Monday, February 27, 2006

Marine Corps Marathon (October 30, 2005)

For some reason – don’t ask me why – I have never really been too keen on the idea of running the Marine Corps Marathon. Okay, do ask me. I think it’s a combination of several things. For one, the bizarre, multi-phase lottery just seems like too much work to get into a marathon (okay, to be honest, I’ve never really checked out the lottery, but hearing other people describe it made me think it just seemed too hard). For another thing, I’ve heard that the organization at the start was poor (okay, I’ve also heard that the Marines along the course and at the finish were super, but that’s another story). Finally, I’ve read too many reports from friends who thought they would have a great day at Marine Corps, but instead crashed and burned (okay, these are the same yahoos who crash and burn at every marathon, but still…). Never mind; don’t ask me why I’ve never really wanted to run the Marine Corps. Heaven only knows.

But then on a glorious Colorado day in late March I’m out running on the Cherry Creek bike path, and I run into my friend Cindy. Well, okay, I don’t literally run into her, but we recognize each other – sunglasses and all – while running in opposite directions, and we stop to chat. Cindy mentions that she and Jay – her husband – are going to run Marine Corps in the fall, and why don’t I join them? She tells me that this is the 30th anniversary of the race, and in honor of that fact, they are opening the registration to the first 30,000 folks who can get their entries in on-line. This changes everything: friends running the race, an open registration, and I’m a complete sucker for things like the 30th anniversary. So I agree to think about it, but everyone who knows me knows that when I say I’ll think about doing a marathon, it means that I’m already figuring out what to wear.

Et voila, the following week, I’m in!

In the meantime, my friend Theresa – you’ve heard me talk about her before, right? – and I are searching for an exotic fall marathon where she can run a shorter course and I can do the full monty. I’m thinking Hawaii, Alaska, somewhere cool and different. I tell her about the Marine Corps just to let her know that the weekend of October 30th is already taken, and the next thing I know, she’s entered the Marine Corps 8k. Well, waddaya know – it’s starting to sound like a party. First Cindy and Jay, and now Theresa. This is a weekend that I can get excited about. I’m still a bit less than overwhelmed by the thought of the actual race itself, but what the heck – it’s shaping up to be a fun weekend.

Getting to DC. When we started to plan this thing, both my boyfriend Mick and Theresa’s husband Kirk claimed an interest in spending the weekend in DC, so we had a huge party in the works. But in the last month or so leading up to the event, both Mick and Kirk came down with terminal cases of “workitis”, so we’ve scaled back the plans. Theresa and I have determined to make this a girlfriends weekend (no disrespect to Jay, of course, who is still planning to run with Cindy).

So it is that I’m traveling by myself from Denver to DC, via Chicago. At O’Hare I notice a woman boarding the same flight to DC; this woman looks like a runner, and she’s sporting a “Western States 100” t-shirt. Now, I’m not a crazy ultramarathoner, just a wannabe, and anyone who knows anything at all about ultramarathons knows that the Western States 100 is a Big Deal. So as we depart the plane once we land in DC, I go up to Ms. Western States 100 T-Shirt, and ask “so did you actually run the Western States?” Now, there’s a creative intro. And duh, sure, how many people would be walking around with the t-shirt if they hadn’t run the darned thing? Still, I’m lucky that the woman is friendly, and we strike up a conversation. Of course she ran the Western States. Of course she is here to run Marine Corps. And of course she too is from Colorado. We have a nice chat until her husband – also running, but who came in earlier – meets her and I depart to the taxi-stand.

I arrive at our hotel to find Theresa already checked in, tucked into bed, and dozing with the TV on and the sound off. Okay, it’s really not so much a hotel as a glorified motel, but we’re from Iowa and we’re cheap. It turns out that we chose this place because it was on the marathon website and listed as being “4” away from the race start. We interpreted this to mean 4 blocks. Not the 4 miles that it actually is. But not to worry, despite the nasty reviews that I read on the internet after we had made the reservations, it’s actually an okay place.

And what do we really need? Two old friends, hanging out, staying up way too late chatting. The only real problem is that I haven’t had a proper supper – just a bunch of fruit that I brought on the plane – and now I’m hungry. But this is a motel without a restaurant, so I get around my hunger pangs by talking Theresa’s ear off, and finally forget about being hungry. It’s a strange thing, two days before a marathon, to go to bed hungry. Normally I would have taken some liberties with cookies or ice cream (carbo-loading at its best) on the penultimate day before the race, but somehow it just didn’t happen today. No worries, I’ll get a great breakfast in the morning.

Saturday in DC. But no. It’s late when I finally fall fast asleep – really late, like 4 a.m. – and then I sleep hard. At moments before 10 a.m. Theresa wakes me to tell me she is going to the motel’s continental breakfast to grab us some grub, and she comes back with some cake donuts and not much else that interests me. I’m hungry, so I scarf down a few of these gut bombs, and then we finally get out the door.

We’re headed, generally, in the direction of the expo to pick up race stuff. The motel’s shuttle drops us off at Pentagon City to catch the Metro, and since we’re still hungry, we go inside the mall to get a bite to eat. Somehow, the whole food experience of DC is just not quite working out the way I envisioned. We choose one restaurant, but when we sit down, they give us a different menu than the one posted on the door, and when neither of us sees anything to our liking, we get up and leave. The second restaurant is a bit better – or is it just that the food seems okay now that we’re totally starving? We don’t linger too long here, though, since the place is like the inside of a walk-in refrigerator. We are finally out of the mall and on our way to the expo, and the day is slipping away.

Everyone has reported how friendly and helpful the Marines are for this marathon, but when we get to the expo, we find the opposite to be true. Nobody seems friendly, and it seems like they mostly just want us out of their hair. But the expo is not a complete loss, at least as far as food is concerned. My v-team internet buddy Russ lives in the DC area, but it’s not working out for us to get together. As a substitute, he’s told me to look up his friend Chip, who is working at the Clif Bar booth. We find the booth first, and then find Chip (not too hard to spot the 6-foot-plus-a-whole-lot-more triathlete), and I introduce myself. Chip is friendly and wants to know “how did you and Rusty meet?” It’s hard to describe – kind of like internet dating – that although Russ and I have been friends for a couple of years now we’ve not really ever met in person. Chip gives me one of those looks, so I just shut up. But as some kind of consolation prize, he tells me to open up my expo bag, the one with the t-shirt and chip and race number and other assorted crap. Once the bag is open wide, Chip dumps – and I mean dumps! – an entire box of Clif bars into it. A woman standing next to me gasps in surprise, and then whines that she only got a couple of the little samples. Theresa laughs. We take off. Food at last.

It’s now mid-afternoon, and we need to find bagels for the morning. Instead of wandering aimlessly, Theresa suggests that we go back to the mall since she’s certain she spotted a bakery there. So back we go. At Pentagon City, we find a shop with bagels (already stale, but I’m starting to realize that good food is not on the menu this weekend) and I snatch up a couple. Just in case dinner goes badly, I pre-dessert with an ice cream cone, and it’s about the best food of the day.

We’ve planned to hook up with Jay and Cindy for dinner, but haven’t made specific plans. So while we’re finishing our food shopping at Pentagon City, I call Jay and Cindy. They give us instructions to meet them at the Lincoln Memorial, with some vague directions on how to get there. Theresa and I get back on the Metro (this is starting to feel like a yoyo experience), and get off the Metro at the Smithsonian stop, as instructed, and consult maps before starting the trek down the Mall. Pretty soon, I’m getting a sense of how far we have to walk and I’m starting to swear. What the hell am I doing walking this much the night before a marathon??? This is all starting to seem extremely insane. Out of frustration, and attempting to rationalize this irrational pre-race behavior, I remind myself (and Theresa) that this marathon is simply a notch on the old headboard, and I don’t really care about the race itself. This is definitely not a fast course, so who cares. This seems like a pretty good rationale, as far as these things go. The true consolution is that we get to see – right at twilight – some really cool sights along the Mall. We reach the Lincoln Memorial just as it’s getting dark, and the lights of the memorial are really quite cool. And there are Cindy and Jay – with a cast of thousands of their other friends – so all is not lost.

Not lost, of course, until we try to figure out where to have dinner. Now, what kind of insanity is this: trying to get a group of about ten people into a restaurant serving pasta the night before a marathon with 30,000 runners in town for the event? I will spare you the aggravation. We drive, we take cabs, we stand on the street to hail more cabs, we walk blocks and blocks and more blocks, we go into and out of restaurant after restaurant, and it just gets worse and worse. The clock is ticking away and I’m thinking about the early morning and about my growling stomach from last night, and Theresa and I finally decide to bail on the party. We get on the Metro and end up… guessed it: back at Pentagon City. The first thing we spot is an Italian fast-food eatery, and I’m walking away with a heaping plate of pasta before anyone can change my mind. It may not be great, but it sure is filling. We’re so exhausted from the day that we’re soon back at the motel and lights out for the morning.

Race morning. Theresa suggests that we should ask for a wake up call, especially since Saturday night is the night that the clocks change. No worries, I say, since I always set two alarms before a race: my travel alarm clock and my race watch. Somehow, neither of them works in the morning, but quite luckily, race day instinct gets me out of bed. My bagel is stale, but the motel room coffee is hot and I’ve decided to not worry about food anymore. We’re out the door and waiting for the shuttle earlier than planned.

The motel is running a shuttle over to Pentagon City where it is reputed that the marathon has shuttles to the race start. Given the size of the line at the motel, I’m concerned about making it to the race on time if we have to wait for multiple ferries, so Theresa does the intelligent thing and goes into the front office and has the clerk call for a taxi. We move out of the shuttle line and find a couple who has also decided to go the cab route. She is running her first marathon, and he’s here to support her. When a cab arrives, we all pile in and head off to the start.

Now, this cab driver is a piece of work. He asks if we want a tour of the course (uh, no, we’ll be doing that ourselves soon enough, thank you), and we all look nervously at each other. Is this nut case going to take us to the start or what? But there is hope, since the cabbie says that he lives near the start of the race, and wanted to go home to get something to eat soon. We’re on a freeway – none of us passengers has the slightest clue where we are or exactly where we are going – and now the cab driver decides to recite a poem that he’s written. It ends, and nobody says a word. But then, compelled by some sense of self-preservation, we all start to compliment him at the same time. “I have goosebumps,” I say, but I don’t bother to add that the goosebumps are because we were standing around in about 30 degree temperature before climbing into his taxi. Finally, we see an area that looks like the race organizing area, and we’re out of there. I figure that if I could survive that cab ride, the marathon itself will now seem anticlimactic.

We are near the entrance to what appears to be the Athlete’s Village, so we head down the hill. There is a long row of tables set up, and a bunch of Marines in fatigues standing near the tables. We figure that this is the security checkpoint we’ve heard about, so we walk up to the Marines, who are all facing the other way. It turns out that we’ve entered from an opposite direction from where the shuttles drop off people. We approach the Marines, and have to work to get their attention. A couple of them finally turn around, and we ask if they need to see our bags. One of the guys laughs and says, “you’re inside already!” So much for tight security. All you have to know is the back door to the race staging area, and you’re in. I have some new concerns about the safety and security of my country with these jokers running the show, but I push the concerns aside. I’m here to run today, not to get all political.

We’re quite early, but that’s okay, I can relax now that we’re within a short walk to the start line. So that’s where we go next – to check out the start line – but a Marine on the road alerts us to the fact that there are limited port-a-potty facilities at the start line, so we turn back to the area we just came from. By the way, have I mentioned that the race start/finish is at Arlington National Cemetery? Yep. Gives you a bit of a pause to look out at all of those white markers in nice neat rows. So we spend some time tramping around this grand old monument. Okay, we don’t actually tramp around the graves, but there is a nice wide lawn that has been set up with all kinds of race related facilities. There are enough port-a-potties so that there is never really much of a line.

It’s cold out though – in the thirties - so I’m reluctant to check my warm togs at the bag check until as late as possible. It’s clear that Theresa thinks I’m crazy. As I laid out my race clothes last night– shorts and singlet – she asked, incredulously, “Is that all you’re wearing???” To be sure, it was cool and sunny – and a bit windy – on Saturday, but it’s supposed to warm up a bit today. I would much rather be a bit cool on a long run than to be overdressed, so I’m going with my clothing plan. I’m also wearing a throwaway long-sleeved t-shirt and my trusty purple gloves (they are actually ski glove liners that work just perfectly for running in in-between temps), so I figure I’ll be okay. But while I’m checking my warm clothes at the bag-check, Theresa, mother hen that she is, gets busy scoring a trash bag for me from some folks nearby. They brought an entire roll of super-sized garbage bags to the race and are giving the extras away. Theresa helps me get the thing on, and it’s like a full length ball gown. I am now the picture of fashion. And it’s actually quite warm.

Finally, it’s time to head to the start – and I think I might have waited too long, it’s so crowded on the road. Theresa and I wish each other good luck in our respective races, and then part ways. I ditch the garbage bag, and then just as I reach the start line, I throw my long-sleeved t-shirt away. There is, suddenly, so much happening! There are sky divers falling out of the heavens, and there are bands playing, and there is a guy making announcements on a loud speaker. I reach the designated area for my bib number and am grateful that I have this low bib number (1771) and don’t have to fight my way through the crowds further back. Later I will learn that I was given a preferred start because of my predicted finish in my age group, but right now I’m just thinking about staying warm until the gun goes off. Maybe I tossed that warm shirt too soon.

It’s crowded here – just as I expected from what I’ve heard about this race in the past – but I notice a couple of Marines walking through the crowd, checking bib numbers and sending people back to their proper areas. I’m grateful for this, since it thins the crowd just a bit. A guy standing next to me and I chat a bit about expectations for the day, and we both have the same philosophy: take what the day gives you. And then after some more commotion, we’re moving.

The race. As soon as we start to move, it seems that there is a crush of people and it is just flat out crowded, almost too crowded to run. I swear to myself, and think that I really hate big races and these crowds. But it’s a beautiful day – although still quite chilly – and the crowd is keeping me warm. There is a band playing right at the entrance to Arlington – at the 26 mile marker – and they have great band uniforms with exceptional plumage. As race starts go, this one is pretty glitzy.

But the crowds, hola! I’m shuffling along, and just following directly behind a whole bunch of people. People – crazy people – are darting and weaving, trying to get through the sea of racers, and they scare me – I’m certain that one of them is going to cause a major pileup. Pretty soon we’re passing the first mile marker, and I hit my watch to capture the split. 9:44??? Now I’m in despair. That is, without a doubt, the slowest first mile I have run in any marathon, including the trail races I’ve done. It’s quite possibly slower than my first mile going up Pike’s Peak, which is slow because it’s so dang steep. I remind myself that I’m just running today for fun, and have no goals.

From the course elevation map, I know that the first two miles are mostly uphill, but I don’t really feel the hill until the start of the second mile, and then it looks like it’s straight up in front of me. I’m trying to just run a straight line and stay out of trouble, since it’s still insanely crowded, and now I notice that everyone seems to be weaving. Can nobody run a straight line? Judging by this crowd, apparently not. But as we hit the two-mile mark, I recognize the surroundings, and laugh. We’ve just passed through Rosslyn, one of the areas we visited last night in our mad search for a restaurant. I had no idea we would be back through here again today, and find it funny. I hit my watch for my second split, and am more disheartened – 9:34. Still extremely slow. I figure that it’s just going to be a long slow day, and that I had better settle in for the ride.

But the course turns downhill after we pass the second mile marker, and it also somehow magically starts to open up some. I concentrate on sight-seeing along the way. We run briefly along the Potomac, an area that surprises me for its rugged beauty – steep cliffs and heavy woods. We pass over the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which I recognize from last night. We turn onto M Street, and are running through Georgetown, past the restaurants that didn’t have room for us last night. This area looks entirely different in the daylight, but we don’t have time to window shop today. Soon enough, we’re passing mile 5 and turning through some back streets.

I hit the split button on my watch, and look down to see my elapsed time. Huh? I have not really looked at my watch since that horribly slow second mile, and now I’m confused. My watch says that my elapsed time for the first five miles is 45:21, and I do the math quickly – I’ve recovered quite a bit of time from those first two miles and am now running consistent sub-9 minute miles. Maybe the day won’t be such a loss after all.

We leave the very urban setting of Georgetown and head out on the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, which is the first of a number of out-and-back sections of this race. And it’s absolutely beautiful here. Why didn’t anyone ever tell me that Marine Corps was such a beautiful course? We’re running on a wide parkway that is heavily forested all around, with a thick canopy of leaves overhead. For a brief time, the front runners are directly across a short median from us, and they are impressive to watch. But then the median widens and puts more distance between the two parallel sections of roadway. And then the sirens approach.

Since the road is completely closed to traffic, I think that the sound of sirens can only mean that someone has been injured further on the course, and it’s a disturbing thought. But the sirens draw closer and closer until finally a motorcycle cop with full siren blaring is parting the crowd of runners beside me. I look over my shoulder to see a wheelchair competitor right behind the motorcycle. What the heck??? Most races start the wheelchairs early because they tend to be faster than runners, and this way they have a clear roadway to work with. But the Marine Corps organizers, for some dunder-headed reason, started the wheelchairs in today’s race in between the two waves. From this point on, we will have the intermittent sound of wheelchairs coming up behind us and people yelling for runners to get out of the way. This is just plain stupid planning, and it’s dangerous for everyone. I shake my head in amazement that the same people who are responsible for the race logistics are also in charge of the country’s military. A very scary proposition.

We make the turnaround on the parkway and head back. It’s turning into a gorgeous day. At times during the early miles, I have been slightly chilly, but now I am thinking that this is about as perfect weather conditions as you can get. Still, a slight chill in the air, but full sun overhead and not a hint of clouds.

We pass the 9 mile marker just as we reach the Potomac once again, and I check my elapsed time. I have been doing mental math along the way, and I’ve figured that perfect 9 minute miles would put me at 81 minutes at this checkpoint. And my watch reads 1:20:52 – I’m thrilled! I start to entertain thoughts of running a sub-4 hour marathon.

Now we’re approaching the Mall, and the crowds are growing alongside the road. I recognize the Lincoln Memorial as we approach it from behind, and now we’re running along the Mall itself. There are lots of people here, and more bands and entertainment along the way. Someone near me wonders out loud if W will be outside the White House watching the race, and I think about looking closely when we go past the White House. But there is so much happening here – so many sights, so many people, so many distractions – that I miss the White House entirely. In fact, I would miss the Capitol if it weren’t for the fact that we turn around directly in front of it. I recognize the Smithsonian Castle as we pass by, as well as the Washington Monument. I’m enjoying the sights and sounds, and find myself thinking “wow, this is a pretty cool place to hold a marathon”, and then I laugh at myself. How quickly we forget our old bogus opinions when we’re having a good day at the races!

And as we pass the halfway point – which is on the Mall – it occurs to me that this may just be one of those good days in marathoning. I’ve only had a few stellar days, and they are always unexpected and welcome. But you just never know until well into the second half of the race, so I try to rein in my spirits.

Shortly after the halfway point, a woman running alongside me asks, “do you know if there is any gel on the course?” She explains that she has lost her running partner and is down to just a single gel for the rest of the race. I tell her that I think there might be a gel station ahead, but I’m not sure. Then I check my pockets; I always pack an extra gel, “just in case”. Sure enough, I calculate that I can spare one of my remaining gels, and I offer it to her. She takes it gratefully, and I figure that I’ve just earned myself some karma. I take this as an excellent omen.

But now there is a tall, skinny drink of water – a woman – who becomes my nemesis for the next couple of miles. This woman looks like she’s suffering – she stops to walk and looks in pain, and each time she does that, I pass her. But then somehow she picks it up again and starts to run and sprints past me. Time and time again. I know – know – that she will not be able to keep this up; I know too well how horrible it is to suffer like this in a marathon. But still, she is an annoyance and a distraction for a mile or two. Finally, as I know will happen, she disappears from my radar, and I never see her again.

What I do see is the Jefferson Memorial, and what a glorious view it is. We’ve left the Mall now, and we’re making an arc around the Tidal Basin, and the Jefferson Memorial stands out in its alabaster glory. Again I think that this is a superb setting for a marathon. And then the memorial is behind us and we’re heading out on a loop around the East Potomac Park.

We’re starting to hit the miles where everyone who went out too fast starts to hurt, and it’s evident on this stretch of the race course. It’s a lovely place to run – nice and flat, with nothing but wide river and open parklands around us. The crowd has spread out nicely at this point – there are always people around, but nobody impeding your progress. There is a crowd of people at the entrance and exit to this park, but not many spectators along the route, and that’s fine with me. I’ve settled into a really nice groove and I’m starting to know that this is going to be a really good day.

A guy falls into step next to me, and we run together for the next couple of miles. He’s friendly and talkative, and a distraction, which is nice given the quiet area we’re passing through. We pass by a camera checkpoint, and the guy is downright ebullient, waving to the photographers. I tell the guy – whose name I ask but then don’t remember – that I think I’m having one of those stellar days. He tells me that he’s starting to fade, and I figure that we are only running partners for a short time. Soon, I notice that he’s leaning into me, bumping against me, and almost stepping on me. Ew! Perhaps he’s getting a bit too familiar? At any rate, it’s not at all comfortable, and today I have the perfect solution. I have another gear just under the surface, crying out to be used, and now I turn it on. I dust the guy. It’s a beautiful feeling.

The loop around the East Potomac Park is coming to an end, and we pass the 20 mile marker as we get back onto a major roadway and the bridge that will take us out of DC and back into Arlington. I’m chomping at the bit, like a horse ready to leave its starting gate. I’ve been keeping my heart rate in check for many miles now, but my body says “go!” The 20 mile marker is my starting gun, and it goes off in my head, and I’m – finally – running full tilt.

This is stupendous! There is a crowd of people as we leave the park, and then we’re flying across the bridge. Wow, are there a lot of people walking – but I’m flying. The next six miles are a blur – I’m just racing, full out. I take splits at the mile markers, but I never really look at my watch again – I just know that I’m giving it all I have. There is a cookie station around mile 21 or so, but I don’t want to risk anything at this point and just pass it by – but shortly after the cookies, there are sponges, and those are wonderful. It’s getting warmer, and there is a bit of a wind, but I am just floating along, this feels so wonderful. We make a 180 degree turn at Crystal City, and then a few more zigzags before I start to recognize the road we’re on. Somewhere along this stretch of road, we pass by the Pentagon, but I miss it entirely. How you can miss an entire building as huge as the Pentagon is a mystery to me, but I’m not looking left or right just now, I’m just focused on the road directly in front of me. The finish of the race retraces a short bit of the race start, and it feels really weird to be repeating these steps.

The 26 mile marker is at the turn into the Arlington National Cemetery, and the next hundred yards or so are a short steep hill. This just about does me in, but I’m breathing out loud and I’m hungry for the finish. I’ve just glanced at my watch and for the first time in the day, I realize that I’m on pace for a new personal record. But we get to the top of the hill, and you can’t see a finish line. I’m grunting and chugging, and just willing the finish line to appear, and finally, around a bend in the road – there it is! I raise my arms in race finish triumph, and then hit my watch. Yes! My time is 3:50:29, a new personal best.

Post race. It feels like time for a post race party, but how can you have a party by yourself? I sob deeply – with utter joy - as I gasp for breath while a Marine drapes a medal around my neck, and then I look around for Theresa.

But I don’t spot that familiar head of fiery red hair anywhere, and so I make my way through the post-race maze in a bit of a daze. I grab some food and then head off to pick up my checked bag. Bag in tow, I find the meet-up area, and sit down to munch on a bagel and keep an eye out for Theresa.

She shows up eventually – she has waited at the finish, hoping to get a shot of me crossing the line, but missed me in the crowds, and is enormously disappointed to have missed my PR. But I tell her that she is my lucky charm, and I need to bring her to all of my marathons after this. Her race – the 8k – was a success, too; she’s pleased with the fact that she ran the entire thing even though her training had been spotty.

So we head off to the motel, and I’m thinking of post-race beer and grub, but I’m learning that my expectations of good food and drink in this town are not to be. We get back to the motel, and I’m on a perpetual high, but Theresa’s stomach is rebelling, and it’s a rough afternoon for her. We order dinner delivered to the room, but when it arrives, it’s cold and congealing, and Theresa dumps hers immediately into the trash. The problem is, she’s not able to keep any foods down after the race, and we’re both getting worried.

Finally, Theresa calls the emergency number at the Mayo Clinic – where all of her cancer care and the liver transplant have been done – and they recommend getting to an emergency room. So instead of living it up on the town, we find ourselves riding in an ambulance at 10:30 p.m., and settling in to the ER at a hospital in Arlington. It’s not the finale that I’ve envisioned to such a perfect marathon, but then again, this weekend is nothing at all that I expected. And while I would like to be out guzzling a brewski or at home sleeping, as I watch Theresa – pale as the hospital sheets – dozing with an IV in her arm, I’m reminded of life’s fragility, and that we can take nothing for granted.

The good news is that the blood tests come back fine, and a couple of liters of IV fluids and some anti-nausea medicine get Theresa in shape to be released from the hospital. We get back to the motel at about 3 a.m., so it’s a short night. Theresa feels well enough to travel in the morning, so I make the trek to the airport with her, and watch as she goes through security. I’m thrilled to have had this weekend with my friend, but I’m also alarmed at how quickly one’s health can turn.

It’s another brilliant sunny day in DC, and my flight does not leave until late afternoon, so I meet up with Cindy and Jay and their friend Jeanie on the Mall. We tour a couple of outside sculpture gardens – it’s just too beautiful to not be outdoors – before heading into the National Archives. There are some great displays inside the Archives, but the things I’ve most wanted to see – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – remind me of the lessons I’ve learned this weekend. These incredible historic documents are almost completely faded to nothingness. Nothing is permanent in this world, not even the Declaration of Independence. But the day itself is too glorious to dwell on this thought, and we all walk along the Mall. We have a grand time talking about the race – the sights along the way, the things we all saw, or that we all missed. And all too soon, I’m heading back to the airport.

At the airport, I finally sit down at a bar to have that post-race beer. It doesn’t taste nearly as good as I expected it to, but I’m also reminded – by a sudden light-headedness – that I’ve hardly eaten today. Now there’s a central theme of the weekend, completely atypical for a marathon trip. So I get a few snacks, and head off to the plane. To my surprise, Ms. Western States 100 is boarding the plane at the same time as me, and we share race results. When we get to Denver, Western States and I walk along the concourse together, talking about the weekend and the race. We compare past races and future plans, and finally decide that we’ll probably be at a race again together in the near future and exchange business cards.

As I head out of the airport, I think about my expectations and how I thought that this would be a weekend of terrific times with friends, and that the race really wouldn’t matter that much. As I stuff my new friend’s card into my wallet, it occurs to me that maybe this was, after all, a weekend about friends. But I’ve learned that you can’t predict anything about your time with your friends anymore than you can predict your race finishing time. And that sometimes, you just need to take what the day – or the weekend – gives you, and be grateful for it. And I go home to finally scrounge up some really good food.

White Rim Trail (September 30 - October 2, 2005)

You would think I would learn. Cindy calls to ask if we want to join them (she, her husband Jay, and a few others) for a weekend in Canyonlands National Park in Utah – just outside Moab – to bike the White Rim Trail at the first of October. Cindy assures me that it’s an easy, non-technical trail. Later I have to wonder if she knows that I am not really a mountain biker. It’s for certain that when I say “sure, that sounds like a blast”, that I’ve completely lost my mind.

I have not been on a mountain bike in four or five years. And now I’ve just committed us to a three-day, 103 mile trip. It’s madness.

But I don’t have much time to think about how mad this plan is, since this is a camping trip and there are preparations to be made. Pull the tent out of the closet, stuff the sleeping bag into its stuff sack, figure out what the hell to do about food for three days, and generally try to pull together biking clothes and other stuff for the sojourn. Mick is a trooper, and volunteers to take on most of the food preparations. I do the easy stuff, picking up trail mix and Clif bars and a few other things, while he pre-cooks chicken and pasta and makes brownies and packages a bunch of PB&J sandwiches for us. And then it’s time to jam all this stuff into my car, and head off towards Moab.

The one thing that I somehow forget to do, amidst all the preparations, is to ride my mountain bike. Big mistake.

Day 1. It’s a beautiful day when we meet up with Cindy and Jay and all the others at the parking area just above Horsethief Trail: spectacular blue sky with nary a cloud, perfect warm temps, and not even a hint of a breeze. Perfect day for riding.

Although we’re a bit late getting here – the lack of cell phone service made it a bit tricky to figure out the logistics of the meeting place – it’s still just past one p.m. when we’re set to ride. We’ve done an admirable job of pulling all the stuff out of my car and dumping it on the ground with everyone else’s stuff, just to be repacked in Big Rod’s Cadillac pickup truck. Big Rod is Jay’s dad, and he and Jay’s brother Kirk have graciously agreed to transport our camping gear for us each day. It turns out to be a good thing that Kirk also has a jeep on this trip, since the rest of us have so much crap that it nearly takes a semi-trailer to pull it all.

It’s an interesting crew on this trip. Jay and I used to work together at my last job, and I met Cindy sometime during those years. Jay is a computer jock, and Cindy is a veterinarian. Beyond that connection, I can’t really even remember how we got to be friends; we have skied together and rock-climbed together and consumed some beers together. In a few weeks, we’ll all go to Washington, D.C. to run the Marine Corps Marathon together. The one thing we’ve not done together before this weekend is ride bikes. Any bikes. Most notably, mountain bikes.

The rest of the group comprises people that Cindy works with now or has worked with in the past. Francisco and Christobal (both from Latin America) are vets who work with Cindy at her current government job up in Fort Collins. Bruce is another vet who worked with Cindy back in her days at the Denver Dumb Friends League; he’s here with his wife Debbie. (In a small world twist, it turns out that Debbie works in the same building where Jay and I worked together for so many years.) The last member of the group – at least the last to arrive today – is Joey, another connection from the Denver Dumb Friends League. Joey is a business manager there, and in his spare time he takes classes at the Iliff Institute of Theology. I’ve not met any of these folks - including Jay’s dad and brother – before today, and even as we start to ride, it seems like an interesting group.

Mick and I take off with Francisco and Christobal a short time after Bruce and Debbie have started up the road. Our journey each day is largely dictated by the campgrounds where we have reservations. Cindy has informed me that she had to reserve our camping spots nearly a year in advance, so I appreciate that we have access to some very limited resources. Today, even with our late start, we will cover nearly 40 miles before arriving at our destination “Airport” campsite. There are really no shortcuts out here in the desert, so it’s time to pedal.

The first 10 miles of our ride are extremely mild for a mountain biking trek: we ride back up a dirt and gravel road that brought us to this parking spot. The road is in reasonably good shape, but I learn very soon that riding this kind of road takes much more attention than riding a road bike on nice smooth pavement. We’ve scarcely been on our bikes five minutes before we hit a patch of washboard. The guys are all up out of their saddles in a heartbeat, but I’m a bit slow on the uptake and bounce around like crazy. Francisco drops back to ride with me, and offers some mountain biking pointers to me that are well received. I can use all the help I can get.

But once I learn to stand up through the rough bits, this is a nice stretch of riding. This stretch of road connects to the asphalt road that brought us out to the Canyonlands Park, and now we have another stretch of about 10 miles on paved roads. Later, every single one of the true-blue mountain bikers on this trip will complain about this part of the ride (stating disdainfully, “how boring!”), but for now I’m in heaven. I don’t realize it at the time, but this is the beginning of my slow three day long realization that I’m much more a road biker than a mountain biker. For now, I just enjoy going fast along this lovely smooth road. Little do I know how much I’ll be longing for this kind of non-jarring ride in just a few short hours!

When we turn off the paved road, we are finally truly on the White Rim Trail. Mick and I have lost our riding companions, who stopped to eat sandwiches back at the turn onto the paved road. I suspect that I’m one of the slower riders in this crowd, so I’m working to get out in front a bit, fully expecting to be passed from behind somewhere along the way to the Airport campground.

This stretch of the White Rim Trail is the Shafer Trail, and it’s only minutes after we leave the paved road behind that I’m oooing and ahing over the sights. Wow! We are riding straight into a quintessential Utah redstone landscape. I stop over and over again to take pictures, and Mick accommodates me by posing with this spectacular backdrop. I’m so enchanted by the scenery that I don’t even notice that the trail is becoming increasingly steep downhill. But finally, I realize that the back end of my bike keeps trying to skid out from under me, and I hit a few patches of really dodgy rocks and dirt, and I look out and see just how steep this road is. It only starts to scare me a tiny bit at a time, though, so I actually ride most of the descent, even making it through some really bumpy and rocky sections that my better senses tell me to walk through. Just as we’re hitting a point where the trail flattens out a bit again, we’re caught from behind by the rest of the gang, who all just go flying by as if there weren’t steep sheer dropoffs on the side of a road that is littered with rocks and potholes and other hazards. I’ve just started to get really scared, but put some of that fear back into check when we all start riding together.

This next section is one of my favorite parts of the entire trip. We ride together, and the trail gets more and more gnarly, but I’m learning to manage it, mostly. The scenery is so spectacular, and the day so perfect, that I don’t dwell much at all on my lack of mountain biking skills. We stop at a number of great scenic places along the route, and go for walks along the rocks, taking pictures with the dramatic red rock walls as backdrop, and of the Colorado River snaking through a green oasis way down below. We go out onto a crazy narrow rock arch that scares the bejesus out of just about every single one of us, but the guys all end up hamming it up for the cameras. It’s really a delightful day.

But the miles are crawling by now that we’re off the paved roads, and our progress toward the Airport campground seems really, really slow. I’m pretty proud of myself for managing the ride down the Shafer Trail so well until Cindy says, “that wasn’t steep at all!” and then mentions that there is a much bigger climb and descent tomorrow. Huh? The more that I hear bits of descriptions of tomorrow’s riding, the more uneasy I become. Why didn’t somebody tell me that this ride would be full of scary challenges???

We’ve stopped many times, but finally somebody mentions that we’ll lose our light soon – it is, after all, already 6 p.m, and this is October, not the middle of the summer. We have not planned on this turn of events – nobody has lights – so we ride hard for this last stretch. I’m looking for something that looks like a campsite – my idea of a campsite being a place with trees and grass and a picnic table. Instead, finally, in the twilight, I spot Big Rod’s truck parked on a patch of rock just up ahead. This has to be the most stark, uninviting campsite I’ve ever seen. But I’m starting to get really saddle sore, and the growing dark is making the trail all shadowy and full of unseen obstacles, so I’m glad to be here.

Camping is on ground that is nearly solid rock. We set up our tent, but don’t have any chance of staking it to the ground; good thing there is no wind. Our nearest “neighbors” at this campsite seem to be nearly a quarter mile away. With only a few spaces available at each campsite out here, it’s starting to become clear why you have to make reservations a year in advance. The only real manmade structures here to denote the presence of the campground is a permanent outhouse and a few signs to identify each space.

Big Rod and Kirk show up in Kirk’s jeep well after dark, as we’re all sitting down in our camp chairs to eat our hurriedly put-together dinners. I’m so grateful that Mick took care of our food for this trip and pre-cooked our dinner so that we only have to heat it up a bit. All I’m interested in is sitting in a comfy chair with a cold beer. We’re all still getting to know each other, and have fun telling stories around the Coleman lantern that fills in for a campfire. But we’re all very tired from this first day of riding, so although the stars are incredible out here where you can see forever in the night sky, it’s an early lights out.

Day 2. Who would have thought that a mere 40-mile ride would take so much out of me? But I’m more tired and stiff today than I counted on. And just about the first thing that I figure out, as soon as we get back on the bikes, is that road biking does nothing to prepare you for the saddle-soreness of mountain biking. It’s still pretty early when we set out on the trail, and my sore bum screams at me already. It’s going to be a long day.

We’ve looked at maps of the trail before heading out today, and I’m not feeling so good about it. First of all, it’s another long day: it will work out to be 35+ miles. And I’m getting a sense that 35 miles on a mountain biking trail ain’t nothin’ like 35 miles on a nice smooth road. Secondly, there is this ugly looking hogback thingy in the middle of the ride. I get an ugly feeling in my gut just thinking about it. Third, we have just started out for all of this riding, and I have such a nasty case of saddle sore that I can barely to sit down on my bike. Riding 35 miles standing on the pedals? It’s an interesting concept.

The first stretch of trail is actually not so bad, but it feels miserable to me. I feel every bump, every rock, every eentsiest thing. I take off riding fairly fast, because even though we’re just starting, I already very, very badly want this day to be over. I’m riding out in front of almost everyone. Well, make that everyone except Mick. The guy is just a bike freak, and he hates to be behind people, so he’s out in front. And then there’s me. Well, make that, sometimes there is me, and sometimes there is Joey. Joey is not a bike freak like Mick, but he seems pretty determined to get going, too. And finally, everyone else is riding along behind us.

The really irritating thing is that while I’m working at this, whenever we stop, it’s clear that the others – Cindy and Jay and Francisco and Christobal and Bruce and Debbie – are just lollygagging along, and they’re barely behind me at all. Curse them all for being in mountain-biking shape. The really delightful thing is that since Joey and I are trading places, and both kind-of riding alone, we’re starting to connect whenever we have a stop. Joey was the last guy to show up at the meeting place yesterday, and I barely had a chance to talk to him. But today, I’m getting to know him, and it’s a nice experience.

But still. Still, there is this riding to do. We stop a number of times to look at scenery, but I’m getting a bit antsy every time I look at my watch and then calculate mileage to the next campsite and figure out how much more riding time until I get there. This is really not such a bad thing, since Mick is a cycling freak and he is just getting frustrated with the stopping and starting. Joey, too, seems to have had his fill of looking out over spectacular red rock vistas for the morning, so the three of us all take off, each at our own pace.

In truth, although I’m in some pain, I’m starting to feel a bit better about my riding. We hit little baby steep climbs, and I’m getting into a rhythm and finding a way to power over them. To be sure, sometimes I come to a dead stop short of the top, but for the most part I’m improving and feeling good about it. Just before mid-day, I make it over a particularly challenging little baby summit and feel just absolutely on top of the world coming down the other side. And just on the other side, there is a fork in the road, so I stop to get my bearings.

A guy rides up from the other direction on a dirt bike and asks me to take his photo in front of the fork-in-the-road sign, so I oblige him. He returns the favor, and Joey rides up. While we’re standing there chatting, a number of people come riding by from the other direction. For the middle of the wilderness, it feels like Grand Central Station. Most of the riders going in the other direction pedal on by, but one woman stops to chat with us. She tells us that she’s a guide with the tour company, and she and the riders who have just paraded past us are all coming from the campground where we’re headed. Joey and I have figured out that one leg of the fork in the road goes to a lookout point called “Whtie Crack” – a place that Cindy specifically said she wanted to see. But when I ask the tour guide about it – the sign says it’s a mile or so to the overlook – she recommends to the dirt bike guy that it’s a nice ride, but to Joey and me, it’s probably not worth the extra riding. So we both take off in the direction of Murphy’s Hogback.

Joey rides off ahead – we assume that Mick is long gone in this direction, since he’s disappeared from sight – and I’m riding alone again. It’s really okay with me, since it’s easier for me to get into a rhythm when I’m by myself. This stretch of trail is nice, and I’m feeling my oats, so I pick up the pace a bit. I’m starting to think that I’m getting the hang of this mountain biking thing and just then I hit one long gnarly stretch of thick sand. I’m going pretty fast, and I’m hoping to be able to just ride it out, but the sand just gets thicker and thicker. I’ve chosen a route along the side of the trail, trying to avoid the worst of the sand and this works pretty darn well until I meet an unmovable object in the shape of a prickly bush, and I’m toast. The bush stops my bike abruptly and I’m flying through the air and I end up flat on my back in the middle of the sand trap that is the trail.

This would have been worth some serious points in a gymnastics meet. I realize that I’ve done a complete endover and completed a 360 in the air. The incredibly good news is that, because the trail is so sandy here, it’s a very soft landing. I take inventory as I sit, and then stand, up, and am happy that all my working parts still seem to be intact. I’m covered with sand from head to toe, with an especially healthy coating on my face, but other than some scratches from the prickly bush, I seem to have come through this crash unscathed. Luckily, my bike seems to be in perfect working order, too, so after a moment to absorb the shock of the crash, I’m back up and pedaling away – albeit slightly more conservatively – down the trail.

As I ride, I laugh. I’m having a great time. I’m riding with more confidence. And I just did my first endo with no lasting ill effects. Life is good on this mountain bike.

Up ahead just a little ways, there is another of the little climbs that I have been tackling so aggressively today, and I look at the incline and think, “yes I can!” and I go for it. But the reality turns out to be “no I can’t” and before I know it I’m toppling over on my side. It’s a slow motion fall, and it all seems to happen before I even know it. This fall, unlike my endo, hurts. It actually hurts a lot. Even though it’s slow and easy, I land with my hip on solid rock. Ouch. Ouch.

And now, just a few minutes after my feeling of invincibility, that little devil crawls right under my skin and takes control. I get back on my bike and try to ride the rest of this little climb, but I just hit obstacle after obstacle. It turns out not to be as minor of a little hill, and it has tight twists and turns, and I end up walking most of it. I’m scared now, and my fear makes me tight and inflexible, and suddenly everything is going wrong. I can’t unclip either of my feet, and feel in constant danger of going over again.

To top it off, as I round a final corner on this little bend, I see Joey just ahead. He’s standing and looking at something, and I follow his gaze. The Murphy Hogback.

Oh no. No, no, no.

Joey, who seems to be riding pretty aggressively, seems to be a little bit intimidated by the Hogback. I just look at it and feel deflated. From where we are standing now, it’s really just one long, fairly steep uphill to the top. No problem, as long as you’re not bothered by the steepness, or by the unprotected dropoff on the lefthand side, or by the rocks and scree and sand. Nope, no problem at all.

Joey tells me that he’s going to try to ride it. I feel defeat. Utter defeat. So Joey takes off riding, and I take off walking. It’s a small consolation to me that Joey rides part way up, and then can’t maintain his momentum and ends up walking, too. This mountain bike is starting to feel really heavy, pushing it uphill so far.

We get to the top of the Hogback, and find a little oasis on top. There are actually campsites up here, and a few trees and trunks. We find Mick sitting on one of the trunks, having a break in his ride and eating a PB&J sandwich.

Given a familiar audience, I start to whine. The little devil is taking control, but is not in complete charge yet. I tell Mick that I’ve been riding better until just before the hogback, but now everything is falling apart. Mick is having a great time – and admits to having to walk a short part of the Hogback himself – and his good mood only makes me start to do a slow boil. When things are going wrong, it just grates to see other people having a great time.

Mick helps by loosening my cleats so that I can unclip again – they are dirty, full of sand. I eat a little, but I’m so angry with how the day is turning that I’m not really hungry. In fact, the little devil is getting so far under my skin that I start to see the rest of the ride in very dark light. All I can think of is getting to the next campsite and getting off the bike.

The route down the other side of the Hogback is no less steep, and equally rocky, so I decide at the outset to walk. I get a few odd looks from a couple of cyclists I meet who are powering up the same route. Each person I pass who is on a bike gets my ire. I think about just throwing my bike down this road, and imagine it landing with a satisfying thud at the bottom of the hill. I start to whine; I think it’s all in my head, but that whining voice is so loud that I wouldn’t doubt everyone within miles can’t hear these thoughts. By the time I’ve reached the bottom of the steep section of the Hogback, the devil is in complete control, and it’s not a pretty site.

I reluctantly get back on the bike that I’ve decided I hate with my body and soul. I curse everyone and everything that I can think of to curse. I curse Utah, the Canyonlands, the desert, and this trail in particular. I curse Cindy for dreaming this trip up, and I curse Mick for agreeing to come. I curse anyone who is having fun. I curse mountain biking in general, and I curse anyone who has ever enjoyed the sport. I think about tomorrow’s ride, and the fact that the last few miles of the trail are a big climb back to the parking area where the cars are, and I decide that, without a doubt, I will not ride tomorrow. I will stay at the campsite and demand that Big Rod and Kirk give me a ride out of this hellhole.

Once I’ve made this decision, I actually start to feel a bit better. Only a few more miles, then, I think. If I can get through the rest of this ride, I’ll be done. And so I’m back on my bike, and riding.

Mick has actually started to worry about me and my state of mind, and so he and Joey and I pretty much ride the rest of the way to the Candlestick campsite together. And even though I’m extremely saddle sore and tired and feeling bruised and battered from my falls, I start to enjoy the trail again, even if it’s ever-so slightly.

Still, I’ve seldom been happier than the moment I see the Cadillac truck, sitting out in the open, just like our last camping site. There is not a tree for miles and miles, and there is the big blue truck parked in the middle of the desert. The only other sign of any kind of habitation is the park service outhouse next to the trail. Home sweet home.

It’s hot and desert-dry, and I think that Mick and Joey are as happy as I am to see the truck and the end to our day. We abandon our bikes and quickly go in search of Gatorade. We’re confronted by something we hadn’t counted on: the truck is locked, and the spare key is with Jay or Cindy. Damn! We want access to the coolers, and we want it badly. We want it so badly that we rummage around the truck and start to tear the tarp off the back pick-up bed, and find that a few of the coolers are actually accessible. We pull them out like people crazed after months in the desert without water, not the few hours that we’ve been out here. And we strike gold – there seem to be just a few cold bottles of Gatorade left, and we grab them for ourselves.

There are no trees here; this is desert. The only shade for miles and miles and miles seems to be the shadow cast by Big Rod’s truck. So Joey and Mick and I set up camp chairs in this tiny patch of shade and suck down the Gatorade. We are like so many old men sitting in the shade on a porch in the middle of nowhere: it’s enough to just sit and drink. There’s a kind of peace that obtains when you sit so quietly for a while, and this starts to revive the three of us.

Eventually, we get up and walk around. It is all slick rock, from the campsite over to the lip of the overlook, and it’s just too tempting to walk out to the edge. This is, after all, the White Rim Trail, which means that we’re following this elevated rim of rock around the Canyonlonds, all tucked in between the Green and Colorado Rivers. In bypassing the White Crack overlook, we’ve sacrificed our view of the confluence of these two great rivers. Now, when we reach the edge of the rock, we look down upon the Green River.

Eventually, the others in our group trickle into camp. Jay and Cindy and Francisco and Christobal all arrive together. We’re all concerned about Bruce and Debbie, so Mick and Jay form a search party, and the two of them, armed with extra water, head back out on the trail. They find the rest of our group – happy to see them and even more thrilled about the water, as they are bone dry by now – and the foursome returns to camp soon.

The Gatorade and the shade of the truck and the comfort of the camp chairs conspire to perform an exorcism of the devil, and he quietly slips away from my body. It’s good to have my being back to myself once again. When the rest of the group arrives, we go into a frenzy of story-telling – it turns out that today’s ride was rough on everyone. This makes me feel marginally better. The food that soon magically arrives on the card table, and the beer that is still somewhat cold, and the pure joy of washing off desert red sand with Wet Wipes: these all turn the day from a complete disaster into a wonderful outing with friends.

Rod and Kirk have chosen to stay in a hotel in Moab tonight, so it’s just us trail warriors tonight. The day on the trail has brought us closer, and it feels like we’ve all known each other forever. The entire process of setting up camp and cooking dinner and cleaning up the remains seems far more collegial than even last night. Francisco passes around a flask of tequila that burns so nicely going down, and the bottles of wine that I’ve brought disappear. We sit around our Coleman lantern “campfire” and tell stories. It’s another perfect evening – a clear sky with more stars than you think could exist in the entire universe, just perfectly cool after the heat of the day. Even with the aches and pains of the day, and the ground that hasn’t even a hint of softness underneath our tent, I fall asleep easily.

Day 3. Did I really think about not riding out of here yesterday?

We move a little more briskly this morning, just the prospect of the trail’s end pulling us forward. We breakfast, and then pack up the truck once again. And then we’re all riding off down the trail. Today, we ride in a group once again.

Other than my bruised pelvic bones, I’m really feeling quite good today. Riding is fine as long as I stand on the pedals, but sitting is agony. I take as many Advil as I think my stomach and liver can handle, and just hope that the pain gives way to numbness soon.

It’s easy riding to start out. Bruce has a guide book and has spotted a slot canyon for us to explore along the way. We abandon our bikes on the trail for a little while as we check out this beautiful natural wonder. But there are still many miles to ride, so we are back on the trail again soon.

As we make our way down the trail, my confidence returns in fits and starts. I make it up some little hills, and feel good about it, but I’ve lost the nerve for trying anything bigger. We approach one hill that seems very ride-able to me until we hit a few steep and rocky patches, and my nerve just goes. So I’m off, walking again. But this hill is not quite so steep nor as long as the Hogback, and it doesn’t take as much out of me to push this beast of a bike up it. At the top, the trail flattens a bit before heading down, and for an instant I think that I can ride it. But it turns into a serious sand pit soon, and so I walk. Partway down the hill, I pass a guy pushing his bike up the hill from the other direction. “At least I have an excuse – I’m going uphill”, he says to me as we pass. “Oh, I have an excuse, too,” I say in return. “I’m a complete wimp.” So there. But today it doesn’t really bother me, and the devil is nowhere in sight.

I finally get up the nerve to get back on my bike, and after I start riding, I catch up quickly to the rest of the group. They are exchanging packs, and picking up something from the side of the trail. When I get close, I see what has happened. Just a short while ago, Big Rod and Kirk drove by us on this jeep track, Kirk going by first in his jeep and then Big Rod in the truck. In the bumpy trail leading down off this hill, a couple of things have fallen off the back of the truck, and the largest of these is Mick’s backpack. The guys figure out how to carry these dropped items down the hill, and then we’re all riding together again.

There’s another campsite up ahead a bit, and we stop there to drop the pack. This is the lowest point (in elevation) that we’ve traveled along the trail, and the difference in vegetation is startling. We’re very near the Green River now, and there are trees and grass and a slight breeze. It’s a pleasant place to sit and have a sandwich, except for the wind that is whipping up. We give up on the sandwiches and are soon riding again.

We spread out a bit here. It’s pleasant enough riding, but I’ve identified the real difference between road biking and mountain biking. Road biking can be much like marathon running: you get into a groove and just go. It makes for great meditation time. But on a mountain bike, the trail is always changing, and there is no time to relax and just enjoy. As soon as you’ve figured out how to navigate the slick rock, it turns to scree and loose rock, and then to hard-pack dirt. Just as soon as you have the hang of this, you ride smack dab into a giant sand trap. It’s all about making quick changes and reacting to the changing environment. I’m much more a slow-twitch girl, and this trip is a valuable lesson to me.

Once again, it’s Joey and Mick and me all riding together. We hit a fork in the road, and I prepare to get off my bike. This fork is at Mineral Bottom, the low point that hooks up with the road back up to Horsethief Trail and the parking lots where our cars are all waiting.

I’ve been thinking about this last stretch of trail for sometime, figuring that I will have to push my bike all the way up. We saw the switchbacks and the steep climb out when we first parked the car up on top the other day, and I just don’t think I’ll be able to ride it. But Mick takes off, climbing, and Joey tells me that he’s planning to do the same. What would I be if I didn’t even try?

So I mount my bike, and Joey and I take off at about the same time. And it’s not all that steep – I’m able to ride it, and I feel grand. In fact, I take off in front of Joey. But this doesn’t last for long. Just as I’m starting to think that I might ride this entire thing, the road surface gets loose and gravelly and the pitch seems to get just enough steeper that it scares me. I lose traction, and come to a stop, more out of nerves than anything. As I’m standing, trying to figure out what to do next, Joey rides past. I think about trying to pedal some more, but the steep dropoff on our left has me too scared to even try, so I push my bike.

I watch as Mick and Joey criss-cross the switchbacks in front of me, and it looks like a huge climb. But I’m patient, and push and push and push. A couple of the other riders go past me – on their bikes – but I’m pretty comfortable with my wussiness, and I keep pushing. But somewhere just around the last switchback, I can almost smell the end of the trail approaching, and I just can’t get there pushing this beast of a bike. So I figure I’ll give it a go. I am afraid that I’ll just spin out of control – lack of traction – if I try to ride, but that doesn’t happen. I’m on my bike, riding the last stretch of the steep switchbacks, and it feels good. It’s a triumph for me to come over the last hill and coast into the parking lot. Nobody else really notices – or cares - that I’ve ridden this last bit, but it matters a bunch to me.

It’s early afternoon, but Mick and I have a long drive back to Denver, so we load up our stuff into my car as quickly as we can. Jay and Cindy are staying in Moab tonight (why didn’t we think of this), but the others are all heading back, too, so soon we’re all saying our goodbyes and heading off down the road in our cars.

As Mick and I drive, we talk about the good and the bad and everything in between about this weekend trail ride. It’s inevitable that the conversation takes a turn that is becoming all too familiar to me. Next time, we say, we’ll make sure we have more ice, more Gatorade. Next time we’ll bring full air mattresses instead of the flimsy Thermarests. Next time, we’ll bring more Wet Wipes, brownies, whatever. Next time, I’ll ride my mountain bike beforehand so that I’m not so saddle sore. Next time.

Friday, February 24, 2006

The 4-H Marathon (Omaha Marathon, September 25, 2005)

This is what I have heard about the Omaha Marathon, since the first time I knew that it existed: that anyone who ever ran it called it “the 4-H Marathon”. This was not in honor of the club. This moniker was courtesy of the fact that Omaha comprises hills (always), heat (sometimes), and humidity (always), and these things combined over 26.2 miles lead you straight to hell.

So I was never all that interested in this race. I was in 4-H as a kid, but never that “in” to it. Sure, I loved it when my sister Sue and her friend Debbie practiced their cooking demonstration, making cherry coffeecake over and over again, and somebody had to eat the exhibits. But my own demonstrations always seemed to be boring stuff. Once, Kay Schroeder and I did a demonstration on a healthy salad, and we created a concoction whose main ingredients were canned peaches and cottage cheese. Compared to cherry coffee cake? Puh-lease. As far as I was ever concerned, I wanted to avoid 4-H as much as possible.

But could I really avoid this race? After all, it’s in my family’s backyard. I grew up very close to Omaha, and most of my family still lives either in or around the Omaha metro area. How could I ever justify running another Nebraska 26.2-miler in my quest for the 50 states, and not stop off in Omaha? And so it is that I’m registered for the Omaha Marathon on September 25, 2005, and praying for cool, dry weather.

The bus tour. I’ve flown to Omaha and Mom has picked me up at the airport. This is the third in a trifecta of marathons that she’s been to in the last year, starting with the Blue Springs Ultra Marathon in Missouri last October, and including the Marathon to Marathon just a few months ago in Iowa. But she’s never been to a proper “expo”, so my packet pickup on Saturday morning is a new experience for her. It’s really a respectable expo for such a small race: a number of booths hawking running clothing and gear, a few local booths, and a great pancake feed. I stoke up on pancakes while Mom eats a small fraction of what I consume, and then we wander around a bit.

Dick Beardsley is the running celebrity on hand for the race festivities, and since it’s not crowded at all, I take the chance to chat with him and buy his book. What a great guy! He is, as he mentions frequently in the book (that I devour in the couple of days post-marathon), a very talkative guy, and he makes me feel completely at home here. He tells me that since he’s recovering from a broken ankle, he’ll just be running the 10k on Sunday. His enthusiasm for the race and all things running is infectious, and I think for a few moments that the time I’ve had chatting with him is worth the trip alone.

The marathon offers a bus tour of the course, and we’ve decided to check it out. I’m a bit dubious about the reports of hills. After all, I live in Colorado and do most of my long runs in the mountains; how horrible can these hills really be?

A yellow school bus pulls up outside the convention hall, and Mom starts to laugh. She is new to marathon “stuff”, and – like most “normal” adult Americans – has not ridden on a yellow school bus in eons. I think that for Mom this is some kind of treat, since it’s so unexpected for her. For me, I’m just trying not to hydrate too thoroughly since I know that our tour bus does not sport any facilities!

The president of the Omaha Running Club climbs onto the bus with us, and guides us through our tour. For a mile or so, it seems like no big deal – Omaha as I know it. But then we head south and just outside of the downtown area, we hit the mountains. Yes, mountains! In Omaha!! Who knew? It amazes me – and puts the fear of God into me – to see the size of these hills. And they don’t stop. Up and up and up and then down and down – but it seems that it is up much more than down. I start to get an appreciation of the 4-H billing of this race. When we finally get back to the start/finish area, I simply turn to Mom and say, “well, there goes any thoughts I ever had of running this thing fast. It’s going to take me well over 4 hours tomorrow.”

A family affair. My pasta feed on Saturday night is a gourmet experience cooked up by my sister-in-law Connie, who makes a yummy homemade pasta sauce just in my honor. It’s a full house at my brother Stan’s this night – in addition to his wife, the chef, and their three kids, my mom and sister Sue and I all spend the night. It’s really a nice low-key night. Before dinner, we head down the street to the local park so that the kids can play. Adam, my 2 ½ year old nephew, decides that he wants to race Aunt Judy, so he and I run most of the way down the hill to the park, and what do you know, Adam wins. Nicole (11) and Kim (9) ride along on their bikes. Kim makes a point of telling me that she swam a mile recently at the Y program the kids belong to, and she’s very proud of her accomplishment. Heck, Aunt Judy is extremely proud of her swim – in 65 minutes, at that. I have hopes that I will turn my nieces into tri-athletes.

It’s an early night, and I’m up again in the darkness to eat a toasted bagel and guzzle a cuppa joe before anyone else in the house is stirring. Stan has very graciously volunteered to get up and drive me to the race start, and we cross paths in the kitchen where he is loading up a go-cup with coffee for the drive downtown. We head out the door and walk straight into a warm, misty rain. Stan comments that it’s cold, and I groan in response. This? I say. This is way too warm for a marathon. It’s not even cool!

But one thing I’ve learned about marathons is that the weather will be whatever it will be, and we will go out and run, no matter what. Stan lives on the western side of town, and as we head east to the start of the marathon in downtown Omaha, his windshield wipers work constantly. This is not a good sign. But as we approach downtown, the weather seems to clear a bit, and it’s dry when Stan drops me outside of the convention center. We talk about where we might see each other during the race, and then I’m on my own, and Stan is driving home to, hopefully, catch a few more minutes of shut-eye.

Race start. A beautiful thing about this race is the indoor facilities available while waiting for the start. I cycle through the bathroom line a few times before dropping my clothing bag at the bag check. Soon enough the race director is leading us out the door and up the street to the starting line. The clouds are hanging low – it seems more humid now than when Stan dropped me off, if that is even possible – and you can’t see the tops of the tall downtown buildings. The sound crew has not shown up for the start of the race, so we all strain to hear last minute instructions; the Star Spangled Banner is offered up by an a capella group: I’m sure it was lovely, if only we could have heard. As soon as the anthem is done, the rain starts. It’s a light rain – more of a drizzle than a downpour – and with that, the gun sounds for the start of the race.

For a small race, this one is first class. Chip timing – I was amazed when I picked up my packet on Saturday to find a chip in the race materials. Now at the start, I like the idea that I don’t have to rush to the starting mat. While the marathon itself is not huge, the other two races starting at the same time – a half marathon and a 10k – fill the street with runners.

It’s a slightly downhill start, going in exactly the opposite direction that seems logical. We run down the street for a few blocks before making a right-hand turn onto a deserted street. It’s just beginning to get light out now, but it’s the people around me who impede my view. I notice – almost too late – that there are orange traffic cones set out to guide us runners onto a narrow lane on the side of the road. Later, when we retrace this part of the course as we start the second half of the marathon, the orange cones will make sense. For now, they are simply a hazard, and a guy directly in front of me takes a header when he gets tripped up on one. What a rotten way to start a 26.2 mile journey. I’m just grateful that I escape this part of the course without any personal mishap.

The course turns right again, and then left, and we’re heading towards the Missouri River. The rain is light, and there is actually a small crowd of fans along this stretch of roadway. The time is ticking away, and I realize, too late, that I’ve missed the first mile marker. We’re still heading slightly downhill, and I’m feeling pretty good. The road bends around and we turn another 180 degrees and then another sharp left into the Con-Agra International Headquarters Campus.

Con-Agra is one of Omaha’s premier businesses, with a large headquarters presence here near the Missouri River in downtown Omaha. The roadway leading through the campus is new cobblestone, something that made me cringe when we drove over it during the bus tour yesterday. But today, it seems smooth as silk, and doesn’t trip me up as I had expected. We hit our first aid station in this section of the course, and I’m incredibly impressed. The volunteers are handing out water cups with lids and straws. What a concept! No water spilling for me at this aid station, and I can’t help feeling proud of my near-hometown for such an innovative and practical approach to such a basic marathon staple. I’m feeling quite good as we exit the Con-Agra campus and start our true course south.

The dreaded hills. When we leave Con-Agra, we move back onto the city streets, and directly under a train crossing, and then the hills start in earnest. There is no warning, just rounding a corner, and the road looks like it goes straight up in front of us. I’m extremely grateful for the bus tour yesterday; if not for that, this sight might crush my spirit. But I’m ready for the hills, and dig into the climb.

These hills go on for nice long stretches – almost like the Newton hills in Boston, but maybe even longer – or so it must seem, just owing to the difference in where these hills hit in the race. But the pain of a long uphill expanse is quickly broken up by the sight of the lead 10k runners doubling back on the course and heading for home. It seems so early to see people going the opposite direction! But here they all come – the front runners, looking focused and strong, and then at the number six spot is my new buddy Dick Beardsley! I yell a greeting to him and feel honored to have had this chance to share a race course with him. For a 49 year old guy with a recent broken ankle, he sure is tearing up the course. But then, many of the 10k runners impress me. Shortly after I see Dick Beardsley, a kid goes running past, smoking the rest of the field. After the race I will look up the finishing times and see that a 13 year old finished in 13th place overall. Not long after the kid, the lead female runner goes smoking by, and like all the runners around me, I cheer her on and yell encouragement. The second woman to go by on the return trip for the 10k looks oddly familiar, and then I figure it out – she’s the race director who issued the last-minute instructions. Wow! To me, this is incredible. That the race director can actually enjoy her own race says much about the organization and volunteer effort at this race. Everyone gets to have a good time, since so many people show up and make it happen.

Watching the 10k runners go by takes the sting out of the hills for a while, so the distance just clicks away. Soon enough we’re running past Rosenblatt Stadium, the site of the annual College World Series of Baseball. As an Iowa resident for so many years, I’ve long been aware of the College World Series; I just never realized that it was such a big deal to warrant a stadium that appears to be on par with the pros. I’m growing more impressed with Omaha.

The road twists around, and now I see a sign that says “Pachyderm Lane” or somesuch, and I realize that we’ve come into the zoo via the back entrance. The race literature boasts about the fact that the marathon course runs directly through the Henry Doorly Zoo, but we weren’t able to traverse this section of the course on Saturday’s bus tour, so I have no idea what to expect. I know that I visited the zoo many years ago, as a kid, but I don’t remember anything about it. And now, here we are, in the hours before the zoo opens, and it’s a really cool place to run. The road twists around, and we have it entirely to ourselves, and it’s quite beautiful. Lots of low hanging foliage, turning to fall colors in varying degrees, form a canopy over the curving road. The zoo is no different from the rest of this part of the course in one respect – it is still extremely hilly – but it’s fun to keep an eye out for the zoo inhabitants. I see a few peacocks wandering near the road, and a few other animals (some kind of African hooved creatures, and some very colorful plumage) behind their barriers, and then we’re exiting the zoo. It has gone all too quickly.

We pass mile marker 5 just as we exit the zoo, and turn back onto a city street. I happen to look up on an embankment on the right hand side of the road just now and see my cousin Sandy, who spots me at the same moment; now we’re screaming at each other! Sandy is a very special cousin – my memories of her go back as young as I can remember anyone in my life – and we have always had a special bond, even if we don’t see each other very often. In the weeks leading up to the marathon, we’ve emailed many times, but Sandy did not commit to being on the course, and I didn’t expect her to show up - after all, it’s barely after 7:30 on a Sunday morning! But now, there she is, and I’m overjoyed to see her, and the moment hangs in the air. I’m starting to feel that this marathon is quite blessed.

But there are two more miles of hills on this outbound course, and I turn my attention back to the marathon. I’m feeling remarkably good, and my splits are faster than I expected them to be, and I start to think that maybe this race won’t be quite as slow as I’ve expected. I notice that my heart rate creeps into my red zone on the uphills, and rather than scaling back, I decide to take a calculated risk. I think that maybe I can recover enough on the corresponding downhills – they are a match to the uphills – in order to keep the lactic acid accumulation down. And so I run along at what feels to be the “right” pace.

We finally hit the turnaround, and the return back – mostly on the same road, although we don’t go back through the zoo on the return trip – seems just as hard as the outbound trip. In fact, I start to wonder how it can feel like I’m always going uphill, without the benefit of the downhills that should be there. I think of the stories of parents or grandparents who walked 2 miles to school everyday, uphill both ways, and that seems to apply here today. Given all of the uphill on the outbound journey, it seems that there should be proportionately more downhill heading back into downtown, but it is just not to be.

This race course is almost a figure 8, and we cross the start line at the midpoint of the marathon before heading out again on the same route. There is a small crowd on the road in front of the convention center, and volunteers are directing traffic – half marathoners to the right and full marathoners to the left. As we pass by the half marathon turn-off, we can hear the cheers for the racers who are already finishing over at the side entrance of the Civic Center. It seems a bit lonely and desolate on this side of the building, and a bit weird to cover these same blocks for the second time in the day. It’s no longer raining – that lasted only a short while at the start – but the humidity is incredible. I notice that my Race Ready shorts are soaking wet – something that never happens in dry climates, and it feels like I could wring them out. And there is still 13.1 miles to go.

The lonely second half. The second half of the race heads out north, and the first part of this route goes past the Creighton University soccer fields before heading into a deserted light industrial area. This is the most desolate part of the entire race course. There are some low profile buildings, but it seems like there are more deserted buildings and abandoned parking lots with weeds poking through cracks in the asphalt than fresh life. We run past the Siena/Francis House – a shelter - and a group of homeless men are lined up outside. It’s a sorry site, and I feel a pang of guilt at the ease of my own life compared to the sad souls who stand and wordlessly watch us run by.

But there are a few other runners near me on the road here, so I turn my attention in their direction. There are a couple of young, tall, GQ-looking guys running together right next to me. I first noticed these guys way back in the zoo: when I struggled to get a gel pack open – my hands were too slippery in the dampness, and I didn’t think I could get the packet open – one of the guys offered to help me out just as I finally ripped the thing open. Now here they are again. Only, one of the guys is clearly starting to hurt, and he suddenly slows quite dramatically. His buddy runs alongside me and another racer, and asks, “what should I do?” We learn that this is the first marathon for both guys – they are in their late 20s – and that they made a pact before the race that if either of them was having a good day, he was to go on. But the guy running with me is clearly not okay with this strategy – “after all, we did all of our training together, and you don’t leave a buddy behind!” – and he’s struggling with the question of what he should do. But then he takes off, looking strong, and I’m running on my own.

The next few miles get a little lonely; there just aren’t that many people on the course anymore – the 10k and half marathoners are along gone – and there isn’t much crowd support out here. The good news is that after a few miles in the desolate and deserted industrial zone, we enter Carter Lake Park, and the scenery improves vastly. Crater Lake was formed when the Missouri River changed course at some time in its history, and left behind this body of water that parallels the river. I’ve never really been to Crater Lake before, but it’s just across the road from Omaha’s Epply Airfield, so I pass it every time I fly into or out of Omaha. My view of the lake has always been from the east side, but today we’re running along the west shore. Before the marathon, I never knew that there was such an expanse of parkland on this side of the lake. The trees are unusually tall, and provide good cover.

Shortly after I enter the park, Stan and Mom drive by and shout at me, and they pull off the road a short way ahead. There is so very little traffic –runners or vehicles – that it seems a relief to have someone to run towards. Now Stan is out of the car, and he meets me along the course with a cup of nice cold blue Gatorade. Yeah! When Stan asked if he could bring me anything along the course, I had replied that there would be plenty of aid stations, so it wouldn’t be necessary, but if he really wanted to, he could grab the Gatorade that I stuck in his fridge. Now it tastes like the nectar of the gods – it’s cold and sweet and far better than the Powerade being served along the course. I am extremely grateful for this fresh surprise.

Stan jogs alongside me for a short distance so that I can hand the cup back to him, and he tells me that they (he and Mom) have lost the rest of the family, and that they will try to regroup before seeing me up the road in a few miles. And then they are gone, and I’m looking for runners to pick off.

The course spends several miles inside Carter Park before exiting just before mile 20. But as soon as we’re out of the park, we hit a steep – albeit fairly short – hill, and it looks like Everest at this point in the race. But there are people waiting at the top of the hill, including Stan and Mom, so I motor on up and try to ignore the pain. Stan runs alongside me again with that magical elixir Gatorade, and it’s the perfect reward for making it up the hill. I take off north along Florence Boulevard while Stan mumbles something again about losing his family. Sure enough, it’s still just him and Mom here, and I wonder if I will see the rest of the family on the course.

From the map, I know that this stretch along Florence Boulevard is an out and back, and I’m looking forward to hitting the turnaround point. But this stretch seems to go on and on and on forever. The neighborhood is a surprise – we are in north Omaha now, and I have long heard references to this part of the city as a gang-infested violent and dangerous place. But Florence is a lovely boulevard with an attractive grassy median and old lovely homes with well tended lawns set well back from the street. It’s one of those places that so surprises you in its difference from your expectations that I can’t help gawking at the homes along the route. And, as always in the Midwest, people out sitting on porches or working in the yards all smile and wave.

But the pleasantness does not affect my growing desire to just be done. Following my strategy of racing the last 6 miles, I’ve turned up the effort level to maximum, and it’s a sufferfest. The sun peeks through the clouds briefly, and we get a taste of what the day might be like without this generous cloud cover: pure misery. Although it stopped raining early in the race, my clothes are sopping wet; my shorts in particular are clinging to my legs in a way I’ve never experienced before. The clouds win out, and I’m extremely grateful that we are spared the full steambath that the sun would generate.

Now here’s an aid station, and the kids working it are just going crazy yelling and cheering. I take a couple of cups of water, mostly because they seem to want to help SO much. Thankfully, the turnaround is finally here, and now we just have a straight shot back to the race start/finish. We pass through the same aid station, and the kids are still yelling their heads off. I take more water, but realize that I’m getting close to the point of sloshing, so I drink only a bit and splash the rest on my face.

I see Mom and Stan one last time as we pass the top of the hill point again, and this time I wave off Stan’s proffer of Gatorade – just too dangerous to take on more liquids with my stomach feeling like this.

It’s a real race now. I’m passing people, one at a time, very gradually, but still passing them. The population of runners is very spread out , and so I play a game of spotting the next runner – sometimes as far as a block or two ahead – and then put all my effort into passing that person. I pass a woman I’ve seen several times today – she’s wearing a gray jogbra that is soaked through with sweat. Just as I catch her, we both pass a guy with a “4:00 Pace Leader” sign on his back, but he’s not looking so good, and he’s running alone. He tells us both that we’re looking strong and that we’ll beat four hours if we keep it up.
There is a group of three kids on a corner up ahead, and I see that they have water balloons. As I pass by, they ask if I want one and I say “Sure!” But the throw is too gentle and the water balloon merely grazes my back and drops to the pavement with a plop. At this point I’m not sure that more moisture would help to cool me, anyway. I’m sweating like a fiend.

The finish. There are more people to pass, and finally I can see the Civic Center up ahead. I motor around a couple of women who are alternating between walk and run. Up ahead of them is a woman wearing flag shorts, and she seems to be suffering; I go around her, too. But just as we approach the Civic Center, there is another pesky uphill – not terrible, but at a terrible point in the race – and it catches me flat footed. I just don’t have anything left to attack this thing, so I slog up it. I can hear someone at my shoulder, and look to see Ms. Gray Jogbra go bounding past me; she must have saved a gear for the finish. And then Ms. Flag Shorts goes around me, too, and it feels just horrible to lose that hard won advantage.

But the 26 mile marker is at the top of the hill, and right next to the marker is Stan – and my two nieces. What’s more, in a complete surprise to me, my nieces come out and say “can we run with you?” and I’m just thrilled. Nicole and Kim have clearly been plotting this, since they are both wearing running shoes and shorts, and they fall into step on either side of me. This is like a dream come true to me. We’re following Ms. Gray Jogbra and Ms. Flag Shorts, and I think we might catch them again, but I just don’t have a kick. As we make the last right hand turn before the entrance to the Civic Center, Kim says “wow, I’m getting tired already”. The girls spot their mom before I do, and tell me they will stay with her, and they peel off. I’m on my own as I run through the entrance to the Civic Center – this is an odd indoors finish – and down the green mat and across the finish line. As I enter the Civic Center, my heart lurches when it sees the race clock already past the four hour point, but then I remember the chip timing. The four hour pace group leader had it just right: I click on my watch at 3:59:56, just barely under four hours, but it feels so good to, once again, beat that invisible but real barrier..

My family is all there at the end of the finish chute when I get there – how did they get here so fast? – and it’s a pretty wonderful feeling. After a quick shower, we’re all on our way out of the post-race area, in search of some post-race grub, but we notice that the awards ceremony has just started. We watch the overall winners, and are almost ready to start walking again when they start the age groups. I’m so surprised when they call my name that my brother has to prod me – and then I’m sprinting up to the podium to accept my second place age group award from Dick Beardsley, which is a complete thrill.

A few weeks later, Mick and I are watching an episode of Jeopardy that we’ve Tivo’d, and the final jeopardy clue is a cinch for me. “What is 4-H!” I yell before Mick has a chance to beat me to it. He looks at me, incredulous that I know this fact that seems so obscure to him. I just nod and recite, “head, heart, hands, health – those are the 4 H’s”. I tell him about Omaha and the 4-H Marathon, and how I’d thought about the nickname for the marathon a few times since the race. To be sure, we had the heat, hills, and humidity. But hell? Hell no. Maybe the race wasn’t quite heaven either, but it sure wormed its way into my heart.

Aspen Ride for the Cure (September 10, 2005)

(aka Ollie goes on walkabout and Judy meets Chris Carmichael)

In addition to the July Bike for the Cure that Mick and I participate in, Aspen is, for the second year, hosting a more prestigious Race for the Cure event in September. This is a Century Ride with fund-raising requirements, and the promise of a celebrity participant: Chris Carmichael, Lance Armstrong’s coach. For the second consecutive year, Mick has decided to volunteer to work an aid station rather than to ride in the event. In fact, Mick is in charge of the second aid station. While I’d really like to ride in this event, I figure that it’s time for me, too, to give back for a change by volunteering.

We (my two cats, Oliver and Boston, and I) arrive in Aspen on Friday night, as usual. My cats are great travelers, and they accompany me on my weekend trips to this little mountain town. Tonight, for reasons that I can’t fathom, Oliver is acting pissed off and snarly from the moment we reach Mick’s house. But this has happened before – with increasing frequency since Boston, the kitten arrived on the scene - so I pay little attention. I know that he’ll calm down and be fine in the morning.

But in the early morning hours, I wake up and notice that Ollie isn’t sleeping with us. Oliver sleeps with me no matter where we are, and even if he wanders in the wee hours of the night, he always curls up next to me in the pre-dawn hours. I call out to him from my semi-consciousness, but fall asleep before he comes to bed.

But he’s still not there when I get up in the early cool morning. I need to do two runs today, and the only way to fit them around volunteering for the bike event is to run the short one now. Mick and I both call for Oliver, but he hasn’t shown up before I head out the door. I’m certain that he’ll show up.

But when I return home 35 minutes later, Mick tells me that he’s nowhere to be found. How can this be? There is no way, as far as we can tell, for him to have gotten outside. So we scour the house, opening doors and closets and cupboards, and looking under, in, over, around, and behind every appliance and piece of furniture. But no Ollie.

I’m starting to get really worried, but Mick has to leave to set up the aid station. I look and look and look, but can’t find Ollie. I check outside tentatively, but just can’t imagine how he would have gotten outside. And the thought of him being outside brings terror to my heart. Too many bears and coyotes in these parts for a cat to be safe outside for long.

Ollie does not materialize, so I force myself to go to the aid station. There’s plenty to be done, and being busy is good for me. We make PB&J sandwiches, and set out boxes of PowerBars and gels, and slice oranges and bananas. A charging pack of riders comes through the aid station without stopping – some guys apparently more interested in racing the day’s ride rather than enjoying the stops along the way – and then the rest of the field starts to trickle in.

And they arrive in dribs and drabs, all kinds of people. Guys by themselves, couples, women riding together, guys riding in pairs, lots and lots of riders. All ages and sizes, in varying shapes. The common theme is that they are all hungry and thirsty, so we’ve got just what they want. I find that the PB&J sandwiches go quicker if we quarter them (even if people take a handful of the smaller pieces), so we get busy cutting up the sandies into smaller chunks. A kid who is helping at the station gets busy pushing the gels. He’s fixated on the fact that the tangerine gel has “2x caffeine”, and he accosts nearly every rider who takes another flavor. “Did you see this gel?” he says, pushing a tangerine gelpack into the rider’s face. “It has double caffeine.” We run out of the tangerine gels first, and he tells me, “better tell the organizers to send more tangerine gels next time. The riders love them, because of the caffeine.” I figure that the kid has a good future as a drug pusher, or at the very least, working as a barrista.

Mick is talking to a guy who arrived a minute ago, riding up on his own. I meander over, and just as I’m thinking, this guy looks familiar, I realize that it’s Chris Carmichael. He and Mick are having a nice chat about the century ride. Mick has, in fact, met Chris earlier and has ridden with him a couple of times on group rides in Aspen, so they chat easily. Mick introduces me to Chris, and I am, for a moment, a bit too awestruck to be able to talk intelligently, so I just listen for a while. The talk turns to Lance and the Discovery Team, and Chris makes a couple of comments about the future of Discovery without Lance (who will be the next leader of the team?), but doesn’t give us any great insights, although he drops hints that he knows much more than he’s letting on. Then he talks again about today’s ride. He started out with the fast guys, but they dropped him in the early climbing miles. Chris acknowledges that he would ride faster if he lost five pounds. I smile and tell him that I know a great book on nutrition by some guy named Carmichael, and he just smiles and shakes his head. “I pity the person who would ever take on the job of trying to coach me,” he says, laughing. Aha. Even the coach of the 7-time TdeF champion has his weaknesses. And with that, he says that it’s time for him to get riding, and he hops on his bike and glides down the road.

After a while, Mick notices that I’m off in a fog, worried about my kitty, so he encourages me to go find Oliver, and I head back home. No Oliver, inside or out. By now, I’m in full panic mode. Where is my boy???

When Mick comes home after shutting down the aid station, we spend the entire afternoon looking for Oliver. Besides panicking in general about Ollie, I’m also worried because he needs his meds. If somebody took him – for whatever reason – they would not know that he needs medication for his heart and lung disease. We look high and low, inside and out. We ask everyone in the neighborhood, but nobody has seen him. We make up flyers and post them around. We call the animal shelter and the county animal control and the vet hospital. We call a local radio station, who starts making public announcements on our behalf. Mick calls his friends at the local papers, and in the morning they run an article with a large headline, “Missing cat needs meds”. But still no Ollie.

In desperation, I call my friend Denise, who is working this weekend in a metaphysical bookstore that is owned by some of her friends. She puts me in touch with a woman who is a pet psychic. I wonder if I’m losing my grip on reality. Denise assures me that this woman is legitimate – the state police use her sometimes to find missing persons, she tells me – and so I make the call.

The psychic tells me that Oliver is alive, but that he is somewhere in an enclosed space, and can’t get out. In fact, she believes that he can’t hear me or call out to me. She says that he may be injured, because she can see that he is trapped. She tells me that my panic is only making him more scared, so I should try to relax and just send him good karma wishes.

In the end, we go out to a movie Saturday night because we can’t think of anywhere else we can look. I’m a mess, and cry myself to sleep. I don’t know which is worse, picturing him as a meal for bears or coyotes, or getting sick and dying from the absence of his meds. The not-knowing is a terrible burden, and I wonder if I will be able to stand it if I have to drive back to Denver without him in the car with me. I’m not at all sure what to think about the psychic’s message. I desperately want to believe, since I desperately want to believe that my kitty is still alive.

Sunday morning is another bright and beautiful day, but it seems dark and miserable without Ollie. I check outside as soon as we get up, hoping that maybe he has found his way home in the night, but there is still no sign of him anywhere.

I skipped my long run yesterday while we searched for Oliver, so today I decide that I’ll do my run and keep an eye out for him. I think of all the time we spent together, the years, the constant presence of this little furball in my life. I eulogize him to myself, since I’m starting to believe that he’s gone, and I have to gulp back a few sobs on the run. But the run helps, as running always does, and I find myself on the road, climbing Independence Pass. I’m running back down into town, and notice two riders approaching on bikes. Chris Carmichael says “Hi, how are you doing?” as I run by, and I wonder if he recognizes me from yesterday. Or is he just a friendly guy?

After my run, I call the psychic again. She tells me that she sees Ollie in some tall grass, and asks if there is anyplace nearby that might have tall grass. Of course, I say. Just behind the townhouses where Mick lives. The vegetation turns wild quickly on the banks of Hunter Creek. But we looked in this direction yesterday, so I don’t think that this “information” is all that helpful. Mick and I go to breakfast, and then we stop at his sister’s house. At my suggestion, we enlist Molly’s entire family to come back to Mick’s to help in one last-ditch effort at finding Ollie before I have to start the long, lonely drive back to Denver.

We all fan out, and I go inside Mick’s to change my shoes before heading out in the direction he has suggested for us to look – back behind the townhomes in his little community. Mick thinks that this might be the area of tall grass. I round the end of a row of buildings and discover a road I didn’t know existed, but it’s eerie: there’s nobody here. I expect to see Mick or Don, but instead just see an empty road. But as I walk along, I think I hear voices. There is a driveway off this road – again, a surprise – I had no idea there were houses back here. I nearly walk straight past the driveway, but I turn my head and see Mick standing there, talking to a woman. And then I notice that he has something in his arms – my Ollie! And I am in heaven.

My boy seems fine: healthy and just a bit bewildered. It turns out that the woman at this house found Oliver wandering in the grass outside her home Saturday afternoon, and recognized that he was not a feral cat. So, she took him in and kept him in an unused dog kennel in her garage overnight, hoping to find his rightful owner. She saw the newspaper article, and had just called and left Mick a message when he arrived at her door.

Coincidence? True psychic ability? I don’t know, and don’t really care. My Ollie is home, safe and sound. But I’ve suddenly developed a new affinity for the show “Medium”. And in future weekends at Mick’s, I double check – no, triple check – the front door to make sure it’s locked and that Ollie is inside, safe and sound, before going to sleep.

And I think that I would have used much less energy riding the century ride on Saturday -but I probably wouldn’t have spent as much time talking with Chris Carmichael. All’s well that end’s well.