Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Colorado Marathon

 It was 3:45 a.m. Sunday. My nose felt as if it had been stuffed with cotton after a fight. The air nipped at my bare legs. And my stomach had been tied into Boy Scout knots.
"I don't think I've ever been more nervous before a race," I said.
I"m always nervous before a race. I love the way the nerves crackle on my skin. It's delicious. The only thing I do not love is the uncertainty. And if there's one race defined by uncertainty, it's a marathon.
You can train well. You can eat carbs, avoid fatty or fried foods and even avoid sugar. You can sleep like RipVanWinkle. You can lose weight. You can save new shoes and then put just the right amount on them so they're broken in and fresh at the same time. You can taper and rest and avoid injuries.
I did all those things last year.
And it still ended badly.
Given the uncertainty of 26.2 miles, when I would run farther than a few days' worth of my commute to work, you don't want anything to potentially fuck things up. And yet, when you finally allow your body to rest, little tweaks here and there haunt you. Is my ankle hurt? Why does my knee feel that way? My (fill in the blank) never hurt before! And then you begin to notice that your son is sniffling. Is that a sniffle? It's definitely a sniffle. Wait. He's really sniffling now.
Sure enough, four days before the marathon, I came down with a cold.
• • •
When I finished last year's marathon, it was with a mixture of pride, anger and frustration.
I had no idea what to feel in the weeks that followed.
Last year was my first, and I was running a great race until severe cramps hit at mile 20. I had to walk the rest of the course and finished at 4:17.
I knew several things. I knew it was my first marathon and that I finished it. I knew that maybe 1 percent of the population ever finishes a marathon. I knew that I was lucky to be able to finish one, blessed, even, to have recovered in time to have at least finished and to have a body that allows me to do things like marathons in the first place. I even knew that 4:17 was not really that bad of a time, especially for a first.
And all I knew was all that made me feel like a spoiled brat for being disappointed.
I was disappointed. I was crushed, actually. I didn't feel good about the race. I felt stupid, like there was probably something I could have done about those cramps and didn't research enough or pay enough attention to all the advice my knowledgeable friends gave me. I felt embarrassed that everyone was so excited for my first marathon and I turned in such a weird result — a time that required a long explanation about what happened — that it tainted any joy someone would feel for me at a finish. I even felt screwed, yes screwed, that 20 weeks of the hardest training of my life, a body free from injury and a great race up until those 20 miles were being flushed away by some mysterious aliment like cramps.
There really was no one good answer as to why they happened.
And I'd have to wait a year to find out.
Kate wasn't happy, at least not initially, when I told her I was doing the marathon again. Why, she said. I had an answer. I wanted to see if I could do better. I would not chase the perfect marathon as so many runners do, especially those trying to qualify for Boston. But I wanted to try it at least one more time. I wanted to see if I could figure it out.
What I really wanted was another chance. I honestly thought I had a good race in me, that a race without cramps would be something I could be proud of. I knew this because of the utter frustration I felt at the end. When those cramps hit, I wanted to run. I was ready to run. I had the energy, the spirit and the drive. I just didn't have the legs. I hope this doesn't sound naive, or even idiotic, but I felt disabled. When I did run, my legs would seize on me within seconds. It wasn't that I wanted to walk. It was that I had no choice.
• • •
I tried not to think too much as the bus took us up the Poudre Canyon. Thinking, though, is all I do.
It seemed that the medicine was working. My nose felt roto-rootered. I felt like I had some energy. I ate my bagel with peanut butter. I drank my Gatorade. I choked down half a banana.
I joked with my friends. I froze with them as we got dumped off the bus. I waited in line with them for a chance at the port-a-potty. I wished them luck before the start of the race. I gave them all a hug and held them tight.
I told myself it was going to be OK.
I tried to believe it.
• • •
I came into this marathon determined to solve the uncertainty. Most of the plan was to bludgeon it into a mere speck of doubt. Did I cramp because I didn't get enough electrolytes? OK. I would carry a hand bottle, drink two 20oz bottles of Gatorade, take a salt pill once an hour and stop at EVERY aid station and drink at least a cup. I would down nearly another 32oz of water before the bus ride up. I would take two gels, and when I figured two wasn't enough, I searched the road for a third, knowing that a runner probably dropped one along the way. Yep. I snatched it up. Every man for himself. I gobbled a package of Sport Beans as well.
If I had to pee, and I did, three times, I found a tree. This marathon was down a canyon next to a river for 17 miles. It's not an urban race. Peeing in public behind a tree is okay. Even the chicks were doing it.
As the miles flew by — and they really do, it's amazing how time gets away from you when you run and there's a beautiful river gathering its muscle from snowmelt for the coming rafting season and a good metal song is pounding through your eardrums — I constantly evaluated myself.
Why are my legs tired? It's only been 12 miles. Well, you just ran 12 miles. Downhill. At an 8:35 pace. Oh, yeah, I guess that makes sense. And it was about this time, halfway through the marathon, that I began to gain some confidence. I went over the words Kate wrote in a card she left for me before the race. One foot in front of the other. Run hard. You've worked hard for this. You've got it!
Stop being such a PUSSY, Dan. And that's when I knew my old self, the mountaineer, was crawling back. You've got a cold? OK, blow a few snot rockets on the way (just make sure you look over your shoulder first). You're tired? Embrace it. You're hurting? What did you think would happen over 26 miles? A tickle?
We ran out of the canyon and, at mile 17, finally saw spectators. A gentleman popped out his headphones as I passed him and we were about a quarter-mile from the first cheers. Nice day, he said. I agreed. We talked a bit. Then I put in my headphones as we passed through the tunnel of people. Some friends were waiting for me. I refilled my bottle, dumped my gloves and arm warmers (ew, they said, gross) and put on my sunglasses. I was still wary. But I was confident too.
• • •
There's a hill at mile 19. It's a long bitch, a half-mile, and it inspires many runners to walk. I was ready for it. I loved it.
Hill climbing is one of my few strengths. I think it's the only gift mountaineering gave me for running. I look at a hill as an opportunity to pass people. But in this case, it was finally a chance to use a different muscle, and I flew up. I passed a blind runner who I'd been tracking since the race started. Before you think I'm an asshole, I treated him like a competitor. He was fast, just out of reach, and I wanted to see if I could catch him. I did, near the top of the hill. His guide was far away, and he was breathing hard, so I said to him, "this bitch is almost over," and he laughed and said thanks.
As I crested the hill, I looked down at my Garmin and had a decision to make.
My pace flashed 8:01.
I'd backed off the whole day, sticking to my planned pace of 8:30 miles. But I felt so good. It felt easy and natural. And I knew I'd put enough time in the bank that if I had to walk even a tiny bit or slow down at the end, I'd still get under 4 hours, which was my ultimate goal anyway. I'd stashed away a goal of 3:45, but that was on my best day, a perfect day.
The day I was having.
• • •
The next six miles, a 10K, will sound easy. It was not easy. It never is. But when I crossed the spot just before the road ends and the last, final six begins on a bike path, the spot where I cramped up last year, I was pretty sure it wasn't going to happen, and I told myself I would not hit the wall.
Runner's World had an article recently about the wall, and I found one piece of it fascinating. It stated that runners who were worried or thought they might hit the wall did, in fact, hit the wall. What does that tell you? It told me that the wall is a mental barrier, not a physical one, and that if I trained well, ate well and drank enough to pee all over the course, the wall would not exist.
I did not hit the wall as I ran the final six, cheering back at the spectators, running with a friend who met to pace me in. My legs hurt. They hurt today. My toe was purple. I'll probably lose the nail. My breathing was labored. I still sound like an old blues singer, as my throat was rubbed raw by the air.
I was smiling through it all. I was so happy to feel all of that, as I ran, not walked, on legs that wanted to move, baby, move.
I'm still smiling today. 3:43. I honestly don't know if I'll ever stop.


Drizztdj said...

Big accomplishment my friend.

Hold on to that feeling and go back there when the twins are causing stress.

SirFWALGMan said...

nice job man! I will be inspired as I run my 2.5 miles in 28 minutes. :P. Some day maybe a Marathon...

BIDAN (Women helping women) fair trade said...

I am still sore, but oh so so happy too!!!! Congrats Dan, what a wonderful day!

OhCaptain said...

Just awesome. Congrats on a great accomplishment. The frliend of mine that has encouraged me to run and swim just ran his first marathon. I ran my first race that same day. You've been an ispiration. Thank you. Keep it up!

kurokitty said...