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.