Tuesday, July 04, 2006

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

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