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".