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.