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.

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