Thursday, July 05, 2007

Mount Evans Ascent 2007

It’s been a few years since I last ran the Mount Evans Ascent. The last time I ran it, it started out as a nice June day, but turned into a raging blizzard above 12,000 feet. I was on pace for a PR on the course on that particular day, but after the snow started to fall and swirl and it became complete whiteout conditions, I felt lucky just to finish the race. (Just one runner finished after me that year, before they closed the race, so I truly was lucky to finish the race.)

That race was in 2003, and while, for some perverse reason, I’ve always liked this race, I have not been back since. In 2004 the race was not held, and then for the last two years, the race has fallen on the same day as the registration for Ride the Rockies. But this year, RTR is a loop route, beginning and ending in Frisco. An easy drive from Denver. And Mount Evans is right on the way. What could be more natural than fitting in a little run on the day before the big ride begins?

It’s all good in the planning stages, but the reality sets in at about 7 p.m. on Friday night, when I am still sitting at my desk, working, while at the same time starting to panic about all the things I have to do before (theoretically) getting to bed early so that I’m well rested for the race start. Criminy – I have to prepare for a week on the bike, camping on the way, as well as for an epic run! Somehow, I manage to pull it altogether: get packed for RTR, get packed for Mount Evans, find some pasta for dinner, load up the car with the RTR camping gear, and make sure that my stuff is all ready for a very early up-and-at-‘em on Saturday morning.

Saturday morning is no nonsense for me – do not hit the snooze button, not even once. Up at the sound of the alarm, pre-marathon type meal even though I’m not at all hungry and have to choke down the food, feeding meds to my 16-year old cat Oliver (happy birthday, old grumpy!), and loading the bike and last few items onto and into my car before starting on the drive up to Echo Lake. I’m amazed that it goes as smoothly as it does. I arrive and quickly find a place to park, hike the mile or so from parking up to race start area, and pick up my bib and chip (first time for me that this race has been chip timed). There’s plenty of time for regular pre-race nervous activity – slathering on sunscreen, going thru the port-a-potty line eighteen times, taking a small glass of water, and eyeing the other runners. As we line up for the race start just before 8 a.m., I overhear a conversation between some of the rank-and-file guys and Anita Ortiz. I’ve seen Anita’s name time and again over the last few years – she’s a legendary Colorado trail/high altitude runner – but have never really seen her in person before. Kinda cool to start a race behind a local legend. She’s unassuming and, if you didn’t know her bio, you might never pick her as the favorite to win the women’s race (she finishes second woman – and fifth overall – how’s that for some serious competition).

Ah then, the race takes off. Uphill. All uphill. How could I have forgotten? What was I thinking? This thing is nothing other than a sufferfest.

It’s a sufferfest from the get-go, and never relents. In the last few years, they’ve increased the capacity in this race a bit, but the only relevance of that fact for me is that it just means there are more people on the road to pass me. And pass me they do.

It takes a long time for the field to make its way around me. It feels like the entire city of Denver has gone by. This is not a surprise, though, since I feel just like a complete slug. Huh. Maybe the Fargo/Deadwood combo in three weeks – with Deadwood just two weeks ago – really did take something out of my legs. Who woulda thunk it?

In case you missed the previews, this race starts at Echo Lake, at an elevation of around 10,000 feet, and goes up 14.5 miles on the Mount Evans highway to an elevation of 14,000-something. This road is billed as the Highest Paved Road in North America. And the uphill on this Highest Paved Road is just relentless.

Ah, race amnesia. It’s a glorious thing. If I had not completely forgotten how painful this race is, I might not have paid good hard-earned U.S. greenbacks to enter the thing. Today, however, race amnesia is a thing of the past. Today, it’s just all a slow crawl up the hill.

So I do the only thing I can: I just run. Slowly, but I do run. There are only four aid stations on this race, and the first one comes at mile 3. I pride myself in running the entire way to mile 3 – and then taking a gel and some water at the aid station, walking as long as I can rationalize it – but later wonder if I’ve been a complete fool. Maybe I should have taken some walk breaks earlier.

After the mile 3 aid station, I finally start to run again. I’m slow. It’s uphill. It’s a grind. But I do manage to pass a couple of people. (How many passed me? Let’s not go there.) When I trudge around others, people ask me if I’ve done this before. Yes, I answer, several times. These folks all look at me like I’m looney-tunes. I get the impression that they will not be signing up again next year.

I manage to run (if you can call it that) the rest of the way to the mile 6 aid station. At mile 6, once again I take a gel and walk through the aid station as I drink a cup of water. Still slow, still shuffling along. But I do remember this road, this course, and I know what to expect. It’s a small comfort.

Part of the small comfort comes from knowing that mile 7 flattens out a bit – at least marginally. So far, it’s been a perfect day, weather wise. Nice 50-something temps and cloudless skies at the start. But we’re at high elevation, and the weather is bound to deteriorate as we climb the mountain. Now at mile 7, I’m starting to get chilled. I put on my gloves, but it’s not enough, so I put on my jacket, too. Ah, perfect.

But then mile 8 climbs again, and I start to get overheated. I end up taking off the gloves and the jacket again, and stowing them in my camelback. Another excuse to stop and walk.

As I watch my Garmin, it becomes clear to me that I can walk faster than I can run. Weird. But hey, who am I to argue with Garmin? Walking feels better, too, so why put myself through the grief of running?

Well, the fact that mile 9 is mostly downhill is the one good reason that I come across to run again. I force myself to run this, and to run it hard. “Hard” is a relative concept, and although I’m not really going that fast, the effort feels gargantuan to me. Still, it feels good to finally be covering some tracks in this race.

Having been here before, one of the motivators for running mile 9 hard is that I know that the steepest part of the race awaits me. Nope, this section has not (magically) gotten flatter over the last few years. As soon as we start steeply uphill, I start to walk. Why fight it? Garmin tells me that I’m running 17+ minute miles, but am walking 15-16 minute miles. Walking feels easier. Why try to make sense of it all?

There’s another brief downhill at mile 11, and I force myself to run here again. As soon as it starts uphill again, though, I’m walking. It’s getting cool again, so once again, the jacket and the gloves go on. I’ve tried the run-walk thing for the last few miles, but I have not been able to find a rhythm. Now, I try to keep some momentum by not watching the clock, and just counting strides, and that finally seems to work. Count to 25 walking, then count to 25 running, and then walk again. Perhaps not documented as a race strategy in any of the running literature, but in the high altitude, twisting, winding switchbacks on Mount Evans, this strategy seems to work for me. Pretty soon, I’m passing people, and very few pass me in return. It’s too late in the day to have a big impact on my overall finish in the race, but at least this way I feel good as I turn those last few corners and power my way across the finish line in a time of 3:35:59. It’s a full five minutes slower than my previous slowest time in this race, but I’ll take it. Some days it’s good just to finish.

The oddest thing of all about these uphill races is that as soon as you pass the finish line, you end up back in line, waiting to get into a shuttle that will take you down the mountain, negating all that work you just did to get up high. But that’s okay – it always is. It’s always cold up here at 14,000 feet, and today the weather is turning. By the time you get to the summit, you’re ready to turn around and get back to lower altitude.

In the shuttle on the way back down to the start, I’m greeted by views that I failed to notice while crawling my way to the top. The clouds have moved in, and there’s a lightning strike on a nearby rock outcrop. Over here, there’s a herd of mountain goats, and over there, a bunch of long-horned sheep. The views out east to Denver are amazing, and to the west, to the Continental Divide, it’s spectacular. The dropoff down to Lincoln Lake is, as always, scary, but then the trip through the thousands-of-years-old bristlecone pines is gone in a flash. At first, it seems like a long ride down, but then, magically, they’re dropping us at our cars. If it weren’t for the medal around my neck and the lead feeling in my legs and the sweat crystallizing on my body, I might not even know that I ran a race this morning.

And what of it, anyway? I need to get to Frisco to get registered for a little bike ride that starts tomorrow morning.

Friday, June 15, 2007

One Dakota, Two Dakota (Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon)

It’s been a few days since I completed a marathon in my 24th state – the Fargo Marathon. It was a relatively good marathon, as far as 26.2 milers go, and I really enjoyed the weekend, but the truth is that I’m jonesing to get to 50% on the “states completed” tally. And since I don’t have any marathons on my calendar until the fall, it’s starting to feel like a long, long time before I will hit that magical point. And that’s just too far in the future for me to handle.

So I do a bit of research on, and find the Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon, conveniently scheduled for June 3rd. But before I can do anything with this new information, my friend Michele tells me that this is a race that fills up quickly, so I’m probably too late. That’s okay, I figure, because on this weekend, I really should be up in Aspen helping Mick put the finishing touches on his mayoral campaign before the runoff election on June 5. Plus, it’s a highly intense time at work, so if I don’t go to Aspen to help Mick, I should stay home and regroup from this last week at work and prepare for the next week or two. There are a million other things going on: symphony tickets, a need to ride my bike to prepare for Ride the Rockies, and a need to practice piano to get ready for a performance with my quartet next Wednesday. What am I doing even thinking about a marathon that weekend?

But then my friend Denise asks me what I’m running next, and I go through the “I’d like to do Deadwood, but it doesn’t make sense, blah blah” routine, and she raises her eyebrows. Dense is one of my oldest and best friends. I know that look she gives me like I know the back of my hand. And suddenly, it’s clear, absolutely no room for doubt. It’s gonna be a road trip!

Once that decision is made, everything else falls into place. The marathon is, indeed, still taking entries. Luckily, I’m able to book us into the last remaining non-smoking hotel room in Deadwood. Another friend offers to buy my symphony tickets so that they don’t go to waste, and Mick assures me that he has plenty of volunteers to campaign for him. Work can always wait. And with that, Denise and I take off on our road trip precisely at 5 p.m. on Friday.

Denise has always been the best provisioner around, and on this trip she doesn’t disappoint. She shows up at my place with a cooler full of Wild Oats food and more snack foods for the road. We drive out of Denver while getting our complaints about our jobs and life-in-general out of our systems, and then Denise breaks out the trail mix, and then the chips. Ah, it’s good to be on a road trip with the all the right food! Back in our college days, we would have had Ruffles and Miller Lite instead of the Mediterranean gourmet veggie chips and Fiji bottled water of 2007, but the spirit is still the same. And it’s all good.

It takes no time at all before we’re in Wyoming, and we start to spot the antelope. Soon we’re commenting that it seems there are far more antelope in Wyoming than there are people (or cars, for that matter). We make a pit stop in Wheatland, WY, just 169 miles from home; other than Chugwater, it doesn’t look like much else between here and South Dakota. As I wait for Denise in the convenience store attached to the gas station where we’ve stopped, I glance through the selection of books on display. And there’s the oddest thing: a book titled “Gotta Run: Life is a Marathon…so Double Tie Your Shoes” by Elaine Doll-Dunn. A week or two ago, I wouldn’t have recognized this name, but now I know it all too well; Elaine is the wife of Jerry Dunn, the Race Director of this weekend’s marathon.

Now, what’s a book by a marathoner about marathoning doing in a gas station off I-25 in the middle of Wyoming?

I’m a sucker for books about running, and I’m about ready to plunk down my $9.95 for the book, when Denise points out that all the copies of the thin paperback have dirt on the covers. I consider for a moment. If they have the book here (still almost 250 miles from Deadwood), certainly I’ll be able to pick up a copy at the expo and have the author autograph it? So I skip the purchase, and we hit the road again.

Denise takes over the wheel at this stop, so I get to admire the sweeping views of distant mountain ranges, and follow along in the atlas (one of my favorite things to do in this world) as we cross the North Platte. We watch a beautiful sunset in the west, and watch for the expected full moon in the east, but it never really appears: too many clouds. The clouds have made a glowing sunset, but they do not bode well for the rest of the drive. As we head into South Dakota, it starts to rain. And rain. And then rain some more. The roads are hilly and twisty and the lighting is terrible. It takes us 7+ hours to get to Deadwood, and it’s still raining as we check into the motel. But we have arrived with the cooler of food for a late, light dinner (thanks to Denise) and a bottle of wine to share (my solitary contribution), and we finally relax. No more work, no more worries, just a road trip between two old friends. I think that no matter what the race is like on Sunday morning, this is going to be a fabulous weekend.

Saturday is leisurely, relaxed, fun. We sleep in just a tad, and then find the one restaurant in town that is not more casino than restaurant for a late breakfast. We spend the afternoon on a pilgrimage to the Crazy Horse Monument, which is well worth the 55 mile trip (each way) to see. I’ve been to the Black Hills a couple of times before – once on a family vacation when I was about 14 years old, and then again when I was in college, on a camping trip with two of my brothers and a couple of our friends. The highlight of both of those previous visits was Crazy Horse, and it remains the same this trip. The monumental legacy to the Lakota chief that is being constructed on Thunderhead Mountain amazes me as much today as it did back in 19-uh-something-too-long-ago-to-confess-to. Denise has a strong affiliation with Native American cultures, and I think that this visit to Crazy Horse – her first – makes the entire weekend worthwhile to her.

Sunday morning finds me first on a trolley from the hotel to the rodeo grounds, and then on a shuttle bus to the race start in the tiny village of Rochford. This marathon is a point to point race (my favorite kind), and we will finish back in Deadwood, very near my hotel. I make a couple of friends on the bus ride to Rochford, and the hour-plus wait for the race start in the cool temps at an elevation of around 6000’ goes quickly as we compare notes about marathons we’ve run or plan to run. Before you know it, we’re lining up on the road outside the quaint, picturesque chapel (now why didn’t I bring my camera out here? Some races just beg you to carry a camera along the way.), and the race director is counting down the minutes and seconds for the race start. Ten, nine, eight….

This is a chip timed race, and we take off across the chipmat, down a fairly steep paved road. We run downhill through the rest of this tiny burg, where there are a few faithful fans out to cheer us on. The sun has emerged as we’ve started to run, and I feel overheated almost immediately. And I mean immediately! Although I’ve been shivering like crazy while waiting for the race start, I now take off my throwaway shirt and toss it off to the side of the road. I check my watch. Two and a half minutes have elapsed.

This is a great race start, especially if you like downhill running as much as I do. I know that we turn uphill soon, so I try to make the most of this downhill stretch. The road is nice and smooth, but soon turns to dirt; there’s mile marker #1. I hit my split button and smile: 8:25. Woohoo – what a start! And I thought this would be a slow marathon!

Soon I’m noticing a mountain bike riding towards us, and then some runners, and it finally hits me that we’re doing a short out and back, and these people are the race leaders. Very cool. Since this is a small race, I decide to count the women to see how many are in front of me, and I come up with a total of around thirty when I hit the cone that signifies the turnaround spot. Not bad, I think. I don’t really have any idea how many total runners – let along total women – there are in this race, but I file that number away for future reference.

We do a short return trip up the road, and then we head onto the Mickelson Trail, where we’ll spend almost all of the remainder of this race. The trail is a lovely crushed limestone and gravel trail, constructed out of an old railbed. It’s a Rails-to-Trails project, and it’s a beautiful concept: take an old railway right-of-way, and build a multi-use trail on it. This trail was created from the old Burlington Northern line that originally took passengers and freight 110 miles along the Black Hills, culminating at the gold mining cities of Deadwood and Lead. The railway abandoned the line in 1983, and some visionary South Dakotans worked hard to obtain funding to build this beautiful trail that was opened in 1998. Today, the line is a mixed-use trail with more than 100 old railway bridges and 4 hard-rock tunnels (we’ll only pass through one of the tunnels today). After we join the trail, almost the entire length of this marathon will be on the trail.

It’s a beautiful trail. The crushed limestone makes a nice, smooth surface for running, and it’s just wide enough to accommodate several people. Already by the time we reach the trail, the field is spreading out, so it’s never crowded. The sun is starting a game of peek-a-boo with the clouds that will continue for the rest of the day, and it’s a picture perfect day for a nice long run in a most spectacular setting.

These are my thoughts, anyway, as we start out along the trail. Because the trail is built on the old rail bed, it’s a very steady grade, but an uphill grade it is until just past the halfway point. If you haven’t been paying attention, let me spell it out: that means about 12.5 miles of relentless uphill. It’s never steep – probably around 2% to start out with, reaching a maximum grade of 4% - but it’s the relentlessness that grinds away at your momentum.

The other thing that grinds away at momentum is the relentless wind. Early in the day, I take stock of the differences between my two Dakota experiences. One race is flat as flat can be, the other nothing but straight uphill or downhill. One race is set in a very conservative, religious community, and the other finishes in a wild west town with a history steeped in the lore of folks like Wild Bill Hickok, and today filled with nothing but casinos. One is a loop race, the other a point to point. One is a traditional urban race with a relatively large number of fans spread across asphalt and concrete corridors, and the other a wilderness experience on an old rail bed. The contrast couldn’t be more stark.

But there is one thing that the two Dakota races have in common, and that thing is pure and simple and relentless as the day is long: the wind. As soon as we’re running on the trail, the wind is directly in our face. It is an in-your-face, stop-you-in-your-tracks kind of wind. Later I’ll look up the weather statistics for the day, and the Deadwood history will say that the wind averages just 10 mph on the morning of this marathon. To this I respond: weather reporters lie.

For the wind is the big topic for the next 10 or so miles. It is absolutely relentless. Everything else about this run is perfect. The setting could not be more beautiful. If you’ve ever watched western movies about the Old West, with picturesque scenes of steam trains making languorous sweeping arcs through the most beautiful mountainous wilderness imaginable, you can picture my day. That’s what the scenery is like today, all day long. The trail spreads out in front, in those long lovely arcs, and the colors of runners ‘clothing sweeps out in front of me like a train. The obligatory babbling brook next to the railway. The tall pines and the tender green of aspens and new grass. The picture perfect blue skies with huge billowy clouds. I cannot imagine a more perfect setting for a long run.

Except – for the wind. Early on, a big, tall guy and I change places multiple times, until I finally fall in step behind him. My mama didn’t raise a complete idiot, and although it takes me a few changes of place, I finally recognize that I can use this guy as my wind block. In turn, Big Guy #1 falls in line behind a couple of other pretty-good sized guys who act as wind screen to him. We’re actually starting to build a pretty good little train when one of the leading guys steps over to the side of the trail and turns around to snarl at my Big Guy #1: “Find someone else to draft off!”

Wow. I thought we were one big happy group here. Big Guy #1 ends up in the lead of our little group, and I hustle to catch up and run next to him for a few steps. “I’ve been drafting off you – do you mind?” Suddenly I’m afraid that Big Guy will relay the rudeness on down the line. But no, he’s a nice guy, very friendly, with an unexpected British accent. “Not at all – after all, I drafted off you back there.” (I hadn’t even noticed.) It turns out that we’ve built a nice little train, and we all start talking amongst ourselves, and the other big (tall, broad, or both) guys in our group of about 5-7 runners all say “sure, no problem, I’m happy to let you draft off me”. There’s another woman in our midst, but she’s a shrimp – probably 5’2” in heels – and she apologizes for not being able to provide a wind block herself. The guys are all cool with the arrangement, and it helps the early miles – from 2 to 10, roughly – go by quickly. It’s not like me to run in a group, but I enjoy this immensely.

Besides battling the wind together, we take pleasure in grumbling about the mile markers. The first mile marker seemed to be perfectly placed – I crossed it in 8:25 – but after that it’s been crazy. I started looking for the mile 2 marker around 8 minutes into my second mile; the marker appeared at exactly 15 minutes. I know we’re heading uphill now, but 15 minutes would mean I’m walking! After this, the markers are fairly steady, but I’m not trustful of them. For the first time in many marathons, I find myself wishing that I had worn my Garmin.

After ten miles or so, we lose the blocking guys, and Denise – the short, petite woman – and I continue on together. This Denise, from somewhere near Chicago, is chatty, and we keep a steady pace even though it feels like we’re slowing as we approach the summit. It’s a disappointment to lose our windblocks, but it also feels like the wind is losing power as the day wears on. Denise chats, I run, and together we approach the halfway point of this race.

Mile 12 is the slowest of the day – 10:59 by my watch. That, of course, doesn’t factor in the 15-minute second mile. Mile 13 makes up for Mile 2 – the mile marker comes up when my watch reads 4:58. While I would dearly love to believe that I’m capable of running a sub-5 minute mile, I just can’t bring myself to believe that I’ve done that while running uphill on a soft trail at around 6000+ feet of elevation halfway through a marathon. The all-too-pedestrian rationale is that the second and thirteenth mile markers were both screwed up. The good news it that maybe this means that we’re now back on track.

I take off at the halfway point, and try to pick up the pace. Chicago Denise quickly becomes a memory. I’m not consciously trying to ditch her, but I am consciously trying to pick up the pace now that I’m heading downhill. And what a thrill this turns out to be!

From about mile 13.8 or so to the finish, the course is nearly all downhill. On the uphill side, you knew that you were climbing because the babbling brook at your side was flowing in the other direction. On this last downhill section, there’s no doubt that you’re heading downhill: the new babbling brook is racing you down the hill.

This is a joy. Running downhill on smooth surfaces can’t be anything other than a joy. I start passing people, and I am having a grand old time. The views are still spectacular, a bit more wooded now, and still lots of tender springtime green. But I’m not much looking at scenery, I’m running all out.

I start to wonder when I’ll see my friend Denise. When we looked at our very inadequate map, we could only identify a few trailheads that seemed accessible by car, and they all fell in the second half of the race. The first half of the run has proved that the map we had was just not detailed enough; there have been a number of road crossings and relay exchange points that just weren’t noted on our plat. But that’s okay; I was nearly always running with others in the first half, and didn’t need the surge that you get from having a friend meet you on the course. As the miles wear away, I start to really hope to see Denise.

Finally, nearing an aid station around mile 17, I hear a sound that tells me that Denise is here. Last night, while we walked around the souvenir and gift shops in Deadwood, Denise bought a jingle bell thingy from the leather store, and often today I’ve imagined that I’ve heard those bells. But until now, it’s only been my imagination. At long last, I know I’m not imagining sounds any longer, as the bells jingle brightly. It takes me longer to find her in the small group that’s gathered at this trailhead to cheer us on – something about staring at a trail for so long makes it hard to pick out individual shapes on the sidelines – but there she is! We shout at each other, and Denise, ever the organizer, yells “Gloves?” to which I respond by throwing her my wadded up gloves. I have not needed them for a long time, so it’s nice to have a chance to complete this pre-arranged hand-off.

Seeing Denise jazzes me, and I’m having even more fun now. The course continues down and down, a gentle grade, but immensely fun to run. I start to realize that my quads are taking a pounding, and even though this is a trail marathon, I’ll probably be sore tomorrow. I figure I’ll worry about that tomorrow, and I look at my heart rate, and I pour it on.

People have told me that the entire second half of this run is downhill, and now I learn that people have lied. Somewhere between miles 18 and 19, the course flattens out. It feels like we’re going uphill again, but I’m really not sure about that. Flat is pretty cruel and deceptive after a nice sprint of 4 or 5 miles of pure downhill.

Other than making my legs feel dead, the real problem with the flat section is mud. A little mud at first – a water puddle here and there – and a bit more mud down the trail a bit. And then serious, long stretches of mud, where you finally have to give up the tip-toeing, pansy-assed approach of trying to stay dry by skirting the mud, and if you really want to continue racing, you just plow through the muck. It’s frustrating at first to hit the mud, but when I finally figure out that my lily-white shoes are no longer pristine and that I should quit acting like a priss, it becomes fun again. There are definitely two kinds of runners out here: the ones picking their way slowly around the mud, running and walking off on the side of the trail, and those of us whose lower quadrants are quickly covered in mud because we’re just plowing ahead.

Somewhere in that 19th or 20th mile, we leave the trail briefly, and plummet down a short but steep jeep road. It’s all wet and muddy, and I have a great time plowing through the middle of the muck as I pass a woman picking her way carefully down the side of the path. Cowabunga!

Finally, after this stretch, we reconnect with the trail, and return to the nice easy downhill grade. The trail dries out again, and soon we’re getting into high mileage. As we approach another aid station, I hear the unmistakeable jingle bells, and there’s Denise, cheering and jingling again. I holler out “only 6 left to go” and she just smiles and laughs at me.

It’s a blur from here to the finish. All downhill, all soft and – thankfully – smooth, dry trail, and a blur of people who are suffering in these last miles. In this second half, I’ve started to count the women I’m passing. Now I think I might be in the top 30, now in the top 25. I keep looking for women to pass, but as I near the finish, it gets harder and harder to catch up to people. In this stretch, we do catch up with the half marathon walkers; most of these folks are moving like snails. It’s getting warmer, but it’s still nice running weather, and I just keep trucking. The trail is flirting with civilization here, and we criss-cross the paved road multiple times. That means I also have one of those “I recognize that car” moments, just before I realize that it’s Denise driving down the road, waving and honking at me; from here to the finish, I’ll see her a number of times as she occasionally pulls off the road to cheer or take a photo.

Now we’re back in Deadwood, and there’s our hotel, and I know the finish is a short way ahead. What a glorious run! The finish line comes up out of nowhere, and I cross it triumphantly, in a time of 4:16:19. State #25 in the bag! Jerry Dunn, the RD, is there at the finish line, greeting each and every runner as we cross the line. When I throw my arms into the air for my Rocky pose, Jerry smiles at me and comes running up to give me a high five. It’s a grand moment in marathon finishes. Maybe not a fast one, but a grand one indeed.

Denise catches up to me in the finish area, where I’m downing liquids like crazy. Together, we get a chance to meet the RD’s wife, Elaine Doll-Dunn, and we tell her about spotting her book in Wyoming, but not in Deadwood. A very gracious lady, she promises to send us each copies. That’s almost as good as the age group award that I receive for my 2nd place finish in my AG: a railroad spike, painted with the race name and year, along with the age group and place. (Not only have I finished in the top 30 women, my ultimate place is 21st out of 108 women. For a relatively slow day, that seems like a pretty good outcome.) What a cool souvenir to take home.

When we leave the race finish area, we have just a few minutes to vacate the room before our late checkout time expires. I take the world’s fastest shower, and then we head back to the Hickok House for a perfect late breakfast. Then back on the road, and a quick six hour trip back to Denver. What a lovely day, and a lovely drive. Those hills that were too dark and rainy for us on Friday night turn out to be beautiful small mountains, and we Iowans-turned-Coloradoans feel right at home. We watch an eagle soar above us, following the road, and then we’re quickly back in Wyoming. Today, we question whether there are more antelope or coal cars in the state? No matter. It’s a glorious drive, perfect weather, easy cruising. One more road trip, and then back home again.

Fargo. You Betcha.

The first thing you notice when you exit the Fargo Airport is the flatness of the landscape. As far as the eye can see, not the slightest hint of elevation change. And so you take another step away from the terminal building, just to confirm this view, and the second thing you notice in Fargo almost knocks you over. It is, of course, the wind. Pure and unadulterated, the wind comes zinging across the great plains, nothing to slow it down from the continental divide in Montana, something like a thousand miles to the west.

What’s left – the thing that you don’t notice when exiting the airport – is the welcoming Midwestern spirit, and the habit of local folks to smile and greet you warmly into their city. But wait a minute – I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s the story of the entire weekend!

This is the 24th state in my quest to run a marathon in each of the 50 states. To tell the truth, I’ve kind of been dreading Fargo. I mean, get real. Taking vacation time and incurring the expense to spend a weekend in Fargo? My friends and family are going to places like Tortola and Tahiti and Ticino, Italy. I’m burning vacation to visit Fargo. Oh boy. What’s wrong with this picture?

But my friend Michele, also on the 50 state marathon hunt, decides to run Fargo this year, so it seems like the perfect opportunity to check off the state and spend a weekend with a friend. When we first start talking about this weekend, more folks from our running community express an interest in joining us. Oddly (?), they all back out before race weekend.

But it never turns out to be as simple as just two runners arriving in a distant city (strike that, it’s really just a big small town) to run a marathon. When I board the (small) plane in Denver, I immediately find it packed with other marathoners. There’s the guy in a seat in the row behind me, wearing a Boston Marathon t-shirt. And the guy and his wife across the aisle, both wearing 50 States Club gear. Before they’ve even closed the doors of the plane, I have many new friends. That’s the beauty of this sport and this crazy quest.

Other than the flatness and the wind, the other major thing that hits me when I walk out of the airport in Fargo is the heat and humidity. It’s 83 degrees, and only 1 p.m. Good Lord, I think to myself. This is going to be yet another heatfest and meltdown. I crank up the air conditioning in the rental car and pray for cooler weather.

Michele arrives a few hours later, and after getting all of our junk situated in our hotel room, we head over to the FargoDome, which is command central for all events this weekend. It’s really a nice venue, and it makes all things related to the race easy. Plenty of parking, easy access, and everything located in one central place. Today – Friday, May 18 – that means packet pickup, expo (smallish, but with a really impressive large Adidas-Sheels (the sponsors of the race) booth where you can find anything and everything you might need for running), pasta dinner, and pace group booth. The pace group booth is significant because Michele has agreed to pace the 4:15 group, and will work the booth after we slurp down our spaghetti. The pasta dinner is on the floor of the FargoDome, and features pretty decent pasta served with a side of lefsa (a first for me, and quite yummy), along with the speakers for the evening: Bart Yasso and Dick Beardsley. Wow. Two icons in the running world, and both here in Fargo.

After the speakers, Michele stays on at the expo to work the booth, and I head back to the hotel on my own. As I exit the FargoDome around 8 p.m., I’m surprised and disappointed to find that the temperature outside has not dropped at all. Still way too warm for this time of year. But there are crocodile tear sized raindrops just starting to hit the toasty tarmac, so I trot over to the rental car to avoid getting soaked. Maybe there’s some hope for this race, yet.

It starts to storm in earnest after I’m safely ensconced back in the hotel room. We’re staying at the Radisson in downtown Fargo – just a mile or two from the FargoDome – and several people have already informed us that it’s the tallest building in the Fargo area. Our room is on the 7th floor, with great picture windows looking out east across the Red River into Moorhead, Minnesota. I pull back the window coverings to watch the thunderstorm that’s developing outside. It’s quite spectacular. Then I turn on the TV, and the first thing across the screen is a “Tornado Warning” message. I’m fascinated by the electrical storm outside and can’t seem to move away from the window, no matter how foolish that seems. Tornado or no, this is a great show. I pray, once again, for cooler temps in the morning. Michele arrives back at the room a bit later, and we both fall asleep to a fantastic electrical storm going on all around us.

The hotel has advertised a shuttle to the FargoDome, but Michele and I decide to risk the drive over in the morning. We’re up early and consume our coffee and bagels. It’s no longer raining outside, and it looks gray and cloudy. Depressing weather on a normal day, but a good omen on race days. After packing up tons of warm gear to take with us to the start, we head out the door. Holy moses! Not only has the temperature dropped from yesterday’s 80-some degrees, it’s gotten downright cold.

And windy. The wind is howling like crazy, straight out of the north. Our drive to the race start is easy, and we park just a few steps away from the FargoDome entrance. What a Godsend – a warm indoor place to wait, with plenty of room – and indoor flush toilets! – for everyone. When we head outdoors for the start of the race, the wind is blowing as ferociously as ever. At the start line, they have one of the biggest U.S. flags that I’ve ever seen, suspended between two cherry-pickers. The flag is completely horizontal throughout the pre-race ceremonies. The only good thing about this wind is that the course – a loop that goes mostly south for 9 miles, then turns north until around 23 miles before finding its way back to the FargoDome – gives us a tailwind to start out with. I try to put thoughts of the headwind that awaits us out of my mind. Maybe the wind will die by then?

After a nice invocation by a local clergyman (not a norm at races, but it turns out that Fargo is a pretty religious community, if we can judge by the large number of well tended churches in town and the fact that the race is not just coincidentally on a Saturday rather than a Sunday), followed by renditions of both O Canada and the Star Spangled Banner, along with a flyover by a military chopper, the race starts pretty much on time at 8 a.m.. The race organization at the start, like pretty much everything else this weekend, is superb, and it seems that most people are lined up on the street in their appropriate pace group spots. I’ve lined up near the 3:50 group – mostly because I’ve gotten to chat a bit with the pace group leader, through the Michele connection – but they take off straight out of the chute quite a bit faster than me. I’m left to chug along this concrete stretch of roadway on my own.

But it turns out that in the Fargo Marathon, you are not truly ever on your own. That is the biggest surprise – and certainly the biggest delight – of this marathon in this big little town in the upper Midwest. The race itself draws something like 9000 runners – between the marathon, marathon relay, half marathon, and 5k. It’s a nice size for a race on these city streets. Not too big, not too little. Not too crowded at the start, but never lonely in the 26 miles before the finish. In fact, just right.

The race starter tells us, just before the gun goes off, that there will be something like 50 different groups entertaining us on the course today. This is another surprise, and it’s another one of the little delights of this first class event. Within the first few miles, we’ve passed a local rock band belting out a very decent rendition of “Mustang Sally” (“You been running all over town now…”), another band playing a nice “Brown-Eyed Girl”, and several more smaller garage bands. A few miles further on, there’s a brass trio – all silver-haired guys – playing a rousing “On Wisconsin”, and when we pass the Art Museum just outside of downtown Fargo, the local high school band is just finishing the final bars of the theme to “Rocky” – and they’re good!

In the stretches without live music, more people than imaginable have lugged out boomboxes and stereo speakers and are blasting out music. And more people than imaginable are standing or sitting at the foot of their driveways, wearing winter coats or wrapped up in blankets. These intrepid race fans are out with cowbells and noisemakers and handclappers and just about anything you can imagine. There are garbage can lid cymbals and bike fork triangles (outside a bike shop in the downtown area). Every one in town seems to have caught marathon fever.

The miles click on by. We run south from the FargoDome, but this race course turns and twists along the way. A block or two this way, a block or two that, always heading virtually south. Along a stretch of roadway just south of downtown designated as “the historic 8th avenue district”, we encounter the Midwest version of Wellesley College. The people are out in amazing numbers, and the music and applause is incredible. The local gymnastics club has a huge banner at the side of the road, with kids doing gymnastics on the lawn and on a trampoline as we pass by. I get goosebumps running through this part of the course.

My day is starting to feel pretty good. Since it’s cold – 48 degrees at the start, and with the wind and clouds, it will only warm up to 53 degrees at the finish – it takes me a while to hit my groove. But each mile feels better and better, and I’m feeling pretty confident about the day as I watch my average time per mile drop over the first 9 miles to just at or under 9 minutes per mile. Since I’m starting to feel warmed up, I start to have visions of picking up the pace in the second half and running a nice negative split to bring this race in around 3:53 or 3:54.

But then mile 10 comes, and it’s a big wakeup call for everyone. In mile 10, we turn around and start heading back up north. Straight into the wind. My split for mile 9 is 8:53; my split for mile 10 is 9:24. Ouch. 31 seconds slowdown, and pretty much all wind. Kiss that “good day” feeling goodbye, and start to understand that this will be a day to just hold on and not fall off the edge of the earth.

The race organization is superb, and the mile markers are well placed and visible, and the aid stations are well stocked and are exactly where they are advertised to be. This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how many race directors can’t get this tiny little (but HUGE) detail right. The Fargo folks get it exactly right.

And now that we’re running in the middle, difficult, straight-into-the-wind miles, the race management helps out with a series of Burma shave-type trivia signs on the side of the road. What a delightful distraction. “Fish cough!” “Giraffes can lick their eyeballs.” “Turkeys run 20 mph.” “Pain is just weakness leaving your body.” And more. Some odd. Some funny. Some perfect for a marathoner. All of them perfect distractions.

And the city of Fargo does not disappoint during these tough middle miles. There’s a belly dancing troupe (although a couple of guys running near me say “I didn’t really need to see that”, and I understand why), and a square dancing group, and – how could it be a complete entertainment package without this – Elvis singing. There are shriners out with the requisite fezes and the new-to-me Miatas with shriner emblems on the doors. I guess the old golf carts had to give way to modern technology and prosperity sometime.

I pass through the halfway point in 1:58:50, slower than my first 9 miles indicated, but at this point, I’ve stopped thinking about overall time. I’m taking it one mile at a time, just trying to find ways to stay sheltered from the relentless but gusty wind. It’s impossible to make it a non-factor, but the reality is that we’re in town again and get some benefits from the surrounding buildings (when I’m not ducking behind big, tall guys for as long as I can). The course also zig-zags around enough to keep the wind from becoming completely demoralizing. The constant turns and jags on the course means that it’s not as fast as it might be, but it sure is a lifesaver in this wind.

Just after the halfway point, a relay runner falls onto my heel. Kris, as I learn her name, has run one full marathon and is training for her second. She decides to let me pace her through her 7-mile leg, and plants herself firmly on my tail, staying right there until just a hundred yards or so before her exchange point. She makes the hardest miles of the marathon evaporate. The benefits of having a running partner are tremendous. Kris remarks to me several times that I’m running a very steady pace, just a bit faster than she would run on her own, and do I mind her running in my shadow? Nope, not at all. It’s nice to have company on this part of the journey.

We cross the Red River, over into Moorhead, MN, and do a fun little loop through the pretty campus of Concordia College. Okay, some people think it’s fun, but it’s kind of a pain, since it twists back around itself tightly. Pretty campus, but not really a fast marathon route through it. The loop spits us out back onto the Troll Bridge (yes, there is really a troll on it!) after a few short miles, and we’re back onto the safe flat roads of Fargo. At the sounds of the relay exchange station at mile 20, Kris takes off in a mad sprint to her finish, telling me thanks, that’s the fastest 7 miles she’s ever run. No problem, Kris. Glad to have the company.

Now it’s just the 6.2 miles to the finish. On bad days, this is the part of the marathon that you dread. On good days, it’s the part that just can’t get here soon enough, because it’s so much fun. Today falls into a “pretty good day” class, and I’m looking forward to these miles. While it was nice to have Kris’s company for the last 7 miles, it’s really easier to run by myself – it’s easier to focus and to breathe and to push myself. So now, time to push.

We’re still going north, still battling that stupid wind, but the course is still flat, and now we’re passing through areas we ran through earlier today. I feel like I know this area, since these are streets that I’ve driven multiple times now, back and forth between the FargoDome and the hotel. My pace doesn’t pick up as much as I’d like, but there’s that wind. Will it never end? Will it ever be at our backs for a change?

Finally, we turn around and head south for a mile or two, and the wind is, blissfully, at our backs. We’re in a different, northern residential area, and there are still people out along the streets, cheering us, and more frequent aid stations, and still more and more locals out supporting the race. This is the thing that powers me on; this, and the knowledge that the finish is just up there, a few more miles.

I’m doing mental math, and I know that I can’t break 3:55 today, but I know I’ll be well under four hours. I keep hope for turning in a 3:55 even past the point of no return, but my splits – while the best of the entire day – just don’t have the extra oomph to cut off another minute. The race finish looms; it’s inside the FargoDome, and we have to run a half lap around the outside of the building before the course steers us onto the ramp that will take us down into the dome. There are loudspeakers outside, and as we approach the finish, you can hear the announcer calling out people’s names. It hasn’t been a stellar day for me, but a darn good one, and I’m looking forward to hearing my name as I approach the finish line. But I emerge into the Dome, and the announcer is prattling on about something else, and I cross the finish line. With a time of 3:56:49, it really is a pretty good day, all things told. But somehow the finish feels like a letdown.

The feeling of letdown lasts only a minute or two, and then the post-race activities take over. Volunteers hand me a medal and take the chip off my shoe, and I quickly find a cup of water and my checked bag with warm clothes. It stayed cool outside for the entire race – a Godsend of sorts – but it’s easy to get chilled once you stop running. It’s not long before Michele leads her 4:15 pace group across the finish line in a picture-perfect 4:15:02, and I’m there to greet them. Michele and I hustle over to the food tables where there’s a great post-race feed going on: spaghetti, bagels, yummy honey-wheat rolls, yogurt drinks, energy bars, and more. After gobbling down some spaghetti, we spy the true treats: hand-dipped ice cream (many flavors) and cookies! Wow!

We stand in line for the free massages, and they are well worth the wait – not to mention that we have a grand time chatting with all the other marathoners while on line. A check of online results before we leave the Dome gives the unexpected message that I’ve finished 3rd in my age group, so we hustle back to the hotel for quick showers so that we can get back to the Dome in time for the awards ceremony. It turns out to be for naught, as the awards only go to the overall winners, but somehow, that’s okay. We’re immersed in the culture of the day, sitting in chairs in the center of the FargoDome, watching as volunteers start to tear down the finish line area.

In a few short hours, the FargoDome will be back to normal, and there won’t be any signs that nearly 9000 runners finished their respective races here today. The signs are coming down around town, and the locals will all go home, with us “foreigners” following them on Sunday morning. We’ll take our cool running shirts and our cool Adidas race bags and our crinkled bibs home, ready for the laundry and the scrapbook. But mostly, we’ll take home a memory that we weren’t really prepared for, a memory of all the people in a big little town who came out to support a crazy race on a crazy blustery day in May. As I board the plane for Denver Sunday afternoon, I’ll think of a sign in a yard in the last mile or two of the race on Saturday: “Thank you runners for coming to run in our city”, and I’ll think, “No, thank you Fargo for inviting us.”

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Not too bad (Boston Marathon 2007)

For five years, I’ve tried to break the four hour mark in the Boston Marathon. For five years, I’ve failed. Each time that I’ve fallen short of my goal, I’ve been upset, but I’ve tried to tell myself that in the grand scheme of things, it’s not all that bad. After all, I’ve qualified for and run the oldest and grandest marathon in the world – five times in a row! All things being equal, a four hour plus marathon at Boston is really not all that bad.

But the reality is that it’s bugged me. And bugged me. And bugged me. So, just a few weeks after the 2006 Boston Marathon – at which time, I had declared that it was time to take a year or two off from Boston, and then reconsider my goals again in the future – I decide that I need to go for it again in 2007. I figure that I’ve been carrying the four hour monkey for a long time, and I’d like to get it off my shoulders. And so the entry goes on the calendar, and my credit card gets charged, and – finally – I make my travel arrangements.

The travel arrangements almost keep me home this year. Mick has come with me to every Boston, and I’ve grown spoiled by seeing him near the 16-mile marker, not to mention having him chauffeur me to the start in Hopkinton every year. But this year, he’s deep into a political contest, and months before the race it hits me that I cannot even think about asking him to accompany me to Beantown. With no idea about where to stay there on my own, I email my Taper Madness friend Shelagh, since I know she’s going to Boston again this year. Where will you stay? Shelagh tells me that she and a couple of her running friends from Victoria are sharing an apartment on Beacon Hill, and then – to my eternal surprise and delight – invites me to stay with them. Travel problem solved, in a most delightful way.

But the travel challenge really doesn’t go away completely. Late in the game, I end up with a business trip to New Jersey the week before the marathon. At first, I think this won’t be too bad, but when I get lost leaving Newark Airport after midnight Wednesday night, I think I might have been wrong. I get lost another time or too before I finally get to my room at the Marriott in Somerset, NJ, so it’s after 2 a.m. when I start to unpack. But when I fall into the wonderful bed with fresh, fancy linens, including a down comforter, just before dozing off at the insane hour, I think that this isn’t too bad at all.

My colleagues at work warn me that the drive from Piscataway, NJ, to JFK Airport might be horrible, so I leave early Friday afternoon. As it turns out, the drive is not bad at all. My flight is delayed, but I take the chance to sleep on the plane. I find one of my roommates for the long weekend – Cindy – waiting for me at baggage claim at Boston’s Logan Airport, and we talk like old friends while we wait for Shelagh and Joan to arrive. Their flight is late, too, so my delay is not so bad.

Our little apartment on Beacon Hill is up three flights of stairs! I stare at my suitcase (I do not pack light!) and wonder how the hell I’ll get up all those stairs, but in the end, it’s not such a bad climb. It’s the Friday night before the Boston Marathon, and I have an apartment on Beacon Hill, and a bottle of red wine to share with my Canadian friends. I’m starting to think that this is not a bad way to start a weekend.

Shelagh and I stay up WAY too late and talk about our Taper Madness friends, and we laugh and giggle and tell stories into the wee hours of Saturday morning. We’re acting more like teenagers at a slumber party than 50 year old women! Still, when the phone wakes us on Saturday morning, I don’t feel too bad at all. We make our way over to the expo, and pick up race gear, and then some. What happens to the rest of Saturday and Sunday? It disappears in a flash. I’ve been worried about spending all this time with people I’ve never met before. But in just moments, strangers turn into friends, and a brunch turns into the party-of-the-century. I break training in many ways – for the first time ever, I run the day before a marathon (the Freedom Run on Sunday morning), and I have red wine both Saturday and Sunday nights. I think that if this is the way to screw up your chances of a sub-four race, I’ll take it. Having this much fun cannot be all bad.

It rains on Sunday, all day long, and it rains Sunday night, all night long. It’s one thing to wake up repeatedly the night before a marathon; it’s another thing entirely to wake up repeatedly the night before a marathon to the sounds of a raging nor’easter outside. When it finally comes time to get up on Monday morning, the weather is still raging. It’s a relief to turn on the inside lights in the apartment so that – until the sky brightens some time later – we can’t see the rainfall outside.

The walk to the buses on Monday morning is wet and miserable. The wait in line for the buses at Boston Common is interminable – almost an hour, and steadily falling rain. But we find a kind gentleman from LA who shares his umbrella, and we’ve wrapped ourselves in every bit of plastic available in the little apartment, so when we get on the bus and strip off a few wet layers, it turns out that none of us has gotten completely soaked. It’s a forty-five minute ride to Hopkinton, just the perfect amount of time to get dried out and warmed up.

At Hopkinton, we’re dispensed from our bus back into more rain, but it’s not so bad. We have gear to protect us, and the temperature is really not all that bad – low 50s, which is quite a bit warmer than the forecast. As happens every year, there is utter chaos getting out of Athlete’s Village and down to the second wave corrals in the center of town. Because we’re jogging along, it’s almost impossible to notice that the rain abates just before the gun goes off. As I discard my fleece blanket at the start line, I have a faint glimmer that maybe this race won’t be so bad.

I’ve barely made it to my corral before the gun sounds, and then we start moving. It’s chaotic and nerve-wracking, but so much better than standing around, waiting, in either heat or rain. I look down, and notice a bright copper penny, face up, in the asphalt below my feet. I bend down to pick it up, but realize that it’s embedded in the asphalt. I think it’s a good omen for all of us runners today. Not a bad way to start a run.

And now we’re running, and I know that I want this to be a good day. I’ve had too many disappointments on this course, a course that I’ve come to know just well enough, and that I love. Can I just will my legs into a good day? I instinctively head over to the right hand side of the course, where there are tons of kids standing behind the barricades (even in the rain), and I try to high-five every single one of them, even with my soggy gloves. I think about the fact that after reading last year’s race report, my friend Ellen said, “maybe if you didn’t do all of that high-fiving, you’d hit the sub-four”, and I think she might be right. But what would be the purpose of a Boston where you didn’t do this? I high-five everyone I can. It’s not raining, and it’s cloudy and cool, and it’s all glorious. How bad can this be?

It’s all Boston from here, Boston as I’ve come to know and love. Down the first mile in Hopkinton, wearing a garbage bag to keep the heat in. Watching for the mile markers on the right hand side of the road, also painted dead center in the road (ya gotta love a race course where the mile markers are permanently painted on the road surface). Fans lining the roads, as if it hadn’t rained throughout the morning, as if they didn’t have the choice of being home in nice dry, cozy homes, instead they’re handing out orange slices early in the day. Signs! Signs everywhere. Hopkinton, then Ashland, then Framingham. Along the commuter rail tracks, through the commercial districts of these little towns that wouldn’t be known at all if not for this crazy annual 26.2 mile event that brings in people from all over the world and brings out locals in all kinds of crazy weather.

I hit the split button on my watch at the first mile, and only later realize that, at 9:08, it’s the slowest first mile I’ve ever run at Boston. Maybe it’s a good thing I don’t realize this at the time. As I run, I think, “not too bad”. I know it’s the next 5 or 6 miles that will set up the day, and as I hit that same lap button every mile, I continue to think, “not too bad”. The splits get better – 8:49 and 8:51 and 8:46 - and I’m feeling okay – not stellar, as my right calf is hurting some, and my legs feel a little stiff – but all in all, I start to have hopes that today might be a pretty good day.

It starts raining again around mile 5, and continues to come down past mile 8, and then it tapers off again. My splits slow down just a tad, but I keep thinking that I don’t feel too bad. My legs are a bit stiff, but my gimpy right calf isn’t acting up too badly. I think about my marathon friend Michele as we run through her hometown of Natick. The wind hits us as we run past the lake, but it’s not too bad. The roads are wet, but there only a few potholes and very few spots of flooding. I’m amazed at all of the people out cheering us on.

I go through the ten mile mark in 1:29:59, just a second better than a 9 minute pace. I’d like to be a bit faster on this first half, but I figure that this isn’t too bad. I might just have a chance at a sub-4 today. No matter what, I’m smiling all the way.

Because the wind is howling, out of the ENE, the sound of the Wellesley women screaming reaches us a full mile before we get to that campus. It’s always a pick-me-up, and this year does not disappoint. I smile as I trot on by. Who could run through this noise tunnel and not be jazzed? I know that the tough miles are looming.

For some reason, these middle miles are always the toughest for me at Boston, and I work to keep my pace up through the halfway point. There’s a 9:12 that concerns me in mile 11, but then an 8:55 and 8:58, so I’m feeling pretty good as I pass through the half-way point in 1:58:04, just a tad over a 9 minute per mile pace.

The clouds are lifting, and it looks like we might have clear weather all the way to the finish, but it’s getting colder. The wind is picking up, and while it isn’t consistent, it either gusts in a swirl or hits us head-on in the face. I’m wearing shorts and a long-sleeve throwaway shirt over a singlet, fully expecting to ditch the shirt early in the race. But it’s been cool enough that I’ve not yet thrown away the throwaway shirt. Around mile 15, I start to feel a bit too warm, so I pull it off, and tie it around my waist. The cool wind spooks me just enough that I think I might need it again later.

Pushing through miles 15 and 16, I focus on mentally getting through the 16 mile point. Normally, this is where I see Mick, and I’ve been worried that it will feel extra empty today. But instead of spending energy scanning the crowd for his smiling face, I send him a mental kiss, and then I’m across the bridge over I-95 and starting the first serious climb of the day. Given the rain and cold and wind, I figure that Mick picked the right year to miss Boston.

I’m cold. Seems silly that I just took off that shirt, and now I’m cold. Freezing, even. A woman running near me asks, “Are you cold?” and I answer “no”. What the hell am I thinking? Macho me. Stupid me. Too stubborn to immediately put my shirt back on, I run on, thinking that I’ll generate some heat going up the hills. But it’s a weird day, and I can’t shake the cold going uphill. Even though it’s up and up, I watch my heart rate drop, precisely at a point in the course where I should be working to keep it low.

These hills are where people start to show the effects of the pounding, and today is no different. People walking, people stopping, people weaving. But on the side of the road, the faithful fans! So I do what I always do here, and run close to the left hand side of the road, and smile at people who cheer as I run by. One volunteer, a big man in rain gear, chants, “You’re making mom proud” over and over as I go by. I hope that he’s right.

Then finally, there it is: the 21 mile marker, the gold sign standing in vivid contrast against the backdrop of the huge gothic church of Boston College at the top of Heartbreak Hill. It’s my sign to turn it on. And so I do, but only after putting the long-sleeved shirt back on.

These next miles are deceptively tough, but I’m getting to know the lay of the land here well enough to know what to expect, so today it’s easier to deal with. I make it through the stretch where the T runs right next to the roadway on the left-hand side, and then down the nice downhill stretch to Cleveland Circle. I’m smiling all the time now, since I’m starting to believe that this is the day I’m going to get that 4 hour monkey off my back. The people behind the barriers see me coming with my mile-wide grin, and they all shove out their hands for high-fives. How can I not do this? Even if it might slow me down a smidge, I draw energy from each and every hand that I slap. People smile back, and I know this is why they come out – to have a role in someone’s good day.

And I finally allow myself to believe: this is going to be a good day. It’s not an easy day, not one of those effortless days where the miles just seem to fly by, but it’s definitely a good one. So I smile. And I high-five everyone along the route. And I run.

These are the fastest miles of my day – something that makes me proud: 8:40, 8:48, another 8:40, and then for mile 24, 8:34. Later I’ll figure out that this is my fastest ever mile at Boston, and I’ll be extremely pleased. Not all that fast in the grand scheme of things, but after all those mile of pounding, down and up, up and down, it’s a very good thing. Now there’s the Citgo sign, and now there’s the one mile to go sign, and now there’s the little dip under Mass Ave that was new last year, and now – finally! – that turn that I love so much, the right-hander onto Hereford. Hereford looks like a mountain today – when did they make the uphill here so steep? – but then there are people smiling at me and sticking out their hands, so I high-five yet more people, and now I’m making the last left-hander onto Boylston.

This stretch is pure joy, knowing that I have the sub-four in the bag, and yet needing to force it in, as hard as I can go. It’s pure pain, too, since you can see the finish line down there, but it seems so far away yet, and not getting any closer. The 26 mile marker is the only one that I miss all day, but it doesn’t matter, what matters is that I cross the finish line just as I hear an announcer call out my name, and I punch my watch and read 3:57:25. Four hour monkey? Back there somewhere on the course. Yee-haw!

Boston has a long finish area, where it feels like you walk for miles and miles after you’ve run for miles and miles, and this year it is no different. No different, of course, except for the fact that I’m smiling wildly and wanting to shout it out to anyone who might be within earshot. Sub-four at Boston!

It takes awhile before I start to find people I know – my Canadian friends have run close to me all day, some in front of me, some behind; although I haven’t seen a single one out on the course, I start to find them soon after picking up my warm clothes. We’ll hook up with the rest of the Canadian contingent, and then head back to our apartment for quick showers and then out for a big celebratory dinner. We’ll laugh about our three flights of stairs that don’t seem quite as bad as we had feared. We’ll talk about how the rain ended just as we started to run, making the weather not nearly as bad as we had feared. In fact, when the day is done, it will seem that – given the weather warnings and the rainy start and all of the rest of it - none of it has been all that bad. Not too bad at all.

Hotlanta (aka Georgia Marathon 2007)

Sometimes, the best things in life end up being the unexpected. That’s my experience at the Inaugural Georgia Marathon, on March 25th, in Atlanta.

Sure, I’ve been to Atlanta before. Well, if you count making connections at Atlanta’s busy Hartfield Airport. Or driving through downtown Atlanta in the wee hours of the night on my way to (or was it from?) Florida for spring break when I was in college. Or maybe marching through the iconic Southern city in the multiple times that I’ve seen “Gone With the Wind” and “Driving Miss Daisy”.

Well, then, I guess maybe not. It seems a good thing, then, that my membership in the 50 States Marathon Club requires that I make a pass through Georgia. And even better yet when my friend Michele alerts me to that fact that ING is sponsoring a new 26.2 mile jaunt through her town in March of this year. In the marathoning community, we know that running an inaugural marathon has its risks; I’ve felt this pain in the old Mile High City Marathon and at the inaugural Tecumseh Trail Marathon in Indiana. Snafus are more than likely. But a couple of facts help me ignore the risks of the newness of this race. One is that ING is the sponsor, and they sponsor many big city marathons, including New York, Miami, and Amsterdam. They must know what they’re doing, right? And the other fact is simply this: when Michele makes the announcement, many of my Taper Madness buddies immediately sign up to do the race. How could I not join them?

So on race day, I find myself on the MARTA train with Michele (my hostess for the weekend, and from here on out “1L”) and Michelle (my fellow boarder at 1L’s house in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, “2Ls”). We have a wee bit of stress as we worry about the train getting us to the start on time, but our worries are for naught. We reach the Underground station with enough time to cycle through bathroom lines before checking gear in the UPS trucks. We run into a few more TM friends (Lori and Autumn) who are frantically making their way to the port-a-potties for their final pre-race stop, and then we all wish each other good luck as we head off for our respective places for the race start.

It’s still dark for this 7 a.m. race start, but the bad news is that it’s already warm – I watch as the huge Coca-Cola sign changes the temperature from 65F to 68F in the minutes while I wait for the race to start. It feels weird to be suddenly alone, in a huge crowd of people. 1L has gone off to find her neighbor and training partner Sally, and 2Ls has gone to find the 6 hour pace group. As for me, I have no idea what to expect from the day. My training cycle has been weird – influenced in a bad (slow) way by far too much snow on the ground this winter – and I don’t really feel prepared for a marathon. Last fall, I ran 4 marathons between the end of September and the first part of December, and it all started to feel routine. Now, with 3 ½ months between races, it all feels new and foreign again. What’s ahead?

Helicopters circle overhead, and it’s impossible to hear the speakers, but I have a sense that the race has started. There’s a small amount of movement from where I’m standing, way, way back in the crowd. Finally, after walking several blocks, it seems that we’re running across the start line. But wait. It says “Finish”. Huh? I know that the race will end back here, but I’m confused – is there a separate start? In a panic, I start my watch, only to realize, a few moments later, that there is actually a separate start line. I frantically stop my watch and hit reset, just before I finally cross the true start line. Whew. So much energy and panic, and the race is barely underway.

The scenery in the first few miles could be anytown, anywhere, anymarathon: people, wall to wall people. For an inaugural event, this puppy is huge: 15,000 people in the combined half-marathon and marathon, and we’ve all just started together. I don’t really mind, at first, that it’s this crowded – it all adds to the excitement of the start. But shortly into the run, as I have to weave around walkers and people proudly wearing t-shirts with slogans like “I know I’m slow but I don’t care” printed on the back, I get a bit annoyed. I’m happy to share the race course with these people – God bless you for getting out here to run – but if you’re going to walk in the first couple of miles, next time could you please line up at the back???

Around the two mile mark, it’s getting light out, and we make a major left-hand turn, running just past the Martin Luther King Center and the church where MLK preached back in the early days of the civil rights movement. Pretty cool stuff, but the cool stuff I’m looking for is the water offered up at the first aid station here. Now I’m on familiar turf, since 1L took me on a tour of the race course yesterday, and I’m starting to recognize landmarks. We run right past the MLK birthplace, but I have to admit that today I miss it entirely. Good thing I caught a glimpse yesterday.

The road remains crowded, and I’m looking forward to the point, around 3 ½ miles, where the half marathoners split off and we full marathoners will have the entire road to ourselves. Just before the two race courses split, there’s a second aid station. It’s a bad sign that I’m already looking forward to more liquids this early in the race, but it’s quite warm for a marathon. The really, really bad news is that just as I run up to the aid station, I see the last two cups for water disappear, and hear volunteers say that they are out of cups. Out of water this early in the race? Unbelievable. But there’s nothing to be done except to keep running and look forward to lots of liquids at the next aid station.

We split from the half marathoners, and finally have a bit of room on the road. We’ve just run through the Atlanta areas of Inman Park and Little Five Points, and I’m feeling okay. My right calf/Achilles tendon have been bothering me from the start, but they’re starting to go numb, so I’m okay. My splits are slower than for any of my marathons last fall, but given the hills and heat, that’s not unexpected. I’m just running and starting to enjoy the scenery.

As 1L pointed out yesterday, we’re running through some really beautiful areas in Atlanta. Old neighborhoods, re-gentrified and nicely kept. Everything is in bloom – dogwoods and azaleas and cherry trees – and there are pockets of people out cheering us on.

As I run, I try to remember the course map, trying to picture the biggest climbs. At what point in the race do they come? Since this course is mostly a loop, there is no net elevation change, but there are lots of ups and downs along the way. 1L ran much of the course a few weeks ago with her training friends, and declared the course to be much harder than Boston. I was a bit skeptical of this diagnosis until we drove the thing yesterday, and I was convinced that she was right. The only saving grace, I think, is that the first half has more downhill than the second half. I hope that I can use this fact to help to establish a faster pace out of the chute, and then try to maintain that on the way back to the barn.

As my splits reveal, the strategy does not work, but I won’t know that until later in the day.

The one thing I remember clearly from the maps is that the first big climb of the day starts around mile 6, and goes on for about a mile and a half. Just around the six mile marker, there is a sign announcing an upcoming aid station. Since I didn’t get water at the second aid station, I’m really looking forward to this one, and I swallow a gel. The only problem is: there is no aid station. After running for a while past the sign, I start to talk to people around me. Isn’t there an aid station here? Everyone agrees that they also saw the sign, but no water appears. The temperature is climbing. I’m getting thirsty. This is starting to seem like a really, really bad idea.

We run through some lovely areas, and then along a divided roadway. The climb is done, and finally – finally! – there’s another aid station at mile 8. I want to stop and drink several glasses of water, but instead I just grab a couple of cups, trying to have some sympathy for the back-of-the-packers yet to come. We pass Agnes Scott College – a beautiful campus – and then turn into the town of Decatur.

Our bibs today have our names pre-printed on them, and so far I haven’t heard the fans along the roadside take advantage of this fact. But as we turn into Decatur, there is a nice gathering of fans all cheering insanely loudly. The Decatur High School cheerleading squad is lined up on the left hand side of the road, in uniform, and the first cheerleader looks squarely at my bib. She turns to her squad, and as I run by, they post up a cheer “Go Judy Go Judy Go Judy!” What a rush! And then it seems a huge number of people stick out there hands, just so I can high-five them as I run by. There are moments in every marathon that stand out, the things you’ll remember months later, maybe years later, after all the pain is gone, after you’ve recovered and run several more races, after you’ve forgotten much of the race course itself. These are the reasons that we get out of bed at insanely early hours on Saturday and Sunday. As the cheerleaders chant my name, and my hand slaps the hands of who-knows-how-many spectators, I think that this is one of those moments. This moment alone might make my day.

On through the town of Decatur, and past several huge churches with pastors in full robes standing at the open doors. We no longer have the full road, and we’re running in a single coned-off lane. It’s a bit crowded in that lane, but worse yet, the road is slanted. The roadways here all seem to be crowned – probably to funnel off rain – and that’s bad news for anyone who is forced to run mile after mile after mile on a single side of the road, because it puts undue pressure on one leg. I try to run as much toward the center of the road as possible; that means I often run outside of the cones, and I keep my eyes out for cops and race officials who might disqualify me. I see lots of other people doing the same thing. I’m worried about how this is going to affect my gimpy right leg. But I’m more worried about the lack of electrolyte replacements – there has been none of the advertised Powerade on the course – and think briefly that I’ll head into a convenience store if I see one, just to buy a bottle of Gatorade – but there are so many people cheering in little sections now that I never see a store.

The temperature is continuing to rise, and we continue to run. Atlanta is a beautiful city, and this course takes us through many beautiful areas. There are plenty of twists and turns to keep the thing from ever being boring. Soon, we are making yet another turn and heading through a small part of the Emory University campus, where there is an aid station. Finally, the aid stations are coming fairly frequently, and this is by far the best – spread out, lots of volunteers, and the volunteers seem to have experience. The only unfortunate thing – other than the sharp up and downhills through the campus – is that the aid station is set up right on top of a mile marker; it’s the only split that I miss today.

The next several miles are by far the prettiest of the course, through the Druid Hills, past the Driving Miss Daisy house (which, by the way, I never really see). These are mansions of the antebellum style that I associate with the south, with lots of huge overgrown trees and shrubs. Up LullwaterRoad, then down Oakdale Road – more of the same, huge old beautiful homes. What surprises me most is the support offered by the residents. Everywhere now, there are pockets of people out cheering, and there are even a few little bands out playing for us.

Along Oakdale Road, I run with a woman for awhile who introduces herself as an Atlanta native. It’s a nice distraction to have someone to talk with, and we weather the hills here together. But I’m watching my heart rate, and it’s quite out of control, here at the halfway point; at one point, I utter a sentence to the woman, and then think that I’m going to pass out because I can’t catch my breath. In fact, for a moment I think I’m going to have a heart attack, but I concentrate on breathing, and the moment passes. Better not to talk anymore. My running partner utters another sentence or two, but then she bids me farewell with a “I’m slowing down” utterance, and I’m on my own again.

The heat is taking its toll. The hills are taking their toll. And it’s only the halfway point.

At the halfway point, I hit another split on my watch. 2:05. Not bad, I think. Because of the heat and the beating my legs are taking from the hils, I expect my second half to be slower. Still, I think that maybe I can turn in a 4:15 for the day, and I’d be very happy with that. So I try to hang on, but my initially slow speed is slowing even more, and I’m feeling the effects of dehydration. My right calf, which had gone silent many miles back, now makes itself known again by starting to cramp badly. I run through the cramp, but the cramp moves into my right foot. Uh-oh, I think; this could be a really long day if I have to walk the rest of the race.

But I seem to be able to run through the cramp, and I take another electrolyte replacement tab when I reach the next aid station. I really need some Gatorade, but there is none on the course. I’ve taken a couple of gels at this point, but decide that my stomach is going sour too quickly, and I decide to hold off on taking more. Besides, the thought of swallowing another gel in this heat pretty much turns my stomach. So on I run.

Next up: a funky little out and back route on Freedom Parkway, just past the Carter Center. This might be a nice stretch of roadway, except for the fact that it’s all completely exposed to the cruel sun. I start looking across the parkway for familiar faces, but don’t see anyone. There’s one odd brief moment of respite from the sun, when we run under a concrete shelter that seems to make no practical sense, but as long as I’m not in that sun, I’ll take it.

I don’t spot any other Tapers until the turnaround point at mile 19, where I see Deeter standing on the grass in the median, taking photos. We greet each other. “How are you doing?” asks Deeter, and I reply that I’m doing okay. What a colossal lie. When he responds after I pose the same question back to him, it’s with “I’ve been better.” Ah, at least one of us is telling the truth.

Somehow, seeing speedy Deeter just having fun with the day and clearly not working towards any goals just kind of takes away any remaining incentive I have to try to do something with the day. It’s not going to be a PR day; it’s not going to be a sub-4 day; it’s just going to be a tough slog to the finish, so who cares? That’s the lethal thought that implants itself in my brain, and it makes the final 7 miles of the race nothing but a painful death march.

From here on out, everything cramps at various times. My right calf, my right foot, my entire left leg south of my knee. My hip flexors. Then my left knee twinges in a weird new way, and I think it might just give out entirely. I run through the cramps, all of them, but I must look odd as I do it. I’m in pain, more than ever before in a marathon. This is not a good race for on-course photos.

I still recognize a few neighborhoods and areas from the tour of the course yesterday, but I’m no longer really enjoying this tour of Atlanta…until. Until we reach the Virginia Highlands area, where the local folks out cheering are just incredible. And they have ice. ICE! God bless them, everyone! I take ice from everyone and anyone offering it, even though it means that at times I’m stuffing huge ice cubes in my mouth so that I can hold more huge ice cubes in both hands, and then bathe my entire body with ice. ICE! God’s most incredible invention.

But the ice can only do so much. The rest of the race is pain, pure pain. At some point I decide that my only remaining goal for the day is to finish in under 4:30. At the time I adopt this goal, it seems a no-brainer. But the cramping continues, and I’ve started to get light-headed, so finally at mile 23, I start walking in sections. I’ve never done this before in a race, not beyond walking through aid stations. Even in my first marathon, all those years ago, I walked only once late in the race, on a serious uphill; even then, I vowed I’d never do that again. Today, I don’t care. I’m seriously afraid of passing out, so when my head starts to spin, I start to walk.

There is far too much uphill in these last miles of the race, and I’m crawling. I play mind games: when I get to the next block, I’ll run. And then I get there, and I say, okay, the next block. It’s not a pretty sight.

Finally, as I monitor my watch, I determine that I’m going to have to pick it up in order to finish in under 4:30, so when the course finally turns a bit downhill in the last half mile, I start to run again. I manage to eke out a 4:28:36. I cross the finish line, but I don’t do the traditional Rocky pose. This is pure survival, and it doesn’t feel like I should celebrate. It’s more simple than that: I’m done. Another state crossed off. Another medal for the collection.

I’m not feeling so great about the day, but as I exit the finish area, I find 1L and Len (a Taper who very wisely stuck with just the half marathon), and then moments later, a whole passel of Tapers join us. We hobble off to the Atlanta Underground area, where the team tents are set up, and we proceed to pump fluids into our bodies, attempting to avoid further cramping, and we share stories of the misery out on the course. There is far too much truth in the adage “misery loves company”; usually there’s something sad in the truth of it, but today there’s only joy. This misery seems universal among us runners: we all experienced the same heat and dehydration and hills and lack of fluids on the course, and we all have similar stories to tell. Somehow, it’s so much easier to laugh at your own misery when you’re sharing it with someone who understands at a molecular level what you’ve just gone through.

There are several of us Tapers, just hanging around; nobody has much need to move, to go, to leave this gathering. Every once in a while somebody says, “I wonder how Michelle is doing out there?” and we all express concern, hoping that maybe she took the smart route and dropped from the marathon to the half. 2Ls, however, is a marathoner, so the smart money is that she’s still out there on the course. Finally, 1L remembers that 2Ls took her cell phone with her, and calls. She’s at the 24 mile point, walking, but going to finish!

So we all sit around a bit longer, then we stand up and complain about our aching bodies, and we limp our way back to the finish area, picking up bottles of water and pretzels for 2Ls, and whatever else we can scrounge along the way. We get there a moment too late – Michelle has her medal when we find her, but she’s still jazzed about finishing. She’s thrilled that we are all there to meet her, just absolutely thrilled. I feel like this is the best thing that I’ve done all day. In truth, this is the unexpected best thing about the day: the time spent with friends.

And so it is that I have a story to tell my friends and family in the following days, when I return home and they ask me about the Georgia Marathon. It was a train wreck, I’ll tell them. A horrible race. Heat, hills, dehydration, cramping, crawling to the finish. Ah, too bad, they’ll all say in response. I’m sorry you had a rotten time there.

And then I’ll correct them. No, not at all. I had a terrible race. But I had a fantastic time.