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.