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.