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

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