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.

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