Saturday, December 04, 2010

We Are Marshall

It's Sunday, November 7th, and I'm at mile 20 of the Huntington Marshall University Marathon in Huntington, West Virginia. Mile 20 is that place where you have to start to really dig deep, and you know that it's all mind over matter. It has turned out to be a perfect marathon day: I've seen a few time and temperature displays in the last few miles, and they have varied from 40 degrees to 44 and back to 42. The sun is shining bright in a cloudless sky, and there is absolutely no wind. I'm having an okay day, although I'm a bit disappointed with my pace right now - but I'll get to that. The tough thing is that I'm struggling to find the motivation to pick it up for these last six miles. And then I remember: the football. I've been looking forward to the football for months, ever since I read about it on the race website. And with that thought, I know I'm going to finish this thing strong.

But....let's start back at the beginning. And to start back at the beginning takes us back to Friday night, with Leann picking me up at the oddly remote little airport in Charleston, the capitol of West Virginia. It has taken me, quite literally, all day to get here. And we still have an hour's drive to Huntington.

The hour goes by quickly, though, as does pretty much all time spent with Leann. We laugh, tell stories, and laugh some more. Then we get down to business and start to look for food, which is more of a challenge than you might think. We get off the freeway in Barboursville, just a bit east of Huntington, as we've spotted the signs of the ubiquitous chains: Applebees, Chilis, Ruby Tuesday, etc. Surely we can find something decent to eat at one of these places. Surely, that is, if any of these places were still open. After many circuitous laps of the maze that is the roadway around this shopping center area, we settle on dinner at IHOP. At first I'm thrilled: breakfast! Then I realize that we'll most likely be back here for real breakfast in about 12 hours, so I decide I should have dinner food instead of pancakes and eggs. As I eat the bland turkey sandwich, I think: first mistake of the weekend. There's a reason IHOP is known for breakfast food, and not dinners.

But the weekend company more than makes up for the food disappointment. Leann and I continue on to Huntington, and then across the river into Ohio where our Comfort Suites hotel room awaits. It's late when we arrive - midnight or so - and Melissa arrives moments later. It's a slumber party!

Saturday morning arrives, and there's just no other way to put it: it's cold. Really cold. The sky is dark and cloudy, and the wind is whipping around, and it's cold. It seems like bad karma to complain about the cold, what with my recent history of way-too-hot race temperatures, but it's just the God's-honest-truth. Besides, I don't really have to complain. My two thin-blooded companions for the weekend are both from the South, and they handle the bulk of the complaining. I figure this helps me conserve some karma. They are both, after all, much faster runners than me, so they can afford the karma thing more than I can.

We spend the day doing typical pre-marathon stuff: searching out food (the IHOP, that beacon of breakfast food, is too crowded Saturday morning, so we opt for pancakes and eggs at the Bob Evans instead), going to packet pickup, finding my refrigerator magnet, getting provisions for race morning at a local supermarket, and - of course - fretting about the weather. We drive a good deal of the race course, and confirm that it is, indeed, as flat as advertised, which is not an easy feat given that we are in West Virginia, and other than this one little stretch of earth that is the city of Huntington, it appears that there are no other flat spots in the state whatsoever. We even drive down the road across the border into Kentucky just for grins. Then we fret about the weather some more. And then we go in search of food again.

One of the great benefits of this race is that your race entry fee includes a complimentary pasta dinner, so we head back to the packet pickup locale on the Marshall University campus. The pasta dinner is well run: ample quantities of spaghetti with marina sauce and a lettuce salad on the side. Pretty basic, but since it's free, nobody is complaining. Besides stoking up on carbs, we are expanding our social circle at this dinner. We meet fellow v-teamer Mark Kramer here, and fellow Taper Babs and her husband Tim. We also meet a few Marathon Maniacs: Greg and Pascal. There's nothing like pre-race chatter with other runners to get you stoked up for a marathon. Before heading back to the hotel, Mark directs us to the local Cold Stone Creamery so that we can complete our carb-loading with yummy ice cream. Even though we're all freezing, nobody passes on the ice cream.

Race morning finds us scraping the windshield with our room keys. Frost. Man, is it cold! But we've all bundled up, and the heat builds up in the car quickly. The outside temperature gauge on Leann's car varies from 26 to 29 on the way over into Huntington. It's dark, and it's cold. But we keep telling ourselves that this is far better than a hot marathon. It's got to be.

One advantage of running a small marathon that starts and ends on a college campus is the accessibility of the rec center and a place to a) stay warm until just minutes before the race start, and b) use real flush toilets. Marathons tend to bring your view of life down to essentials. Warmth and flush toilets. We're just about ready to head over to the start line, and I decide to avail myself of the flush toilets just one last time, so I tell Leann and Melissa to take off without me, figuring that I'll find them at the starting line. Sadly, I won't see either of them again until after the finish line.

The start line is a zoo. It's not a huge race, but with a half marathon starting at the same time, the starting area is crowded. I do see Pascal - the Marathon Maniac from last night's dinner - so we line up together and chat for a few minutes. Just before the start is signalled, I spy Lynne from the Taper Madness group, and call out to her. She and I are chatting, and end up rolling over the start line - wherever it is - together. The thing is, I never do see the official start line. This race is chip timed, but there is no chip mat at the start. This means that you "eat" the time you spend getting across the start, but since I'm more interested in chatting with Lynne, I miss the opportunity to capture the time it takes me to get across the start.

But steps into the race, I take off. I feel ready to run, and, quite frankly, I figure the harder I run right now, the faster I'll build up some heat. I've worn a large black garbage bag as a skirt to keep my legs warm, and now as we start, I decide to get rid of it. But that's easier said than done. I tug on the knot I've tied at my waist, and instead of tearing, the knot just gets tighter. I start to wonder if I'll have to wear the plastic skirt for the entire race! A few strategic pokes with my fingernails, and I make headway, and finally tear the thing off. Who knew that plastic bags were so durable? It's crowded for a short time, but we have pretty much the entire road, and before you know it, we're at the Mile 1 marker. First mile: 9:30. With the delay to cross the start line, I figure that I'm probably running around a 9 minute pace. Mile 2 proves out my theory: 9 minutes flat. I've forgotten my heart rate monitor this trip, so I am running completely by perceived effort, and after the second mile, I settle in to a solid 9:15 pace. It feels good. It feels natural. All systems go.

It's chilly, but not too chilly. My legs (I'm wearing shorts) are a little cold, but otherwise I'm fine with a long-sleeved shirt, singlet, and a second (throwaway) long-sleeved shirt. Gloves keep my hands warm, and a headband keeps my ears warm. I'm actually very comfortable after just a few miles.

The first 3 miles are a loop that takes us east of Marshall University and then u-turns to return us back to campus again where we cross the starting area, just heading in the opposite direction. Just after Mile 4, we take a detour into Riverfront Park, crossing through the 20 foot high floodwalls that protect downtown Huntington from the Ohio River. The river doesn't look dangerous at all this morning in the early, cold sunlight: mist rises from the water like a dream. We don't get this view very long before getting directed back onto the city streets.

Much of this race is through parts of Huntington that are just plain ugly and poor. But those sections serve as connectors to the prettier parts of the city, and whoever designed this course clearly understands where those pretty parts are. And whoever designed the race also understands how to supply a race with lots of fluids. There are aid stations every mile or two for the length of the course, something that is a treat, especially in a race of this size.

My solid 9:15 pace takes a small hit at Mile 6 where I have to stop and wait at an aid station while the volunteers try to catch up to the demand for water. If I had not just taken a gel, I would have skipped this stop, but I figure that I can afford the time. I have no time goals at all for today. My only goal is to finish strong, and I know that in order to do that I need to stay conservative and I need to stay on my nutrition plan. It's also clear - from even before the race starts - that I'm going to need a port-a-potty stop sometime in the race, so I try to keep myself from obsessing about a short delay now when I know I'll have a longer one sometime down the road.

The race moves along, and now we're running along a parkway that will take us to our first lap around the very pretty Ritter Park, and it's our first chance to see the race leaders coming back in the opposite direction. I look for Melissa, and I look for Leann, but I don't see either of them. The lap around Ritter Park is nice: a solid, crushed gravel surface. Even though it's early November, it seems just past peak leaf-viewing season here, and there are lots of trees and pretty leaves in the park.

After the lap around Ritter Park, we head back west, and now I get to see runners behind me. Again, I look for familiar faces and see none. I pass Sara, a 50-stater I know from Duluth, and we exchange greetings. Just before Mile 12, I spy a port-a-john without a line, and finally take my break. I only lose a couple of minutes at this stop, but it changes the entire race. Before the stop, my pace is like clockwork: 9:15 all the way. After the stop, I cannot buy a pace that's faster than 9:30 or 9:40.

It's a disappointment to see the miles click by at this slower pace, but as much as I try to will my legs to move faster, this is, apparently, the new pace for the rest of the race. The miles get lonelier and lonelier as we head out through some of the not-so-scenic parts of Huntington. Just around Mile 16, we make a u-turn and head back into the center of town. By now, the weather has turned perfect. The sun is shining brightly, there is no wind whatsoever, and the temperature is heavenly. I ditch my throwaway shirt.

Even though I'm moving slower than I'd like, I am managing to pick off people, one at a time. We go back through Ritter Park - this time in the opposite direction, and then head back over to Riverfront Park. Throughout the day, I've been doing mental math. Early on - when I owned that 9:15 pace - I started thinking that I might just run my fastest marathon of the year today. Now, with my post-port-a-let slowdown, I'm adjusting my projection, and not coming up with anything that is very motivating. Until, that is, I remember about the football.

Have you heard the story about the 1970 Marshall University football team, the one where the entire team and the coaching and administrative staff died in a tragic plane crash? And how the entire football program went through a crisis after that, but the community - both college and town - rebuilt the team? Yeah, that one, the Marshall University team of "We Are Marshall", the team cheer that inspired the movie that portrayed the events. Well, this marathon finishes in the Marshall University football stadium, and one of the most unique aspects of the race is that you get the opportunity to run the final hundred yards of the marathon right down the center of the football field, carrying a football.

You could say that I've been looking forward to this. You could say that it was one of the deciding factors when I chose my West Virginia marathon. You could say that it's the thing that changes my lame 9:40 pace for the last few miles into an accelerating pace in the final miles of the marathon, from 9:29 to 9:24 to an 8:53 mile 26 pace, my fastest mile of the day. You could say all of those things and they'd be true.

The last mile of the race takes us through the campus, and although the brick surface is hell on marathon-fatigued legs, this detour is perfect. The campus is pretty - not stunning, but college-red-brick-pretty. We run past the memorial fountain that is dedicated to all the souls lost in that tragedy in 1970. Runners earlier in the day left flowers at the fountain, a tribute.

I've been following two guys, and trying like crazy to catch and pass them. One is in a red shirt and black sweat pants, the other in a black shirt and red shorts. Finally, finally, as I pour it on in this final mile, I creep up behind them and finally, finally, I sprint around them. To my complete surprise (and bafflement), one of them yells my name as I run past. What? I turn to look, and see that I've caught up with Pascal. What a long strange trip this has been: to cross the starting line with him, and now to converge at the finish line.

We run across a street, pass mile 26 (oh, that sweet mile marker!), and into the stadium. The steep ramp down into the stadium is hard on these tired legs, but I'm so excited to take my football from an outstretched hand that I ignore the pain. I grab that ball, and I feel like I'm every famous football player I've ever seen run down the field. I feel like I'm carrying the ball for each of those lost souls from 1970. I get all choked up and almost start to cry, but I've learned over the years that it just doesn't work to run and cry at the same time, so I choose to keep running. The final one hundred yards of a marathon have never seemed so short, or gone by so quickly, as these hundred yards.

How good I feel at the end of this marathon more than makes up for how lousy I felt at the finish of my last marathon in New Hampshire. There are Marathon Maniacs and 50 Staters hanging around the finish area, and I feel right at home with them. Leann follows me across the finish line shortly, and we head back to the hotel where Melissa has already showered (more than one reason we call her Speedy!). Before long, we are scattering back to our homes, promising to meet again soon for another long run.

Every marathon has its own set of memories, some better than others; some you'd like to forget as soon as you stop running, and others you want to live on and on in your memory. I know as I cross this finish line that this marathon will be the latter kind of marathon. I want to go back and run that final hundred yards again and again, even if I have to run the full 26 miles again to earn the right. In my dreams, I am grabbing the football again, and I'm flying down that field with the sun shining brightly overhead. It turns out that this marathon, which started out as just another checkmark (the 42nd, to be exact) in my journey across the 50 states, is something larger, much more meaningful. Maybe the spirit of the 1970 football team infuses everything and everyone who runs in this stadium. As I leave Huntington behind, I can't help but feel certain that all of us who ran here today can say with pride "We Are Marshall".

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Clarence DeMar Marathon 2010

Devotees of the Boston Marathon know the legends of that race well, and few of the legends are better than that of Clarence DeMar, who won the race an unequalled seven times. The first of these victories - in 1911 - was at the age of 22; the last of these victories - in 1930 - at the age of 41. Four of these times he set a course record. Along the way, Mr. DeMar, who found himself working up the road from Boston in New Hampshire, earned a master's degree from Boston University - by walking, running, and hitchhiking the 90 miles each way each week. Could there be a better inspiration for a marathon?

Back in 1978, the folks in Keene, New Hampshire, decided that this was, indeed, a great inspiration, and they organized to form a marathon in Clarence DeMar's honor; 2010 represents the 33rd annual running of the event. The Clarence DeMar Marathon is a marathoner's marathon: short on frills, easy on the entry fee, but full of all the things that a runner truly needs - things like aid stations (staffed by the local cross country team) and accurate mile markers. These things alone would all lead me to choose the Clarence DeMar for my New Hampshire marathon, a choice I made many years ago, when I first started down this crazy 50 states quest. The fact that the marathon is in the fall - in the peak of fall foliage season - was a bonus. The added fact that my friend Leann also wanted to run the race this particular fall closed the deal.

Leann and I meet up at the Manchester, NH, airport on a warm Friday afternoon, and head directly out to do some sight-seeing along the way to our hotel in Brattleboro, Vermont. Our drive takes us through the southern tier of New Hampshire, all ablaze in fall colors. The leaves are a few weeks shy of being at their peak, which means that every truly colorful tree catches our attention. We take the advice of the nice ladies at the information booth at the airport and make a detour up to the historic mill town of Harrisville. We stop next to a beautiful, placid little lake, and I announce "I want to move here!" as we step out of the car. It's a sentiment I'll repeat many times over the next few days.

I've managed my running shoe rotation badly leading up to this marathon. This means that I have brought two choices of footwear for the race: an old pair of shoes with more than 300 miles on them, and a brand new, fresh-out-of-the-box pair. I'm reluctant to start out a marathon with the old shoes, but not quite daring enough to go with the new shoes without at least putting a few miles on them. That means I do something Saturday morning that is out of the norm for me: run. Lucky for me, Leann normally puts in a few miles the day before a marathon, so I have a running partner. We drive around the Brattleboro area, looking for a suitable place, and stumble upon Fort Dummer State Park. The park is closed for the season, so we park at the fenced-off entrance, and have the leaf-covered, shady road through the park pretty much to ourselves. Well, except for the snake that we roust. It's a lovely short run, and the shoes feel great. Time to go sight-seeing!

We spend the rest of the day enjoying fall in New England, starting out with a trip to a local diner on one of the many scenic byways outside of Brattleboro, where we do an admirable job of carbing-up for the race on Sunday. Breakfast consists of scrambled eggs, hash browns, half a waffle, and a couple of pancakes. Mmmm. We meander around the hills, seeking out covered bridges amid the foliage. By mid-afternoon, we've made our way back into New Hampshire, and to Gilsum, where the race starts. The race is billed as a net-downhill course, and we've decided to scope out the race course. It sure feels a lot more like rolling hills in the car than like a constant downhill, and that worries me some. But the scenery - especially in the first half - is spectacular: heavily wooded with trees that are turning, the scenic Ashuelot River on the left hand side of this narrow rural road. This, I think, might just be one of the prettiest marathons I've run.

Sunday morning we are at the Keene State College location bright and early to board buses that will take us out to Gilsum. Friday and Saturday were both warm days, but the forecasted cooler weather has hit New Hampshire, and it's pleasantly chilly as we wait in Gilsum for the race start. Every time I shiver or say "brrr!", I follow up with "but that's not a complaint!" I'm praying for the cooler temps to hang around until I finish this thing.

Leann has informed me that this is merely a training run for her (she has several more races - including a couple of ultras - coming up in the next few weeks), and that she plans to run it slowly. "The plan is: no miles faster than ten minutes per mile." I think that sounds fairly reasonable for me, also, given that I have a lousy base coming into this thing, after cracking my knee back in late June. Leann and I have run a few marathons together in the past, and I love her company. When she asks me my plans, my reply is "just to hold on and try to finish this thing", although I'm actually thinking that I'll tag along with her as long as possible.

Final race instructions from the race director include a message about mile measurements. Because there is road construction in mile 13, we will have a short detour there, which adds a couple hundred feet to the route. In order to keep the same finish line, the race crew has moved the start line up to make up for the extra distance we'll run later. But they haven't bothered to move all of the mile markers, so our first mile will be short, and mile 13 will be long. Leann and I agree that with the downhill start, and race nerves, and now this short first mile, we'll come in somewhere under ten minutes, but otherwise, she is dedicated to her game plan. The RD yells out the starting command, and we're running.

As we leave Gilsum, I thank the race directors for the downhill start. We soon make a couple of turns, and then run across the Gilsum Stone Arch Bridge, a historic landmark which is billed as having the highest vault of any dry-laid bridge in New Hampshire. The bridge spans the Ashuelot River, which we'll follow for the next ten or so miles. It's pretty, with round river rocks and clear water and just a bit of sunlight making it through the heavy foliage overhead.

We pass mile one, and hit our watches. 8:42. A tad faster than the 10 minute pace that Leann has in mind. Ah well. We run along, and now I'm watching my feet. This road is asphalt, badly cracked and pot-holed. We noticed the bad roads on our drive yesterday, so are extra careful today. Mile two comes up quickly, in 9:05. Leann makes noises about needing to slow down, but I find myself struggling to keep up with the pace that she's setting, and the next couple of miles go by in 8:47 and 9:10. I look at my heart rate monitor, and it tells me that I'm not working all that hard, so I just go with the flow.

Finally, around mile 5, we settle into a pace zone that we'll pretty much hold through mile 18, with our splits averaging around 9:50. This is a nice comfortable pace, and we chat away. I'm wearing a 50 States Marathon singlet, and that always attracts attention and questions. One woman, Carmen from New York, joins us and adds to the conversation as we talk about other marathons, other states, plans to finish.

The road is not closed to traffic here, but there are few cars, and we start to recognize most of the cars as race supporters. One guy in a Jeep lead-frogs along the course with us, and blasts music for our benefit as we go by. The vibe reminds me of why I like small races.

Carmen sticks with us until mile 12, when we run our first mile that clocks in over ten minutes (10:08), and then she takes off and we don't see her again. The first 10 or 11 miles of the course have been a steady downhill, more pronounced in the early miles but still a nice grade, but mile 12 goes uphill noticeably, on a stretch that parallels a pretty golf course. The little detour at mile 13 comes along, as advertised, and then we're through the halfway point in 2:04 and change. Not exactly a ten minute pace, but a very comfortable first half.

The second half of the race course winds around many residential districts in Keene, and it just doesn't compete in terms of scenery or support or joy. The temps have climbed a little, but are still bearable; the terrain is much flatter now. Leann and I run along, side by side, out of conversation, just working at the task at hand. I'm feeling remarkably good given my lack of training. And then Leann finally says, "at eighteen, I'm going to go back to my original plan, and do a run-walk combo to make this truly a training run". I'm not interested in run-walk - I just want to get done with this thing, so at the 18 mile mark, we split company.

The next mile is a lonely one, still in the residential zone. At mile 19, we enter Wheelock Park, where we get some more shade and a change of venue: we're on a paved bike path. Mile markers disappear, and I'm grateful for this since it feels like I'm slowing down quite a bit. I've started to count my steps - something I do to keep my mind occupied, and to keep track of where I am in each mile - and I know that I've missed the marker at 20, and now 21. I start to like this: it's better to not know exactly how much I've slowed. Finally, back on city streets, I see a marker for mile 22, and hit the split button on my watch. 29:58 for the last three miles, almost exactly a ten minute pace. I'm immensely relieved to learn that I haven't really slowed much at all.

But then there's mile 23 to look forward to. This was the biggest revelation when we drove the course yesterday: the monster Mount Everest in the 23rd mile. It seems downright sadistic of the race organizers to put a hill of this steepness at this point in the race, but there it is, staring me right in the face. I have been dreading this sucker all day long, and now that it's here, I do the only thing I can: I scale the thing. I do not slow to a walk, but a fast walker could pass me at this crawling pace. But I do not walk. I scale the thing, and start dreaming of the finish line.

The problem with big hills late in a race like this is that they destroy your pace. It takes me 10:49 to cover mile 23, and I'm quite amazed that it wasn't closer to twelve minutes. But the hill has conquered me, and I just can't get my legs to move. Mile 24 is the slowest of my day at 10:57. I've been chasing a guy in a "100 Marathons" shirt for a long time, and now I come alongside him, and we exchange greetings. Chasing this guy improves my time in mile 25, but I'm crawling again in the final mile.

Finally we make the last couple of turns to the finish. I've been chasing a younger woman for a mile or so now, and I have delusions of catching her before the finish line. It's not meant to be today, and I finish a second behind her in 4:17:49. It's not one of my faster efforts, but given the level of my training, I couldn't ask for any better today.

Leann comes loping across the finish line just a few minutes later, and she's in much better shape than I am. I think the run-walk thing was a good idea. Me, I'm bonking big-time until I swallow a Pepsi in about three gulps. The sky is nice and cloudy now, and it never did really get hot today. For that, I'm extremely grateful. Next up: showers at the college gym building - something that has rarely felt this wonderful.

Once revived by the soda and the shower, Leann and I head out to complete our sight-seeing. We follow our tourist map and head south out of Keene to see six or seven more covered bridges. When we've exhausted the supply of bridges - and nearly the supply of daylight - we make our way to the Kimball Farm Ice Cream Restaurant for fish-and-chips, and then ice cream. It's just starting to drizzle as we pull away from the restaurant, on our way back to Manchester. The rain makes it feel like fall, my favorite season of the year. Running in the fall: the stuff legends are made of.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Leadville Trail 100 Mtn Bike Race

aka Crewing for John
August 14, 2010

Here's the thing about Leadville: it's never not cold in the morning. So this morning in mid-August at 5:30, as John gets ready to ride down to the start line, the question is how to stay warm until the race starts. He decides to wear his green down parka, and I'll pick it up from him when I get there. Frank - the Leadville friend we're staying with - and I take off by truck a few minutes later.

But the start area is a zoo. Incredible. Bikes and cyclists everywhere. People have claimed spots in the start chute, and left bikes strewn across the road. I've never seen anything like this, even after seven Ride the Rockies and three trips to the Tour de France. We split up (Frank and I are joined by three more friends in this search). It's impossible to find him. Who knew there would be so many people wearing green down parkas in mid-summer? Finally, in desperation, I climb up on top of a garbage can, and scan the crowds. I shout "JOHN!" No luck. So I try again. "ARMSTRONG!!!" Well, that gets a few more looks, and it yields what I'm looking for. There he is, smiling and looking ready to ride. He points behind him to indicate that he's ditched the jacket. I will pick it up after the race starts, before heading out for my first assignment as his crew.

The race starts. It's exhilarating. It's a thing of beauty, actually. The bikes start to roll down the hill, and it's like watching synchronized swimming, or birds in flight - large flocks of birds in flight. I'm awed. Who knew?

I find Frank and friends after the start and we go look for the parka, but it's just not there. I'm bummed. I feel like I've failed at my first crewing task. But no time to worry about that - I have to get to the first aid station.

Pipeline Aid Station

Here's the direction that Frank gives me, before he goes off to watch the race at other vantage points: don't get boxed in parking at the aid stations. So when I see the cars assembling, I find a place to park and make sure I have plenty of room and am facing the right direction for an escape. Then I gather up all the supplies for the first aid and start hiking.

The basket I'm using is my grocery shopping basket; I love this thing. It does not collapse, and it holds just enough. But I've loaded it up, and it's a tad heavy. Here's what I carry: pb&j sandwich halves in baggies, chocolate chip cookies (ditto the baggies), a fresh bottle of cytomax, a fresh bottle of water, my own bottle of water, a bike tool thingy, some clif shots, some packets of powdered FRS, sunscreen, chain lube, a rag or two, a can of Big Air, some Advil and my own breakfast muffin. On top of this all is a camelbak that John will pick up at this station. On one shoulder is my camp chair, on the other my camera. I'm also carrying my cup of lousy convenience store coffee. It seems like a long hike with all this stuff.

But once I see the tents, it's all worth the effort. This is like the coolest block party ever - and at 7 a.m. There's a buzz of anticipation. Tents set up, aid stations set up, people just looking down the dirt road, waiting for the action to start.

The helicopter signals the arrival of the front riders. This is deja vu Tour de France. I'm expecting something less than Tour de France competitiveness, but I'm wrong. The front runners come through at warp speed, pedaling by so fast that you can't really see faces, numbers. Good thing to have a camera so that later you can say, oh yeah, I saw so-and-so go by. The third or fourth group of riders to go by grab their food from people standing right next to me, in musettes just like the ones you see at the Tour. Only this time, one of the guys spins a bit and goes down in the middle of the trail, right in front of me. It's all adrenaline, all panic, all let's-get-him-up-and-sorted-out. He's gone in an instant but it makes me nervous all the same.

The trail is flat here, so the riders are coming in at a pretty good clip. At this point in the day, they all look the same - helmets, sunglasses, long sleeves, leg warmers. Thank God for the numbers that are attached to the front of all the bicycles. I start focusing on looking for John's number: 125. Numbers fly by, so close but not quite. Number 1125 goes by. No dice. More numbers, a couple of tandems (whoa! talk about strong relationships!), and just a few women.

I see John and step onto the trail and yell his name over and over until I'm sure he sees me. I've got this huge basket full of stuff and start shoving stuff at him, but he just wants the cookies and the fresh bottle of cytomax. He says no to the camelbak. He takes off his leg warmers and hands them to me while a woman standing next to me holds his bike (that's what kind of crowd this is). I'm so nervous about getting him what he wants that I don't ask, but then he volunteers, "I'm feeling pretty good". Well, good then. And he's off again.

Twin Lakes Aid Station

I've heard from the folks at Pipeline that I'll only have an hour or maybe an hour and 15 minutes before he arrives at Twin Lakes, so I know I have to beat it. I have the camp chair packed, so as soon as John pedals off, I pick up my stuff and high-tail it back to the truck. It's a hike. I am kicking myself for not trying to park up closer.

Just as I start to pull out of the parking place, two women knock on my window and ask for a ride to Twin Lakes. "Of course! Jump in!" Their husbands have both just been by here, too, and the person they rode with is waiting for her man, and they are - as I am - worried about getting to the next aid on time. We drive as fast as we can.

But here's the thing about the distance between the first and second aid stations: by trail, it's only 13 or so miles, and by road, it's many more. Not only that, but that parking at Twin Lakes is far worse than at Pipeline. The parking lot is full, so we have to park on the road and then we start the hike up to the dam.

We're almost to the road side of the dam, and Frank calls me. "Where are you?" he barks, and "has John come by yet?" While we're trying to figure out where we are in relation to one another, he shouts, "Go John Go!" and then back into the phone, "He just went by - did you give him his aid here?!" Noooooooo! I can't believe that I missed him. It's only been 48 minutes since he left Pipeline! I feel lousy because it feels like I've failed in my job crewing, but more than that I'm worried about him making the climb up to 12,600' and back down again on the little nutrition he took at Pipeline. There's nothing I can do now, though, but just wait.

What a zoo this place is! It makes Pipeline look like a ladies luncheon. Frank and his group of cohorts are here, but preparing to take off, so I settle in with my hitch-hiking friends. Everyone here is from somewhere else: Texas, Virginia, Philadelphia, Tennessee, wherever. I'm wearing this year's Boston Marathon t-shirt, and it gets lots of comments. The woman from Philadelphia strikes up a conversation, and soon we're exchanging marathon stories. I tell her about running Delaware earlier this year, and about the guy we saw carted off at the finish line. "Oh yeah", she says, "that was the guy who died." I tell her that I had read that he survived. "Yeah, but only for a few days", she replies, and then fills in the rest of the story - how the guy's kidneys had shut down and that they kept him alive several days after the marathon but his kidneys never started working again.

What a weird thing to learn here, but not that out of place. This is, after all, a mountain bike race, and as we're standing here waiting for our riders, the Search and Rescue folks go up the trail to retrieve someone who crashed. I don't really worry that much about John - he's a very strong and safe rider - but I also know that it's a risky sport.

This Aid Station is both mile 40 and mile 60. The riders are all outbound when I get here, but soon there's a flurry, and two homebound cyclists tear by on their trip back into town. They go by so fast and so unexpectedly that they are not even a blur, more like a thought. A race official is near me, and I hear him tell somebody who it was: Levi and Jeremy. Oh boy. This is a race! My mental math tells me that they are on a record pace, but I wonder if I'm missing something. Lance set an insane course record here last year, so it can't be that likely to fall again this year.

A few more front runners go by on the return trip, and then the action all goes back to the people just getting to mile 40. A buzz goes through the crowd, and I look at my watch: the cutoff is close. There are intermediate cutoff times along the course, and pretty soon a few guys come walking by, pushing their bikes, day done because they couldn't get here fast enough. There's a woman (a rider forced out of the race here due to missing the cutoff) who is crying and making quite a scene; I wonder what the rest of her story is. Most of the guys seem to take it in stride. And then it's back to waiting - just waiting for the riders to go by in the opposite direction.

The hitch-hiking women have both also missed their husbands on their outbound journey, and are as anxious as I am to see their guys on the return trip. I go up on a hill to survey the scene, and talk to a family who asks about my Boston shirt while I snap a few photos. They tell me that they live in Hopkinton, and the son - probably in his late teens or early twenties - tells me that he ran the marathon for his first time this year. We have a nice chat, then I climb back down the berm and get busy fretting over John's arrival.

I've added some stuff to the basket for this stop: a no-longer-cold Coke, as well as some potato chips, and, of course, another fresh bottle of cytomax. The cantaloupe that I brought as a surprise is still back in the truck, in the cooler, but I just don't have the energy to go back there. I'm tempted, because I'm still wearing the jeans that I appreciated earlier in the day, and I'd love to change into my shorts, but it's a long hike. I can survive in jeans.

The day could not be more glorious. Bright sun, and not much wind out here. Virtually no clouds in the sky. I start to recognize numbers coming down the trail. The guy standing next to me asks who I'm watching for, so now I have a second set of eyes searching for "125". There's a woman who goes by with some frilly stuff on her helmet; I remember seeing here way back at Pipeline, and she was right in front of John. There goes number 1125 again. Finally, he's here!

I shove a Coke at him, and start babbling apologies for missing him outbound. He takes some potato chips and another bottle of cytomax, but little else. When I take a break from my babbling, he says it wasn't a big deal. But then he adds, "my legs are toast". I realize just before he rides off that I haven't even asked how the last 30 miles have gone!

Pipeline Aid Station

The hitchhikers do not join me for the return to Pipeline, so I make a beeline for the truck. Well, actually, it's not even close to a beeline, but rather a long and dusty race-walk. I'm determined to get back to Pipeline before John gets there.

Traffic at Pipeline is minimal, and I'm able to park much closer than earlier this morning, so I throw a new ice-cold Coke and a new bottle of cytomax into my basket, and I'm back at the trail quickly. In fact, so quickly that I actually have ten or fifteen minutes to wait before John arrives. The mood at Pipeline is much subdued from earlier today. The cyclists are pedaling by much more slowly, and starting to look just a little ragged. By now, I'm able to recognize most of the numbers coming in before him. Just after the woman with the frilly stuff on her helmet, number 125 rolls up to me.

I've learned, finally, to ask "what do you need" before shoving stuff in John's face. So now, he answers "To be done". I think "ouch" - there are nearly 30 hard miles left in front of him. But I can't ride it for him, I can just offer up sustenance. So I shove the drinks at him, and he takes some food and a couple of Advil. He lubes his chain - he and his bike are both covered in dust - and then he takes off. And I take off, too: back to Leadville.

Finish in Leadville

Given that the last part of this race contains a lot of climbing over 29 miles, I know I have at least a couple of hours before I can expect John at the finish line. So, for once today, I have a leisurely time getting to my next vantage spot. I park several blocks away from the finish, and spend some time organizing the disaster zone in the back of the truck. Finally, I change into shorts. It's a glorious day, have I mentioned this? Bright sun and not a cloud in the sky. This is Leadville at its finest.

But here's the thing about Leadville: it's never not windy. So when I eventually get my act together and tote my camp chair up to the race course and park myself in a nice shady spot to cheer on the finishers, I find myself getting chilled quickly. This is Leadville, 10,000 feet. So I move into the sun, and I clang my cowbell, and I yell, over and over, "Nice job!" or "Great finish!" I mean it every time. I'm awed by the power and the charge and the strength of these folks as they push it in to the finish.

Now, all day long I've been trying to gauge when John will arrive at any given point, and by now my time-math is getting fuzzy, but one thing is clear: the expected time that he gave me this morning - ten hours and thirty minutes - is bogus. Sandbagging. Because I'm here, and I'm figuring miles from the last aid station, and I know he's going to blow that time.

All day, folks rolled through the aid stations in a certain order, but here at the finish, they are way out of sequence. It seems that Powerline - the last big nasty climb of the race - has taken a severe toll on the field. I recognize the number of one of the guys I've seen multiple times, so I figure that I'll see John in about 15 minutes. I watch for the woman with the frilly stuff on her helmet, but she doesn't go by. So I'm almost caught without my camera ready when he rolls into my viewfinder just a couple of minutes later. Done!

I make my way to the finish area just as John walks out of the chute, and he's all smiles. He's finished in 9:45, which turns out to be good for second place in his age group. It was, he says, a perfect day. The trail was perfect (there was rain earlier in the week, so the trail was packed but not muddy), the weather was perfect (sunny, but cool for the riders, not too hot). In fact, the insane course record set by Lance last year (30 minutes faster than the old course record) was broken again today by both Levi and Jeremy.

The only thing I'm feeling bad about is that lost green parka. But John says, follow me, and we walk partway up the block to a little coffee shop. He walks in while I hold his bike, and he walks back out with the parka. He had, wisely, stashed it inside, in the back, early in the morning. All that's left now is to head back to Frank's. John chooses to ride the mile or so back to the other side of town. I walk back to the truck, and then drive cross town. And here's the thing about Leadville today: the bike rocks. John is comfortably back at Frank's, lounging in a recliner by the time I even get to the truck. It's a great day to be on a bike.

Monday, May 31, 2010

I'm Alive (Delaware Marathon 2010)

Sometimes the only way to make sense of a story is to start at the end, especially when the finish changes the way you look at the entire experience in the rear view mirror. That’s the case with the Delaware Marathon. Crossing the finish line changed the way I will always remember the day, but not in any way that I could have conjured up in my mind as I ran the 26.2 miles. When you approach a marathon finish line, only to have that finish line blocked by paramedics who are performing CPR on a downed runner, and then they yank up the gurney and sprint off to the ambulance with that gentleman as their passenger, your focus changes, suddenly and violently. You no longer think about the pain in your legs and feet, you no longer experience the unique joy of finishing another marathon (in a new – to you – state), you no longer look for the volunteers at the finish line to get your medal or glass of water or to point you to the food or the port-a-potties. No, suddenly, you look at your friend – the friend who has covered the distance with you – and you think, thank God we’re okay. And you think, thank God I’m alive. I’m alive!

So, everything else pales in the haze that covers the weekend, but it makes you appreciate the life in the thing. Suddenly, every single detail is more important than it was a moment ago. Suddenly, none of it matters a bit. The only thing that matters is that you survived, and that you can smile when you think about the experience.

The weekend starts with a huge smile – Leann offers to pick me up at the Philadelphia airport, saving me a few more hours of travel and a sizable hassle (train from the Philly airport to the Amtrak station, transfer to a Wilmington-bound train, then hooking up in downtown Wilmington – something that we were soon to discover would not be all that simple, anyway). So, instead of all that, I exit the secure part of the airport to find Leann waiting in the chairs for me. Yes!

Here’s the thing about spending time with Leann: you laugh a lot. You laugh so much and so hard that you get the hiccups and tears run down your face. Later, you can’t even remember what you laughed about, but at the time it was hysterical. That’s the way the drive from Philly to Wilmington goes: all 20 or so minutes of the drive.

And here’s what makes the weekend a huge success, no matter marathon finish line dramas or disappointing times: all that laughter. What else matters, really?

This is a weekend of travel in an old East Coast city, which means that streets are not on a grid – at least not for long – and even if they are, they change names every few blocks just to keep you guessing. So it takes two people with full attention to drive and navigate. Because Leann has already scoped things out, we find the Comfort Inn easily, and get checked in. Our room opens to a courtyard, complete with swimming pool. It’s early afternoon, and we both notice the sunbathers at the same time. Women in bikinis. Because it’s warm. Hot, actually. With full sun. This is not, we already know, going to be a good marathon. Well, not for us runners. It will be a dandy day for the spectators. For us runners, it will be a day of survival.

We spend much of Friday and Saturday trying to navigate through Wilmington. Good thing there are lots of graduate degrees in Leann’s car, because I’m not sure we would have ever made it to the start line otherwise. It takes three or four maps, and lots of retracing ground we’ve already covered, but we do find our way through the city, and manage to even drive most of the course late Saturday morning. It’s a good thing, too, because the drive sets our expectations for something that wasn’t really clear from the race website: this course is hilly. Not (for the most part) Pike’s Peak type hills, but definitely hilly. And did I mention, the sun is shining and it’s warm?

The highlight of the day on Saturday is the breakfast we stumble into. We try to do the economical thing, and head to the Comfort Inn breakfast room. But between the empty coffee urns, and the kid scraping the burned waffle out of the waffle iron, and the empty chafing dishes, it’s not in the cards. Just down the road we spy Lucky’s Coffee Shop, and decide to give it a try. It’s the best decision we make all weekend. Lucky’s is a proper diner, complete with vinyl booths and chairs, and coffee cups that get refilled every time you blink. The menu features such treasures as scrapple and chipped dried beef in gravy (my dad called this “SOS”). But it also features all the pre-race carbs one person could hope for: pancakes and potatoes and toast. Breakfast for two of us, when it arrives, covers a 4-top table completely. Life is good.

The race starts and ends at the Tubman Garrett Riverfront Park in downtown Wilmington. Well, just the other side of the train tracks from downtown Wilmington. This is no small distinction, since traffic in and out of the park is greatly restricted by the train tracks and road closures (due to the race and other events in the park) and the general poor design of the roads within the park. We’ve scoped things out in advance, though, so on race morning we park in one of the recommended lots that will allow us easy ingress and egress before and after the race, and walk the short distance to the start line.

Here’s a thing about running a ridiculous number of marathons in order to complete a circuit of the states: you start to recognize people at races all around the country. The Delaware Marathon is no different. As Leann and I make our way to the port-a-potties early Sunday morning, I spy Sara, a woman I know from last year’s Steamboat Springs Marathon (and that whole experience with The Professor). We talk briefly, then see each other multiple times on the course. And there is Steve Boone, the president of the 50 States Marathon Club: he is easily recognizable with his wild white locks. There’s Tutu guy, in his completely pink get-up; it’s been awhile since I last saw him, but I read about him occasionally in the running publications. And there’s the guy I see over and over again at races – most notably at the Flying Monkey – but can never remember his name or where he’s from. Still, it feels like a community rather than some random event in some random distant city.

And so the race starts with the firing of a cannon, the loudest send-off I’ve ever experienced in a marathon. The race is a two-loop affair, and each loop takes us through a wide variety of neighborhoods and terrain. The race director clearly tries to showcase the riverfront park, but the park feels like a failed attempt at urban renewal. The park comprises many office buildings, an outdoor arena, and some shops and restaurants that are pretty quiet and empty when we visit on Friday and Saturday. It’s one of those urban projects with the right spirit but poor execution, and it just doesn’t have the vibrant downtown feel that the developers were after. In the marathon, we head southwest to the limits of the park on an interior road, out to the limit of the park, and then head back toward the start/finish on the boardwalk that parallels the Christina River. We cross the start/finish, and head onto the streets of Wilmington. The next bit of the race takes us through what we not-so-jokingly call the ghetto – an ugly, deserted, decrepit area. Ugh. The best thing about this part of the course is that it doesn’t last long, and then we’re dumped back onto Walnut Street, one of the main roadways through the downtown Wilmington business area. None of this part of the course is particularly nice, or scenic, or pleasant. We run past a church with funeral placards outside on the cars lined up, and that pretty much sets the mood for this part of the race.

But much of the race is pretty, and it turns so when we cross a bridge across Brandywine Creek that takes us into Brandywine Park. The park – also home to the local zoo – is lovely, most notably because it is heavily shaded. The flip side is that the road surface is pocked and uneven, which makes for cautious steps. To make matters worse, we have to navigate across a cobbled road, and then across a wooden footbridge. The footbridge sways with the motion of all the runners, and I almost have to stop and walk – it makes me lose my sense of balance. But what waits on the other side of the bridge is worse than the bridge itself – it’s the mile or so long climb that will take us up to the highest point on the race course.

The consolation prize to this climb is that it takes us to the prettiest part of the race. Lovering Avenue becomes Kentmere Parkway, and that takes us to Bancraft Parkway. These are all old, lovely, wide, tree-lined streets with stately homes and beautiful gardens. Leann and I compare notes on which houses we like best. These pretty streets soon give way to Little Italy and several commercial blocks. I read the restaurant names and wish we would have had our pasta-feed in this part of town last night.

After Little Italy, the course mostly doubles back on itself, and takes us back down to the riverfront where we get to pass “Go” but not collect $200 – we get to go back out and do it all again. Almost on cue, the sun, which has been mercifully hiding behind a thick bank of clouds this morning, comes out to blast us as we pass Go. So much for those dreams of an evenly split race. As soon as the clouds burn off, the wind picks up. There are two good things about this. First, the course meanders around so much that we never run directly into the wind for very long. Second, the wind – a good stiff breeze – has a cooling effect. It is, no doubt, also a slowing effect, but by this time, slowing is a given. We appreciate the cooling.

I’ve never run a multi-loop marathon before, and I’m not sure I’m crazy about it, especially when the second lap is, well, just plain hot. To be sure, we look forward to the shady and scenic parts, but the rest just seems annoyingly repetitious. The uphills seem longer and steeper the second time around, and the downhills seem almost non-existent. Thankfully, the volunteers are always the one constant that I enjoy – the race is stocked with plenty of good water and Gatorade.

There are many races going on at the same time (the marathon, the early-starters, the half-marathon, and the marathon relay), and most of these have slightly different course routes. The race course doubles back on itself many times. This all means that by just a few miles into the race, it’s impossible to know where you are in the grand scheme of things. We pass each other and wave and say hi, and yet I have no idea if most of the marathoners are in front of me or behind me.

Leann and I dutifully hit our split buttons at every mile. From the first mile (9:26 – the fastest of the day), I know it’s going to be a slog. My lower back and hamstrings feel tight as I pass the start line, so the slow splits are no surprise, but disappointing all the same. We average just under 10 minute miles in the first half, but the sun and wind do a whammy on us in the second half, and we slow down to almost 10:30 miles. My training runs have finally been a bit faster in the last couple of months, so this feels like a setback.

But Leann keeps things fun and upbeat as we run. Around mile 10, she tells me that she’s been running each mile for a family member or friend with a name that starts with the corresponding letter of the alphabet. This seems like a good distraction, so I use the next several miles to catch up. Mile 1, in retrospect, was for my niece and nephew Annie and Adam; mile 2 for my brother Bob; etc. I struggle with a few letters, and we share family stories of relatives with oddball names. But Leann comes better prepared, and by the time we get to the letter “Q” and she has a name at the ready, I start to think that the game is as much work as the running. It’s my turn, but I have to say “I got nothing”. Like my stomach, my mood is turning.

I rally with a long recitation for “S” – Sharon (Mom), Sue, Scott, Stan, Sandy, Sherri, Susie, Stacey,…and I’m just getting warmed up – but it has to wait, though, since the letter “S” falls just as we start that last long blasted hill coming out of Brandywine Park. On our first lap up out of the park, we passed a cyclist who was down, being attended to by paramedics – we later learn that this was the lead cyclist – so we’re both grateful to get past this spot on our second lap with no more casualties.

The one beautiful thing about this race course is that the finish is mostly downhill. As we head down the last mile or so – heavenly downhill – Leann says, “I have no kick today”, to which I reply, “this IS my kick”. It’s nice to know that we’re both equally toasted by the heat and the hills and the humidity and the headwinds. Still – kick or no – it feels like we both do pick it up a tad as we round the final corner and head to the finish line. We are both ready – very ready – to be done with this race.

You already know how this story ends. All of it, the heat and the hills and the aching legs and the disappointing splits and the slower-than-hoped-for finishing time of 4:25:57, takes on a different perspective as we cross that finish line. When we saw the forecasted warm temps for the day, we knew it would be a day of survival, but we didn’t imagine that merely surviving would take on so much meaning. In the days following the race, I’ll look not for race results or race photos or my finisher’s certificate, but rather for any information on the guy we saw at the finish line. Several days later, there will finally be a notice: he survived. Actually, not one, but two, men collapsed at the finish line. Both had heart attacks, and both survived. Any way you want to slice it, it was a very successful day. I’m alive. We’re all alive.