Monday, June 29, 2009

The Green Ribbon State Marathon

Vermont City Marathon 2009

Paul Theroux, my favorite travel writer, once said, “Travel is nasty”. In an interview about one of his books – a travel book, of course, not his fiction writing – he told the interviewer that there was nothing so tedious as a discussion of the comings and goings at airports, and all the waiting in between, et cetera, et cetera. And so, dear reader, I shall spare you the tedium and frustration of my trip to the Vermont City Marathon, with the endless airline delays and postponements and missed connections and the impromptu night at the Hotel Intercontinental at O’Hare (yes, in Chicago, a city that I had planned to simply pass through). I’ll start my story of the Vermont City Marathon with my arrival in Burlington, Vermont, on Saturday, May 23rd, at around 1 p.m. Nevermind that my original arrival time was scheduled about 20 hours earlier. Nevermind at all.

The first thing that I notice when I arrive at the airport in Vermont is how green and verdant this place is. It’s a greenocopia! Trees, grass, plants, flowers, everything as far as the eye can see. And as far as the eye can see is quite a ways – what with mountains in the background and water in the foreground, and – yes, say it with me – green everywhere. I’ve heard of the Green Mountains; have seen the name on the map; I just never imagined that the name was quite so literal.

Leann – who enticed me to run this thing this year – meets me at our hotel (she has, in my absence this Saturday morning, made a trip to visit her friends with their menagerie of critters, including a trio of pigs named Clyde, Clyde, and Clyde), and we commence on our own tour of exploration (as well as the mission to procure bagels and such for the morning). We drive the course as best we can (and as much as we have the patience for), for the course map and our driving map are not necessarily in synch. But who, really, cares? After all, we’re running this thing for fun, and to bag yet another state, and to see the local flora and fauna, so who really needs this level of preparation?

Late afternoon, we head to the expo and pasta dinner where we meet up with fellow TMer Doug (who was my host and guide in Hartford, CT - holy cow [or perhaps not, the cows also belong to Leann’s friends, with names like Stanley and Earl – that is, the cows, not the friends], have I already run a marathon in Connecticut?). Our little threesome has a great pre-dinner TM get together, catching up on all the news that’s fit to print (or not). We manage to score pre-dinner dessert at the Ben & Jerry’s booth at the expo, but otherwise make quick work of the place, even though there are lots more exhibitors than I would have imagined. We head to the pasta dinner, which is adequate but not really worth the $25 price of admission. Making it all worthwhile are the companions who join us at our table. There is the couple (gay, at least I think so, tattooed and pierced accordingly) from New York, with all kinds of advice about running NYC; on the other side of the round table is the couple (non-gay, and I think they were a couple, of sorts) from San Francisco, willing to advise us on any left coast running. The SF guy, in particular, is memorable. Everything he says is a bark, a command, a declaration. Ya gotta just love the guy…or else you might want to talk to your NY or NJ friends and order a hit.

Race day morning arrives. Leann and I have decided on our course of action for getting to the start on race morning, with opportunities to change course in the event of nerves taking over: we’ll take the shuttle to downtown from our hotel, but – in case the shuttle is tardy in picking us up, we come prepared to drive. Luckily (and wisely) for us, the shuttle arrives outside our hotel fairly promptly (even though it seems hours late), and we are deposited downtown, close to the start line, with ample time for multiple passes through the port-a-potty lines, along with time to check our stuff at the bag check. We have time to scan the crowd – at the appointed time/place – for Doug, but he doesn’t show. Because the first race I ran “with” Doug was in his hometown of Hartford, and I was responsible for our missed connection in the morning (my own dallying in port-a-let lines), I feel doubly responsible for making the connection this morning. It – surprisingly – starts to rain as we wait for Doug to appear. Leann is tough, and just deals with it. (I suspect that with the normal humidity in New Orleans, perhaps she doesn’t even notice that wet stuff is falling out of the sky.) Me, on the other hand, I’m a wimp, and I don a poncho that I’ve brought along (flotsam from the Myrtle Beach Marathon a few months ago). We scan the crowds again for Doug. No Doug. We do see our NY buddies (kinda hard to miss all those tattoos) (happily they don’t notice us), as well as the guy from San Francisco (we don’t approach him, on account of not needing to have a greeting barked at us this early in the morning). Still no Doug. The countdown for race start is approaching, so we ditch the meeting spot in favor of a place somewhere behind the start line. Sorry, Doug. We waited!

The race start is a mess – it’s nearly impossible to cross the line between the staging area and the start corral – but who really cares? We’re only here to bag the state. I ditch my poncho – who really cares if I get wet? It’s a comfortable temperature. It seems like an opportune time for us to discuss our anticipated pacing, seeing as how Leann and I have been talking in general terms about running together today. We quickly agree that we’ll play it by ear (or perhaps by foot); we both expect to run this thing somewhere between 4:15 and 4:30. Good, that’s settled, and now we’re moving across a start line. Leann provides color commentary as the local DJ provides endless babble. Thankfully, I will have only Leann’s commentary after we clear the start area, and I can tune out the DJ.

And so, Leann and I set off on a 26.2 mile journey. For me, the odd thing is how comfortable I was running the entire New Orleans Mardi Gras Marathon with Leann, even though I rarely run with others at all, and never before with anyone for an entire 26.2 miles. I’ve been looking forward to running Vermont with her, no matter what that means in terms of time or pace. Oddly (again), I have no qualms about this, even though she is clearly the faster of the two of us; I know I slowed her down at Mardi Gras, but I also know that we had a great time there. Happily, I know I can handle a faster pace today; I also know that I’ll be quite okay if Leann decides she needs to ditch me at some point in order to take off to run her own race.

We quickly settle into a comfortable pace, with commentary about everything around us….the DJ, the crowds, other runners, the terrain, the green, the rain, the scenery……..everything. When we’ve run for more than ten minutes without seeing a mile marker, we determine that we missed the one mile split. The race course is a bow-tie arrangement with multiple loops, and this initial section takes us south along a grand old street in Burlington that essentially captures the antebellum spirit that I was looking for earlier this year in Jackson, MS. Who knew we would find such mansions here in the frigid and inland north? Leann and I both admire the widow’s walks that adorn many of the homes along this stretch of the route. It’s early; we have plenty of energy to notice such features. We do manage to catch the mile two marker; we’ve accumulated a time of 19:04 so far. We both do the math (just over 9:30 per mile), and are both happy with our start. We go back to chattering away.

By now, we’re running north again, soon to transverse the pedestrian mall on Church Street for our first time, and to cross the start area for our second time of the day. The DJ is still spewing on with whatever DJs find to spew on about. By now, we’ve clearly missed the 3 mile marker, and we’re starting to wonder if the course is only marked every other mile? The rain, which was light at the start and for the first few miles, is now falling with more of a sense of urgency.

The next section of the course takes us on our first serious foray up north of the downtown section of town. As the rain falls more heavily, and as we leave the downtown area for the second time, I hear my name from the side of the road. It’s incredible, but there she is – Emily, a woman I met in Laramie a week ago at a 5k, and she’s shouting my name. Emily is a younger woman, a native of Laramie in exile in Vermont at present; the Professor introduced us at the 5k in Laramie, and I just mentioned that I would be running in Burlington this weekend. Emily is – obviously – not running today, but came out to support another friend of hers (also from Laramie) who is also running today. With nearly 8000 runners in this race, the odds of spotting her – especially on this rain-sodden course – are incredibly small. And yet, there she is, shouting my name. It’s a great early-race boost.

This section is one that Leann and I neglected to drive yesterday, so it’s all new discovery today. The road (highway 127) is completely closed to traffic, which makes it nice. The rain is falling pretty seriously, which makes it not so nice. But this is a clear out-and-back route, so Leann and I start watching seriously – in both directions – to see if we can spot Doug. Unfortunately, we don’t see him. But, with so many runners, and this early in the race, it’s difficult to scan each runner’s face as they go by.

The turnaround comes just before the mile 6 marker; by now, Leann and I have gotten into a rhythm of catching each marker as we pass it. Without noticing, we’ve gradually sped up from our initial 9:32/mile pace to one of 9:11. My heart rate – the guiding light for my pacing in marathons – is so low that it’s not even a factor or concern today. The rain – and accompanying cool temps – can take all the credit. The rain has lessened as we head back into the downtown area just after mile 8, but now the puddles on the road are an issue. I look intently for Emily again, but don’t spot her. That’s okay; I’m so busy trying to keep my shoes from becoming waterlogged that watching the side of the road takes substantial effort.

We soon pass the start area for our third time of the day, and, thankfully, the DJ has stopped broadcasting. It’s a good thing, or else I think Leann might have taken drastic measures. We retrace our steps and end up heading down the pedestrian mall on Church Street again, now in the opposite direction. Leann is, quite suddenly, spouting gibberish: New York! Beijing! I think that perhaps the rain and the early miles have fried her brain. But then she points under our feet, and I see the city names carved in the granite tiles we’re running on. Aha.

Now we head out for our serious loop down south. This time, instead of the genteel mansions with the widow’s walks, we follow an industrial street. We no longer have the full use of the road, and the standing water from the rain is an on-going issue. But it’s okay; we’re on familiar ground – this is a part of the course that Leann and I have covered in our course tour (not to mention comings and goings) over the last day.

The rain lets up some; we run on; we talk. After our burst of semi-speed in the north loop, our pace just naturally scales back to a more manageable 9:30 or so level. We’re very comfortably trotting along, but the new challenge is the road surface itself. We noticed this during yesterday’s tour: the road is quite broken and potholed here, so it requires some serious attention to footing. The scenery along this stretch is probably the least interesting of the entire course, so watching the road is not all that difficult.

Around mile 11, we veer westward, over to Lake Champlain, and on to some of the prettiest 15 miles that any marathon can offer. The good news is that we’re finally off that miserable stretch of road. The bad news is that now we’re on a much narrower bike path. The views along the bike path are quite lovely, especially on the stretches that front the lake. But with 8000 runners (3000 in the marathon and 5000 in the relays), that makes a lot of traffic on a narrow path. The rain stops altogether, then spits and feints a bit, and finally starts again as we head back into the downtown area. This time around, it’s a bit of a relief, as we’ve been dreading warmer temperatures. The rain keeps things nice and cool.

And cool is good, as we approach the toughest part of the course: the Assault on Battery. That is how the race literature refers to the 6 block stretch along Battery Street right at mile 15, where the road climbs precipitously. The bad news is that this is clearly the steepest and longest climb of the race. The good news is that it’s only 6 blocks long. The better news is that we’re right back in downtown Burlington, so there are lots of people here to cheer us up the hill. The best news of all is that there is a crew of drummers out at the base of the hill, beating out a rhythm that does nothing less than propel you straight up the hill. Even today, in what has become a steady rain again, the drummers are pounding away, the most invigorating beat imaginable. Leann – who humiliates this Rocky Mountain denizen with her mountain goat climbing ability – says “see you at the top”, and takes off to truly assault Battery. As for me, I’m a little intimidated until the beating of the drums gets under my skin, and then that energy just starts my legs churning. I’ve been afraid that Leann will totally embarrass me, but I’m able to keep her in sight, and reach the crest of the hill after she’s had just a short recovery period, waiting for me. I think, if that’s the worst that the day has to throw at us, life is good.

And, indeed, life is good from here on out. Although we’ve barely passed the halfway point in the race, it feels like the hardest work is done. We head north again, on a long slog of roadway that Leann and I drove yesterday. Today, I’m grateful for the detours off this main thoroughfare that take us through some nice, homey, tree-lined residential areas. I’m impressed by the number of people out in one of the cutout sections – an entire subdivision with tailgate parties happening, despite the early wet conditions. (When I visit these new locations for races, I always assess the area; would I, could I live here? The answer for this race – for Vermont in general, and this particular residential stretch in particular – is a resounding yes!) The rain finally stops altogether, and the sun makes its (somewhat unwelcome) appearance. Leann immediately protests this occurrence – she has much more experience with rain, sun, heat, and humidity. But the streets are (mostly) treelined, so the steam room effect is not nearly as bad as it might be.

Back out on the main, heavily traveled road, we see the guys in front of us pushing a car across the road. Yes, those are racers, complete with bib numbers and chips on their shoes, but they’re pushing a car. Wha??? This happens almost directly in front of us. We see, very quickly, what has happened: a car with a poorly set parking brake has lost its mooring in a driveway across the street, and drifted onto the race course. We applaud the guys – who could have just let the car block the race path, but who took time (and not a small amount of effort) to put things right again.

Now we’re at the northernmost place on the course, and we have a short and steep downhill pitch – on badly pitted and potholed asphalt – to the bike path that will take us back south to the finish line. A guy passes us – one of the few people we will concede ground to in the second half of the race – and he just seems to be having a great time. He assaults the downhill, and we follow suit.

We are at mile 22, and the rest of the course is just absolutely beautiful. The bike path follows the contours of Lake Champlain, and provides ample views of the waterfront. It doesn’t hurt that we’re on a gradual downhill grade to the finish. By the time we hit mile 20, we’re on a solid 9:30 or so per mile pace, with very minor deviation. It’s felt like a very good, comfortable pace for some time. But now, with the sun shining, and heat radiating off the ground, it’s a bit harder going. We pick up the effort for the next few miles, although our pace for miles 22 and 23 are right on track with the previous 21 miles. It’s tougher going now, owing to the fact that the bike path is narrow and a bit uneven, and we’re passing lots and lots of runners who have run out of steam. Leann has drawn the tougher duty on this section of the race, needing to weave more than I do to avoid the people we’re passing. This stuff takes concentration! We’re not talking much, just working on getting to the finish.

For a while now, people have been shouting out “Go 4-6-7!” as we pass them. I finally glance over at my running partner and confirm that it’s her bib number. Nobody yells “Go 2-4-3-5!” (my bib number), and I wonder (not for the first time) if maybe I really shouldn’t put my name on my shirt one of these days.

We hit splits for mile 23 (9:36), and Leann calls for mercy. Same effort + tougher conditions (heat, humidity, dodging people) = roughly the same pace. We back off the pace almost imperceptibly (mile 24 is 9:44), and it helps us both recover a little. But now we can almost smell that finish line. We are churning along through mile 25 (9:09 – at this point, our second fastest mile of the day), and then somehow we pour it on for mile 26. This finish is convoluted – we scoped it out yesterday – the race course does a big u-turn at the end, and sends us from the asphalt bike path onto a wooden boardwalk (briefly, thank God), then across some grass, and then onto a concrete path for the finish. As we hit the wood (my huge fear – long story from a million years ago: falling on a wooden boardwalk, splitting my chin, winding up in an emergency room, etc.), we see the 26 mile mark, and we both hit our split buttons: 8:56, our fastest mile of the day. Leann manages to grunt out “stupid”, and from deep recess in my brain, I respond with “Stupid is as stupid does”. But at least no hospital visit today. So much for an easy training run. We’re both now racing for the finish – not really racing each other, or even the clock, but making that plunge for the line. How can you not plunge for the line? People are calling out “go blue!”, and I realize that they are cheering for both of us, since we are – completely unwittingly – dressed almost identically. We look like the freaking Bobbsey Twins, if you get right down to it. Why did it take 26 miles for me to realize this?

The finish line finally comes into sight after all these last minute twists and turns, and we lunge across it. More people yell “go 4-6-7!” If this race were to go much longer, I might get an inferiority complex! As it is, I’ll discover, through our finishing times and placement as well as the finish line photos, that Leann has the better finish line surge – she clearly bested me at the line. But I’m quite thrilled with a time of 4:07:21, which is far faster than I imagined running today. It’s now sunny and warm, and my marathon partner and I can finally enjoy the beautiful day that it’s become.

The finish of the Vermont City Marathon is, amazingly large and crowded. The organizers put on a fine spread for the full marathoners (and they police the food tent so that the relay runners only have access to a smaller array of goodies). Leann and I head through the line, and I grab a little of almost everything – the sweetest orange slices ever, cookies, cereal bars, Dixie cups of chex mix, Vermont cheddar cheese in yet another Dixie cup – oh, yum!, and, of course, more Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. It almost pains me that we have a late lunch planned down the road from Burlington – the spread is among the best I’ve ever seen at a marathon finish.

But we do have more sight-seeing and partying to do, so we take the shuttle back to our hotel. After some quick showers, we head down the road to Waterbury and a great little brewpub, “The Alchemist”. A couple of friends of mine – people I used to work with in New Hampshire – live in Vermont now, and we meet them for some great brews and food while catching up. The scenery along the way there and back is everything you might wish for Vermont: mountains all around, a road that follows a winding river, picturesque villages and buildings, and green everywhere. (Don’t ask about the whale tails sculpture.) It’s still light and pleasant when we get back to Burlington, so we park the car downtown and take a stroll along the streets that we ran on earlier today. Naturally, we find ourselves at the (we believe original) Ben & Jerry’s shop for a “nightcap”, and we peek in some storefronts as we enjoy our second helping of ice cream for the day. Travel, I think to myself, to somewhere as wonderful as Vermont, is quite delightful.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Boston 2009: the year of cold hands

What can you say about a race that you’ve run seven times previously? That you love the thing? That it makes you crazy? That the travel is difficult, and expensive, and always worrisome? That the course itself is very challenging, and it can kick your butt, but that the fans are like no other fans in the world? That on either end of the 26.2 miles – either in Hopkinton (town motto: “where it all begins”) on race morning, or along Boylston Street at the end – and for every step along the way, it’s a celebration of running?

That’s how Mick described my addiction to this race a year ago, when I was puzzling over my crazy compulsion to come back to Boston year after year. “It’s a runners’ festival”, he said, and I immediately knew he was right. It’s like gaining membership to one of the greatest running clubs in the world, and then being invited back year after year. Even after seven – now eight - years of running the Boston Marathon, I can still barely believe my good fortune each year when I get my confirmation card in the mail.

It was easy to play mental games in those early years. I ran my first Boston in April 2002 in a time of 4:00:55 after just squeaking in with a qualifying time of 3:55:59. To be clear: that qualifier left not a second to spare. Early that year, I broke a rib (skiing, Beaver Creek, steep bumps) in the critical stages of my Boston training, and wasn’t at all sure I could even make it to “the show”. I startled myself with that performance – I went out and ran a comfortable pace on a reputedly tough course, with sub-optimal training – and yet I still ran the second fastest marathon of my (then very short) marathoning career. Lucky for me, the next year Boston changed qualifying standards, easing my previous 3:55 requirement to 4:00, so I had, once again, just squeaked in. Barely able to believe my good fortune, I vowed to go back to Boston to vindicate myself and shave off a mere 56 seconds so that I could say I had run Boston “sub-4”. Why did I choose that goal? Who knows. It was an easy number to quantify, I guess. And, I think, in retrospect, one that seemed imminently doable at the time.

But it turned out not to be quite so easy. The next three years were all hot, and I don’t do so well on hot days. I suffered through 2003 and 2004 in 4:16:41 and 4:29:34, and felt like death warmed over at the end of each race. It seemed so wrong, so unfair, to be training harder each year, and yet to be going backwards in the final standings. The third hot year – 2005 – I managed my race much better, but still finished in a disappointing 4:04:00. The consolation prize that year was the fact of my highest age-group placing to date. Still, it wasn’t sub-4.

2006 looked like the year it would happen; the weather was almost picture perfect – by marathoners’ standards, anyway. Cool and cloudy all the way. My training was solid. But it just wasn’t my day, and I knew it all the way, so when I crossed the finish line that year, I felt like I had failed. That I had run a time identical to the previous year (4:04:00) was no consolation. I should have been much, much faster!

The next year, 2007, was the year that Boston almost didn’t happen, owing to a Nor’easter that rampaged in New England during marathon week. This was also my first Boston without Mick. Given the cold, wet conditions, and the absence of my biggest cheerleader, I had low expectations for the day. So, of course, dear reader, you see the punch line before I can even type it: I ran a breakthrough Boston time of 3:57:25. Finally. I had my sub-4 at Boston. Time to retire from the race.

But, of course, with addiction, there is always a reason to have just one more go at it, one more excuse to repeat the experience. In 2008, I had serious health issues, and thought I might have to retire from running altogether, or, at the very least, retire from marathons. So, I justified to myself that I needed to return to Boston “just one more time”. It was, I told my friends and family, my “Boston Swan Song”. I would carry my camera and capture photos of every landmark along the way that had come to represent the Boston experience to me. I would stop and smell the flowers. I would have a beer on Heartbreak Hill. I would high five every kid along the route, and kiss the girls at Wellesley. Yes, I did all this, and ran my slowest Boston to date (4:38:59), and followed it all up with an emergency appendectomy back in Denver a day or so later.

Ever in search of a new reason to return to the Runners Festival, in 2009 I settled on one that would – possibly, with luck and some hard work – serve me for the next three years: a goal to run Boston ten times in a row. After all, 2008 marked my seventh consecutive, so I just need three more. At the St. George Marathon in October 2008, I ran a qualifying time for Boston 2010. Now the pressure hit: to be able to show up healthy enough to finish a marathon on April 20th, and then, later in 2009, to run just one more qualifying time. If all goes well, I won’t even have to think about a new raison d’etre until sometime after April 2011.

And so, in April 2009, I board a flight headed eastward. We marathoners typically fret over the race day forecasts; this time around, I find myself in the unusual position of fretting over the local forecast. Our mild spring has turned, on the eve of my departure for Beantown, into a veritable winter wonderland, with nothing short of a blizzard in the forecast for my travel day. Being a Nervous Nellie about travel and connections and such, I consider, for a short time, heading to the airport on Friday afternoon in hopes of getting out of town a bit early, but it’s just not gonna happen: I can’t get my act together that quickly. Lucky for me, that works out just fine. I time my Saturday morning drive to the airport earlier than normal, and when I get there, it seems that all systems are go. The plane I’m on – the one that takes off eastward only a few minutes late – is full of people who sat on the tarmac for hours and hours Friday night, only to be turned back because of weather and crew schedules. Happily, I land in Boston (with an easy connection through LaGuardia) right on time late Saturday afternoon.

It turns out that this is to be the weekend of easy connections – airline and otherwise. While negotiating the connection at LaGuardia (not a simple one, requiring a shuttle bus ride and a second trip through security), I meet up with another Boston-bound runner, a woman from Denver. It’s my good fortune to make a friend simply by offering to share the complex connection experience with her, and we exchange contact information for potential races back in Colorado after this weekend. Once on the ground in Boston, I have one of those six-degrees-of-separation experiences that can make you become a true believer if you’re not already so inclined: folks from Chattanooga (obviously in town for the marathon) that I meet on the T turn out to be friends with Ian (No Twitch), one of my Taper Madness buddies. Even better, they know my hotel at Kenmore Square, and, once off the T, they point me in the right direction. It all seems easy and familiar and very, very homey.

It’s too late at my arrival on Saturday for me to accomplish much other than a quick walk to a grocery store for some supplies. My hotel room does, quite accidentally, look out over Fenway Park. Although I’m not a huge baseball fan, there’s something about the energy of the Saturday night game that is just undeniable, so I open my curtains and take a few photos of the bright lights of the stadium. One thing is clear: I’m in Boston again!

Sunday is all about friends and connections. Just as it should be. My good friend Nan drives down from Maine to share brunch with me, and to fill me in on her plans to enter a PhD program in the fall. Nan drops me off at the Hynes Center so that I can hit the race packet pick-up and expo. I’m able to coordinate this with Michele (1L) and her friend Jody, so the three of us have a successful (read: spend lots of money) shopping experience (of course, all – ahem – essential running gear). (Note to self: shopping at an expo with like-minded friends is not so easy on the credit card.) The day passes in a blur of activity. Michele and I practically walk right into Paul (Stihl Going) as we make our way back to the hotel after our expo experience; Paul and his friends are just leaving the Sunday afternoon Red Sox game, and are passing directly in front of our hotel.

Sunday night finds us at a pasta dinner that Michele has arranged, another Taper Madness event, along with a few other running friends we’ve all collected along the way. It’s my first chance to meet Betsy and Matt, and another chance to see Beth, as well as the rest of the crew. The pasta is great, the shared wine is unexpected and tasty (thank you Betsy for ordering!), and the company is, as expected, exhilarating. But we all have a race to run Monday morning, so the evening ends early, and Michele and I head back to our hotel, the Buckminster.

Michele – a native of Natick (the fourth town along the Boston Marathon course) – has run the race countless times, but has never taken part in the downtown Boston experience with the requisite yellow school bus ride out to Hopkinton and the hours in Athletes’ Village there. So this year, she has joined me at the Buckminster, and together we make our plans for race day morning. This Sunday night, we both assemble our gear for the morning. Everything is going just fine, with only one problem: I can’t find my gloves for race morning. I’m certain that I packed them; in fact, I can actually see myself pulling them out of the basket in my bedroom back in Denver, and dropping them into my suitcase. Then where the heck are they? I empty my suitcase for an umpteenth time, doublecheck the dresser drawers in the hotel, but they are just plain missing. Dang. The expo is long since closed, so that’s not an option. Dang again.

On race morning, Michele and I stop at the Dunkin Donuts just a few steps down from the hotel for giant cups of joe to go, and then hoof it to Boston Commons to catch our bus. It’s cold – a good thing on race morning. But I’m annoyed that I have no gloves. I try to keep my hands warm around the big coffee cup, but it’s too well insulated, so it’s a poor provider of warmth. By now, Jody has joined us, and we start the long wait for buses. I watch all the people around us, envious of the gloves that everyone seems to be wearing. Everyone, that is, except me.

Eventually we make it onto a bus, and then out to Hopkinton and Athletes’ Village. Have I mentioned that I’m nervous before a race? Well, yeah. That, combined with my seven years experience at this race, makes me anxious to get to the start line as early as I can. We spend a little time in the village, have lots of photos taken together, and then I dump my extra clothes at the baggage bus, wish Michele and Jody good luck, and head up to my corral. Have I mentioned that it’s (blissfully) cold this morning? Well, yeah. That fact, if it holds, might make this a great race. If only I had gloves – I would be extremely happy!

The race gets underway, and then I’m on autopilot. This all feels so familiar – in a very good way. Still, it has an aura, one of the ultimate running event. I can’t quite believe my good fortune to be here yet again. Every year, as we start to run this stretch out of Hopkinton, I feel like a bit of an imposter. Every year, as we run this stretch, the crowds on the side of the road make me feel welcome and at home.

My expectations for the day are not really even formed as we start running; what do I want out of this day? Well, hopefully, to run somewhat faster than last year, when I took my time and made a photo journal of the course. Also, hopefully, to run a bit faster than my last several marathons, which have all been pathetically slow, but each one has been just a bit faster than the last. Finally, as always, I just want to have a good marathon day – which means I pray to not have a death march at the finish, and to finish strong. That might not seem so much to ask, but – and trust me on this – anyone who has ever run a marathon can attest to the fact that it’s huge.

Somehow, I end up on the left hand side of the road coming out of Hopkinton, right in the middle of the crowd. That has never happened before, and it screws up my ritual of high-fiving all the folks who line the road on the right hand side of the road there. Rather than darting across the road, I just settle in and run along. It is going to be, I’m already recognizing, one of those days where the race just happens on its own.

There is a beeper going off somewhere near me, and I figure that somebody has configured a watch or heart rate monitor to sound at some interval. There is so much noise at first – the announcers, the crowds, the people around me – that you can’t hear it clearly. But once we get out of the crowded start area, I hear it more definitively. It’s really annoying. The noise seems to come from directly behind me, and I keep expecting the owner of the noise to pass me along this stretch, and then the annoyance will end. But other then a few brief silent interludes, it keeps sounding. So very annoying.

The first mile marker comes up, and I’m pleased to see a time of 9:07 on my new Polar watch. My old trusty Timex died on the weekend of the Little Rock Marathon, and I thought it just needed a new battery. By the time I replaced the battery and realized that the entire watch was kaput, not just the battery, it was too late to get a replacement from Timex in time for Boston. So the replacement I bought just last week is a Polar watch (largely because of the heart rate monitor), but I haven’t really had time to get to know it at all yet. I consider myself lucky to have even gotten the thing configured with the HRM today, and I feel good that I can take a split with it.

Other than that incessant beeping that seems to be coming from a source near me, my only other complaint in the opening mile of this race is the fact that my hands are cold. I’ve decided to wear a long-sleeved technical shirt, figuring that I can take it off and tie it around my waist later when (and if) it warms up. But my hands are still freezing. I look at the gloves that people have started to discard along the way, and have fleeting thoughts of stopping to pick up a pair to wear for a mile or two. But thoughts of my own perpetually runny nose and how I handle it with my own gloves prevent me from doing anything quite so foolish. I figure that I will just deal with the cold hand syndrome.

It’s not until midway in my second mile that I have a revelation: the annoying beeping is coming from my own watch. Oh crud!!! How in the world am I supposed to deal with that for 24+ more miles? I think that I should have spent some more time with the Polar manual before wearing it today. But I’m afraid of screwing up my splits for the day, so I dare not to press any buttons on the watch. I try to accept that I just have to live with the never-ending beeping. Lord, help me through this race! I pray that the people around me don’t find this nearly as annoying as it is to me.

For no reason in particular, I veer to the left of the course today. I feel like someone on a train, just taking in the scenery. The mile markers go by rhythmically; after the first mile, my next few splits are 8:59, 9:00, and 9:08. These times are far better than my previous four marathons this year. What makes it particularly sweet is that I don’t feel like I’m working at all, and my heart rate is staying nice and low. What a treat.

But really, today I’m more concerned with my splits every 5k along this course than I am about each mile. Boston has timing mats at every 5k mark along the course, and they post your time on the BAA website in real time as you cross each mat. My new beau, The Professor, is also a marathoner, so he knows the Boston drill. He has, for the last several weeks, been telling me that he will be “watching” me run this race by sitting at his desk and watching my 5k splits as they are posted. Vainly, I want to run nice even splits. When I cross the first 5k mat in 28:01, I know that I’ve started too quickly; it’s just not going to be possible to maintain that kind of pace on this rolling course, especially with those hills in the last half of the run.

The watch beeping continues. I finally decide to try to address it, so I start pressing buttons on the Polar. I never figure out how to turn off the damn beeping, but I do discover lots of interesting information, just not the controls I’m looking for. I’m still worried about screwing up my splits, so I finally give up on my quest. Besides, by now I’m starting to tune out the beeping. The headwind, in any case, is carrying the sound somewhere far to the west of the race course.

The 10k mat arrives, and I pass it in 57:23, which makes for a net time of 29:22 for this 5k. I think of The Professor, and wonder what he will make of the fact that I’ve slowed by more than a minute. But, quite honestly, I’m still fairly pleased with my splits, since these middling miles are always the toughest for me on this tough Boston course. Today, I do not feel left behind on the uphill surges quite as much as I normally do. Today, my heart rate is staying nice and low, and I’m feeling fine. Except, of course, for the fact that my hands are still cold. I still have not given in to the temptation to stoop down and pick up a pair of discarded gloves. But I can’t say it hasn’t been a temptation.

In every marathon, there are little goals or markers along the way that you look forward to. These goals make the miles melt away. Today, one of my markers is Michele’s mom. Michele has provided a description of her mom, and precisely where she will be, just outside of Natick at the “Entering Wellesley” sign, on the left hand side of the road. Maybe I’m running on this side of the road all day in anticipation of seeing her. Moments after I see the Wellesley sign, I see a woman who meets Michele’s description to a “T”: black jacket, short dark hair, old-fashioned webbed lawn chair. I make eye contact from a little distance, and the woman smiles at me. I smile back, and run directly up to her. “Hi!” I say. “Are you Michele’s mom?” The woman gives me a startled look, then shakes her head, saying no. Oops! And I was so certain. Ah well. I can practically hear the Wellesley women from here. It occurs to me that the purpose of a marker is to give you a place to run towards, and it doesn’t really matter all that much beyond that.

I’m on autopilot now, just enjoying the day. I enjoy the screaming of the Wellesley crowd, and than I watch guys get kisses from the Wellesley women. I love that last downhill stretch after the college into the town of Wellesley, and check my time at the halfway point: 2:03:22. This is, by far, my fastest marathon of the year, and also my most unexpected. I feel good; my heart rate is in check, and the day is still cool. What more could I ask for?

Well, I might ask for gloves, but that seems a bit out of the question. We have picked up a pretty substantial headwind, but my only complaint about that is the fact that my hands are still cold. I’m kicking myself for not wearing a pair of socks on my hands.

My 5k splits have settled into a consistent pattern. At 15k I clock a net 29:42, and at 20k 20:53. I think about The Professor “watching” me, and it’s like having a camera on my shoulder. My 25k mark is a net of 29:41, and I feel happy that I’ve stayed so consistent throughout.

But now I’m screaming down the hill into Newton and the 16 mile mark, always my most emotional place on the course. For my first 5 Bostons, this is the point where Mick would find me on the course. I had grown so accustomed to having this place to look forward to that I started to take it for granted. But two years ago, when he was first running for mayor, he did not come to Beantown with me. Last year – since I felt so lousy anyway, and he had a better offer in France for the same weekend – I had no expectations that he would be with me. Today, The Professor aside, there is nothing that I’d like to see more than his tall lanky body, wearing his dorky sunglasses and (no doubt) a goofy cap, waiting for me at the bottom of the hill here – or on the start of the climb that leads up and over the freeway, out of Newton. But, of course, that is a ship that has sailed. There is no Mick. Just a tough stretch in a tough marathon course.

But this is perhaps my favorite part of the Boston course, and perhaps why I keep coming back here, wanting to get it right. The uphill stretch starts here, and it’s a measure of your readiness for the race: how you handle these hills. People who started far in front of me, people who went screaming past me on the downhills, people who have the speed but not the guts: this is where I start to pass them. This is where they start to walk. This is where I’ve learned to start digging deep.

Perhaps that’s what I love about this race: that you are required to dig deep for five tough miles, but that you are rewarded far out of proportion in this stretch. The people who line the race route in Newton pay you back in spades for bothering to be out here today. It’s also here, at mile 20, that I see Beth – my second marker along the course. Today, Beth comes out and jogs up hill with me, and updates me on my fellow Tapir runners. Paul went by, she says, not having a great day. Michele is up ahead of me, as is Bill Rodgers – but Bill Rodgers is not so far ahead of me as is Michele. Running with her gives me a boost, and then she peels off.

I hit the 30k mark with a split of 30:56, which is, in my estimation, not bad for an uphill stretch. I think The Professor should be pleased when he sees that my 35k split is 30:49. Even though I’ve slowed from the start, anyone who knows this course will recognize that my splits are remarkably even. I’m starting to really look forward to talking with him about this race, especially since, at this point – cresting Heartbreak Hill and heading into the last 7k of the race, most of which is downhill – I’m feeling really strong. This is why we run these races – to have these incredible last 10k experiences. Today is the first time I’ve had one of these days in a long time. Today is the first time I’ve felt like I’m racing towards the finish in over a year.

People have started to encourage me with a cry of “Go Pink!” on account of the fact that I’m still wearing my long sleeved very pink shirt. I love it. I remember, out of nowhere, that I had planned to put my name on my shirt one of these days, but completely forgot today. Ah well. My 40k split is 28:42, which is the second fastest of the day, and I’m ecstatic. The Professor has got to love that!

Everything about this race is familiar, and yet each time I run it, it’s all new. Today I see the stretch past Fenway in a new way; I’ve been walking here these last few days. We run directly in front of my hotel, and despite my joking ahead of time, I’m not at all tempted to stop early. I can taste this day coming together, can taste this finish that I had no reason to even hope for. As the miles have melted away, I’ve tried to do the mental math, and a new goal has gradually planted itself in my brain: to run sub 4:10.

Now, that number has no particular significance, just any old number drawn out of a hat. Only that number is faster than anything I’ve run in some time now, and suddenly it’s taken on a significant meaning to me. It’s what makes me pick up the pace a bit (my last five miles are not my fastest of the day, but pretty close to it), and to run with all my heart for the finish line. It’s what makes me feel like I’ve just conquered Everest when I cross that line in 4:09:39. Success. It’s like the hokey motivational poster. This is what success looks like. It’s not a PR, or a BQ, or even one of my fastest races. But it is – by far – the best effort I could put together today. And I’m extremely happy with that.

But it’s chilly (good for racing, bad for standing around at the finish), so I get my bag from the bus, put on some warmer clothes, and start the walk back to my hotel. I call The Professor as I walk, imagining that he will be, if not impressed, at least pleased with my 5k splits. “Oh, are you done already?” he says. “I’ve been so busy at work that I forgot to look at your splits.” Ah, so that’s how this will go. But I don’t let this get to me – not yet, I can’t let anything get in the way of this good feeling. It was a good marathon. It’s a good day.

Michele and I get back to the Buckminster at almost exactly the same time (both she and Jody have had very good days, too), and we head out shortly (after quick showers) to meet up with the rest of the Tapir group. After a missed cue or two, we find Paul at the Cheers bar, and have a great time over beers and burgers. It’s cool and rainy when we leave the bar, and my legs are toast from all the running and now all of tonight’s walking. But the T stations along the race route are still closed, so we’re consigned to walking; we use this as an excuse to stop for ice cream on our way back to the hotel.

Michele has an early flight in the morning, so she’s up and out of the hotel while I’m still (mostly) asleep. But I need to get moving, too, so I get up shortly after she takes off, and shower and pack up my stuff. It’s always surprising how scattered my stuff can be around a hotel room after such a short time. I double check the closet, the bathroom, the dresser drawers. Certain that I have everything packed, I pick my suitcase off the floor as I put on my coat. There’s a dark blob on the carpet. I know, even as I bend down to check it out, what I’m going to find: my gloves. These will be so nice to have for the next race.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Closing doors (Myrtle Beach and Little Rock Marathons)

Back in 2007, when I started my tour of marathons in the south, I had high expectations. I had been running pretty well – in fact I had just run my PR the previous December in Tucson (that’s the south, too, right?). So I signed up for the inaugural ING Georgia Marathon. But race day turned out to be hot and humid, the race was poorly organized (water and Powerade were lacking on the course), and the hills were just brutal. It was a death march. Later that year, in December, I went to Rocket City in Huntsville, AL, and encountered another warm and humid day. And another death march. I thought it impossible to have a three-peat, but on January 3rd of this year, I ran the MS Blues Marathon, in Jackson, MS, on yet another warm, muggy day, with more brutal hills. You guessed it: yet another death march.

A sane person might have suffered through the latter miles of the MS Blues race and thought “I’ll never run in the south again”. But not me. I thought, “I just want to finish off this southern tier of states, so I’m gonna do the rest of them all as quickly as possible!” You know the definition of insanity? Yeah. Me.

So instead of going home and licking my wounds, I went home and got busy making plans. First, to run the Mardi Gras Marathon in New Orleans at the first of February, following that up with Myrtle Beach in South Carolina on February 14th, and finally, capping the South by running the Little Rock Marathon on March 15th. I’ve told you about the Mardi Gras Marathon – the first of my southern marathons that was not a death march – it was actually a great experience, all thanks to Leann. But still, NOLA was warm and humid by the end of our run, and I was still happily anticipating closing the door on the South after the next two runs.

I had not anticipated that another door would be closing hard behind me at the same time: that Mick and I would split. As Dan Fogelberg said, “Somehow I just didn’t see it was coming, it took me by surprise”.

Myrtle Beach Marathon

On the night before I fly to the east coast for the Myrtle Beach Marathon, I get a call from Mick’s sister. She asks me to have him call her when he gets to my place. What the heck? He hasn’t mentioned anything to me about coming to Denver tonight. But, then again, he often shows up with little notice - but rarely with no notice at all. Tonight, I can’t reach him on his phone, so I sleep uneasily, expecting to hear the key in the lock, and to have him wake me. But he never shows up. I get up on schedule, and head to the airport, a little uneasy about the entire experience. Over the course of the next several hours, I think about how little Mick and I have seen each other lately; well, to be brutally honest, we’ve seen less and less of each other since he was elected mayor nearly two years ago. I chalk it up to busy schedules, conflicting paths in life, and I think that once I get done with all these marathons and he gets done with the mayor gig in Aspen we’ll be able to spend more time together. Somewhere along my travels, Mick and I connect by phone, and it seems all the uneasiness was for naught, and everything seems normal again. Once I land in Charleston, I have some driving to do to get to Myrtle Beach. I forget all about my earlier worries, and start getting my mind set to run a marathon the next morning.

It’s a busy couple of days in Myrtle Beach. I’m rooming with Michele and Melissa (“M&M”), and when I get to our hotel suite, which looks out over the Atlantic Ocean, I’m amazed at how these two friends seem exactly like the Bobbsey Twins, down to their matching necklaces and almost identical green sweaters. How is it that I never noticed this before – that they are twins in more than spirit? My arrival in Myrtle Beach is late afternoon, though, and soon we all head out for a pre-race dinner with fellow Tapir Chuck and his wife Allison. I met this lovely couple a year and a half ago in North Carolina, and it’s a delight to see them again. They have chosen a great little local place with exceptional Italian food. We eat, we catch up, we laugh, we talk about marathons and all things running. It’s a great evening. The perfect cap to the night is the stop we (M&M and I) make at the local supermarket to get ice cream for dessert back at the hotel.

Race morning arrives, and we’re all relieved that it’s not raining, since rain has been in the forecast until sometime in the last 24 hours. M&M and I get to the race start together, and when the race start sounds, Melissa takes off like the rabbit that she is. Michele is intent on running this one easy, so we end up running together, at least for the first many miles. This is a treat for me, since it means she’s slowed down to run my pace – well under her capability. Soon I see Larry Macon – a 50-stater who just set the Guinness record for most marathons run in a year, and whom I met in Mississippi – and I call out to him. Michele and Larry and I run together for awhile, and it feels like we’re the pied pipers of this race – our little entourage grows and grows, and we all talk and laugh; the first two miles of the race go by in the blink of an eye. At some point in the first mile, fellow Tapir Chuck passes us, and we call out to him. He slows to chat with our little group briefly, then we wish him well, and he’s gone.

We leave Larry behind after a couple of miles, and the group breaks up, but then reforms itself. These first several miles just melt away. A few miles after we leave Larry, we hook up with a couple of younger women from Michele’s home Atlanta area, and we all run together for a while. By the time that we leave these two young women, we’re approaching mile 7. Mile 7! It’s come up so quickly that it hardly feels like we’re in a race!

This stretch reminds me exactly of why I’m here. This is southern beach city at its best (or worst, depending on your point of view). On our left are tall hotels fronting the beachfront; on our right is a non-stop promenade of beachside businesses: t-shirt shops, bikini stores, tattoo parlors, game and video arcades. You can smell the suntan oil in the air – even on this slightly gloomy February day – and I am transported back to Daytona Beach on a spring break trip in the late 1970s. This is everything I wanted for a beach marathon.

Somewhere around mile 8, the course (a figure 8 design) doubles back on itself, and we cross a chip timing mat. We leave the beach road and run along a street with more shops, fewer beachside businesses, and lots more breakfast restaurants advertising cheap eats. Michele has left me in her wake, and it might be lonely running if not for the half-marathoner who falls into step next to me. My 50 States singlet has attracted Charmaine’s attention, so I have a running partner for most of the rest of this first half of the effort. We chat about everything under the sun – running and life and families and whatever women find to talk about. The good news is that the rest of the first half passes quickly. The bad news is that once Charmaine and the rest of the half marathoners part ways from us full marathoners, it gets lonely very quickly.

Thank heavens for the 50 States singlet. People continue to approach me and talk to me for the next several miles. Now we’re heading north along the same road that we started out on today (our original journey on this road went southward). I like this stretch of road. The Daytona-like high rises and t-shirt shops give way to a more gentrified beachfront. At first there are fancier hotels, set back further from the road, and then we hit the residential neighborhood. There are beach access points along this stretch of road, and we can now hear the surf. In fact, as the tall buildings give way to private homes and apartments and condos, we have a much better view of the ocean. I think to myself, “this view alone was worth the trip”. I mentally make a note to come back here later for a walk on the beach.

But the weather is starting to play havoc on my plans for the day. As in all of my Southern death marches – even though the temperature is mild today – I’m fading in the second half. Chuck had talked about coming back on the course after he finished the half, and I’ve been looking for him between miles 18 and 20, but as a light rain starts to fall, I realize that a rational human being would not stay out in this weather after racing 13+ miles. The crowds along the side of the road are, quite logically, thinning. It’s starting to get very wet out here.

Around mile 20, the course moves off the coast, and now we get the triple whammy: a flat and fairly boring inland road, driving rain, and the final six miles of a marathon. I tell myself that this is far better than a death march in 80-some degrees and high humidity, but it’s still a mental game to get to the finish. With less than a mile to go, I catch up with two women running together, one wearing a t-shirt with “My First Full Marathon!” emblazoned on the back. She’s clearly younger than me, with much wider hips, and my competitive spirit is engaged. It’s also clear that the friend she’s running with is a good cheerleader, getting crowd support for the first-timer. I decide I can’t let this woman cross the finish line in front of me.

So I pick up the pace, and target this duo. I close in and pass them with about a half mile to go. Aha! I think. I’ve got it in the bag! But I’ve timed my surge poorly, too early. It doesn’t help that this stretch of roadway is nice asphalt where the rain has pooled, and I can’t seem to avoid the puddles, and now my feet are soaking. The first-timer and her cheerleader stage a surge of their own, and they pull in front of me as we race through the chutes to the finish line. Yet another blow in the south, and yet another reason to try to get the heck out of Dodge as quickly as I can. But my finish time – 4:29:08 – doesn’t suck as badly as my last few finish times, so I can’t complain.

It’s wet and not getting any drier as I navigate the finish area. No M&M, and we haven’t really talked about what to do post-race, especially in the event of inclement weather. Thankfully, the race organizers give out rain ponchos at the finish. Unfortunately, the ponchos can’t keep me from starting to chill – wet feet and all – almost immediately. When I can’t find M&M, I check the finisher’s board and see that both of them have completely blown away their sandbagging estimates for the day, so I’m confident that they’re okay. I head for the bus and our nice, dry hotel.

M&M have, it turns out, taken refuge in the massage tent, and they arrive back at the hotel shortly after I do. The rest of the day goes by in a blur – the heavenly hot showers, the hugely satisfying southern meal, the evening spent in front of the tube, watching some inane movie with good friends, finishing off the ice cream.

Sunday morning comes early, and I drop off M&M at the Myrtle Beach airport before heading out on the two hour drive back down to Charleston. As we approach the MB airport, we see scads of cyclists on the road, and I realize now that the race organizers pack the weekend full of events: today is the bike race. I think that Mick might have liked to have come to this race, and that we should have planned accordingly and brought our bikes along to ride today. But that didn’t happen, so I make do by calling him and chatting a bit about the race and South Carolina. At any rate, he’s at a bike camp in California, so it wouldn’t have worked out – at least, not this year. I think to myself, “we’ll come back and do this event together some day”. And then I head down to Charleston and the long flight back to Denver.

Little Rock Marathon

Little did I know, on leaving Myrtle Beach, and mentally making plans for another bike trip with Mick, that he was making plans of his own….and that his plans didn’t include me. Barely two weeks after I get back from Myrtle Beach, he tells me that our eight year relationship is over. How could I not see something so momentous coming? The news is devastating. I feel like the world is ending, and I don’t know if I can handle this.

But a good friend tells me to “get back out there” immediately, and recommends signing up for eHarmony. So I sign up, and immediately regret the action. Ugh! “Matches!” Matches that have absolutely nothing at all to do with me – or so it seems. It all seems like a terrible idea, and I contemplate closing my account after just a day or two. But then after just a couple of days, eHarmony delivers a match that seems promising. This new guy – a professor - seems to feel likewise, and we quickly start chatting on line. The night before I leave to fly to Little Rock for the marathon there, The Professor calls me for the first time, and we talk for hours. It all feels a little surreal, and a bit too good to be true. I’ve gone from utter devastation to a not-so-cautious hope in just a matter of weeks. Given this whirlwind, leaving Denver to run yet another marathon – the last of my southern states – seems the most sane thing in the world.

Little Rock is, thankfully, just a single flight away (on a small regional jet) from Denver so I don’t have to worry about connections, and leave at a sensible hour on Saturday morning (for a Sunday a.m. race). My seatmate – a native of Little Rock - points out that General Wesley Clark is sitting just a few rows behind us. Until this moment, I’ve completely forgotten about the political aspect of Little Rock. But that’s all about to change.

After landing in Little Rock, I get on the hotel shuttle that will take me to the Peabody Hotel. The Peabody is the host hotel, and is located within a short walk of the marathon starting line. The shuttle is full of other marathoners, and we start chatting in the way that runners always do, about the race tomorrow and running in general, and other marathons we’ve completed or plan to run. Everyone is also buzzing with the General Wesley Clark sighting, and then we are interrupted by a very chatty – and informative – shuttle driver. Do y’all know, he asks, that the vice president is staying with us at the Peabody tonight? Uh, no. Somebody asks, do you mean the Vice President – Joe Biden? Yep, one and the same. There is, it seems, some meeting scheduled at the hotel at which Mr. Biden will be the featured speaker. And that means that the hotel will be abuzz with energy….and it will be swarming with Secret Service. Ah, no wonder General Clark was headed to Little Rock. Isn’t everyone of import going to Little Rock today?

Well, the one person of import who is not in Little Rock today is Melissa. Melissa and I had planned this marathon together many months ago, but that was long before her son Cole’s soccer team had the Cindarella tournament of their young lives. So instead of bagging another state in her 50 state marathon quest, Melissa is filling her role as a soccer mom in Florida. It’s as it should be. Before getting on the plane to come to Little Rock, I was a little sad that I’d be on my own, especially after my own emotional storm of the last couple of weeks. But Little Rock has taken care of that….nothing about this weekend is set up to leave me feeling lonely in the least.

For one thing, it’s hard to feel lonely when you’re stuck in the hotel lobby for hours and hours, waiting for the Secret Service to allow us access to our rooms. The lobby is a happening place! The contrast is remarkable: runners and political players. We runners are all dressed in jeans and t-shirts (it’s fun to see the wide variety of events represented by the t-shirts) and running shoes; the political players – arriving for the formal dinner – are all decked out to the nines – tuxes and evening gowns and lots of bling. And then, as if the pandemonium in the hotel lobby is not enough, the famous Peabody Hotel Duck Walk begins, with Bart Yasso (of Runners World) as the honorary duck master.

The duck walk is an old tradition at the Peabody hotels. The legend involves a few southern men, a failed hunting trip, and plenty of alcohol. The duck walk itself is mostly hype and showmanship, but it’s still fun to watch the ducks as they exit the indoor fountain where they while away their days and waddle off on a red carpet to the elevator that will take them to their evening nesting spot up on the top of the hotel.

After the duck walk, I hook up with Karin (runnershnog) and Ken for dinner, and they very graciously treat me to pizza at Gusanos. It’s always fun – and illuminating – to meet TMers in person. Karin is running the marathon in the morning, and Ken (her husband) is her biggest cheerleader and fan. I love hearing about their work - they are both PhDs and professors/researchers (I think there is a theme growing in my life – apparently I like hanging out with highly educated people!), and they both clearly love what they do. Ken is chatty and engaging, and he loves to give props to Karin. Karin surprises me – she is much quieter – maybe even a little shy - than her written persona would have me expect. They are a delightful couple, clearly very supportive of one another. Karin is planning to run quite a bit faster than me on Sunday, so after we finish the pizza, we wish each other luck, and we head off to our respective hotel rooms.

It’s late when I finally get access to my hotel room, and it’s not until that time that I discover that my running watch has died. It’s too late to head out in search of a new battery, and so I have to wrap my head around the thought of running the marathon blind – no heart rate or pace information to guide me. For someone who loves collecting, analyzing, and studying mile-by-mile data during and after the race, this adjustment will take a little time. But really, what choice do I have?

In the morning, I discover just what a phenomenal hotel the Peabody is. While the hotel room service breakfast doesn’t officially start until well after my cut-off time for eating before a marathon, the staff here accommodates my request for my usual toasted bagel with cream cheese, orange juice, and coffee – all delivered to my room at exactly the time I request. In fact, they even call ahead of time to make sure I’m ready for the food to be delivered. By this time, I figure that even if the race is a complete bust, I’ve already had a magnificent time in this town.

But luckily for me, the good stuff keeps happening. Race day weather is coolish and humid, but not so cold as to be uncomfortable waiting for the starting gun. I meet a woman, Denise, while waiting in the bag check line at the UPS trucks, and the two of us make our way to the starting area together. It turns out that we’re nearly the same age (but, owing to a difference of just a few years, she is not in my age group), and we’re planning to run this thing in about the same time, around 4 ½ hours. When the starting gun sounds, Denise and I are chatting. We fall into an easy pace together, and – as it turns out – we stick together for the next 24 miles.

The course winds around Little Rock and makes numerous loop-the-loops, not necessarily my favorite kind of course. But today, it’s just right. The course crosses the Arkansas River a couple of times in the early miles, passing by the Clinton Presidential Library. After that, the rest of the first half is a moving tour of all the major political and governmental landmarks of the city. We pass by the State Capitol more than once, from different approaches; we pass by the Governor’s Mansion (yes, that’s where Bill and Hilary got their political start); we pass by the Little Rock Central High School, famed for the school integration battles back in the 60s. I’m awed by how much history there is here, all packed into such a small city.

My panic over my watchlessness has subsided, mostly due to my friendly and generous running partner. As we pass each mile marker, Denise calls out our split. We’re running exactly in the range that I would have expected to run alone – 9:something for most of the miles. This course rolls slightly in these first 13 or 14 miles, so we see a little variation, but otherwise we’re running a nice steady pace.

At mile 14, the race course turns upward, and there are two miles of solid climbing. You can see the field of runners start to fall apart; it’s a serious hill here. Somebody in the crowd says, “well, yeah, you know now why this part of town is called the Heights”. Oddly, the hill doesn’t really phase either Denise or me; we both just keep chatting and plugging along. We have, by this time, covered just about every subject under the sun. We’ve talked about our respective homes, careers, and families. We’ve talked about injuries and health issues and other running friends. Mostly, we’ve talked about marathons and running. It isn’t until here – just past the halfway point, after 2 hours of running together – that we discover we’ve met before. Suddenly, as Denise is recounting her story of running the Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon a couple years ago, I recognize her. “Hey!” I say, “I remember you now!” We talk a bit, and it comes to us both at the same time – how we ran together for a couple of miles in that race, right in the middle of it. It’s a very weird, small world.

Normally, when I hit hills early in a marathon, I have a sensation of going backwards as the crowd surges forward in front of me. But later in a race, I can usually hold my own, and often find myself leaving others in my wake. This is true today. Denise and I have been running very steadily, and although we slow a little on this stretch, we are suddenly passing many who have slowed much more than we have. We reel in runner after runner, and it feels pretty good. This hill goes on for a long time, more than 2 miles of solid climbing. Midway up the hill, George, one of the runners we reel in, pulls into a cadence with us, and joins in our conversation.

It would be hard to not notice George, even if he didn’t companionably join in the conversation. George is pro-basketball-player-tall, 6’8” or 6’11”, something like that, so he clearly stands out in a crowd. In fact, I had noticed him at the start line, just in front of us, since he was wearing a Mount Desert Island Marathon windbreaker – just like the one I wore to the start line. From here on out, we are a group of three.

We gradually overtake the 4:30 pace group. Marie, the pace group leader, is chatting away, and does an incredible job keeping her minions fired up as they approach each mile marker. Our introduction to this is at mile 16; when Marie spots the sign, she bellows out, “Do you see what I see?” and the rest of the troop responds with a near-military enthusiasm. It’s very inviting, and we end up running near this group for the remainder of the 26.2 miles.

This stretch of roadway is beautiful, heavily wooded, and clearly an exclusive part of town. We pass through grand old residential areas, and an upscale little boutique area, and then back through yet more wooded residential area. Although it’s taken us two miles to summit this part of the course, we descend much faster. When we’re back at a lower elevation, we turn northwest, running an out-and-back along a parkway, turning southeast in the direction of the finish. We can now see all the runners ahead of us who are that much closer to the finish. I’m starting to get the itch to pick up the pace; while I’m having a fun time running with my companions, my body is screaming for some variety. This is the point in a marathon where I like to kick up my effort a little; in my last several races, I have not had the energy to do that at this point. Today, I feel that I have a little surge left in me. I take this as a minor breakthrough.

So, after covering 24 miles together, I tell Denise that I need to change the pace a little. She’s in pain, and wants to stop to walk, so she bids me farewell, and I pick it up. It’s painful, but feels better at this new, slightly elevated pace. I’ve lost George as well, but I’m like a horse headed back to the barn, and nothing is going to stop me now.

Well, nothing except the harriers at the top of the last little hill along the course, offering Dixie cups of beer. I slow down and accept a cup, and it tastes great. I may end up making a habit of this. There’s something about the bitterness of beer - after all those miles of Gatorade and gels - that is just perfect late in a race. Yum.

When I talked to Melissa on Saturday night from the hotel, she asked me to run mile 24 for her since she wouldn’t be here to share the experience. Then her boys got into the game, and I had a list of dedications for various miles along the way. I wrote these on a little slip of paper that I squirreled away in a pocket of my shorts, and I’ve shared them with Denise throughout the day. Denise got into the spirit of the thing, and together we dedicated mile after mile to various friends and family. Mile 2 was for Melissa’s son Cole, and miles 9 and 13 were for her twin boys Adam and Kevin. We ran a mile for my mom, who has had a bunch of health issues lately, and we ran several miles for members of Denise’s family. Now I run mile 24 for Melissa, and plan my last dedications for the last couple of miles. Mile 25 I run for Mick, and for all the marathons that he shared with me over the last eight years; mile 26, I decide, is for “hope”, since I’m in the city of the man from Hope, and my hope extends from the new Obama administration to this new thing with the new guy, The Professor. There are lots of things to be hopeful for, and I feel it very acutely this weekend.

Shortly before the 26 mile mark and the final 90 degree turn that will take us onto the stretch leading to the finish line, I spot a woman standing in the middle of the road, attempting to hand something to the runners as they go by. Then I see there are several women doing this. What the heck? It’s far too late in the race for more gels. I get a little closer, and one of the mysteries of the course map is revealed to me. There is a notation on the map that nobody I’ve asked can explain: “Lipstick Stop”. Now I get it: the women are handing out lipstick wands – they have a choice of colors! – and there are signs reading “get ready for your finish line photo!” It strikes me as one of the funniest – and most fun – things I’ve encountered in a long time. I grab a nice pink lipstick, stop for a look in the mirror that the woman proffers, and get ready for the finish.

This last 385 yards, I decide, I will run for myself, plain and simple, just my own celebration of life and what it takes to come out and cover these 26.2 miles. This town supports the marathon in a big way – much more than I expected for a city of this size – and the folks who line the finish line area seem to applaud my self-indulgent gesture. Without a watch, I’m not really sure at all what kind of pace I’m on, so it feels good to see a time under 4:30 on the clock as I cross the finish line. (My official time will be 4:28:17.) To my surprise, I turn to see George finish just a few strides behind me. He grabs me in a big sweaty bear hug and says “thank you! You pulled me in those last two miles!”

The 4:30 group comes across the finish, and then Denise, and we all share in the glory of the moment, and have our photo taken together. But the glory is a fleeting thing, and within a few minutes, my little conclave of running friends is drifting out of the finish area, and heading back to our hotels to catch our respective flights home later in the afternoon.

The Peabody has been more than accommodating, and as a standard practice, they offer marathoners a late checkout. This, alone, is worth choosing the hotel. I have plenty of time to limp back to the room, shower, and then check out before setting out on my afternoon activity.

Many people have recommended the Clinton Presidential Library to me (“the double-wide”, on account of the library’s unfortunate resemblance to a double wide trailer), so after getting a late lunch, I hobble over to the library. True to reputation, the collection is compelling. I try to take it all in, but it’s overwhelming. I’m alone now, on this mid-winter afternoon, and something about the political connection starts to get to me. This is my first marathon post-Mick, and now I walk through the exhibits thinking how much Mick would love this. He would be in his element. When I see the Lance Armstrong autographed yellow jersey from one of his first Tour de France victories, I think of what it would be like to share this experience with Mick, and suddenly I can’t stay here any longer; I’m about ready to cry. I leave the museum, and start my journey back to Denver.

I stop at a gift shop on my way back to the hotel, thinking that maybe I’ll find a souvenir fitting for the new guy – The Professor – since we’ve agreed to meet in person this coming week. But nothing seems right. I don’t really know The Professor at all yet, and all of the tchotchkes in the gift shop seem perfectly suited for Mick, not for this new person. So I leave empty-handed, then go back to the hotel, and take the shuttle to the airport.

It’s dark as we take off for Denver – it is, after all, still winter even though it’s been pretty mild weather this weekend – and I watch the lights of Little Rock fade away in the distance. My mind is too full for me to be able to read, so I turn on my iPod and plug in my headphones, and try to sleep a little. On the way to Little Rock just yesterday morning, I had a hard time reading – my head was so full of thoughts of The Professor and the possibilities and the excitement of a new romance. Tonight, I try to bring those thoughts back around, but the last 24 hours keep intruding. I’m thinking about General Wesley Clark and VP Joe Biden and the entire Clinton experience. I can’t help thinking how much Mick would have loved this, and how much I would have loved sharing this experience with him. There will be time – and marathons – to share with someone new in the future, maybe The Professor, maybe somebody I haven’t even met yet. For tonight, I’ll take a little time to mourn what I’ve lost. I lean my head against the window and cry, just a little. And then we land in Denver, and I pack up my headphones and iPod, and I head back home, alone.