Friday, June 15, 2007

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.”

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