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.