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.