons in Ohio. I didn’t care about any of it. I just wanted to be with friends again.

So this is what brings me to Dayton, Ohio, a place I might never have otherwise visited, on a beautiful early fall weekend. The last two weeks before the race are a marathoner’s worst nightmare: I catch a terrible, full-blown cold, and then have to go to Argentina on a business trip the week of the marathon! Luckily, the cold settles down a bit during the last few days before I have to travel, and the Argentina trip gets scrubbed at the very last minute because of delayed flights. So when I arrive in Dayton on Thursday night, we’re back to Plan A. And Plan A has Jonni standing at her car, waving and hollering my name, as I emerge from the Dayton airport, at 11:30 p.m. In a moment, we’re both screaming and hugging and laughing. And I know, in a heartbeat, that no matter how Saturday’s race goes, that I’ve come to the right place.

Jonni and Jim have been most gracious, offering me loads of hospitality. They’ve given me a full guest suite in their beautiful mansion, in a golf course development in an upscale suburb of Dayton. On Friday, Jonni takes me to the marathon expo, and treats me like I’m a celebrity, taking pictures at every turn. Jim and Jonni have previous plan for Friday night, so they lend me a car so that I can head out to the pasta dinner at the Air Force Museum. And, incredibly, Jonni tells me that she wants to go to the marathon with me. Not only does she not mind waiting around at the finish area for four-plus hours, she’s excited about it, and tells me she loves the experience.

So at oh-dark-thirty on Saturday morning, the two of us drive out of the golf course development. The surprise, on walking outside, is that there is a thick, not-quite-pea-soup fog hanging low to the ground. It’s wonderfully cool. Given that the forecast for the day is in the low 80s, this is a very welcome surprise.

We reconnoitered the route to the race start on Friday afternoon, so we find our way very easily at this early hour on Saturday morning. It’s still quite dark, and still quite foggy, as we drive through the “Blue gate” at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Parking is a breeze. We’re here early, and everything seems to be a bit too easy.

The next hour goes by quickly, and while the fog hangs on, the sky lightens considerably. The music on the loudspeakers is exactly what you’d expect at a military-sponsored marathon: Stars and Stripes Forever is the last song before the Star Spangled Banner is broadcast. I take my time, cycling through the port-a-potty lines, and then, at the last minute, head up to the race start area. I spot Jonni on the sidelines, and she becomes pure paparazzi, snapping photo after photo. It’s embarrassing. It’s flattering. It’s a huge boost, to have this kind of a fan, right at the start of this undertaking.

Truth be told, I’m a little spooked about today’s race. Last year and early this year, I had a streak of five sub-four-hour marathons. I thought that I had it all figured out. I thought that I had mastered the distance. But then there was Boston, where I had an okay day, but not a great one, and for the fifth year in a row, I just couldn’t breach that four-hour barrier. Then came Madison, where it was hotter than Hades – really, too damn hot for a marathon. Then came San Diego Rock n Roll, where I ran with my cousins. The purpose of that race was always to run with my cousins, but the timing was bad; it was another long, slow day when I really needed to be able to run fast. I started to wonder if maybe I’d never see the other side of four hours again.

So today, I’m running with the same goals that I always have. Only, today, those goals are a bit more important. My first goal is, always, to finish a marathon. Second to finishing, I want to have a good race; no bonking or death marching. A negative split (running the second half faster than the first half) is always an indication of a “good race”, so it’s part of that goal. Third, if things are going well, I know I have a chance at that sub-four performance. Beyond the sub-four goal, the sky is the limit. Anything better than sub-four is gravy, and a PR (better than 3:50:29) is worthy of a major celebration.

The start gun sounds, and we begin shuffling to the start line. It’s a chip timed race, so there’s no need to rush towards the start line. But it’s also a fairly modest field – there will be right around 1400 finishers – so the shuffle to the start line will be fairly quick. I start a jog right before the chip mat, and then we’re under the “Start” banner, and running for real.

The Air Force Marathon promotes pace groups very strongly at the expo and pasta dinner. By chance, I met the leader of the four hour pace group – Rick - at dinner on Friday night, and we had a nice long chat – long enough for me to gain a respect for this guy’s running resume. At the dinner, he encouraged me to join his group, but I demurred. I run by heart rate (HR), I told him. In a way, I’d like to have a group to run with, but I know that my HR is a better guide for me than a pace group leader.

But now, here in the first mile, I find myself running at the same rate as the four hour group, so I settle in near Rick and join the conversation that he’s having with a few other runners. In fact, lots of people are chatting with him, and we have a good time as the first mile or so roll on by. Before we’ve even hit the first mile marker, there is an aid station. Wow! To have an aid station this early on is rare. And the volunteers are – as they will turn out to be throughout the day – wonderful and enthusiastic. I’m able to grab a cup of water without breaking stride, and I lose the pace group for a short time.

This part of the course is flat, but at the start of mile two, the terrain takes an upward slant. Suddenly, people are working a bit harder, and I turn my attention to my heart rate monitor, and drift off a bit further away from the pace group. This climb is serious: not dauntingly steep, but just steep enough to get your attention. Then, after a brief climb, there’s a short downhill, and it all feels like it will even out in the end. But then, there’s another climb; again, not too steep, but steep enough to get your attention. I’m starting to be very grateful for the lingering fog.

The fog means that there is very little to see. The day is still cool, and the mile markers already seem to just drift by. My first mile was a bit slow – 9:27 – but then the next few are faster. When I hit the split button on my watch at mile 3, I say, to nobody in particular, “I bet that marker was off by a bit”, for my time for that mile is 8:21. Somebody mentions that it was downhill, but I think “it wasn’t that downhill”. But the next mile – mile 4 – is definitely downhill. We make a right-hand turn at the bottom of the hill, and I say to the folks around me, “boy is that gonna suck going the other way”. Everyone laughs and agrees.

The Air Force Marathon race route is a kind of keyhole route, where the first and last six or so miles follow the same route, but the middle section is a big loop. The route is wholly contained within the Wright Patterson Air Force Base. This makes the race route really nice from the standpoint of traffic control. For the length of the marathon, we have the entire road to ourselves – no sharing the road at all with anyone. But it also makes the race route a bit quiet. It’s not easy for spectators to get onto the AFB, so our only real spectators are a few Air Force guys that we see along the route, and the seemingly hundreds of volunteers.

By the time we hit mile 5, I think I’m having a pretty good day. I pass mile 5 in 44:40, and I think that, if I can maintain this pace, I’ll finish in well under four hours. But I’m working on an experiment today, and have no idea how it will turn out. After some discussions during the week with my on-line marathon group, I’ve decided to push my pace (as determined by my heart rate) to see how that affects my performance. Typically, I target a HR of 150-155 during the first 10 miles of a race, and then work on keeping my HR between 155 and 160 during the second 10 miles. After mile 20, anything goes. On the good days, I can really push it, and I rarely look at my HR after that mile marker.

But today, I’ve decided to push it earlier. I’ve got my HR in the 155-160 range almost right out of the gate. At mile 5, I figure that this has contributed to my better-than-average split at mile 5. But how will that affect me for the rest of the race?

The answer is, not so well. Mile 6 goes by in 8:27 (another downhill stretch), but then the course flattens out, and I watch as my splits get slower. The entire loop section of the route is dead flat. And the best that I can do is an average of 9:15 miles for this part of the race. I will come to believe that the course is badly marked, since my splits seem to be all over the place, while my HR remains steady right around 160. But no matter how the miles are marked, the reality is that I’ve slowed down since the initial six miles, and there’s no picking up the pace without putting my HR in jeopardy for the final part of the race. It’s a struggle to keep my HR at 160.

We’re lucky in that the fog holds. Every mile, every split I take, I look at the low hanging fog, and can’t believe this luck. I know that when the sun comes out, it could get brutal quickly. The halfway point comes, and there is still fog. And it is still cool. This is a gift.

In the loop, I run well behind the four hour pace group. In the early miles – when I was running a sub-9 minute pace – I got a bit ahead of the pace group. Then they passed me, and I wondered about the strategy of the pace group leader. But after awhile, I started to see them as the model again, and I knew if I let them out of my sight that my hopes of a sub-four hour day would be done. So I keep them in my sights. Sometimes they are way up there, but I can always see them.

The aid stations remain plentiful and frequent. This is probably the best supported marathon I’ve ever run. It seems that there are aid stations at least every mile – maybe much more frequent than that. The volunteers are handing out cool, soaked sponges early in the day, and often along the route – although with today’s fog, it’s not really necessary. Many of the aid stations have bananas or oranges or Gu in addition to the water (every time) and the Gatorade (most stations). The volunteers – have I mentioned this – are terrific. They understand that a half filled cup is superior to a full cup, and – I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating – I rarely have to break stride to grab a cup of water. Could they do anything better with the aid stations? Well, unless the volunteers actually came out and carried you for a hundred yards or so, no.

Around mile 17, I hear a woman singing behind me. Well, sort of singing. She kind of belts out a line from a song every once in a while, and then goes silent. She actually has a pretty good voice, and she’s singing something very soulful and bluesy. She sings a line, and then several seconds go by, and then she finally sings another line. I could swear that the voice belongs to a youngish black woman who knows the blues, but when I turn to look, I’m a bit dumbfounded. The owner of the voice is a fiftyish white woman, wearing an Ipod and headphones, and she’s clearly doing a selective sing-a-long to her recorded tunes. She looks like she’s having fun, and she overtakes me slowly. Then she’s gone into the distance.

During this race, I see the same people over and over. I figure that some of them are folks who stop at aid stations, so we trade places. Around this stage of the race – around the 18 mile mark, I start to catch up to people who have left me in their dust in the earlier miles. I’m definitely not speeding up – at least not yet – so I recognize this as the start of a death march for some of the runners.

For a few miles, we run on a bike path. The sun is starting to threaten to break through the fog, and the bike path is heavily shaded by trees, which seems like a really nice insurance plan. The bike path is nice asphalt, and it seems to be the tail end of some nature conservancy that we’ve been running through for awhile. But by this time in the race, it’s all starting to look the same.

The race has a related marathon relay, and it’s only the second time that I’ve run in a marathon that has the related relay. It can be most disheartening; you’re plodding along for the full 26.2 miles, only to be passed time and again by relay runners - who are running no more than 6 or 7 miles per person – so it feels like you’re constantly losing the race. But today, for some odd reason, it’s kind of fun to hear the relay runners approaching from the rear. You always know that it’s a relay runner – they just have way too much energy. And most of them, at least today, are gracious when they blow by you.

The other good thing about the relay is that the exchange points are real concentrations of cheering throngs. Well, maybe not quite throngs, but the crowds are definitely concentrated at the exchanges, so they are something to look forward to. We come out of the nature preserve, off the bike path and onto the road again, and now there’s the final relay exchange. There are lots of people here, cheering, and I’m starting to get that late-in-the-race stupid grin that I get when I’m having a good day. Okay, so this isn’t a stellar day, but I’m having a good time out here. And then, just a short way up the road, I start to recognize that we’re suddenly back on the early outbound portion of the race.

At mile 20, I think, Okay, time to go for it! But I can’t find another gear. It doesn’t help that we have the first of the reverse uphills here, and that the course switches from asphalt to concrete for a short time. It all hurts.

Benji, my coach, always has me break the race into three segments. The first 10 miles are outwardly focused, the second 10 miles are inwardly focused, and the final 10 kilometers are all about racing. Normally, when I’ve managed my HR throughout the day, I can pretty easily pick it up when I reach mile 20. But it seems like I just can’t move any faster today.

I realize that I need a gel, and fish my Espresso Love 2xcaffeine Gu out of a pocket in my Race Ready shorts. I’ve taken fewer gels than normal today, and only had one of these caffeinated gels with me at the start. Now I suck it down and hope that it helps me find that extra energy that I can’t seem to tap into.

And magically, it does. Within just a few minutes, I notice that I’m running faster. The overdrive gear has finally kicked in. I start to pass people left and right. At mile 21, I finally catch and pass the four hour pace group. Hi Rick! Bye Rick! Miles 23 and 24 are pretty much substantial uphill miles, and I just plug right along. Many (most?) of the people around me walk up these hills. The aid stations come, and I take water, and a sponge or two, but mostly just concentrate on running fast.

Between aid stations, a young girl – probably 6 or 7 – all dressed in pink, is yelling encouragement to the runners. “You’re looking strong! Keep it up!” she says to me as I pass her. I wonder where she got such adult language. And I love her for being out here, cheering us on.

Mile 25 is a glorious downhill sprint, and you can start to see the finish area. I’m passing people like crazy. They are, mostly, hurting. And mostly, they offer encouragement as I blast by them. Good job! I try to return the positive message.

Now I’m working on just picking off one runner at a time. The 26th mile is dead flat again, and it’s full sun and quite warm. The road is completely closed and open to runners, but on the other side, there are young Air Force dudes doing running drills with their sergeants. I wonder why they are running drills rather than the marathon, but it doesn’t really matter. It just seems that the whole world is out here running now.

The course does a 180 degree turn so that we can run down through a collection of vintage Air Force aircraft at the finish; the last turn on the course is a clean 90 degrees. I’ve being passing people for a while now, and it has become second nature to target and overtake.

And then, rounding that final 90-degree turn right at the 26 mile mark, I see her again. Her! The fiftyish blues singer. She’s gotten herself quite ahead of me, but I decide, when I spot her, that I have to pass her. So I gut it out some more. My HR is already pretty darn close to its max, so I don’t have much room to find another gear, but I’m gaining on the woman, and think I might be able to pass her, and then I’m spooked for a moment.

At the Marathon to Marathon last summer, I passed a woman with about ¾ mile to go in the race, and she surprised me in a sprint at the finish that I couldn’t answer. Then at the Omaha Marathon last fall, I targeted and passed two women just before the 26 mile mark. Both of them dug deep and passed me again after we turned the 26 mile corner, and they both beat me to the finish. It’s starting to seem like a pattern. And, all of a sudden, with the finish line in sight, and the Blues Singer right in front of me, I have a moment of recognition. I won’t let that happen again.

So I adjust my pace, just slightly, so that I’m behind the Blues Singer. When I think it’s time, I pour it on. Every bit of it. Every last ounce of guts that I have left. I’m dizzy. I think I’m going to puke. And I pass the Blues Singer, just before the finish line, and I win the race. The crowd at the finish appreciates the race that they witness and cheer wildly. I imagine that it’s all for me.

Okay, maybe it’s not really “winning the race”, but it feels good to, for once, get it right at the finish. I look over at the Blues Singer and take note of her bib number; later, I figure, I’ll go home and look up her stats. Is she even close to the same age group as me?

Even without the drama of the sprint finish, the finish of the Air Force Marathon is worth the price of admission. I’m directed into a finish chute, and when I reach the end of the chute, there is an Air Force general to greet me. He takes a medal (the best medal of all the races I’ve done – it’s huge and heavy and beautiful, with a red-white-blue ribbon) and drapes it carefully around my neck. Then he looks me directly in the eyes, and shakes my hand, and offers his congratulations. It’s a huge honor, and brings me close to tears.

Oh yeah, my time. I’ve finished the race in 3:57:37. That’s not my best, by far, but it’s definitely in the category of a pretty-darn-good day. I’ve run the first and second halves in almost identical times, about 12 seconds slower for the second half.

Jonni and I hook up once again, and we get ready to head back to her house. As it turns out, I see that results are posted just as we’re getting ready to leave, and we decide to go have a look. To my utter astonishment, I see a number 3 next to my name in the “age group finish” category. The Blues Singer? She was, after all, in my age group. And I finished exactly one second in front of her. My sprint at the finish made the difference between getting an age group award and just going home with a finisher’s medal. This is not something I’m used to – I’ve only won a couple of age group awards in the past, and they were in really small races – so it’s a huge surprise and a huge thrill.

So Jonni and I hang around for the awards ceremony. There’s an Air Force band playing in the tent where the awards will be, and we sit and enjoy their music for awhile, as incongruous as it is to watch guys in battle fatigues playing very good rock and roll. The band wraps up their performance, and then the fly-bys start. Every year, the Air Force features a different airplane for the marathon. This year, it’s the A-10, or the Warthog. The plane is featured on the medal, and it’s what they use for the fly-bys. Two Warthogs fly low over the tent in one direction, then they come back again from another direction, then they come back yet again. Everyone is up out of their seats, watching this awesome display of air power. For whatever odd patriotic reasons, it makes me very happy to be an American.

The awards ceremony is fast paced, and the awards are very cool. They call all three age group spots to the podium together, and when they call my name, Jonni screams and yells. The guys we’ve been talking to look astonished, and then they yell, too. I get to the stage, and receive my award, and have my picture taken with the base commander and the race celebrities – Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar. Bill Rodgers says, while shaking my hand, “you don’t even look tired”. Then he says it again. I wonder if he says this to everyone who takes the podium. But it doesn’t matter. I’m on the podium with one of my running heroes from way, way back. At this moment in time, I cannot imagine that life could be much better.

A couple of days before coming to Dayton, I had a long phone conversation with my brother Dave. He told me that he and some of his friends had been talking about luck. They had decided that everyone is lucky in some particular way. One of his friends is lucky in real estate deals, and another always seems to find a parking place right by the front door. Dave said that his kids were his luck: he feels blessed to have kids who are bright and healthy and generally good kids, and are fun to be around, too. I tried to figure out what I might be lucky at, but, thinking back to Theresa’s death, I couldn’t think of a single thing. I told Dave that I didn’t think I was lucky at anything.

But today, as I leave the Air Force Marathon in the company of my good friend Jonni, I realize that this is where I’m lucky. I’m lucky to have friends and family who indulge my obsession, and who actually take pleasure in coming out to hang around for hours while I’m off running. I’m lucky to have friends and family who have given me rooms to sleep in before marathons, and fed me pasta dinners, and supplied bagels and oatmeal and toast and juice and coffee on race mornings. I’m lucky that so many of these people have given me rides to and from airports and to and from race starts and finishes. I’m lucky that they’ve been out there on the course, cheering for me, and sometimes even out there pacing me for a while. And, mostly, I’m lucky that on days like today, those same friends are there to share the joy. I am, indeed, a very lucky person.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Hood to Coast Relay (August 25 & 26, 2006)

Another year, another Hood to Coast Relay. But nothing old is ever truly the same from year to year. This year I have a new teammate: fellow Tapir Michele! She is a speed demon so it’s a shoe-in that our team will do well.

My summer has been nothing but one delayed flight after another, so why am I surprised that my flight from Denver to Portland is delayed? For a few desperate minutes I’m afraid that I won’t even get out of Denver on Thursday night, but then United comes through with a different airplane and all is well again. In the end, my late-arriving flight is a moot point, since Karen, who is driving down from Seattle to do taxi service from Portland to Salem, is stuck in traffic and is even later than I. The only real consequence of the delay is that Michele has to do overtime waiting at the Portland airport. She, of course, uses this waiting time to a best advantage: when I meet up with her, she’s toting a couple of bottles of wine from the “Made in Oregon” store at the airport. Now THAT is a woman who knows how to take advantage of a situation!

We do the normal routine – my brother Dave cooks us up a yummy pasta dinner, my niece Emily cooks us up some yummy French toast in the morning, and we (Karen, Michele, and I) head over to our team captain’s home mid-morning. After the frenzy of packing way too much stuff into the vans and all of the obligatory pre-race photos, we’re on our way. Mount Hood, here we come!

Leg 1, Mount Hood to Government Camp. As always, I’ve requested to run leg 1 again. Nobody else on the team wants it. I love it. I own it. It’s mine. It’s a match made in heaven.

Among the things that I love about leg 1 are these things: it’s the only leg that has a pre-defined start time (in our case, this year, at 2 p.m.); because we arrive early for the race, I always get to warm up on the trails that snake up the mountain beyond the Timberline Lodge; my legs tend to all be in the coolest part of the day; leg 1 is steeply downhill, so I can run faster here than in any other race I’ve ever participated in; and finally, I get to finish first! While the race organizers score this first leg as “Very Hard” owing to the fact that it drops 2000 vertical feet over a 6 mile stretch, I don’t think it’s anywhere near as hard as the climbs that some/most of the other runners have. And my other two legs are blissfully flat and short. It’s always a mystery to me that nobody else claims this leg, and that it’s mine for the asking.

Today, it’s a bright sunny day, with just a hint of cool at the top of Mount Hood. The illusion of coolness disappears in a heartbeat as I do my warm-up run. Somehow I feel calmer about the relay this year, a bit more relaxed, maybe a tad more organized. Maybe that’s because I’m already running on a sleep deprived body. Or maybe the newness has gone out of the experience. This is, after all, my fourth year running Hood to Coast with the Femme Fatale team.

About twenty teams take off right at 2 p.m., and I sprint off the starting line. I have a goal of running a sub 6-minute mile today, and this first mile is the steepest and therefore my best chance. I know that I have to go hard from the start. It may not be a great race strategy, but the only one that has a possibility of getting me the sub 6-minute mile.

And a funny thing happens: I look around, and there is nobody in front of me. Not a soul. I keep expecting the fast runners to go by, but all I see ahead of me is wide open asphalt. It’s a heady feeling, and one I’ve never experienced before. I can scarcely believe this, but as the minutes tick by, I realize that I am leading the flippin’ race! I have never done this before, and, what’s more, I’ve never really even dreamt of it. The experience leaves me feeling just a bit disoriented. Jazzed, yes. Exhilarated, yes. Breathless, yes. And still a bit disoriented. What the heck am I doing out here?

My watch/GPS beeps to signal that I’ve passed the first mile, and I steal a look at my watch. 6:06. Crap. Missed the 6-minute goal. What’s more, I know that that time is just slightly slower than my first mile each of the last two years, when I covered the same distance in 6:04.

But I don’t have time to dwell on the disappointment, since in short order I’m getting overtaken by a guy. He’s friendly and says something about this being fun as he goes by, and I watch him as he bolts down the road. Clearly, this guy is running a smarter race than I, and he’s picking up speed. I try to keep him in my sights, but he looks strong, and I suspect that he is not going to slow down.

While I haven’t hit my 6-minute mile goal, I figure that I can still target a faster time than last year or the year before. Oddly enough, I ran this leg in exactly the same time (38:09) both of those years. So I push with everything I have.

Another mile goes by, and now I can hear yet another runner gaining on me, and then a woman passes me. Dang! This is getting disheartening. Is the entire 2 p.m. field going to catch me and pass me by like I’m standing still? I worry that I’m really blowing this good thing. And then I can hear another set of footsteps behind me, and it’s really upsetting.

A part of me figures that I’m just going to get passed left and right, and I’m a bit miserable because of it. My legs are tired, my body is tired, and I’m breathing as hard as I can. But another part of me says, “This is BS and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” I kick as hard as I can, and the sound of someone overtaking me fades into the distance.

The gap between me and the woman who passed me is no longer getting bigger, and I start to have just a glimmering of hope that maybe I can catch her again. So I bust my lungs, and now I’m catching her. Little by little. Soon I know that I can overtake her, but now I’m worried. Is this too soon? Will she dog me the entire rest of the way to Government Camp?

But I don’t know how to do anything other than to give it my all at this point, and I blast past her. It feels SO good! There are about two miles left, and I’m afraid of her passing me again, but it’s a risk I’ll have to live with. This being out in front is more work than I bargained for.

With about a mile to go, I pass a guy from the previous start. It’s rewarding, but a little sad. Groups start in 15 minute increments, so that means that this guy started at least 15 minutes before me. He is most definitely going to suffer over the next day, if he survives. But this is survival of the fittest, so I run on down the road.

The only cruel thing about leg 1 is that after 5 ½ miles of very steep downhill, there is one tiny little uphill stretch. It feels like hitting a brick wall. It doesn’t hurt as much today as in past years, but it’s still a major pain. The good news is that past this little stretch, we make one last little turn, and we can see the handoff zone. It’s all good downhill again.

So I finish the leg, and hand off to Jan, and hit my watch. According to my GPS, 5.88 miles in 39:18 for a pace of 6:40/mile. It’s a disappointment after running an average of 6:30/mile on this stretch each of the last two years. But later, I talk to Mick, and tell him that I’m unhappy with my run. He says, “You ran 6:40s for 6 miles and you’re complaining?” He’s right. A change of attitude is in the works.

The rest of the team runs extremely well, and we’re almost dead on schedule when we hand off to Van 2 in Sandy. Karen gets her first roadkill on H2C, and Michele tears up the road, too. It’s a good start.

Leg 2, downtown Portland. We’re a bit earlier this year, so I’m worried about my ability to get some real rest between legs 1 and 2. But somehow, I actually sleep a bit in the two hours that we have to nap in this odd urban environment, with sleeping bags spread out on top of overgrown weeds under a freeway. But then it’s time to be up and getting ready. Van 2 is right on schedule, too. That means my second leg (actually leg 13 of the relay) will start sometime around 11:30 p.m.

It’s humid and still a bit warm as I jog along the Willamette River promenade, trying to get blood flowing in my legs again. We’re on the east side of the river now, and the first thing I’ll do on this leg is cross a bridge to run on the west side of the river. Still, the promenade runs in the same direction, and I don’t like the fact that I’ll have a stiff headwind. But you run with the conditions you’re dealt, and that’s it for me tonight.

Selena hands off to me, and the run is on. I cross the river, and then head north. I try to imprint on my mind this view of downtown Portland at about midnight: lights twinkling in the river and more lights dotting the high rise buildings. The temps have dropped just a tad, so it’s gotten more comfortable in just the short time since I did my warmup mile. This course is almost a straight line north, and I have that miserable headwind to fight the entire distance.

But it’s a short distance – just 4.1 miles – and this leg goes by quickly. There are a few folks out on the promenade, but the only people I see after the first couple of miles – after the promenade ends and we run through an industrial area – are other runners. This is a good leg for me from a roadkill standpoint: I pass 7 people, and nobody passes me. The run is relatively short, so I’m sprinting the entire time. Total time for the leg is 33:57 for an average pace of 8:23/mile. This is slower than last year’s pace – or the pace of two years ago – so I’m starting to feel really old and slow. But I’ve worn my HRM for this leg, and I know that I could not have given much more, so I take comfort in that fact.

The rest of Van 1 runs, and this is my favorite part of the Hood to Coast experience. There’s something magical about standing out in the middle of the night, under the stars, when all the rest of the world is asleep, helping other runners prepare for their turn. Tonight, the entire team is spot-on again, everyone coming in very close to their predicted times. Soon, Michele is taking off on her last leg, and we’re scurrying to get to her next exchange before she does, and we just make it. Then van 2 takes over again, and it’s time for us to head off to the next major exchange.

Leg 3, Mist. The drive from this exchange to the next major exchange has always been a challenge. It’s all narrow two-lane roads, and lots of relay traffic, and it all just seems to crawl along. This year I decide that I might as well take advantage of my spot in the back of the van with my pillow, and get some extra sleep. It’s a good thing.

When we get to the exchange point at Mist, the field that serves as a parking lot is not as full as I remember from past years, and in a brilliant stroke of luck we find a huge tarp that someone has left behind. We park in front of the tarp, and in less than the blink of an eye, everyone from our van is spread out on the tarp, tucked into sleeping bags. (Everyone except Jan, that is, who prefers to sleep in the now-empty van.) We’re like sardines lined up on the tarp. It’s 5:30 a.m. when we hit the ground at Mist, and just 7:00 a.m. when my alarm goes off a short time later. It’s been a short night, but I feel pretty well rested, all things considering. Once I get a cup of coffee and eat a gel (and cycle through the honey bucket lines a couple of times) I’m ready to run.

If ever there was a place with an appropriate name, it’s Mist. The marine layer hangs heavy in Mist, and the air and ground are both extremely damp. It keeps the temps cool, which is good for my run. I’m pleased that my GPS hones in directly on the satellites – who would have guessed through all this fog? But it’s obvious that the fog is not really that thick, as it’s starting to burn off by the time I start to run.

Once again, Selena comes in right on schedule at 8:30 a.m. I take off like a madwoman. I’m feeling a bit upset because my first two legs were both slower paces than I’ve run them in the past. Have I crossed that line, where I’m starting to slow? After all, I’ll turn 50 later this year, so it wouldn’t be a surprise. But it would be a huge disappointment. I’m not ready for that to happen quite yet.

So I run my heart out on this leg. I’ve done that in the last two legs and haven’t been happy with the results, but I don’t know what else to do right now. I count steps from the very beginning, and I listen to my rapid breathing, and I’m aware that my legs are turning over quickly. Soon, I’ve passed a couple of people already, and am targeting yet a third.

Then a guy passes me like I’m standing still. And then another. I look at my GPS, and my pace seems strong, so I chalk it up to the fact that we’re all converging now, and the fast guys are catching up and overtaking the slower teams. Still, it’s disconcerting.

I run hard and breathe hard and try to keep my form strong. The first mile is done, and then the second. This leg is mostly flat, just slightly rolling, and the terrain is perfect for me at this time in the relay. Up a little – but not so much as to slow me down much – and then down a little – and just enough to feel like I can really move. Another roadkill or two, and yet another guy passing me. I run like I’ll never have a chance on this course again.

I recognize the last little uphill, knowing that there’s a brief downhill on the other side, and then the exchange. I’ve been working on catching a person for some time now, and then a tall lanky guy goes by me like I’m standing still. Oh well, these fast guys are not people I have any delusions of keeping up with. I see the tall lanky guy pass my rabbit, and now I’m worried that I’ll run out of road before I get my chance to pass. But I put it into overdrive and get my pass. I’m just about ready to puke as I hand off the wristband to Jan.

This last leg is my redemption leg. The GPS logs the run at just under 4.1 miles with a time of 30:03, for an average pace of 7:21/mile. This is better than my last two years – just by a little bit – and far better than my best 5k pace (at altitude). It isn’t the same as running a 5:something mile at the start, but it’s the best I’ve been able to muster at this Hood to Coast Relay, so I’ll take it.

Finish at Seaside. The rest of the morning melts away, as the rest of my teammates in Van 1 finish their legs in fine style. Since I’m the first to finish, I get some extra time to just relax and watch my teammates in action. First there’s Jan; I’ve handed off to Jan now three of the four years I’ve competed on this team. She’s having hip problems this year, and comes in limping at her final exchange, but she still beats her predicted time. Then there’s Karen, who is the people-gatherer. Everywhere we go, Karen attracts people – men, women, kids. Somehow she ends up getting close to everyone; every time I turn around, she’s having a close conversation with someone new. Not only that, but she also has a body that all of us would kill for. And yeah, she’s consistently beating her predicted times, too.

After Karen, there is Anita, who is running her first Hood to Coast Relay. Anita was a late substitution when another teammate got injured just a week or so before the race, and she fits in perfectly. She is SO jazzed after each leg, that it’s fun to just watch her smile. Then there is Michele, our ringer, and by far the fastest runner on our team. Who knew that she would also be such a chatterbox? I guess it just goes with having lots of energy. She fits in perfectly. And then running sixth is Kris, who is a machine. Not only is she an incredibly strong runner, but she also provides our van (actually a Suburban) and does the majority of the driving. Kris is easy-going and fun; it feels like I’ve known her all my life, even though I just met her last summer.

We hand off to Van 2, and head for Seaside, where we all walk down to the ocean and give our legs a brief ice-bath. After showering and getting into fresh clothes, we head to the beach to await the arrival of the rest of our team. They arrive right on schedule, and Selena comes running down the boardwalk, and we all run through the sand to the finish line. It’s a pretty cool way to finish a race, even though at this point my legs are rebelling at running anymore, especially through the soft sand. Later, Karen and Michele and I will meet up with Toby briefly, and then we’ll all watch a dazzling display of fireworks. And then after a night’s sleep, we’ll pick up our 4th place medals and then all head home again, and Hood to Coast 2006 will become just another memory.

Pike's Peak Ascent (August 19, 2006)

In the end, it is the prospect of shame, pure and simple, that gets me to the starting line of this race today.

It rains all the way from Denver to Manitou Springs, and I use the time in the car to rationalize why I should not run this race today. I have felt really, really tired all week, and getting up at 4 a.m. has not helped. My nose ran all day yesterday, and I can feel a sore throat and cold coming on. The forecast is for thundershowers throughout the morning, and since it’s already raining, I start to anticipate a full 4+ hours in the rain. It’s just not something I want to do, which is a bit odd, since much of my training this summer has been in the rain, and it hasn’t really bothered me. But today I just don’t cotton to the idea of being soaked through and through again. The temperature is dropping as I get closer to Manitou Springs – it’s in the sixties when I leave Denver, but the readout on my car thermometer has dropped to 57 by the time I park, just a few blocks from the race start. I can only imagine that if this trend continues, it is going to be really, really cold on top of the mountain. And speaking of the mountain, all of the mountains are so socked in that you can’t even see them for all of the clouds. I’m betting that Pikes Peak is covered with snow. This is the first time that Mick has not come to this race with me – this is my fifth year – and I’m unreasonably afraid of being alone and lonely at the finish. And did I mention that I’m really, really tired? I just want to go home and sleep.

So I park my car, and make up my mind to not run. I’m just too embarrassed to turn around and drive the other way so quickly after parking, what with all of the cars around me disgorging people dressed for a race. I decide that I’ll wait for them to walk away, and then I’ll leave.

But it seems to take some of the people forever to get going! The people in the SUV in front of me walk off, holding a large blue and white striped umbrella to ward off the rain. People are taking their own sweet time leaving the cars now parked behind me. There is a steady stream of people heading to the start line, and I want to get out of here, because I’m starting to feel guilty just watching them brave the elements.

And then the SUV folks are back, and they’re putting the umbrella away. It takes me a moment to realize that the rain has, for the most part, stopped.


I turn the key in the ignition to check the temperature, and see that now it’s climbed back up to 62.

Double Damn.

Finally, I lift my eyes up to the view straight ahead, and I see that the clouds have lifted some. And there is Pikes Peak, in all its glory. All its non-snow-covered glory.

Ah, for cryin’ out loud. Now all of my legitimate rationalizations are gone, and I’m left with the lousy excuse of being tired. Wah wah wah. I try and try to figure out how I will be able to spin this for all the folks who know I’m running today, and I just can’t do it. So I do the only thing left to me, and get out of the car to go run the damn race.

By now, I’ve successfully piddled away much of my buffer time, so the wait to get the race started goes quickly. It’s actually warm standing at the start line, and I realize that I’m way overdressed (just like 98% of the people around me), and I use the time to take off both my long-sleeved technical shirt and my extremely lightweight windbreaker, and to stow my gloves. This means I’m in a minority, wearing just singlet and shorts (the rest of the stuff either crammed into my CamelBak or tied around my waist), while most of the rest of the crowd is decked out in long sleeves and jackets and long pants.

An Air Force officer – a woman – sings an a cappella version of “America the Beautiful”, and she does a lovely job. For the final chorus, she invites the assembled racers and volunteers to join in, and it’s a nice touch. Since I get way too emotional at stuff like this and turn into a crybaby, I can’t actually sing along, but I love hearing this group ring out the words. Katharine Lee Bates wrote “America the Beautiful” after a trip to Pikes Peak in the late 1800’s, so it is always a perfect opener for this race.

The race gets underway, and it’s the familiar run up the streets through the town of Manitou Springs, past the cog railway station, and then onto Barr Trail. The one change to this part of the race course is that the roadway leading up beyond the railway station, before Barr Trail proper starts, has been paved with fresh macadam. The change is a very welcome one, since this stretch was formerly just a deeply rutted dirt and gravel road.

When we hit Barr Trail, I start to think about my race strategy for today. I’ve realized in the last year that if I don’t train specifically for this mountain, I’ll probably never hit my age-old goal of finishing under 4 hours. And I have not trained specifically for this race at all – no trail runs, no altitude training, and just a smattering of hill work. So it’s not that the goal is completely off the table today, it’s just that I know it’s not very likely. A week or two ago, I met Scott Elliott, who has won this race eight times (and come in second or third several more times). Scott focuses his entire being on this race, making a 5-hour round trip to Gray’s Peak from his home in Boulder every single weekday for the last several weeks before the race in order to train at altitude on trails. On weekends, he sometimes camps out in Manitou Springs so that he can make several assaults on the Barr Trail. This is a man who describes himself as “yeah, a little obsessed”. Scott’s advice to me – other than the obvious need to train at altitude and on trails like the Barr Trail – was to keep running, even if you take baby steps. This is completely at odds with the approach favored by my Tapir role models Melissa and Nattu – they both employ a powerwalk-up-the-hills strategy. What approach should I take?

I ponder this for awhile, and then realize that I have my own strategy for this race, which undergoes some refinement each year. First, I’m running by heart rate monitor (HRM) for the second year in a row, since that approach has been working so well for me in marathons. This means that whether I walk or run is dictated by my heart rate (HR). I’ve also finally recognized that I’m not a great trail runner, and that I should take some care to get around obstacles in the trail by walking them instead of running. In other words, rather than trying to power my way, running, over rocks and roots, today I’ll walk any section that is very rough. Another technique that my marathon (and sometime trail-running) mentor Jay told me about several years ago is to take the straightest line up the mountain, even if it means you have to clamber over more rocks and roots. His advice is based on the simple logic that the straightest line will save you from adding unnecessary mileage to the run. Finally, today I realize that often I trip on rocks and roots because I can’t see them – my view gets obscured by runners in front of me. I decide to try to employ a technique that Mick has been coaching me on in bike riding in groups. Try to see through and beyond the person in front of you, he tells me frequently. That way you can see what’s coming that might be an obstacle for you. Today this means that I’ll work on seeing beyond the runners in front of me, and also trying to pass people more quickly if I’m bound to pass them at all.

So that’s how I attack this mountain today. The first part of the trail is, as always, steep and narrow. I try to settle into a comfortable HR zone. Plenty of people pass me on this stretch, but I figure that’s okay. I’m just motoring along, knowing that there is more runnable terrain to come. I’m always surprised at how many people who pass me this early in the race are already breathing very heavily. One woman follows me closely for quite a while before passing, and she’s wheezing like an 80-year old asthmatic. I later pass her back; I only recognize her after I’ve gone by and hear the wheezing behind me again. Later a guy passes me, and his breathing sounds like a dog about ready to barf. It’s the most incredible thing.

The trail is wet but not flooded. This makes it a little more slippery than normal, but nothing too hard to handle. As we get to higher elevation, it also makes quicksand traps along the way, and in these stretches it feels like running on the beach. The weather stays damp and cloudy and coolish.

My favorite part of this race is the middle section, from about mile 4 to mile 7. There is a bit of a saddle on the mountain in the middle of this stretch, where the path widens and levels off from time to time, and you can actually run. The first truly runnable section is on the south side of the mountain, and the vistas down to Colorado Springs and the plains are normally quite spectacular. Today, when we traverse this section, the clouds have lifted just enough to offer up the view, but the grayness of the clouds robs the vista of its normal grandeur.

Today’s race is quiet. On the streets of Manitou Springs, I run alongside a couple of young women – late twenties, I’d guess – who are chatting and singing the tune from the theme song of Chariots of Fire. But after we leave Manitou Springs, nobody around me talks much at all. The field spreads out quite a bit more than normal, and I end up running alone more than ever before in this race. Although I miss the camaraderie that I had with other runners in last year’s Pikes Peak Ascent, I like having the open trail in front of me. It’s just one of life’s little tradeoffs.

The part of this race that has consistently kicked my butt is a section of three miles just below treeline, and shortly after Barr Camp. Today, I come through Barr Camp in 2:04, and as I look at my watch, I realize that I’m off pace to make a 4 hour ascent. The conventional wisdom of this race is that you have to clear Barr Camp by 2 hours in order to make a 4 hour time to the top. In all of my past years, I’ve made the 2 hour cutoff at Barr Camp, but never the 4 hour trip to the top. So I don’t worry too much about missing the time, although it does puzzle me some. It feels like I’ve been passing people steadily for several miles now, so my sense has been that I’m ahead of schedule. But I put it out of my mind, and concentrate hard on these next several miles.

The trail turns steep again, and now there are rocks and roots everywhere. In the past, I’ve tripped and stumbled my way through this part of the race, and hated nearly every step of the way. This year, I’ve decided to try to walk most of it, but to keep my HR high at the same time. All of my techniques seem to kick into high gear here, and I find that I stumble less and keep up a good pace, and I pass people left and right. This section finally feels good. I feel like I’m kicking some serious a**. For a short time, I entertain delusions of a sub-4 hour race.

But that’s before I reach the A-Frame. Conventional wisdom also says that you have to clear the A-Frame by 2:50 in order to make a 4-hour summit, and my watch reads 2:57 when I hit this landmark. I know that I won’t be seeing a three-something finish today. The final three miles above treeline are just too brutal for that.

Back in the middle section of the run – that wonderfully flat-ish part – the sun came out, briefly, in a burst of defiance and warmth. But the clouds won the battle, and the weather has been cool and cloudy again ever since. We’ve had a smattering of raindrops along the way, but we’re mostly all dripping wet from just running through the moisture-laden clouds that have dropped lower and lower. Now, above treeline, it’s completely socked in. And I like it just fine that way.

You see, the final three miles of this trail are all exposed on a treeless, featureless rockscape. The only break in an expanse of broken shale and granite is typically the colorful serpentine of runners (well, really, mostly walkers at this point) making their way along the switchbacks across and up the mountain. You can normally hear – if not see – the top way up there. And it never seems to get any closer. These are 20 and 25 minute miles, and they go by way too slowly. Today I am relieved that I can’t see much beyond 20 or 30 meters or so.

There are runnable sections up here, between the switchbacks, and I try with all my heart to run them. Who knows, maybe I can improve on last year’s time? I’m still going strong, but I’ve slowed since the middle section of the course. While I’m still passing people, I’m also getting passed some, too. I play leapfrog with a couple of other racers, so I figure that I’m mostly holding my own.

While there are runnable sections up here, there are also lots of sections that require huge steps up and I start scrambling, using both hands to pull myself up. It’s gotten cold enough that I reach for my gloves, but they’ve apparently fallen out of my CamelBak pocket. C’est domage. So instead, I don my lightweight wind jacket. I think about putting on my technical shirt, but it’s soaked through with the dampness of the air.

The final mile takes its toll on me, and it’s painful going to the end. But even with the cloudy and cool weather, there are lots of spectators at the top, and they are very generous and supportive as I cover the last arduous stretch. I hear people shouting my bib number as I go by, offering encouragement, and I’m grateful. At this point, I can use all the help I can get. A guy sitting a short ways from the finish is shouting to runners as we pass him, and as I go by he says, “good job, you’re on track for a 4:15 finish”. My heart sinks, since that’s slower than my slowest time, and it just doesn’t compute to me. But as I see the finish line, and hear the announcer call out my name, I’m happy to find that the guy’s predictions were off by five minutes. I cross the finish line in a time of 4:10.

At the finish, I realize that I needn’t have worried about being alone and lonely just because Mick is not here. The volunteers take fantastic care of us all. Someone hands me my finisher’s medal, and I put it around my neck, and then, because I’m a crybaby, my eyes well up with tears and I have to work not to bawl. Maybe it’s this, or the fact that I’m weaving a bit (who wouldn’t, at 14,000 feet?), that causes several medical staff to come ask me if I’m okay. Even though I protest that I’m fine, one of the volunteers grabs my arm and steers me up the rest of the path, and makes sure that I’m safely on the other side of the cog rail tracks before leaving me on my own.

As always, the ride down the mountain seems to take an awfully long time. Have we really come that far up into the sky? Apparently so. It’s good to chat with other runners in the shuttle on the way down. It takes some of the sting out of the mild disappointment that I feel about my result today. As I get sucked in to thinking about how to improve on that performance, and once again thinking about how I might perform next year, I start to wonder about the sanity of it all.

And so, in the end, if it’s shame that gets me to run this race, what is it that gets me to the finish, or makes me even register for the dang thing, year after year? Anyone who has ever finished a marathon can answer the first part of this question. Like Nattu, I think the answer for most of us is “relentless forward motion”. But why sign up for the thing to begin with? It’s something to do with Edmund Hillary’s famous answer to the question of why he climbed a mountain: because it’s there. It’s something to do with a sense of adventure, with taking on a challenge that seems just a stretch over our head. And it’s something to do with that little hope that lives in each of us that maybe today, just for this once, I can do something better than I’ve ever done before, maybe I can be just a little bit better-faster-smarter-kinder than I’ve been in the past. My finish today was a small disappointment, to not meet that goal, to not better my best time, to not come in under that arbitrary 4-hour mark. Why do the thing at all? So that maybe, just maybe, next time I can be just a little bit better than I’ve ever been before.