Friday, September 29, 2006

Air Force Marathon 2006

It was August, and I was in a fog. My friend Theresa – we had been friends since junior high school, and I had thought of her as my best friend since our college days together – lost her battle with cancer on July 20th, and, although I knew it was coming, her death floored me. I could function, to be sure, but I was on autopilot. Eat, drink, work, run. Those were all things I did by rote, no need to think in order to do them. But those things that signify life to me - thinking, planning, scheming, looking far into the future, figuring out the next steps in these days we have on planet earth – those things did not come naturally to me anymore. In fact, they didn’t exist in my world.

But gradually, the rhythm of life started to return, and the things I had planned before Theresa’s death rolled around on my calendar. First up was Pikes Peak Ascent; although I really didn’t feel like running it at the time, it turned out to be a good, life-affirming experience for me. And then, a week later, Hood to Coast. With eleven very alive and lively female teammates, I felt that the fog – like the fog in Mist, on the way to the Oregon coast, in the mid-morning hours of the relay - was starting to lift.

So finally, in late August, I decided I needed to find an answer to the question that everyone was asking me, “what marathon are you running this fall?”

I checked out the schedule on, and for some odd reason, the Air Force Marathon caught my attention. Maybe because of the connection to Theresa: the two of us had traveled to Washington, DC, last fall for the Marine Corps Marathon, and it had been a great experience. That day was a PR day for me, and I called Theresa my lucky charm. Something about running another marathon sponsored by the military just seemed “right” to me, even though I’m not really a big rah-rah military kind of person.

And then I saw that the Air Force Marathon is in Dayton, Ohio. My good friends Jonni and Jim moved from Denver to Dayton last fall, and I’ve missed them immensely. Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to be with friends. I didn’t care that people told me that the course would be boring. I didn’t care that people told me there are better, faster marathons in Ohio. I didn’t care about any of it. I just wanted to be with friends again.

So this is what brings me to Dayton, Ohio, a place I might never have otherwise visited, on a beautiful early fall weekend. The last two weeks before the race are a marathoner’s worst nightmare: I catch a terrible, full-blown cold, and then have to go to Argentina on a business trip the week of the marathon! Luckily, the cold settles down a bit during the last few days before I have to travel, and the Argentina trip gets scrubbed at the very last minute because of delayed flights. So when I arrive in Dayton on Thursday night, we’re back to Plan A. And Plan A has Jonni standing at her car, waving and hollering my name, as I emerge from the Dayton airport, at 11:30 p.m. In a moment, we’re both screaming and hugging and laughing. And I know, in a heartbeat, that no matter how Saturday’s race goes, that I’ve come to the right place.

Jonni and Jim have been most gracious, offering me loads of hospitality. They’ve given me a full guest suite in their beautiful mansion, in a golf course development in an upscale suburb of Dayton. On Friday, Jonni takes me to the marathon expo, and treats me like I’m a celebrity, taking pictures at every turn. Jim and Jonni have previous plan for Friday night, so they lend me a car so that I can head out to the pasta dinner at the Air Force Museum. And, incredibly, Jonni tells me that she wants to go to the marathon with me. Not only does she not mind waiting around at the finish area for four-plus hours, she’s excited about it, and tells me she loves the experience.

So at oh-dark-thirty on Saturday morning, the two of us drive out of the golf course development. The surprise, on walking outside, is that there is a thick, not-quite-pea-soup fog hanging low to the ground. It’s wonderfully cool. Given that the forecast for the day is in the low 80s, this is a very welcome surprise.

We reconnoitered the route to the race start on Friday afternoon, so we find our way very easily at this early hour on Saturday morning. It’s still quite dark, and still quite foggy, as we drive through the “Blue gate” at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Parking is a breeze. We’re here early, and everything seems to be a bit too easy.

The next hour goes by quickly, and while the fog hangs on, the sky lightens considerably. The music on the loudspeakers is exactly what you’d expect at a military-sponsored marathon: Stars and Stripes Forever is the last song before the Star Spangled Banner is broadcast. I take my time, cycling through the port-a-potty lines, and then, at the last minute, head up to the race start area. I spot Jonni on the sidelines, and she becomes pure paparazzi, snapping photo after photo. It’s embarrassing. It’s flattering. It’s a huge boost, to have this kind of a fan, right at the start of this undertaking.

Truth be told, I’m a little spooked about today’s race. Last year and early this year, I had a streak of five sub-four-hour marathons. I thought that I had it all figured out. I thought that I had mastered the distance. But then there was Boston, where I had an okay day, but not a great one, and for the fifth year in a row, I just couldn’t breach that four-hour barrier. Then came Madison, where it was hotter than Hades – really, too damn hot for a marathon. Then came San Diego Rock n Roll, where I ran with my cousins. The purpose of that race was always to run with my cousins, but the timing was bad; it was another long, slow day when I really needed to be able to run fast. I started to wonder if maybe I’d never see the other side of four hours again.

So today, I’m running with the same goals that I always have. Only, today, those goals are a bit more important. My first goal is, always, to finish a marathon. Second to finishing, I want to have a good race; no bonking or death marching. A negative split (running the second half faster than the first half) is always an indication of a “good race”, so it’s part of that goal. Third, if things are going well, I know I have a chance at that sub-four performance. Beyond the sub-four goal, the sky is the limit. Anything better than sub-four is gravy, and a PR (better than 3:50:29) is worthy of a major celebration.

The start gun sounds, and we begin shuffling to the start line. It’s a chip timed race, so there’s no need to rush towards the start line. But it’s also a fairly modest field – there will be right around 1400 finishers – so the shuffle to the start line will be fairly quick. I start a jog right before the chip mat, and then we’re under the “Start” banner, and running for real.

The Air Force Marathon promotes pace groups very strongly at the expo and pasta dinner. By chance, I met the leader of the four hour pace group – Rick - at dinner on Friday night, and we had a nice long chat – long enough for me to gain a respect for this guy’s running resume. At the dinner, he encouraged me to join his group, but I demurred. I run by heart rate (HR), I told him. In a way, I’d like to have a group to run with, but I know that my HR is a better guide for me than a pace group leader.

But now, here in the first mile, I find myself running at the same rate as the four hour group, so I settle in near Rick and join the conversation that he’s having with a few other runners. In fact, lots of people are chatting with him, and we have a good time as the first mile or so roll on by. Before we’ve even hit the first mile marker, there is an aid station. Wow! To have an aid station this early on is rare. And the volunteers are – as they will turn out to be throughout the day – wonderful and enthusiastic. I’m able to grab a cup of water without breaking stride, and I lose the pace group for a short time.

This part of the course is flat, but at the start of mile two, the terrain takes an upward slant. Suddenly, people are working a bit harder, and I turn my attention to my heart rate monitor, and drift off a bit further away from the pace group. This climb is serious: not dauntingly steep, but just steep enough to get your attention. Then, after a brief climb, there’s a short downhill, and it all feels like it will even out in the end. But then, there’s another climb; again, not too steep, but steep enough to get your attention. I’m starting to be very grateful for the lingering fog.

The fog means that there is very little to see. The day is still cool, and the mile markers already seem to just drift by. My first mile was a bit slow – 9:27 – but then the next few are faster. When I hit the split button on my watch at mile 3, I say, to nobody in particular, “I bet that marker was off by a bit”, for my time for that mile is 8:21. Somebody mentions that it was downhill, but I think “it wasn’t that downhill”. But the next mile – mile 4 – is definitely downhill. We make a right-hand turn at the bottom of the hill, and I say to the folks around me, “boy is that gonna suck going the other way”. Everyone laughs and agrees.

The Air Force Marathon race route is a kind of keyhole route, where the first and last six or so miles follow the same route, but the middle section is a big loop. The route is wholly contained within the Wright Patterson Air Force Base. This makes the race route really nice from the standpoint of traffic control. For the length of the marathon, we have the entire road to ourselves – no sharing the road at all with anyone. But it also makes the race route a bit quiet. It’s not easy for spectators to get onto the AFB, so our only real spectators are a few Air Force guys that we see along the route, and the seemingly hundreds of volunteers.

By the time we hit mile 5, I think I’m having a pretty good day. I pass mile 5 in 44:40, and I think that, if I can maintain this pace, I’ll finish in well under four hours. But I’m working on an experiment today, and have no idea how it will turn out. After some discussions during the week with my on-line marathon group, I’ve decided to push my pace (as determined by my heart rate) to see how that affects my performance. Typically, I target a HR of 150-155 during the first 10 miles of a race, and then work on keeping my HR between 155 and 160 during the second 10 miles. After mile 20, anything goes. On the good days, I can really push it, and I rarely look at my HR after that mile marker.

But today, I’ve decided to push it earlier. I’ve got my HR in the 155-160 range almost right out of the gate. At mile 5, I figure that this has contributed to my better-than-average split at mile 5. But how will that affect me for the rest of the race?

The answer is, not so well. Mile 6 goes by in 8:27 (another downhill stretch), but then the course flattens out, and I watch as my splits get slower. The entire loop section of the route is dead flat. And the best that I can do is an average of 9:15 miles for this part of the race. I will come to believe that the course is badly marked, since my splits seem to be all over the place, while my HR remains steady right around 160. But no matter how the miles are marked, the reality is that I’ve slowed down since the initial six miles, and there’s no picking up the pace without putting my HR in jeopardy for the final part of the race. It’s a struggle to keep my HR at 160.

We’re lucky in that the fog holds. Every mile, every split I take, I look at the low hanging fog, and can’t believe this luck. I know that when the sun comes out, it could get brutal quickly. The halfway point comes, and there is still fog. And it is still cool. This is a gift.

In the loop, I run well behind the four hour pace group. In the early miles – when I was running a sub-9 minute pace – I got a bit ahead of the pace group. Then they passed me, and I wondered about the strategy of the pace group leader. But after awhile, I started to see them as the model again, and I knew if I let them out of my sight that my hopes of a sub-four hour day would be done. So I keep them in my sights. Sometimes they are way up there, but I can always see them.

The aid stations remain plentiful and frequent. This is probably the best supported marathon I’ve ever run. It seems that there are aid stations at least every mile – maybe much more frequent than that. The volunteers are handing out cool, soaked sponges early in the day, and often along the route – although with today’s fog, it’s not really necessary. Many of the aid stations have bananas or oranges or Gu in addition to the water (every time) and the Gatorade (most stations). The volunteers – have I mentioned this – are terrific. They understand that a half filled cup is superior to a full cup, and – I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating – I rarely have to break stride to grab a cup of water. Could they do anything better with the aid stations? Well, unless the volunteers actually came out and carried you for a hundred yards or so, no.

Around mile 17, I hear a woman singing behind me. Well, sort of singing. She kind of belts out a line from a song every once in a while, and then goes silent. She actually has a pretty good voice, and she’s singing something very soulful and bluesy. She sings a line, and then several seconds go by, and then she finally sings another line. I could swear that the voice belongs to a youngish black woman who knows the blues, but when I turn to look, I’m a bit dumbfounded. The owner of the voice is a fiftyish white woman, wearing an Ipod and headphones, and she’s clearly doing a selective sing-a-long to her recorded tunes. She looks like she’s having fun, and she overtakes me slowly. Then she’s gone into the distance.

During this race, I see the same people over and over. I figure that some of them are folks who stop at aid stations, so we trade places. Around this stage of the race – around the 18 mile mark, I start to catch up to people who have left me in their dust in the earlier miles. I’m definitely not speeding up – at least not yet – so I recognize this as the start of a death march for some of the runners.

For a few miles, we run on a bike path. The sun is starting to threaten to break through the fog, and the bike path is heavily shaded by trees, which seems like a really nice insurance plan. The bike path is nice asphalt, and it seems to be the tail end of some nature conservancy that we’ve been running through for awhile. But by this time in the race, it’s all starting to look the same.

The race has a related marathon relay, and it’s only the second time that I’ve run in a marathon that has the related relay. It can be most disheartening; you’re plodding along for the full 26.2 miles, only to be passed time and again by relay runners - who are running no more than 6 or 7 miles per person – so it feels like you’re constantly losing the race. But today, for some odd reason, it’s kind of fun to hear the relay runners approaching from the rear. You always know that it’s a relay runner – they just have way too much energy. And most of them, at least today, are gracious when they blow by you.

The other good thing about the relay is that the exchange points are real concentrations of cheering throngs. Well, maybe not quite throngs, but the crowds are definitely concentrated at the exchanges, so they are something to look forward to. We come out of the nature preserve, off the bike path and onto the road again, and now there’s the final relay exchange. There are lots of people here, cheering, and I’m starting to get that late-in-the-race stupid grin that I get when I’m having a good day. Okay, so this isn’t a stellar day, but I’m having a good time out here. And then, just a short way up the road, I start to recognize that we’re suddenly back on the early outbound portion of the race.

At mile 20, I think, Okay, time to go for it! But I can’t find another gear. It doesn’t help that we have the first of the reverse uphills here, and that the course switches from asphalt to concrete for a short time. It all hurts.

Benji, my coach, always has me break the race into three segments. The first 10 miles are outwardly focused, the second 10 miles are inwardly focused, and the final 10 kilometers are all about racing. Normally, when I’ve managed my HR throughout the day, I can pretty easily pick it up when I reach mile 20. But it seems like I just can’t move any faster today.

I realize that I need a gel, and fish my Espresso Love 2xcaffeine Gu out of a pocket in my Race Ready shorts. I’ve taken fewer gels than normal today, and only had one of these caffeinated gels with me at the start. Now I suck it down and hope that it helps me find that extra energy that I can’t seem to tap into.

And magically, it does. Within just a few minutes, I notice that I’m running faster. The overdrive gear has finally kicked in. I start to pass people left and right. At mile 21, I finally catch and pass the four hour pace group. Hi Rick! Bye Rick! Miles 23 and 24 are pretty much substantial uphill miles, and I just plug right along. Many (most?) of the people around me walk up these hills. The aid stations come, and I take water, and a sponge or two, but mostly just concentrate on running fast.

Between aid stations, a young girl – probably 6 or 7 – all dressed in pink, is yelling encouragement to the runners. “You’re looking strong! Keep it up!” she says to me as I pass her. I wonder where she got such adult language. And I love her for being out here, cheering us on.

Mile 25 is a glorious downhill sprint, and you can start to see the finish area. I’m passing people like crazy. They are, mostly, hurting. And mostly, they offer encouragement as I blast by them. Good job! I try to return the positive message.

Now I’m working on just picking off one runner at a time. The 26th mile is dead flat again, and it’s full sun and quite warm. The road is completely closed and open to runners, but on the other side, there are young Air Force dudes doing running drills with their sergeants. I wonder why they are running drills rather than the marathon, but it doesn’t really matter. It just seems that the whole world is out here running now.

The course does a 180 degree turn so that we can run down through a collection of vintage Air Force aircraft at the finish; the last turn on the course is a clean 90 degrees. I’ve being passing people for a while now, and it has become second nature to target and overtake.

And then, rounding that final 90-degree turn right at the 26 mile mark, I see her again. Her! The fiftyish blues singer. She’s gotten herself quite ahead of me, but I decide, when I spot her, that I have to pass her. So I gut it out some more. My HR is already pretty darn close to its max, so I don’t have much room to find another gear, but I’m gaining on the woman, and think I might be able to pass her, and then I’m spooked for a moment.

At the Marathon to Marathon last summer, I passed a woman with about ¾ mile to go in the race, and she surprised me in a sprint at the finish that I couldn’t answer. Then at the Omaha Marathon last fall, I targeted and passed two women just before the 26 mile mark. Both of them dug deep and passed me again after we turned the 26 mile corner, and they both beat me to the finish. It’s starting to seem like a pattern. And, all of a sudden, with the finish line in sight, and the Blues Singer right in front of me, I have a moment of recognition. I won’t let that happen again.

So I adjust my pace, just slightly, so that I’m behind the Blues Singer. When I think it’s time, I pour it on. Every bit of it. Every last ounce of guts that I have left. I’m dizzy. I think I’m going to puke. And I pass the Blues Singer, just before the finish line, and I win the race. The crowd at the finish appreciates the race that they witness and cheer wildly. I imagine that it’s all for me.

Okay, maybe it’s not really “winning the race”, but it feels good to, for once, get it right at the finish. I look over at the Blues Singer and take note of her bib number; later, I figure, I’ll go home and look up her stats. Is she even close to the same age group as me?

Even without the drama of the sprint finish, the finish of the Air Force Marathon is worth the price of admission. I’m directed into a finish chute, and when I reach the end of the chute, there is an Air Force general to greet me. He takes a medal (the best medal of all the races I’ve done – it’s huge and heavy and beautiful, with a red-white-blue ribbon) and drapes it carefully around my neck. Then he looks me directly in the eyes, and shakes my hand, and offers his congratulations. It’s a huge honor, and brings me close to tears.

Oh yeah, my time. I’ve finished the race in 3:57:37. That’s not my best, by far, but it’s definitely in the category of a pretty-darn-good day. I’ve run the first and second halves in almost identical times, about 12 seconds slower for the second half.

Jonni and I hook up once again, and we get ready to head back to her house. As it turns out, I see that results are posted just as we’re getting ready to leave, and we decide to go have a look. To my utter astonishment, I see a number 3 next to my name in the “age group finish” category. The Blues Singer? She was, after all, in my age group. And I finished exactly one second in front of her. My sprint at the finish made the difference between getting an age group award and just going home with a finisher’s medal. This is not something I’m used to – I’ve only won a couple of age group awards in the past, and they were in really small races – so it’s a huge surprise and a huge thrill.

So Jonni and I hang around for the awards ceremony. There’s an Air Force band playing in the tent where the awards will be, and we sit and enjoy their music for awhile, as incongruous as it is to watch guys in battle fatigues playing very good rock and roll. The band wraps up their performance, and then the fly-bys start. Every year, the Air Force features a different airplane for the marathon. This year, it’s the A-10, or the Warthog. The plane is featured on the medal, and it’s what they use for the fly-bys. Two Warthogs fly low over the tent in one direction, then they come back again from another direction, then they come back yet again. Everyone is up out of their seats, watching this awesome display of air power. For whatever odd patriotic reasons, it makes me very happy to be an American.

The awards ceremony is fast paced, and the awards are very cool. They call all three age group spots to the podium together, and when they call my name, Jonni screams and yells. The guys we’ve been talking to look astonished, and then they yell, too. I get to the stage, and receive my award, and have my picture taken with the base commander and the race celebrities – Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar. Bill Rodgers says, while shaking my hand, “you don’t even look tired”. Then he says it again. I wonder if he says this to everyone who takes the podium. But it doesn’t matter. I’m on the podium with one of my running heroes from way, way back. At this moment in time, I cannot imagine that life could be much better.

A couple of days before coming to Dayton, I had a long phone conversation with my brother Dave. He told me that he and some of his friends had been talking about luck. They had decided that everyone is lucky in some particular way. One of his friends is lucky in real estate deals, and another always seems to find a parking place right by the front door. Dave said that his kids were his luck: he feels blessed to have kids who are bright and healthy and generally good kids, and are fun to be around, too. I tried to figure out what I might be lucky at, but, thinking back to Theresa’s death, I couldn’t think of a single thing. I told Dave that I didn’t think I was lucky at anything.

But today, as I leave the Air Force Marathon in the company of my good friend Jonni, I realize that this is where I’m lucky. I’m lucky to have friends and family who indulge my obsession, and who actually take pleasure in coming out to hang around for hours while I’m off running. I’m lucky to have friends and family who have given me rooms to sleep in before marathons, and fed me pasta dinners, and supplied bagels and oatmeal and toast and juice and coffee on race mornings. I’m lucky that so many of these people have given me rides to and from airports and to and from race starts and finishes. I’m lucky that they’ve been out there on the course, cheering for me, and sometimes even out there pacing me for a while. And, mostly, I’m lucky that on days like today, those same friends are there to share the joy. I am, indeed, a very lucky person.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It was sooooo much fun. I posted photos on my blog for you and your friends to check out. Go to...