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

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