Thursday, December 04, 2008

Simply Perfect (Mount Desert Island Marathon 2008)

It is seldom that I am at a loss for words, but that’s the effect the Mount Desert Island Marathon has on me. It’s just too nearly perfect; what can you say about something so good?

Melissa and I meet at the Portland, Maine, airport on Friday night, and we make the 3+ hour trip to Bar Harbor in darkness. So when we walk out of our hotel room on Saturday morning, heading to breakfast and then the expo, we have a wonderful surprise. Our hotel is right on the water, and the view opens out to Frenchman Bay. From the maps I’ve studied, I imagine that I can see all the way to Nova Scotia across the Bay, but, of course, that body of land is no doubt more of beautiful Maine. Beautiful indeed: the fall foliage is at its peak, and everywhere you look, there are either trees in full flame or water or hills. The sun – weak on this mid-autumn day – is still strong enough to make sunglasses a good idea, but not strong enough to drive the chill from the air.

In a word, this is perfect. Absolutely beautiful. And we’re just getting started.

We breakfast at the hotel dining room – you can tell this is an old-timey resort inn just by the way the breakfast room is set up – and then wander over to the small expo for packet pickup. There are a bunch of really cool banners hanging on the walls at the expo, and we soon learn that they are part of a silent auction associated with the race: local artists have dedicated their resources to create the banners – with marathon, fall, running themes. The Mount Desert Nursery School will be the beneficiary of the auction. Melissa and I both ooh and ahh over the banners, and Melissa ends up putting bids on a couple of the banners.

It’s a gorgeous day (well, gorgeous to me, and freezing to my thin-blooded Floridian friend), and we go exploring. We head into the town of Bar Harbor; the hotel is only a mile or so from the center of town, so it’s a short drive. The town is a delight! It’s touristy-kitschy, but not overdone, and we both have fun finding souvenirs and gifts for friends and family (er, um, and a few things for ourselves). It turns out that we spend hours wandering around. We lunch at a local place (clam chowder – yum! – this is seafood haven), then forego dessert at one of the town’s thousand or so ice cream shops in favor of a tour of the race course.

The drive is a 26.2 mile-long stretch of more oohs and ahhs. I curse the fact that I’m driving, because I want to gawk. The race course snakes through forests of changing leaves and along the seafront of Mount Desert Island. It passes expanses of exposed and crumbling granite, and expanses of shoreline with boats anchored at harbor, bobbing in the late year sunlight. It takes us through small villages with classic architecture, and past ancient and impressive manors that sit on the shore.

There are only two things that this race course is not (not now, not never): it is never boring or dull (there is, quite honestly, not a place on the course that is not quintessentially picturesque), and it is never flat.

This course goes up and down, down and up, and then up again some more. The undulations are relentless. I know, as we drive the thing, that sure as the sun will rise in the morning, I will suffer. Rolling courses are not my forte. I know, without a doubt, that the only way I can survive this marathon is to run with my heart, and damn the time. There are races to be run quickly – to test your speed and skill and perseverance. And there are races to be run moderately – so that you can enjoy the scenery around you, and so that you can survive. This is a survival race.

Melissa and I finish our tour of the race course, and head back to the hotel, where we will soon join Clay and Karen of the 50 States Club for the pasta party. The offerings of the dinner are pretty typical, but the first speaker alone – Gary Allen, the race director – is worth the price of admission. It’s clear from Gary’s words of welcome that this race is a labor of love for him – he is not only the RD, but also the founder and inspiration for this event. Gary gives a nice pitch for the banners that are now hanging in this school cafeteria; we admire the banners all once again, and take a few photographs of them; Melissa makes some changes to her bids. And then we head back to the hotel.

Our race morning wake-up call is in complete darkness. It’s not only dark out there, it’s really cold! But we’re actually in luck today: the forecast, earlier in the week, included rain, but that forecast has given way to one that is more runner-friendly. We will have cool temps (okay, Melissa – the Floridian – will say freezing cold temps) and sunny skies for most of the day. You can’t beat that. Well, except for, maybe, the part about waiting around in dead cold at the start.

Because we’re both a bit neurotic about these things, Melissa and I are perfect roomies for race day. We both are nervous about getting to the start on time, so, of course, we get there way early. Luckily, the parking situation at the start is much easier than we have anticipated, so we can wait in the car until very, very close to the race gun time. We just happen to run into Clay and Karen on our way to the start. We take some group photos, and we are in the middle of chatting when the gun goes off. Our day officially begins.

Melissa, the great sandbagger, has been fretting about her ability to finish the marathon today. In fairness, she has had an uneven training cycle, building up mileage very sensibly, then dropping off altogether, and then building back up very quickly. This last week, she has had a horrible bronchial infection, causing her doc to suspect pneumonia and to send her for a chest x-ray. I thought that we were going to have to run this one next year, but the chest x-ray came back clear, and Melissa said “let’s do it”, and here we are. But in all of the build-up to the race, Melissa has been talking about walking big chunks of the marathon, and has been trying to enlist me to do the same with her. I’m just not at all convinced that I want to do the walk breaks as part of my marathon strategy, even though I think it would be fun to run and talk with Melissa. We’ve never really resolved this issue. But early in the first mile – early in the first quarter mile, in reality – the issue resolves itself. Melissa takes off at her pneumonia-inspired pace. I take off at my everyday pace. And she still ends up leaving me eating her dust.

Somehow, I knew this would happen.

Happily, though, it turns out that Karen and I are about evenly matched, and since we’re chatting when the gun goes off, we just take off together. We fall into a companionable pace, and we run together, and talk, and admire the scenery and the leaves and the beauty of everything around us. It couldn’t be much better.

It could, of course, be faster, but perhaps not today, and perhaps not ever on this hilly course. This race is chip timed, but there is no chip mat at the start so the time to get to the start line gets rolled into your time. I check as we pass the banner, and 32 seconds have elapsed. When we roll through the first mile marker, I hit my split button (started with the gun) and see 10:52 on my watch. No, not a day for a fast marathon. I decide to try to ignore my pace for the rest of the race. For now, I am running and talking with Karen, and it’s just about as perfect as a run can be.

As I know from yesterday’s drive, the course does nothing but go up and down, down and up. Karen and I run along, chatting easily along the way. A guy passes us as we climb one of the first hills, and when I see his “Obama” hat, I call a greeting to him. It’s a risk, since Karen is from Pennsylvania – a swing state – so it’s very hard to predict her political leanings. Lucky for me, she leans the same way that I do, and she echoes my greeting to Obama-hat-guy. Conversation is stoked for the next many miles.

Although I rarely run with anyone, I find myself enjoying this experience immensely. The first eight miles melt away, even as we go up and down, down and up. I’m carrying a camera – as is Karen – and every once in a while, I hold it above my head for a photo. These photos will do the course no justice whatsoever, though; it’s one of those “had to be there” things. So I only take a few pics, saving some camera memory for the truly great scenery to come.

Based on the pre-race drive, I know that we emerge onto the water somewhere around mile 8. The race course veers off the well-traveled highway (that is not so well-traveled in the early morning hours) onto a narrow, curving backroad at this point. It’s only a few short curves before we see the water, and I have my camera out and at the ready. But two things happen – neither of which I see coming – that change the face of the race for me. First, the battery in my camera dies just as I point it at our first glimpse of the ocean. It s a disappointment, but also a relief. I am no longer obligated to try to capture this beautiful setting with pictures. But the second change is only a disappointment: Karen tells me that she is going to slow down and walk a bit. That means I’m on my own for the rest of the race. Something that is normally very comfortable to me now seems a bit lonely.

You would think that, with my newfound freedom from picture-taking and conversation, I would have tons more to say about the marathon from here on out. But – as I said at the outset – it’s really just too beautiful for words. The course is heavily forested from start to end, and now – starting right around mile 8 – we run along the water’s edge for mile after mile. The course curves around, following the contours of the ocean, and then turns back inland, following the edge of Somes Sound. We are treated to glimpses of wooden boats bobbing on anchors in the harbor that are just about too beautiful to be real. The foliage is probably within days of peak color – sometimes you will come around a bend in the road and be shocked by a blazing orange tree or a brilliant red bush. There are grand houses looking out onto the water, and carriage houses on the other side of the road. When the marathon is at its best, we run on narrow, winding backroads; it’s just us runners and nature – no cars, no distractions, just beauty all around.

For miles, I trade places with other runners, including Obama-hat-guy. Mostly, other people pass me on the uphills, and I pass them right back on the downhills. It’s cool out, and I leave my long-sleeved shirt on for the entire race. This only makes the bare-footed guy that I pass and repass all that more remarkable.

There are not a lot of spectators on the course, but the ones who are out are faithful. I see the same folks over and over and over again; even though they aren’t here to cheer for me, I grow to appreciate them more and more each time I see them. My favorite is the little girl (maybe 8 years old) who is holding a sign that reads “Finish = Beer”. I guess that her mom has put her up to this, and maybe her dad is somewhere just behind me. I see the girl and her mom and the sign no less than 4 times along the course.

My mom always told me “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”, and it’s a wonder that – following that philosophy – on some days I can find anything at all to say. Today is not one of those days. There are maybe just plain too many nice things to be said about this race. Have I mentioned the scenery? Ah, well, perhaps. But what of the organization? This race is top-notch. The miles are consistently marked, and the aid stations appear exactly as advertised. The volunteers are wonderful. The scenery is beautiful. (Oh, uh, have I mentioned that before?)

The odd thing is that, with so much beauty all around, I have so little to say. It’s gorgeous here, absolutely freakin’ gorgeous. We run along curving backroads that open out onto the bay, where there are boats bobbing in the gentle breeze. There are old stone borders on the roads, and then there are more trees, more boats, more water, more beautiful everything. In fact, it’s so pretty that it is almost overwhelming.

Around mile 20, the course turns out onto a more heavily traveled thoroughfare, and we’re confined to a narrow lane on the side of the heavily cambered road. This, I suppose, is the single complaint that I can find to lodge against this marathon: the cant of the road, along with the narrowness of our lane for the remainder of the journey, make running a bit tough. I know from our drive yesterday that the toughest miles are coming – there is the biggest net elevation gain in the next several miles – but it really doesn’t feel any different to me today than the hills we’ve already covered. The sun is out, and it’s just beautiful. I run; I enjoy the scenery. What else is there?

Well, at mile 26, there is the town of Southwest Harbor, and right there is Melissa. Folks, if you ever have the pleasure of running a marathon “with” a friend, I hope you have the fortune to run with someone like Melissa. Melissa has finished her own marathon about half an hour earlier, and yet, there she is, my biggest fan and cheerleader and coach. Melissa calls out my name (“Judy Denver!” – what else) and then runs alongside me, urging me on, telling me that the finish line is “just up ahead”. And she’s absolutely right – there it is – possibly the only flat spot on the course – the 26.2 mile banner. When I’m in sight of the chip mats, Melissa peels off, and I run the last few steps on my own – just me and a bunch of hardy Maine souls who are out on this chilly Sunday morning, cheering for us. It never ceases to amaze me: the kindness and support of strangers. The finish line clock reads 4:25:32 as I pass under it. Not my fastest marathon, but also not my slowest. Just about perfect.

It’s too cold to stay long at the finish area – but that doesn’t stop me from having some of the post-race ice cream. Melissa and I pretty quickly find our way to the shuttle bus that will take us back to the start line. We strike up a conversation with the couple sitting in the seat in front of us on the bus, and are delighted to learn that the guy is the legendary (well, to a number of crazy runners) Marathon Maniac #2. After cleaning up at the hotel, we head into town for some last shopping and then a fabulous lobster dinner (Melissa, not a seafood lover, gets her Maine-food fix with the blueberry pie for dessert). In the morning, we will have a wonderful breakfast in town, then we’ll set out for our drive back to Portland. The scenery along the way is, as everything else has been this weekend, simply perfect.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Keep me from drowning (St. George Marathon 2008)

St. George Marathon 2008

Captain Renault: What in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We're in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.

It’s the desert that draws me back to St. George. Well, the desert and the fast course. My memories of the St. George Marathon, which I ran for the first time back in 2002, are of spectacular scenery and a very fast downhill finish. The beauty of the area is that of the high desert: stark moonscapes with outrageous rock outcroppings and mountains silhouetted in the distance to the east. This is like a more severe notion of home to me, coming from the high desert of Denver. And home is what I’ve been looking for, ever since I had the year from hell.

It’s a story that pretty much everyone in my acquaintance knows: nearly six months of an undefined illness that left me just plain worn out and frustrated, followed up by an emergency appendectomy on April 23rd. While I was thrilled to be returned, virtually overnight, to good health, the process of coming back has been slower than I would like, and as a consequence, highly frustrating. After being a dedicated runner for more than 30 years, it was alien for me to take up running again post-surgery, starting from a base of zero. But finally, after a couple of months, running started to feel good again, and once again I was able to get to that zen-like meditative state. The problem was that the illness and subsequent recovery robbed me of every bit of speed that I had ever claimed. Would I ever get it back? If my daily runs now averaged just under 11 minute miles, could I ever run a sub-4 hour marathon again? I had my doubts. But I knew that if I had a chance, it would be at St. George.

You see, the 2002 St. George Marathon was a breakthrough race for me. It was the first time that I ever completely exceeded my own expectations running, and I finished it feeling fantastic – the first time that had happened for me in a race of this distance. So this year, as I was recovering from the appy, I entered the race lottery on a whim. And when I was chosen – something I hadn’t really expected – I knew that it was the right race to mark my return to marathoning.

As it turns out, the timing of this marathon is just absurd. I’m in the middle of a remodel/redecorating project at home, and I’m living in complete chaos. I pack my bag for the marathon while a crew of four painters goes gonzo to try to finish the job on this day, a Thursday in early October. My furniture is helter-skelter, and my bedroom – the only room in the place that isn’t going through huge changes yet – houses stacks of boxes filled with my books and family photos and miscellany. It’s overrun, and I just pray that I can get to the drawers and storage places where all of my marathon stuff is located. In the midst of the packing frenzy, a storm rolls into Denver, and it starts to rain. Huh? It was supposed to be beautiful today! Where did this rain come from?

Finally, I am out the door and on the road to Utah. The weather has improved by the time I head out; no more rain today. I’ve decided to break up my journey by staying in Grand Junction. This allows me to listen to the debate between the two Vice Presidential candidates on NPR as I traverse the state. When I hit my car stereo’s “scan” button to find NPR, the radio stops on a Christian station and I hear (for the first time in many years) the Jars of Clay song “Flood”. I’ve always liked the haunting melody of this piece, but I’m looking for the debate, so pretty quickly I hit the “scan” button again, and find NPR. The debate makes the drive to Grand Junction go by in the blink of an eye. On Friday, I have a leisurely drive, and arrive in St. George mid-afternoon, where I join Michele at a Holiday Inn Express just north of town.

We soon head over to the expo. It’s honest-to-God hot here – temperatures in the mid 80’s, and we both pray that tomorrow is a bit cooler, at least in the morning. Sunny and gorgeous, though, for now, is just fine with both of us. We spend some cash at the expo, then eat our fill at the pasta dinner, and soon we’re back at the hotel, making race-day preparations.

Race morning comes extremely early, since this marathon is a point-to-point with an early start (6:45 a.m.); that means we have to be on buses out to the start by roughly 5 a.m. Michele and I walk out the front door of the hotel at about 4:30 – into a 72 degree morning. Oh boy! The early forecast for this race had the highs for the day peaking out at 92 degrees. The forecast has gone through multiple iterations since then, but this warm morning does not bode well for a fast race. We look at each other, then assure each other that it won’t really be all that bad, since the start is at a higher elevation. I think about the latest forecast that I’ve seen – one that includes a chance of rain today along with slightly cooler temps – and think that the forecasters are idiots.

We get to the bus-boarding area without problem, and walk towards the line of yellow school buses. There are a couple of port-a-potties along our path, and we decide to make a pre-bus-ride stop. As we stand in a short line, we both notice a change in the weather. What is that? Rain? Hello? The rain in the forecast is for this afternoon! Not this morning! I decide that this is a fluke.

Still. We’re on the bus, headed out to the race start – seated at the front of the bus – and the rain keeps falling. In fact, it seems to intensify as we drive the 26.2 miles. Michele and I both lament the fact that we’ve left our large black garbage bags in our luggage back in the hotel. Who knew that we would need protection from rain at the start line? We have been worried about heat, not rain! As we approach the bus drop-off, I notice that, in addition to the rain, the wind is whipping along at a good clip – and exactly in the wrong direction. This wind will be directly in our face. Argh! Who ordered this weather?

I am dreading getting off the bus. After all, we have nearly an hour to wait for the start. We’ll be drenched. Criminy.

And it is miserable getting off the bus. There are rain squalls, and a wicked wind. But lucky for us, some smart volunteers have had the foresight to supply the big black garbage bags. We each grab one, and immediately feel the benefit of the rain and wind block that this simple solution provides. We head over to the bonfires – a signature feature of the St. George Marathon – and warm ourselves. The garbage bags keep us warm and dry. Time passes quickly, and in no time at all, Michele and I wish each other luck, then part ways so that we can each run our own race.

Because I stay long in a port-a-potty queue, I end up lining up at the tail end of the field for this race. No matter. It’s chip timed, so why worry? The only thing I miss – starting this far back in the pack – is the official race start. But it’s kind of nice, doing this slow shuffle up to the start line; nobody is pushing or hurrying back here. We’re all wearing our garbage bags as we cross the chip mats. Once we’re past the start-line floodlights and the high-pitched electronic squeal of the chip mats, the only sound is the whoosh-whoosh of plastic rubbing against plastic. For some reason – maybe it’s the rain – nobody seems to be talking back here. It’s just whoosh-whoosh and soggy footfalls.

Rain rain on my face, it hasn’t stopped raining for days…

Almost immediately, the words of the Jars of Clay song come to me, unbidden. It’s raining – really raining – and that’s the most notable thing about this run. From six years ago, I remember a dark start, with a faint sunrise just staining the eastern horizon. Today, it’s just dark. Low hanging clouds all around. No promise of sunrise. Dark. Dark and rain. Swoosh-swoosh of plastic garbage bags.

There’s a guy at the first mile marker, calling out splits, but the number is meaningless to me. I took no notice of the official race clock when I crossed the start line, so I have no idea how much time it took me to cover that first mile. Dutifully, I hit the split button on my watch, but it’s so dark that I don’t even try to see the time. Likewise with the second mile. There is an aid station at mile 3, and in the chaos of water versus Gatorade, I miss a split. I don’t even both looking at my watch; I still couldn’t see it if I tried – it’s that dark. Finally, at mile 4, the sky has brightened enough for me to see my elapsed time when I hit the split button. 38:06, or roughly 9:30 miles. I’m happy enough with that.

But it’s still raining. I keep thinking that we’re in the desert, and this will end soon. I kept the garbage bag until just after the mile 2 marker, but once I started to feel warm, I ditched the thing. I’m feeling okay now, just a bit soggy. Even with the relentless rain, the next several miles seem to melt away. Running seems effortless, a new-old experience that I haven’t had in far too many months. Miles 5, 6, and 7 go by in 9:02, 8:36, and 8:35. This is nice

But I know from experience that the middle miles of this race are the toughest. We hit mile marker #7 in the town of Veyo, and the other side of town holds the biggest climb of the race. It’s a solid mile or more of 7% uphill. The uphill takes even more effort than I’ve remembered from six years ago. The good news is that the climb heats me up, so I finally ditch my throwaway long-sleeved shirt, and with it, my cotton throwaway gloves. Now just in a singlet and shorts, I figure that I’m set until I reach the finish line. I finally feel like I’m racing.

It takes me 10:49 to climb the hill at Veyo. But the hardest thing about this race is not the Veyo hill; it’s the next three miles after Veyo, where there is a gradual uphill grade. It’s just a grind. I remember that six years ago these miles nearly demoralized me. So today I just watch my heart rate and run within myself. I run 10:01, 9:50, 10:01, and 9:21 for miles 9 through 12. All in all, not bad. My heart rate is right where it should be. The only problem is that it’s raining pretty hard now and I’m soaked down to my socks and shoes. In a word, I’m freezing. I regret throwing away my long-sleeved shirt. What was I thinking? Ah yes, the rain will stop. Sometime. But I’m starting to think that sometime might not be while this race is still going.

Downpour on my soul
Splashing in the ocean, I’m losing control
Dark sky all around
I can’t feel my feet touching the ground

My legs feel okay now, and I feel good about my ability to run this distance again. I feel like my legs are just getting warmed up, and I’ll be able to bring it home okay. But it’s the rest of my body that worries me. My arms and hands are cold. Freezing, really. Okay, numb is the best word for it. I pass an aid station, and wonder if I stopped to dry off in the ambulance parked there – would that warm me up? But it seems a wasted thought since the rain continues to fall, so what good would that be? I shake my arms and hands in hopes of waking them up. I have some dark moments wondering if I’ll even be able to finish this race. How long does it take for hypothermia to do serious damage?

Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain….no
When the rain falls…

I try to conjure up some other songs about rain – maybe something in a nice cheery major key? – but the only thing I can hear in my brain is…

Rain, rain on my face
It hasn't stopped raining for days
My world is a flood
Slowly I become one with the mud
But if I can't swim after forty daysand my mind is crushed by the thrashing waves

The halfway mark comes in 2:04:44, and I realize that I am seriously off the pace that I ran this race back in 2002. Ah well. Life happens. At this point, I’m just trying to hold on to even finish this thing. I figure that I might be able to pick up the pace a bit – my heart rate has been right where it should be, so I have some capacity to turn things up.

Magically, picking up the pace not only elevates my heart rate, but it also starts to raise my body temp. It can’t hurt that the rain lightens up for a few miles, and I feel like I have a bit of a respite. Mile 14 goes by in 9:01 and Mile 15 in 8:31. Mile 16 takes us past the entrance to Snow Canyon, and we run through a serious downhill that makes me feel like we are free falling. Not only is it a fun fast downhill mile (8:15), but the beautiful red rock walls of the canyon shield us – albeit briefly – from the wind that has been in our face all these miles. The cold has gone from my core, and I now know I can finish this thing. The only question is how long will that take?

Well, there is one other question – and that is, how long can my stomach hold out? The stomach cramps started some time back, and – as in so many other races – I’ve just figured that it’s mind over matter. I’ve slowed down my intake of gels, just to be on the safe side. After some serious cramps in miles 17 and 18 (8:38 and 8:25), I feel that they’ve passed, and I’m good to go to the finish. Just to be safe, I’ve abandoned any more nutritional intake.

It starts to rain hard again in Mile 19. What the heck??? Just when I’m starting to feel pretty good. This is a cold, soaking rain again. Add to that the fact that in the last six years, somebody has put a big hill on the course right here! The nerve! I have no memories of a hill at this point on the course, and the experience takes a toll on me: at 9:46, this is one of my slowest miles of the day. How could I not remember this? We go under an overpass, and there are cars and volunteers hanging out here; everybody is tired of the rain. Will it never stop?

The course veers downhill again after mile 20, and I’m starting to run with a vengeance. Although I’m liking this distance again, I’m just dead tired of the rain, the cold, and the squishing feet. My cramping stomach doesn’t help matters at all. Mile 20 goes by in a respectable 9:05, and then I bust things open in mile 21, with my fastest mile of the day in 7:55. I’m just determined to be done. We’re starting to come into St. George, and there are now people lining the roads. Miles 22 and 23 are 8:57 and 8;24; I’m in a rhythm.

It’s been hard to appreciate the spectacular scenery here today. For the most part, it’s been camouflaged by the rain and low-hanging clouds. So it’s the people I have to remember, all of these hardy folks standing out in the rain, with their slickers and umbrellas. God bless them, every one. For as cold as it is running, it has to be much colder standing there.

Lift me up so high that I cannot fall
Lift me up
Lift me up - when I'm falling
Lift me up - I'm weak and I'm dying
Lift me up - I need you to hold me
Lift me up - Keep me from drowning again

Now we’re heading into the St. George city proper, and I’ve kicked it up as much as possible. I have, in fact, been passing people left and right for miles and miles, and that feels pretty awesome. It feels as if I’ve been passing people for the entire 26.2 mile journey. I have no idea how that can even seem possible, but it feels so good that I don’t question the feeling.

Mile 24 is a fast one in 8:20, and then the stomach cramps come back in full force. I’ve been doing some mental math – very difficult when you’re at this stage in the marathon – and figured that I somehow, miraculously, have a chance of beating that 4 hour barrier. And I know that if I stop in a port-a-potty that dream goes out the window. I decide that, if necessary, I’ll just have to pull a Uta Pippig and deal with it later. The thought helps me relax into the finishing miles. Mile 25 goes by in 8:55, and mile 26 is 8:56. My gut is finally cooperating as I come down the finishing stretch.

The rain is light now, and the road is lined with cheering people. It hits me that I am finishing the first marathon as part of the “rest of my life”, and I’m going to finish under 4 hours. I have to choke back tears. I know I’m lucky to be here running today, and I’m blessed to get this feeling back again. The final 385 yards go by in a blur of rain and poetry and song and crazy fans cheering. I cross the line in 3:58:24. It’s a far sight from the 3:52 I ran here in 2002, but it’s the best I’ve can muster on this cold, rainy, windy day, and I take it with a smile on my face.

But it’s still raining, and it’s cold, and I’m still freezing. In short order I find Michele, who has had a stellar day of her own, and we agree that getting back to our warm and dry hotel room is priority one. I grab a little bit of food before reclaiming my dry clothes from checked bags, and then we take off. Back at the hotel, we both dry off before taking hot showers, and then we head next door for a very late lunch. Even though it’s still raining lightly, we make the drive to Zion National Park, and board a shuttle to see some of the upper reaches of the park. The shuttle driver keeps encouraging us to get off at stops along the way, but Michele and I finally cry uncle: “We’ve just run a marathon in the rain! We’ve had enough wet for one day!” The folks around us suddenly look at with some new respect. Zion is beautiful, and I’d like to hike it someday…but it seems that the weather is conspiring to ensure that “someday” is out in the future.

Sunday morning finds me driving Michele to the St. George airport in the early morning, and, like yesterday, it’s dark when we leave the hotel. But today the air is crisp and cool. When I drop Michele at the front door of the small airport, it’s almost 24 hours to the minute from our race start yesterday. Off to the east, we can see the faint promise of daybreak behind the mountains. It’s cool enough that you can see your breath. In short, it’s a perfect day for a marathon in the desert. Then Michele takes off for her flight home to Atlanta, and I start the drive north and east to get back to Denver, through the dry high desert air.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Obamarama (August 28, 2008)

The day has looked dubious from the confines of my office this morning: a gray, LA-like haze hangs in the air. But Mick, who has been out on his bike, reports that it’s warm, so I needn’t worry. Still, we’re going to be outside from about 1 p.m. until heaven-knows-when tonight, so I throw a raincoat and a warmer shirt into a backpack before heading out the door. The pack also contains my little digital camera, binoculars, a couple of New Yorkers (we’re going to be waiting a while is the way I see it), a wallet, sunscreen, and a few other odds and ends. (I have never been accused of traveling lightly.) As our time to leave home approaches, I’m a bit frenzied. As these things always go, work has gone crazy, and my plans to get out by noon are screwed. Not at all what I need, especially when we’re going to the event of the year, if not the decade….maybe even the century.

You see, we’re on our way to the Democratic National Convention, to watch and listen as Barack Obama accepts the nomination. This is going to be cool.

I finally duck out of a meeting that is dragging on ad infinitum, and at 1 p.m. prompt, we’re out the door. Mick had said that we needed to be at the gates of Invesco Field at Mile High (“Mile Hi”) by 1 p.m., but I just couldn’t get away any earlier. Besides, if Obama is not set to speak until 7 or 8 tonight, what’s the hurry?

The event organizers have been encouraging attendees to arrive by bicycle, and that suits Mick just fine. I’m okay with the idea of riding over to the event, but am a little nervous about the trip home. It will be dark, and I’m worried about the traffic. But since getting there is going to be the easy part, I put my fears aside, and Mick and I take off on the Cherry Creek bike path. It’s an easy 3 mile ride to Mile Hi from here, all bike path, no traffic at all, so I figure that I will worry about the return trip home later.

It’s odd to be out on my bike in the middle of the day during the work week, and it’s liberating. The 2 mile ride north from my home to Confluence Park is easy, but as soon as we make the turn to head south for the final mile to Mile Hi, we encounter a barrier just going up. “Sorry,” the guy says, when we question what he’s doing. “It’s just too crowded down there already. You’ll have to go around.”

We look at each other. What the heck? It’s now only about 1:10, and the bike path going to Mile Hi is closed already? And where do we “go around”? We need to cross both the Platte River as well as I-25. The city worker has no advice for us, and we spend a frustrating few minutes getting turned around on the local roads. Finally we end up getting across I-25 on a backstreet, and we wind our way through traffic that has me riding white-knuckled until we reach the back parking lots of Mile Hi. Thankfully, when we get closer to the stadium, the roads are barricaded, but the guards allow us to ride through.

All of the on-line information and event planning emails have instructed us to park our bikes at a place called Rube Park, where they will have bike security set up. But try as I might before leaving home, I’ve never been able to figure out exactly where this park is located. I’m fretting over finding the park when Mick says, it looks like we can leave our bikes here. We’ve just happened upon a bus stop, and there are already a number of bikes chained to a chain link fence here. Problem solved. (We never do figure out where the official bike parking is.) In a short time, we’ve locked up our bikes, and we’re joining the tide moving towards the security tents.

The haze in the sky is gone, and it’s now warm and sunny. The atmosphere is carnival-like, with people arriving from all directions, and hawkers selling Obama t-shirts and Obama hand towels and Obama bumper stickers and Obama buttons. We see just one protester holding “God hates Obama” signs, and a few other preachers, who seem to not have a direct connection to the goings-on. There are a few folks giving out stuff: granola bars and Obama “10 Points” buttons and, thankfully, bottled water. The list of items that we are not allowed to bring in to Mile Hi included bottled water, but the folks handing out the water tell us that we can take the water in with us, so Mick and I each grab two bottles. It’s getting outright hot, and cold water seems perfect.

The line snakes around a long ways, but keeps moving, and as we’re downing our first water bottles, we approach the security tents. An event worker tells us that we can’t take the water in with us. What the heck? This seems like organized chaos. We reluctantly surrender our second water bottles. The tradeoff is that we’re moving, and from here it’s only a few minutes going through the metal detectors in the tents before we emerge on the other side, inside the stadium. Sudden freedom. That wasn’t so bad.

We’ve entered the stadium from the west, and our seats are on the east side, so we have some walking to do. It feels nice to be inside the shade of the concourse. As always seems to happen when I’m with Mick, it’s only minutes before somebody recognizes him. We join the friends, and walk together around to our section – Section 124 – and part ways. Mick grabs a burger, and we head back out into the sunshine to find our seats.

When we emerge inside the stadium, we realize that the seating is assigned only by section, and from there it’s open seating. This can’t be too bad – we’re nearly on the 50 yard line of the field. We walk up a few stairs and scope it out – although there are lots of people here, it will be a long time before it starts to fill up. We choose a couple of seats on the aisle, and turn around to take in the view.

We both stop short. We look at each other, then back to the stadium floor. It hits us at the same time: these seats are about as bad as they come. We’re staring directly at the back of the stage that has been built on the stadium floor.

Oh boy.

Mick eats his burger as we digest this information. There’s really nothing to be done about it, but it’s still a bit surreal. To be at the event of the century, and to have no view of the front side of the stage itself.

Oh well.

It doesn’t take long before we’re both ready for a break from the sun. Given that there are really no “good” seats in this section – actually, on this entire side of the field – we figure that our seats won’t matter a whit. We head back into the shade of the concourse.

For now, this is where the action is, anyway. There are tons of booths selling official Obama gear: t-shirts, bumper stickers, hats, car magnets, posters, buttons, typical campaign stuff. There are all of the typical stadium food vendors (minus the beer stands). Mostly, there are the people.

Mick and I grab some more food (greasy pizza slices and too-sweet fresh-squeezed lemonade this time), and find a spot on the stadium walls to park ourselves for a while. The breeze is cool, the concrete warm, and the shade heavenly. We pull out our New Yorkers, and split our time between eating, reading, and people-watching.

From our vantage point, we can see out to Colfax Avenue, where there is a steady stream of people making the pilgrimage from downtown. (We start thinking that maybe Colfax will be the best route for our trip home.) Inside, it’s also a steady stream of people. There are people of every kind you can imagine. Many of the people, like us, are dressed in comfortable clothes – shorts and t-shirts. More than I can believe are dressed up. It’s hot, and there are men wearing suits, and women wearing dresses and spike heels. It seems that half of the people are talking on cell phones as they go by. There are people with babies and a few young kids, but mostly adults – but adults of all ages, and the group spans the socio-economic spectrum. There are many more African-Americans here than I’ve seen gathered in one place in some time, but I guess that’s not a surprise. One thing that we all have in common is that we are all – very proudly, for most of us – wearing our large holographic credentials around our neck. It’s required, of course. But I doubt that any of these are going directly into the trash when the day is done. They’ll make the ultimate souvenir.

At 3 p.m., we hear the festivities get underway out in the stadium. The Yonder Mountain String Bang performs a few numbers. Somebody sings the national anthem, and somebody else leads the crowd in the pledge of allegiance. The speeches start, and they seem to drone on from the beginning. I have an ear tuned to a TV monitor nearby, but Mick is sprawled out on the warm concrete floor, napping. Me, I keep watching the throngs of people moving around me.

Eventually, the concrete floor gets hard, and Mick and I figure it’s time to head back into the stadium to join the festivities. It’s sometime after 4 when we make our way into the sun once again. The stands are filling up, but, unfortunately, our view is still of the back of that stage set. Darn it anyway.

But that, thankfully, is just about the last negative thought that I have on this day. For, once I’m in the stadium, and once I start to listen to the speeches and to the excitement and to the cheers of the thousands of people filled with hope, there’s no room in my heart for anything other than positive thoughts.

The section we’re assigned to has filled in since we were out here earlier, and we quickly find seats among Mick’s friends from Pitkin and Garfield and Eagle Counties. Down on the stage, the Colorado Democratic voice in Washington is getting a chance to address the national audience. John Salazar speaks, and then Diana Degette, and finally, Mark Udall. The speeches are all very short and crisp, and the unifying theme is the effort of every speaker to mention the name Barack Obama as many times as possible, short of just chanting his name over and over.

It’s hot under this sun, even though it’s approaching late afternoon. The drinks salesman makes his round, and we dutifully plunk down our $3.50 each for bottles of water. Too bad they are not selling beer; it could have been a huge revenue generator.

At 5:30, Sheryl Crow takes the stage, and it’s a nice performance. She plays just three numbers, starting, appropriately, with “A Change Would Do You Good” (she changes the lyrics to “a change would do US good”) encouraging the crowd to sing along. She plays a couple more numbers, and keeps the crowd very much engaged. We watch her on the huge JumboTron, and are thankful that at least we have this view. Heaven knows, I have paid a bunch of money to see her in concert before, so I guess I shouldn’t complain about the view when the seats are free, and the sound system is good. (I can’t help thinking that she’s better off without Lance Armstrong.)

At some point, even though our view is otherwise non-existent, we realize that we have a perfect view of the TelePrompter. How odd. We see all of the words right before they are spoken, even the songs. It makes this unique experience just a bit more surreal.

There are more speeches. More musicians. There’s, and his contingent, doing the “Yes We Can” number that was made so popular on YouTube. More speeches. There’s a large group of military leaders (generals and admirals and other officers) who parade out onto the stage, with a rousing speech from one of them. There’s Stevie Wonder to perform a couple of numbers. There’s a granddaughter of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and there are children of Martin Luther King, Junior, on this 45th anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington. Michael McDonald is the last musical act, playing and soulfully singing “American the Beautiful”, more fitting than ever given that the words to the song were written by Katharine Lee Bates after she visited Pikes Peak in the late 19th century. The caliber of the speechmakers heats up. Howard Dean speaks. Al Gore takes the stage, and he’s truly a great statesman-orator. Too bad he didn’t have this presence back when he won the (popular) election against W.

Finally, the sun sinks below the west stands of the stadium, and we have a nice breeze, and it becomes a beautiful late summer evening in Denver. We could not have asked for more.

Joe Biden makes a short speech, and then we get the de rigueur but still inspirational parade of ordinary citizens who are backing Obama. They amaze me, every one of them, with their poise and their stories and their convictions. I can’t decide who is my favorite; maybe the woman who professes to be a lifelong Republican voter who is voting for Obama this year, or maybe the guy named Barney Smith who says “I want leadership in Washington who will look out for Barney Smith, not the Smith Barneys of the world.”

Finally, we see Michelle Obama take her seat, and we know that the Real Deal is about to start. We’re armed for it. Earlier this afternoon, they came around handing out flags, and Mick and I each got one. More recently, they’ve handed out “Change” placards. The anticipation in the air is almost palpable. The stadium is filled to capacity: you can’t see a single empty seat anywhere. The only experience that I’ve had that was remotely like this was way, way back when I lived in Des Moines in the late 1970s, and a young Pope John Paul II made a visit to the Living History Farms there. Okay, that autumn day was different in many ways from this day, but the experience of people who share a common belief, and a hope, and a dedication to a cause, making a pilgrimage to see their leader, was the same.

Dick Durbin takes the stage to start the Real Deal, and after his brief address we’re watching the video of Senator Obama’s life story, rapt. When Senator Obama takes the stage, the energy is amped up to near-explosion levels. And what a treat is in store! Probably, if you’re reading this, you’ve seen the speech, so I can’t embellish on the content. The only thing I can add is that the stadium was completely captivated for the entire speech. We hang on every word. Senator Obama has become a great orator, and this is a fine moment for him. It’s a fine moment for all of us who hope he will bring the change he promises to Washington. It’s an incredible experience, all this shared hope.

When the speech ends, I look around and realize that not a soul has moved from a seat yet. Many have been here since 1 p.m.; it’s now past 9 p.m., and nobody is moving to get out of the stadium. Fireworks are exploding overhead, and we crane our heads overhead as we watch the confetti fall to the ground. The white bits are little 5-pointed stars of crepe paper, and everyone in our section is soon mesmerized, trying to catch a few of these whiffs of paper for souvenirs. The fireworks continue, the confetti keeps falling, and a clergyman offers up a closing benediction. And then we’re on our way home.

I’ve been fearing this ride back home, and it does take us a while to get back to our bikes. But the incredible thing is that Colfax Avenue – one of the longest, busiest avenues in the world, directly through a major city – is closed to traffic. So we take the more direct route home – maybe 2 miles from door to door – and ride without traffic, and are back at my place by 10:15. The thing I feared the most about the day turns out to be the easiest thing of all. We find other people in my building arriving back home at the same time, and we are all in some kind of spell. It was that kind of experience.

In fact, Mick and I are so jazzed that we come back upstairs to my place, and turn on MSNBC to watch the post-convention coverage. There’s nothing new here, just confirmation of everything that we just witnessed. At 11 p.m., the post-convention broadcast ends, and they start a replay of the Dick Durbin speech, leading to the video and then Senator Obama’s speech once again. The speech plays on until well past midnight, but I stay on the couch, just as attentive as I was a couple hours ago. I listen until the message has been delivered in full again. It’s easy to sit through this again. Although I know that the real process of the election is only poised to begin in a few days – all the nastiness, the negative ads, the acrimony, the ugliness of a process that is still better than what exists in most of the rest of the world – for this brief moment, I can believe and revel in the peaceful process of democracy in action.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Ride the Rockies 2008

There is a rhythm to life on Ride the Rockies, and on Saturday, June 14th, it takes me little time to fall into that rhythm once again. This really should not be so surprising, since this is my seventh consecutive annual bicycle trek through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Still, it amazes me how quickly this moving village of over 2500 people feels like home.

The rhythm of camp life begins in mid-afternoon today, as on each subsequent day, with choosing a campsite and setting up the tent, always on school grounds or in a public park. This is easy camping – soft grass for a mattress every night – and the things that go into finding the perfect spot are easy to quantify: shade, no overhead lights, and proximity to bathrooms. The last item of importance is almost impossible to scope out in advance: a lack of noisy neighbors. Today, in Durango, I find a perfect shady spot. This is important, since Durango is in the southwest corner of the state: a region of high desert, where the warm, furnace-like temperatures are a welcome relief from the cold and wet spring we’ve had in Denver. After I pitch the tent, I figure that maybe I’ve made a mistake, based on the obnoxious rowdiness of a bunch of guys nearby. But they are a friendly group, and we soon become friends – they invite me to go to the beer garden with them before Mick arrives – and I know that this is the right way to start the week.

After setting up camp, the next step is always – always! – the very important task of finding food. It takes a lot of calories to fuel a ride of 427 miles, and by the end of the week, it will feel like ferreting out and eating all that food takes a ton of energy. For dinner, the choices are typically a community dinner (of varying quality – the best is the southwest feast of grilled chicken and veggies and tortillas and Anasazi beans in Cortez) or a local restaurant, where the challenge is finding one of good quality without a long line. On this Ride the Rockies, my favorite restaurant is a pizza place in Crested Butte that offers a wide selection of beers (I have a new organic brew from the Deschutes brewery - yum) and the best French fries this side of the Atlantic. On the first night, in Durango, we find a good Italian eatery with no waiting line. In a typical day, we eat and eat and eat. On a long day, the eating seems to know no bounds. On the longest day of RTR 2008, I run into Joe, my seatmate from the bus ride down to Durango, at the final aid station of the day. Joe is a stocky, yet fit guy, and he’s eating a banana. He looks at me and says, “I never thought I would say this, but I’m actually tired of eating”. That about sums it up.

Every afternoon at 4:30, we seek out the cycling seminars. Sometimes we go to the seminars to escape the weather (this year, it’s always the brutal heat outside), sometimes just to try to win some schwag (Mick scores a pair of $169 sunglasses for a wrong answer to a trivia question this year), and sometimes we go because the topic of the day is interesting. This year, in Cortez, the cycling seminar has a record attendance – and it’s all due to the speaker: Bob Roll. Bobke does not disappoint. We get there early and snag front row seats, and Bobke keeps us all laughing for a good 30 or 40 minutes with his tales of life as a professional cyclist and TV commentator. How can you not love that?

Lights out at Ride the Rockies comes early, when the sun goes down. My personal approach is to have my morning stuff – bike clothes, cold weather gear, fleece, toiletries, etc. – all within easy reach of my sleeping bag before I go lights-out. The noise level in camp varies as the week wears on. Early, there is pent-up energy, nervousness, excitement, and it seems that every night there are loud talkers outside of our tent. What is it with men and cell phones in tents? They don’t seem to get it that everyone within a one mile radius can hear their conversations. By mid-week, though, everyone is dead tired by the time it gets dark, and silence falls across the campsite like a blanket. On the last full night, there is a blip of noise again – people partying, celebrating the long miles covered. Who can blame them? As for me, I always plan to read at bedtime, but with the exception of the first day – before we’ve done any riding – I’m almost always too tired to stay up late.

Which is not a bad thing, since the camp comes to life early – way too early for me, some days – on Ride the Rockies. There are crazies who get up and on the road by 5 a.m. Not me. But when there are long days of riding – lots of miles and/or lots of vertical to scale – an early start is the only way to survive the day. Our earliest start this week is 6:30, on the day we ride from Montrose to Crested Butte, a distance of 92 miles with 6100 feet of vertical. Our latest start is in Crested Butte, where it is quite literally freezing (there is frost on the tent when we get up) and we don’t start riding until 8:30.

Breakfast is critical, especially on those long days, and my favorite stops on Ride the Rockies are in the towns that have active organizations like Kiwanis (Montrose) or Optimist Club (Buena Vista): these folks know how to do breakfast for the masses. These are the all-you-can-eat feasts of pancakes and scrambled eggs and oatmeal and fruit and OJ and coffee. I’ll get up a little earlier any day of the (RTR) week for these breakfasts. On the other days – days of breakfast burritos and cold fare and school groups that can’t handle the crowds – I make a practice of finding the guy in the coffee van and paying the two bucks for a big cup of joe. It ain’t Starbucks, but it sure makes my day.

After breakfast, it’s a scramble to finish packing up camp and load all of our gear onto the trucks. There are three semis that transport gear from town to town on Ride the Rockies, and Mick and I are nearly always on the Late Truck. It’s a kind of badge of honor. (Really, what is with all those people who start riding in the cold and dark? It makes no sense to me. Isn’t this vacation?) I think that maybe the best part of every day on Ride the Rockies is the moment you dump your big, over-stuffed, hugely heavy bag onto the truck, and you’re suddenly free – almost weightless. Just you and your bike and whatever you have stuffed into your jersey pockets and your Bento box. Freedom on two wheels. The road as life.

Or maybe the best part of each day is when you finish your ride, and - assuming you get into camp early enough – you can park your bike and head to the showers (Mobil shower trucks with propane tanks that mean you never run out of hot water) after setting up camp all over again, and then – on those oh-so-perfect days – you have time to find a spot of shade and read a book for a few minutes before starting the whole process over again. The only thing awaiting you is the waiting in lines.

Waiting in lines is a part of the culture of Ride the Rockies. We wait in line for breakfast, and we wait in line for the community dinners. We wait to get into restaurants. At the aid stations, we stand in line for the free bananas and oranges and water and Gatorade (hallelujah for purple Gatorade at every aid station this year). We wait for the port-a-potties and the Mobil showers, and we wait at the aid stations to buy our PB&J sandwiches and cookies and smoothies. If you are not a patient person, you might be miserable on Ride the Rockies. But then again, it’s in the lines where we run into friends, so how bad can it be, really?

Some of our friends on Ride the Rockies are like the couple in “Same Time, Next Year”: people we only see once a year, but then they are our best friends all week long, and we keep an eye out for each other. This year, some of the friends I see over and over again through the week include Joe (my seatmate on the bus from Breckenridge to Durango at the start of the week), Barb (Ariel’s friend from California who is doing her third RTR), Chandra (the young woman from Boulder whom Mick and I met several years back doing a training ride up to Ward a week or two before RTR, and we’ve seen every year on the tour since then), Jim (a system administrator who works for my client – but I only see him on Ride the Rockies), and Judy (my personal clone, another Judy from Denver who wears the exact same Colorado state flag jersey as me on the first day). We’re introduced to Judy by our RTR friend Jill, who is from Aspen, but whom we rarely see except on RTR every year. This year, we run into Jill on the first day, just as we’re all loading stuff onto the Late Truck in Durango, and so we all ride together for the first part of the day. It feels good to connect with friends this early in the week, but it doesn’t last long: Jill has a bout of bad luck coming out of the second aid station, losing control of her bike as she comes across the rumble strips, and taking a bad fall. It turns out that she has broken her hip, requiring surgery at the hospital back in Durango. Her week ends before it’s really begun.

It’s a dangerous business, riding all these miles, but we count ourselves lucky to survive all the miles with only minor complaints. Since I have done so little training (appendectomy, seven weeks ago), I’m especially worried about surviving this ride, but I do. It helps to have a massage tent with a big staff of massage therapists to help work out the kinks. I take advantage of the service just twice this week, but I’m convinced those two sessions help me finish the ride. In addition, Mick and I both visit the medical van almost every day, getting bags of ice for our knees (me) and feet (Mick), along with cadging some samples of Advil. If you pay enough attention throughout the week, you’ll hear about the road rash, the broken bones, the heart attacks, and all the other maladies that riders suffer. If you’re lucky enough, none of these things will happen to you.

But no matter all of that. Ride the Rockies, at its core, in its soul, is about riding.

On Day One, we ride from Durango to Cortez, just 48 miles with a net elevation loss. We rode this route in reverse a few years ago, so I am mentally prepared for the route. Kind of. Sort of. Our Sunday morning is just about perfect, with a little downhill out of Durango before we cross the idyllic Animas River, passing the Durango-Silverton Train as it starts its morning journey up into the mountains while we ride out of town in the other direction. Then we have a healthy little climb (there’s a total of 2,900’ feet of climbing today, despite the net elevation loss) before we hit the high elevation point of the day and start our long gradual descent into Cortez. Too bad that we have stiff headwinds for the trip; it makes this long downhill feel like work, a lot of work. Although it’s a short day for RTR, I feel like my effort is way out of proportion with the numbers that go into my log. I start to have serious doubts about my ability to ride the entire route this year.

The Day Two ride is Cortez to Telluride, a 77 mile route that takes us up a long gradual climb over Lizard Head Pass (10,222’) before we descend down into Telluride. Every time I’ve ever been to Telluride, it has rained, so today I am prepared for cold and wet. But it turns out to be a beautiful, perfectly clear day. While it’s a long, gradual uphill – about 5,900 feet of climbing – the only steep parts are at the top of Lizard Head Pass and a second summit just a few miles past Lizard Head. The descent into Telluride would be great fun if not for the road damage. Still, I hit my fastest mileage of the week on this stretch of road – 45 mph - and figure that’s quite fast enough for me.

Day Three is another ride we’ve done before, and I’ve had plenty of rotten weather on this stretch, too. We start out heading downhill out of Telluride with some pretty heavy traffic and narrow roads that have no shoulder. But we survive, and then we have a nice gradual climb up Dallas Divide (8,970’). The weather couldn’t be more perfect. The normal headwind into Montrose is barely a breeze today, and Mick paces me into town with miles and miles averaging 21-22 mph, which is extremely fast compared to my normal riding speed. It feels like we’re flying; it’s almost disorienting to get off the bike in Montrose. Including the climb up Dallas Divide, we cover 65 miles in just under 4 hours with 2,100’ of vertical; for me, that’s a great day.

I’ve been dreading Day Four. We’ve ridden most of this route before – the part from Montrose to Gunnison – multiple times, and it has never been easy. Normally, this ride ends in Gunnison – a 65 mile day. For this RTR, they’ve tacked on the climb up to Crested Butte at the end of the day, making a 92 mile day with 6100’ of climbing. That’s just one long day.

The climb out of Montrose up Cerro Summit (just 7,950’) is not steep, but there is a notorious headwind going up that mountain pass, and there’s just no getting around it. Mick paces me out today, so that part of the ride – while obnoxious – is no surprise. Mick paces me frequently on most of our Ride the Rockies adventures, but even moreso this year. He keeps things light and fun by watching the mile markers along the side of the road, and yells back to me, “Thirteen (or twelve or nine or …) more sMiles to go!” counting down into the next aid station or the next town.

A few years ago, we did this climb, but the descent side of the pass was a road under construction, and it completely sucked – riding down a steep road that was dirt and gravel and tar. Today, we get the benefit of that road construction from the earlier year: the descent is on a new, smooth, beautiful road, and it’s the most fun I think I’ve ever had on a descent. There’s a second climb – Blue Mesa Summit (9,288’) – that is steeper, but by the time we hit this climb, the winds have died some. I actually like this climb a lot, especially the short descent into a canyon and the second little push to the top before descending down to Blue Mesa Reservoir.

The last time we rode this route, we hit nasty rain along the reservoir, so I’m mentally prepared today. But the weather gods are smiling on us for this stretch of roadway, and we get a long gradual downhill with a healthy tailwind to push us through. It’s very sweet riding, all the way into Gunnison. But oh, what a nasty surprise awaits us there. The final 30 miles of our day are all uphill, all into a very gnarly headwind with temperatures that are furnace-like. No stretch of road on RTR has ever seemed so long, or so slow, or so painful to me. I swear like a sailor, and curse the wind (quoting Jimmy Buffet’s “Goddamn, son-of-a-bitchin’ fuckin’ wind!”), but in the end all there is to do is to keep riding. Although I’ve never been to Crested Butte before, as we approach the little mountain town, I decide that I hate the place, without reservation. I will never come back to this God-forsaken place again. As I get off my bike, I look around for cardboard and magic marker so that I can make a “Bike for Sale – Cheap!” sign. When I can’t find the supplies easily, I go with plan B, and head for food and beer.

For Day Five, we have a rest day in Crested Butte. We get to sleep in, and when we crawl out of the tent at 8 in the morning, it’s full sun and beautiful mountains all around. We go downtown for a leisurely breakfast, and stop in a funky little bookstore before making our way back out to our camp at the school. What a great little town. Have I mentioned how much I love it here? I look in the real estate office windows, thinking I might just have to move here.

Day Six starts out with frost on the tent. Brrrr! But it’s another long day with lots of climbing – 76 miles with 5,900’ of vertical – so we can’t really dawdle too long. Since I suffered so much coming into Crested Butte, I’m expecting a nice long downhill for starters, but we have a headwind leaving town, so we have to pedal downhill. Who designed this route anyway?

But I’ve been looking forward to the next part of the ride more than anything: along the Taylor River, up over Cottonwood Pass (12,126’) which is both literally and figuratively the highpoint of this year’s tour. We rode this route several years ago, but had thunderstorms, lightning, rain, mud, you name it, every variety of miserable weather possible. Today we have every variety of beautiful weather possible: sun, cloudless sky, no wind, beautiful roads. This pass has only been open for the summer these last eight days, and that – combined with the fact that the last 14 miles to the top of the pass are dirt and gravel – means that there is very light traffic. Even with the lousy weather last time we rode this, I knew that this was one of my favorite spots in Colorado. With today’s lovely weather, it’s a certainty: there just are not many more beautiful spots in this world. Although we climb non-stop for nearly 40 miles, I’m in great spirits; when people pass me and ask how I’m doing, I burst into song. Bizarre, yes. Spontaneous, yes. The funny thing is how many people actually sing to me in return. When you add the 20-some mile steep descent down the other side of Cottonwood Pass into the equation (this section, thankfully, is paved), you can hardly design a more perfect day on the bike.

Day Seven: well, I burnt myself out yesterday, and it’s a shame, since today’s ride is nearly as wonderful as yesterday’s. We start early again today, because we have 69 miles to ride with 4,400’ of climbing, and we want to be in Breckenridge for the closing ceremonies at 2 p.m. That means we have to work hard to summit Trout Creek Pass (9,346’) in the early miles of our ride, although I would love to stop continually to take pictures; it’s just that scenic. The descent off Trout Creek is not steep, and before you know it we’re working on the second climb of the day. I’m out of steam, so I crawl. Mick paces me for a while on the flatter parts of the climb to Hoosier Pass (11,542’), but when we get to the last aid station before the summit, I decide I will need extra time and I take off on my own while Mick grabs a smoothie. The traveling DJ is at this aid station today, and just before I take off, he plays John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High. It seems that I hear this song at this point of the week every year on RTR, and never has it seemed more fitting than today. This next stretch turns out to be one of the steepest climbs of the week, and it takes every thing I have to make it to the top, but it’s glorious when we get there. Mick and Chandra and Barb and other people I’ve seen off and on all week are there, too. It’s a beautiful summit to end the week with, and then there’s a lovely ten mile descent into Breckenridge to the Finish line. But who is in a hurry today? It’s sunny and beautiful; a great day to be on a bike.

It makes me long for next year already, and I start thinking about getting ready for Ride the Rockies 2009. That’s another element of the rhythm of life on Ride the Rockies: you can’t wait to finish each day’s ride, but then when the week rolls to a close it seems all too soon. Like every other year, I file away thoughts about how much better prepared I’ll be next year. Then I load the bike on top of the car, and retrieve my bag from the Late Truck once more, and head back home to Denver.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Tale of Two Races

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… Truer words have never been written, albeit they were written far in advance of the events that heralded the meaning for this report. Two marathons run within just three short weeks of other could not have been more different…

Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon (Nashville, Tennessee; November 18 )

This is not a goal race for me, I’ve simply been cajoled into coming to Nashville in order to a) check off yet another state in my quest to run a marathon in each of the 50 states, and to b) spend the weekend with a bunch of friends from Taper Madness – not necessarily in that order. The weekend gets off to an even-better-than-expected start with the Saturday festivities. Michele and Paul and David pick me up at the airport, and ferry me to packet pickup where we all meet Trent, who is not only a TMer, but also the RD for the Monkey Marathon. Later we head to our pasta dinner and meet up with even more old friends that we’ve never met in person before: Kathleen and Ben, Ian and a buddy of his, Dallas, Rich (Ric’s friend) and Trent and the rest of his family. We break all kinds of training and pre-race rules by indulging in beer and wine with dinner, and polish off the evening with the little Italian deli’s famous cookies. By the time we are safely back in the hotel and tucked into bed, I figure that the weekend is already a success, no matter what race day brings.

What race day brings is fog and a beautifully cool morning. When we arrive at the start line at the edge of Percy Warner Park, the fog is so thick that it completely shrouds the hills that await us. We know that the hills are not insubstantial – they are the stuff of legend, even though this is only the second year for this marathon – because we caught a glimpse of them on Saturday afternoon. Somehow, it suits me just fine to have them hidden. What you can’t see can’t hurt you, right?

After meeting up with the rest of the Taper Madness crowd at the race start (including Lynne and Matt and Rhonda) for intros and photos, we listen as Trent warms up the crowd with his stand-up comedy routine (“If you finish this race in les than three hours – there’s something wrong with you! Go run it again!”). Then the race is underway, and we all take off running across a field – a very odd way to start a 26.2 mile journey. It’s surprisingly crowded on the grass path that leads us across the field and onto the asphalt road that will be our home for the next several hours – or maybe it just seems that way because I’m worried about my footing. By the time we get to the road, I’ve lost track of most of the rest of the TM group, and am just struggling to keep up with the threesome I think of as the “TaperWomen”: Michele, Lynne, and Rhonda.

The fog is thick. There are trees and colorful fall leaves around, I’m certain, but the only thing that registers immediately is the hilliness. The TaperWomen pull me up the first big hill, and I wonder how bad this day might be: they all seem to be able to chat and laugh as I concentrate on getting up this monster. My legs – a bit cold in the morning fog – are not happy with the way things are starting. Finally, we reach the top of our first major climb and I say “wheeeeeeeeeeee” and start my free fall down the hill. This, to me, is why you run hills: for the fun of going downhill without restraint. But it’s also the thing that distinguishes me from my running compatriots in most hilly races – I tend to suffer on the uphills and charge on the downhills, which typically puts me on a different game plan than the other runners. Today is no exception. While I’ve been sucking wind on the uphill, just trying to keep up with the TaperWomen, the downhill changes everything. When the freefall ends and I start up the next hill, I look around, but have lost the TaperWomen. I figure that they will overtake me on the next uphill, and continue chugging along.

But I’m on my own for a while now. Up and down, just enjoying the sights and the people running around me. Every once in a while, on a switchback, I’ll glimpse the TaperWomen just a few steps behind me. I feel kind of bad that I’m not running with them, but I have hit a groove and don’t want to risk it to stop to wait for them. I am certain that they will soon catch up to me.

In the meantime, I spot Trent up ahead, and I turn up the heat a bit to try to catch up to him. It would be fun to run with him for awhile, so I figure it’s worth the hurt I put on my HR for a short time to close the gap. Just when I think I’ve caught him – right at an aid station at mile 3 – he stops to talk with some of the folks at the aid station; I guess his duties as RD don’t stop just because he’s running the race. With all the activity at the stop, I decide to continue on. It turns out that this would be my only chance to run with him for the day, and it’s gone.

Eventually the TaperWomen catch up to me – at least, Michele and Rhonda do. Just before the next aid station, I hear voices approaching from behind, one of them the unmistakably peppy voice of Michele. We all run a few steps together, but then I lose them again while they walk through the aid station. I’m on my own for just a short time, though, as they overtake me before I’m another mile down the road. Finally, we get down to the business of running together somewhere just past the halfway point, and it’s nice to be part of a group. This happens to me so rarely during races that I really enjoy it when it happens. Alas, our group run does not last long, as we hit a serious climb; Michele takes off like Sir Edmund Hillary on a mission, Rhonda does the sensible thing and walks, and I trudge along.

I’m enjoying this run much more than I thought I would. Truth be told, I really don’t like loopy courses very much, but the way that this day plays out makes this very atypical. The heavy fog lasts through the mid-point of the race, and by the time it lifts and we see sunshine, everything looks different. There are clearly signs that we’re covering the same ground a second time – and in reverse – but it’s as far from boring as you can get. In fact, with the flying monkeys in the trees and the falling leaves and the fall colors and the relentless hills, it could not be any less boring.

Rhonda catches me once again as we hit the really tough miles – the no-man’s land from 15 through 18. We run along together, up and down, down and up, and chat. Rhonda was my first V-Team roomie at the original Indiana Thingy, and this is the first time that we’ve seen each other since then; as a runner, she has progressed something like 1000%. I’m SO impressed with her today – she’s plugging along, working the course. The miles melt away as we run and talk. But when a monster hill looms in front of us at mile 18, Rhonda bids me farewell – she’s walking this one. My running pace isn’t that much faster than her walk, and I figure that she will catch me again soon enough, but for now we’re each on our own.

In the meantime, I’m starting to think about how incredibly good I feel. This could be one of those magical days, if this were a normal race course and not one of the hills-from-hell courses. Everything feels good, and that’s unusual at 18 or 20 miles into a marathon, especially one with hills like this. I’ve started to steadily pass people, and am ready to crank up the volume. But then, just as I pass the 20 mile mark, another woman passes me by, quite breezily. Huh? That’s not supposed to happen on my “good days”! As she leaves me in her dust, she says, “just think of it as 10k left to go”, and she’s far too cheery. That’s MY line that she just uttered! Suddenly, I’m not at all happy with how this day is going.

At first I think that Miss Chipper has left me far behind, but as I pick up the pace a bit, I find myself trailing her by a steady margin. More hills remain: the last bit of the race is mostly downhill, but there are a few little climbs left. Miss Chipper is accompanied by a pacer on a bicycle, and I wish with all my might that Mick was here right now, riding next to me, encouraging me. I think I might catch her, then I think I am toast. Over and over again, I start to close the gap; over and over again, she opens it back up. My heart rate climbs into the danger zone, but I don’t care: all I can focus on is catching and passing this woman. After all, wasn’t I ahead when she passed me back at mile 20?

In the end, it turns out that this is one race that is just a bit too short. For a moment, I think I can catch her, but she widens the gap just as we turn off the paved road for the final push to the finish across the grass field. There’s no way. Rather than despair over the loss in this duel, I decide to enjoy the fruits of the fabulous day that I’ve had, and I float in to a finish of 4:24 even. While the time is not fast, it’s quite a bit faster than I had dared to dream today. What better way to spend the day than this: a beautiful race course through a park dense with fall foliage, in the company of friends? Just about nothing could spoil a day like this.

But then………at the airport on the way home, the “nothing” happens. David gives me a ride to the airport, and we stop in the main terminal for chicken sandwiches. David heads off to his gate, and I head off to mine, but a short time later my stomach goes south. Food poisoning. Ugh. It’s an ugly plane ride back to Denver (thank God for understanding flight attendants). It’s a perfectly awful way to end an otherwise perfect weekend.

Rocket City Marathon (Huntsville, Alabama; December 8 )

The food poisoning turns into a nasty viral infection that just settles into my bones. There are only three weeks between the Monkey and Rocket City, and by midway through the second week, I have not run a step and, more importantly, still feel tired and weak. When I finally venture out the door to run, it’s not pretty; I’m slow and tired and just don’t feel “right”. I almost cancel my plans for Rocket City, but – foolishly, as it turns out – decide that no matter what, I know how to survive 26.2 miles. It’s one of the most stupid decisions of my adult life.

Rocket City is a Saturday race, so I fly into Atlanta on Thursday night, and stay with Michele. It feels like “home” here – it seems like only a few months ago that I camped out with the Keanes for the Georgia Marathon. Lucky for me, when I arrive in “my room”, I think of how nice and pleasant it is to be in this lovely home again. I do not think about the heat and humidity of the Georgia Marathon, and how that was one of the most miserable races of my career. Little do I know that March’s experience is about to be eclipsed.

The pre-race day is standard: a drive over to Huntsville, getting to see a bit of the country that I haven’t seen before; a fun little expo; a good pasta dinner with a very entertaining Jeff Galloway as the keynote speaker. Michele and I have shared hotel rooms several times this year, so the routine has become standard. Early to bed, early to rise. As soon as the alarm rouses me early Saturday morning, I turn on the TV to the weather channel. And as soon as the weather channel is on, Michele and I both groan. It’s warm out – already – and the humidity is off the charts. A wise person might have just crawled back into bed. Alas, I am not a wise person.

It’s warm enough at the start to not require warm-up clothes. That is disconcerting, but for some reason, I do not disparage. It starts to rain on us, lightly, just as the starter’s gun is fired. For a moment, I think that maybe we’ll have a little rain and it will clear the air. False hope. Michele and I run together for the first mile – she wants to go out slowly, and running with me helps to ensure that, since I’m much slower than she. We turn in a respectable first mile – at 9:12, this is right where I would typically want to be in a race, and perfect for Michele. But the race is already pretty much over for me; it will just take me a little while before I understand that. My heart rate – the one thing that is infallible in guiding me in these races – starts to creep out of control as we start the second mile. I try to stick with Michele, but can’t, and soon I fade back as I watch her move forward with the crowd.

In fact, I watch the entire crowd move on past me. I fade, and fade, and fade, something that will continue for most of the rest of this race. My pace falls off, my heart rate soars, and I gradually realize that running this race was the stupidest thing I could have done today. Covering 25 more miles when you already feel lousy is a very, very tough thing.

There is not much to say about this day. Huntsville is a decent enough small city, but there is not much in the way of scenery. We run through residential areas, then along the side of a busy road alongside a commercial district. In the second mile, there are some right-to-lifers out in force, holding graphic posters. (While I respect your right to advocate your position, I do believe that there’s a time and a place. Nobody in this race is headed for an abortion today.) There are a few people out in the residential areas, but just a few. We run into accordion players several times on the course; is this a big thing in the south? At a few aid stations there are small crowds of people, cheering. Mostly, I just slog through, in pain.

The bib numbers for this marathon are seeded, based on submitted times for recent marathons. Because I put my Tucson time from last December on my entry form – my PR and by far best-ever performance – I have drawn the absurdly low bib number of 51. Autumn, our TM pal who is far faster than me, is wearing bib 50 today. At the beginning of the day, it seems funny to me, a bit out of place. As the day wears on, I feel increasingly embarrassed. I pray that people do not notice my relatively low bib number and notice how far back in the pack I am running, and fading even there. I feel like an imposter.

I have never felt this bad this long in a marathon. It’s a struggle to keep running. At first, I keep thinking it will get better at some point. It doesn’t. For a few miles before the course makes a big turn around mile 15, we run into a stiff headwind. I tell myself my fading pace is because of the wind. But once the wind is at our back, my pace still drops. It doesn’t matter what I do – my pace falls. My heart rate soars. Every step is a struggle.

Hope springs eternal, and I think that maybe I can pick up the pace when I hit mile 20. Another mile, same mistake. At this point, I realize that it’s going to be painful all the way to the finish, and I should have never started this day. After listening to Galloway last night, I had thought about following a Gallowalk plan today, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. At mile 20, I think it might help, so I start walking for a minute or two in each mile. But the walking doesn’t feel any better than running, so after a few miles I figure that the more I run, the faster I can end this horrible experience.

So I gut it out. I use every trick I know, and when those fail me, I just pray for the thing to be over. The mind is a wonderful, resourceful thing, and the beauty of it is that after the race is over, I can barely remember these godawful miles. Finally, I see the finish line, and the best moment of the entire race is here: the end.

One of the great things about Rocket City is the organization, and the finish line exemplifies that. A volunteer greets me, and helps me navigate the finish area. Michele magically appears, and helps guide me to the hotel entrance, which is straight ahead. It’s a sweet setup – the finish chute funnels directly into a back door of the host hotel where the drinks and food are waiting. Today I just want to get to a bathroom, because I think I’m going to be sick. There’s a commotion behind us, and Michele tells me, “you don’t want to see”, and she gets me to the ladies room. Thankfully, the nausea has passed, so I don’t hurl. Michele fills me in on all the people who look even worse than I. Today, misery doesn’t really love company.

There’s a big spread of food, and Michele makes sure that I grab a bunch, even though none of it looks good to me. We head back up to our room, and I tell Michele that the only thing I want is a Coke. Somehow, a cold Coke and a glass of ice materialize in my hands. Autumn is waiting in our room, showered and looking fresh. She looks at me, and before she can ask, I say “well, that sucked.” Laughs all around. I mainline the Coke, and start to feel somewhat human again.

Autumn rides back to Atlanta with Michele and me, and during the drive, we discover that it’s her birthday. Ever the party girls, we celebrate with a stop at a convenience store for Gatorade and chips. When we reach Atlanta, Michele and I stop to pick up chicken sandwiches before heading directly to her daughter’s junior high school basketball game. After the Monkey experience, I’m nervous about the chicken sandwich. But it goes down easily, and then Shannon’s team dominates the game. It’s a perfect way to end an otherwise perfectly horrible day.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Ode to Joy (Ridge to Bridge Marathon 2007)

Many years ago, when I first started running, there was a full-page Nike ad that I clipped from a late 1970s-era Runners World. It showed a lone runner on a beautiful stretch of road, somewhere in the heavy forest of the Cascades. That photo spoke volumes to me, about the beauty and the solitude of running, of the connection with the great outdoors. That photo was how I saw myself as a runner – or the runner that I wanted to be – and it has long been my model of the perfect run. Sometimes, today, I run on roads like that one, in my adopted state of Colorado, and I’ve grown so accustomed to the scenery that I often don’t even notice it. But it’s different when I travel. The scenery is new again, and sometimes – when it’s a really good run – I take the time to look around. This past weekend, in North Carolina, I took the time to look around. And I know that if Nike had been born in North Carolina rather than in Oregon, the photo in that ad would have been taken on the twisty, windy, heavily forested roads of Highway 181, just south of a wide spot in the road called Jonas Ridge.

Lucky for me, David Lee, a member of the local North Carolina Brown Mountain Running Club, recognized the allure of this road; last year he organized the first Ridge to Bridge Marathon, all along the Highway 181 route from Jonas Ridge to Morganton. Lucky for me, a fellow Taper posted reports of the race on this forum, and I took the time to click on the “Photos” link on the event website. What I saw there was a pictorial description of a perfect run. Lucky for me, the marathon was such a success in its inaugural year that it was back again this year, accepting an even larger field – nearly 150 runners. Lucky for me, I am one of those runners.

When I arrive in Morganton, the host town for the marathon, late Thursday night it’s cold, foggy, and raining. Friday morning brings more of the same. But I’m determined to drive this course, because one of the most notable features of this race route – other than the spectacular scenery – is the huge drop in elevation. I’ve seen the elevation diagram on paper, but I want to see it in person before I set off early Saturday morning. Finding the race route is easy – with the exception of the final 1.5 miles, this race all takes place on Highway 181 – and I make the drive through the drizzly weather out to Jonas Ridge early Friday afternoon.

Even with the dreary weather, I know this is going to be a beautiful run. When I get to Jonas Ridge and turn around to drive the course in proper order, I adjust the radio station in my rental car. I’ve settled on a classical music station, and they’ve been playing pleasant stuff on my outward drive. As I start the drive back to Morganton, tracing the steps I will take in the morning, the station starts to play a new recording of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. This symphony is long, and they are playing only the final movement: Ode to Joy. I’m not sure that a better piece of music exists. I know immediately that this will be a great race. I try to take note of each twist in the road, each big drop, each uphill, but it doesn’t really matter. I just know that this will be a beautiful run. The music swells on the car radio as I drive back into Morganton, and the rain lets up, and the sun emerges. This is really all I need to know to prepare for the morning.

Saturday morning wakeup call is an early 4:15, to allow time for breakfast and the bus ride out to the start. I’m staying at the Holiday Inn – the host hotel for the event – and, like pretty much everything else associated with this race, this morning’s breakfast is top-notch. The hotel has laid out a 4:30 a.m. buffet of bagels, cream cheese, pastries, fruit, juice, cereal, coffee: anything a marathoner might want. Fellow Taper Chuck joins me for the drive over to the finish area, where we’ll catch the bus to the start line. Chuck and his wife Allison invited me to join them for a pasta dinner Friday night, and already it feels like we are old friends.

Did I say everything associated with this race is top-notch? Just checking, because I can’t say it too often. The buses that take us from Morganton out to Jonas Ridge are not yellow school buses, but luxury liners with comfortable seats. The bus driver enjoys entertaining us, and between the banter and the chatter with new running friends, we are at Jonas Ridge in no time at all. At Jonas Ridge, there is a convenience store that has just changed hands, and the grand opening is today. The new proprietor has gamely agreed to host this small band of runners while we wait for the race start time. This is a real treat, as it is quite cold and dark outside, and quite warm and bright inside. And did I mention the flush toilets?

As I wait inside, I start to get into my pre-race zone. But then I notice Katie (“bit” on Taper Madness) prepping for the race. Katie was my inspiration for this race – not only did she run it last year, but she won the darn thing! I met Katie in Boston earlier this year, and when she sees me, she recognizes me, too. Funny how small the world is, and how comforting that can be. A bit later, I find Chuck, wandering around the cool and dark parking lot outside, getting into his own zone. It’s nearly race time.

Just before 7 a.m., David Lee leads us, Pied Piper-style, across the cold parking lot, across the road, and to the barely visible start line that has been spray-painted on the road in front of the Jonas Ridge Post Office. It’s still completely dark out, except for the bright light cast by the nearly full moon. Instead of the national anthem this morning, we get a prayer; somehow, it seems much more fitting. And then, just moments later, the start is sounded, and we are running.

It’s only a few steps until we’ve left what little light there is in Jonas Ridge, and we’re completely reliant on the moonlight – and the white lines demarking the shoulder of the road – to guide us. The race director has outfitted all of us with glow-stick bracelets, and with bright hand-held LEDs to keep us safe in these early miles. We’ve been instructed to run on runner’s left – facing traffic. We’re a very small field – especially when you take into account that a number of runners have availed themselves of an early start – so it’s no time at all before we are spreading out.

This is magical running. We are going (mostly) downhill, with a few small rollers up here at the start of the course just to keep us honest and to help us warm up. The moon is bright in the cloudless sky, and it’s a perfect temperature for running – high 40’s, I’d guess. I’m running with a long-sleeved shirt that I intend to ditch along the way, but for now it feels pretty darn good. The wind – what little there is – is at our backs. Who could ask for more?

These first miles feel effortless. I think “Ode to Joy”, and I know it was the perfect omen for today. I watch carefully for the mile markers, and there they are. I have to flash my LED at them for the first few miles, but once I know what I’m looking for, they are easy to spot. I can’t help but wonder why a tiny marathon can get the mile markers right, but some of the big marathons just don’t get it?

In the pre-race instructions, David Lee told us that the course has been measured using the “shortest distance” method, which means that if you stick on the side of the road (facing traffic, which he has asked us to do), you will be running more than the standard 26.2 miles. While running the tangents would be more efficient, it’s also more dangerous, since this public road is not closed to traffic during the race. I choose to go the extra distance – it’s just simpler, and doesn’t involve the risk of working the tangents. But early on, I get behind a few runners who insist on running the tangents. Only thing is, I don’t think that they really get the concept – that the straightest line through these curves will be the shortest. Instead, several people in front of me dart from side to side of the road. It’s more zigzag than tangent running, and it makes me very nervous on their behalf. At this early hour, there is not a ton of traffic, but there is enough. It’s a very dangerous strategy.

I run behind one couple for mile after mile after mile. He looks quite a bit older, with salt-and-pepper hair; she has some serious blonde hair and very flouncy pink shorts. They run side by side, and they dart back and forth across the road. They must think they are running tangents, but what they are really doing is running a zigzag version of the race course. I think that they are, in all probability, adding distance rather than subtracting it. I’m very nervous for them every time that they cross the road.

The early miles are all still in darkness, but the dark quickly gives way to daybreak. The first aid station – at mile 3 – comes while it’s still dark, but soon after that it’s getting light enough to see without our little LED lights. We’re in the country, and other than a few friends and family who follow runners down the road, there is really no fan support in this race. I’m happy with that – to me, this is running at its purest, its most joyful. Just a beautiful mountain road and my running shoes and a few friends. I don’t need much more to be in rapture.

On this race course, there are aid stations every three miles in the first half, and then every two miles after that. I’ve grown accustomed to aid stations every mile or two for the length of a marathon, so today I carry a bottle of water with me for the first half of the race. It’s cool enough today that I’m not so sure I really need it, but the biggest benefit is that it allows me to take gels when I want, not where the aid stations are located. It stays cool and humid for a long, long time, so dehydration is not a threat. When I come to the aid stations, I take water, even though I don’t really need it, and I end up spilling more of it on me than I consume. At the first aid station, David Lee is there, offering water, Gatorade, and encouragement. It’s clear that this race is a labor of love for him.

It gradually becomes light, in an early-Saturday-morning kind of way. There’s not a lot of traffic on this road, but a surprise is the amount of big rig truck traffic that passes us early on. It’s slightly disturbing, but then it’s gone. There is enough of a shoulder that we can run safely. The highway patrol keeps things under control by driving slowly up and down our stretch of road. Even the cops are friendly here – waving and smiling when they go by.

The road twists and turns, and somewhere around mile 7 or 8, a turn in the road has us running directly into the rising sun. Hello, sunshine! I reach up to my hat, and pull my sunglasses down. It’s still cool, but the sun is full-on. What a spectacular day!

The road is mostly downhill – and serious downhill in places – but it occasionally takes time to level off or head uphill a bit. On one of these short uphills, I pass Miss Pink Shorts and her white-haired mate. Pink Shorts seems very young, and is laboring way too hard going up this minor incline. I have a feeling that she is going to have a tough second half in this race. When we start back downhill, though, both she and White Hair blow by me like I’m standing still. But they dart back and forth across the road again, and I marvel at this strategy. For a while I lose them in the distance ahead.

Around mile 10, I ditch my long-sleeved shirt, and the temperature is perfect for my singlet and gloves. The race director’s wife is patrolling this stretch of road, and she drives by just as I take off the outer shirt. “I’ll take that for you”, she yells at me from an open BMW window. I toss the shirt in her general direction, but miss the window by about an inch. Lucky for me, somebody behind me grabs the shirt off the road and tosses it into the car, yelling ahead that I’ll owe him a fee later.

Just after I’ve abandoned the long-sleeves, our beautiful, full-sun autumn day takes a dive into a cloud bank. We round a corner in the road, and run directly into fog. Off go the sunglasses. It is wonderfully cool.

Through the halfway point, we run down, down, down. More than once, I think “this is pure joy”. There is no work in this running, only perpetual motion, fueled by gravity. Then abruptly, at mile 13, the road flattens out. It feels like it we’ve headed directly uphill. Even though I know this is not the case, and I’ve known that this upturn is coming, it changes everything. The work starts now.

My pace falls off considerably. I’ve passed the halfway point of this race in 1:51:47, the fastest that I’ve ever run a half marathon (later I’ll figure that it was just a second faster than my first half in Tucson last December). That’s an average of 8:32 per mile, and it has felt effortless. But now, mile 14 comes in at 9:29, and that will be my fastest mile until I hit mile 21. It’s a wake-up call.

The road remains beautiful: heavy forest on both sides of the road, changing leaves, low hanging fog. The field of racers has spread out considerably, and there are stretches where I see nobody else at all. I’ve left Pink Shorts behind as soon as the road turns upward just a little bit, and I’ve lost track of White Hair. Now Miss Purple Shorts decides to play hop-scotch. This woman passes me at a good clip, and then within ten minutes, I pass her back, as she stops to walk. This happens over and over again. Finally, around mile 15 or so, she goes by me one last time before I overtake her again. “You’ve been pulling me for many miles”, she says to me. “And you’ve been humiliating me for all those miles, blowing by me like that”, I return. “Well”, says she, “that’s about to end”, and truer words were never spoken. Her day is nearly done, and she does not pass me again.

My water bottle is nearly empty at the half, but I discover that it serves a purpose in addition to just supplying me with water. Now that I’m getting a bit tired, the sloshing in the water bottle tells me that my form is going off, and that I’m doing an imitation of a washing machine. I almost drop the bottle at the aid station at mile 12, but figure that this visual and audio feedback is worth the effort of holding onto the bottle. Finally, around mile 14, I drop it at an aid station. Running free!

Somehow, though, while I am running mostly on my own along this stretch, the next few aid stations come with crowding issues. At both miles 16 and 18, I am just getting set to make a pass when I reach the aid station, and in both cases, another runner stops directly in front of me. Ack! Don’t these people know that the last thing I need right now is to alter my stride. I show some restraint and I don’t swear out loud, but this annoys me all the same. There are too few people out here running to have crowding issues at aid stations!

The one Big Uphill of the day starts at about 16 ½ miles. I have started to hum the “Ode to Joy” theme to myself in these tough miles, and it propels me forward. How can you not be inspired by this music? The Big Uphill climbs about 300 feet over a mile and a half, with a false flat in the middle. I pass several people who choose to walk the hill. I take it slow – the only way that I can – but it’s not nearly as bad as I’ve been anticipating. Still, at 11:02 for the mile, it’s by far my slowest mile of the day.

After the Big Uphill, the course becomes a straight, rolling road again. Why does it feel like we go uphill far more than we go downhill, even though the uphills don’t look that long? Leading up to mile 20, a couple of guys pass me. It’s disheartening, even though I know that my pace has dropped off dramatically. Still, they are moving away fast enough that I know I need to let them go. As I approach the mile 20 aid station, I think, at least I won’t have anyone stopping directly in front of me. But one of the guys, who has passed the aid station long before I arrive, has a change of heart, and turns around. He runs back to the aid station and stops directly in my path. “Can I get a second cup of water?” he asks the volunteers, while forcing me to come to almost a dead standstill while reaching for the same cup of water. Sheesh – what is it with these aid stations?!?

The mile 20 aid station incident and a check of my watch both serve to spur me to pick it up. I’ve been working in these hills, but my splits have been slower and slower. At mile 20, I realize that there’s a good chance that I might not break four hours today if I don’t get my butt in gear. So I kick it up a notch.

I pull out every trick in the book to pick it up now. I hear “Ode to Joy” in my head, and I will the metronome there to increase the tempo. I count steps. I watch my heart rate climb. And I choose people to pick off. I wish I could say that this is all pure joy, but what it is is pure work. On a beautiful race course late in October, I remember how to work in the last miles of a race, something I was starting to lose after several slow-finish outings. Once my split times start to come down, that is pure joy!

The sun is shining now, and the air temperature has inched up. But we have a treat at mile 23 or so, with another nice stretch of downhill. I’m passing people now, finally, and it feels good. Near mile 24, we cross the road for the first and only time today, in order to make a right-hand turn off highway 181. Traffic has gotten fairly heavy (this is a beautiful race course, but maybe not one for people who are not comfortable running into heavy traffic), and the road crossing is scary, but – as it turns out – well protected by the local police force.

We run a few steps on a side road, and then are directed onto the greenway. What a welcome change! This is an asphalt bike path that parallels a river, and it is completely shaded. The huge canopy almost completely obliterates the sun, and the coolness is very welcome. I think “oh what joy!” This portion on the greenway does not last for long, and then we cross the bridge (remember, this is the Ridge to Bridge Marathon, right?) before heading past some soccer fields to the finish. Now there are a few fans, and there are people offering encouragement. Just before I turn the last corner to cross the finish line, I see Chuck and Allison, and they are cheering me on. I glimpse Chuck’s medal as I rush past, and I know that he has had a good day.

My own finish line comes at a time of 3:55:41, which I chalk up as a pretty darn good day. David Lee is there to shake my hand, but then he gives me a hug as I thank him for a well run race. Only a race director could welcome the chance to hug one sweaty body after another. The symphony in my head continues, over and over, while I take in the finish. Katie is the women’s winner again this year (setting a new PR and a new course record as well), and Chuck has turned in a pretty substantial PR. My time is not a PR, but it is good for a win in my age group, and a nice bit of hardware to take home. Happiness comes when you have a good day in a marathon, but true joy comes when everyone you know has an equally good day. At the Ridge to Bridge Marathon, it’s nothing but joy.