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.

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