Friday, January 11, 2008

Dallas Marathon, 2007, Part 5

 Dallas Marathon, 2007, Part 5

Part 4 click here

At this time C_ was running few miles behind me, and starting to fall behind her group. In fact, the group itself was beginning to fall apart and scatter. They had run headlong from the lake into the hills after mile 19, and like a wave of water breaking upon the headland, the group was completely scattered by the pitch of the hill. Bill held the pace steady, but C_ could see the balloon inching foot by foot, minute by minute, ahead of her as she fell mercilessly behind. Her critical moment had come. She desperately did not want to finish the race without the group, but the pace could not wait. In fact, some had already fallen completely by the wayside, never to return to the group. Sure, they would all finish, but not in time.

C_ begin to rage at her predicament. She just didn’t have the energy to stay with Bill up those hills. She knew that if she lost sight of the balloons that she would probably not be able to catch up. Running alone without the support of the group would take away a critical support. All those doubts started to feel like an anvil on her feet, slowing her down, dragging her down. She had about four minutes in her personal bank account at this point, which was good, but those could easily be lost; all too easily lost. Her breath was becoming shallow, short. She had no pain in her legs, but they just didn’t have the energy.
Just keep him in sight, she thought. Think of nothing else. Keep those damn balloons in sight. It was as if she was looking up at the last flickers of sunlight playing upon the underside of the surface of the ocean, and she was suspended in water far below. Then, slowly, another thought came into her mind, imperceptibly replacing the previous thought. Catch him. Don’t do this again. She began to push harder. C_ was willing to fail, but not willing to give up so easily. She pushed the pace up the hills, winding left, now right, around the city blocks. She needed to keep those balloons from going around the corner. And it was working. Ever so slowly she caught back up to the group leader near the top of the hills at mile 21. She was back! But had she spent too much effort in the process? Luckily the course now favored her; C_ was now on the long gradual downhill of Swiss St. But her breathing was becoming shallower, and more labored. She wasn’t getting enough air. Bill recognized this and gave her some simple, critical advice at this point: “Open your mouth wide”, he suggested, “Get more air in there!”

Oddly enough, as C_ was entering Swiss St, and opening her mouth for more air, I was exiting Swiss St., also opening my mouth wider for more air. I’m sure I didn’t look glamorous, but it seemed to help. After mile 23 the course begins to flatten out a bit. I had regained some sub-8 minute miles on Swiss St, but now as I log my lap at mile at 24, I note that I’ve slipped all the way to 8:11. Oh now that’s just b.s.! I’m a little angry with myself. I’m not hitting the wall, I’m just getting complacent. Try to keep those miles under 8 minutes! I might get an even split, or perhaps a negative split if I apply myself. 1:42 for the first half, 1:42 or better for the second half. That’s the sign of a race well run. I redouble my efforts as the course leaves Swiss St. and winds through an industrial wasteland boarding downtown proper. Just here the course also hooks up with the half marathon course. The “halfys” started an hour after we did. They ran the same course as us for the first 7 miles, and then basically cut off the lake loop and rejoined us with about 2 miles to go.
This adds quite a bit of chaos to the last two miles of the run. All the while we’d been getting more and more spread out on the marathon course, and suddenly we are hurled into a larger, slower race! It’s more disruptive than you might think. I’d joined in with a loose confederation of other marathon runners that were also running about the same pace as I. Not an official group of course -- no balloons here – but a helpful situation. It is good to have these other runners near you to help you mark your relative progress. And, frankly, something to shoot for if you are feeling competitive. See that guy up ahead in the yellow hat? Try to catch him. He’s not as good of a runner as you! Now all of a sudden we’re blended in with many more half marathon runners who are not running the same pace as us. They’re running much slower than I am. Think about it; it took me a bit over 3 hours to cover 24 miles; it took these guys a bit over 2 hours to cover 11 miles. Simply put, there are loads of them, and they’re SLOW. No disrespect, but I’m trying to finish my race here so if you wouldn’t mind clogging up the entire street, that’d be great. Thanks! And I lose sight of all of the people I’d been running with, which takes away my gage of relative progress. I feel like a small swift clean stream, having just run into a huge slow murky river. It is a struggle to keep my pace, my current, going in this morass.

On the other hand, the disruption has its benefits. I’m running and dodging “halfys”, trying to pass as many of them as possible. It’s the same feeling as before. See that group of seven half marathon runners up ahead blocking the entire road? Try to catch them. They’re not as good of a runner as you! I know that they’re not even trying to compete with me, but any motivation I can give myself I will take. After about one mile of this I get to mile 25 as we re-enter downtown proper. I look at my watch. 7:34! That’s my best split since mile 9. Of course I don’t know that at the time, I’m just happy to log another sub-8 mile. And only one mile to go! And another 0.2 miles after that. Details, details. My elapsed time at this point is about 3:16. I’d have to really blow it now not to finish under 3:30. And yes I am thinking I could still easily blow it. I try not to let myself relax on the last 1.2 miles, but it’s difficult not to.

We make a final turn on to Houston Street. There’s the finish line, in sight. Spectators line both sides of the street. They’re cheering a little, not going crazy though. Don’t they know I’m setting a Personal Record? Come on, folks! I decide against an all out sprint to the finish. But with the finish line in sight, I do let up a bit. It’s over, I’ve done it. I try to soak it in a bit, try to tell myself to remember this feeling. With my left hand in the air I cross the finish line, and then stop my watch and look. 3:25:26. About 5 minutes off my previous best. I’ve finally broken 3:30. The gamble paid off. I feel elated, satisfied. My thoughts turn to C_; she’s still out there somewhere. I ran well, and I’m hopeful that she ran well also. More than hopeful. Confident. We trained together and if I ran well and set a P.R., there’s no reason she can’t either. Maybe this is also going to be her day.

The Marathon web site has a neat utility where one can compare the progress of two different runners. After the race I was able to pinpoint C_’s exact location on the course when I finished. At the time I finished she and her group were plowing into the half marathon runners, two miles from the finish. Of course they were in a big group, so I like to think that they tore through that slow river with the ferocity of a landslide! C_ had caught back up to Bill after mile 21. After that she began several mini-cycles of falling back, redoubling her efforts, and catching back up. It was getting harder and harder to maintain pace, but having the balloons to focus on was helping immensely. Bill began to shepherd the runners at this point, even doubling back sometimes to give encouragement to stragglers, and trying to keep the group together as much as possible. He began to tell them that if they could just see him, they would finish in time. C_ began to feel like it was possible, that she could come in under 3:45, but she dared not hope yet. There was still at least one mile to go.

At this point I’m loitering around the finish area in a bit of a stupor. The cops and race officials are trying to shepherd me and the other finishers away from the finish line, but I’ve got to stick around and see her finish, because a) because I want to be there when she does, and b) it’s pretty chaotic here and I want to make sure we don’t waste a lot of time looking for each other after the race. We actually have a flight back to Denver that afternoon, which is rather loony. I think I’d rather lie in the bed in the hotel and watch football all day, but it is what it is. I start to get cold very quickly; the temperature was still in the 40s. I untie my warm up shirt from my waist and put it on – never did need it during the race as it turned out – and I grab one of those space-blanket Kevlar sheets and wrap it loosely around my shoulders. Cognitive thought begins to return to my brain. Next quest; find the clothes I dumped by the tree at the start. Of course they’re not there. Maybe I’m looking at the wrong tree? Doubtful; it looks like they’ve cleaned things up around here. The clothes are simply not there. Well that sucks; I hate to lose stuff and C_’s going to want something warmer to wear when she finishes.  I spy a couple of garbage bags that appear to contain clothing. One of them has something blue sticking out of it. I look closer; C_’s warm up pants! A marathon miracle! I root around some more and find one of the Louisville warm up shirts. Sweet, C_ will be psyched. I can’t find the other shirt though; I know it must be here somewhere… Then I realize I’m already wearing the other one. And my mind has officially gone to seed here.

I’ve still got about 10 minutes until the race clock strikes 3:40 and C_’s pace group is scheduled to arrive. The cops are trying to herd me and the other finishers away from the finish area. I decide I’ll try to join the spectators just in front of the starting line, so I duck out the finishing area to the side. Then I realize that I forgot to get my medal! They never gave me a medal! I talk my way back into the finisher’s area and walk further back where the finisher’s medals are all piled up on tables, wrapped up in little plastic bags. All the marathons I’ve been to have volunteers that will put the medal around your neck. From first to last you get a medal for completing a marathon. It’s a nice bit of tradition, if nothing else. I heard that in the Marine Corps marathon in Washington D.C. that a real-live marine does it. Sweet. In Dallas they point you to a long table and instruct you to take one, lovingly wrapped in a plastic bag. Not much for tradition in big D, I suppose. No matter, I’m capable of putting a medal around my neck. I did it. MEEEEEE.

Next item of business, refreshment. I spy a vast supply of bottled water, and grab one to drink. I don’t feel terribly famished so I don’t bother looking for food yet. At some point I decide to simply ignore the cops and start to sneak my way back to the finish line in order to see C_ finish. I want to see the exact moment she crosses the line. The official time now reads 3:37 and change. I’m slowly working my way back, avoiding race officials. It reminds me of going to basketball games at my hometown university. I always buy general admission tickets and try to sneak into the reserved seating section. So having honed my skills at Colorado State basketball games, I don’t have much trouble sneaking back up. I’m looking for a lady in yellow.

And right on cue, here she comes! C_ crosses the finish line, both arms raised in a victory “V”, and I’m briefly reminded of Pearl Jam:

“… arms raised in a “V”, dead lay in pools of maroon below…”
--Pearl Jam, Jeremy

Ok maybe not the dead and pools of maroon, but she’s killing it! With the delay from the chip, it looks as though she came in under 3:40, which is really tremendous. Over 10 minutes faster than her previous best, and 5 minutes faster than her Boston qualifying standard.

I catch up to her, and for the next minute the only phrase out of her mouth is “I did it!” I am not exaggerating here; Literally, “I did it!”

Yes, Yes, she did! Man, this is sweet vindication.

I give her a big hug, tell her how proud I am of her, and hand over her sweat pants and Louisville shirt. She’s not impressed that I managed to find them; no matter, I know what a miracle it was. And I’m glad she has them. It doesn’t take long to get cold after finishing a long run like that. I’m sure there’s some physiological reason for this, but I don’t really know why exactly. All I know is those shiny Kevlar blankets are totally necessary after a marathon, as stupid as they look. And I’m wearing one, of course.

C_ turns back towards the finish and waits for Bill, her pace team leader, to finish. He comes in less than a minute after. Bill had turned back near the end to help in some more of the pace group, and was running in with the rest of the remaining group. C_ gives him a big hug, introduces me, and I shake his hand. It is obvious that Bill played a big part in her success, and he bares our compliments and dispenses congratulations with modest good grace. Hurray for Bill!

I guide C_ to the long rows of medals. Having already procured one for myself some minutes ago, I do the honors for C_ and place her medal around her neck. Certainly with her performance she should have someone putting a medal around her neck. Of course I almost put a green relay finisher’s medal around her neck (the horror!) and have to be directed to the other side of the corral to the red marathon finisher’s medals.

As marathon finisher medals go, Dallas has a good one with one exception. The band is red, with two thin white racing stripes. It’s the only marathon medal I own that displays the race name on the band, which isn’t so bad, but also displays the title sponsor in some obnoxious cursive script. It’s a little over the top for my taste; I didn’t realize until now I even had conservative taste in marathon finisher medals. Who knew. The medal is about average-sized, but has a fanciful relief of the Dallas skyline, wreathed by a victorious circle of olive leaves. In the center of the medal is displayed the year (2007), and the full formal name of the marathon; Dallas White Rock Marathon. In very small print on the front one can spy the title sponsor of the marathon and the main beneficiary of the marathon.

Wellstone home company is the sponsor of the marathon, and the Scottish Rite Hospital for Children is the main beneficiary. Not being from the area I had heard of neither entity before the race. Wellstone didn’t make much of an impression on me. I pictured some sprawling development of new houses on postage stamp-sized lots. And lots of Appleby’s and Olive Gardens. But more brick; we are in Texas after all. I felt a little guilty about thinking bad thoughts about Wellstone though; after all they did sponsor the race.
Scottish Rite Hospital was another story. Apparently they specialize in or are exclusively for children, and operate at no cost to the patients. I think St. Jude’s in Memphis is similar. Heck I’m sure there are loads of hospitals like this around the country. It’s a Shriner’s thing, or Knights of Columbus, or some group like that. Most races are for some charity or another, and honestly, I usually don’t give the charity a second thought when I’m running a race, or deciding on a race to run. I don’t really run races for charity, I run them for me, I suppose! But in a way the Hospital did provide some inspiration for me, and to understand why we need to jump back to the pre-race dinner the night before.

C_ and I both typically try to avoid the official pre-race dinners. Why? Oh who knows, really. We’re not fond of buffets, I suppose, and I get nervous about the food quality at a mass feed like this. But we decided, mostly for convenience-sake, to attend the pre-race dinner the night before the Dallas marathon. It was in a huge ballroom in our hotel, so that was easy enough. And the food was average to good. They had lemon bars, which C_ will tell you I get a little silly over, so that was a major plus. We sat down at a table near the front of the room where the race organizers were about to give a little talk. As it turned out we sat at a table full of people from Colorado. Big ballroom, small world.

Again, having never ran a large race and hardly ever partaken in an organized pre-race dinner, I didn’t really know what to expect here. I’m guessing now the drill typically goes something like this: race director, sponsor representative, special guests, and best of luck! At Dallas the special guests included His Majesty Frank Shorter, King of Boulder Running, Winner of Olympic Gold. I can’t even remember if he spoke, it didn’t matter. All he needed to so was stand and wave from the dais, and I was blessed by running royalty. All the light in the room seemed to emanate from his resplendent silver mane of hair. I, was, healed.
But the real magic occurred before all that nonsense, when Jaclynne spoke to us. J_ was the “Junior Race Director” for the race, which meant that she was also a patient at Scottish Rite Hospital. This 11-year old girl currently has scoliosis, and must wear a brace to assist in preventing debilitating curvature of her spine. Needless to say she’s not able to run the marathon. Apparently every year the Hospital chooses a patient to put a face to the charity, to help underscore the importance of your race dollars. She was a slight, modest girl, but not afraid to speak to such a large crowd. If you didn’t know about her condition you might not think there was anything wrong with her spine, she looked fine. She didn’t say much, she didn’t have to.
The idea, I suppose, was to put a face to the beneficiaries, so you knew where your money was going. I think she did other fund raising type activities during the year as well. But it put me in a contemplative mood. I began to think about how lucky I was to be able to run a marathon at all. I wondered if J_ wanted to run a marathon, but could not of course. I imagine at the least she’d like the opportunity to run a marathon, not to be told categorically that she could not do it, could never do it, and not because of something she had done, but because of a seemingly random physical debilitation.

So I begin to think; for all those kids out there who don’t have a chance, heck, for everyone who can’t do it, I owe it to them to run my tail off at this thing. That’s how you show your respect. Dallas, like most big races, had a wheelchair division. The wheelchair racers usually start before the main race, because they’re much faster then us pedestrians, and frankly those recumbent wheelchairs they use take up a lot of space. However at Dallas I caught and passed a lady racing in a wheelchair at about mile 11. She was not in the best of shape but was plugging along nonetheless. As I passed her she gave me some encouraging words. Me! If anyone needed encouragement, I think it would be her, and every day. But here she was, spreading the love to all as we all passed her by. I did think there again that I owed it to her to try my best since she was being so generous of spirit.

But ultimately I didn’t run the marathon for Wheelchair Lady, J_, Frank Shorter, JFK, Freedom, or Apple Pie. Well, the Apple Pie is debatable. I ran, I run, selfishly, for me. Because I can run marathons, I must. And because not too far in my past, I could not. I run for the past me, overweight and out of shape, who never had a chance. And while I can run, I must. Because you never know what is coming up around the corner. For how long will I be able to run? Knock on wood, for the rest of my life. For how much longer will I live? God willing, for some score years yet. But the future is not planned out, and I must seize the opportunity while I may.

The marathon is a proxy, ultimately, for living in the moment and not taking this life for granted. It’s a metaphor for life itself. It’s a solitary, self-involved, even selfish experience. It can be filled with pain, fear and trepidation. And with the very next step, pride, determination, and real zest. And at the finish line, if your experience was good, catharsis and paradise are your reward. And if the race did not go well, perdition and anguish await. And you take that chance every time you cross the starting line. Just like life, you do not know exactly how this will end up. And like a life well lived, it is not a humdrum experience; good or bad, it is well lived. But unlike life, you have the opportunity to play this proxy out over and over again, in nearly every place imaginable.

Small wonder, then, why there is a phenomenon called “Post Marathon Depression”. Even after a good race, the satisfied glow of success soon fades, and you start plotting the next adventure. Dallas was no exception. We get our pictures taken at the finish line, and I grab another bottle of water. As we’re leaving the racer’s area I spy some balloons attached to a stick, spilling out of a trash can. The balloons say “3:30”. Hey that’s my original pace group’s balloons! I never did let them catch back up to me. I savor that mental image. Yeah, I think, I trashed 3:30. That’s right. We skip the post race party and start to make the long trek back past the Book Depository one last time to our hotel. And from there to the airport shuttle, the airport, the plane, the car, finally to the front porch of our darkened house. Before too long the discussion starts again: New Orleans? Too soon. Ottawa? Kind of far. Oklahoma City? Maybe…

Post Script:

I didn’t run an even split bit it was close: my first half was 1:41:45, and my second half was 1:43:37. A grand total of 3:25:22. I finished 344th out of 2,584 men overall, and 82nd out of 436 men in my age group.
C_’s stats? 1:49:14 first half, 1:50:00 second half, 3:39:14 total. She finished as the 96th woman out of 1,446 women, and 18th in her age group out of 288 overall.

She’ll be running Boston in 2009, and I couldn’t be more proud of her. I’ll be joining her, hopefully as a participant if I can qualify this year, but as a, ahem, “pacer” if not.

Post Post Script (2011):

I was able to join C_ at Boston in 2009, having qualified in May of 2008 at the Vermont Marathon.  I was helped along by great pacing and support by Dan J_ in that race.  And Boston 2009 was a real treat and an experience I'll never forget.  But I haven't written about that race so you'll just have to use your imagination for now.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Dallas Marathon, 2007, Part 4

Dallas Marathon, 2007, Part 4

Part 3 click here

The road would find C_ with her pace group, marking time to the beat of her group leader, Bill. Like me C_ found the early going crowded and slippery. Bill directed the group from side to side through the crowd with shouts of “head left!” and “head right!” The group dutifully followed; mustn’t get too far behind the leader! And unlike me, who cast off my group by mile 4 or 5, C_ was much more committed to her pace team. So she dutifully weaved left and dodged right through the first crowded few miles of the race.
Their first 2 or 3 miles were a bit slower than pace, so Bill had them speed up a bit through the leafy neighborhoods preceding the loop around the lake. Bill didn’t talk much, he didn’t engage in much conversation or banter. His focus was on the race, and running it in time. As the crowd began to thin Bill eased the pace back a bit to the right pace. They were on schedule as they ran down the small hill to white rock lake.

As predicted, one benefit of running with the group became apparent as they circumnavigated the lake. Bill instructed everyone to close ranks so as to act as a wind buffer. There was no sense in everyone breaking the wind if they were all going to run the same pace. They were a team, a peloton sans rouages.
Around the back side of the lake, probably about the same place I started to endure my long slow fade, Bill handed over the reigns of the group to one of the other runners so he could make a pit stop. As mentioned earlier, the scepter held aloft by the pace team leader was a long thin stick, emblazoned with several balloons bearing the crest of the pace team; “3:40” in this case. Having bestowed the honor upon one of the other group members, Bill was free to go about his business while the group forged ahead. Catching back up was not going to be a problem for Bill; he’d run a 3:05 marathon, so a 3:40 marathon probably seemed fairly pedestrian in comparison.

The problem was that the new temporary group leader was not as adept at keeping pace. She began to run 30 seconds per mile faster than the required pace. “Ha-HA! Look at me! I can be a pace group leader too!” The group began to splinter apart as a result of the sudden change in tempo. It took C_ a little time to realize what was going on, before which she began to think that she was falling apart because she could no longer keep up. C_ had put her trust in Bill and his ability to pace correctly, and with good reason; at the half way point the group came in 1:49:14; less than a minute off pace. C_ wasn’t even checking her watch anymore, but she pretty quickly realized that something was amiss. They were running too fast. Too much running at this pace would have disastrous impacts later on. But she also knew the importance of staying with the group, and if push came to shove, the group leader, whoever it may be. So she tried to keep up, to ride out this mess until Bill came back to retake the mantle of group leader, and restore order to the proceedings.

All of this was going on at just about the same time I was grappling with my own problems on the back side of the lake. Objectively I was still running rather well, but in a marathon you can sense oncoming disaster long before it happens. It’s a slow, gradual, soul-sucking event. But not all was lost. I tried to focus on the positives. The course was still scenic. I was well over half way done now. I had no pain in my legs, or anywhere else; I was getting tired, of course; who wouldn’t be? Anyway things could be worse. One of my primary concerns was food. I had lost half my supply of Gu, and already eaten the other half. I was completely obsessed with snacks at this point.

Luckily for me, the mile 17 aid station had something more substantial than the ubiquitous water and Gatorade. Little miniature cliff bars. Like Halloween for runners! It wasn’t Gu, but it was good enough! I grabbed one, and then debated about when I should eat it. I thought I should wait until mile 20, but I also knew there was a hill at mile 19. I decided to err on the side of gluttony and eat it before I got to mile 19. The cliff bar was mint chocolate flavor. It was peat-black in color, and awfully dry and difficult to eat without water. It wasn’t like my beloved Gu at all! I munched about half of it as I approached the aid station just before the hill at mile 19. I wasn’t fond of the cliff bar but it was better than nothing. It even made me the slightest bit nauseous. That’s not too unusual during a run. Again, your body just can’t tolerate much food, and if you’re not used to eating a particular type of food during a run, it might make you sick. So I kept munching away, careful to eat it slowly so as to avoid getting sick. But man was it dry and chalky! Now I was obsessing about water. I figured I could wash it down with some water at mile 19. Just then I spotted a spectator on the right side of the trail with an orange slice in his right hand, and like a religious artifact, a pack of Gu in his left! Gu! Out of nowhere, Gu! Cue the Angels singing and all that. And I completely missed him. I was all the way over on the left side of the trail, and by the time I spotted him there was another runner blocking my way. Although I briefly considered doing so, it would have been extremely bad form to bowl over the other runner in my quest to obtain precious Gu, and I didn’t want to stop and lose my momentum in order to safely obtain the Gu, so I cried “Gu!” as I ran by. Lose the Angels. Now how could I go back to the mini cliff bar? I figured that there might be more Gu up ahead at the mile 19 aid station, so I stopped eating the cliff bar after passing up the Angel of Gu there on the lake.

I could hear it before I got there; the unmistakable sound of multitudes of people having fun! Well, I thought, haven’t heard that in awhile! Apparently mile 19 is the place to watch the Dallas Marathon. There was a rocking band, people drinking beer and offering us the same, Hooters girls passing out water and Gatorade. This was great! I got a genuine shot of energy from the crowd. I realized that there really weren’t that many people on the back side of the lake up to this point. Maybe that lack of spectator support was what had been dragging me down. I had no idea how much of a boost I was getting from these people! But they were back! And they also had cliff shots!

Cliff shots. Sort of like Gu, but they taste less like yummy frosting and more like fermented brown rice sludge. Supposedly it’s a more “pure” energy source or something. I’m just saying, I like frosting more than fermented sludge, and I think most people are on my side here. But “to each their own”, right? Yeah, if only. Here it’s “to each their own cliff shots”. But complaining aside, I needed one. I threw down my half-eaten cliff bar and tacked left to a line of 5 or 6 volunteers handing out shots. I grabbed the first one I saw, and noticed it was fruit flavored. I thought “I want vanilla or coffee or something” and actually threw it at the next guy, who had a vanilla flavored shot at the ready. I think he thought I was throwing a nasty sticky empty cliff shot wrapper at him; he sort of recoiled and let it drop. I probably should have just kept them both or something. Anyway I felt like a jerk, throwing cliff shots at the volunteers, but you do strange stuff when you’re running a marathon. But I did end up with a vanilla. Sorry, the miles made me do it.

It’s pretty common to see elite runners trying to grab a cup of water or something from a race volunteer and completely biffing on the attempt, knocking over the cup and getting the volunteer very wet. I used to see that and think “what a jerk, what an idiot”. Now I understand all too well that the seemingly simple task of grabbing a cup of water becomes pretty difficult 19 miles into a race. You drop it, spill it all over on you, on the ground, on innocent volunteers and passers by. It’s a mess. And water is the least of your problems. That Gatorade? Oh it tastes yummy, but you get it all over yourself. And that stuff is sticky! It gets all over your hand and arm; it spills on your face and down the front of your shirt. And it is cold and sticky and annoying! Same goes for that sweet running nectar, the Gu shot. That stuff gets everywhere, particularly on your fingers. Running a marathon is messy, sweaty, sticky business. You really have to embrace the mess or else it becomes yet one more negative gnawing at your mind.

So embrace it I do. I now have bits of peat-black cliff bar sludge coming out the corners of my mouth as I’ve finally procured some water with which to wash it down. My entire right arm is frozen and sticky with lemon-lime high endurance formula Gatorade from a disastrous attempt at hydration a few miles back. I’m sure I don’t smell nice either. And I don’t care! The fantastic crowd at mile 19 gives me a jolt of energy as I gird myself for the attempt at the “Dolly Parton Hills” which separate me from the long slow descent to the finish starting at mile 21. Dolly Parton? Well that can’t be all bad, I figure, as I make a left turn away from the lake, and start up the first of the hills. Near the top of the first hill, spectators have set up an impromptu aid station; how cool is that! And as I approach I realize that it’s staffed entirely by dudes dressed in drag, sporting rather generous, uh, attachments in honor of the hills’ namesake. Just brilliant! It’s rather nice to have stuff like that going on to take my mind off the race.

The worst of the hills are over at mile 20. I clock an 8:14, my slowest mile since mile 1, For all my obsessing earlier about staying below 8:00, considering the terrain, that time is not discouraging. I actually feel oddly good, way better than usual at this point. Mile 20 always feels significant in a marathon. It’s a nice round number. You only have 6.2 miles left at that point. A 10 K. Oh heck you can run a 10 K, right? Also it is traditionally where you might start hitting the aforementioned “wall”. The wall is a sad experience. When you hit it, you know without a doubt that you time will start to suffer. It’s just a question of how much at that point. At Ft. Collins in 2006 I hit the wall at mile 21. I proceeded to lose 4 minutes off my pace in 5 miles, and finish 2 minutes and 30 seconds slower than 3:30. People often say that the marathon is divided into the first 20 miles, and the last 6.2. I think this is because you can generally keep things under control for those first 20, but after that, it’s a crap shoot. You run 20 miles, approaching 3 hours, with a goal in sight, and blow it in the last 6. It’s like building a house of cards from the ground up, and watching it all fall over as you try to put on the roof -- with the joker, naturally. Or the King of Hearts, depending your viewpoint. Regardless, it’s extremely disheartening. At this point in Dallas I had about 3 minutes in the bank. If I hit the wall now, I would almost certainly finish just over 3:30. Again.It’s like waiting for a bomb to drop, feeling certain that things are going to fall apart any minute now. But I keep plugging away nonetheless. After the 21 mile mark the course turns onto Swiss Street, a straight tree-lined parkway that trends gently downhill, directly back to downtown. So I’ve got that going for me. I see a gentleman carrying a large platter with bananas, cut up candy bars, and orange slices. Oh I’m totally going to hit that! I run past, make a feeble grab at candy bits, and spill several of them on to the ground whilst getting none attached to my hand. “Sorry!” I say as I keep moving. There’s another chance at food gone by the wayside. I reach the mile 22 mark and check my split time. 7:41. 7:41? That’s fantastic, much better than anticipated. Far from losing time against my 3:30 goal, I’m actually banking even more time, even this late in the race. Let’s try to keep that going! As I cross the mile 23 mark, I look again. A 7:45 mile! And my total elapsed time is almost exactly 3 hours of running. That means I have 30 minutes in which to run the last 3 miles of this race. 10 minute miles, I think. I can do the math, and the equation favors me. If I can run faster than 10 minute miles from this point forward, I will break 3:30. I repeat that to myself again. I will break 3:30. What a turnabout from just a few miles back! I just need to hold it together for a few more miles.

Part 5 click here

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Dallas Marathon, 2007, Part 3

Dallas Marathon, 2007, Part 3

Part 2 click here

It’s sort of like waiting in line at a traffic intersection, several cars back. You can see that the light is green, but you’re not moving yet. Then you’re walking a bit, getting closer to the start. There’s a palpable nervous energy emanating from everyone around me. As I approach the starting line I angle to the sidewalk and spot a tree with a folding chair under it, and stash the clothes and water bottles under the chair. Finally I can be rid of that obsession and get on with the race! Still walking as I near the starting line, I can see that I’ve let my pace guy, my balloon man, get farther ahead of me.

I cross the actual starting line about one minute after the race starts, and start my watch at that point. Oh, it’s ON! Since the race is RFID chip timed, there’s no penalty for walking a minute or more to the start. As the race finally begins for me, it’s still very crowded and I can’t run my normal pace. Oddly enough this might be an advantage; I am always tempted to start too fast in a race. I think most everybody feels the same way. The excitement and adrenaline mix into a heady cocktail I like to call “l’elixir d’grandeur”, making you think you can suddenly run a 3:05 and starting out with a pace to match. Oh you can’t help but to take a long draught from its glittering bottle. Luckily for me today the bottle is more like a plastic dribble cup, and by the time the crowd has thinned out enough to run too quickly, its heady effect has worn off.
The course runs through downtown Dallas for starters, slightly uphill. I focus on catching my balloon man, and of course Robyn Hitchcock comes to mind:

“…And Balloon Man blew up in my hand…” iii
 Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, Balloon Man

Well that’s just a silly song to have stuck in my head, but it’s got a nice jaunty beat so I go with it.
It’s not raining right now, but it was earlier, and the streets are slightly wet. My feet slip a little bit on the slicker portions, and this is extremely annoying. I ruefully consider that newer shoes would not slip so much. These damn Louisville shoes are sabotaging my race! There’s nothing like a marathon to make you obsess over the most minute of details. I’m thinking “well, if I lose even 1% of effort due to slippage, then over the course of a 3:30 marathon that’s like, 2 MINUTES of lost time to stupid wet streets! ARRRRRRGH!” So I start weaving around looking for the driest bits of pavement, probably wasting even more energy in the process.

At mile two I’ve still not caught “balloon man…,” but I’m making progress. We reach the first aid station. This consists of several tables containing water and Gatorade, ably staffed by volunteers holding out cups to the runners as they pass by. There will be one of these every two miles or so. Since it’s still very crowded at mile 2, the mass of runners gets clotted up as runners slow down to grab cups of water. Some runners slow to a walk at this point. Again to use the traffic analogy, it’s like a sudden, random slowdown on a crowded interstate. It’s a good place to get clipped from behind, run up somebody’s back, or get elbowed in the head (for us shorter types). I’m already on the right side of the street, and to avoid the mess I decide to actually get behind the aid station and run on the sidewalk. It’s a little tricky to navigate the curb and what not, and I have to grab my own drink as there are no volunteers, but on the whole it works out to my advantage. I think I actually gain on balloon man in the process.

I spend the next mile slowly and steadily catching up to the pace group leader. Of course to do that I have to run faster than the group pace; they’re running about 8 minutes per mile, and I’m running about 7:40. Thusly caught by mile 3, I slow down to the proper pace and run with the “pack” for a mile. And I find that I don’t really enjoy running with the group, for two reasons: One, there is a quite the little knot of people running with the pace team – you know, everyone like me who wants to run 3:30. It’s more crowded than my liking; I guess I just feel a little claustrophobic and again am worried about people running into me, or me running into people. I guess I need my space! Two, I was rather enjoying running 7:40 minute miles, and the group is going to run 8 minute miles for the duration. I begin to consider my past performances and think (probably naively so) that I need to “bank” some minutes in the first half of the marathon in order to have them in reserve for the second half of the marathon. My pace group leader is running a steady pace though. We’ll run a 1:45 first half, and a 1:45 second half. It’s all laid out, nice and simple. BORING. Where’s the excitement in that? Steady pace, pshaw! What does this guy know? He’s only run like 50 marathons and has a PR of 3:00. Unbeknownst to me at the time, but obvious in hindsight, I am of course sipping some l’elixir d’grandeur at this point. Oui, oui, mousiour, jus’ a petit sip, es’t tre delicious! Damn elixir. Damn French waiter. I don’t think he even knows French.Of course like a child who just doesn’t learn, I grab the bottle and take a swig; I settle into a quicker pace and leave the pace group behind. I mean, I want to break 3:30, not run exactly 3:30, right? And in order to do that I must run sub-8 minute miles. This becomes my goal. Run each mile in under 8 minutes. The race leaves downtown and winds its way through a nice city neighborhood, the course still tacking slightly uphill. I am feeling good, and over the next several miles I settle into a 7:40 pace again. There are knots of spectators cheering us on. They mostly congregate where the race goes around corners, for some reason. I’m grateful for their presence. This is my 8th marathon, and by far the largest I’ve participated in. I think my previous largest marathon had about 750 finishers. The smallest marathon I’ve ran (The Wyoming Marathon) had just over 60 finishers! And yeah, I placed top 10 in that one, that’s right. Over 4,000 people will finish the marathon today in Dallas, and that doesn’t include the marathon relay folks.

I’ve never ran a marathon with lots of spectators; it is a lot of fun to have people cheering you on. The Bolder Boulder is similar; some spectators dress up, and there are a lot of bands playing music along the course. It’s a nice distraction at the very least. But there’s something more as well. The spectators cheering me on actually at times give me a boost of energy. I really can feel it! And I give it back to them. I try to wave at them, or encourage them to cheer a little more. It’s a lot more fun than I thought it would be, actually. And there are several live bands playing for the runners as well. Around this point I see a garage band literally playing in the garage of a house, which is an amusing touch. Later on I would see an African drumming ensemble. Sweet. Another band along the way is playing “Take it Easy” by The Eagles as I run by, and I get that song stuck in my head:

“…Well I’m standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, such a fine sight to see…”
-- The Eagles, Take It Easy

And the song sounds so good! I’m not unusually fond of the tune, although I do know it by heart. It takes me back to riding in my family’s 1980 Oldsmobile Delta ’88 through the deserts of Utah. We had a cassette tape with Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” on one side, and The Eagles “Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975)” on the other side. We literally listened to that cassette tape to death; during one trip we were rewinding the tape and noticed that it was taking an unusually long time to wind to the end. Finally we pushed eject, and found to our surprise that the tape itself had literally come off the spool! At the time it was an unpleasant moment; in a family of five, there are precious few tapes that all five people will tolerate, that being one of the few. Now, running and reminiscing, it was a pleasant memory of an adventure of years past. These reveries somehow have a way of sustaining me during a long run.

However the opposite is also unfortunately true. A bad memory, or the wrong song, will have an adverse affect on my attitude during a race. Heck, I only needed to go back to October for another, less pleasant memory relating to that same song! At the end of the Louisville Marathon there was a cover band playing along side the finish area. They too pulled out the same little ditty by The Eagles. I’d like to say objectively that the Dallas band played the song better than the Louisville band, but who’s to say for sure. In Louisville I hear the same song, having just finished poorly and feeling substantially more overheated, tired and sore. The song sounded like garbage to my ears then, and did not conjure up happy familial reminisces. So really it’s probably not the band, or the song, but it’s how I am feeling when I hear the song that makes the difference. That Dallas band could have been playing just about anything and I’d have found some reason to like it. Turns out it was “Take it Easy”, so off I went, singing about Winslow, Arizona, such a fine sight to see.
Since I don’t typically listen to music when I run, I usually get one particular song stuck in my head during a marathon. In Dallas though, there was so much going on that it was actually difficult to get any one song stuck like that. Which was probably good; again, getting the wrong song stuck in my head can compromise my mental state, and wreck all sorts of havoc on my performance. At Ft. Collins this year, C_ got a slow ballad by the British band “Aqualung” (not Jethro Tull) stuck in her head. As the miles piled up and the race got tough, instead of a good tune with the right tempo, she was repeating this, with a dirge-like beat, in her head over and over:

“To bear the weight, and push into the sky it's easier to lie, it's easier to lie.”
-- Aqualung, Easier to Lie

Actually I don’t think she was articulating the lyrics in her head at that point. It was more like:
“Na naaa, Na naaa, Na na na na na naaa
Na na-na-na na naaa, Na na-na-na na naaa…”
It just wasn’t productive!

We actually have a growing set of “Hall of Fame Marathon Songs” that represent songs, for better or worse, that got stuck in our heads at various races. “Holiday” by Green Day, “Chelsea Dagger” by the Fratellis, “Radio/Video” by System of a Down, and sadly, even “Easier to Lie” by Aqualung are all current members of the hall.  The verdict was still out for the official Dallas song at this point, although The Eagles were making a strong showing early on. In the interim I continued to keep my mile splits under 8 minutes, and continued to approach mile 9, and the grand loop around White Rock Lake. I ate the first of my Gu energy gel packs at about mile 8. For those uninitiated, Gu is a brand of energy goo that is popular with endurance runners. It is edible, and comes in small foil packets that you can tear open at the top and squeeze into your mouth, like a double-sized packet of mayonnaise from the convenience store. Gu tastes somewhat sugary, like frosting perhaps, and it comes in small 100 calorie-sized packets that you can carry easily with you or on your body. They taste, uh, ok at best, but are supposed to be easy to digest and provide energy that your body undeniably needs during a long run. They are easy to operate as well, which is a benefit to runners; just rip off the top, and squeeze the goop into your mouth. It’s not terribly glamorous food, wholly serving function at the complete expense of form. I’m reminded of the paste they feed “Robocop”, for those of you who remember that 80s classic. But it gets better; I do not even actively “eat” Gu; I literally put it under my tongue and simply let it dissolve in my mouth. That way I can keep breathing while I eat! Must. Ingest. Calories. It all may sound rather gross, I understand. Some runners do not like them, but I rather enjoy a little “snacky” on the course. In fact, I depend on it.

I believe taking some food during a marathon is critical! Many runners experience hitting “the Wall” during a marathon, usually around the mile 20 mark. Technically this is predominately the result of complete glycogen depletion in the leg muscles. It’s not a good feeling to have. It typically means your split times are about to plummet and you are going to have an extremely painful and slow conclusion to the run. One way to delay the onset of this event is to continue to supply your body with calories that it can process while working hard. But it’s not as simple as a math equation ( - calories.out = x. Provided x = 0, you are a happy runner.) You can not possibly hope to replace the approximately 2,600 calories that you will burn during a marathon. Your body is devoting most of its attention to keeping those legs going, and really isn’t equipped to deal with digesting, what, two steak dinners simultaneous to your running exertions. Therefore you have to eat what you can, without eating too much and making yourself sick. Frankly it’s a losing battle; you just have to try to eat enough to delay the dreaded total glycogen burnout. Everyone has a different strategy for staying fed; some people like orange slices, or bananas. Nearly everyone likes to drink Gatorade or something similar. Some people eat nothing at all, even. Ultra distance runners eat all kinds of crazy things, like salted boiled potatoes, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and even slices of pizza. Me and Robocop prefer to keep it simple and have a few packs of Gu at the ready, and hit that Gatorade pretty hard too.

For the past two miles we had been descending a gradual hill, and my splits were reflecting that fact, with a couple of 7:30 miles to my credit there. Just after mile 9 I could see the lake. For the next 10 miles this sprawling lake would be my constant companion as the other runners and I circumnavigated its cold choppy waters. And it was choppy on the lake because it was starting to get windy out there. No rain yet, which was fortunate, but a rather stiff breeze was coming out of the North now, and the next 4 miles would be generally Northward into the wind as we made our way clockwise around the west side of the lake. It had probably been windy the whole time but I didn’t notice it so much while we were running through pleasant arboreal neighborhoods. Now that we were exposed and in the open the wind was much more noticeable, and it was not pleasant.And for some reason right about mile 10 the crowds I had been running with completely disappeared. I’m sure in reality it was a gradual process, but I was suddenly keenly aware that I was running alone when I reached the windy spans of the lakeside. Was I regretting ditching my pace group? It would have been nice to run in a group and have help breaking the wind at this point, that’s for sure. Well I’d made my choice several miles back; I was 2 and a half minutes ahead of them at this point, and I sure wasn’t going to wait around for them to catch up. In fact, I had enough pride and ego to use them as motivation; I’d dissed them by running ahead, and I sure as heck wasn’t going to let them catch me if could help it! As I like to say, “Nothing for it” I suppose; take your medicine and power on into the wind. My times dropped back to 7:40 but I was still feeling good. Also I figured that when we turned around to the other side of the lake, the wind would be at my back, and it would be far better to face the wind earlier than later.

The course around the lake went by some of the nicest, ritziest houses I’d ever seen. One after another, huge antebellum mansions perched atop vast expanses of manicured green lawns silently marked my progress around the lake. I half-expected Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray to drive by and sneer at me in all their star-spangled glory. I did see some lady in a Range Rover talking to a police man; she was clearly trying to leave her driveway but alas we runners were hogging the road. I suspect she’ll buy the race next year and shut it down, or at least route it away from her street, so I’m fortunate I was able to run the race this year. Irate socialites notwithstanding, it was a pleasant distraction to see the nice houses on the course. Dallas is a nice city and clearly has some money, and the course certainly shows that off. I’m sure the city has some rotten neighborhoods as well, but we mainly steered clear of those bits.

But I digress; somewhere around the North end of the lake we passed the halfway point of the race. Sweet! The halfway point is always a good moment. It’s “all downhill” from here! Well not literally, unless you’re running the Pike’s Peak Marathon. But it does give you a good chance to assess your progress and determine a fairly realistic finish time. The race had an official time clock posted at this point so you could measure your progress with certainty. And Lo and Behold, I passed the halfway point at 1:42. Multiply that by 2, and you arrive at the finish at 3:24. Way faster than 3:30! Neat, huh? Actually not “neat” at all. I realize at this point that I may have – again – gone out too fast. As I’ve mentioned earlier, at Louisville two months ago I also ran the first half in 1:42. Then I proceeded to run the second half in nearly 1:49 and finish just shy of 3:31. In Ft. Collins I also ran the first half in 1:42, and then ran the second half of that race in 1:50, for a rather less sexy finishing time south of 3:32. Call me superstitious, but the 1:42 felt like a bad omen. Once again I start to second-guess my decision to ditch the pace group. Would I fade again this time? So much of a marathon is mental. You think about your past failures and mistakes, dwell on them, and you’re more likely to repeat them again. I needed to find something positive to think about to push back these negative thoughts. I recognized that the wind was now at my back, so that was good. But my subconscious has a way of inserting songs into my head, songs that probably accurately reflect my true mental state. Unfortunately for me the song I began to sing now was called “The Sound of Settling” by Death Cab for Cutie. It’s a great song, and actually has a really good running tempo, but perhaps not the message I needed to hear at this particular moment.

” Ba baaaaaa, this is the sound of settling,
Ba baaaaaa, Ba baaaaaa, this is the sound of settling”
--Death Cab For Cutie, The Sound of Settling

Oh no it isn’t! Damn you, Death Cab For Cutie! I get to mile 15 and check my watch. A 7:52 mile. My slowest since I left the pace group behind at mile 5. Still faster than 8:00, but not a good trend. Ok, now what. I need something to give me a little kick start. Another Gu seems to be in order. I had consumed one at mile 8, and was trying to wait to consume the next at mile 16, but mile 15 seemed as good as another. I would still have 2 Gu left after that. Or would I? I feel under my race bib on my shorts to where 2 Gu packs should be. There is nothing there. The Gu is gone! The sound of settling is replaced by the sound of panic!
What happened? My running shorts don’t have enough pockets to stash more than one Gu, so before the race I pinned three of them under my race number and put one in my pocket. I ate one of those pinned three at mile 8, so at this point I should still have 2 pinned to my shorts, and one in the pocket. Unfortunately somewhere between mile 8 and mile 15, the other two fell off their pins without me realizing it! I do vaguely remember feeling a slight pricking sensation at some point around mile 10 or 11. At the time I shrugged it off. Now I realize that it was probably the sound of the Gu settling to the earth, and the business end of the safety pin giving me a couple of love taps to add injury to insult.

I remember that I should still have at least one Gu left in my pocket. I feel the pocket; that one is still available. So it was as if I’d started with only 2 Gu packets instead of 4. Just like Louisville. This Gu-falling-off-behavior, incidentally, had never happened to be before. I recall that usually I pin them on with two safety pins. But due to the acute and seemingly unimportant shortage of pins in our hotel room I was only able to pin them on with a single pin each. This clearly proved to be a fatal flaw to the Gu pack apparatus. With all the races I’ve ran over the years, I’ve acquired an impressive collection of safety pins. Of course I didn’t bring any to Dallas. And the real irony was that I used several pins -- pins I could have used to secure the Gu packs -- to attach my extra SLUSH “Pace Team Member” bib to the back of my shirt. And I wasn’t even running with the stupid pace team. This was shaping up to be a tragedy that Shakespeare could appreciate. Of all the numerous things that can go wrong in a marathon, the one that does me in is a seemingly innocent decision that profits me nothing.

I debate weather to eat my last Gu now, or wait to eat it later. To Gu, or not to Gu, that is the question, is it not? (Sorry, couldn’t resist). I reason that it is possible, even likely, that some of the aid stations up ahead will have Gu or something like it, and that I should eat now and gamble later. So I consume my final Gu and plod along the East side of the lake. The Gu probably helps, but nonetheless my pace begins to decline at this point, just like Louisville. Mile 16: 7:54. Then 8:02, 7:57, 7:54. I am now flirting with the dreaded 8 minute mile mark. I’m starting to struggle. The wind is not always at my back. The course follows the sinuous shore of the lake, which provides ample opportunities for Mother Nature to blast me with headwinds and cross-winds. At this point I am at least 3 minutes ahead of target. But running 8 minutes per mile now, I am no longer “banking” any more time against that 3:30 mark, and it stands to reason that I might start spending those hard-earned minutes pretty soon, by running slower than 8 minute miles. I do the math. Suddenly 3 minutes in the bank seems like a slim margin. At mile 19 I’ve still got 7 miles to go. 30 seconds per mile slower than an 8 minute per mile pace from here on out equates to 3 and one half minutes lost. There’s really not much to draw against in the old bank account at the Race Pace Savings and Loan. It’s a “Long Slow Fade.”

Cue the slide guitar and mournful Jar Farrar once again:

“The way we've tried
Left a slide into harm's way
Enough concern to ride it out
It's no surprise that it's a long slow fade…”
-- Son Volt, Long Slow Fade

Just as I wonder in the big picture if my best race times are all behind me, if I’ll never break 3:30, I now begin to wonder if my best mile times in this particular race are all behind me. Was that the peak there, at mile 9 or so? Is every mile from here on in going to be that much slower than the last one? I knew I was watching my 3:30 bid slowly slip away again. I also knew I would be ashamed to come all this way and make a big production about keeping the trip “secret” if I couldn’t meet my goal. I know it sounds inconsequential, but to face our friends with failure would prove we were naive and incorrect about the way we approached this race, and I had enough pride to be embarrassed about that possibility.
I thought about C_, I hoped she was still with her pace group back there somewhere. The race can be such a self-involved activity that it’s actually kind of foreign for me to think that someone I know is also out there, having a similar experience in the same conditions. When I left C_ she was making her way to her pace group. This was before the race even started. Now we’re more than two hours into this thing. Anything could have happened. Is she with her pace group? Has she fallen behind? Is she hurt? Objectively it’s one more distraction that I have to ultimately put out of my mind. I try to send some good vibes back to C_, wherever the road may find her.

Part 4 click here

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Dallas Marathon, 2007, Part 2

Dallas Marathon, 2007, Part 2

Part 1 click here

Back in Dallas, race morning draws the curtain on a cold, windy, and rainy day. Just the day before the temperature was 70, and it was very humid. Sunday morning it is 40 and ominous, if not storming yet. We took an easy jog in the hot weather the day before and I figured it would be too hot to break 3:30 unless it cooled down. My quest to break 3:30 would have to wait for another day! Yes, it is frustrating. You train for months, spend a lot of money on shoes, race entry fees, and travel expenses, only to be thwarted at the outset by the weather. Such are the whims of race-day; weather can ruin your time before you even set foot on the course. That’s one reason why it is so difficult to predict how you are going to do in a marathon. In a short race the weather has a limited impact on your performance. But in a marathon it becomes a big random factor that can sink you. You hope for ideal weather conditions but adjust accordingly if they don’t materialize. You must bear your misfortune with stoic resolve, and press on the best you can.
But cold weather itself is not a problem. Cold is preferred, actually (to a point of course), so I was pleased about Sunday’s temperature at least. But cold, windy, and rainy are far from ideal conditions for a marathon. There was an ice storm that was pummeling Kansas City and Tulsa, and it was creeping closer to Texas and Dallas. Weather-wise it was out of the humidor, and into the ice box. But I could see from the weather channel that I was obsessively watching on our hotel room TV that so far, conditions were holding. This was good news. I also reflected that the poor weather might keep the crowds away. They would probably have preferred 70s and humid! That was unfortunate; crowd support was something I was looking forward to, having never really experienced it in any of my previous marathons. The weather was predicted to get worse and worse as the day got on, so by the end of our race conditions might be far worse than at the beginning. Of course it’s difficult to predict. No matter where you are in this country, it seems like there is someone who will tell you, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait 15 minutes!” This statement usually accompanied by a self-satisfied smirk and a chuckle, like this is the only place in the country where weather changes quickly, and aren’t-you-in-a-unique-place as a result. Doing the math, I figured that the weather today could change on me no less than 14 times while I was out running. Hope you’re happy, you self-satisfied smirking sons-of-bitches! But so far, so good.

The race is to start at 8:00 am. We get up at 6:00 – no alarm clock necessary, as neither of us slept well the night before – get some coffee and bagels from the hotel lobby convenience store, and get dressed for the race. Even though the weather is forecast to be in the 40s, I dress in light-weight running shorts, a simple grey “Colorado Marathon” running shirt (represent!), a visor for the rain, and sunglasses. I put on my Louisville Marathon long-sleeve warm-up shirt for the walk down there, but I won’t run in it. I can run quite comfortably down to the upper 30s in that light get-up. There’s a bag drop at the starting area so I can retrieve my warm-up stuff after the race, no problem.

I apply a generous layer of “body glide” roll-on to my feet to protect them from blisters. In Louisville I managed to get an enormous blood blister on my big toe. It didn’t hurt during the race but it was rather nasty to behold. More body glide this time! I really slather that stuff on my feet and toes. Then on go the socks and shoes. I attach the RFID timing chip to my shoelaces. I’m wearing the same shoes I wore at Louisville, and I briefly entertain the superstitious notion that this pair of shoes is possibly unlucky, or even cursed, before I realize that these are also the same shoes I wore at the Boyd Lake half marathon. So the shoes probably don’t enter into the equation, other than possibly being a little worn out by this point.
I pin my race bib number to my shorts. It’s personalized with my name in capital letters. “SCOTT”; nice touch! Since I registered with the 3:30 pace team they gave me an additional “pace team member” bib to wear; at the race expo I marked it with a great big “SLUSH” with a blue Sharpie. Now I pin it to the back of my shirt. Then I pin 3 “Gu” shot energy gels to my shorts, and jam a fourth Gu gel and the hotel room key into a little pouch sewn into the waistband of the shorts. In Louisville I pinned 2 Gu gels to my shorts, and I wished I had 2 more. No regrets today; I’ve got 4! Due to the extra SLUSH pace team bib I’m a little short on safety pins, so I only use one pin per Gu gel instead of my normal two pins per gel. Sufficiently fortified and identified, I’m ready to go.

The hotel has shuttle busses transporting people the mile to the starting area, but we decide to hoof it down there on foot. A brisk walk is a good way to warm up. Past the Book Depository once again, I can’t help but steal a glance at the propped open window on the corner of the 6th floor as we join the trickle of other runners walking down North Houston Street to the starting area. I know George W. Bush ran a marathon; I wonder how JFK would have done at the 26.2? I also wonder which marathon George Dubya ran; probably a race in Texas, possibly the Dallas marathon even. I was already on the streets where time walked; would I also be running the streets that Dubya ran?

The race starts and finishes at a place downtown called “Victory Park”; thusly named due to its proximity to the American Airlines Center where the Dallas Mavericks and Dallas Stars play basketball and hockey. It’s some sort of upscale urban redevelopment “renaissance” area. It’s nice enough, but it’s all very crowded and chaotic. C_ and I mosey down towards the sports arena as I’d read that’s where the bathrooms are located. You always need to use the restroom one last time before a race; it’s tradition! Besides, you don’t want to waste time on a bathroom break during a marathon if you can avoid it; sure, it only takes a minute or two, but that could be the difference in making or breaking your goal.

The lines to get into the sports arena are massive, but thankfully moving quickly. We have to get inside, use the bathroom, find the “bag drop” for our warm-up clothes, make it to the actual starting line, and work our way up to our respective pace group leaders all in 15 minutes. It’s about this time that we realize that we have seriously underestimated how crazy and crowded the starting line area is for a big race.
Since the race is using the sports arena’s bathrooms, we actually have to go through a metal detector and past security to get in. My numerous safety pins don’t set off the metal detector, thankfully. But in reality the line moves quickly enough; we’re inside the sports arena with some time to spare. But once inside, we find more lines for the restrooms! About this time I think “sod the bathroom, I’m out of here!” I’m certainly starting to panic, and cast aside my normal pre-race routine. I get C_ to give me her warm-up stuff, and bid her adieu. I decide that I’ll go find the bag drop for both of us; that way she can just use the restroom and find the starting line. When push comes to shove, she’s got just a little more of herself invested in this race than do I, and I want to make sure she has every opportunity to succeed today. Leaving her at the line to the ladies room is not exactly the inspirational “good luck and goodbye” moment I was hoping for, and that doesn’t sit well with me as I wander around the arena concourse looking for someone who can tell me where I might find the bag drop.

I finally locate a race host, and get them to tell me that the bag drop is just outside the South-East corner of the arena. Excellent. It turns out I have to back-track to where I left C_ at the bathroom to get to the bag drop location, so I decide to wait for her at the exit of the ladies room first. Continuing that time-honored tradition of gentlemen and perverts everywhere, I loiter at the exit to the ladies room and wait. I stand there for about a minute – it seems like 10 -- and she doesn’t come out. A fresh new panic sets in as I think that she may have already left the bathroom while I was wandering the concourse. I can’t very well go in and ask for her; I mean I could, but a gentleman should remain and wait! But what if she’s really gone? Now how long do I wait before I cruise on out of here? If the lines are moving this quickly, maybe I should go to the restroom myself? Why don’t I plan any of this? Every moment of indecision is that much precious wasted time lost. I’ve got no clear plan in my head, I’m not preparing for the race at all. I’m actually anti-preparing at this point. I’m clutching two warm-up shirts, one pair of warm-up trousers, an mp3 player, two mostly-empty water bottles, and standing around somewhat foolishly, as C_ emerges from the restroom and rescues me from my self-imposed paralysis, and, thankfully confirms to everyone else my status as a gentlemen and not a perv. A gentleman waits, indeed.

We proceed out of the arena and back into the crowds. Next item of business, bag drop. We walk to the South-East side of the arena; at least what I think is the South-East side of the arena. No bag drop. Now what? Where is the friggin bag drop??? We’ve got 5 minutes, maybe, before the starting gun goes off. Sod the bag drop! We can a) carry all the stuff with us, or b) stash it somewhere and hope it’s still there when we finish. The marathon starts and ends at the same place; it’s a giant loop. So a bag drop is not strictly necessary. And we’ve got less than 5 minutes; we’ve got to get to the start! We quit looking for the bag drop altogether and make our way to the entrance of the starting line area. I’ve ran the Bolder Boulder so I know what a big race is like, right? No I really don’t. The Bolder Boulder is organized at the start like a bunch of smaller 1,000 person races. In Dallas, between the Marathon, the Marathon Relay, and the Half Marathon, there are probably 7,000 people jammed into a narrow street. This is like a sold out show at the Fillmore, and we’re behind the soundboard, and the stage is waaay up there. I’d like to be closer to the stage, if it’s all the same to you. At a minimum we’ve got to get up to our pace team leaders, or else we’re probably going to be stuck behind slower runners for the first 5 miles of the race. It could have a serious impact on our ability to make time. We see the “4:00” pace team balloons. I guess the pacers carry sticks with balloons on them, with their pace marked on the balloons, so you can identify them easily. 4:00. So we’re not too far back. We start weaving our way up towards the front of the crowd.

And I’m still clutching all our crap! I give the mp3 player to C_; can’t very well leave that lying around. She’s got a pocket so she can carry that. I tie my Louisville shirt around my waist, justifying that I might need it if the weather turns south on us. So far it’s holding; cold, the streets a little wet, but no rain. I still have C_’s shirt and pants, and two water bottles (seriously; why am I even carrying those??). We wind our way towards the starting line, looking for the 3:40 balloons. Thusly spotted, I wish C_ another, debatably even less inspirational farewell (“loveyagoodluckbye”), and I try to sidle up to the 3:30 balloons. After we part company I realize that we made no plans to meet up after the race. I’ll have to locate her when she finishes – assuming she doesn’t finish ahead of me – and if the finish is this chaotic that might be a challenge. Yet another bit of planning tossed casually aside in the chaos directly preceding the start of the race.
I get pretty close to the 3:30 balloons but I can’t squeeze my way up all the way to them. It’s really crowded in here, which is actually kind of nice since it helps keep me warm. Standing around before the start of a race is typically a chilly affair. Someone is singing the national anthem over the PA system so I know the moment is near. Jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with all the runners, I’m still carrying all the stuff; I can't run with this stuff, but I can’t very well leave it lying on the ground, someone will trip on it. I see people tossing their warm-up clothing over everyone’s heads onto the sidewalks from the middle of the crowd. I suppose I could do that with the clothing, but I’d probably tag someone right in the temple with a half-empty water bottle toss, so I decide to hang on to it all until the race starts, and dump it somewhere on course. There’s a good chance I’ll never see the clothing again. I mean what other option do I have? Some people are wearing garbage bags; clever! Just toss them off after you start; no worries about losing a garbage bag. Not as eco-friendly though.

Then it starts (click here for Part 3).

Monday, January 7, 2008

Dallas Marathon, 2007, Part 1

Dallas, December 2007

This is the street where Kennedy was shot.

I’m in the back seat of a taxi as it is carrying Celeste and me to our hotel in Dallas, Texas. We are set to run the Dallas marathon in two days, but we’ve kept this trip an absolute secret to everyone we know. No one knows we are here, besides the taxi driver, and he doesn’t know who we are, so our anonymity is safe. I’ve never been to Dallas, but I’ve seen enough of the History Channel to know that we are driving down the very street upon which John F. Kennedy was assassinated, 44 years ago on November 22, 1963. There is the Dealey plaza to our left. The grassy knoll is straight ahead.
And there to the right, the Book Depository building itself. I’m a little surprised to see it still standing. You almost expect these things to be gone, or somehow faded, like the original Polaroid prints and Zapruder film still frames of that tragic day. But not only is it all still there, it is practically preserved in a time capsule, as if time itself has stopped on that town square. And that 6th floor window that Lee Harvey Oswald presumably hid behind is still propped open, and behind the window the boxes of books that could have concealed Mr. Oswald are still stacked up in that corner of the floor, as part of a display in a museum. We went and visited.  It was all extremely somber and creepy.

Passing that tableau, we take a turn to the left to our hotel, just kissing and veering off from the route of that last open-air presidential motorcade. I start to think about the phrases that have become part of our cultural idiom as a result of that event. Book Depository, Grassy Knoll, Magic Bullet.

And into my mind wanders a favorite Billy Bragg lyric:
“Now a man can spend a lot of time,
Wondering what was on Jack Ruby’s mind…”
-- Billy Bragg, Wishing the Days Away

Heck Billy, I wonder what was on Lee Harvey Owsald's mind, and Jackie, and LBJ, and Хрущёв, and my mom's mind for that matter.
And I can’t help but irreverently think about the South Park episode where Mr. Garrison attempts to assassinate Kathy Lee Gifford from the window of the “South Park Book Depository”.

Finally, more tastefully, I settle subconsciously on a lyric form an obscure slow song by Son Volt. Something about the chorus would stick with me all weekend:

“No conspiracy to deny you, or push you astray
You've withstood the streets that time walks,
Still treading on a hallowed gone heyday.”
-- Son Volt, Streets That Time Walks (no video)

I don’t know if Jay Farrar wrote that song about JFK and Dallas, but it seems to fit nicely. Heck, the words are almost inspirational for a marathon runner. If I can “withstand the streets that time walks” maybe I can conquer our upcoming race; The Dallas Marathon.

We arrive at the hotel and overpay the taxi driver. The air is humid, warm. The scent in the air reminds me of Oklahoma, of my grandparents in Tulsa. Welcome to the South. The Hyatt hotel is really fancy and huge. The elevators have a glass wall so we can look down on the enormous hotel atrium as the elevator transports us to our room on the 18th floor. Riding in glass elevators is not C_’s favorite activity. At one point I decide to take the elevator to the 25th floor, the highest. Above the 19th floor the elevator clears the atrium completely and the view spans out over the sprawling gray December city. What a jolt of adrenaline! The ride down feels like floating until we reach the floor of the atrium. Then it feels a lot like crashing into mud.

We eat dinner in a small Italian restaurant in the hotel. I have a Caesar salad with real anchovies, pasta, and a beer. C_ has a glass of wine with dinner. I think about maybe calling some people now that we’re safely in Dallas, but we decide once again to tell no one about our whereabouts until after the race. I ruminate over my little fishes, and over the deception we played out to get here. Why this ridiculous secrecy? Partly just because we could, I suppose. But to really understand why, we need to go back seven weeks to October, to the Louisville Marathon in Kentucky.

The Louisville Marathon was a small race and we went with a big group of friends from home. Cat, Dan, Bob and Annie, Lindsey and the 2 of us all picked that race because it was a flat, fast course at which we could all succeed. And some of us did wonderfully well, but for various reasons, neither C_ nor I ran well that day. C_ in particular was very disappointed with her performance. As for me, I wilted in the heat on the last 10 miles of the race. I wanted to break 3 hours and 30 minutes, but missed that goal by less than a minute, and missed my previous best marathon time by about 20 seconds.

Read a more complete account of that race here

Realistically it wasn’t a disaster by any means, but it was a discouraging attempt. When I got back to Colorado from Louisville I felt like I had unfinished business, like I had something yet to prove. This now marked the third time I’d finished a marathon within 3 minutes of 3 hours and 30 minutes, without ever eclipsing that time. 3:30 was beginning to seem like an insurmountable barrier, a magic number. I was beginning to obsess about 3:30. 3:30… Maybe I just wasn’t capable of beating that time? I remembered how I felt before I ran my first marathon. I thought that maybe I wasn’t capable of even running that far, never mind how long it might take. Turns out I was capable, but the feeling of perceived physical limitation was powerful, and discouraging. Counterproductive. And now I had some of those same feelings again.
And I also had a nagging doubt that maybe I’d reached the top limits of my athletic potential. When I started running seriously I was pleased to see that my race times generally got faster. But it was also pretty clear that there would come a time when my very fastest times would become a thing of the past. Age, or injury, or complacency was sure to get the better of me someday. It’s inevitable; there will come a day when my fastest times are behind me, never to be surpassed again. Had that day already passed? When would I know for sure? I needed to know if I could beat my best time again.

And for her part, C_ felt like she didn’t give her best effort in Louisville, and was determined to make things right. C_ needed to regain the confidence that began to evade her in Louisville. And she was also very keen to qualify for Boston Marathon. She needed to run a marathon in 3 hours and 45 minutes to qualify for the Boston marathon, but she ran a 3:57 at Louisville. This was actually a step back from her 3:50 effort in Ft. Collins in May.

How Boston looms over the head of every marathon runner! It is the only marathon that requires a qualifying time to enter the race. It is the oldest and most prestigious marathon in the world. To qualify for Boston indicates that you are probably among the top 10% of marathon runners for your age. It is membership into an exclusive club. I would argue that being able to say you have qualified for Boston is actually more important than actually running the darn thing. Qualifying immediately establishes your credibility as a marathon runner, as an athlete. And the effect is particularly strong for someone like C_, who is actually from Boston. Around the county, most everyone has at least heard of the Boston Marathon, even if they really have no concept of what a marathon is all about. But Bostonians are steeped in the history and lore of their race. Its winners are icons, its participants genuinely respected. C_’s desire, her need, to qualify was doubly acute than it is for the typical marathoner.  As for myself, I had no delusions that I could qualify.  I needed a 3:15 to get in, which seemed a universe of talent away from where I was at the time, just trying to break 3:30 for my own satisfaction.  Maybe someday.  But C_ was close, so close.

So there was no question about it; after Louisville we would try to run another marathon, and soon. We thought maybe we could squeeze in another marathon between October and the end of the year. But maybe it would be better to take a break, recharge, and try again the following year. We circled a few candidate races but decided to wait to really decide until after we ran the Boyd Lake half marathon in Loveland the first weekend of November. This race would become a test. I thought C_ should be able to break 1 hour and 50 minutes in the half marathon to consider 3:45 to be a realistic marathon time. Her previous “halfy” best was 1:51, so this was not an unreasonable expectation. I started out with the expectation to “just run well”, but that masked a real desire to break my best half marathon time of 1:35.

And Boyd Lake was good to us, particularly to C_, who came in at 1:45; five minutes faster than the goal time and six minutes ahead of her previous best! And I was able to break my best time by a minute or so. It was all in all a very successful day, and our confidence soared accordingly. Well, well, well! We thought; let’s strike while the iron is hot! There was a marathon in Kansas City the weekend before Thanksgiving; it was only two weeks away. Kansas City was close enough to drive, and it sounded like a nice scenic course. Well maybe not really close enough to drive, but driving to Kansas City did seem relatively less nutty than running a marathon on two weeks notice. The race itself sounded a lot like Louisville, actually, in terms of size and course layout, so there would be a level of familiarity there.

But maybe it would be too much like Louisville? I began to think that maybe the best thing to do would be to run a marathon completely different than Louisville. Louisville was a small marathon (about 400 finishers). So let’s find a big marathon! With pace groups, and rock bands, and all that crap I’d normally pooh-pooh! We planned Louisville months in advance and went with a big group of friends. So let’s strike out completely on our own and not tell anyone! Before Louisville we followed a strict training regimen and ate carefully. This time we will run how we feel, and eat what we want! What the hell, it’s so crazy, it, just, might, work…
That narrowed the list considerably; Sacramento. Bad weekend. Las Vegas. Heard bad things. Dallas. In friggin Texas. Honolulu. Kind of expensive. Atlanta. Kind of far, also on Thanksgiving. Also it might be hard to keep a Thanksgiving Day marathon secret from our families. I voted for Sacramento or Dallas, and we decided on Dallas. So it was Dallas then, or wait until next year. Dallas was a big marathon, roughly 4,000 runners, and it had pacers.

A marathon “pacer” is basically a person who is contracted by the race or one of its sponsors to run a specified time at the race. If you can stay with that person, you know you will finish the race in the prescribed time. Usually these people are very experienced runners with dozens of marathons to their credit. I thought C_ would benefit from having someone to run with that would definitely be running her pace. I offered to run with her and pace her, but only half-heartedly. Honestly I didn’t think I would make a good pacer for her; we’re too competitive with each other, and my attempts at support would be misinterpreted. She’d be better off with professionals! And honestly, I wanted to run my pace; I’d like to try to break 3:30.
The only snag in the pacer concept was that Dallas had a 3:50 pacer, and a 3:40 pacer, but no 3:45 pacer. C_ opted for the 3:40 pace team obviously, figuring that she would hang on as long as possible with her pacer, and hopefully have enough gas to come in under 3:45. For myself I decided to try and run with a 3:30 pacer, mostly for the novelty of running with a pace team. But from the onset I was a little wary of running 3:30 with a pacer. Would that really get me under the 3:30 mark? Or right at it? Or a second over the boundary? The next faster group was 3:20. Yikes. That was probably too fast. But it was undeniable that a pacer would help me. In my previous faster marathons I had run too fast in the first half of the race, and faded in the second half. In Louisville, for example, I ran 1:42 for the first half, and nearly 1:49 for the second half. In Ft. Collins in 2006 I ran 1:42 and 1:50. In my best attempt to date, Bar Harbor 2006, I ran roughly 1:41 and 1:49, coming in at 3:30:32. What if I could run, say, 1:43 and 1:46, for a beautiful 3:29? Or a freaking 1:45 and 1:44:59??? Take a little off the beginning, and save it for the end. Maybe a more measured, even pace would keep me from “bonking” so hard and allow me to come in on time. Ok, I thought, let’s give the pacer a chance.

We booked a flight, made hotel reservations, and entered the race. It was actually pretty reasonably priced overall. Then we debated; should we tell our running friends about this? We were torn, and a little ashamed of our final decision. It felt wrong not to share this with them, and I’d bet one or to would want to join us on this crazy adventure. But I liked the concept of “sneaking up” on a marathon. It was a tactic our friend Cat used successfully in the Ft. Collins marathon in May. I thought C_ would benefit from sneaking up on this one. We felt that if we told everyone, the element of sneaking up would be lost. It really was a tactic to take the pressure off. We didn’t really want to think about the race at all leading up to it. We decided then; no one must know. We began to refer to Dallas as “the race-who-must-not-be-named” in a nod to Lord Voldermort and Harry Potter.

But it was no secret to anyone that C_ wanted another crack at qualifying for Boston. Everyone kept asking us when we were going to run another one! We tried not to lie out right: “Well, we will just swoop down on one.” “Maybe Phoenix, I don’t know.” “New Orleans sounds good”. All this accompanied by Vague Hand-Waving Gestures. All the while I’m thinking “DALLAS! IT’S FREAKING DALLAS! AHH HA, HA, HA, HA, HA!!!” It wasn’t exactly lying, but it was rather close for comfort. My mom asked me why I wasn’t taking a running break like I said I would after Louisville. “Well, I thought I’d push off that break a little bit…” We’re usually very forthcoming about our forthcoming plans. We probably sounded suspiciously vague. I thought I’d crack a few times, just spill it out in a stream-of-consciousness monologue: “ohmygodwererunningDallasthereIsaiditareyouhappynow!” But I managed to keep my cool. No one knew.

Story Continued here