Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Queen for a Day

It’s Friday, October 14, and I’m at DIA, walking to the gate for my flight. The signs above the gates are a virtual tour of the marathons that I’ve run over these past ten or so years. Chicago, my second state and first Boston qualifier, so many years ago. Kansas City, where I ran my first ultra along the Little Blue River just a bit east of KC, cheered on by my mom and my cousin Janet. Las Vegas, where Melissa and Michelle and I celebrated my 50th birthday (with the men in our lives) after running the stark and stunningly gorgeous Valley of Fire Marathon. Dayton, where I stayed with friends Jim and Jonni, and ran the Air Force Marathon in London-like pea soup fog, bringing home an age group award that was especially sweet since it was awarded by marathon greats Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar. Boston, where I've had an amazing ten-year streak, running a dream on Patriots' Day in April every spring since 2002. Nashville, where I met Michele and Paul and David and Lynne and Rhonda and Trent and Ian and Kathleen and Ben and….well, let’s just say a bunch of friends, to take on the challenge of the Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon. (We all survived, but the food poisoning that followed made the trip home from that one a plane ride I’d rather forget.) San Diego, where I ran my only RocknRoll marathon, one of my slowest but also my only true family affair, running with my cousins Kerri and Stacey.

Aha, finally: Grand Rapids, Michigan. It seems that maybe it’s the only destination on this concourse I haven’t visited yet. That must mean that it’s time for my 50th state. Can I be at this point already?

Like so many of the marathon weekends I’ve had in the past few years, this one is all about sharing the experience with friends, and – like so many other marathon weekends of the past few years – this one starts with Leann picking me up at the airport late on Friday night. Leann and I are sharing quarters at a Comfort Inn on the north end of the city, where Michele and Melissa will also join us tomorrow. Over the years, I’ve shared hotel rooms with Leann and Michele and Melissa, people I’ve come to value as some of my best friends. I’ve roomed with v-teamers and TMers and people I’ve barely met beforehand and friends of friends: Rita and Rhonda and AnneMarie and Shelagh and Carolyn and Amie and Dawnie and my dear friend Theresa and my cousins Kerri and Stacey - and there hasn't been anything but a great experience yet. I’ve been hosted by some of the most gracious people in the world: Sunflower Mary and Leann and Michele and Melissa and Karen and Nan (in three different homes!), and by Jim and Jonni, and by Lynn and Jim. Mick and I stayed in the same Boston B&B three years running, in a different author-themed room each time. I've made road trips on a couple of occasions with my coach Benji and his wife Amie, who have also - over the years - become some of my best friends. Once, in Idaho, Leann and Melissa and I shared a rustic cabin that backed up to Yellowstone. In Hawaii, John and I stayed at the very luxurious Hyatt Regency at Kaanapali overlooking the Pacific channel with views of Molokai; in Alaska, Benji and Amie and Melissa and I all stayed in the rustic Reluctant Fisherman Inn, where the rooms were plain and spare, but the views onto Prince William Sound were stupendous. In Newport, Oregon, I shared a cool house just steps away from the beach with Betsy and a group of Marathon Maniacs that included Mary Hanna, the winner of the women’s masters division in that race. Just once, I spent a night in a hotel with my sister Sue. My mom provided the housing the night before my Iowa marathon, and my brother Stan provided quarters the night before my Omaha marathon. Only a couple of times have I spent a pre-marathon night completely on my own.

On Saturday morning, the great diner that Leann had scoped out for us is closed, so we go with Plan B and head to IHOP. That’s okay: we’ve done this before, and IHOP always comes through with plenty of carbs. Having dealt with breakfast, we turn our attention to the other thing that marathoners obsess over: weather. And there’s plenty to obsess about here: the weather is absolutely atrocious.

Now, the thing is, you can’t do anything at all about the weather, but right up until the starter’s signal, it’s always a topic of conversation. You would think that after 65 marathons, it would somehow fade into the background, but it just doesn’t work that way. I’ve run marathons in snow and rain and heat and blistering sun and high temps and cold temps and high winds and just about everything in between. My first marathon was in Steamboat Springs in June 1999, and we ran in a snowy wintry wonderland. For Melissa’s 40th birthday celebration in Madison, Wisconsin, we ran in temps so high that the race director was forced to end the marathon early (thank heavens I finished before the black flag went up). My first Boston was a marathon-perfect cool and drizzly day; the next three years, Boston set heat records for April. In New Jersey last March, the run along the Atlantic Ocean started with 29 degrees and snow flurries. In Austin, I walked out of my hotel into freezing rain and promptly fell in the icy parking lot. The heat and headwinds in Tucson, Arizona, apparently didn’t affect my ability to turn in my fastest time ever. In Tulsa last November, the ferocious headwinds between miles 15 and 21 were enough to stop you dead in your tracks. I ran St. George, Utah, twice: once with full sun and 80-some degrees at the finish, and once with a driving rain that had me so cold that I seriously considered dropping out. Both were among my fastest races.

The forecast for race day has vacillated wildly these last two weeks. Today, the conditions are lousy: it’s rainy and cold (not in itself all bad for a marathon), but the wind is howling. Absolutely howling. The forecast for Sunday is not any better. So. The weather will be what the weather will be. And still, Leann and I find ourselves wandering the aisles of the local Target and Meiers stores looking for throwaway plastic ponchos, even though I’m sure I have one (or maybe two or three) in my suitcase.

The next pre-marathon ritual takes us to the expo at the YMCA in downtown Grand Rapids - where the race will start and end – for packet pickup. We’re working also on getting our logistics straight for tomorrow, and it’s a good thing, too, since our navigational skills this morning are a bit off. Still, we get to the expo without incident. It’s a small expo, so we make quick work of it, stopping to take photos of the unconventional pace group signs (among them: Al Gore's Inconvenient Pace Team - 4:58 - and the Pi Pacers - 3:14 - and Dubya's Running Mates - 3:44). We take note of the sign pitching the pickle juice aid station, but opt to not sample any. We meet up with Michele and Melissa, who come to the expo directly from the airport. Together, we check out all the stuff, but in the end – other than free t-shirts given to us when we buy a few gels – we make it out of the expo without accumulating a bunch more stuff.

Of course, it’s not like we need more t-shirts. It's easy to accumulate stuff at marathons over the years, and it all starts with the t-shirt, which is the standard giveaway for any race. After 65 marathons, I could start a thrift shop with race t-shirts. I have cotton t-shirts and tech t-shirts, short-sleeves and long-sleeves, plain old uni-sex shirts and nice fitted gender-specific shirts. I have shirts of almost every color of the rainbow: blue and yellow and green and purple and gray and red and black and lots and lots of white shirts - but just one pink shirt. I've gotten t-shirts at almost every race I've run; a couple of times - in Austin and in Tulsa - I've gotten two shirts for the same marathon. I have shirts I've never worn, and shirts that I wear almost every day. My favorite shirt is my Mardi Gras shirt: a white long-sleeved shirt of a tech fabric, with a simple fleur-de-lis logo on the front. Or maybe my favorite shirt is my Shires of Vermont Marathon shirt: a short-sleeved black fitted shirt with a pretty green logo that I wear to Pilates. Or maybe it's one of the ten Boston shirts that I have: the Boston shirts are a history of the art of marathon t-shirts, starting with long-sleeve uni-sex cotton shirts, colors changing every year, to nice fitted gender specific shirts in a good tech fabric. When they come to clean out my place when I've passed on, they may just find me already buried in a mountain of marathon race shirts.

But not all races give out t-shirts; or at least, not *just* t-shirts. I have a blue wind-shirt from the Mount Desert Island Marathon in Maine, and a yellow wind-vest from the Mississippi Blues Marathon in Jackson. I have a great quarter zip black tech long-sleeve shirt from Fargo, and a thick, kind-of-ugly sweatshirt from my Indiana marathon. I have hats - a red one from Rocket City in Huntsville, Alabama, and a white one from Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky. I have goody bags of different weights and sizes and colors and designs, all the rage these days, whether shopping-bag or backpack-type, all useful. My goody bag in Idaho was a potato sack, something I now regret that I didn't save. I have a very cool beer glass from my Delaware marathon, something I fretted about getting home intact. There's a mug from the Leadville Trail Marathon I ran many years ago that my friend Nattu picked up for me, but that somehow I never retrieved. Myrtle Beach gave us all gigantic red beach towels. I have posters from my first marathon, and from my first Boston, and from a bunch of other races. I have big extravagant race programs from every Boston, and more modest ones from a handful of other marathons. Once, in the only race I've ever won - the tiny Blue Springs 50k - I got a pair of socks as a prize; today, in addition to the blue short sleeved t-shirt in my goody bag, there's a pair of Grand Rapids Marathon Socks.

The other thing I'll take home is a magnet. Somewhere along the way, I started collecting refrigerator magnets from every marathon city or state. I have some doozies. A football magnet from Marshall University, where I ran my West Virginia marathon and finished by carrying a football the length of the football field before crossing the goal line. A pink flamingo magnet from Florida, a great magnet with articulating arms and legs. A tornado-shaped magnet from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the winds made for a very tough race. My Boston magnets are always a part of the packet; plain and simple, an annual gift from the Newton-Wellesley Hospital. I have no fewer than four moose-themed magnets, although the only place I've actually seen a moose was in Alaska. My Hawaii magnet is a surfboard; my Georgia magnet is a peach; my Arizona magnet is a kachina. Here in Michigan, as in some other non-touristy places, finding a magnet is a bit of a challenge. Leann helps me in the quest, and we finally land in a book store where they have a small selection, and I choose a simple rectangle with a picture of the city that says "Grand Rapids". Sometimes simple is best.

After all of these rituals, we don't have much time for sight-seeing. This is not really a destination we chose for the scenery, so we make do with a tour of the local store with tons of Michigan apples on sale, all at 49 cents a pound. That's okay, since I've managed to take in tons of sights along this fifty state journey. I've seen national parks galore: Yellowstone and Yosemite and Acadia and the Redwood Forest and the Sequoias and Zion and Bryce Canyon and Cape Cod and Capitol Reef and the Grand Tetons. I've visited incredible historic sites: Antietam and Plymouth and Santa Fe and Charleston, SC and the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock. I’ve toured of more covered bridges than I could imagine would exist in Vermont and New Hampshire. In my New York marathon, we actually crossed the International Peace Bridge from Buffalo into Ontario, and finished at Niagara Falls. I spent a weekend in New Orleans, and was treated to all the sights there, from the French Quarter to the above-ground cemeteries to the Garden District with the attendant trolleys, but I also got to see the sobering visions of a post-Katrina world. In South Dakota, I saw the Crazy Horse Monument and the beautiful Black Hills. I've had the good fortune to make vacations out of many of my marathons, spending extended time in Hawaii and Alaska and once, a grand driving tour of the entire Western part of the United States.

But this trip is about a celebration, and the people and parties are the main attractions. Soon it’s 6 p.m. and the four of us (Leann, Melissa, Michele and I) are at the Bistro Bella Vita, a swanky Italian eatery recommended by my Grand Rapids friends Len and Alan. The restaurant is accommodating to our group that grows to include Benji and Amie, who have just arrived from Colorado, then Len, then Rhonda (up from Indiana), John and Carol (Michele’s friends from the Hal Higdon running board, where we all first met), Phil Bush (another original v-teamer and good friend, over from Chicago for the event), and my Iowa pal Randy Koch. Randy and I have been friends since sixth grade; he lives in Grand Rapids now, and it’s a pure gift to me that he’s able to join the party. We eat and we drink and we have a grand time. My face is already getting sore from smiling so much.

But we’re not just here to party: we have a race to run. After a short night, it’s race morning, and it’s déjà vu all over again, but in a good way. When I got up at oh-dark-thirty for that first marathon in Steamboat Springs so many years back, Rome and I were at the home of his friend Mark, in a beautiful log home just outside of town. My first order of business was a trip to the bathroom. When I returned to our room, Rome asked me if I had looked outside yet. No, I replied, why? Well, you might want to check outside before you get dressed for the race. Oh yeah? So I went to the window, and found the thing that I least expected: a winter wonderland. Snow, and a bunch of it. It had started in the middle of the night (it had been sunny, cool, and windy the day before), and was still coming down, big white flakes. “I can’t run a marathon in the snow!” was the first thing in my mind. And then I realized that I really didn’t have much of a choice: if I was going to run a marathon that day, it would be in the snow. Oh boy.

So this morning, I come back to the room from my trip to the WC, and Leann asks if I’ve looked outside yet. Uh-oh. Um…..what up? Rain, says she, rain. So I go to the window to look for myself, and sure enough, there’s a light rain. At least this time, the precipitation is not a surprise. But then I look to the flagpole, and I’m heartened, seeing what Leann hadn’t noticed yet: almost no wind. Yesterday, the flag was whipping around furiously. Today, it’s just hanging there. Hallelujah Jordan!

There’s been a twist in the plans for this morning. Originally, I thought that Leann and Melissa would join me for this 26.2-mile journey. But that’s not to be, as Melissa is nursing a bum knee and Leann is recovering from the crud. Actually, to be completely accurate, Melissa is having knee surgery in a week or so, and Leann sounds like she belongs in an oxygen tent. They are quite a pair. They’ve elected to take the early start, and are saying that they will walk the distance. This means they need to head downtown a bit earlier than Michele and I. They take off, and I’m left in an oddly quiet, solitary room to finish dressing and eating my stale bagel and drinking hotel room coffee. It’s a pretty alien sensation, after so many shared pre-marathon rituals, and I spend a few moments thinking how blessed I am to have found such great friends to share this experience. But I’m only alone for a scant ten or fifteen minutes before Michele shows up, ready to go.

This morning, Michele and I head out - in the darkness - to a rental car for the drive to the race start and finish. Logistics for this race are pretty easy, since the race is essentially a big loop, starting and ending at the same point, so we can drive into downtown and park nearby. The easiest races are the loopy ones where you walk out of a hotel and are right at the starting line; that's a rare treat, and something I did most recently in Providence, Rhode Island. Most of my favorite races have been point to point courses, and the logistics have been more tricky. I've ridden yellow school buses from a finish line to a start for more races than I can count. On a few occasions, I've had bus rides on nice comfy tour buses. In Tucson, they transported us on nice buses and let us stay on board until the race start, and I took a nice little nap in the warmth of the bus. Is it a coincidence that I ran my fastest time that day? At St. George, Utah, they bused us on yellow school buses and dumped us at a higher elevation, but made up for the cold conditions at the start by building nice big bonfires so we could keep warm. Twice I walked to race starts in downtown Denver, just a few blocks from home. In Boston and Atlanta, I rode subways to get to the race start; in Deadwood, South Dakota, I rode on a little old-fashioned trolley. The bus to the start in Cordova, Alaska, was the most colorfully decorated bus I've ever seen. For my first Boston, Mick dropped me off on a back road in Hopkinton, and I walked backwards along the course the rest of the way to the starting corrals, a pilgrimage made more poignant by the quiet and solitude imposed by the fog on the oddly empty roads.

This morning we drive to downtown Grand Rapids, and we get to the start area just in time to see the early starters off. It’s especially ironic to see Melissa and Leann in their Boston Marathon jackets lined up with the walkers. Rhonda also makes it here for the early sendoff. We finish up the last pre-race rituals (i.e., multiple trips through the bathroom lines – in this case we actually get to use the indoor facilities at the Y, something of a marathon treat), then Michele and Rhonda are off to warm up. They are both running the half, so will line up and run independently of me. Michele promises to come back to mile 23 or so to escort me to the finish.

Now I start looking for Benji and Amie in earnest. When Melissa and Leann opted for the early start, it was a loss, but I didn't mind too much because I knew that I still would have Amie as a running partner. But now, as the minutes to start time count down, I realize that I screwed up in not setting a specific meeting place. We run roughly the same pace, though, so how hard will it be to find her? Well, the unexpected answer is: plenty hard. I scan the crowds, but with 3000 runners in the combined marathon and half marathon, there are just a lot of people here. It seems weird – and a little bittersweet – that I will start my 50th state marathon just like I started my first ever marathon – completely alone.

As far as race starts go, this one is pretty low key. Over the years, there have been many memorable race starts. The Star Spangled Banner is nearly ubiquitous, and I’ve heard lots of versions; let’s just say some have been better than others. In Iowa, we were sent on our way by a couple of people clad in togas (the Marathon to Marathon, naturally), and with a surprise greeting from Tom Vilsack, then the Iowa governor who also went on to run the race. (Happily, I can report that it’s one race where I beat the incumbent.) In Austin, after waiting around in freezing drizzle, two deer bounded across the roadway just as we started running. On Maui, in the darkness of a January morning, we were treated to a traditional Hawaiian blessing. Chicago was my first big marathon, and I can never forget the arc of clothes being thrown to the sidelines when the crowd started to move. At my last marathon in Alaska, there were only about thirty of us lined up at the start line – 26.2 miles outside of a remote fishing village – so for once, I was able to hear the starter call out “Ready – Set – Go”. My biggest surprise in my first marathon was the fact that the (relatively) small crowd started to move, and I had never heard a gun go off. That has happened over and over again on this journey, and today is no different. Without any fanfare, we start to move.

I learn very quickly, though, that someone wearing a shirt announcing that this is my 50th state – in bright red and blue letters on my back - will never be alone. I’m surprised and humbled by all the people who make a point of running with me and congratulating me. It’s a non-stop stream of well-wishers. How could I think I was alone for this milestone day? The truth is, it surprises me that I've run with so many friends in marathons over the years, when I've always thought of myself as a solitary runner. I've run several entire marathons with Leann, talking about and solving the problems of the world along the way, in places as diverse as New Orleans and Burlington, Vermont, and Missoula and Wilmington, Delaware, and Providence, Rhode Island. I started one marathon with Melissa, in Denver, but I couldn’t keep up with her pace beyond mile 8; somehow, she slowed down enough to stick with me in Alaska for the entire 26.2 mile journey earlier this year. I've run portions of many marathons with Michele - most notably the first 15 or so miles of the Maui Oceanfront Marathon last year. I've run large parts of marathons in Tulsa and Ashton, Idaho, with Amie. In Little Rock, I ran nearly the entire race with Denise from Chicago, someone (I thought) I just met that morning in the starting corral; around the halfway point of the marathon we realized that we had run a part of the Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon in South Dakota together a few years earlier. Once, in Boston when I was struggling in a very hot year, Mick hopped out onto the course and ran 5 miles through the hills of Newton with me, helping me get through the toughest part of the day; never mind that he then had to run the 5 miles in reverse to get back to our rental car. Along the way, I've run stretches of road or trails with Shelagh and Lynne and Mike McKenna and Trent and Kent and Kerby and Dan Schwarz and Betsy and Rhonda and Sunflower Mary.

The early miles tick by. The first five miles of the marathon are, according to the race map, a big loop around downtown Grand Rapids, but to be honest, I don’t see any of it. All I see are the faces of the people who run up to offer kind words. It’s disorienting – I don’t have any sense at all of where I am. Over the years, I've run in just about every setting imaginable, and have seldom felt as lost as I do now. I've run in cities: Boston and Chicago and Atlanta and Seattle and Denver, in the shadow of tall buildings. I've run along the water, from Tampa Bay to the Niagara River to Myrtle Beach to the Maine coast and the Oregon coast; along the shores of Lake Superior at Grandma's Marathon and Lake Champlain in the Vermont City Marathon, and among glacial runoff in Alaska; along the Pacific Ocean in Maui, and along the Atlantic in Rhode Island. I've run past college campuses in Boston - Wellesley and Boston College - and through college campuses in Austin and Madison and Providence and Seattle and Moorhead, Minnesota, and Huntington, West Virginia. I’ve run on military bases in Dayton, Ohio, and in Wichita. In New Jersey, I ran along a boardwalk on the ocean. I've run past state capitols in Austin and Madison and Jackson and Denver and Little Rock, and past that grandest capitol of all in Washington DC. Seldom have I been as unaware of my surroundings as I am here today.

Phil is acting as official photographer today, so in addition to continuing to scan the runners around me, I’m scanning the side of the road for Phil. He told me where he would be, but as I’ve completely lost track of time and space, I have no idea where to expect him. Then I see him, and I feel connected.

Ed from Chicago falls into step alongside me, and we cover much of the first seven miles together. Ed has finished the 50 state circuit himself, and now is working on a second time around. He’s great company, always somehow finding me again after each aid station.

At mile seven, as I’ve settled into the marathon zone, with Ed providing steady companionship while other well-wishers come and go, Amie comes sprinting up beside me. I’m thrilled! She tells me that she has been trying to find me, describing me to folks along the way, and finally somebody said, yes, I’ve seen that woman, she’s up ahead of you just a little ways.

Now, it’s not exactly hard to guess how anyone spied me today. I’ve run in shorts and tights and running skirts in the past. I’ve run in singlets and short sleeved shirts and long sleeve shirts and jackets. I’ve started races in throwaway shirts, picked up for a few bucks each at the local Salvation Army. I’ve started races with garbage bags and ponchos to ward off cold and rain. I’ve sported red-white-and-blue 50 States Marathon Club gear and I’ve worn yellow-red-and-black Marathon Maniacs gear. In fact, I’ve worn most of the colors of the rainbow, favoring pinks and blues and purples. I’ve worn hats and headbands and visors and sunglasses, and I’ve held on to (or thrown away) gloves along the way – black and white and red, and – my favorites - purple. But today is the first time I’ve worn a costume.

As far as costumes go, it’s not that showy, but for me, it’s an event. Melissa tried to outfit me in a red polka dotted running skirt, but in the end I opted for my trusty red Nike shorts. For a top, I decorated a white short sleeve shirt with red and blue stars on the front, and a 50 States Club logo on the back, along with a painted “MI=MY 50th STATE” message. My arms are clad in sky blue arm warmers with giant white stars. And the piece de resistance? It’s a red-white-and-blue sparkly tiara. And just to complete the look, I’m carrying a little American flag. You could say I’m styling.

So I guess it’s really no surprise that Amie is able to find me. It’s great to finally be back among my old friends, even though I greatly appreciate the new friends I’ve been making along the way.

Amie and I have barely had a chance to start chatting when, at mile 9, we see Melissa and Leann. I think uh-oh. When we did the math, we estimated that if we were all on track with our plans for the day, we would pass Leann and Melissa around mile 12. Seeing them moseying along here at mile 9 means that they are pretty seriously behind their game plan, since I’ve been running pretty steady ten-minute miles. We shout greetings to each other, but then the moment is gone.

Somewhere along the way, we’ve moved from running on city streets to running on a nice wide asphalt bike path that meanders through some open space south and west of downtown. With the fall colors just past their prime, it’s a very pretty setting. For a few miles, we’re in a fairly open field, skirting a small pond. Surprisingly, this urban course rivals some of my more rural and remote courses for scenery today. After all, I've run in the Rocky Mountains of my home state of Colorado - in Steamboat Springs and in Leadville, and in view of the Grand Tetons, and in the shadow of the Montana Rockies in Missoula. I've run in the stark desert beauty of St. George, Utah, and the Valley of Fire in Nevada, and the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. I've run on asphalt and concrete and trails - oh, those tough trails - from the Tecumseh Trail in southern Indiana to the Appalachian Trail and the C&O Canal Towpath in Maryland to the Land Between the Lakes Trail in Kentucky and the wonderfully forgiving soft crushed gravel path of the Deadwood Mickelson Trail in South Dakota. I've run up hills and down hills, too many to even begin to mention. The single hill in the course is along this stretch, and at this point, Amie and I lose Ed, who had been with me for so many miles.

The course has several out-and-back sections, and around mile 14, we head into the longest of these, and Amie and I start to see people whom we either know or will see a few more times along the journey. There’s Phil on a bridge, taking photos again. There’s a wedding party running altogether – a very interesting and enthusiastic entourage. There are relay runners, and there are charity groups pushing wheelchair racers. And now – right around the time that we pass the Pickle Juice aid station for the first time – there’s Benji, many miles ahead of us. He looks strong, and we shout greetings to each other.

Up ahead, we cross under a roadway, and standing along the side of the path is Len. He shouts my name, and I’m thrilled. It’s a party! In fact, I’m so caught up in the celebration that I somehow miss him after we make our 180 degree turn up ahead. Next up: Leann and Melissa. What the heck? We figure that they must have seriously picked up the pace. And finally, there’s Rita, heading the opposite way as we head into the second, shorter, out-and-back leg upwards of mile 20.

I’ve been having fun, but all the talking has taken a toll, and I finally tell Amie that the only hope I have to maintain any semblance of this pace is to quit talking and concentrate on running. So we run along companionably, Amie providing color commentary from time to time, and me grunting responses. I think everyone else is in the same shape, as the congratulations have slowed to a trickle. It’s all a good reminder of what it’s all about: that running 26.2 miles is never easy, and never to be taken lightly.

We retrace some steps over already-covered ground, and then finally we can see the tall buildings of downtown Grand Rapids in the distance. I’m starting to look forward to seeing Michele at mile 23; at this point in the race, every intermediate goal grows in significance, as I think “if I can just make it to ____”, then I can worry about getting to the finish line after that.

Michele is not, however, at mile 23. Somehow, I like this; it gives me yet another intermediate goal. First it was mile 23, now it’s “where in the world is Michele?” Time and distance is ticking away. Amie is inching just slightly ahead of me; it’s clear she has more gas in her tank than I do.

At mile 24, there’s Michele. Yeah! Amie tells Michele that I’m not able to chat anymore, but that she should entertain me. I tell Amie that she should take off and have a good strong finish to her race. So she leaves me in Michele’s capable hands, and Michele starts talking me through the final 2.2 miles of this 50-state journey.

Michele is naturally a Chatty Kathy, and she’s rarin’ to go since she’s been done with her half marathon for a couple of hours now, and she takes over. She’s perfect for the job. She keeps up a running commentary, telling me about her race, and about where the mile 25 marker is, and about the little obstacles between here and the finish (a curb to step off; a large water puddle to avoid; railroad tracks that might be slippery). It's easy to understand why Michele seems a little worried about the possibility that I'll fall and break something, since I have a bit of a history breaking things throughout this 50-state journey. In the months leading up to my first Boston, I fell in an awkward way on a ski slope and broke a rib. It made for some painful training. Then two years later, again right before Boston, I stubbed my toe in the middle of the night, and so ran Boston that year with a broken little toe. Just a little over two years ago, I stepped badly on a rock on a trail section of the Mesa Falls Marathon in Idaho and ended up with a stress fracture in my foot. In an effort to give my foot time to heal, I took some time off running and increased the time I spent on my bike. You can see it coming: I wrecked on my bike and broke my wrist. Not quite a year later, I tripped in a parking lot and fell hard on my knee, cracking a bone in my leg. Then, of course, earlier this year, I fell and smashed my nose in a Kentucky trail marathon. You can understand why someone who knows me would be concerned about me breaking more things. Today, amazingly, I manage to stay on my feet.

Part cheerleader, part coach, Michele tells me “you’ve got this” and “you can pick it up now, you can do this thing”, and her words spur me on. Somewhere in this last mile, she reminds me of the people who have helped get me here today, starting with my mom. But there’s not time to go through the entire list of people I need to recognize, so I just offer up a small silent prayer of thanks.

And then it’s mile 26, just 385 yards to go. So many races, and so many finish lines. In the Marine Corps Marathon, we had to climb a steep hill to the finish in Arlington National Cemetery. In Seattle and Huntington, we finished on football fields. In Fargo and Omaha, the finish lines were, oddly, inside buildings. The Wichita Marathon finish was on cobblestones: ouch! In Vermont earlier this year, after a race entirely in rain, we had to run across a squishy wet field to cross the finish line. In Wyoming, the finish line was up a steep climb; in South Dakota, the finish was at the end of a nice downhill stretch. Some finishes come up suddenly, where you make a last turn and there’s the finish line right in front of you. Boston is the opposite: you turn onto the final stretch long before you hit mile 26, and it feels like that huge finish line with the yellow and blue balloons and the gigantic arch keeps moving further and further away. This finish line in Grand Rapids is – like almost the entire course today – blissfully flat, and it seems to come at just the perfect point in this day.

Over the years, I’ve wondered what this stretch would feel like, and since I’m the biggest crybaby in the history of the world, I’ve been pretty downright certain that the moment will include a lot of tears. In my first marathon, there was a marker that said "1 mile to go", and as I passed it, I started to cry, only to learn quickly that crying and running aren't very compatible. Over the years, I’ve learned that one of the best cures for a crying jag is to go for a run. So, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that the tears I expected today don’t materialize. Today I’m running the last .2 miles of this journey with Michele at my side, and she is shouting to people that I’m finishing my 50th state, and I’m waving my little plastic flag, and all I feel is joy. Pure joy. Then I’m crossing the finish line, and Don Kern, the race director gives me – sweat and all – a gigantic hug. Joy, pure joy. Pure euphoria.

Benji and Amie are both there to share the moment, then they take off for warmth and showers. The rest of the party starts to reassemble just outside the finish area. There’s Phil, offering to get me a soda. Rhonda shows up, showered and refreshed after the half. Leann and Melissa are done soon, forced to confess that they started running somewhere in the middle of the race, running a huge negative split. Rita almost walks right past us, looking fresh after her finish. We hang out briefly, but the weather – which has been about as perfect as it could be today, cloudy, cool, and barely windy – is looking quite ominous with dark clouds gathering. Besides, we have a party to attend.

Most of us reassemble at a brewpub called Hopcat just a few hours later. Like the race course which was a gigantic loopy thing, this seems fitting: Hopcat is just a few blocks down from last night’s pasta feast. There’s a long picnic table just inside the front door of Hopcat, and we commandeer the table for our gathering. Nearly the whole gang is here: Leann, Melissa, Michele, Amie, Benji, Phil, Len, and Alan. The Jam family – unable to make the trip from Chicago – very graciously stands us a round of celebratory drinks. We have red-white-and-blue streamers and Mardi Gras beads and I wear my tiara again. It’s everything that I dreamed it would be – but so much more.

Monday morning arrives, and we’re all winging our way back to our respective homes. I’m hearing the song “Closing Time” by the group Semisonic in my head: “time for you to go back to the places you will be from”. And I’m not really sure what comes next. After chasing this goal for somewhere around ten years, it feels odd not to have a new next big thing planned.

When I get off the plane in Denver and walk down the concourse, I see again the virtual tour of my past marathons. Albuquerque, where Mick rescued me by bringing ice cubes to me on a sunny, hot, unshaded bike path along the Rio Grande. Omaha, where we ran through the Henry Doorly Zoo in the early hours of the morning, and I saw my mom and sister Sue and brother Stan and his family multiple times in the second half of the race, my two young nieces running the last hundred yards with me. Washington DC, where I spent a last long girls weekend with Theresa, and we both ran: a marathon for me and an 8k for her; before we knew her cancer was back, before we knew that it would be our last trip together. It seems that there’s nowhere left to go.

But then I have to wait a few minutes at the baggage carousel, and the list of arriving flights flashes in front of me. Grand Rapids: bags not in yet. But other cities show up here, too. Orlando. Hmmm. I have not yet run the Disney World Marathon. Knoxville. Is there a marathon in Knoxville? Exactly where *is* Knoxville? The words from the song continue in my head, “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” And I’m reminded that there are worlds of possibilities.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Fried Oreos (Ocean Drive Marathon 2011)

(Or how I run a marathon and manage to not break any bones)

Over the years that I have been traveling to New Jersey for work, I've gotten to know the industrial corridor all too well. It's not a very attractive area: oil refineries, shipping terminals, breweries, and even a prison. These are all things you drive past before you've barely left the Newark Airport. The only thing to make an impression - other than all this heavy industry - is the vast expanse of multi-lane freeways. Lane after lane after lane of cars and trucks going somewhere - anywhere - in a hurry. It doesn't seem that anyone actually stays in New Jersey.

But I've heard good things about New Jersey - particularly "the Jersey shore" - so I've been curious. Where and what are the good parts of the state? On my journey east for the Ocean Drive Marathon, a trip I'm lucky enough to combine with a work commitment in Piscataway, I finally get to experience a little bit of the multiple faces of New Jersey.

Of course, New Jersey often plays second fiddle to its larger neighbor to the north, New York, and specifically New York City. So, after my first day of work at the mothership on the Thursday before the marathon, I head into the city. It's culture shock at its best: boarding a suburban train in Edison, New Jersey, and after an hour's ride, emerging at Penn Station into midtown Manhattan at the height of rush hour. I soak it all in while hoofing it up to Hell's Kitchen where I meet David, Abby, and Tracy - all friends from Taper Madness that I've known for years but never actually met in person - for dinner. Good food and better conversation: done too fast, and then I'm on a train back to New Jersey.

Friday night, I get to see where my friends Carol and Michael live. More to the point, I have been invited to spend the night. It's been a really hard week at work - and Friday ranks right up there in the universe of "suckiest days of work ever" - so I'm especially grateful to Carol and Michael for the wine they feed me, and then the gourmet meal that follows. There's a real wood fire-burning fireplace, and more wine and good conversation before we all drift off to bed, and I fall dead asleep. In the morning, I'm awed by the landscape that I didn't get to see when we arrived last night in the dark. Carol and Michael's house sits on a steep hillside, surrounded by trees and trees and more trees. This is New Jersey??? Carol and Michael feed me again (fresh squeezed OJ, French toast made from fresh baguette), and then we go for a morning walk in the crisp country air along Rockaway Creek, a delightful stream at the base of their property. It's all extremely picturesque, in a very Norman Rockwell way.

The morning is done too soon, and I'm on my way to Philadelphia to pick up Melissa, who is coming to join me for the marathon. Ah, yes, a marathon. That's what I'm here for. And it's what I've been obsessing about for the last couple of days, while doing my "Taste of New Jersey" tour. Actually, it's the weather I've been obsessing about.

The forecast is abysmal, and it only gets worse by the day. The weather folks are calling for cold temps for the marathon - really cold, in the 30s, maybe into the low 40s at best - with a head wind, and a good chance of rain and/or snow. I like cool weather for marathons, but this is ridiculous.

Melissa and I connect at the Philly airport, then hightail it to Wildwoods, on the Jersey shore, for packet pickup. Philly itself is another trip into an eastern industrial city, but soon we're in a completely new landscape as we approach the shore. Everything gets flat and marshy and rural. It feels like we're in some kind of weird space/time warp. We drive and obsess about the forecast for tomorrow morning.

After packet pickup - where we also both buy warmer duds (tights for me, a hat for Melissa) - we head to our hotel, which turns out to be just outside of Atlantic City. For dinner, we figure that we'll search out a restaurant in Atlantic City, so we make a driving tour. Wow. More culture shock. What a dump! It may be a gambling mecca, but, well, yuck. We decide to get the heck out of there, and stumble into Jojo's, a pretty decent Italian eatery. We power down our pasta and pizza, then head back to the hotel, where we'll obsess a bit more about the weather forecast.

Race morning, like always, comes early. We have a 25 mile drive to the race finish in Sea Isle City, where we board buses to take us to the start in Cape May. We obsess about the weather. It's freezing! The wind is howling, the temperatures are low, but at least it's not raining. In Cape May, we get lucky: we're allowed to wait inside the host hotel during the hour or so we have before race start. We naturally migrate towards the other Marathon Maniacs, and get a couple of group shots together. We're all obsessing about the weather.

Outside, just moments before race start, snow flurries skitter through the air. It's so cold that I'm wearing more clothes than I've ever worn in a marathon before: tights, two long-sleeved shirts, a singlet, and a jacket. It goes without saying that I'm also wearing a hat and headband and gloves. The surprising thing is that I will not be too warm during this race.

Melissa and I start out running together; there is no incentive for either of us to run fast today other than the fact that - after we finish - we have a bit of a hike to get back to the hotel (praying for a free very-late checkout), shower, and then hurry back to Philly for our flights home. We jog together for most of the first mile, when Melissa takes her first walk break. She will pass me shortly, when she starts running again, and then I'll be on my own for the rest of this race. That's okay with me, since I'm feeling a huge need to concentrate so that I don't trip and land on my face again.

After my emotional and physical meltdown at Land Between the Lakes, two weeks ago, I'm trying to stay positive today. And healthy. "No new broken bones" may be an odd goal for a marathon, but it seems to be a valid one for me. To that, I've added "and enjoy the run" as a bonus goal. In a marathon, it's not always easy to enjoy the run - at least for the entire journey - but today it's job one.

To help me with the goal, I start out with a strategy of assigning each mile a letter of the alphabet, and concentrating on something to be grateful for that starts with that letter. But this is a minefield, from the start. First letter: A. I start a mental scan to find something with that letter to feel good about, and immediately come up with The Doctor, whose surname begins with A. Crap. But I'm not ready to give up yet; I decide to be grateful for the time that I had with The Doctor, and to just move on.

It's good to have a mental distraction because, well, this race doesn't have a lot of other distractions. Cape May, where we start, is a nice beach town with Victorian houses and well kept yards. The ocean is visible to us only on occasion; you have to keep your eyes peeled to the right, and then often the best views are only of dunes. At worst, we see the backsides of empty beach houses. It's off season here, so as we run north along the shore, we pass through one empty beach town after another.

The road is flat, flat as can be. In mile 2, I think of B for Boston - the town, the race, and my cat. Easy enough. The snow flurries at the start have ended, and it's actually fairly comfortable running with all these clothes and a bit of a headwind. Much better than expected.

The race rolls along, and I work at the alphabet, and it turns out that I'm mostly just running in the moment. I concentrate on staying on my feet, watching the road so I don't trip on anything. The road is dead flat, but then we come to a drawbridge. It's straight up on one side, across a metal grate at the top (very scary for someone worried about footing), then straight down on the other side. This - and the 5 or so more along the course - are the only things resembling hills in this race.

We get to Sea Isle City at mile ten. There is a companion ten mile race that ends here, with the finish staged on the boardwalk along the beach. This is one of the few times that we run directly on the ocean, but I can't really enjoy it, since we are routed onto a wooden boardwalk. My nervous feet tread lightly. The beach stands, with their bright signs and boarded up facades, call out for my attention. T-shirts, tattoos, bathing suits: the signs catch my eyes. Fried Oreos. More t-shirts, some ice cream, and then more fried oreos. The ten mile finish line: just a blur. Then we're off the boardwalk, heading toward our own finish.

The rest of the race is more of the same: empty beach towns, stolen ocean views, dunes. Several more drawbridges. At mile 23, a drawbridge looms, and I look at it and think: whatever. I've been walking through aid stations, but otherwise running, but finally this steep uphill does me in. I walk up it, and I gingerly step over the metal grates, looking down at the water below, and then slowly down the backside. I'm ready to be done.

One of the beautiful things about small races - and about running multiple marathons - is that you get a chance to see people you know along the way. During this run, I've chatted with several Maniacs, including a couple I recognize from the Kentucky fiasco just two weeks ago. "You broke your nose!" they say, when I ask if they were at the race. A mile or two from the finish, I pass Duluth Sarah, a 50-stater whom I've seen at races from Delaware to West Virginia to Colorado. Oddly, the one race where I didn't spot Sarah was at Grandma's last summer, in her hometown of Duluth.

But the most important sight is that finish line. It's always sweet, but somehow sweeter now with every race, as I count down to my last few states. New Jersey: state #45, done. It has, after all, turned out to be a pretty decent day: the sun is shining, it's nice and cool, and the headwind - while always there - has not been a terrible factor.

Melissa finds me immediately, and we agree that we need to fly. I head into the main tent to reclaim my checked bag, and run into Beau, a buddy from work who had a tremendous day here, setting a personal best, running sub-3 hours, and winning the men's master's race.

It turns out that there are multiple things to be grateful for on this trip, even if I lose my place in the alphabet and cannot stay with the program during my run; Beau's victory is one of those things. The weather has turned out to be quite lovely, too. Melissa and I are extremely late checking out of the hotel, but the front desk clerk doesn't mind at all, and we get to the airport with just enough time to get to our flights. And I've managed to stay on my feet and complete a marathon with no new broken bones. I'm not sure I completely "get" New Jersey yet, but I'm a step - or more to the point, 26.2 miles worth of steps - closer.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Whirlwind (Tulsa OK Route 66 Marathon 2010)

(slightly out of order)

The Whirlwind
(Tulsa Route 66 Marathon 2010)

Any way you size it up, it was set up to be a whirlwind of a weekend. Flying from Denver to Tulsa early Saturday morning, meeting Melissa at the Tulsa airport, heading to the expo and packet pickup at the Tulsa Convention Center, seeing a bit of the race course, picking up some supplies for race morning, finding our hotel, heading to the pasta dinner at the historic Cain's Ballroom, driving out to the Tulsa's Hard Rock in search of a pin for Melissa's dad, getting ourselves up early and to the race course in time to park nearby, hanging out with the Marathon Maniacs and 50 Staters at the Maniac Corner special tent, running 26.2 miles (or a bit more), heading back to the hotel for a late checkout after showering and packing up, and then high-tailing it back to the airport for the flight that would put me back in Denver by early Sunday evening. There was barely going to be time to look for the souvenir that I bring home from each of my marathons: a refrigerator magnet that somehow captures the essence of the place. But Melissa sealed the deal, in more than one way, when she met me at the gate as I deplaned, and handed me a birthday present that she had picked up in her extra time in the airport: a magnet, in the shape of a twister, with "Oklahoma" etched on its side.

Little did I know, at the time, how apropos this little gift would turn out to be.

All systems seem to be go, though, as Melissa and I grab the car and get on our way. I'm a bit jazzed after my flight, where the small plane seemed to be filled with other marathoners. Nothing like talking with a bevy of new friends about running marathons to get you jacked up for the one on the horizon the next day. The buzz keeps growing as we get to the expo and spend time at the 50 States booth, getting pictures with 50 State Club founders Steve and Paula Boone and the rest of the crew. Then we're taking a happenstance tour of Tulsa and the race course as we try to figure out logistics for parking on race day.

At some point, between getting into and out of the rental car a bazillion times, one of us comments on the wind. "Sure hope we don't have this wind tomorrow," one of us says. "Was there wind in the forecast?" the other of us asks. "Well, no matter what, we'll just have to deal with it," we both agree. For we've both learned, in our respective 50 states quests, that the weather gods really don't give a flying fig if you plan on running 26.2 miles on a particular day, and they will hand up whatever weather they darn well please, thank you very much.

And in the case of the Tulsa Route 66 Marathon on November 21, 2010, the weather gods see fit to hand us some warm and very humid temperatures - even at the 7 a.m. start - and to whip up the wind into an absolute frenzy. Yet what is there to do but run?

As the saying goes, misery loves company, and thankfully - blessedly - I find that I have plenty of company to share that misery with in this marathon. Melissa and I find Maniac Corner - a gift of the race organizers, a special tent and gear check just for the members of the Marathon Maniacs and 50 States Clubs - early, and there we find lots of people to commiserate with. Benji and Amie have made a road trip of it; they arrived in Tulsa late Saturday night, and are here in the tent nice and early, ready to run. Jerry Greenwald has picked up their race packets, and he's here early, too. We see tons of people we know slightly or from internet group postings, and we gather for a big group picture. Then we're elbowing our way into the starting corrals, and the gun sounds, and a cloud of multi-colored confetti fills the air. This is a wave start and we're in the second wave, so we wait five minutes or so, inching up all the while, until a second gun sounds and a second cloud of confetti is unleashed into the air. It's festive, it's crazy, it's crowded. It's the way a race start should be: the crowd is thick for a few blocks, but then it gets comfortable to run.

Well, it would be comfortable to run if it weren't for the hills. The first 15 miles of this marathon wind through central Tulsa, and it's a constant roller coaster. Happily, none of the hills are Everests, just gently rolling. And I don't mind them all that much since Amie and I are running together. Did I mention that misery loves company?

Actually, the only true misery at this point is the humidity. It's warm for a race start, and the humidity is high. That means I'm running at a higher-than-desired heart rate almost right out of the gate. But Amie and I are chatting, and we're taking it as easy as we can without feeling like we're dragging, and the miles roll by.

The fact that we're looping around city streets and block and parks and through some tony business districts makes the wind a non-factor. It's blowing, and it's swirling, but with all the twists and turns of the course, we're largely sheltered from it, and even if it finds us, we are never headed in the same direction for long. Life is good.

And then life is even better - Sunflower Runner Mary from Wichita somehow finds me in the mass of runners. We chatted Saturday afternoon, but failed to make arrangements to meet up before the race, and I was afraid that, with more than 2,000 runners, we were destined to miss each other. But as Amie and I are running along, chatting, I hear someone approaching from behind, saying "is that Judy Denver?", and there she is. It's official now - this is a party!

Mary runs with us for a while, then we get separated at a water stop, but later she finds us again. Amie and I are getting along famously, comfortable in a common pace. We're running a very workmanlike pace that hovers just under ten minutes per mile. This won't win us any age group awards today, but we're both more interested in survival than prizes, and it's just a joy to have the company. Since I'm primarily a solo runner, it always surprises and pleases me when I have a partner to share a race experience with.

We run through some really impressive areas in Tulsa (who knew there were this many rich folks in Oklahoma?) in the first eight miles, and then the course loops us over and back across the Arkansas River, and then up around the city center. The temps have gotten just a bit more uncomfortable, and the sun is truly out now, and there's little shade. Our pace drops, and suddenly we're on the wrong side of ten minute miles. The outlook for a respectable finishing time is diminishing for both of us.

The Route 66 Marathon has been advertising a detour on the course in mile 13 to a place called "The Center of the Universe". It's a .3 mile detour to a man-made landmark which seems a bit hokey, but on the other hand, they have been also advertising an extra medal that you'll get if you choose to add the distance to your race. Amie and I have talked about this earlier in the race, and decided that if it looks like there's a chance for a good finishing time, we'll keep on course. If that outlook isn't so good, then maybe the detour will be a good distraction (and a good way to explain away a slow overall time). As we approach the turn for the detour, we're in lockstep, both physically and mentally: let's take the detour. Since it's a little out-and-back jag, it turns out to be fun - we get to see people coming and going, including Sunflower Mary, whom we've lost on the course, and who is heading out just as we're heading back. And on top of it all, we get a nice little medallion as we circle the pole demarking The Center of the Universe.

It's just a few more miles until we're at the mile 15 marker. After this we turn onto Riverside Drive, a pretty boulevard on the Arkansas Riverfront that will be our home until we hit mile 26. The good news is that, after 15 miles of pretty relentless hills, the rest of the race is flat. The bad news is that from mile 15 to mile 21 - 6 solid miles - we will be running directly south. And the wind is blowing - raging, actually - directly out of the south. To make a bad situation even worse, it's sunny and warm and humid, and there is no shade in sight, and not a single solitary building to block the wind. Amie and I size up the situation. It's gonna be a long ten miles.

It's brutal. The wind howls. It's blowing at a steady 20 mph, with gusts up to 35 mph. It feels like a cruel joke by a very cruel weather god. I question my sanity. I question whether I really *need* to finish a marathon in each of the states. This seems like lunacy.

There is one bright spot in this miserable situation, and it's the fact that this is an out-and-back route. That means we'll make a u-turn at mile 21 and then - glory of all glories - we'll have the wind at our back for the last 5 miles. It also means that we get to see everyone out in front of us as they make the return trip towards the finish. My entire motivation becomes watching to see all of our friends along the course. Those friends include a few close friends, and also a much larger community of people wearing Marathon Maniac and 50 State gear. We all make it a practice of greeting each other like long lost friends when we see each other. It helps - at least a little - with the pain and the misery.

Among our close friends, Amie predicts that we'll see Jerry first, and sure enough, there goes Jerry, looking good and fresh and fast. Benji is not far behind, just looking like it's a day at the office for him. Melissa is next of the people on my list to watch for. She shouts something across the road, and I hear "turnaround" and "better" and "speed". The wind eats the rest of the words. Amie comments that she couldn't make out what Melissa said, and ever-so-confident, I say "she said that it's much better after the turnaround, and we'll be happy at that point".

But it's starting to feel like running under water. Amie and I have grown ragged, and we've tried to help each other out with drafting. But somehow we just can't keep in rhythm any longer, and we find each other drifting apart. It's a yo-yo thing, one of us gets out in front a bit, then the other of us finds a spark while the wind does a whammy on the one in front. We're still in contact, but the gaps are getting bigger and bigger. I figure that at any moment, I'll look around and Amie will have left me behind.

Finally - finally - we round the orange cone at the turnaround. It's five miles to the finish, and the wind is at our backs. But the wind in my face has pulled every ounce of energy out of my body, and I'm suffering. Amie is no longer in my sights; I think she's a few steps behind, and I expect her to pass me at any moment. But the truth is, I no longer care about anything other than finishing this blasted race. (It will turn out, when we meet up with Melissa at the finish, that her actual message to us was, "I thought it would be better after the turnaround, but it isn't at all. The wind took away any speed I had!" True dat.)

On the outbound journey, I noticed an aid station set up by a couple of spectators, offering beer to runners, and now getting to that place becomes my mantra. I'm counting on it so much that at some point I wonder to myself - what if they aren't there any longer? I might be crushed. But happily, the aid station comes in sight, and I stop and slurp down a Dixie cup full of the stuff. I'm not sure why it is, but there's really nothing better in this world than a drink of barley pop late in a marathon, especially on a hot day. There's a poster next to this little aid station that says, "You look great good okay", and it seems just about right.

At mile 26, we turn off Riverside Drive, and head up a small hill towards the park where this all started earlier in the morning. Just before the 26 mile marker is another sign that says, "0.3 miles to the finish - how does that detour feel now?" and I'm happy enough to be approaching the finish that I can actually laugh. Finally, the finish line is in front of me, and I pass Maniac Corner. It's fun to see Jerry and Benji and Melissa all hanging out along the fence, and cheering as I run by. I put in the best kick that I can, and then I'm done. State #43 is in the bag, at considerable more cost than I had bargained for.

Amie comes in shortly after I do, having suffered even more than me in the final 5 miles. Then we're all heading off to cars and hotels and planes. There's little time to stop and talk since there's so much to do, heading to the hotel, showering, packing, checking out of the hotel, gassing up the car and turning it in before checking in for flights and getting through security. We meet up with Jerry and some other marathoners in the airport, and have a quick lunch, and then we're all off to our respective flights home. In a whirlwind, another marathon is done, another state added to the tally.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Broken (Land Between the Lakes Trail Marathon 2011)

Somewhere past mile 14 of the Land Between the Lakes Marathon, I am on the ground, and I am completely broken. When I crashed headlong onto the trail moments ago, I landed on my nose, and I both felt and heard it break. It's been gushing blood like crazy for a while now, and lots of kind strangers have stopped and offered help, but other than providing me with a stash of napkins to staunch the flow, there's not much to do but wait for the shock to wear off a bit. I realize as I sit on the side of the trail that my streak of 57 consecutive marathon finishes without a DNF will be broken now, too. There's no way that I can get up and run again, and I've lost the will to go on. Broken nose, broken streak; these don't really concern me that much. Even now, as I sit on the ground with a bloody napkin under my nose, it's my broken heart that hurts the most.

My heartbreak was my Valentine's gift this year from The Doctor. After close to two years together, he announced that he wants to be alone. He did not call it a breakup, but I don't get what else it is. He took me home, dropped me off, then quit calling or emailing. In the following weeks, I saw him once, briefly, and that was that. This has devastated me beyond any previous breakup. One day I thought that we were going to spend the rest of our lives together, and the next day - no fights, no disagreements, no shouting matches, nada - it seems that I'll be spending the rest of my life alone. For days on end, I've done little but sit at my desk and, between conference calls, cry my eyes out.

Benji and Amie and I had talked about making a road trip out of this marathon, but we had all waffled. A long drive, iffy weather, a trail marathon, and just the problem of actually feeling prepared for a race of marathon distance. But after Valentine's Day, it seemed the perfect escape; something that would get me outside myself. And that's what it's been: a perfect escape. The three of us have traveled together before, quite companionably, and it works that way for this trip also. We cross eastern Colorado and Kansas and get halfway across Missouri on our first day. That leaves us just roughly five or so hours on Friday to cross the rest of Missouri and a southern slice of Illinois (including a stop in Metropolis for photos at the giant Superman statue) before we reach Grand Rivers, Kentucky.

After picking up our packets, we head off in search of the trail, wanting a sneak preview before tomorrow morning's race. We look for but don't find the point where the race enters the trail, but we then trip upon a stretch of trail further up the road, and stop to do a test run. The test run leaves us all a bit apprehensive - there's quite a lot of mud and water on the trail, and it's much more technical and hilly than we've been expecting. It will turn out that this particular stretch of trail is more muddy than most of it, and the hills are among the biggest we'll encounter. But for now, I have a sense of foreboding for the race tomorrow.

A sense of foreboding is exactly what I had last year on Labor Day weekend. Life with The Doctor had been good, and it just kept getting better. Early in 2010, we went to Hawaii together, and then in July we went to France. We had gotten along so well at home, and now it turned out that we traveled well together as well. We came home from France, and then had an epic month of bicycle riding in August. Life seemed almost too good to be true. And then in the course of an afternoon, it started to fall apart. The Doctor's son, we learned that weekend, was hooked on some serious drugs. Heroin. Narcotics. You name it, he was using. The Doctor yanked him out of college and sent him to rehab. But as the son started his withdrawal from drugs, The Doctor started his withdrawal from life. I saw it, little by little, but couldn't quite comprehend. Or maybe I handled The Doctor's withdrawal the same way that he handled his son's drug habit: seeing it but not really knowing for sure, and not wanting it to be true, because then you have to deal with it.

On race morning, it's time to just deal with the trail. It will be what it will be.

Benji and Amie and I get to the starting area early, listening to NPR in the dark in the warm van while waiting for the sun to come up and the wind to die down. There's little pomp and circumstance at the start of the race, and then we're running. The race configuration is a lollipop, where the first and last 1.75 miles are on the same asphalt stretch of road before we hit the loop of trail that we'll run two laps on. Amie takes off and is soon a few steps in front of me, but then as we climb the first of two not insubstantial hills, we're together again. We stay together and chat about how these hills are going to look at the end of the race, and then we hit the trail, and I watch as Amie takes off in front of me. I'm happy with this, since I know that I really need to run the trail myself. It's too easy to fall if you're not completely concentrating.

It's easy to fall off the wagon, also, and that's the elephant that sits in every room when the son comes home from rehab in early December. He's drug-free and sober, ready to lead a clean life. He says all the right things, shows the right attitude. He goes to his daily meetings. He gets a job, says he just wants to work and ski for the rest of the winter. It all seems good.

The trail is booby-trapped with rocks and roots, but I manage to stay on my feet. People are passing me like I'm standing still. In principle, I'm okay with this; I have no delusions of finishing this thing fast at all. In practice, the passing starts to get to me. The problem is that I like a margin of at least five or six feet between me and the person in front of me so I can see what's coming. But when people go around me, one after another after another, it blocks my vision and destroys my comfort zone. Twice, I stumble and fall - just little falls, a skinned knee, nothing major. It's a big distraction, though, so I decide to start just stepping off the trail and waiting while people pass me. It's not efficient, but it's better than going down.

But then, I go down hard. It hurts. It's a full-on body plant, and I'm not even sure what happened. The odd thing is that it happens when I'm entirely alone. I take a moment to get up, brush myself off, and then I'm running again, a little more skinned up, a little worse for wear, but not damaged badly. I think that I really need to be more careful. An aid station comes up, and I like the chance to stop for a moment, take a gel, drink a cup or two of water, and then start to run again. Really, how much more can I fall?

But falling is easy to do. In only a week or so, the son starts skipping meetings, claiming that he doesn't have time. He gets a second job, this one in a restaurant, and we start to think, uh-oh, not a good environment. We see him on a Sunday in early January, though, and he seems good - vibrant, happy, alive. Laughing. But appearances are so deceptive. Just two days later comes the call: he's using again, and has been using since a week after he got home from rehab. He's shooting up heroin again, there's cocaine, who knows what else.

So The Doctor does what he has said he would do: tells the son he's done rescuing him, and he walks away. He walks away entirely. Tough love, the ultimate. Everyone says it's the right thing to do, but "everyone" doesn't have to deal with the emotional aftermath. On the surface, The Doctor seems to be dealing with things, but underneath, who knows what is going on?

After the aid station at the visitor center where we were yesterday, we run onto the muddy and hilly part that we pre-ran yesterday. I get through this part just fine, and I think I'm home free. But the trail becomes covered with leaves, and the leaves hide the rocks and roots, and soon, I've done a second full-body plant. Oh Lord, it hurts. Somebody not far behind me sees me go down and helps me up, and makes excuses on my behalf - it's the hidden rocks and roots. I just think I'm inept, but I appreciate the concern and the absolution.

For the next month, I feel The Doctor moving away, withdrawing, becoming more sad and more alone and more removed, and there is nothing I can do or say to reverse the trend. I think this is his primal scream, his way of dealing with his ultimate loss. His son is gone. Physically, the son is back in rehab once again, but he's lost to his father. No matter what, the father-son relationship they had is forever gone, to be replaced by what? And it's while I'm worrying about him, trying to help him, suffering with him, that he pushes me away and says "I want to be alone". Which, of course, means that suddenly I'm alone, too.

Just when I think I've got it under control - I'm taking it *so* easy - I go down hard a third time. It's almost an exact replay of the second fall, only it hurts that much more this time. Again, somebody helps me up; again, somebody points to the leaf-covered trail. The good Samaritan offers to stay with me, but I assure him I'm okay, that I just need to walk a moment. So I get up and start walking, and then it all hits me: the loneliness, the sense of failure, the pain of it all. Out of nowhere and everywhere comes a deep sob, and suddenly I'm stopped on the side of the trail, crying so hard that I'm barely able to breathe. I wonder what the hell it is I'm doing out here, and I'm afraid of the miles ahead, and I want to quit. I don't know if I can go another lap on these trails. I'm afraid of hurting myself badly; I'm afraid that I'm already hurting too badly, emotionally, spiritually, to go on. But there is no easy way out, and only trail in front of me and trail behind me, so I gingerly set out again. This time, I am outrageously careful of the leaf-strewn path, and I slow to a walk through any thing that looks like gnarly roots or rocks. Little by little, I get my head back in the game, and pretty soon I'm at the start of the second lap, and I think, yes, I can do this.

In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz tells us "Don't take things personally". I've been trying to do that with The Doctor and his disappearance from my life, but it's hard. When you're in a relationship, and the other person takes off, how can it not be at least a little bit about you? So instead of being a good new-ager and taking this advice to heart, I've been thinking negative thoughts, and coming up short. I'm unloved, and probably unlovable. Why else would The Doctor leave me precisely at the time when you would think he would need someone the most?

So now that I've been alone much of the time on this trail, I've picked up a party, and it's a personal pity party. It's a potluck, which means that anything and everything is fodder for this mental feeding frenzy. There's barely room on the trail for everyone who comes: the father I didn't have growing up, the boyfriends I didn't have in high school or college, my first love - who turned out to be a cheating bastard, the girlfriends who were once BFFs but who disappeared from my life without so much as a goodbye, the husband who abandoned me for his car clubs, the babies I never got to have, the grandchildren I'll never hold on my lap, and finally the guy I thought I might marry and spend the rest of my life with but who disappeared down his own rabbit hole after his son broke his heart. It takes a lot of energy to entertain a party of this size. There's not really much energy left over to watch for rocks and roots.

And then I'm down. Hard. A total face plant. I didn't see it coming: how could I? I was too busy with the pity party. But clearly the racing gods are unhappy that my head is not in this race, and they've offered the ultimate comeuppance. I'm certain that my nose is broken, and suddenly, nothing much else matters. The party has scattered, and there's just Renee - the angel who was behind me when I went down - and me, sitting on the side of the trail, waiting for help to arrive.

But help doesn't magically appear, and after twenty minutes or so, we decide to get up and try to walk to the nearest aid station. I feel bad for ruining this woman's race, but she is exceedingly kind, and I need this kindness right now. Oddly, as we walk along, I no longer trip and stumble over the trail. It no longer scares me. I'm intent on keeping my nose from bleeding too much, and still I'm doing a better job of staying on my feet.

Eventually, Renee says, "you know, it's only 9:30 in the morning", and then "we could walk the rest of this thing and still be done before the cutoff". As I grow more steady on my feet, the idea takes hold. I think about my 50 states goal and how few options there are for Kentucky marathons. I think about coming all this way to go home without a finisher's medal. I think about how I'm actually seeing the scenery now that I'm walking.

By the time we reach the next aid station, at mile 16, there are only 10 miles to go, and I've made up my mind. Renee takes off at a run. The folks at the aid station give me a Ziploc full of ice and a handful of ibuprofen and a new batch of paper towels for my still-bleeding nose. I ask them to send word to Benji and Amie, who will be waiting a long time for me at the finish line, and I head off to complete the thing. The pity party is gone. Twirling thoughts of The Doctor and his son: gone. Just me and the trail.

Just me and the trail and all the good people who encourage me as they pass me. They all exclaim as they go by, and many of them say "I saw all that blood on the trail back there!" (It must have been a prodigious amount.) Around mile 18 or 19, Lee falls in step behind me, and keeps me company until we get off the trail with less than two miles to go. The miles have flown by; I am not all that tired, nothing like a marathon that I've run, and nothing like a marathon with this many hills. I'm just moving forward.

The racing gods aren't done with me yet, though, as I find on the final stretch to the finish. Once we hit the asphalt, I've decided to run again, just to get this thing done. At some point, I look down to my Garmin to see how many miles I've covered, and in so doing I step off the pavement, twist my ankle, and fall. It's the ultimate of adding insult to injury. I had protected my hands from scrapes by keeping my gloves on even when it got warm, and finally took them off when I hit the pavement. So now, on my final approach to the finish, I've scraped my hands to smithereens, too. Sigh. There's no pride left, though, just a need to get up and finish. So I get up and start running again.

Amie is waiting at the finish line. There's very little hoopla, just a narrow chute, a modest medal, and a short walk to the community center where I can wash up and get some post-race food and drink. We hang around long enough so that I can thank Lee properly for his company, and then we're on our way home, where I'll start the process of healing all that's broken.

In the end, it turns out that dealing with a broken heart is a lot like dealing with a broken nose. At first, you have to stop and sit by the side of things and just let the blood and tears flow. They will subside, eventually, even though at first the torrents seem completely unstoppable. When you finally start to move again, it will be with baby steps, much slower and more cautiously than you're used to, but this is okay. It's what feels right, just now, if anything feels "right". You'll quit thinking, and you'll just let the pain wash over you, because you know that you can't heal until you've accepted the pain. You believe that at some point you'll feel like getting on with things again, but for right now, you'll accept the kindness of friends and strangers alike. It's how you get moving again.

I asked a friend once, not long ago, when I first saw The Doctor moving away from me, "how many times can you get your heart broken?", and she replied, "as many times as you're willing to risk it". That's a lot like running marathons. When you finish one, you are tired and hurting and you think you can't possibly ever do this again. But when you get a little distance from the pain, and you give your broken self a little time to heal, you know that you'll get through it, and at some time you'll be willing to risk it again. It helps to be able to laugh at yourself a little along the way, and with a nose like Bozo's that's not so hard to do.