Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Little Longer Than I Thought (Hartford Marathon 2007)

Sometimes, the clock just moves at a different pace, and not one that meshes with my internal clock. That, in a nutshell, is my story of the Hartford Marathon: how nothing seems to go off on time, and how everything takes just a little longer than I planned. With a flight out of Denver planned for late Thursday afternoon, it takes me just a few extra minutes to get out of the house. Somehow I manage to drive into the Pikes Peak parking lot at DIA with – seemingly - plenty of time to get to my flight on time. But the shuttle driver is not at all in a hurry to get to the terminal. He dawdles and stops to wait for entire families to unload cars and then casually saunter to the bus stop. He waits as one guy runs back to his car for something he’s forgotten, and then takes a leisurely stroll back to the shuttle bus. I start looking nervously at my watch as we sit on the tarmac in the parking lot before he finally starts the journey to the terminal. When he stops at a stoplight where we have the right of way and generously signals for a car to turn in front of us, I almost scream. Somehow, I end up getting checked in on time, and to the gate on time, but it takes a bit longer than I thought.

My flight to Hartford takes me through Charlotte, NC (don’t ask, airlines these days), and the flight out of Charlotte is delayed. Why be surprised? We’re already scheduled to land in Hartford at 11:58 p.m. This delay means that we land about 20 minutes later than planned. I tell myself this is not so bad – what with the two hour time difference between Denver and the east coast, it’s not that late “my time”. But then there are no cabs at the Hartford airport, which means that it takes more than an hour longer than I thought it would to get to the hotel. When I reach the Crowne Plaza, I get a rookie front desk clerk. Even though I’ve prepaid this room for the two nights I’ll be here, it still, amazingly, takes nearly twenty minutes before I have a key to a room. It’s quite a bit later than I thought. My important sleep night has just been hosed.

With the late arrival at the hotel, I decide to sleep in as long as I can, even though I’m planning to work on Friday. (Thank heavens for the flexible work week and virtual offices: have laptop, will travel.) But a fire alarm goes off in the early morning, and it sounds long enough and loud enough that it finally gets my attention and gets me out of bed. It turns out to be a false alarm, but not before I’m fully awake, well before I’ve planned to be up. This – my abbreviated night of sleep – will turn out to be the single thing all weekend that takes less time than I’ve planned.

My bad luck seems to end when Doug Branscombe arrives at the Crowne Plaza at lunch time. Doug has generously offered to be my tour guide today, and what a delight that turns out to be. Doug treats me to a very fitting pasta lunch (yummy acorn squash raviolis), and then takes me on a tour of the race course. Since he’s run the marathon in the past, he knows the turns and the backroads, and clues me to where I can expect to have fans, and where I can expect a sparser field. This is one of my favorite things to do: drive the course the day before, and imagine what it will be like to run these same roads in less than twenty-four hours. If you’re not jazzed about the race before you make the drive, you can’t help but be fired up after you drive the course. Driving the course is the one thing this weekend that ends well before I’m ready for it to be done.

After picking up race packets at the convention center, Doug drops me at the hotel and bids me adieu until the morning. I head back to work for a little while longer, then hoof it back over to the convention center for the standard pasta dinner. When I get back to the hotel, I make my normal race preparations, and in the midst of this, turn on the tube to catch the latest forecast. The weather today – Friday – has been pretty abysmal. It started out rainy and cold, and then ended up just cold and windy. I figure that with my history of hot and windy marathons this year, I will not sweat the weather for this one. The one thing that is not in the forecast is hot weather. I’m content with that, so I channel surf a bit and light on a cable channel airing “Forrest Gump”. In fact, just as I stop to watch for a moment, I hear “Run Forrest Run!” and figure that this is my omen. I stop surfing and settle into bed, watching this well worn flick. But we’re not talking commercial-free TV, and the movie seems to go on without end. Finally, at 11 p.m., I turn off the tube, even though Forrest is still running. Just one more thing taking a bit longer than I would like this weekend.

Race morning arrives, cool and bright. The weather this morning is a good portent for what is in store: it’s 39 degrees outside, and the sun is rising, right on schedule. The TV forecasters are calling for gnarly 20-mph winds, but for now it’s pretty calm. The only storm brewing is the one that I have with the hotel.

On Friday, I asked the front desk of the hotel to arrange for a late checkout. After all, the marathon starts at 8 a.m., checkout time is at noon, and I’m no Greg Fastady. My flight back to Denver is not until 7 p.m., so I will absolutely need a few extra hours. On Friday, the front desk tells me to call back Saturday morning. Dutifully, I make the phone call at 6 a.m., only to be told “we’re not doing any late checkouts today”. Huh? After getting good and lathered up over this while trying to frantically pack up my bag before heading to the race start, I call back down and ask to talk to a manager. After a bit of wrangling, I’m able to get the late checkout. For an additional fifty bucks. What a racket. But what choice do I have? I’ve figured that the east coast urban marathons might be more expensive than my Midwest runs, but this really takes the cake for being more than I had planned.

But I’m here to run a marathon, not to whine and quibble over my travel woes, so I head out the door at about 6:45 to walk over to the race start in Bushnell Park. It’s a pleasant walk, just the right distance, but just a bit too cool for comfort. I have hopes. The sky is clear and the wind is calm and it seems like it might be a perfect day for a race.

I’m supposed to meet Doug in the park, pre-race, so that we can run the first few miles together. Doug is running the half, and he feels good about his prospects, so I’m touched that he’s willing to run a slower pace with me for the first few miles, until the two courses split. I’m looking forward to seeing him again this morning, but I get caught in a 20-minute line for the porta-potties plus a trip to the far end of the park to check my warm clothes at the UPS trucks, and by the time I arrive at our meeting place, he’s given up on me. There are just too many people here today for a chance meeting, and we never do meet up during the run, even though I search the crowds for his face while the pre-race announcements are made. If I weren’t so damn worried about making sure I get back to the hotel and checked out in time to avoid them tossing all my stuff into the street, I might enjoy the pre-race program. Like so many things this weekend, it goes on much longer than I would like it to. In addition to the regular announcements, we get the announcer relaying a marriage proposal from one marathoner to another (the answer is yes), and then a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by a 13-year old middle schooler whose voice just blows me away.

We finally get underway about 5 or 10 minutes late. Why am I surprised? This is the story of my weekend. But really, what do I have to complain about? It’s a perfect day for a marathon. We start out running due east, directly into a sun that has just passed the horizon and is full into our faces. It’s crowded for the first mile or so, but the crowd is moving. It’s a short distance to where we turn through a traffic circle, moving the sun to our sides, and we’re shielded by the downtown buildings. I’m recognizing streets, buildings, landmarks from Doug’s tour of the course yesterday. I’m feeling a little stiff, but hope that once I warm up the running will feel better. It’s a good day for a run.

One of my least favorite things about this race is the way that the miles are marked. The markers are yellow strips across the roadway, with the appropriate mileage and the de rigeur “Greater Hartford Marathon” logo. If you know what to look for – as I do, owing to the course tour yesterday – you can spot them. But you have to be looking directly for them, and if – God forbid – you should be looking ahead of you rather than directly down at the ground, you would most likely miss the markings.

But today, I know what to look for, so I spot the first mile marker. I hit my split button and when the time flashes 9:33, I think, “oh well, crowds – sun in your eyes – a slow first mile – no big deal”. In a short amount of time, we are crossing the Connecticut River into East Hartford. The next few miles tick by at a pace that seems closer to my expectation. 8:56, 8:57, 8:48. My legs still feel a bit off, but I’m still hoping that I might have a good day.

The half marathoners leave us between miles 3 and 4, and now the marathon heads out on an extended out-and-back through East Hartford and South Windsor. We will run north to the 11-mile mark, and then retrace our steps for much of this route before heading back over into Hartford proper at around mile 20.

This is the part of the course that most surprised me on the tour Friday, and it’s my favorite part of this race. While I’ve been expecting an East Coast urban marathon, this large portion of the Hartford Marathon is nearly rural. We run through a lovely residential area, with acreages and horse farms and sheep farms and nurseries, large houses (all decorated elaborately for Halloween, with jack-o-lanterns and newly blooming mums) with long driveways and huge oak trees. Doug has counseled me that this is where we will have support, and he was absolutely spot on. There are people out cheering, and there are (surprisingly) many, many musical acts for entertainment, too. And in case you’ve forgotten, there’s a race going on. The first thing to get your attention focused back on the race is the flashing lights of six motorcycle cops leading a couple of pace cars, and then the “wow, I never get to see these fast guys” experience of having half a dozen or so Kenyans go sprinting past you in the opposite direction.

Too bad that my own race is not going quite as fast. After my first four miles, my pace starts to fall off, just a slow, gradual fall. I keep willing my legs to go a bit faster, but I’m monitoring my heart rate, and I seem to be working hard enough, but by mile 10, my pace has fallen to an average of nearly 9:10/mile. 9:10 will (just) get me a 4 hour marathon. I’m always on the hunt for a sub-4 race, and I think I have a good shot at it today. After all, Hartford is reputed to be a fast course – it’s mostly flat – and the weather, even as we approach the halfway point, is holding. Cool and sunny. Just perfect.

I pass the halfway point at 2:00:02, and think that sub-4 is easily within my grasp. All I need to do is hold steady and run a good second half. The wind is starting to swirl now, but in the second half of the race – particularly after mile 17 or so – the course twists and turns so much that it makes the wind a non-issue. It’s a good day for a fast race.

But somebody needs to give this message to my body, since it is clearly not cooperating. After the turnaround at mile 11, I get a strong sense that I’m in the back half of today’s field, and I can never shake that feeling. The larger issue is that I feel fine and my heart rate is right where it should be, but somehow the splits come in slower than my expectations. I will my legs to turnover faster, but there are some days when the legs will only go so fast, and I’m starting to accept that this is one of those days for me.

As part of the total package, my stomach is going south gradually, too, and I’m starting to contemplate stopping in a port-a-potty for the first time ever in a marathon. I keep a constant running calculator going in my head after the halfway point, and as each split comes in slower than expected, the realization that sub-4 is probably not in the cards today grows in strength. I’m having sporadic code-brown type cramping, so I stop taking gels, and start drinking water only sporadically. At mile 20, I’m searching desperately for a port-a-potty, prepared to give up precious minutes. But the waves of cramping abate when I stop eating and drinking, and at some point I know that I’m out of never-never land. The question now is just, when does this thing end?

The fan support in this race is missing at the most critical time – in those miles from 20 through about 24. This is also the only part of the race course that has any real hills. They are not monster hills, but after 20 miles of flat, even the railroad overpasses and freeway ramps are pretty hard to handle. I think, in passing, that this course might be better run in reverse.

When I looked at the race description before registering for this marathon, I was drawn by the names of a couple of streets that are part of the race route. There is Pitkin Street, which is familiar because Aspen, my home-away-from-home, is in Pitkin County. And then there is Charter Oak Avenue. I grew up in an Iowa town of the same name, and just moved my mom from Charter Oak a few weeks ago. When Doug drove me on this race course on Friday, I took somber notice of the street signs and all of the associated business names. It all seemed to hit home.

Today, I cannot find either street to save my soul. I’ve been running for nearly four hours, and I know that I should be on Charter Oak Avenue by now, but I don’t see a single sign indicating where I am. Thank God – and the wonderful volunteers – that I know I’m on course, but my mileage-addled brain has reached that dull-as-a-rusty-nail state. The only thing that I can contemplate at this point in the run is the race finish.

And, of course, the race finish finally looms in front of me. A cool thing about the Hartford Marathon is that you run through a stone arch that leads into Bushnell Park and the finish line. A miserable thing about the Hartford Marathon is that you have to make a sharp left-hand turn into the park, and run uphill to cross under this arch, all in the last quarter mile of the race. But still, those things do not diminish the joy of finishing the marathon in a time of 4:04:41. It’s not a horrible time, but just a bit longer than I’d planned on.

The aid stations in the Hartford Marathon are plentiful and well staffed and well stocked with water and Ultima. In fact, there are almost too many aid stations, if that is even possible. Hartford does organization extremely well. Except at the finish line. The well intentioned organizers have decided to make a “green” statement at the finish line, and they do not have bottles of water or Gatorade for us; instead, they have a ridiculous long pipe outfitted with multiple drinking fountain spigots. The thought is good, but the execution truly sucks. If ever you need your own bottle of water, it’s at the finish line. With no fluids available, I don’t stick around long in the finish area, even though there is a big spread of food. Besides, I have to get back to that &^*)% hotel before they kick me out!

It doesn’t take long to get back to the hotel and shower and check out, and then I go out for a very late breakfast. Hey, nothing is going on time, so why should I not have breakfast just because it’s the middle of the afternoon? The food is okay, but the coffee is not so great, but I remember seeing a Starbucks a few blocks back, so I head over there. I have plenty of time before I need to get to the airport for my flight, and spending some quiet time at Starbucks with my magazine and a good cup of coffee sounds like the perfect way to while away an hour or so on this cool autumn afternoon. When I find the Starbucks, though, it’s closed. I’m an hour too late. Surprise, surprise.

Eventually, I make my way back to the airport (thanks again to Doug!), and the flight from Hartford to Washington Dulles takes off on time. But, of course, the Denver flight from Dulles is delayed by twenty minutes. It seems that this time warp will never end. It’s a long flight, and I try to stay awake to watch the latest Harry Potter movie, but my body craves sleep, and I give in. I’m a bit groggy as we land in Denver, but I’m wide awake again when I hear the captain announce, “Welcome to Denver. We’re happy to announce that even though we were late getting out of Washington, we made up time en route, and we’re ten minutes early at the gate here in Denver.” When I step off the plane, I walk out of the time warp and back into the crisp cool air of Colorado in October. Sometimes, it is so good to be back home.

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