Many years ago, my marathon mentor, Jay, told me about the Tucson Marathon. It’s a fast one, he said. But it’s downhill, and will kill your legs if you’re not prepared. I put the race on my “someday” list. Then late last year, Jay told me that he was going to run Tucson again this year – and I immediately put the marathon on my calendar. For the entire year, I thought of Tucson as my target race for the year - the one where I might have a chance to run fast.
But fast is a relative term, and my definition of fast has never matched that of others. I’m conservative in my estimates of my own running ability. I’ve never had Olympic style aspirations, just a desire to do the best that I can on any given day, without taking risks that might have me walking the last part of a 26.2-miler. Been there, done that. But on the other hand, I don’t agree with the philosophy of many of the 50-staters, who go out to bag marathons, not caring at all about finishing times. After all, for me a marathon is a race, not just another daily run.
The last couple of weeks leading up to the Tucson Marathon, on December 10, have been a disappointment. I’ve targeted this race as my best chance for a fast time this year, and yet, in the end, my training has taken a nose dive off into never-never land. I ran the Valley of Fire Marathon in Nevada on November 18, in a birthday celebration, and in a time of 4:31. It was a slow course, and I expected a slow time, but the result was a good 15 minutes slower than I expected for that day. It’s always a struggle to run a race that you know will be slow: your head “gets it”, but your heart always has a harder time buying into it, and you end up wondering if you aren’t simply getting slower and slower.
To make matters worse, the three weeks following Valley of Fire were just awful for training. The first week post-race, Mick and I were traveling. Not only were my chances to run greatly curtailed, but every time I did get some time, it rained. And rained and rained and rained. And then when we got back to Colorado, it snowed. And snowed and snowed and snowed. And, atypical for Colorado, the snow stuck. So my running for the last two weeks leading up to Tucson was all on snow and ice, in frigid temperatures, and I spent my time slipping and sliding, and I just kept getting slower and slower. Finally, to add insult to injury (or more properly, injury to insult), a week before Tucson, I fell during a run, and it was a hard fall, and it hurt badly. I cursed (and limped) the rest of my way home from that run. What else could go wrong?
Finally, race weekend rolls around. Bright and early Saturday morning, I leave for Tucson. I’m surprised every step of the way that something more isn’t going wrong. Despite all that has gone wrong, I still cling to a hope that this race will somehow be fast. It’s a crazy hope, but this is my last shot for the year. This will be my eighth marathon this year, and I have not yet run faster than last fall’s Marine Corps Marathon. If not Tucson, then what?
Having just passed my 50th birthday, I’ve been secretly worrying that maybe my times will all be slower. When I started training with my coach nearly five years ago, he told me that once a runner starts working on speed, s/he will have somewhere around seven years to get faster. Since then, I’ve read similar estimates, but with a range of five to ten years. I’ve started to think: have I reached my potential, in just the five years? And I worry that all of the energy, time, money, and dedication that I put into running are just an unfounded conceit. Maybe the miles, the times when I really don’t feel like running the two hours that my coach has assigned, the painful massages, the trips to Boulder to see the chiropractor, the hours on the acupuncturist’s table, the time reading and studying race reports and race reviews: maybe this is all a colossal waste. And then what?
These are the thoughts that occupy my mind as I sit at DIA, waiting for the flight to Tucson. The boarding area fills up with a bunch of people who look like runners. You can pick them out by the tell-tale signs: the running shoes, the duffel bags, the race t-shirts, the ultra-fit bodies. I’m impressed to be in the company of so many others seeking the same fast race that I’m seeking. This trip starts to feel a bit like a pilgrimage.
These are still my thoughts as we approach the landing in Tucson, and I look down on a landscape that is alien to me, mountains to the east, mountains to the west, and in between, desert that is punctuated with Chinamen’s hats: little uplifts that break up the landscape. These are my thoughts as I grab my bag and make my way to the rental car pick-up area, and I listen to other marathoners in line around me.
But my mind is distracted as I pull into the IHOP, where I’ll meet my brother Scott, who lives in Phoenix, and who has driven down to spend the afternoon with me. I haven’t seen Scott in more than a year now, so it’s a nice little reunion. Scott comes to the expo with me, which is a nice expo for a race of this size, then drives the course with me. We take note of the ups and downs, and Scott, getting into the spirit of the thing, starts to point out landmarks for my reference. We go back to my hotel room, and turn on the tube, and there, completely by happenstance, is the coverage of Ironman Hawaii. All of the athletes are impressive, but I find one story most inspirational – the 76-year old former nun who finishes just a minute under the cut-off time. If a 76-year old woman can complete an Ironman, what is there to hold me back?
Mick calls, and we talk about the race. Mick decided late in the game that he would like to come to this race with me, but it was just not logistically possible with all of his other commitments. So instead of being here to support me physically, he’s calling often to support me emotionally. He says, “I think you are going to be fast tomorrow.”
Scott heads back to Phoenix, and I meet up with Jay and his family for the pasta dinner. A speaker gives instructions for the race, and warns everyone against letting the downhill in the early miles suck you into running too fast. “Slow down!” he says, over and over. I glance at Jay, who is looking at me, shaking his head. “You’re not going to do that, are you?” he asks. I assure him that I am not. I’m here to take advantage of the downhill.
We talk awhile before heading off, and Jay asks me about my goal for tomorrow. I don’t normally have a specific goal going into a race, preferring to just see how the day goes, and to go as fast as possible without risking a major bonk in the second half of the race. But tonight, I tell Jay, “I’d really like to run 3:49, even if it’s 3:49:59, just so I can say that once in my life I broke 3:50.”
There. I’ve said it. Putting it out there scares me, because it means I have to own it. I’ve already feared that I’ve jinxed things by telling another friend that I’m hoping for a PR, and that I’ve delayed sending in a Boston entry in the hopes that just possibly I might come out of the day with a faster time. Jay just smiles and nods. “This is a good course for it.” And then we wish each other good luck, and head our separate ways.
At the hotel, I talk to Mick one last time for the day. Again, he says, “you are going to run fast tomorrow, I know it.” The thing is, Mick usually has a better sense than I of how my marathons will go. I wonder if he’s just being nice, but I know that’s not like him.
In the morning, I check the temperature on The Weather Channel. Fifty degrees. Just perfect. That is, until I walk out the door, and the wind greets me. As I drive through the five a.m. darkness to the buses that will take us to the start, the signs are not good: flags are flying straight out, indicating that the wind is strong and coming straight out of the south.
We will run directly south for much of the day on this point to point course. My heart sinks.
But the Tucson Marathon has a treat in store: the buses to the start line are not the typical yellow school buses used by every other marathon. Today we get plush tour buses! Wow! A comfy seat, warmth, and a smooth ride. And leg room, to boot! And to sweeten the pot just a bit more, when we get to the start line, the buses stick around, so we get to stay inside in the warmth until the last possible moment before the race starts. This alone already makes Tucson one of my favorite marathons.
The time on the bus is good for me. I’m warm and relaxed – so relaxed that I nap while we wait for the sky to lighten. We’re in a really beautiful area in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, just outside the old town of Oracle. It’s oddly beautiful – all cactus and scrub oak and desert. It’s not surprising that this place that seems so desolate to some was the home of Edward Abbey, and is also the home to Biosphere 2. When I close my eyes, before nodding off, it’s completely dark outside, and then later, when I open them, it’s dawn. What an odd way to wake up for the second time of the day.
The race start goes off on time, at 7:30, after an obligatory recorded rendition of the national anthem. This is not a huge marathon – just under 1200 people will finish today – but the road is a narrow, asphalt country road, so it takes nearly a minute to cross the start line. I’ve been watching Pam Reed, the race director, walk back to her truck from the start line, and almost forget to start my watch. Pay attention! I tell myself. You only get one chance at this race – don’t blow it from the start.
Having scoped out the entire race course with Scott yesterday, I know that the first mile is a rare uphill mile. But that’s okay – it will keep everyone from going out too crazy fast. I remind myself to look around, since it’s really beautiful – if stark – country.
A woman running near me says, “oh no, I don’t know what I did with my pack of gels – I must have left it on the bus.” A guy nearby offers her one of his gels, and I chime in and offer her one, also. “Thanks, but I’m okay,” she says, “I’ll just wing it”. I run along and think about how upsetting it would be to have your entire race plan changed by just one little lapse like this. And then I think that offering and actually giving are two separate things. I fish through the pockets of my Race Ready shorts, and pull out a gel, and pick up my pace just a bit to catch the woman. “Here!” I tell her. “I always bring extra.” She thanks me and accepts the gel. I figure that it never hurts to build a little karma early in the race..
The first mile rolls, and when we hit the big uphill, I think, “uh-oh, this is steeper than I thought from driving it”. But then before I can even adjust my stride, it’s over. I think that the big hill must still be coming, but no, that’s it. Pretty soon we’re passing the first mile marker. I hit my split button. 9:02? For an uphill mile, it’s much faster than I expected, and I’m pleased. That big hill must be in the second mile.
This is desert/mountain country, and there are just a few Edward Abbey-type people sitting or standing at the end of driveways, big dogs at their feet and tin cups of coffee in hand, watching us run by. Other than that, just stark scenery. I see a woman slightly ahead of me with a bouncy gait, and I watch her for a minute or so before I realize that she’s running on a carbon-fiber prosthetic leg. I’m mesmerized by her. I run close behind her for a short time, but then she gradually pulls away in front of me. I’m impressed beyond words. I say a quick prayer that I might be given so much courage if I ever lost a limb.
I’m waiting for that big uphill, but it never comes. We pass the mile 2 marker, and I hit the split button again. 8:10. What the heck? I almost laugh out loud. This must have been some serious downhill, since I just don’t run 8:10 miles. I hear Mick’s voice in my head: I think you’re going to have a fast race. A few seconds later, someone is saying, did I miss the second mile marker? Yep, I say. About 33 seconds ago.
We’re now in the little town of Oracle, and the road has widened out a bit. It’s still downhill, and still easy running. There are a few more people out on the few street corners, and I wave to a couple of firefighters sitting in chairs out on the driveway of the firehouse. My heart rate monitor finally registers (I have a new strap, after the old one died just ten days ago, and this one seems to take a bit longer to connect with my watch), and I’m exactly in the zone where I want to be. Pretty soon we pass mile marker number 3, and I almost laugh again. 8:28? This is so far outside my experience that I don’t even know what to think. Mick’s voice is there again: I just know you’re going to run fast! Again, somebody says, did I miss mile marker three? Yep, I say. About 18 seconds ago.
I think about the advice from last night’s speaker, and wonder if I shouldn’t slow down. But it’s just a fleeting thought. I feel great, the pace feels good, and my heart rate is exactly where it should be. Why on earth slow down? When I hit my split button for mile 4 and see 8:06, I’m almost giddy. What on earth is going on?
It’s way too early, but I start to think, yes! I can run 3:49 today! Maybe even 3:48! But it really is too early to have these thoughts, so I just watch the road. In these early miles, the road curves around and turns a bit, and I think that if Mick were here, he’d be telling me to run the tangents. So I try to look up the road and pay attention to the tangents, and my legs keep churning. Just before mile 5, we make our biggest turn for the day, off these little rural roads onto Oracle Road, where we’ll be until just before the finish. I hit my split button again, and see 8:11.
By now, this is all beginning to seem like a dream. I stare at my watch for a moment trying to make sense of these crazy splits. My accumulated time is 41:57, and I can’t even compute what that means. I work and work at trying to average it, but I don’t have any experience with these numbers. I run 9 minute miles! Not 8:something miles! Who knows how to do math with 8:something miles?
Oracle Road is a major north-south road in Tucson, and we’re far north of the city now, where it is sometimes a two-lane road and sometimes a four-lane road. When it’s two lane, we get a coned off stretch of good asphalt shoulder; when it’s four lane, we often get the use of both the shoulder and a lane of the roadway – all coned off. In these early miles, the coned-off shoulder is a bit narrow for the number of people out here. It’s plenty wide to run, but a bit tricky to pass, especially when people are running together.
Still, the other runners all seem to be friendly. I only talk briefly with people, but everyone is nice. There’s a woman in a yellow top from Phoenix who is running her third marathon; she tells me she’s hoping for a time better than her previous best of 3:57. I’m still trying to figure out what my crazy splits might mean for a final time, and I just say, if you keep this pace up, you have that in the bag. She takes off in front of me. But that doesn’t mean I’ve slowed down too much: my splits for miles six through twelve are 8:30, 8:24, 8:30, 8:30, 8:35, 8:36, and 8:23.
I have no idea what is going on. My heart rate is right where it’s supposed to be, and my legs feel great, and it feels like easy running.
At some point, I calculate that I’m running an average of under 8:30 per mile. That just seems insane to me, and I don’t even know what 8:30 translates to for the 26.2 miles. Maybe 3:45, I guess? I’ve never had a reason to figure out what an 8:30 pace would mean. For a moment I allow myself a brief fantasy of finishing in 3:45, but then I tell myself to get real. I’ll do well to finish in 3:49, and if I can hold on for 3:48, it will be a stellar day. I have never even dreamed of running 3:45. Okay, I’ve thought about it a few times, but those thoughts have been in the same realm as thoughts of winning the lottery. Pure fantasy.
But I keep thinking that I’m running on borrowed time. The weather is almost perfect. Almost. At mile five, we go by a time and temperature sign, and it’s still just 53 degrees. The sun has risen over the Catalina Mountains in the east, but some thick clouds are hanging over the mountains, obscuring the sun. This keeps the temps nice and cool. But the damn wind is only getting stronger and stronger, and I start to think that it’s going to totally tank my day.
We’re running almost directly into the wind, and when we make a slight turn just after mile thirteen, we are going smack dab into the full force of the wind. It’s coming on gangbusters. I think that it’s a good thing that I’ve had so many fast miles in the first half of this race, since I definitely start to slow at the beginning of the second half of the race.
The halfway point is not marked with a sign, but I run over a mark on the road that says 13.1. I look at my watch, and it says 1:51 and change, and I think that the halfway point must be up the road further, since there’s no way I’ve run the first half in that kind of time. But nope, that was it.
Later, I’ll read that the wind averages 16 mph with 26 mph gusts. For now, all I know is that it’s a serious pain to contend with. The good thing about the narrowness of our running lane is that you often have someone directly in front of you. I start to strategize on how to draft behind people as much as possible.
But the field seems to keep opening up in front of me, and just when I think I have a big guy to block the wind for me for the next bit, he seems to take off and leave me to battle the wind on my own. People chatting me up now tend to open with, “I could do without this damn wind!” The gusts sometimes cause me to kick myself in the shin.
My splits start to show the effects of running mile after mile into the wind, and I’m happy that I haven’t been able to calculate a finishing time based on those crazy 8:30 and under miles from the first half of the race. Miles 13 through 17 are still downhill, but much flatter than the first half of the race, and they go by in 8:42, 8:35, 8:52, 8:48, and 8:52. I’m trying to chase down guys to draft off, but I have a dilemma. Since they’re all running just a bit faster than me, my heart rate is getting a little out of the zone where it should be. I finally make a decision and decide to take the risk with my heart rate, and to try to stay in contact with people. It seems that I don’t really have a good choice, and I’m tired of racing conservatively. Sometimes you just have to take a chance.
And sometimes you have to remember to look around. Every once in a while, I remember to look up, and it’s beautiful scenery. The clouds hovering around the top of the Catalinas make the vista spectacular. I am stunned, over and over again, by the stark beauty of the desert. There is no grass – anywhere! How do people live here? But the cacti are so majestic – and so iconic – that it almost feels like I’m running through a movie set.
Tucson is not a good marathon for spectators. Oracle Road is just too busy and well-traveled to allow people many good opportunities to support runners. So I’m pleased at the number of folks who still attempt to cheer us on. As the miles tick away, we’re running into civilization with strip malls and commercial developments and heavier traffic. The aid stations have been plentiful – about every two miles, and more frequent in the last 6 or 8 miles. The volunteers are, as always, great. The cops directing traffic at the busier intersections as we approach town have a tough job, but they still smile when I thank them for their help, and some even offer up encouragement.
The road turns a bit somewhere around mile 17, and the wind turns to our sides for the next several miles. This is heaven! Miles 18 through 20 go by in 8:47, 8:50, and 8:41.
I’ve been wondering if I’ll have anything left when I hit mile 20 today. Will I be able to turn this into a race at that point? Or will my legs be trashed from the downhill miles, and my game plan ruined by letting my heart rate stay up at the bottom of the red zone starting around mile 14 and 15? I’ve been praying that all those days, weeks, months, and years of running and running and running will pay off today.
It helps that the road becomes more steeply downhill again with mile 20 through mile 24. I tell my body that it’s time to go, and my legs respond. Wow! I’m sailing again! Counting steps and listening to my breathing, I’m focused on getting to that finish line. I’m vaguely aware that I’m passing people now, at first just a few, then more and more, but today I’m not so much thinking about picking them off as I am thinking about avoiding them. People walking or slowing seem to weave, I notice, and they are also apt to just come to a dead stop right in front of you without warning. So I’m being vigilant, and playing human pinball, just trying to avoid obstacles. Miles 21 through 24 go by in 8:22, 8:15, 8:08, 8:17.
Each time I hit my split button, I try to calculate my finishing time, but it’s an exercise in futility. My mind just won’t compute with these numbers. I know now that I have 3:49 in the bag, and probably 3:48. But can I hope for more than that? I don’t have any idea.
Mile 25 flattens out, and I feel the effects of the miles and miles of downhill, and the wind, and the heat. Sometime in the last ten miles, the clouds have dissipated, and the sun has come out. It’s not really all that hot – around 65 degrees at the finish – but combined with the wind, which is now directly in our face again, it’s not as comfortable as it was in the early miles. My split for mile 25 is 8:44, but it’s not the split that I see when I look at my watch – it’s the accumulated time of 3:33 and change.
Since I’ve had such a hard time doing mental math, I’ve finally figured that I would just add ten minutes to my mile 25 split and then have a good estimation of my finishing time. My mind tries this on, and when I come up with 3:43, I think Holy Shit! I hear Mick say I know you’re going to be fast. And I say to myself Run Judy Run!
This mile is harder than any other of the race. In a cruel twist, the final mile is uphill. I count steps and look for the yellow sign on the side of the road, but it doesn’t come and it doesn’t come and still it doesn’t come. I know that we will have a ninety-degree left-hand turn right before the finish, and every possible driveway seems like a false alarm. Finally, finally, just at the turn, there is the 26 mile sign. I capture a split of 9:18, and think that the 3:43 is out of the question, but then I see the finish sign much closer than it should be. Later, I’ll figure that the 26 mile sign was probably off by at least a tenth of a mile. But now, my thoughts are on that finish line. I’m in a sprint (my heart rate average for this stretch is my max heart rate - no wonder I feel like hurling), and I’m starting to let myself believe. Believe in the impossible, in the fantasy. I cross the finish in 3:43:47 – a PR of almost seven minutes.
I can hardly wait to call Mick, but it takes a while to get back to the rental car. Jay has finished about ten minutes in front of me, and I run into him and his family in the finish area. I’m so excited that I can hardly contain myself, and I tell anyone who even glances at me that I had a fabulous day. The beautiful thing is that everyone seems to be as happy for me as I am for myself.
When I finally get to call Mick, he says, “See, I knew you would be fast today!” And for once, I don’t say, oh no, I’m slow. Today, I believe. Today, I am fast.
For my birthday, a few weeks ago, a friend gave me a gold-colored gift, because, she said, I had entered the Golden Years. I wasn’t so sure how I felt about that. Is Golden Years just a euphemism for old and decrepit? Today, this race, this thing that was too good to be true, too good to even be a dream, has changed me. If this is the beginning of the Golden Years, then Wow! Maybe there are more great things in store. Running anything faster than 3:48 or 3:49 was always tucked away in the back of my brain, just like the fantasies of winning the lottery. Something that you might dream about, but not really believe in. But now, maybe it’s time to re-think all those fantasies that live in the back of my brain. Maybe they are not all quite as far-fetched as they once seemed.
And maybe it’s time to buy a lottery ticket.