When I step out of the hotel at seven a.m. on Sunday morning, May 28, my first thought is, “oh Christ!” This is not because I am deeply religious and getting ready to go to church. It has more to do with the fact that I’m in Madison, Wisconsin, for the Mad City Marathon, and at this early hour, it’s already 75 degrees and 80-some percent humidity. The sun is beating down – already – and there is not a cloud in the sky. It’s not exactly what you would call a good day for a marathon. In fact, it’s just too damn hot to run a marathon.
But they don’t typically change a marathon start time or date just because the weather is a bit “off”, so I and a large number of my internet running friends soon find our way to the start of this race. The website where we all hang out and avoid work is called “Taper Madness”, and hence, the group members are affectionately referred to as Tapirs. A contingent of about 20 or so Tapirs have gathered here to celebrate fellow Tapir Melissa’s 40th birthday. The marathon is just an excuse to get together and party. Who cares if this is not looking like a good day for a fast run?
Mike McKenna and I have talked about running the first few miles together, and we stick together for the first mile; I’m actually surprised by how good this mile goes, especially given the conditions. But the first mile is mostly a nice gradual downhill, and much of it is shaded, so although I’m already working to keep my heart rate (“HR”) under control, I log the fastest mile of my day, just over 9 minutes. But Mike is itching to run faster, and just past the first mile marker he tells me that he wants to stretch out his legs, and he takes off. Although I’ll miss having a running partner, it’s a bit of a relief, because Mike was clearly pulling us along at a pace that was not in line with my need to keep my HR in check. So I watch him stride it out, and then I’m on my own.
In fact, I watch lots and lots of people stream by me in the next several miles. This happens to me frequently in marathons, so I’m learning not to fret it too much. But my HR is settling into a zone that is far too high for a race this long, and I have to go much more slowly than feels natural, just to keep it from skyrocketing.
For a small race, Mad City has a good supply of aid stations, especially here in the early miles. At the first aid station, I notice that they’re handing out ice cubes in paper cups. I’m past the first aid station with hands already full (one cup of Gatorade and another of water), but make a mental note to be ready at the next stop. Sure enough, at the next aid station, they’re offering ice again and I take a cup, and then savor the ice for as long as I can make it last. Ice is the greatest invention for running on hot days, and I run along with a mantra in my head:
God bless the race organizers for the ice.
As I take a cup of ice at the second (or is it the third?) aid station, the person offering this cold treat also utters my name. I’m befuddled. How is that? I don’t recognize the person, and grab the ice on the run, and don’t have a chance to figure out who it is. Someone I know? In Madison? How could that be? I look down to see if maybe they’ve put our names on the bibs, and I just hadn’t noticed. But that’s not the case at all. I wonder for a while, but I never do figure out this mystery.
For years and years, I’ve heard that Madison is a great place, but these early miles do nothing to form a positive impression. Lots of old and formless and featureless residential areas, houses without style or architecture. Just as I wonder about the ice angel calling my name, I also start to wonder, “where is the Madison I’ve always heard about?”
People are passing me steadily. I feel like I’m barely moving, and, indeed, my splits show that I’m running well slower than my normal marathon pace – almost a full minute per mile slower. The 4:10 pace group catches me and runs alongside me, but then they leave me as I slow once again in an effort to keep my HR low. I chat with the pace group leader for awhile, until they drop me in the dust. I am realizing that this might be a really, really slow day.
Around mile 5, we turn left into Warner Park, and a short time later I see Mike up ahead of me. I wonder what’s going on – why am I catching him so early in this race? As I pass him, he tells me that his own HR has gone out of control and he’s had to slow considerably. He also tells me that he ran with CK and Kent for awhile before determining that he couldn’t maintain that pace. The first of the heat casualties is recorded.
Mad City Marathon Training Tip #1: Put treadmill in sauna. Turn sauna to highest temperature and bring humidity up to max. Run on treadmill for 4+ hours. Repeat as needed.
After Warner Park, we finally reach a pretty area. In fact, for the rest of the race (as long as I’m capable of noticing such things) we’ll be in much nicer neighborhoods than the first five miles. The race course turns south and a bit west at this point, and we catch glimpses of Lake Mendota off to the right. This is a lovely residential area, and we get the added bonus of stretches of shade. There are spectators scattered in small clumps along the race course, and I notice that there seem to be lots of pregnant women.
Along this stretch, I notice a woman running quite a ways ahead of me who looks very much like CK. But I can’t believe that it would be her, since she should be running much faster than me. CK has just finished an incredibly great training cycle, and, if race conditions were favorable, she should be on track for a Boston qualifying (“BQ”) time today. So I figure that it’s just a woman wearing an outfit much like CK’s.
But I keep this woman in sight, and I slowly – ever so slowly – start to inch up behind her. In fact, I’m already starting to pass a few people. It’s a sad sight: so many people already done in by the heat, so early in the race. It’s really just too damn hot out here today. Finally, somewhere around mile 9, I spot two Tapir friends, Paula and Julie, approaching on their bikes. They are both (is it luck or intelligence) not running here today, and have decided to ride along to support all of the Tapirs. I’m happy to see them coming my way, but then the woman who looks like CK – and as it turns out, actually is CK – stops as she sees them approach, and in a moment I’m joining this little Tapir reunion.
Normally in a race, I would be thrilled to catch up to someone who I know is faster than me. But today my competitive juices are trumped by my feelings of friendship and empathy. I know how hard CK has trained, and how badly she wants this day – and this race – to go well, and how much she deserves a fast time. My heart goes out to her as I run up from behind; it’s as clear as the bright relentless sun in the overhead sky that CK’s day is not going to be the one she signed up for. The chances for a BQ in this kind of weather are pretty much zip, zilch, nada. It’s just too damn hot.
The consolation prize is that I get to meet Kent, who has been running with CK, and who I haven’t met until this time. The three of us run along together, and Paula and Julie ride alongside, and chatting with the group takes our minds off the heat. Paula points out some yard signs along the way - “Impeach Bush” - and I figure that I’ve finally found the Madison that I’ve heard about for so long.
Paula and Julie ride off, vowing to return (after Julie recommends putting the ice that I’m still picking up at every aid station down my bra and shorts, and I find this adds an interesting dimension to the cooling effect of the ice). CK and Kent are walking through aid stations while I run through the aid stations, and eventually they do not rejoin me after a water stop. I’m sad to lose the company.
But I’m enjoying the scenery. Lake Mendota is still off to the right, and sometimes we run right next to the lake, and the views are impressive. It’s a perfect day to be out on a boat, just enjoying the heat of the day, and I envy the people out on the water. I wonder to myself, if somebody had told me 20 or 25 year ago how wonderful Madison was, would I ever have made it from Iowa to Colorado? I think maybe, if I had come to Wisconsin at that point in my life, I might just have stayed here. It’s beautiful.
We’ve been enjoying enough shaded sections to keep my HR in check, but as we approach the halfway point, we’re completely exposed again. Just before the halfway point of the race is a 180 degree turn, and for a short time the course loops back on itself. As I pass the halfway mark, I see CK and she yells at me, and I yell back. She’s looking good, and I hope that she can catch me. I pass the halfway point at 2:08:09.
For a brief moment, I think that maybe I can still finish this thing in something around 4:15, just a little negative split. I have purposely not been checking my total elapsed time up until this point, in order to focus only on running within a smart HR. But the negative split thought sticks around for only a minute or two; in this stretch we are completely exposed to the relentless sun, and now, just in case we’re not already having enough fun, we get an extremely stiff headwind.
The forecasts all called for some significant winds today, which I had been dreading since I hate running into the wind. But until this point in the race, the slight winds have been a kind of godsend, providing a cooling effect. But now the wind is just plain cruel. It’s blowing hard, and we’re running under the harsh glare of a mid-morning sun, and there is nothing cool about this scene. My HR skyrockets, and I slow even more just to keep it at bay. It’s really just too damn hot.
The saving grace to this part of the race is that Kent catches up to me. We will run the next six or seven miles of this thing together, and they are by far the best miles of my day. What do we talk about? Who knows. I only know that we run along companionably and chat a bit, and even though it’s really miserable to be out here, it’s not so bad with a friend at my side.
Mad City Marathon Training Tip #2: Jump into hot tub, fully clothed, with temperature turned to max. Run in place for 4+ hours. Repeat as needed.
We run through parts of the University of Wisconsin campus, and it’s beautiful. We get a brief respite from the mean sun when we run in the shadow of a large football stadium. There are more pregnant women cheering us on here. Past the stadium, we pass Nancy McKenna, looking cool and in control as she walks the half-marathon. We weave in and out of residential and commercial areas, and at some point, Frank rides up to join us. He rides alongside for a mile or so around the 15 mile point, and I start to have really nice thoughts about continuing on with my merry band of Tapirs all the way to the finish.
But Frank rides off, promising to return. We enter the Arboretum, and have a mile or so of delicious shade, but then we break out of the shade and are once again in fully exposed sun. My HR gets under control in the shady bits, but goes through the roof each time we get into fully exposed sun. The air here is so thick with cotton from cottonwoods that people will later say the cotton is thick as snow in a blizzard. But there is no mistaking this for a blizzard. It’s just too damn hot.
Around mile 19, we find Mike Murphy and Kim running along together. I point them out to Kent, and then yell to Mike. When he finally hears me – we’re just about to overtake them – he turns around, stops, and says, “oh shit”. It’s the oddest reaction, but I just laugh. I’m not surprised to hear anyone utter anything out here today. Mike and Kim have both stopped running now, and watch as we go by. Kim seems a bit out of it as she yells, while we pass, “I crashed at mile six”. It seems to be the story of the day.
Around mile 20, we have another aid station, and I think about picking up the pace a bit since I’m now entering the final 10k of the race. In a normal race, this is where I would start to kick it in for the finish. But this is no normal race. It’s just too damn hot. The biggest heartbreaker is that my legs feel great, and I know that I would have a really, really strong last 10k today if the weather would but cooperate.
Kent has been stopping to fill his water bottle at the aid stations, and then catching up to me as I continue to run, but after mile 20 it’s a while before he catches up to me. When he does, he tells me that his stomach isn’t feeling well, so he’s going to back off, and he’s only caught up to me to offer me an electrolyte tab. I take the tab, gratefully, but it’s a huge disappointment to lose this comfortable companionship, going into the toughest miles of the race. I had already started to have visions of us crossing the finish line together. And now I’m on my own again.
I have visions of meeting up with the bicycling Tapirs again, or maybe finding another Tapir to run with, but it just doesn’t happen. At some point, I realize that it’s just me and my own thoughts between here and the finish line. But I’ve been here before, and I know how to just gut it out. I pick up my effort for the next two miles and it shows in slightly faster splits, but I pay for it. My max HR, as tested in the last year or two, is 178, yet during this stretch I see my HRM register 179 at one brief point. It occurs to me, when I get light-headed, that I can’t maintain this effort for 6+ miles today. It also occurs to me, when I see people prostrate on the side of the race course and hear ambulance sirens in the distance, that it’s foolhardy to push it at all today. So I settle back into a less aggressive slog, and start to count steps to get to the finish. It’s just too damn hot to do anything else.
As the day has worn on, the aid stations have run out of ice, and I’ve been uttering a new mantra along the way:
Curse the race organizers!!!
But here in the final four miles, I find ice at a few spots. At one place, some spectators (yes, more pregnant women) are handing out ice, and I grab a handful. I stick some in my mouth, some down my bra, some down my shorts, and the rest I just carry in my hands. When this ice melts, I grab everything cold I can find at the aid stations. At one aid station that, miraculously, has cups of ice late in the race, I’m already carrying 2 or 3 cups of liquid when I see the person with ice. Like a 2-year old abandoning one toy for a newer, brighter one, I simply drop a full cup of water. Plop. On the ground. It splashes on both me and a volunteer, but nobody seems to notice. It’s worth it just to get the cold stuff in my hands.
The spectators have not been out in volumes like Boston, but there is a steady supply of good generous folks along the course, applauding and cheering. I’ve tried to engage people along the way, since I need to get strength somewhere, and I’ve been rewarded with lots of cheers and smiles and applause. I’ve just wished that more people would have understood how wonderful a little ice is. (I’ve become like a crystal meth addict, only it’s not drugs I want, just frozen H2O.) Now in these final miles, I find the first spectator to offer something really useful: popsicles! For the first time ever in a race, I take a popsicle (green!) and start to suck on it. Ah, just to hold something cold!
The last part of the race course is actually a bit annoying. We run up and over a pedestrian overpass. I pass a guy who says, “good job” as I shuffle on by. It occurs to me that I’ve been passing people pretty steadily for quite some time, but it doesn’t feel as good as it normally would. The people I’m passing are suffering – really suffering – far more than me. And many of them are gracious enough to offer kudos as I run past. It must be the Midwestern flair for politeness.
Finally, finally, I am passing mile 26 and then rounding the corner for the final stretch. I’ve saved just a bit of a kick for this point, because I’m expecting my Tapir friends to be somewhere along this stretch and I really want to look strong for them. There are no disappointments. The Tapirs are yelling loudly as I pass them, and then I hear my name on the loudspeaker. The crowd at the finish line is cheering loudly, but I wave my hands to stir them up a bit more, and they accommodate me. Some days you’ve earned the finish line drama more than others, and today is one of those days. I cross the finish line in 4:26:20, one of my slowest ever marathons. It feels like one of my biggest victories.
And so it turns out that the thing that brought me to Madison – Melissa’s birthday and the promise of spending time with friends – is the very thing that helps me to survive this marathon, and this weekend. For the only thing that can be done with a marathon on a day like today is to survive. It’s just too damn hot to do anything else. And I’m happy enough to have done just that. The rest is all friendships and bonding and people: the essence of life, boiled down into 26.2 mile increments.
On Monday morning, I think about going out for a run when I get up, but I figure it’s just too damn hot. Who would run anything in this heat? I try to go for a walk after breakfast instead, but it’s just too damn hot, and I take refuge in a Starbucks for an hour or so before heading to the airport. Just before I board my plane for the short flight from Madison to Chicago, the gate agent tells us that the air conditioning is not working on the plane we’ll be on. It’s a short flight, but it’s just too damn hot to be stuck in a small metallic tube on a day like today without any air conditioning. For several minutes, I think I might pass out because it’s so incredibly hot on this small plane. We board the flight to go from Chicago to Denver, and it’s a bit cooler, but still quite warm. But weather is moving in, and once we’re out on the runway, the pilots are told to turn off the engines because we won’t be taking off anytime soon. So once again it’s just plain hot, and then a thunderstorm buffets the plane as we sit out here, waiting. I think, this is what my entire weekends was about: everything just too damn hot, and everything just way too long to complete. We take off for Denver more than 3 hours later than scheduled.
Jesse Colin Young sings, in his song “Ridgetop”, that the very best part of every trip is the road that brings him back home. And that’s long how I’ve felt about coming home to the crisp, clean, cool air of Colorado. Normally, I notice the delightful quality of this air as soon as I step out of the airport, and today does not disappoint.
It’s much later than it should be when I step into the taxi that will take me home. The sky is dark, and getting darker, and it starts to thunder and lightning well before we reach my home. The cab driver opens the windows and the breeze rushes in. Typically, this would be far too cold for me, but today it feels wonderful. Giant raindrops are beating down on the car as we pull up in front of my building. The cabbie races with my bags to the shelter of the front entrance, but I take my time. I stand on the sidewalk and let the rain fall on my head. It is wonderfully, deliciously cool.