Monday, January 02, 2006

Marathon to Marathon (June 11, 2005)

(In which I run against the incumbent governor of Iowa, and win.)

For some odd reason, the thought of running my Iowa marathon does not really engage me, and I’m not really sure why. Perhaps it’s the familiarity – I grew up in Iowa, so it seems far too ordinary. One of the things that is most appealing about my quest to run a marathon in each of the 50 states is that it’s a great way to see new parts of the country, a way to experience completely new terrain. It’s a way to access something a little more exotic than my roots. Iowa is, most definitely, not new terrain. I grew up in Iowa, went to college in Iowa, and worked in Iowa for a few years before following my heart to Colorado. During that time in Iowa, I ran track in my junior high and high school years, and I started my running career while still in college. What new could I discover about running a marathon in Iowa?

But my (gulp) 30 year high school class reunion is scheduled for June 11, 2005, in Ute, Iowa, just 6 miles from my childhood home of Charter Oak. As with much of rural Iowa, Charter Oak belongs to a consolidated school district that includes Ute. I commit to a few former classmates that I will be at the reunion, and then later regret the commitment. After all, I have only run one marathon so far this year – compared to the six that I ran last year – and I really am on the hunt for a good late spring or early summer 26.2-miler. So after committing to the class reunion, I pull up the trusty calendar at, and see this entry: the Marathon to Marathon.

But I have read the reviews of this marathon at some earlier date, and, quite frankly, I am not interested. It is too much like Iowa. After all, the entries describe the race in terms that sound just like my childhood home: rural roads, the sights and sounds of farms, and sparse crowds. This is not new and exotic, just an everyday run on one of my visits to family. But now, I look at the Marathon to Marathon with renewed interest: this year’s edition of the race will be held on the morning of June 11, the day of my class reunion. A quick check of mapquest confirms that the race is within easy driving distance of Mom’s house, and so, that simply, I print the form and register for the 10th annual Marathon to Marathon.

I send a message to Mom to let her know I’ve put this on the schedule, fully expecting her to support me by offering me the use of her car for the morning. To my utter surprise and delight, Mom responds with a message saying that she will come with me “if only she can find something to do while waiting for me during the race”. I take care of this requirement handily by including a note to the race director when I return my application form, volunteering Mom to work during the race. And so, now, the day is starting to look more like a tiny bit of an adventure.

Then to my further surprise and delight, Theresa writes to say that she will come and run the 5k that accompanies the marathon. Theresa is my friend from way back: we first met in junior high, we played basketball together through high school, and then again on an intramural team in college. Somewhere in the space between college and “real life”, Theresa became one of those rare friends-for-life. Although we don’t see each other more than every year or so, whenever I hear her voice on the other end of the phone, it’s like we never finished the previous conversation, and it’s like no time at all has elapsed.

At the beginning of 2004, Theresa was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare form of liver cancer. In the months following her diagnosis, Theresa received treatment for the cancer at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and I spent a week there with her as her caregiver. Mayo is an incredible institution: days are scheduled for patients, and each patient receives an itinerary of appointment times and locales. Theresa’s appointments started at 7:45 a.m., and sometimes went as late as 4 p.m. These would be full days, even if you weren't fatigued from the cumulative effects of recovering from major surgery, chemo, and radiation.

During the week that I spent with Theresa, we met with a bevy of medical personnel who guided her through not only her chemo and radiation therapy, but also the preparation for a liver transplant. During all of it, Theresa made notes in a notebook, and early in the week, she handed me another notebook so that I could capture things that she might miss. It was all there, every thought, every bit of information. Like taking splits during training - you never know which bit of information is critical. When we met with the anesthesiologist mid-week, he asked Theresa, "are you a runner?" When she said that she is - short distances, knees that don't like distance - he said, "here is what you do. There is a half marathon in Monterey, California, every spring. And a 5k. You need to make up your mind that you will run it after your transplant. You can run the 5k and your friend (nodding at me) can run the half." I watched as Theresa wrote it all down: run the 5k in Monterey.

Happily, things went really well for my friend. She finished her chemo and radiation, and then went home to wait for a liver. Theresa is from a large family, and several of her brothers and sisters – who were perfect matches – stepped up as candidates for a live donor transplant, but one by one they were ruled out. Finally, her break came at the end of July 2004, when a donor liver became available, and she underwent the several hours long transplant. It was successful, and Theresa has spent much of the last 8 or 9 months trying to get back to normal. And in that process, we have both remembered – and started to prepare for – her pledge to run a race after the transplant. While the Marathon to Marathon may not be Monterey, it’s still a huge step. And so you’ll understand how thrilled I am that Theresa has decided to join me in June for her first race as a transplantee.

In a moment of pure capriciousness, I’ve suggested to Theresa that her daughter Maggie – 13 years old, and a member of her local track team – should come along and pace me to the finish of the marathon. Theresa tells me that she will bring Maggie, and that Maggie will, indeed, run a part of the race with me. And so, my tiny idea – to “x” off another state and to work two travel itineraries into a single plane ticket – has become a grand adventure.

Theresa and Maggie stay with Mom and me the night before the race, but they don’t arrive until around 9 p.m., and we could easily stay up the entire night talking and catching up and solving the problems of the world. But around 11, we all have a moment of sanity, and head off to our respective beds. I sleep fairly well for the night before a marathon, but I leap out of bed when the alarm sounds at 3 a.m. In deference to the possible (likely?) heat and humidity of Iowa in mid-June, the race begins at 6 a.m. Mom and Theresa have, quite fittingly, assigned me as camp counselor for the morning, so I make a ruckus as I go about my morning routine – in the bathroom, then making coffee and toasting a bagel, and generally banging around in the kitchen until lights are on throughout the house, and I’ve seen everyone in upright posture.

According to mapquest, it is a 90 minute drive from Mom’s house to the race start. Always nervous before a race, I want to be on the road early, dead early. I’ve figured that leaving sometime – anytime – before 4 is the ticket. But that just doesn’t seem to fit into anybody else’s schedule, so I start to go a bit crazy, stage by stage. Theresa walks into the kitchen and announces, “Houston, we have a problem” – her stomach has been unsettled all night. Now I worry not only about getting to Storm Lake in time for the start of the race, but I wonder if I have somehow jinxed Theresa’s new liver, and after 10 months of post-transplant health, her body will now reject this organ? Theresa assures us that she will be fine, but that she may just need to make a few roadside stops on the way to Storm Lake.

And Mom, always prompt, doesn’t think we need to leave until after 4, and she just doesn’t see a need to hurry. Finally, we all get out the door, and then Maggie announces, “I let the cat out – is that okay?” Now we have 4 women outside trying to coax a timid cat back in the house. Argh!!! Mom’s cat – a black cat – disappears into the darkness, and finally, we decide to leave this feline friend outside, although I can tell it makes Mom nervous. I back Mom’s car out of the garage, and I’m gunning to get going. We drive down the still very dark street, and find a convention of cats gathered under a streetlight at a stop sign a block or two away from Mom’s, and I slow down and take care not to hit the kitties. Now I’m really worried about Mom’s cat – will she come out on the street with these other carousing cats? Will she be okay outside for the day?

But we press on. On, that is, for about another block, and Mom announces that she has forgotten the camera she wants to bring. Can we go back to pick it up? I glance at the clock and nearly have a heart attack – the digital clock in Mom’s car reads 4:15. WHAT?!? Mom sees my glance and says, “oh, the clock is about 10 minutes fast.” So, calm. I breathe deeply for a moment. Then I signal to Theresa, who is following in her own car, to pull alongside, and tell her to wait while we go careening back up the street – careful again, both directions, to miss the cat convention in the middle of the intersection – and then back down again after I’ve recovered Mom’s camera from the kitchen table. Finally on our way.

I’m a basket case by now, and I have the wheel of the car, and my foot is on the accelerator. I have visions of missing the start of the race. I drive like a bat out of hell. We have already decided to take back roads – little-used paved county roads that are also not well patrolled – most of the way, and I take full advantage to go as fast as possible. I typically don’t drive much over the speed limit, but today is an exception. The early hour means that there is virtually no other traffic on the roads, and we fly along.

Because we’re taking back roads, and not the mapquest route, we don’t really know how many miles it is to Storm Lake. Finally, a road sign signals a turn to the final stretch of road to Storm Lake, and it announces, “Storm Lake – 20-some miles”. Phew. I look at the clock again, and realize that we are doing fine, and I can ease off the accelerator a bit.

But now, we hit something entirely unexpected: fog. Who would have thought? My worries have been about heat and humidity, and these last few days in Iowa, thunderstorms. But fog??? Sure enough, that’s what we find. Not quite pea-soup quality, but thick enough. Still, we make pretty good time, and have to pull off the road just two times to refer to directions, and then the Storm Lake High School – the starting location of the marathon - looms directly in front of us. It is 5:15. Hallelujah!

Better yet, the race packet pick-up is actually inside the school, so it’s nice and light and warm. Did I say warm? Outside it is deliciously cool. Not truly cool, but at 69 degrees Fahrenheit, far better than it could be – far better than you might expect for mid-June in Iowa. The heavy moisture in the air makes it feel much cooler than it actually is. It’s truly a delight to have bright lights and flush toilets before the race.

I pick up my bib from the friendly volunteers, and then go back to ask a question about the course – are the miles marked on the road? It takes just a moment for me to recognize that the friendly white-haired woman answering my question is Lois Lind, the race director. It was Lois’ husband, LeRoy, who first conceived of the idea of the Marathon to Marathon. Several years back, when Storm Lake was getting set to celebrate a city milestone – the Buena Vista County Sesquicentennial– LeRoy suggested to the event organizers that they should hold a marathon to the small town of Marathon that, just coincidentally, happened to be 26 miles from Storm Lake. To their everlasting credit, the officials in both Storm Lake and Marathon fully embraced the idea, and the plans were soon in full swing for the first Marathon to Marathon. Sadly, LeRoy passed away before the first race was run. But in the spirit of her husband, Lois Lind took over his duties, and presided over the first – and now every annual - marathon, up to and including today’s 10th annual edition of the Marathon to Marathon. Lois is a diminutive woman, and it is clear that this race is a labor of love for her. I’m touched and honored that I’ve actually been able to chat with her for a few minutes before we’re shepherded out the side door and onto the start line in front of the high school.

Since I arrived at Mom’s on Thursday night, there has been a buzz in the air about Iowa’s governor, Tom Vilsack. Mr. Vilsack and the first lady of the state are rumored in the local press to be participating in the day’s events. I’ve done a tiny bit of poking and learned that Governor Vilsack has run two marathons in the last year or so, not extremely fast, but still, he has finished. It’s kinda cool to hear about a politician using all that hot air for something that makes sense to me. So, since we’ve arrived at the Storm Lake High School, we’ve all been on the lookout for the guv, but to no avail.

But now we have the obligatory start line ceremony, and for a small race, they sure do it up big. There are a couple of toga-clad folks officiating at the start line – just in case any of us have forgotten the Greek theme – and they give special recognition to a few runners who have participated in each of the previous Marathons to Marathon. Given that this is the 10th annual running of the event, it’s a nice gesture. Then they introduce a runner from Japan who is here today running his 18-millionth marathon (in reality, it is his 397th marathon; same difference). Finally, they confirm the rumours and introduce Governor Vilsack, who comes forward to offer a few words. And it truly is just a few words. The governor welcomes everyone, and then says “I need to save my energy for the race…but don’t worry, feel free to pass me!”, and it’s almost time to go. A high school kid plays a very respectable rendition of the Star Spangled Banner on his trumpet, and then a horn sounds, and we are off!

We’re running past the small assemblage of people in front of the school, and I go wild waving at Mom and Theresa and Maggie, and then the course does a loop around the school campus before we head out of town. A hundred yards or so into the race – just after the first corner, I look at my watch to check on my heart rate. As we stood waiting for the start, I felt my heart pounding, and, looking down, saw that it had soared to 125 beats per minute during the national anthem. Just standing there! So I’m wondering where it is now that we’re running. A guy running next to me – a tall, lanky guy – pauses at my elbow to say, sardonically, “checking the time already?” I try to explain – defend – my interest in my heart rate, but the guy is laughing. I’ve been feeling so good about this start, and now this guy has annoyed me. I want to explain to him how well the heart rate monitor has worked for me in my last several marathons, but he’s gone, leaving me in his dust.

The course does a 360 degree loop around the school in the first mile. I’m looking to see if Mom and Theresa have come down to this side of the school, but I don’t see them, and in the process I miss the first mile split. As we leave the town of Storm Lake, the fog seems to thicken and now there is a light drizzle and we seem to be running through clouds. Still much better than the alternative I’ve been fearing – heat and humidity.

The roads here are straight and almost pancake flat, with just an occasional undulation to make it a bit more interesting. The turns on the course – and there are many – are all 90 degree turns. This part of rural Iowa is laid out on a strict grid system, so we either run east or north. The wind is, as predicted, out of the SSE. That means it’s great while we run north, but whenever the course turns directly east, we have a fairly stiff headwind. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the course turns often enough that the straight-into-the-wind sections are never more than a few miles at a stretch.

If the Eskimos truly have 20 words for “snow”, then Iowans must have at least that many words for green. The low light of the morning, the early growing season, and the deep humidity of the day all work together to accentuate the different shades of green along this race route. There is the fragile, newborn green of the corn stalks that are in symmetrical rows, just popping out of the tilled soil. There is the deep green of the hardwood trees in the multiple copses that you can spot near any creek along the way. There is the silvery green of the cottonwoods, and the deep, almost black – in this gloomy light - green of the evergreens. There are the greens of the grasses – some of it recently mowed – and the clover and the gardens and the newly budding flowers and the bushes – lilacs and peonies, more than you can count or name. There are the greens of the weeds in the unmown ditches along the way. There are the greens of the fields with other fresh crops sprouting up – mostly soybeans, and more corn. Everywhere you look, it is green. A thousand shades of green.

The miles melt away. We run by farms with modest homes and meticulously manicured lawns. There are decorations of wagon wheels and stone fences and train replicas and decorative deer on the lawns. We pass churches, with parsonages next door, and also with graveyards next door. I run by a house that could, if I didn’t know better, be my Grandma and Grandpa Henderson’s farm. At the next driveway, a car pulls to a stop to let me pass and I swear that the white haired lady driving could be my Aunt Helen. Somewhere along the way, I start to think, yes, this is Iowa. This is where I am from. This is the place that gave birth to me, that raised me, that still runs through my blood, no matter how hard I try to leave this heritage behind. Today, with the rain and damp and wet earth all around, I see myself as a seven year old, playing in a creek bed with my best friend Mary Jane, and I can almost feel the mud squishing through my toes. This is Iowa. If ever there was a place and a day to run a marathon in this state, this is it.

There are exactly two “real” intersections on this course – places where there is a real risk of cross-traffic interfering with the race – and there are highway patrolmen at these intersections, holding the traffic so that we runners can pass safely. The cops are wearing rain gear, as are all of the spectators along the course. Many of the marathonguide race reports from previous years bemoan the “fact” that this race lacks spectators – but it’s not so, not at all. At every road intersection, there are little groups of people gathered, wearing yellow slickers and standing under umbrellas. There are people sitting on front porches, applauding as we run by. People stand in silence in some places, and people yell and whoop and holler in others. These are not huge crowds, but given the size of the competitive field, it’s a great turnout.

It starts to rain – really rain – around mile 10, and I don’t really care at all. I’m lost in the reverie of it all, in the experience of running my first marathon in my home state. We turn corners and run straight into a stiff headwind. We run by fields where cows graze, and by more corn and soybean fields. There is a marathon relay, and the handoffs are at about every five miles; at each relay handoff point, there is a yellow school bus parked, and an especially good-sized contingent of cheering fans. Then we turn another corner and are thankfully heading north again, out of the headwind.

The aid stations are just adequate in the early miles of the race. On a hot day, they might not be quite enough, but today they are perfect. The volunteers are uniformly wonderful, friendly, helpful Iowa kind of folks. The aid stations offer up a variety of water and Gatorade and ice (which we don’t need today!) and many flavors of Gu. (The only sour note about the aid stations comes early in the race: I ask for water, and am handed a cup. As I continue down the road, I look down at a cup of brown liquid, and wonder if I’ve received some kind of weird Gatorade by mistake. Then I realize that this is just farm water. I chug it down, and try not to think too much about it.) There is a contest between the aid stations, and some of the volunteers go out of their way to make an impression. One aid station – the Incredibles – has put up Burma-shave type signs with superhero trivia. Another aid station, later in the race, also uses Burma-shave type signs, but this one is with inspirational messages, like a quotation from Steve Prefontaine, “A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts.” One aid station has a SpongeBob Squarepants theme, another is sponsored by the Girl Scouts, and yet another has a Greek toga theme. The aid stations are spaced more closely at the end of the race, and the volunteers there do wonders to pump up the runners. At one aid station late in the race, I ask for Gatorade as I approach, and the volunteer asks, “grape or orange?” Never before – and maybe never again – have I had my choice of Gatorade flavors in a marathon. Is there any doubt that we’re in Iowa?

There is also entertainment on the course, much more than I would have ever guessed for a race of this size. At mile 2, there is a guy standing by his car, playing a guitar and singing “Dead skunk in the middle of the road”. He (the singer, not the skunk) shows up again somewhere around the halfway point, this time playing and singing “country roads, take me home…” At various other places in the race, there are people with accordions and flutes, making music along the way. At many of the minor intersections, people stand with homemade signs, ringing cowbells.

I run this marathon with my heart rate monitor as my guide, as is becoming my custom, and in the early miles I get passed by a number of people. But I’m learning to ignore the throngs of people who go out fast, for surely I will see many of them later in the day if I have a good race. Today is no exception. Early in the day, a tall guy in a red shirt runs about 20 yards ahead of me. At some point I pass him, but I sense that this annoys him, and he is soon out in front of me again. His wife plays leapfrog along the course, and meets him every mile or two down the road. He is surly, and orders her to bring him a gel, now TWO gels, and yet she is cheerful and accommodating.

Around mile 16, I start to pass people, and it feels good, just one at a time, but reeling them in. I see a white water tower and a grain elevator in the distance, off to the right, and hope grows that these buildings mark the town of Marathon. But they are coming up too soon, and as I pass one gentleman on the course, I ask “is that Marathon?” He laughs and tells me that we are passing Albert City, and that it is 7 more miles to Marathon.

But that’s okay with me, I’m in a rhythm now, and passing people is my way of moving on. One at a time, slowly but surely, I’m passing people. I finally overtake the tall guy with the red shirt, and I know that this time he won’t pass me back. Eventually, I pass the tall guy from the start of the race – the one who made the comment about checking my watch – and I take special pleasure in passing him. But now he just says “good job” in a kind of surprised voice as I motor past him.

Finally, I see the village of Marathon up ahead. There are a number of 90 degree turns here, and there is a very slight rise at the entrance to the town; I pass first one and then another woman in my way into the town. At the outskirts of town is a large “Marathon to Marathon” sign, and then we pass a miniature train village on carefully kept lawns as we enter the town. A sign alerts us to the fact that the street names in this town of 302 souls are all Greek names.

Now you can almost smell the finish of this 26.2 mile journey, and I watch carefully. Less than a mile from the finish, I spot Theresa and Maggie, and Theresa and I start yelling and screaming at each other. It’s just what we do. As we have planned – but I haven’t been sure that she was up for it – Maggie comes out to run the last bit of the race with me. I’m impressed by her form and her speed, as she comes loping out to meet me. “Run me in, Magster!” I shout at her. She is a natural runner, something I didn’t really know before. She surprises me by leading me out a bit faster than I’m already going. “Is this too fast?” she turns and asks me, since she’s now a step or two ahead. Nope is the reply. You are just perfect, doing exactly what I need. Just perfect.

But then something unexpected happens. We’re nearing the finish line, and another woman strides around us. “That’s just wrong!” I tell Maggie. “We can’t let her do that!” But, it’s a bit too late. I push the pace a bit more, and Maggie bids me farewell as we approach the finish, and I’m about two seconds behind my surprise competition at the finish line. It is, happily, the only true disappointment of the day, and just not important enough to linger over.

The finish is a delight. My overall time – 3:57:48 – is not quite as fast as I hoped, but it’s still among my fastest marathons, and given the rain and headwinds, it’s a fair time. Once again, I’ve managed a slightly negative split, and I’m happy with that. Theresa is there at the finish, and then Mom, and then Maggie. It feels glorious to finish with these people there for me.

The rain let up in the final miles of the race, and now it’s just chilly, with my soaking wet clothes. The temperature has remained very steady throughout the morning; it was 69 at the start, and 73 at the finish. Mom is working at the finish as a volunteer, so Theresa and Maggie help me find Mom’s car and change into dry clothes. We hang out at the finish line, and watch runners coming in. This little town has pulled out all the stops for the race, and it’s like a carnival. A civic group is cooking up omelets inside the school across the way. The Albert City civic band is set up on the school lawn, and they are playing their hearts out. There are bleachers at the finish area – nearly full bleachers, at that - and an announcer calling out the names and hometowns of all the finishers. The town is running shuttles out to the little train village that we passed running into town. And still, the marathon and half-marathon finishers keep coming.

The announcer at the finish line starts calling out the winners of the races in between marathon finishers, and he starts with the 5k. We’re thrilled when he calls out Theresa’s name – she has taken 3rd in her age group in that race. Of my few disappointments in the day is the fact that I didn’t get to see Theresa compete. I sprint up to the announcer to let him know that this incredible woman had a liver transplant just 10 months ago, and the crowd appreciates her accomplishment even more. We wait through the half marathon results, and now the marathon results are announced, and I get hardware for a 3rd place finish sin my age group, too. (Later, the official results will move me up to 2nd in my age group, but I love having a matching medal to Theresa’s.)

Finally, the governor crosses the finish line at 5:03 and change, and the crowd cheers appreciatively. Not a lightning fast time, but it’s respectable, and Mr. Vilsack looks good as he crosses the line. Theresa and I let the TV cameras get their face time with the guv, but then we look at each other, and the next thing you know, we’re having our picture taken with both the governor and the first lady. How often can you take home a photo like that as a race souvenir?

Finally, it’s time for Theresa and Maggie to head back to Cedar Rapids, and for Mom and me to head back to Charter Oak. We part ways, and head down the road, and Mom keeps saying, it sure seems like a long drive from Marathon to Storm Lake. I just look out the windows at the clearing day, out over this country that I’ve just run through, and think, this race is Iowa. Somewhere near the end of the movie “Field of Dreams”, one of the baseball players looks around at the cornfields, and asks “Is this heaven?” Kevin Costner replies, “No, it’s Iowa.” As Mom drives us back home, I look out over the budding cornfields. No, it’s not heaven. But today, it’s close enough.


Ed said...

Nicely done, Judy -- congratulations.

Happy New Year!

Jonas said...

Hey, Judy, I'm glad you posted this report. It was a fine read!