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

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