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

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