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.

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