Thursday, November 30, 2006

Valley of Fire Marathon (November 2006)

What better way to commemorate the finale of your fifth decade on Planet Earth than to run a marathon with some friends?

That pretty much sums up my day at the Valley of Fire Marathon on November 18th. Mick and I have met up with my friends Melissa and Michele (“M&M”) and their respective significant others, Buddy and John, in the metropolis of Overton, Nevada. When we drove in yesterday – Friday - the day was bright and sunny and warm, but this morning, it’s dead cold – the kind of cold you get in the desert that you know won’t survive the sun’s daily morning assault, but it makes you shiver all the same. It’s that kind of cold when we start to load up the car to drive to the marina where busses will pick us up to take us to the Valley of Fire State Park, where the race is held.

A marina, you ask? Didn’t you just say you are in the desert? Well, yes, but we’re also just north of Lake Mead. This is a weird but beautiful part of the world.

The bus delivers Melissa, Michele, John, and me to the race start/finish area; Mick and Buddy are following on bikes. In fact, we watch for them as we stand around waiting for the race to start, but don’t see them before the race director marches us all uphill to a blue start line painted on the two-lane asphalt road. The roadway between the start line and the finish line – 385 yards, to be exact – is festooned with American flags flying on both sides of the road. In keeping with the patriotic spirit, we all sing the national anthem together. What a hoot! If I do say so myself, as an impromptu a capella chorus, we do a damn fine job.

Just as we’re wobbling about the land of the free, I look around and see Mick riding up the hill behind the assemblage, but it’s too late to get a last minute good luck kiss from him – the race is on!

Somehow, Melissa and Michele and I have all worn color-coordinated clothes today, with a black and pink theme. It’s easy for me keep my eye on the two M’s as they pull away from me right from the start. For a few moments, I feel like I’ve missed out on something – last minute good luck wishes? – but then I get to work, and focus on getting myself up the hill.

For up the hill it is. This course is nothing but hills. It’s an out and back route, all on Nevada state highway 40, through the heart of the Valley of Fire State Park. I decided that I wanted to run this race more than a year ago, after viewing photos of the scenery on the race’s website. I’ve been forewarned that this race will not be fast. I know that the first half of the race is a net elevation gain, but with plenty of ups and downs to make the return trip a challenge. I know that we’ll be in the desert, so we have relentless sun from the get-go. I know that there will be little shade on the course (actually, there’s none at all, with the exception of a few very brief places where we run through narrow road cuts, and we have shade from the rocks on either side of us).

What I don’t know is that the race course is drop-dead spectacular from start to finish, with no exceptions. Those beautiful photos on the website? Well, it’s like that the entire 26.2 miles!

It seems that everybody out here today is here for fun. People seem to smile more than normal, and everyone I talk to is friendly. There is a group of four women all wearing identical neon orange tops and Race Ready shorts (just like mine), and they run together for much of the journey, and they are friendly, laughing, talking, every time that we pass one another. There are two more women running together – these two are both wearing identical red singlets, and I keep them in my sights for the entire first half of the race. It seems more like a party out here than a race.

Which is a good thing, all things considered, when I start to take note of my splits. My first few miles are actually faster than I anticipated (there’s a great steep downhill in the second mile, which helps the split for that mile, but makes me think, “boy is that gonna suck going the other direction), but then they all fade away in the wrong direction – heading from 9 minutes to 10 to 11 to 12 to 13. Ah well, I tell myself. This is not a day for speed. This is a day just to enjoy being out here. And I do enjoy it.

Given that this is an out-and-back course, and there are three different races being run simultaneously, there’s plenty of opportunity for fun. The 10k crowd turns around right around the 3 mile mark, so I shout encouragement to everyone on their homebound journey. And then the half marathoners turn around several miles up the road, and I repeat the process. Other than the race leaders, who are all focused and serious-faced, all of the runners going the other way are smiling and having fun. When I say “looking good” and “good job” to them, they pretty much universally return the compliment.

Mick rides up and keeps me company for awhile before riding off in search of M&M. Later he’ll come back to ride with me a few more times during the day, and I love getting the immediate feedback on how the race is going. It’s like having my own personal sports commentator, telling me how far ahead M&M both are, and if this next hill ends pretty soon or not, and the names of the kids working the aid stations. Buddy rides by me once, and looks like he’s focused but not having so much fun – I think he’s not really a cyclist, and these hills are taxing him. I pass him at the 8 mile mark on the course, where he’s stopped, and he says that he’s done. That’s it. Can’t go anymore. Mick happens to be riding next to me at this point, and Buddy hands Mick a gel. “Will you give this to Melissa if you see her?”

Around the 10 mile mark, the race leader passes me going in the other direction. Ummm…that would mean that he’s already 6 miles ahead of me?!? Holy Moses is he smoking! The next few full marathoners trickle by in the other direction, the first 10 or so all serious and focused on the road in front of them, not responding to my cheers. “Great job!” “”Way to go!” But then come the people just out having fun. And they all start to return the greetings. It’s like a party. Really. Everybody is SO friendly. I’m almost tempted to yell to them, “and it’s my birthday!” It just seems like this is one huge birthday party.

But I don’t yell this – because it isn’t really my birthday, yet. More’s the pity for me on this. If I ever had age group award aspirations, this is not the day for them. It turns out that Valley of Fire has ten-year age groups, which means that M&M and I are all in the same age group. How weird is that? In another couple of months, after Michele’s next birthday, we will all run the new Georgia Marathon in Atlanta, and we’ll be in three separate age groups. But here we are today, just one big happy age group.

Around mile 10 or 11, I start running alongside a guy who has passed and repassed me a number of times. It turns out this guy is running is 73rd marathon. This is my 26th, which I thought was quite a lot, but now it’s all in perspective. The time goes by quickly while we run along, chatting. But he drops off at one of the aid stations, so I’m on my own on the long downhill to the 13 mile turnaround.

The turnaround on this course is at the 13 mile mark, not the 13.1 mile mark. This allows the race coordinators to double up on all of the mile markers along the course. These mile markers are among the best I’ve ever seen in a marathon – they’re large and marked on both sides of the road with flags. How could you miss one of them? The aid stations are like clockwork also, every two miles without fail. Not only does this race offer spectacular scenery, it also has great organization.

After the turnaround point, I start to count people. I’m actually pretty far back in the field of just over a hundred marathoners. My heart rate has been abnormally high throughout this race – something that I finally chalk up to the combination of heat and hills – so I’ve been holding myself back. At the turnaround, I decide to just let go a bit, and focus on picking up the pace some. So I start to pick out runners in front of me to pass, and start working my way up through the crowd.

Crowd? Well, um, actually, no. In this second half of the race, it actually gets a little lonely at times. The field is spread far apart on the course, and all of the 10-k and half marathon racers are long gone. The road is open to traffic, and sometimes it’s nice to have a car go by, just because the people tend to smile and shout encouragement.

I’ve started to pick off people, but early in my second half a couple of women catch up to me and overtake me. In a normal large race, this wouldn’t even register, not at this point – 14 or 15 miles – in the race. But today, I’ve set a goal for myself: to pass as many people as possible on my return trip, and to not allow anyone to pass me. These two chatty women are making me miss that goal, and it starts to really annoy me.

They pass me once, but I keep them in sight and pass them back when they stop to walk through the next aid station. But then, after several minutes, I can hear them catching me again, and it’s really, really annoying, but there they go again, and I can’t match their pace. I keep them in sight, but I just can’t catch them. Then two miles down the road, they pull off at the aid station, and one of them heads into the port-a-john. Aha! I pick up my pace and run just a little harder. I listen for their steps behind me for the rest of the race, but this time I’ve left them behind for good.

I’m surprised, and disappointed, that I just can’t get my pace up to a “normal” marathon pace; it seems that the hills and heat have just zapped my ability to get my legs to turnover. The heat is not crazy debilitating heat like Madison – it never gets above 75 degrees – but it is constant, 68 at the start, then climbing quickly and holding at this temp. My legs finally respond, and I run my first sub 9-minute mile in mile 19 of the race.

I’m passing people fairly regularly now, and it gives me something to focus on. I catch a couple of guys somewhere around mile 19, and drop one of them quickly, but the other one hangs with me. He picks up his pace and stays with me for a mile or more, until we hit the aid station at mile 20, where he stops to walk. He’s another true nut job (I say that out of complete respect!): this is his 157th consecutive month of running a marathon or longer distance. That’s more than 13 years! And this is his 200-and-somethingth marathon. He chats away and tells me much of his life story, and the mile goes by more quickly than any since before the turnaround.

The final miles are hard, and rewarding, and still fun. I’ve already passed one of the women in red – I followed them both to the turnaround, but one of them took off like a rocket at that point, so I could only catch the other. In the last few miles, Mick rides up and accompanies me the rest of the way to the finish, with stories of Melissa’s finish (7th woman overall and second in AG!) and Michele’s cramping before her finish (12th woman overall!) When Mick reaches me, I’ve just passed two of the women in orange. They’ve apparently split up – now, where are the others? These two greet me as I go by.

That great downhill in mile 2 truly does suck going up the other side, but I run it all. It doesn’t seem that big of a deal to me – just slow, putting one foot in front of the other – but Mick says to me proudly when I crest the hill, “you’re the only one who ran the whole thing!” Victories – you gotta take ‘em where you can get ‘em. And now I know what waits me on the other side: a beautiful long – maybe a mile and a half – sweeping downhill, all the way to the finish.

And I let go with everything I have. It’s a delicious feeling, to know that as slow as this race has been, I can finish strong. I pass lots more people on this stretch – people cramping, walking, just gingerly jogging along. I feel almost guilty to feel this much glee, and to feel so good at this stage of the race when these people are so clearly suffering. Melissa meets me with about a mile to go, and jogs alongside for a moment, handing me some wildflowers she’s picked for me. “How do you feel?” she asks. I point to the woman in orange just a short way in front of me. “I’m going to catch her!” Later, I will think that this is an odd response, but at the time it’s the only thing in my mind. Focus is good. And effective. I pass the woman in orange, who says, in what seems to me to capture the spirit of the day, “You go girl!”

And so I finish my 26th marathon in my 21st state on the last day of my 50th year on Planet Earth. My time is one of the slowest I’ve run – 4:31:23 – but today, it’s not about the time. It’s about being able to come out and run with my friends in a spectacular setting in a well-organized race and just enjoy the day. Later, we all head into Las Vegas for a fun show and a fabulous dinner with an incredible 12-layer chocolate cake for dessert; it’s a wonderful celebration. But it would have been just fine without all of the hoopla. This is the thing that makes my day so special: running with my friends. It just doesn’t get any better than this. Okay, maybe, a slightly faster time….but I’ll leave that for the next half century.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

My Trip to Oz (aka the Wichita Marathon, October 2006)

“Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife... `From the far north they heard a low wail of the wind, and Uncle Henry and Dorothy could see where the long grass bowed in waves before the coming storm.” - The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum.

This is mostly what I know about Kansas: that the wind can be brutal. For my Kansas marathon, I’ve selected the Wichita Marathon on October 22. This choice is, at least in part, driven by the reviews of the marathon from past years that all proclaim that this point-to-point course is typically blessed with a tailwind for most of the 26.2 miles.

Too bad that the typical tailwind decides to stay home this year and send its wicked witch stepsister – the one from the northwest, the direction that we run – in its place.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The real story of my Wichita Marathon experience is about a warm and generous woman, the Sunflower Runner (aka Mary) from my internet running group, who, at the last minute, offers to open her home to me. Up until this time, I’ve been planning on going solo for this race; it just hasn’t worked out for any of the usual suspects to accompany me to or meet me in Wichita. That’s okay – I travel alone enough to be comfortable with it – but the offer of home and companionship and a home-cooked meal is far superior. And meeting Mary and her family and friends makes the race on Sunday morning a completely different experience from the solo journey that I had planned.

When I reach Wichita on Saturday afternoon, it’s cold and a little rainy and very windy. Not cold as in “a nice cool day for a marathon”. But cold as in “brrrrr, whose idea was this anyway?” I’m hoping that the conditions improve, and by Sunday morning, they have improved - some. It’s no longer raining. But it is still very cold – just barely over 30 degrees when Mary and I leave her home to drive to the race start. Yes, this remarkable woman who has given me food and shelter is also providing taxi service to the race start at oh-dark-thirty on this chill morning. We pick up Mary’s friend Cheryl on the way to the start. Cheryl is a new runner, and even before I showed up on the scene, Mary had planned to introduce Cheryl to the marathon by coming out to cheer on runners together. Suddenly, I have not only a taxi driver but an entire cheering section for the day!

The start of the Wichita Marathon is in the town of Derby, which turns out to be a bedroom community just south of Wichita. We get to wait in a nice warm school building, with more than enough actual flush toilets (such a treat! Indoor plumbing! And no waiting!) until just minutes before the race start. Mary knows everyone, so I get introductions to lots of the local fast runners. There are actually three races taking place: the marathon, a half-marathon, and a marathon relay, which consists of two-person teams. All races start together, and follow the same course route.

It’s dark when we go inside the school, and light when we come outside again 45 minutes later for the race start. It’s still cold, but I make a last minute decision – one I’m glad about later – and leave my jacket with Cheryl. That leaves me wearing just shorts and a singlet and a lightweight long-sleeved technical shirt. Once I get moving, I’m happy with my decision. The important items – my gloves and headband – will stay with me for nearly the entire race.

The race starts on a wide, flat street, and I’m happy that I don’t notice any wind. The first mile feels unusually good, and I’m happy when I punch my split button to capture an 8:50 first mile, and a heart rate (HR) of 150. Just perfect.

But then we make a turn, and I realize that we’ve been running with the wind at our back. The first part of the course is a fish-hook, heading in the opposite direction from where the race will finish. As we finally turn north after a brief jaunt eastward, it becomes clear that the wind is, indeed, going to be a factor today. But how much so?

The first ten miles of the race seem to just melt away. These first miles snake around through some different residential areas, where a few intrepid folks stand at the end of their driveways to cheer for us. We have coned off lanes on busier streets, and the full roadway when we meander through some of the side streets. For a while, I run with a younger woman named Amy, and she provides a nice companion. But Amy has a cough that gets worse – she’s just returned to running after some time off – and I lose her after the first few miles. After I lose Amy, I see Mary and Cheryl along the course, and it’s huge fun to have a cheering section, long before I expected it. Around mile five, a guy named Jon falls into step next to me, and we run well together for the next couple of miles; it seems that the mile 7 marker comes long before I’m expecting it. But Jon is feeling his oats – he wants to break 4 hours today, something he hasn’t done before – and he takes off. Shortly after Jon leaves me behind, there are Mary and Cheryl again! And I thought I was coming to run this race alone!

In these early miles, the course rolls gently, never anything really steep, but never totally flat, either. It’s nice going – or would be, without that confounded wind. It’s not a killer wind, but it’s just strong enough to be annoying.

At mile 8, we’re at the highest point on the course, and you can see all the way to downtown Wichita. It’s an impressive view, from good new roads that connect some new residential subdivisions. I’m chilly, and wondering if I did the right thing when I tossed my l-s shirt to Mary when I saw her along the course a mile or so back. It’s too late now to change my mind!

One of the great things about the Wichita Marathon is that the miles are well marked, and there is someone calling out splits at every single mile. I’ve never experienced this before, and it’s pretty cool. My HR is right where I want it to be, but my splits are a bit schizophrenic. My ideal pace for the day would be around 8:47/mile. My first mile seemed to indicate a perfect day for a PR, but after that, my splits are all over the place – and, sadly, the direction is all more than 9 minutes/mile. I chalk it up to the wind, but that doesn’t help the disappointment that I feel each mile when I hit the split button. My effort feels like I’m sailing along like a Hobie cat on the waves. My splits tell a different story – more like a battleship slowly making way.

At the mile 10 marker, we pass a group of people cheering, including Mary and Cheryl. Some other folks shout “Go Judy!” and I wonder if my personal fan club has been talking about me. But then I remember that my name is on my bib (thanks, as so much of the good parts of my weekend are, to Mary). It’s only the second time that I’ve had my name on my bib, and I love the feeling. There’s an immediate connection with these great folks who are standing out in the cold, cheering us on.

The next ten miles are tough. We turn onto the McConnell Air Force Base, and the road goes bad. The road is unmaintained asphalt, which means potholes, uneven surfaces, and way too many opportunities to trip or twist an ankle. A guy from Arkansas joins me and starts to chat, but I can’t maintain a conversation – I’m spending way too much energy just keeping myself upright.

The course is still rolling, and eventually we hit better maintained roads. Because we’re on the AFB, there aren’t many spectators, but the folks working the aid stations and time checks are great. We pass the half way point, where the half-marathoners peel off, and the relay teams make their exchanges.

It’s kind of fun to see the AFB and all the buildings and monuments that are old airplanes. When I ran the Air Force Marathon last month in Dayton, OH, I didn’t see much of the Wright-Patterson AFB because of the low-hanging fog that lasted for most of the race that day. Today, it might be breezy, but it is clear and bright. I’m perfectly comfortable now in my singlet and shorts. I like running through the memorials, and then past the Kansas Air National Guard Museum. What I don’t like is that my splits continue to be 15 or 30 seconds slower than how my effort feels. It’s all wind. Out here on the AFB, there is nothing at all to block the wind that feels like it’s coming all the way down the plains from Montana.

We leave the AFB shortly before the 20-mile mark. I look for Mary and Cheryl – I’m getting to that point in the day where a friendly face can do *so* much to bolster you – and there they are, just where Mary said they would be! We shout and hurrah each other. I get a huge boost from seeing them, and I feel ready to race. Mary asks how I’m doing. I shout out to her that I’m a bit slower than I wanted to be, but now I’m feeling great.

And the truth is that I *do* feel great now. Everything changes in just a few miles. Now, we lose a little in elevation and enter a park, where there’s shelter from the wind. Mary and Cheryl keep turning up, over and over again, and it’s so much fun to see them. It’s like a boost of adrenaline each time I see the bright yellow jacket that Mary’s sporting. There she is, taking yet another photo!

And it helps that I’m passing people left and right. What a rush! More and more and more. Nobody passes me.

We run for a while – around three miles - on a bike path. I have mixed feelings about the path – it’s sheltered from the wind, but the asphalt is old and buckled and makes for poor footing again. But Mary has figured out how to get out on the path at multiple points to cheer for me, so I mostly just love this section of the race.

Just at the 25 mile mark, we emerge from the bike path onto Douglas Avenue, and I recognize this as the final stretch of the race. I pass a woman – have I mentioned that I’m passing people left and right? – but this woman surprises me and doesn’t let me go. The footing here is a bit better than the bike path, but it’s not great – lots of potholes and road cracks to dodge. And now this woman just won’t go away. She surges ahead of me, then I push it and take the lead, and then I feel her on my shoulder again. It’s an outright race!

There’s less than a mile to go, and I wonder if I can hold off this woman for that long. And then I have a sudden flash, and I know that I cannot wonder this – I have to believe! After the first half, with all those 9:09 and 9:20 miles earlier in the day, I began to believe that breaking 4 hours today would be a tough goal. But now, I’m flying, and I’m racing, and I’m starting to believe that 3:55 is within my grasp. And I know that I can beat this woman – but only if I believe in it.

So I push, and I push, and pretty soon, I don’t feel this woman on my shoulder quite so close. We make our last turn on the course, and enter marathon hell: the final two blocks of the race are on cobblestones! It’s miserable, but by the second block, I’ve found a concrete strip about 12 inches wide on the side of the road, and I’m taking advantage of this. Better to run on a tightrope than on those nasty cobbles.

There’s the finish banner, and the finish chute, and I give it everything I can to finish in 3:55:51. This is not my best time, but given the conditions for the day, I’m thrilled with this finish. If not for the demon winds, this very well might have been a PR kind of day.

The finish of my marathon is like the best parts of my day: shared by Mary and Cheryl, who meet me as I receive my medal. My Wichita friends grab water and Gatorade and food for me, while handing me my warm clothes. It’s still chilly, although the day sports a perfect blue cloudless sky with full sun. I see Jon, who has finished in just over four hours. He’s set a PR for the day, but is still a little disappointed in not hitting his sub-4 goal. But then Mary hussles me home to shower and change so that we can get back to the awards ceremony. We both think that there’s a good chance that I’ve won an age group award.

But they never call my name at the ceremony, and I think that it’s a lesson in hubris, to have been so confident in something that was not a guarantee. Mary sends me on my way with a cooler full of snacks for my drive back across the Kansas plains. The drive is uneventful, like all good drives, save the shared phone calls with friends (including Mary!) and family from around the country. Later, the race director will call me to tell me that they somehow screwed up, and I actually won the award for third place in my age group. But it hardly matters at all, since I’m home again, and the entire weekend has started to feel like a dream.

Aunt Em cried,”Where in the world did you come from?” “From the Land of Oz,” said Dorothy. “And oh, Aunt Em! I’m so glad to be home again!” -The Wizard of Oz