Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Ride the Rockies (June 2006)

Day 0, June 17, Saturday: My alarm sounds at 5 a.m., and I hit the snooze button. Where do I fly today, and what time is my flight? After all, that’s been the pattern for the last four weekends: I fly off somewhere, whether to a marathon or to a niece or nephew’s graduation. This morning, I’m so tired that I can’t remember, and simply fall back asleep. But by the time the alarm sounds again, I’ve figured it out: today is the start of Ride the Rockies, and I have to be at Canon City to catch the bus that will take me to Cortez, where the ride starts. It’s only 5:10 and already I’m behind schedule.

But I’m pretty well packed, so I’m out the door in just over an hour. I stop at the closest Starbucks to get coffee and a scone, but when I drive into the lot, I have a moment’s panic. Aren’t they open? There’s not a single other car in the lot. This is a first. But then I see movement within, and go inside to get my breakfast. Another woman comes in while I’m collecting my coffee to go, and I head back out to my car. But the woman has parked her *(&^% SUV about 6 inches from my driver side door. What was she thinking??? There’s no way I can even squeeze between the two vehicles, let alone open the door and crawl in. To be sure, I’ve parked haphazardly, but hell – there are now just two cars in the entire parking lot. Is this woman mean, or is she just stupid? Criminy. I crawl into my car through the passenger door, trying hard not to spill the coffee, and I accidentally set off my car alarm and can’t get it to stop until after its obnoxious beeping has completely jangled my nerves. I’m so angry that I can barely see straight, and it’s all I can do to stop myself from going back into the Starbucks and punching out the other woman. This is not a good way to start a vacation week.

But I make it to Canon City without further incident, and the buses are leaving as soon as they fill up, so we’re on the road quickly. The bus is full of positive energy: people getting to know each other, sharing stories, laughing, talking, and laughing some more. I had thought I might sleep on the way to Cortez, but now I see that was a crazy thought. There is so much energy on the bus that it’s impossible not to catch the spirit of the ride. The five+ hour journey seems to go by in minutes.

When we get to Cortez, I can’t find Mick, who enlisted a friend to bring him and our tent and our bikes here from Aspen. I dump my bag on the middle of the football field that will serve as our campground for the night, and wonder what to do next. I can’t set up a tent, and I can’t go for a bike ride. So I do the one thing that I always do when I don’t quite know what to do: I go for a run.

It’s mid afternoon, and very hot, and pretty windy, and I have a great sixty minute run. Cortez is in the far southwest corner of the state, and is essentially high desert. But it is surrounded by mountain peaks, and the run is a treat for these eyes and legs that have not spent enough time in the mountains lately. I watch a hawk (or maybe an eagle?) soar and dip along the road where I run just west of town. People on the heavily traveled road honk their horns, something that normally annoys me, but this is a good thing: these are friendly honks, greetings, “we’re happy you’re here” honks. Planning ahead, I stuff some cash in my shorts and stop at a convenience store about ten minutes before getting back to camp, where I buy a bottle of ice cold purple Gatorade. It’s wonderful. I chug about half of the bottle, then run the remaining mile or so back to camp.

When I get back to the school, I finally find Mick and our tent. After a quick shower, we head into town for the community dinner. Ride the Rockies started in Cortez a few years ago, and I remember that the opening night dinner was good. This year does not disappoint – a southwest theme with chicken breasts and tortillas and grilled veggies and all kinds of good stuff, including brownies for dessert. I may not have earned it yet, but I still enjoy it all the same.

Day 1, June 18, Sunday: Two women camping next to us, on retiring last night, made a big point of telling everyone within earshot that they had set their alarms for 4:15 a.m. What the ??? Our opening day ride is simply 49 miles, with no major mountain passes. What are these people thinking?

And to be sure, they wake me up around 5 a.m. as they finish packing up their bags, and then again at 6 a.m. as they get ready to ride off. What’s the rush? Mick and I both agree that it’s absurd, but that’s a standard part of Ride the Rockies: people who get up way too early (for my tastes) and don’t mind waking up the entire campsite around them.

Mick and I have made many comments about how easy today’s ride will be, but just before we set off, he says, “you know, 49 miles is not all that easy for most people”. It’s a wake-up call for me. The route guide for this year’s RTR tells us that this is the easiest of my five consecutive RTRs, but it doesn’t capture the fact that I am seriously undertrained for the ride this year. Life got in the way of riding long miles in preparation, so I need the “easy” days at the beginning of this week for conditioning.

Mick is right: 49 miles is not really all that easy. But it’s a pleasant ride, and although I average a really slow speed, I mostly enjoy the ride. I get passed left and right. This happened all the time on my first couple of RTRs, but in the past few years, I’ve improved some. Not true this year, and it’s disappointing to see so many people go around me like I’m not even moving. Still, it’s a short ride, with a fair amount of climbing – no major passes, but some good elevation gain – and a nice descent into Durango. We arrive at Fort Lewis College in very early afternoon. It’s hot and sunny and just about perfect.

Mick and I get the tent set up, and then go to the community lunch, where I have some good veggie lasagna. But I don’t really feel like I’ve burned off that many calories today, so in mid-afternoon – when it’s pretty much un-Godly hot out – I go for a short 30 minute run. As I leave the campus, with all the tents set up, and people searching for shade on this incredibly hot day, somebody says, “that’s just not practical”. It really isn’t. But, still. Still, I want the miles. I carry a water bottle and run into the wind and feel tired legs, but it’s a pretty decent run. I’m reminded that cycling and running use different muscles, and I think about putting in more miles through the rest of the week.

Day 2, June 19, Monday: Today is a longer ride – 87 miles from Durango to Pagosa Springs. We rode from Pagosa Springs to Durango in the opposite direction on my first RTR, four years ago, and it was pretty much a ho-hum ride. Only after we get going today do I realize that we’re taking a different route – almost all on back roads – and it’s really, really pretty.

After a pretty healthy climb to start the day, the rest of the first half of the ride is gently downhill. Without planning on it, Mick and I hook up for most of the downhill ride, and I draft off him and have some of the fastest miles of my week. But when the road turns uphill again, my lack of training is apparent. I tell Mick to ride off at his own rate, and I’m on my own for the uphill sections of the ride into Pagosa Springs. Thankfully, the last few miles to the campsite at the high school are all as I remembered – lovely downhill. I’m slow again today, but not quite as slow as yesterday, and I figure that I’m getting in my RTR training by actually riding the route this week.

In Pagosa Springs, we have the shower trucks for the first time on this tour. Staying at the college in Durango, we had fantastic shower facilities – the best ever for this style of camping. But there’s something about the shower trucks that I love – a kind of camaraderie while waiting for your turn in line. A tall lean woman with a short silver haircut is just behind me in line. She’s sporting a bandage that covers almost her entire arm. I ask her what happened, and she tells me that someone in front of her went down yesterday, and so she went down, too. Many hours in the hospital ER resulted in 17 stitches, but she’s determined, so she rode today, anyway. I think that she’s pretty tough.

Tonight, I finally meet up with Ariel. Ariel and Dave are on their first RTR, and we get together at the beer garden in Pagosa Springs. We have a great time talking and drinking beer, and Ariel introduces me to some of the folks in the group that they are with this week. Most of this group is staying in hotels (rather than camping) so it’s not that much of a surprise that we haven’t crossed paths yet. After getting together, I’m hoping that we get to ride together at some point in the week, but we don’t make any specific plans.

Day 3, June 20, Tuesday: This morning I start to think of this RTR as being about people and relationships rather than about riding. We run into several of Mick’s Aspen friends at breakfast. Then Barb, one of Ariel’s group who is camping, joins the breakfast group. Then we run into Chandra, a young woman from Boulder who we met several years ago on RTR – we never see her at other times, but cross paths every year on RTR. I see some of the guys from the bus on Saturday, and then I run into Jill, a woman from Aspen who I only ever see on RTR. It’s like old home week.

And a good day for it, since the ride is again a short one: just 51 miles with no major climbs. I feel ready to ride when we are part of the tail end of folks leaving the Pagosa Springs High School, but then just a half mile from the start, my front tire goes flat. Mick changes it for me, and we ride back to the school so that we can pump up the tire the rest of the way, and also buy a new tube for my saddle bag.

We ride off, and head out of town going south. We’re barely 5 miles into the ride when my new front tire goes pfewwwwwwwwwwwww and flats again as we’re riding along. I start to think that this might be a really long day. Mick changes another tire, and we flag down a Sag Wagon (they are always circulating) to pump up the rest of the way. When we hit the next aid station, I stock up on yet another new tube and more cartridges.

This was supposed to be a short day; we planned on being in Chama, New Mexico, our overnight stop, by late morning, but it’s not really stacking up that way. But it’s okay, I’m riding here at the back of the pack, and I take some time to enjoy the scenery. Because no matter all the flat tires – this is some extremely beautiful country. The day’s ride is slightly uphill, mostly rolling, and always spectacular. Who would have guessed? For a while, one of the motorcycle cops who patrol the route for us through the week rides next to me and chats. I feel somehow secure in knowing that although I’m almost dead last in the day’s ride that I’m not alone.

This is the first year that RTR has left the state of Colorado, and the people in the tiny burg of Chama, NM, couldn’t be prouder to be our hosts. And they couldn’t do more to pull out all the stops. It makes my eyes water just to think of how welcoming and gracious this tiny town is in taking us in. The food stands at the school are all run by civic groups and church groups and the like, and in this extreme heat, they are giving away bottled water. Heck, they could sell it to us at 2 bucks a pop, easily, and they are handing it out like Halloween candy. The people smile and welcome us, and I somehow stop worrying about how slow I’m riding, and just decide to enjoy the ride.

Day 3, June 21, Wednesday: This is our one “big” day on this year’s RTR: two mountain passes. Okay, really, these are not really major mountain passes compared to most RTR routes, just Cumbres Pass and then a brief descent and then the climb to La Manga Pass, both on the Colorado-New Mexico border shortly after we leave Chama. Neither is much over 10,000 feet in elevation, compared to the 12,000 feet that we normally hit at least once on a RTR.

Mick and I have agreed to start a little earlier than normal today, and as soon as we start riding, I tell him, “Go!” I know he wants to ride at his own speed, even though he’s ridden much slower for most of the last three days just to stick with me. So he’s gone in a flash, and I’m climbing on my own.

It’s cool and perfect for a climb like this today. The only thing wrong with Chama was that there wasn’t really a coordinated community breakfast, so I feel like I’m running on fumes for most of the day, playing nutritional catchup. I have a couple of tiny muffins and a cup of coffee for breakfast. At the first aid station - just 8 miles out of town, and 4 miles before the Cumbres Pass summit, I have a banana – and then run into Ariel and her friends Barb and Leisha. I’m raring to get the climbing done while it’s still cool, so I take off after talking to Ariel’s group for just a brief time, thinking that I’ll run into them again down the road.

At the second aid station – at the peak of La Manga Pass – I have a breakfast taco. Just starting to feel like I’m getting the nutrition I need. It’s a great descent to aid station three, where I eat one half of a Katie’s Cookie (Katie is the Cookie Lady who shows up with her yummy cookies on every RTR – but you never know where she is going to be. Today she was at aid station #2, so I bought a cookie in advance, worrying that I might not see her again. Her cookies are the size of Frisbees, and they are chock full of good healthy things – not to mention the butter and sugar that no doubt make them taste so good).

Between aid station 3 and aid station 4, Barb and Leisha – Ariel’s friends – blast by me in a pace line. Barb recognizes me and motions for me to come with them, but they are going too fast for my slow legs to catch. But then I find a guy to work with for the next several miles. It’s a blessing, since we’ve caught a serious headwind along this stretch of road. I see Barb and Leisha again along the route, and Barb keeps inviting me to ride with them, but I’m just not fast enough.

Then, at the last aid station of the day, Barb says that she and Leisha will ride so that I can keep up with them. How can you turn down an offer like that? We eat a bunch of orange slices at this aid station (I’ve long since dispensed with the rest of Katie’s Cookie), and then we take off. Barb and Leisha mostly pull me into Alamosa; I take one brief turn at the start of the pace line, but other than that, I follow these two stronger riders. Leisha is the organizer of the group that Ariel is here with, and rides RTR every year. Barb is the gung-ho rider. I think, once again, that this RTR is more about friends than it is about the ride.

Speaking of friends, I run into the tall thin silver haired lady with the 17 stitches again today, this time at the showers at the rec center in Alamosa where we are camping. Today the dressing is off the stitches and her arm looks wicked. But not nearly as banged up as the deep purple bruises on her butt and hip. These are all, she explains, the bruises that she sustained when she went down a few days ago. It’s a scary thing, seeing how badly you can get injured with just a slow speed crash.

Day 5, June 22, Thursday: This is the day from hell. It all starts so innocently, and ends so badly.

Barb has camped next to us, and planned on riding with Mick and me, but in the morning she says that she needs to hook up with the rest of her (and Ariel’s) group, so we’ll see each other down the road. Mick and I got a fairly early start yesterday (for us, that is; there are three semi-trailers that carry all the bags for RTR each year, and they are designated, quite plainly, the Early, Middle, and Late trucks. Mick and I have a tradition of always being on the Late truck, and even when we’re “early” by our own standards, we’re still on the Late truck). Today, we’ve decided to start a bit later.

This is largely because today’s ride is just not going to be nice. It’s 84 miles, and most of those miles are a straight shot along highway 17, which is straight, narrow, no shoulders, and rough asphalt. And oh yeah, it has heavy truck traffic, made worse today by the fact that other major roads in southern Colorado have been closed in the last couple of days due to forest fires. We rode this route, in reverse, four years ago on my first Ride the Rockies, and it was one of the hardest days of my life. I’m not looking forward to it today, even though we should have the wind at our backs instead of directly in our face.

Shortly before we pull out of camp, I visit the inside facilities one last time. Tall lean silver-haired woman is there in line, just ahead of me. But she’s dressed in street clothes, and she doesn’t look all that well. In response to my question, she says I spent the night in the hospital – again. Dehydration. It seems that the hazards of this ride just keep poking up their ugly heads at every chance.

Mick and I head out of town, and it’s pretty much as I anticipated. The trucks and cars whiz by, scaring the bejeezus out of me. Further making me scared are the pace lines that seem to have grown like mushrooms overnight. I watch in the little rear-view mirror that is attached to my helmet, and it seems that there is always a pace line or a line of traffic going by, pinning me up against the white line on the side of the road. There is no shoulder on this road, so we’re all vying for the same limited span of asphalt.

When we reach the first aid station, somebody tells us that there have already been five major accidents this morning, all involving pace lines. I’m even more nervous as we get back out on the road. A kindly guy attaches himself to my wheel, which might annoy me, but he’s a nice guy and asks if it’s okay if he rides with us. We’re going a lot slower than Mick would like to go, but I’m worn out from yesterday’s fast pace into Alamosa with Barb and Leisha. The three of us ride along peacefully for a while, but then another group comes up and attaches itself to our third guy. After cruising along comfortably for awhile, they decide to pass. One of the guys tells Mick, “we’ll take a pull at the front now”, but Mick says, “no thanks”, and slows down to let them get ahead. Twice he says, back over his shoulder, “that group is trouble – I want no part of it”.

Mick has ridden much longer than I have, and I trust his judgment. I’m happy to not be a part of a huge pace group today; in fact, I’d like nothing better than to just cruise along. This group looked a bit rag-tag to me (riding two a breast, no straight lines, looking like people were struggling to keep up, etc.), so I understand that they are a risk. We three settle back into a nice rhythm and ride along.

But a few miles up the road, we see the pace line go down in front of us. By the time we get there, there is just one person left on the ground, but she looks badly hurt. It’s a woman, lying face-down in the middle of the rough asphalt, motionless. It’s a terrifying sight. The guy riding with us announces, “I’m a doctor, do you need help?” and then we ride up the road with our stomachs in our mouths. It seems only moments before we hear the sirens and see the ambulance speed by. But by now we’re well away from the accident, and I’m just dreaming about getting off this *&^%( road.

The next aid station is one that is sponsored by a Colorado potato grower’s association. We are riding through ranchland, and potatoes are one of Colorado’s big crops in this part of the state. The grower’s association gives out free baked potatoes with the fixings, and we spend more time at this particular aid station than we will at any other stop along the route during the entire week. I’m actually afraid to get back out on the road, but eventually I do, and soon – not quite soon enough – we’re on highway 285, with nice wide shoulders. I have never in my life been so happy to see rumble strips. They feel like a huge barrier, and a welcome one at that.

I spot Ariel and Barb and Leisha at the next aid station, but then lose them as Mick and I decide to each ride at our own pace up to the summit of Poncha Pass. But then there is a long string of flat tires, and Mick is one of the victims (he believes that there is a bad patch of thorns on the shoulder of the road), and I stop to “help” him. My help is mostly of the moral support type, since there is little else I can do.

Poncha Pass is a gentle climb, and it’s not long before I reach the summit. While looking at the bike repair truck for Mick, I run into Ariel and Barb. Ariel also lost a tube to the roadside hazard. For a minute, we all walk along together, but then I spot Mick, and Ariel and Barb head off to rendezvous with the rest of Leisha’s group.

We get to Salida without anymore major obstacles, and I’m feeling relief as I set up the tent. Mick wanders off, and then comes back with the rumors of camp. There were nine major accidents today, resulting in 50 serious injuries, all related to pace lines, he says. And then very soberly he adds, and there was one death.

A death? That’s just not the case on RTR. This is the 21st RTR, and there have only been one or two fatalities in the past. Paul Balaguer, the tour director for most of the existence of this event, takes great pride in the safety record of the ride. I ask Mick, was it the woman we saw back on the pavement? No, he says. That woman was air-lifted to Denver. But it was a woman who died, and it happened here in Salida.

I find this all very disturbing, and try to find out more details, but nothing Mick tells me makes sense. So I do what’s necessary, and finish setting up the tent, and get my clothes ready for tonight and for tomorrow’s ride, and then I head over to the shower truck.

I run into Barb at the shower truck, and we agree to have dinner together. She rode most of the day with Leisha today, she tells me, and she explains that she owes Leisha the companionship because this weekend she’ll stay with Leisha at her mom Diane’s house in Boulder. Leisha and her mom have been very generous in organizing the RTR trip for some of the California first-timers.

Barb and I meet a short time later at the medical truck, which is my normal stop at the end of a RTR day. It’s a great resource that not everybody knows about. The medical station is an RV with a canopy and nice comfy camp chairs. You can get free Advil and aloe lotion and sunscreen packets for tomorrow. You can fill baggies with ice, still all free, and relax in the camp chairs, shielded from the sun (or rain, if that’s the case). And best of all, the staff puts out candy, so you can get a tootsie roll or dummy or other sugar goodie to help you heal while the ice works its wonders.

Mick rides by, and tells us that he’ll be back in a few minutes to head to dinner – as soon as he puts his bike away. Barb and I sit side by side, with matching ice bags chilling our knees. We’re talking about the day, and about what to have for dinner, and Barb’s phone rings. It’s Ariel, and I know almost immediately that something is wrong – seriously wrong. Barb’s voice grows tense, and she sits up, and her ice bags fall on the ground. No! What?!? No way! Oh my God! I try not to eavesdrop, but it’s clear that something is very seriously wrong. And then Barb is saying, yes, I’ll be there as fast as I can, I’ll catch a bus or …. And her voice trails off as she closes her phone and stands and wildly gets ready to fly. And then it comes spilling out: Leisha’s mom Diane was killed today, on her bike, here in Salida. Barb goes on, but I barely hear her. The RTR death was Leisha’s mom? It seems unreal. I did not meet Diane this week – was barely even aware that she was here riding – but I spent a good deal of time with Leisha in the last several days.

Of course, it is all too real. Later, I call Ariel to see how she’s doing. How she’s doing is that she’s clearly shaken. The group she’s with will leave Salida tonight, heading to a sad homecoming in Boulder. For the rest of us, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to deal with this impossible thing. How can we all go ride again tomorrow?

Day 6, June 23, Friday: But the morning comes, and there are still no clear answers. I talk to some people who are so freaked by all of the accidents that they choose not to ride the final day. I think about just bailing for the day, too, but something makes me treat this just like any other day.

Just before I leave camp, a couple of people tell me that today’s ride from Salida to Canon City will be worse than yesterday’s ride along highway 17. These warnings scare the crap out of me, but, happily, they turn out to be untrue. To be sure, highway 50 has stretches without shoulders, but it also has long stretches with wide shoulders. There are passing lanes from time to time, so traffic gets relief without having to threaten cyclists. There is heavy traffic, but since the road is through a winding canyon, the traffic all moves at much slower speeds than yesterday’s crazed straight and narrow drag strip.

The ride turns out to be one of the prettiest of the week: we follow the Arkansas River for miles and miles and miles. I’m riding much faster than at the beginning of the week, passing as many people who pass me. By the time we hit the third aid station – the one with all of the lunch vendors – we’ve caught up with the biggest part of the crowd. You can always tell that you’re in the mainstream of the ride when you spot Paul Balaguer along the route, and today, this is the aid station where we catch up to him. It’s another beautiful sunny day in the Rockies, and the DJ is playing John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High”. This is a staple that the same DJ plays from year to year, and today is the first time I’ve heard it this year. People laugh and talk and dance. You could hardly know that tragedy struck yesterday. The tall silver haired lady rides in with a group of friends. Her arm with the stitches has a new dressing, and she looks great. I’m buoyed to find that some people can survive this tough week, even with everything that has been thrown at us.

The hardest climb of the entire week comes a short time after the aid station. We’re now off highway 50, on a backroad that takes us to the Royal Gorge Bridge. The backroad is lousy asphalt, but more importantly, after a morning spent cruising through the spectacular Arkansas River canyon, screaming along on a downward pace, we get a wake up call. The road suddenly and without warning turns steeply uphill. More steep than anything I’ve ever ridden before, at least here in Colorado. For about two miles, the road pitches precipitously upwards, then levels off a bit, and then heads up again.

It feels good to work so hard. It’s amazing to see so many people walking. I’d venture a guess that somewhere between 1/3 and ½ of the field gets off their bikes to walk through the really steep sections. Me? I get down into my lowest granny gear as quickly as I can, and I gut it out. Just when I think I’m going to fall over or be forced to unclip, I stand up and power through a few rotations, just to keep the forward motion intact. It’s a wonderful, triumphant feeling to survive this last tough test that the ride throws at us.

I’ve only been to the Royal Gorge once before, and it’s a nice way to finish off the last day of RTR, in a cheesy, touristy kind of way. Some folks try to ride across this highest suspension bridge in the world, but it’s just too crowded, so for once I’m happy to be off the bike, walking along with the masses. It’s a long way down to the Arkansas River. And it’s just a beautiful view from up here in the sunshine.

Mick and I get separated on the final push into Canon City, so when I cross the Finish Line of the 2006 Ride the Rockies, I’m on my own. But not really. There are people lining the streets, applauding and yelling to me things like “great job”. The people in these little towns where we finish our rides always surprise me with their support and generosity. My eyes are welling up with tears as I turn the corner for the final half block before I cross the Finish Line banner. Volunteers with megaphones are yelling congratulations, and a band is playing in the background, and I’m all teary-eyed. Paul Balaguer is standing at the finish with hand outstretched for a high five, and I hit his hand dead-on as I cross the finish.

Back when I first started riding again – just four years ago, for my first Ride the Rockies – I was deathly afraid of the bike and of everything related to it. I had suffered a bad crash many, many years earlier, and took far too long to get back on the bike. I was a white-knuckle rider of the most nervous persuasion. I could no more have high-fived a gigantic target back then than I could have flown to the moon. I would have died of terminal fear just at the thought of it.

But today, I hit Paul’s hand square on, and don’t think twice about it. I was afraid this morning that the tragic events of yesterday might somehow affect my ability to ride, but here I am. That’s the thing about life, I guess: you just have to get back into the game, no matter how scary it is.

Mick meets me just beyond the finish line banner, but then he has to go off to pick up his bike. The baggage trucks are a few blocks away, and my car is parked another block or so beyond that. I’ve picked up my Finisher’s certificate, and need to head in the direction of the baggage trucks. When I first started riding, Mick would chide me for not using my bike for day to day transportation. Then truth of the matter was that I was afraid of the bike, afraid of any ride that was not specifically a well-thought out and planned training ride.

Today, I hold the Finisher’s certificate in my hand and start walking down the street towards the baggage trucks. But then, instinctively, I hop on my bike and start peddling away. I ride past the baggage trucks, another couple of blocks to my car, holding my Finishers’ certificate carefully in my hand. Nothing could be more natural.

Why Hurry (San Diego Rock n Roll Marathon 2006)

A view from the back of the pack

This is the ultimate family reunion: running (okay, actually running and walking) a marathon with my cousins Kerri and Stacey. This is the first marathon for both of them, and Stacey is a last minute addition, completely unexpected, but not really a surprise. These sisters are close, and they both have a strong sense of family. If there’s a reunion in the picture, it’s extremely likely that more than one of the sisters will be in the frame.

Kerri told me in October that she was training with Team in Training (“TNT”) for the New Orleans Marathon in February. It seemed perfect, since I missed the Tapir gathering at NO last year, this would be my way to see the city, run another state, and be able to sherpa my younger cousin to her first marathon finish. It all seemed like a great plan.

But then Kerri hurt her knee – doing too much, too soon – and Team in Training decided that New Orleans wasn’t quite going to be ready for them in 2006 anyway, so Kerri rolled over her TNT program to the next big event on the TNT calendar: San Diego’s Rock n Roll Marathon. Again, I told her I’d be there, come hell or high water. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I had already committed to Madison, just a week earlier.

Oh well. Not a problem. I needed both Wisconsin and California for my 50 states quest. What’s to worry about? I could target Mad City as my fast marathon for the spring, and then San Diego would be just a walk in the park. Little did I know, at that time, that Mad City would be hotter than Hades, and as a consequence, the terms “fast” and “Mad City” would not coexist comfortably in the same sentence. Little did I know, at that time, that San Diego would be, for the greater part, an actual walk through the (Balboa) Park, not to mention the rest of the race course.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back to the beginning, in which Kerri and Stacey pick me up at the airport, and soon we head off to the Team in Training pasta party, at the San Diego Convention Center. This is where I get my first taste of what it’s like to be a TNT runner. Team in Training has laid out a red carpet, and has festooned the entrance to the convention hall with balloons (think finish line), and a large phalanx of TNT coaches and mentors are cheering and applauding wildly as we pass through this gauntlet. No, that’s not quite adequate. These TNT staff people are absolutely going crazy with cheering and yelling and cowbells and whistles and everything else you can think of. It’s an extremely emotional outpouring of energy, and it elicits the intended response: the three of us look at each other with tears in our eyes. It’s going to be an emotional weekend.

The program at the pasta party turns up the emotional quotient even more. Speaker after speaker, we hear stories, both tragic and heartwarming, about people with leukemia and lymphoma, and the heroic efforts of TNT marathoners to raise money to advance the cause of research and, hopefully, the lifesaving (or at least life lengthening) process of beating these diseases of the blood. John “The Penguin” Bingham is one of the featured speakers, and he reiterates the message of his Runners’ World column: that a marathon should be approached not as a race, but as an experience to be savored. You’ve all trained and sacrificed and suffered to be here, in this race, he says. It’s a time to enjoy and make the most of. Why rush to the finish. Why hurry?

But we’re here for a marathon, not marathon speech-making (while the TNT program is inspirational, it does seem like a marathon after the nth speaker with yet another twist on the same theme), so it’s time to fast forward a few hours to race day.

The one thing I dislike most about racing is that most races require you to wake, dress, and eat breakfast far, far earlier than any sane person would choose to do, especially on a weekend day. But the saving grace is sharing the experience with other runners, and that’s true this morning. The three of us are up and out the door by 4 a.m.; the TNT shuttle bus deposits us at the start line in Balboa Park by 5. The fog hangs thick, and it’s pleasantly cool. In fact, it’s so cool that I find myself wishing I had a throwaway shirt, or maybe a garbage bag. But the forecast is for an extremely hot day – shades of Madison, just a week ago – so I choose to revel in the coolness. I try to memorize the feel of the goosebumps on my arms so that I can conjure up the memory later, when we’re baking under the southern California sun.

The corrals open, and Stacey and Kerri and I line up together. We’ve been taking lots of pictures of our trio together; I feel like we’re three teenagers at a junior high party, we’re so giggly and excited. A couple of things that the San Diego Rock n Roll Marathon does well are the organization of the corrals, and the arrangement of loudspeakers so that even us back-of-the packers can hear the start of the race. We hear a grand live rendition of the national anthem, and then the race starts.

It takes us about ten minutes to reach the start. Based on Kerri’s half marathon time from a month or so ago, we’re expecting to run the marathon in somewhere around 5 ½ hours, and that means we’re near the end of the corrals. We start to run as we cross the start line, and one of my cousins says, “Here we go! I can’t believe we’re actually doing it!” I’m just thrilled to be here with my cousins.

What follows, though, is one of the hardest marathons I’ve ever run. In training, I run nearly all of the time by myself, at my own pace; the rare occasions when I run with someone else, it’s usually with someone who is faster than me. So I don’t have a frame of reference for – or experience with– running at a pace that is slower than my own. It is far harder than I have expected, and I have to constantly work to keep my pace in line with the standard that Kerri sets.

This is not a typical day for me, so even more than I normally do, I look for external inspiration. The bands along the course are perfect for this. We pass one band belting out good ole’ rock n roll, and then another, and then another. Kerri is following a run-walk approach, so every 8 minutes, we walk for one minute, and then start jogging again. We pass the first mile in 13:47, and the second in 13:27. I try to do some mental math to figure out what this will translate to for a finish time; I’m pretty sure that it will be more than 5 ½ hours. But I can’t really figure it out, since I keep getting interrupted with great music on the sidelines. And as we’ve just passed the 2-mile mark, there’s a particularly great band, and when I check them out, I realize that it’s a band all outfit in white US Naval officer’s uniforms. They are playing a blues number, and the lead singer – a woman – is really belting it out. I’ve turned to watch this band – it is the Rock n Roll Marathon, for heaven’s sake, and it’s really living up to its name – and then it happens: I trip on a curb that appears out of nowhere, and go down hard on the concrete.

Now, we all know that runners fall from time to time, so this is pretty much a normal experience for me (since I’m more of a klutz than the normal human being, I take more than my fair share of spills). It’s been quite a while since I’ve fallen, but I know to get up and brush myself off, and then just keep going. (This is also my defense mechanism to detract attention from me so that I’m not quite so humiliated.) But Stacey and Kerri both look at me with deep concern. They both immediately start talking about looking for a medical tent, and while I insist that I’m okay, when I look down, even I am a bit alarmed. My right knee and both of my hands are badly scraped up and dripping blood, and all are badly impacted with sand and gravel that won’t brush off.

But there is no immediate medical tent, so we jog along. When we finally reach a medical station, just before mile 3, I’ve pretty much resolved to keep going. But Stacey, very much a mother hen, insists that I stop to get treated. I tell Kerri and Stacey to keep running, and that I’ll catch up to them.

I am, in fact, quite a mess. The medical people douse me in peroxide, and then repeat the process. It seems to take forever to get the wounds cleaned up a bit, anti-bacterial ointment oozed on, and dressings applied. It’s more than six minutes before I’m running again.

But the next two miles are glorious miles. I’m running! Actually running! It’s like a sea of purple TNT jerseys parting in front of me. Those purple t-shirts and singlets by far make up the majority of the population here at the back of the pack. These folks are walking or running very, very slowly. I’m running at something like my normal marathon pace, I figure, and I’m passing the field. It is absolutely, incredibly wonderful to be striding out like this.

But after I’ve gone well over a mile, I start to worry about finding my cousins. How far ahead will they be? Could I pass them and not realize it? Stacey promised that they would wait at the next aid station if I had not caught them by that time, but beyond that we’ve not made any plans to meet up. While it feels good to run fast right now, as the minutes tick by, I start to worry that I won’t find them. I briefly consider what it would be like to run the rest of this race at my own pace. But as good as it feels now, I know that that’s not what I want to do. That’s not why I’m here today. I’m here to run with my cousins.

So it is that the next water stop arrives just as I start to think I’ve missed them, and there they are, waiting at the far end. And we’re back to running together at our slow pace, and walking whenever Kerri directs. There is never another moment in this race that I doubt that the three of us will cross that finish line together. Today is all about family, about my cousins and their first marathon, and about sharing this experience. Like The Penguin says, why hurry? Today I have no need for speed.

We run and walk, and as the miles roll on by, Kerri’s knee starts to bother her. She’s had problems in training, but hasn’t gotten any treatment; when she describes the pain to me, I’m pretty sure that it’s IT Band. She stops to stretch repeatedly, and she repeatedly apologizes to Stacey and me for “slowing us down”. She encourages us to run ahead, and we tell her that she’s crazy, and we stick together. We run most of the first 12 miles (mile 11 is our fastest of the day, mostly downhill, in 11:06), but then Kerri’s knee pain becomes almost unbearable. As we approach the half-way point, walking, I’m afraid that she might be ready to throw in the towel. I know she’s in pain. But she’s a trooper. She declaims that she will finish this thing even if she has to walk the entire second half, and that’s mostly what we do.

I’ve never seen a marathon from this point of view – walking at 15 minute miles – and I’ve never really considered how hard it is for the people back here, at the far back of the pack. This is hard work! We stop at a few medical stations where Kerri seeks treatment (the “cure” is mostly stretching her IT Band, as the medics all agree on the most likely source of her pain), and we run a few short stretches. I start to take The Penguin’s advice to heart: why hurry?

The Team in Training organization is absolutely incredible. There are coaches and mentors and cheerleaders for this group, all spread out along the course. There is no doubt that the majority of the TNT runner/walkers will finish this thing – if there is ever a moment of doubt, there is a TNT sponsor there offering support, cheers, food, medication, stretching, advice, and smiles. No wonder TNT is such an overwhelmingly successful program.

We talk more and more now that both Kerri and Stacey have given up on their iPods. We look forward to the rock n roll bands. After we settle into a walk, I start to have bouts of excessive energy that needs to be drained off, like steam escaping from a boiling teapot. So as we pass the bands playing on the course, I ham it up: dancing, skipping, singing along (on those rare occasions when I actually know the words to the songs). I am obnoxious to the nth degree. The volunteers love it: back here, it’s all a death march, and I think the volunteers are relieved to see a live body (at one aid station with a “Margaritaville” theme, a volunteer throws a green plastic lei to me, and I wear it for the rest of the race) for a change. At some point, Kerri says “showoff!”, and I think I’ve overdone it; what I don’t tell her is that for me, it feels far better to run than to walk. So I tone down my dancing and skipping a bit, but I can’t resist playing to the bands at least a little bit.

The disappointment of the Rock n Roll Marathon is that I, not having consulted the race information beforehand, have been expecting a California marathon on or near the beach. And that just isn’t anywhere near the case. We all agree that there are some nice parts along the course, but in truth, it’s a pretty disappointing race course given the material that the race director has to work with. This is San Diego – southern California at some of its finest – after all! The race course is more freeways and funky (make that rank, smelly) tidal basins than truly scenic vistas. I think if I were running at my normal pace today, I might not mind so much, but today, this is the one letdown of the race.

We start counting down the miles. In the second half, I become the cheerleader for our group, and at each mile marker I yell out, “ladies, only nine…eight….seven….miles left”. I’m keeping track of splits, even though they are pretty meaningless with all the stopping and starting that we’ve done along the course. In the final five or six miles, though, we keep motoring on. Kerri has developed a stoic silence; I know that she is suffering and is concentrating all of her energy on finishing. Stacey holds up remarkably well: I’m impressed with her spirit, too, and her ability to keep walking as we get further and further outside her realm of experience. I’m very proud of my cousins as we tick away the miles. “Fifteen thirty-one!” I yell out our split for the 23rd mile of this race, and then I add, “Ladies, we are suh-mokin!” People around us laugh and comment about this remark, and I feel buoyed. For walkers, we are truly making some tracks, and we’re actually passing people.

Always the competitor, I’ve been calculating our estimated finishing time, and have now set a goal of getting across the finish line in 6:30 or faster. At the outset of this day, we were really expecting a 5:30 race, but that just hasn’t panned out. Kerri is disappointed, but Stacey and I both point out the fact that it will be quite easy for her to improve on today’s time. I know that I’m pushing the walking pace, but I figure that my cousins are up to it, and there will be a certain satisfaction in beating this arbitrary goal.

But as we pass the 26 mile mark, I start to think maybe I’ve been overly optimistic. I’ve figured that we would run in the last part of the race, but now that we’re close, I’m not sure that Kerri is capable of running anymore. But once we see the finish line, she says Okay let’s go. So we start trotting along, and I steal a sideways glance, and I see so much pain in Kerri’s face that I am in awe. But there’s no stopping her (or us!) now, and moments before we cross the finish line, Kerri and Stacey and I all grab hands and have a brief and exuberant moment of victory. We’ve done it – and in 6:29:33!

My cousins are the ultimate party girls, and Kerri has expressed plans for a lovely celebratory dinner. My fear has been that since I’m the old lady of the group, I won’t be able to keep up with them. But I’ve largely ignored my memories of how wiped out I was after my first few marathons, so I’m surprised when both Kerri and Stacey almost fall asleep at dinner, and are both tucked happily away in bed by 8:30 p.m. I’m left to head to the hotel bar by myself for a nightcap and some final thoughts on the race.

In the morning, Stacey gets up early to drive me to the airport; she and Kerri are both staying for a few more days to relax and start their recovery. Kerri wakes up just long enough to give me a hug goodbye – but she’s awake enough to suggest that we do this again. When Stacey drops me at the airport, she echoes Kerri’s thought: let’s do this again! I’m excited at the prospect of running more marathons with my cousins, but I’m also thinking about The Penguin and his why hurry philosophy. I had a grand time running with my cousins, and would not have missed this experience for the world. But today, while it’s a nice cool early morning in San Diego, my thoughts are elsewhere. I can’t wait to get home so that I can go for a run - it feels like I’ve barely run in days. Why hurry, indeed? But sometimes it just feels so good to hurry. I think I might just start looking for a fall marathon to run on a fast course.

“He ran against me…going at full speed…Why hurry through the world at such a pace? Life will not be too long. It is his nature, --a restless spirit that consumes itself with useless agitations. He o’erleaps the goal he aims at. Patience is a plant that grows not in all gardens. You are made of quite another clay. And thank God for it.”
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow