Thursday, March 02, 2006

Austin Marathon (February 19, 2005)

My first thought upon deciding to run the Austin Marathon in February is that Mick will want to come along, since Austin is reputed to be a great cycling city, evidenced by the fact that seven time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong lives and trains there. But Mick tells me that he doesn’t want to come to Austin, he has other things planned that weekend. By this time, though, my cousin Kerri has told me that she’s coming to Austin to run the half-marathon. But after I register and buy my airline ticket, Kerri tells me that she’s not coming, either. Not to worry, my v-team friend Brian has, in the meantime, told me that he’s going to run Austin. When Kerri bows out, I contact Brian only to learn that he’s not coming either.

Is this a sign? Maybe this is not the right race for me?

But then again, I’ve been training with this race in mind, and it’s all going very well. And then a couple of weeks before the marathon, a flash in the news: Lance and Sheryl have broken up. (In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, Lance Armstrong and Sheryl Crow have been a hot item, and they were engaged – formalized with a 6-carat diamond – last fall.) The breakup means that Lance is, once again, available.

I think that it’s a sign. Lance needs me.

So, for the first time ever, I’m completely on my own as I make my way to a marathon. But I find other marathoners waiting for the flight to take me from Denver to Austin on Saturday morning, and have a nice time chatting with a few like-minded folks. At the expo in Austin, I finally get to meet, in person, Rich Benyo and Jan Seeley, the publisher and editor of Marathon and Beyond. We get to have a nice chat, something that probably wouldn’t have happened if I’d been with others. And while I go for a short drive to see a bit of Austin before heading to the pasta dinner on Saturday night, I drive right by Chuy’s Tex-Mex Restaurant. Lance has mentioned Chuy’s several times in his books; it’s his favorite Mexican restaurant in Austin, a place he likes to hang out.

Clearly, this is a sign. Lance wants me.

But when my race morning wake-up call comes at 4 a.m. on Sunday, I’m not really thinking about Lance. I’m thinking about the weather outside, and how warmly to dress. The forecast is for the temperature to stay in the 30s throughout the morning. But when I walk through the hotel lobby, somebody tells me that last night’s rain turned to ice when the temps dropped into the 20s overnight. I test the sidewalk for ice, and, finding none, look down at the key fob to open my rental car. The next thing I know, I’m on my back. Yes, there is ice. Is this a sign that there shouldn’t be a marathon today?

But the roads aren’t bad, and I’m soon downtown, parked, and waiting in line for the shuttle bus to take us to the start line. It’s warm on the bus, but only 31 degrees Fahrenheit outside. There is moisture in the air – a bit more than a mist, a bit less than a drizzle. The bus deposits us at the starting area, and it’s a cold wait for the race start, which gets delayed by more than 30 minutes because of traffic jams. I am reminded that the road is icy in spots as I watch a couple of people end up on their backsides in the parking lot. I slide whenever I step on painted lines on the pavement, and start to watch my steps carefully. It’s cold, and everyone is trying to stay warm in whatever way that they can. I do this by jogging around the parking lot. Other people take shelter next to cars and trailers and tents that are scattered throughout the parking lot. I watch as a man – a runner, judging by his shorts and shoes – bundles up his wife by buttoning her coat collar as high as it will go, and then rubbing her shoulders to warm her; it’s the most tender moment I’ve ever seen at the start of a race.

This is a large race – around 10,000 people total in the combined marathon and half-marathon races, which start together – and the starting area is crowded. People crowd together a bit more than necessary, just to stay warm. We hear a commotion at the front, and think that the race might have started, but back where I’m standing, nobody moves. We’re all frozen to our places.

But eventually, the crowd moves, and I’m crossing the Start Line. The start is at a suburban office campus of Freescale Semiconductor, the major sponsor of the race. As we run along the narrow road that circles the main building, there’s a cry from the crowd near the building. A deer is running wildly. First there is one deer, and then several, all running scared; it looks like they want to cross the road but the stream of runners is preventing them, and they are in a frenzy. These deer are all little, and I think it strange that Texas, a state that prides itself on everything being oversized, would field such small animals.

It’s crowded going, and my first mile is the slowest I’ve ever run in a marathon. I’ve been worried about ice on the road, but decide that it’s time to break free of this crowd and pick up some speed. But I’ve started just behind the 4-hour pace group, and they are like a fortress across the road – a moving fortress. It takes me more energy than I want to expend to just get around them, but it feels good to have some open road in front of me when I at last pass them. This group will haunt me for the next several miles, though; they sneak up behind me, and I feel a crowd closing in, and look over my shoulder to see the pace group sign just a few steps away. A few miles down the road, I finally drop them.

While the pace group is incredibly annoying, I’m enjoying the other people along the way. The volunteers are, as always, super. There are volunteers standing at bridges, warning us about the ice. At the second aid station, there is a volunteer wearing an ankle length fur coat, handing out sticks with Vaseline; this is one of the most incongruous sights that I’ve ever seen at a marathon. There are volunteers dressed as leprechauns, and volunteers wearing laurel wreaths, and volunteers dressed in grass skirts and plastic leis.

The runners aren’t any less colorful. In the early miles of the race, I follow a woman who is wearing pants that look more like pajama bottoms than running tights. There’s a guy that I see multiple times in the first several miles who runs with his hands clasped behind his back, and then frequently turns around and runs backwards. There is a guy running with his dog – a yellow lab mix – who tells me that they will probably only go 22 or 23 miles since she (the dog) has never run more than 21 miles at a time. For many miles, I follow a guy wearing a neon green wig/hat that is nearly identical to a wig that I gave Theresa two years ago when she was undergoing chemo; Theresa’s wig was neon purple, and she shocked the other residents of the Transplant House by wearing it proudly. Early in the race there is a guy sporting a long white-gray ponytail that goes halfway down his back and is crimped multiple times; he also sports a matching ZZ Top long white beard. In the second half of the race, I trade places several times with a guy wearing a fleece hat with long green streamers that look like snakes sprouting from his head. When we run through the University of Texas, I pass two Elvises running together.

But my favorite racer is Tutu Man.

This guy is all decked out in pink. He passes me slowly a few miles into the race, and I have ample time to take in the full impact of his running costume. He is wearing a pale pink, knee-length tutu with a couple of flounces. His singlet is pink, as are his gloves. He is wearing a cowboy hat that is (you guessed it) pink. His socks have pink flowers, and he carries a pink wand as well. The piece de resistance? His shoes, which are dyed a bright fuschia. It’s worth the entry fee just to see this guy.

The fans lining the course are great, and I take note of the signs along the way. The first sign I read says “Pay No Attention to this Sign, It Contains No Valuable Information”. A little later there is a woman holding a sign “Get Your ASSets Moving (Sorry, attempt at Accounting Humour)”. I think that my friend Melissa, an accountant, would like the sign but hate the conditions (Melissa lives in Florida and would be running in a down coat today if she were here.) In recognition of the cold, there’s the sign that says “We’re Cold, but Jen’s Hot!” There are the kids holding signs for their running parents, of which my favorite is “My Mom’s Faster Than Your Mom”. And then there is my favorite sign of all, “Go Your Name Here!” The guy holding this sign catches my eye, and when he sees me laughing, he shakes the sign and cheers.

But not all the signs are in people’s hands. One guy displays his simple sentiment on his gray t-shirt “Anne Fan”. People have painted signs on the road, and the one that resonates the most is “Ship of Fools”. Volunteers at aid stations put up signs, too: “This seemed like a good idea in September” and “What happens at the Dawg Station Stays at the Dawg Station”.

The miles roll on by as I watch runners and fans and volunteers along the way. The scenery is, well, not all that scenic, especially for a town that bills itself as “a city within a park”. We start out in a suburban office park and meander through some nice residential areas. We pass a sign for the Deerpark Middle School shortly after the race start, and it seems fitting, what with the deer racing alongside us. There’s some more residential – all ranch homes, all with nicely manicured lawns – and some more commercial and light industrial areas. There are icy spots on the bridges and on the painted surfaces of the road; at one point, we cross a bridge where the highway crews have laid down sand that is so thick that it feels like running on a beach. We pass a sign for the “JJ Pickle Research Campus”, and I have some fun for the next stretch of road wondering about what kind of pickle research might exist (gherkins? Dill? Kosher?), and wondering who among my friends would try to set me straight by telling me that it’s a high tech research institute associated with the University of Texas.

It is so cold at the start that I wear four layers on top, and two layers of gloves. I wear shorts, but that’s only because I don’t have any tights with pockets, and I can’t figure out how to carry my gels without the pockets in my shorts. I liberally apply BodyGlide to my legs in the hopes that this will provide a layer of protection against the cold. On my head, I wear a headband to warm my ears, with a billed cap on top of that. At the start, I figure that I’ll take the headband off when I warm up. I’m still wearing the both the headband and the hat when I cross the finish line.

I normally set my pace by using my heart rate monitor (HRM), but today my HRM does not register properly for the first three miles because I am so cold. By the fourth mile, I’m finally building up some heat – under my four layers of clothes – and the HRM kicks in. But I already think that I’ve got a feeling for the “right” pace, since, other than my first slow mile, I’ve been running almost identical splits (8:58, 8:58, and 8:55 for miles 2-4). At mile four, I decide to take off my outermost layer, and I leave a throwaway shirt and my outer pair of gloves along the road.

Between miles 6 and 7, there are people trying to get across the race course to make their way to the Great Hills Baptist Church. These are people dressed in their Sunday finest, carrying Bibles, and for a moment I’m surprised: I’ve forgotten that this is what other people do on Sunday mornings. Some of the churchgoers say something to some of the runners in front of me, but I can’t make it out. Are they offering encouragement, or a reproach? At first I think it’s the former, but then I’m afraid that it’s the latter. “This”, I want to say to them, “this is my church. This is my worship and my meditation, this is my healing and my salvation.” I think of the song "Signs" from the 70s and want to sing, “thank you Lord for thinking about me, I’m alive and doing fine”.

But I don’t need to sing – there is plenty of music along the course without adding my voice to the mix. The race packet included an Entertainment Guide that lists 36 different bands that are scheduled to play along the course. While there are not that many bands out here today – who can blame those who choose not to come out in this weather – the quality of the groups who show up to provide entertainment is remarkable. There are bands of every musical genre, and they all help to make the race go quickly.

Around mile 8 or so, I realize that my legs are numb; if not for my hamstrings tightness, I would not be able to feel them at all. It’s still very cold, and there is still moisture in the air. I wish I had worn tights.

My favorite stretch of roadway is another residential area, just before the halfway point, called Shoal Creek. One side of Shoal Creek is, once again, middle class residential housing, but the other side backs up to a park or open space area, and it’s just a pretty stretch of road. This is somewhere just before the halfway point, and we pass a time and temperature sign: the temperature is still 32 degrees.

But it starts to dry out after this stretch, which is a welcome change. The pavement is no longer wet and dangerous. The half marathoners are gone after a well-marked split in the course, and now the field is narrowed to those of us going the full distance. There are aid stations almost every mile on this course, and in the early miles, I take water at almost every aid station, even though the water at the early stations is filled with ice crystals from the cold. But now, as we run alongside a freeway, I have to pee desperately. I have had to pee since standing in the starting corral, but at that time I thought it was just typical pre-race nerves, and didn’t worry. I’ve been slowing down my fluid intake, hoping that this urge will just go away, and still it doesn’t make a difference. Needing to pee is a big distraction, but not the kind of distraction that I want. It’s made worse by signs along the way that bring it to mind, like the one we’ve just passed for a company called “Flow Sequence”.

There are bushes between the road we’re running on and the freeway, and I think that this might be my best chance to make a quick “pit stop” – there have been lines at all of the port-a-johns along the course, and I’m just not willing to waste valuable race time waiting in a line. The freeway traffic is a concern until a freight train comes between our residential street and the freeway. I think to myself, “it’s now or never” – but something holds me back. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve never made a pee stop in a marathon, and it just seems like bad form. Maybe I’m still holding onto the hope that this urge will just magically pass. Or maybe it’s that little devil who suddenly appears on my shoulder. “What the heck”, he says, “this isn’t a PR day anyway, why worry about the time.” And I’m almost ready to step off the road, before I reconsider. Not a PR day? Sez who???

And I make a decision to make it to the finish. That’s all that really matters – making the decision. I hear Billy Bob Thornton in “Bandits”, saying “okay, no more juice boxes”, and it makes me laugh. I determine to limit my water intake as much as I safely can between now and the finish line. I hear Lyle Lovett say, “what would you be if you didn’t even try?” It’s still very cold, so I figure that I’m not sweating all that much, and I can risk limited fluid intake for the next 12 or so miles.

At long last, it’s mile 15, and I am finally warmed up. I feel good. Really good. Like one of those days that you’re on a PR pace. I can finally feel my legs again, and they feel great – happy to be running! That little devil didn’t stick around for long, and I forget almost entirely about anything except just enjoying this run. We’ve passed through a few more residential areas – first a more modest area, and then a development with old mansions. There are more people out along the course (God bless them for coming out in this cold), and I’m getting strength from the fans. The bibs for this race are pre-printed with first names, and I hear people shout my name over and over. It’s amazing how much strength you can pull out of the sound of people yelling your name at you.

And now, people are yelling at me not just my name, but things like “I love that smile”, and “keep on smiling”. I realize that I’m just grinning ear to ear. Marathons have this effect on me.

Along this stretch, there is a lone musician, a young girl, playing the theme to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on a violin, her dad standing at her side. The melody lodges in my mind. I’m humming to myself as we pass through the University of Texas campus, and approach downtown. There are swarms of people here as we run up and around the capitol.

And now the dreaded out-and-back. It just seems cruel for race directors to design marathon courses like this, but many of them do, with an out and back so near the finish. My motivation at this point in a race is like that of a horse heading back to the barn: take the straightest and most direct route possible. But this course has us turn, with the finish area in sight, and run away from it. At mile 22, we head west – into the wind – for a 2 ½ mile jaunt out on a road that parallels the Colorado River. This might be a nice stretch of roadway on a normal day, but today it’s miserable. After miles and miles with a mixture of tail winds and cross winds, we are running into a full-on head wind. To make matters worse, we’re going uphill on a steep little deserted freeway ramp (there are no fans!). To further make matters worse, the temperature, coming off the water, drops again. I felt warm enough at mile 15 to drop my second throwaway layer, but now I’m feeling cold again. My HRM stops working as the sweat I’ve built up cools and dries.

The only nice thing about the out and back is that we finally get to see other folks in the race. As we run west, I watch the 3:40 and 3:45 pace groups go by, so much nearer the finish than I. I scan my eyes for a 3:50 pace group, but don’t see one. This gives me a bit of hope that maybe I’m on a good pace; I can’t really tell, since I’ve lost my ability to do time-math. I see Tutu Man go by in the other direction. Finally, we turn around just before the 24 mile mark. Now we can see the folks behind us, still running west. I recognize pony-tail ZZ Top Man as I run past him; he’s slowing down considerably, and I’m still picking up speed. I see that damn 4-hour pace group on the other side of the road. They are still running as a blockade, and I curse them from my side of the road, happy that I’m not behind them any longer.

Now, the glory moments. Crowds are gathering as we approach the final turns, and I relish each step I take across one final bridge. You can see the finish area from afar: tents and balloons and a crush of people. You can hear the cheering of the crowd waiting at the finish line. Coming off the bridge, we are routed into a final stretch that is fenced off, and I find myself alone as I run towards the finish line. I imagine that this is like riding in the cordoned off area at the end of any of the stages of the Tour de France; pure bliss. This is my glory moment, and it’s perfect: nobody directly in front of me, and nobody surging from behind. I’m across the finish line, and my watch reads 3:51:43.

This is not a PR day for me, after all, but it’s good enough for a third best out of my twenty marathons. A bronze medal in my own personal pantheon of competition.

I’ve been looking for Lance along the way – surely he would try to find me out on the course today, wouldn’t he? But there were no cyclists out early, and only a few stalwart folks on bikes later in the race, and I couldn’t spot a really super-fit guy wearing the blue and gray colors of the Discovery Team anywhere along the course. But what does it matter, now? I have my medal and my finishing time, and it’s still too cold to just hang out. My rental car says that it’s still only 35 degrees. I head back to the hotel and stand under a hot shower for a long, long time, but the water never seems quite hot enough to really warm me up.

After I check out of the hotel, I think I will give Lance one last chance, and head to Chuys for a post-marathon meal, even though my stomach still has that post-marathon rockiness. As I sit at a stoplight along the way, I watch a bird with a huge wing span (an eagle? A hawk? I can’t tell.) glide and soar in the sky overhead. My eyes drift from the large bird to yet another, familiar sign: this time it’s the green and white airport symbol. And I think that, yes, it’s another sign, and it’s time for me to head back to the airport and catch a flight home. Chuys and Lance will have to wait for another day.

At the airport, I settle into a sports bar where I’m confronted with multiple posters and memorabilia of Lance’s seven Tour de France wins. I notice that there are no posters commemorating his relationships with his ex-wife or with Sheryl Crow, and I start to think that relationships are not his strong suit. I shake my head and think, “so Lance, if you really want me so much, you’re going to have to do much better than this weekend.” And then I head to my gate for the flight home.

On the plane, I strike up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me. She’s from Boulder, and has run this marathon multiple times. We talk about races that we’ve done, and races we would like to do, and we recommend races to one another. When we part ways at the baggage claim area in Denver, I ask for her name, and she replies, “Kerri”. That’s the same name as my cousin who was meant to run with me this weekend! Is it another sign?

But when I get home and look up finishing times, I can’t find any women from Colorado in the results with a name anything like “Kerri” (or any of the multiple spellings I try), and I wonder if maybe I’ve imagined this, maybe I’ve dreamed up this conversation in my head and created this sign, and all the other signs as well. Was anything about the weekend real? I look across my desk, which is covered with race memorabilia: my race bib, the course map, travel itineraries, my finisher’s medal. My legs are sore and aching, and I’ll have bruises tomorrow morning from my early fall on the ice in Austin. And I know this much to be true: on a frosty February morning in Austin, Texas, I ran a marathon. I can feel the truth of it just as I can feel the post-marathon glow seeping from my pores. And I recognize that the true sign is this.

Today, for 26.2 miles, I have lived.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Seattle Marathon (November 27, 2005)

Late in 2004, my friend Karen, who lives just outside Seattle, wrote a report about her experience in the Seattle Marathon, which is run on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. As I read the report, I vaguely thought to myself that this is interesting timing for a marathon, and I made a mental note that the next time that I drive to see my brother Dave in Salem, Oregon, for Thanksgiving that I should work this marathon into my schedule. What better way to burn off all that turkey and pumpkin pie than running a marathon a few days later?

At the time, I certainly didn’t realize that Mick would suggest that we drive to Oregon for Thanksgiving this year. But as our plans start to gel, I remember the marathon and think that this would be a good time to run in Seattle and to be able to cross Washington off of my 50-states must-do list. Having just run the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC, at the end of October, I like the symmetry of running two “Washington” marathons back to back, and on opposite coasts. So it is that I make a decision to run this thing, and I send Karen a message. Will she be running again this year? Can we get together?

It’s a delight to get the response from Karen: no, she’s not running this year – she’s just not ready for her next marathon experience yet. But her husband, Kerby, is planning to run. And, she asks in an email, will we stay with them while we’re in the Seattle area?

This is better than any dreams I’ve had, and the prospect makes the marathon all that more attractive. Karen has become a really good friend in the last few years, but it still seems extremely generous of her to offer this hospitality. So I go to the marathon website to register, and find that I’ve missed the on-line registration. No problem, says Karen. She will even do my in-person registration for me. This is taking the hostess role to a level I’ve not experienced before (would Martha Stewart complete my marathon registration for me? I have my doubts.), and it only builds my excitement for the race.

Thanksgiving. So Mick and I take off for Oregon on the Tuesday before the holiday. The weather is perfect across Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. We spend Tuesday night in Boise, Idaho, planning to reach Salem by mid-afternoon on Wednesday. But Boise is socked in with horrible fog and freezing roads, and it takes us many more hours than anticipated to get to Oregon. By the time we arrive in Salem, it’s dark, and Dave’s kids are arriving to spend time with us. My very standard 90-minute pre-race run that should occur today does not happen. This is the first time since I’ve had Benji as a coach that I have not followed his pre-race schedule to a “T”, but I rationalize skipping the run. This marathon is not goal oriented, just for fun. Who cares if I miss this run?

Thanksgiving Day arrives in Oregon, brisk and cloudy. I go for a short run in the morning, and as I get back to Dave’s it’s just starting to rain. This is the start of Pacific Northwest weather in its winter phase: cold and damp and raining, drizzling incessantly, always low hanging clouds. No sign of the sun. But I have an extra piece of pie after my turkey dinner, justifying it with thoughts of carbo-loading. Friday morning comes, and the weather is nothing but drizzle.

As the day wears on, I start to have serious doubts about the marathon. I’ve run marathons in the rain before, and will run marathons in the rain in the future, but the thought of standing around in a certain consistent rain is just too darn depressing to contemplate. The day wears on, and the more I think about the marathon, the more reason I find not to run it. I start to think that there was a sign in the fact that on-line registration for this race closed early. And another sign in the fact that I couldn’t fit in my pre-race run on Wednesday? And then there’s the thought about getting home a day earlier if we don’t make the drive to Seattle, but start out for Denver on Saturday instead. Before long, I’ve convinced myself that the marathon is completely out of the question.

It takes a moment to get my courage up to call Karen and tell her we won’t be coming. I try her home number, but no answer. Damn, I want to do this now. So I call her cell phone, and am relieved when she answers. But her answer sends things back one hundred eighty degrees. “We’re at the expo now, and I’m doing your registration – it’s good that you called so I can answer all these things correctly.” Whoops. Maybe this is the sign that I should run the marathon? Before I know it, I’ve had a change of heart, and Karen is telling me that I’m registered for the race, and, by the way, what size shirt do I want?

Pre-race Day. On Saturday, Mick and I and Dave and his kids all go to the Original Pancake House in Salem for breakfast. Breakfast at the Pancake House has long been a family tradition for us, and it fits well into my pre-marathon carbo-loading plan. Another coincidence, or another sign?

Speaking of signs, the rain has let up, and the sun makes a brief appearance. I have a brief hope that the race on Sunday will be a dry one, but that hope is soon drowned by the rain that Mick and I drive into in Washington. It seems inevitable that this will be my wettest marathon on record.

It’s dark when we arrive at Karen and Kerby’s, but we can tell in the weak light that it’s a beautiful area. Their house is incredible – beautiful and rich and still homey. We arrive just in time for the pre-marathon pasta dinner that Karen prepares. Karen is a bit of an enigma to me. On one hand, she’s strong, smart, focused, independent, and ambitious; on the other hand, she is a fantastic homemaker and mother and cook. She clearly takes pride in all of these roles and executes them all with flair. Tonight, she sautes shrimp and makes a fabulous tomato and pasta dish, which would be plenty by itself, even without her baked cheese appetizer, and the salad, and the two kinds of pie (homemade, of course) for dessert. In keeping with my “I’m just running this marathon for fun” approach, I break training (for the second pre-race night in a row) and indulge in a glass of wine with dinner. It’s just too good to pass up.

Race Morning. Here’s a thing I love about race morning: that shared experience of getting up in the pre-dawn hours, and forcing down food and coffee before the day should really be starting. As with our entire experience with Karen and Kerby, the morning arrangements are just perfect. The coffee is ready when I come back downstairs to the kitchen, the bagels are ready for toasting, and the cream cheese is waiting on the counter for the warm bagels. Karen has also made oatmeal (not the nuked kind, but the “real” stuff) and that makes Mick happy, since it’s just about his favorite food in the world. We all troop out into the brightly lit garage to start our marathon journey.

Karen has graciously offered to chauffeur us to the marathon start. Karen and Kerby’s daughter Hailey is along for the ride, and sits between Mick and me in the back seat of the SUV as we make our way into Seattle. This is most excellent: Karen and Hailey and Mick will be the support and cheering team for Kerby and me today, and it takes all of the hassle of figuring out where to go out of my hands. Karen knows the way – start to finish – so I’m worry free on the journey into downtown Seattle.

Of course, it’s raining. There’s a drizzle as we leave the house, and then it turns into real rain as we drive. It doesn’t bother me so much anymore, this prospect of a wet day, now that I’m amongst friends. So instead of obsessing about the weather, I watch a movie that Hailey has put into the DVD player that she’s brought along for the day. She’s watching “Ice Age”, and I find myself entranced by it. Distractions are great on race morning. While I’m watching a cartoon movie, we drive right into downtown Seattle – and what’s more – right out of the rain. When I turn my attention from the movie back to the road, I realize that the rain has stopped. How stupendous.

Karen knows the way to the start, and we end up parking just a block or so from the start line. Perfect timing: just enough time to cycle through port-a-potty lines a few times, and then it’s time to move towards the start line. Karen and Mick take my warm sweats, and then Kerby and I drift off in the direction of the start line. We’re in the shadow of the Seattle Space Needle, a geographic landmark that will also guide us back to the finish line. And then it’s time for the race to start.

The race. We haven’t planned on it, but since Kerby and I have drifted together toward the start line, when the start is signaled, we drift along together running side by side. I’m surprised and pleased: surprised because I’m pretty sure that Kerby is quite a bit faster than I, and pleased since we’re just enjoying chatting as we motor along. We pass the first mile marker while running through downtown Seattle – with Christmas displays in storefront windows – in 9:25. I think, “uh-oh, that was pretty slow” and Kerby says, “that was a little fast”. Hmmm. What does it mean?

Kerby and I continue running side by side. We pass coffee shops on every block, and Christmas lights in window displays and on light posts. The miles seem to melt away. Soon, we’re running on a freeway ramp – concrete, badly canted, narrowing – and we catch up to the half marathon walkers who started a half hour earlier than the marathon. There are a few little uphills, and on these I find myself lagging behind Kerby, since I’m trying to gauge my effort by my heart rate monitor (HRM), so I slow considerably going uphill, but I seem to keep catching up on the downhills.

As we run along together, Kerby tells me about some friends of theirs who also run, and who tend to finish at the top of the game in local races. We’re now running on an out-and-back section of the course that takes us on a deserted freeway floating bridge out to Mercer Island and back. Sure enough, no sooner has Kerby described the local friends to me than one of them goes by in the opposite direction, yelling a greeting to Kerby. This guy is one of the five or ten front runners today.

There is a long underground tunnel as we head towards Mercer Island, and suddenly I’m not cold anymore. In fact, it gets almost clammy in the tunnel. But Karen has warned me not to get sucked in, since there are often wicked crosswinds on the bridge to Mercer Island, and as we traverse this next section of the race, I’m grateful for her advice. We come up out of the tunnel to find a chilling crosswind. We have a mile of flat concrete running before we start to head uphill: approaching Mercer Island. The road leads into another tunnel – this one feels more like a bat cave, and there’s a 180 degree turnaround just inside the cave. And when I look to my side, Kerby is gone.

Through the corner of my eye, I see him run off towards a bank of port-a-john’s. There’s a short line, and I wonder when I will see him again. And then it’s back across the same odd stretch of over-water freeway that we’ve just traversed.

I’m almost on the other side of the bridge again when I fall into step next to a runner who is nursing a gel. I make a comment to him about the gel – the only way I can stomach gels in a race is to swallow them down in just a few gulps for each packet. This is a great conversation starter, as it turns out this is the first marathon for runner 2288, and he’s still trying to figure out the whole gel thing. We chat for awhile, and then, as we exit the freeway in a free-for-all downhill circular ramp, I leave him behind.

The course now takes us south/southeast along the Lake Washington shoreline. I start to look for Karen and Mick, since Karen said that they would try to see us at this point. I’m still a bit chilly, but warming up nicely, so I take off my extra long-sleeved shirt and tie it around my waist. I want to be able to hand it to Karen or Mick when I see them.

It’s not long before I spot them – and Hailey – and the moment is gone in a flash. There they are, and we’re all shouting things at each other, and the only one I can answer is Hailey. She’s on the side of the road and shouts, “hey, where’s my daddy?” Good question, and one worthy of an answer. “He stopped in a bathroom”, I reply as I toss my shirt in the general direction of Mick and Karen, hoping that they can retrieve it without having to step into the on-coming path of other racers.

There is no mile marker at mile 9, right around the point where I see Karen and Mick, and that’s disconcerting to me. I’ve been recording my splits faithfully, and feel pretty good about the way the day is going. But the only thing to do is keep running. And it’s a beautiful area to run. On one side, Lake Washington. On the other, a lovely residential area.

The next couple of miles slip by, and then I hear someone approaching quickly from behind, and then overtaking me. It’s Kerby, who says, as he blasts around me, “I’ve had to run eights to catch up to you!” but then he’s gone. He looks good and strong, and seems to be running a pace that’s more natural for him now. I watch as he disappears around the runners in front of me, just before I see a guy holding a sign that proclaims, “Hey Ladies – You’re Sexy When You’re Sweaty”.

This is another out-and-back section of the course, so we get a view once again of the front runners. Normally I don’t like out-and-back courses all that much, but I do like seeing the fast folks out in front. (I overhear a conversation among the front runners who pass me: “we’re running 6:15s” and I can’t even imagine running that fast in a 10k.) But as we enter Seward Park for a little loop, we lose sight of the other runners.

In fact, we lose sight of a lot. There is not a mile marker at mile 12 or 13, and I’m watching closely at both spots. The halfway point is marked, and we cross a chip timing mat. At this point, I’ve lost touch with what kind of pace I’m running, and I’m just running for the fun of it.

The turnaround point in Seward Park is in a heavily wooded area, and I think I’m starting to get a sense of what a real rainforest is like. Little light penetrates down to the road we’re on, and we’re surrounded by extremely tall trees. It’s mossy in here, and a bit chilly without the sun. For a few moments I regret sending my warm shirt home with Karen and Mick. We have been, incredibly, blessed: not a drop of rain. “No rain yet,” I remind myself as we exit the rainforest.

Every so often, I hear a distinct plop-plop-plop behind me. Turning each time I hear this sound, I find a couple of young women running side-by-side, passing me. One of them is clearly a flat-footed running, but damn, it upsets me that she passes me. But this happens over and over in these middle miles of the marathon, and I surmise that I’m clearly passing the clopping duo at some point in between.

There’s a sign “Will Run for Cookies” along this stretch of road, and now I’m looking for Mick and Karen again. Just where they were earlier, so they are again. It’s the same crush of voices shouting encouragement and questions to me, and it’s almost impossible to even comprehend what they are saying, much less answer them. “We’ll see you at mile 21” is the last thing I hear, and then it’s back to the business of running the race.

We pass the Mercer Island Bridge, and continue north along Lake Washington, but the road has changed. It’s hillier here, and more residential. The road surface is getting less predictable: it’s all asphalt, but now we’re hitting patches of buckled and rolling roadway. But still, it’s a pretty route and the miles click on by.

At mile 20, there is a bit of steep-ish uphill, and at the top of the hill I see a familiar form from behind: Kerby. He’s slowed and is slowing more to grab a bottle from his fuel belt, and he stops to walk as I cruise on by him. We yell greetings to one another, and then we’re on our separate paths to the finish.

There are lots of people slowing here: a testament about going out fast, especially with significant hills this late in the game. The clop-clop-cloppers are gone now, not to be seen or heard from again. I pass a girl who is stopping on the side of the road to give back to the earth, albeit involuntarily, some Gatorade. I decide that I don’t really need any more Gatorade, thank you, and that water will be just fine for the rest of the day.

Last night, I asked Karen about the course, and she got out the map and then described it perfectly to me. It was her advice that saved me from freezing early on. And it was her advice that warned about the super-steep hill that hits right after mile 20. If not for her warning, this hill (a run on your tippy-toes hill) would crush my spirit. But I know from Karen – and I’ve learned to trust her – that it only goes on like this for a block or so, and then I’ve conquered it, and am on a slight downhill, recovering.

There’s a nice stretch of roadway after this – E. Madison Street – with a nice downhill bit. I come up behind a 4:00 hour pace group, and go around them, but slowly. The pace group leader tells me that I’m looking strong and that I’m sure to beat four hours, but for a moment I’m not so sure: I’m having a heckuva time just getting around this lot of runners: they seem to be picking up steam. But a few steps later, I figure that these four hour folks have reined it back in – after all, I’m headed for something faster than four hours. In fact, at this point, I’m just starting to think that this is going to be a pretty darn good day, time-wise, and to think I’m just on a four hour pace is a bit of a scare.

I come into an aid station right at mile 21, looking for Karen and Mick and Hailey – they had said they would be here – but I don’t see them. Just as I’ve grabbed a cup of water and made the sharp turn back onto Lake Washington Boulevard, I hear Mick shout my name. But its’ too late, I’ve missed them, and now I know I won’t see them again until the end.

After the turn onto Lake Washington Boulevard, we enter the Arboretum. There’s a nice long stretch of really pretty roadway, with low-hanging trees, all very damp. The road is wet in here, and it’s dark because the trees block out all the light. The roadway is undulating asphalt, and it’s slippery with the wetness of the environment. I’m careful, since I’m a bit respectful of the road. All the same, I’m targeting runners and moving up all the time. It feels good to be running strong at this point in the race.

The Arboretum is heaven compared to what comes next. Karen has warned me that the last part of this course is not very nice at all, and she’s right. We run on frontage roads along I-5, and as we criss-cross the freeway on on/off ramps, the fumes of car and truck exhaust are unpleasant. But I’m feeling strong and on track for a pretty good day, so I barely take notice of the scenery – or lack thereof – for the next few miles.

When we turn onto the final part of the marathon course, my eyes focus on the Space Needle up ahead. Aha, I think, there’s the finish. I’m over a mile out when I see this landmark, and it’s kind of odd to think of closing the big long loop that we’ve run since leaving the shadow of the Space Needle just a few hours earlier.

Karen has warned me that the last stretch of the race is a long gradual uphill grade, and the description is perfect. But forewarned is forearmed, and since I know it’s coming, I take it in stride. There are more people along the roadway here, and I’m having a grand time, knowing that once again I’ve been blessed with a good race. The asphalt road is cracked and wavy and potholed, and I’m thinking about Karen’s report from last year, in which she fell just as she made the final turn of the race. So when I get to the final turn that takes us into Memorial Stadium for the finish, I’m extra cautious. Then I’m running into the stadium, and onto turf. The turf is a surprise, but it’s pleasant – softer than the asphalt I’ve just left, but offering very even footing. I cross the finish line in a time of 3:55:19.

Post Race. It’s turned out to be an almost perfect day for a marathon: we haven’t had a spot of rain, and the temperature has stayed mild – almost too chilly, but not quite – and very little wind. But after I stop running and make my way through the finish area, I get cold in a hurry. Where are Karen and Mick and Hailey? And where is Kerby???

It takes a short while to find the others, and when I do, they are all together – including Kerby, who finished just a short time after me. He describes his day as “a really good 20 mile race”, and leaves it at that; he seems happy enough with the results, given that he’s only started marathoning this year. I’m thrilled about the results, since my time is good enough to be my fourth best ever performance.

We get a little food at the finish area, and then head back to Karen and Kerby’s house, where the hot shower feels stupendous. We get a more thorough tour of K&K’s house, which only serves to reinforce our impressions of a beautiful home, but then we’re packing our stuff into my car again. Kerby is settled in for a nap as Karen makes sure that we have food and water for the drive, and then we’re driving away, headed home. We drive off through the snow speckled Snoqualmie Range; Mick encourages me to nap while he’s driving. But the scenery is too beautiful, and I’m amazed at the parts of the country that this odd sport of running continues to show me. When we cross the state line back into Oregon, several hours have passed, and it’s grown dark. We stop along the highway to eat, and I’m ravenous.