Sunday, February 08, 2009

Twin Sisters of Different Mothers

Mardi Gras Marathon 2009

Just after my parents’ wedding, in January 1955, they left a cold and snowy Iowa – near the banks of the Missouri River – for a honeymoon trip that traced the path of the Missouri to the Mississippi all the way down to New Orleans. My childhood was peppered with stories of that great city – of the wide river, and how the city buried their dead above ground, and of the fascinations of the French Quarter. When my father died before my second birthday, the collection of slides from that wedding trip became one of my few connections to him. I knew I needed to see New Orleans for myself.

But, as Robert Frost said, “way leads on to way”, and somehow, I never found my way along that particular southern path. When Katrina hit in 2005, I rued this truth, fearing that I had missed my opportunity. But early this year, fate – in the guise of my 50 state marathon quest, as well as a very generous TMer – intervened, and I found myself registered for the New Orleans Mardi Gras Marathon.

That generous TMer was Leann, who offered not only a place to stay, but transportation as well, not to mention full guide services, and, at the last minute, a running partner for the entire 26.2 miles. In the weeks leading up to the marathon, I came down with a nasty case of bronchitis, and I wondered about my ability to finish the run. But I never doubted that I would finally make the trek to the Big Easy. I just wasn’t going to miss the chance.

So on February 1st, in the wee dark early hours, I woke up in my own suite of rooms in Leann’s very homey abode, and shared bagels and bananas and coffee with my host. After so many pre-marathon meals in look-alike hotel rooms, it seemed weird to be sitting at a kitchen table, sharing our meal. Leann had already shown me that New Orleans is a very compact city, and the drive to the Superdome, where the race started, would be easy and short. We took our time, and left for the drive with plenty of time to spare.

Or at least we thought. The traffic getting into the Superdome parking was all jammed up, and even the unflappable Leann started to get nervous. There was really no reason to worry – it’s a chip timed race, so who really cares when you cross the start line? But there’s something about toeing the line that makes it “real”, and we were both of a mind to do that. The good thing about the crawling traffic into the Dome was that we were able to see that the ample bank of port-a-lets was, thankfully, not also jammed up with long lines. We finally got inside the dome, quickly decided that there was no time to check bags for the finish so we stripped of everything except what we would wear for the race, and we hurried to the start line. We got there in time to make a quick pass through the port-a-lets, then squeezed our way forward as far as we could, saw a Coast Guard helicopter flyover, and then we were off.

But this is not a story of just a race – it’s a story of an experience, one in which I was treated like royalty. And if I was royalty, then Leann is the queen. On Friday night, she picked me up at the airport, and we headed straight for one of her chosen local joints for a seafood dinner. It was late – around 9 p.m. – when we arrived at Deanies, but the place was hopping, and there was a 30 minute wait. So we put our names on the list, and Leann said, “come on, I’ll show you something”. We crossed a parking lot, climbed a little hill, and she pointed: “see that? That’s the 17th Street Canal. It broke just up there.” I’m awed. In town for something like 15 minutes, and I’m looking at the infamous canal, a canal that tonight it seems so benign. Leann points out more things – the huge pumping station that the National Guard put in after Katrina – and tells me the lake (Lake Pontchartrain, that huge body of water that I’ve seen heretofore only on maps of a hurricane-stricken city) is just beyond them. Some of her favorite restaurants used to occupy that lake front property. No more.

Back at Deanies, I ask Leann’s guidance on ordering, and we both end up with something that I can only call the “crawfish extravaganza”: a sampler plate of crawfish etoufee, crawfish au gratin, crawfish hush puppies, and fried crawfish. When we sit down at the table, the waitress sets a bowl of boiled potatoes in front of us. I’m mystified. I’ve had bread, pickles, tortilla chips, olives, and all kinds of things offered up as appetizers before, but never boiled potatoes. Leann encourages me to taste one, and I quickly figure out that this has been my loss. The dark-skinned little orbs have been boiled in a spicy mix, and are delicious. I’ve been in New Orleans for about two hours now, and I’ve already fallen in love with the local food. How could I have taken so long to get here?

Leann gave me a tour of the city on Saturday, so I recognize a little bit of the first part of the run, and within the first mile, we are turning onto Bourbon Street for our jaunt through the French Quarter. If I wanted to complain about anything in this race – and I don’t, but it seems di rigueur – it would be that the course goes through the Quarter too early, when the pack is still all bunched up, and it’s still very crowded. But really, what’s to complain? Going slowly helps me to appreciate the architecture and the funky businesses and to recognize some of the storefronts that I saw yesterday. I point my camera over my head and shoot. Given my lousy weeks leading up to this marathon, there is no pretense that I’ll do anything other than survive. So I’m carrying my camera, and I’m ready to enjoy the experience.

On Saturday morning, after Leann feeds me a breakfast of strong coffee and good fresh fruit (fresh Luzziana strawberries – who knew they were ripe this early anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere?), she drives me to the French Quarter. We wander down the streets, we pop into a few shops, I stop to take pictures of musicians and voodoo fortune tellers and fine old French architecture. In the weeks leading up to this weekend, I have sent Leann a photo, from my parents’ honeymoon slide deck, of the Café du Monde. Leann leads me to this august tradition of the Quarter, and I first try to reproduce my mom and dad’s photo, and then we grab our tables, where Leann orders beignets and coffee for us. Earlier, at Leann’s house, she asked if I needed milk for my coffee. No, I answered, I drink it black. Now, when the waitress asks her about our coffee orders, do we want milk, she answers yes. She looks at me and says, “sorry, that’s just how you have to have it here”, and of course, she’s right. The coffee (with milk, thank you very much) and beignets are perfect.

After we make a short tour of the Quarter, we head out towards the Garden District, on a long out-and-back on St. Charles. Leann offers a running commentary as we run, pointing out parade viewing stands and noteworthy city buildings. Before we hit St. Charles, we pass through Lee Circle, where there is a statue of Robert E. Lee. Leann points out the fact that Robert E. Lee has his back to the west. Later, when I get home, I will find a photo in my parents’ collection of this same statue, taken from their hotel room. It amazes me how little things have changed over the course of 54 years.

After our beignets and coffee, Leann and I walk briefly along the riverfront. It’s massive, the river, with the city butting up next to it, and I finally get the significance of a large collection of the photos in the honeymoon slides: the river defines the city, maybe only in the way that London is defined by the Thames or Paris by the Seine. But it’s too massive, this river, and it’s the day before a marathon, and we have more sightseeing to do, so our stroll along this stretch of waterfront is short.

From the Quarter, we drive to the Garden District. Leann takes me down streets that we won’t run on Sunday, to give me more flavor. The architecture is exceptional. We pass by Emeril’s, and by Commander’s Palace, and by all the genteel antebellum mansions that I was expecting to see in Mississippi. But even with the mansions, the district comes off as modest, more substance and diversity than show. Now I recognize the New Orleans that I saw just a week ago in the movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, and on every street corner I see the house where the movie was set. We emerge onto St. Charles, and a streetcar passes by, and I feel like I’ve been here before, the scene is so familiar.

Today, on Sunday, we run directly down St. Charles. Leann and I comment on the homes along the route: I like that one, did you see those trees, what about that one? Leann fills in lots of details about many of the buildings along the way. Somewhere along the way, a woman on the side of the road yells out something, and Leann says, “a student”. We reach the lovely campuses of Tulane and Loyola (home of the touchdown Jesus – ask Leann), and then we turn off St. Charles for a lap through Audubon Park.

It’s a lovely park, and Leann’s home training ground. She points out fabulous trees, and she tells me about the alligator that lives in the lagoon in the park, and assures me that he is “in the mud” for the winter. It’s an educational tour through the park – Leann also points out the Cypress trees on the edge of the lagoon, and tells me about their “knees”, regaling me with a story about them. A woman on the sidelines calls out to Leann (“another student”) and then a man calls out (“a colleague”), and I’m starting to think that Leann knows everyone in this city.

Before we exit Audubon Park, we hit the “Blood Sweat and Beers” water stop, manned by people in ghoulish costumes, offering – along with the usual water and Gatorade – malted beverage. It’s a bit early for me to have a brewski in this race, so I decline. I’m kind of thinking about that sleeping alligator, figuring that it’s best for me to keep my wits about me just now.

On Saturday afternoon, after our tour of the city, we head back to Leann’s house, and stop at a local supermarket to pick up a King Cake. Leann gives me a rundown on the significance of the confection, and we meander through the market for a few other things. We walk through the seafood section, where Leann eyes the humongous shrimp that look like they’ve just been hauled out of the water. The price reads $4.99 per pound; Leann declares that this is expensive. I’m starting to understand why, when she was in Denver last fall for a conference and we got together for dinner, her only request was “sorry, no seafood restaurants, I get it fresh”.

We check out at the front of the supermarket, and the cashier looks at us and says, “you guys are twins, right?” We look at each other and laugh. The woman looks incredulous, “well, you’re sisters then”. It’s a statement, not a question. We laugh again But somehow it’s starting to feel true.

Our next stop is the Mardi Gras store next door, where there are more beads and costumes and things in purple, green and gold than you can imagine. Among the other things that Leann teaches me this weekend is the fact that Mardi Gras is a season, not a single day. I’m getting into the spirit of things, and just have to have some souvenirs. We’re still laughing as I try on numerous masks. “Subtlety is not the goal”, says Leann, and the mask I end up with is anything BUT subtle.

Back on St. Charles, we’re now on the other side of the streetcar tracks, and I finally stop to take a photo of the green streetcar going by. A woman, all in pink, runs up next to us and asks if we want a photo taken of us running together, and I say sure, and hand her my camera. She sprints away in front of us. Leann says, “see, you should never give your camera to someone faster than you”, and for a minute I think all my weekend photos are history. But sure enough, Miss Pink stops up the road a bit and snaps a couple of pictures of us. It’s that kind of city, that kind of race. Friendly folks. Then someone yells a greeting to Leann. I say “student or colleague?” For once, it turns out it’s just a friendly fan.

Around mile 10, we see Leann’s daughter Susie and her SO Adam. We stop, take photos, chat for a minute, and the silver-tongued Adam says “don’t you guys ever break a sweat?” I’m starting to feel the effects of the miles, but this makes me feel like it’s all a piece of cake.

There’s a theme in Leann’s family, and that is one of laughter. Shortly after we get back to her place on Saturday afternoon, her daughter Anne and her three grandsons arrive, and it’s pure pandemonium. These boys (ages 6, and twins at 3 ½) know the drill with King Cake, and before they are even inside, they’re clamoring “I want to get the baby!” It’s everything a visit with 6 and 3 year olds should be, including Leann watching the boys run outside and sprinting as she yells “put the knife down!”, and Anne asking “did he just bean his brother with that rock?” Later, my most vivid memory of Anne will be her laughter. If Tolstoy was right and all happy families are really happy in the same way, then, judging by this family, it’s a very good way. It’s clear they all love each other, and that they love to laugh.

We finish retracing our steps down St. Charles, circling around Robert E. Lee once again, and then we’re passing by the Superdome again. This marathon is a shoelace course where the first and second halves are discrete loops with some out-and-back mixed in, but you pass by the start/finish at the halfway point. It’s gotten a little warmer – the start was deliciously cool – and my heart rate is constantly in danger of going too high. Around mile 12, I tell Leann that I have to slow down, and that she should go ahead since she’s clearly capable of a much faster race than I am. Happily for me, she says “you’re setting the pace today”, and we slow down together.

But where would we be on Sunday without a proper pasta dinner on Saturday night? In the week before the race, Leann sent me a message saying, “Food! Why should I make all the decisions about food! Here – you decide where we should eat!”, and she attached a bunch of links to websites of some of her favorite local digs in the city. After looking carefully through the proffered sites, I chose Mandinas. So Saturday night we head over there for our pre-race feast.

And feast it is. We start out with a rich gumbo – full of seafood, and topped with rice. It’s practically a meal in itself. And then the main course arrives – angel hair pasta in a bordelaise sauce with about ten pounds of perfectly sautéed shrimp on top. While we eat, there is a party going on next to us – a group of about 15 women, and four of them are wearing tiaras. When they finish their meal, they have a gigantic King Cake for dessert. Only in New Orleans.

After the halfway point, we head north towards City Park and areas that were harder hit by Katrina. These are not the prettiest parts of the city, but seeing the remains of the devastation somehow makes it more bearable than just running through a regular rundown area. Maybe it’s a fascination with disaster. Maybe it’s the history. Maybe it’s that I feel like I’m in hallowed ground. It all feels like running through halls of history.

Or maybe it’s the costume guy. We’ve seen Costume Guy multiple times in the first half of the race, and now we’re following behind him again. I decide that I desperately need a photo of this guy, so we pick up the pace and chase him down. It turns out that not only is he flamboyantly dressed – full Mardi Gras gear, tutu, tights, sparkly shoes and wand – but he’s the nicest guy ever. He stops so I can capture him in all his glory. We run together briefly, and he tells us that he’s run a gazillion marathons, many of them here in his home town in full costume. I figure that he’s a city treasure.

The first place that Leann takes me on Saturday morning is up around City Park, and through some of the surrounding Gentilly District just to the east. This is part of the city particularly hard hit by Katrina, and Leann calls it a jack-o-lantern area. There are vacant lots where houses once stood, and crumbling homes that still have the National Guard graffiti – spray-painted X’s with shorthand containing the information about when the National Guard came through, how many bodies they found, and such. But the encouraging thing is that there are also houses with lights on and cars in the driveways. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to live here, in this ghost town. But people are doing it. I take no pictures. It breaks my heart to see it, and I don’t really want to remember the city in this particular way.

Around this time, we pick up a third person in our little entourage. The guy runs just behind Leann and me for miles and miles. He’s breathing heavily, so it would be hard to not notice him back there. Finally, after miles and miles and miles of this, Leann asks him to introduce himself.

But it turns out that our third wheel speaks no English. I ask him what language he speaks, and he offers up several: Italian, French, Spanish. While my cognitive powers are starting to slip, I’m able to conjure up enough French to learn that he’s from Italy, and we all exchange names. Unfortunately, my cognitive powers are not sufficient to retain his name. He sticks with us until around mile 22, where he says, “thank you very much”, and he fades off behind us. Later, I’ll look for him in the results, and sure enough, there he is, about ten minutes behind us.

The road at mile 16 of the marathon, on the border of City Park, is under construction. It’s atrocious. It’s that uneven surface that is left behind after the old asphalt is prepped, but before new asphalt it laid down. The good news is that this stretch is short – only a mile or so. The bad news is that it’s followed up with the only hill in town – an overpass. It’s not that I mind the overpass – it’s short, and on an otherwise pancake-flat course, not a big deal. It’s that I find myself completely humiliated here. Leann – the flatlander – says “I only have one speed”, and she pulls in front of me. Living in the Rocky Mountain state does nothing for me today – I’m reduced to barely a crawl. Good thing it’s a very short hill.

On the other side of the park – now that we’re finally heading south again, on the last stretch, around mile 19 – we hit the Red Dress Hashers aid station. I’ve been looking forward to this water stop for some time, and I stop to take photos. I also accept a Dixie cup of beer; what else could I do? It’s now gotten warm and more sunny than is ideal for a marathon. But the bonus is that, unlike the other side of the park, the asphalt on the road here is new and wonderfully smooth.

On Sunday afternoon, after the race, Leann will bring me back to the park for our last feast before I head home. Shrimp po boys at another local joint, “dressed”, in the local parlance, meaning served with lettuce and tomato. And can you have po boys without fries? I think not. It’s a perfect post-race meal. We sit in an enclosed porch at the restaurant, eating our meal. I’ve already taken photos of the interior of the place, for Mick: old political posters, for Hale Boggs and a host of other famous (or perhaps infamous) Louisiana politicians. While we eat, we’re watched carefully by some small birds that have found their way inside the porch, as well as a pigeon or two outside, despite the best efforts of the proprietors with the inflatable owl hanging outside from the eaves.

While we run along City Park, I look over and see a graceful white bird in a lagoon. Leann has already told me that the locals believe that the wild boars that appeared in the park after Katrina have driven out any alligators. I feel not greatly relieved by this revelation. I look again at the bird, and then see a whole flock of similar birds. I ask, not quite believing, “are those all egrets?” The answer is affirmative. I have never seen more than a single egret at one time in Colorado, and each time that I do, I’m impressed by their beauty and grace. Leann says, “they’re like pigeons here”. There go a whole host of romantic ideas I have about water fowl.

But we see just a few pelicans over the weekend, and there is no denying their grace in flight. The pelican is the state bird of Louisiana, and I don’t mind being caught rubber-necking whenever there is one on wing near us. During the race, one of these large, magical birds floats in the sky alongside us, pacing us before disappearing on a fishing expedition.

After mile 19, we pick up the pace a little. I’ve decided that I can abandon my heart rate monitor from here on out, and it feels better to stretch out our legs. We’ve been running at a really slow shuffling pace, and I have to think that Leann is bored out of her wits – I doubt that she’s ever done a training run this slowly, let alone a race. But she’s a trooper, and in these final miles, she continues to regale me with stories, and she points out more architecture along the way – the camelback houses, and the single and double shotguns.

I’ve done incredibly well managing my stomach and nutrition and heart rate today, but sometime after mile 24, I suddenly think “I’m going to hurl”. I’m lightheaded, and suddenly I don’t feel so well. I look down at my HRM, and discover the reason: I’m at max HR. Max. No wonder. Leann looks over and says, “are you okay?”, and I tell her, “I just hit my max HR, and I think I’m going to throw up”. Ever the sensible one, she says, “well, let’s slow down”. She doesn’t need to add the “duh”. But by now we’ve hit mile 25, and the end is in sight. There’s the freeway we will run under, and there is the Superdome, and then there is the finish line. Done. Another of my slowest marathons, but definitely one of my most fun, and the only one I’ve ever had the pleasure of running entirely with a friend.

Over the years, I have had the great good fortune to be hosted at marathons around the country by friends and family and brand-new acquaintances. Far more people have opened their homes to me, given me transportation, fed me, and gotten up out of bed in the wee dark hours of a Saturday or Sunday morning to go to a marathon with me, whether or not they were also running. The list is humbling: Kyle and Mark at Steamboat 1999, Nan for multiple marathons (Boston and Maine), Melissa for Tampa in 2004, my mom and my brother Stan for marathons in Iowa and Nebraska in 2005, Karen and Kerby at Seattle 2005, Jonni and Jim in Dayton for the Air Force Marathon in 2006, Mary – the lurking sunflower girl – for Wichita in 2006, and Michelle twice in 2008, for the Georgia Marathon in March and then again as a waystation on the way to and from Huntsville, Alabama, for the Rocket City Marathon. There is no use in attempting to rank these kindnesses, since they were all uniformly generous and outside my expectations, and I thank all of these hosts again. But I can fairly say that I have never before had a host who so passionately and thoroughly loved her home town and wanted to show it off, and succeeded in showing it off with such gusto. For that, there is no comparison. On this weekend in early February, Leann is truly the queen of New Orleans, and I am extremely lucky to be her loyal subject.

Before heading back to Leann’s after our po boy lunch, I get one last treat: a trip to the Metairie Cemetery. All those years ago, my mom told me about the above-ground burials, but that was not nearly sufficient to prepare me for the extravagance of the tombs. We drive into the cemetery, then park the car and walk. I take picture after picture of palatial tombs – and a solitary egret. It’s a weird and eerie experience; we talk about death and cremation and share thoughts and stories about burials – but it’s never sad. I think that New Orleans is a very good place to be buried, and maybe I should move back here when I sense my time is near.

In the summer after I graduated from high school, all of my siblings save my brother Dave and I had vacation plans. So my mom and stepdad offered us this: you two kids choose somewhere to go, and we’ll take you. The caveat was that we only had a short week, and the location had to be within driving distance. I voiced my vote quickly: New Orleans! But Dave wanted to go to Colorado, and he has always been the better politician, so by the time the four of us headed west across Nebraska, I had all but forgotten my initial request. I fell in love with the Rocky Mountains on that trip, and it was not long after I graduated from college before I moved to Denver. I can’t help wondering now, though, had we gone to New Orleans then, would I have been there for the hurricane in 2005?

In a way, I’m sad that I missed seeing the city before Katrina unleashed her destruction on the city. There are sights that I will never know as a result. But in a larger sense, I’m happy that I’m just now getting acquainted with New Orleans. The people who knew her before Katrina see ghosts: the vacant lots, the buildings that are damaged and crumbling, not yet torn down, not yet rebuilt, the missing trees, the people who will never come back. But me, I was treated to beautiful architecture, a city with fabulous food and a delightful diversity of neighborhoods and people, and a culture deeply rooted in parties and spirituality and just plain fun. Despite what Robert Frost said about way leading on to way, I don’t doubt that I’ll be back.