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.