Monday, October 14, 2013

Chicago Marathon

When I first started running, a marathon seemed like an impossible feat. But if you did it, if you somehow managed to run 26 miles, your time didn't matter. 
That changed when I started running them. 
As with any other race, it was never enough to finish. I had to beat them. I'm not exactly proud of that. But it was what attracted me to running in the first place. Every year I saw progress. That progress was intoxicating. I measured that progress by my times.
My first marathon didn't go well. I cramped up to the point where I couldn't run after mile 20. I had to do better, and next year, I did. I ran the whole way, with no cramping, and finished well. I began to think I could do even better. 
Last year, I ran a small marathon in South Carolina with some good friends. It was a wonderful experience. I ran a solid time, even PRd by a minute, but I believed it could have been so much better. Cramping, again, slowed me down. I didn't feel too bad about it, but there was an asterisk next to it.
That's why I targeted the Chicago Marathon. I thought I was finally ready to run fast and hard for a long time, just like I did in my half marathons. I wanted that perfect race. I even dreamed of qualifying for Boston.
The Boston Marathon is the crown jewel of marathons. I thought it about it a lot. I wondered how good it would feel to cross the finish line, and this is embarrassing to say, post on Facebook and see the accolades pour in. I wanted to shock people. I wanted to shock myself. I especially wanted to shock all those people who picked on me when I was much younger for, among other things, being a lousy athlete. 
I didn't approach the Chicago Marathon to qualify for Boston. But I wasn't afraid of trying. I told myself I would run what felt good, but that I would also push it. I knew, going in, that it was risky to run a hard first half, given what happened in South Carolina last year. But I wanted to try it.
I tried not to obsess about it. I was still a father, and a husband, and a guy with a job. For the most part, I didn't. I would think about it late at night, when everyone else was asleep. Or when I'd go on one of my frequent training runs. Everything seemed to point to a great marathon. My six half marathons all went well this year, and I PRd three times. I  knew the course was usually cool and flat almost the whole way. 
I really, honestly thought I was ready. I was wrong.
But this is not a sob story about another failed attempt at a perfect marathon. It is an examination of the human spirit - not my own - and how a little kindness can ease a painful situation and leave you with a smile on your face.
• • •
Marathons bring out the best in people, but I always thought it was the runners who benefitted, not the people watching. When the cramps hit in my first, other runners stopped to share pretzels, bananas and their drinks. A marathon, if you hadn't guessed by now, is unpredictable, and all you can do is plan for the worst and pray for the best. These runners had planned for the worst, meticulously, in fact, and at mile 20, when the worst was probably yet to come, they crumpled up and threw that planning and caution in the trash to help a fellow runner who they didn't know. Marathoners bond over the grueling training and distance of the race, and they cheer each other when they pass, talk about their plans and offer words of encouragement about their training.
I changed my mind a little bit about spectators after Boston, when it was the spectators, not the runners, who felt most of the bombs' wrath, and yet many others stepped forward to help the runners after the explosions. There were stories about neighbors bringing out water and juice and fruit for the trapped runners who wouldn't get to finish.
So I was excited to run Chicago because I'd never been in a race that attracted a lot of spectators. Chicago, I was told, had spectators three deep, all 26 miles of the course, for a total of 1.7 million. It seemed almost impossible to comprehend. Surely, I thought, those people had to be passive. There were 45,000 running the race. Wouldn't your hands hurt from clapping so much?
• • • 
It was a cool morning, almost too perfect, when me and a friend strolled out of our hotel to walk the mile to the race. It was dark, but I could sense the anticipation of the other runners as they swept past me. I was not the only one, it seemed, who had high hopes for the race. My friends, three of them who traveled with me, had the same high hopes. Everyone does before a race. 
By that point, I was already blown away by the enormity of it all. The race expo was big. HUGE. There were booths from every major apparel and shoe company. Hal Higdon, whose plan I followed for my marathons, was there. The walkway had to be the size of at least a football field, if not two, and it went five rows deep. 
The city, too, was massive. Think about the fact that I liked Denver, and enjoyed Denver, but considered Denver too big for my tastes. Chicago seemed three times as large as Denver. It probably is. 
I walked around the city with wide eyes, trying, at first, to avoid contact with anyone who came in my way. I had assumed that people in large cities were hurried, busy and, well, a little rude. Again, I'm not proud of that, but that was the mid-sized city in me. My fears seemed justified, too, when the first desk clerk at the hotel hissed at our request for a late check-out to grab a quick shower after the race. Too many people, she said, would want one.
I began to change my mind when strangers would look us over while waiting for a light at the street corner, then smile and ask if we were running. They didn't have to ask about the race. Just "are you running?" When we said yes, they would tell us good luck.
So my fears about Chicago had dissipated as we walked toward the race. But as the race began, I would be pleasantly surprised. 
Almost euphorically so.
• • • 
I felt good as the race began, but I always feel good the first few miles of a marathon. It's a deadly trap. I told myself, over and over, to slow down, and so I was careful about sticking to my plan. But even my plan was aggressive, and I was happy to realize it felt good. As soon as two years ago, my pace would have PRd my half by four minutes. But it had been two years. Again, I thought I was ready for it. I was barely breathing hard as my pace crept down to 7:35 per mile. I felt elated. Maybe this would be THE race.
By the time I crossed the halfway mark at 1:41, I was a little concerned. If I stopped now, I thought, I'd be tired. I'd consider that a pretty good race. I might even have a hard time making it back to my hotel without limping a touch. But I was confident, too, that I had run smart.
The thing was, yes, I ran well, and yes, I felt elated, but my stomach was a little crampy. I began to walk through the aid stations to try to get more fluids in my body, but that seemed to make it worse, and I was having trouble breathing. It was as if someone had inflated a balloon in my mid-section. Well, I thought, I'd just have to back off on fluids and nutrition for a bit. 
Well, that works in a half. I've ran whole halves without eating or drinking a damn thing. A marathon is two halves. And this would be a tale of two of them.
My calves began to twitch at mile 16. I knew that wasn't good. I changed my running style a bit, and it seemed to work, for a while, anyway. I threw down a 7:50 mile and prayed I'd be OK. 
Prayers don't work in a marathon. I'm sorry if that offends your religious nature. But they don't.
By mile 18, the road sloped down a touch, into a short tunnel, and when I came out the other side, my hamstring began tightening. OK, OK, I whispered to it, gently. We'll take it easy. But my hamstring froze, and I couldn't move my right leg. I was helpless. Pain radiated down my leg and into my foot. I felt like the tin man without his oil can.
A police officer approached me. "Are you OK?" he asked. "Yes," I said, and it was the truth. I was positive, lucid and had energy.
I just couldn't move.
"Cramps?" the officer said.
"Yeah," I said. "This is the marathon for you."
"Well," he said, "if you need me to support you, you just lean on my shoulder and let me know, OK?"
I almost began tearing up. Here was an officer who had a lot on his mind, like, you know, terrorism. Chicago was the biggest race since Boston. It was a natural target. And there's always crowd control. But he seemed more worried about me.
That's when I looked around me, and I saw a group of about 50 all cheering for me. "YOU GOT THIS COLORADO" many yelled, referring to my tank top with the Colorado flag out front. I smiled and gave a little wave, and they nearly burst my eardrums.
I"d never experienced anything like it in my life. 
I began to walk, to work out the cramp, but I had no hopes at that point of my best race. I knew I'd have to play cat and mouse with the cramps. I could run, but it would only be for a while, and then I'd have to stop to ward them off again. I hoped I could still run, say, 3:30 or 3:35. It seemed realistic. I'd only have to run a half slower than any time I'd run in five years.
I continued to walk, and then I jogged a bit and took a look around. The spectators were roaring at this point. It was almost unnerving. They were shaking signs, hilarious ones at that, stuff that read "You've done dumber things drunk."
A mile later, when I had to walk again, a spectator reached out to pat me on the back. Her hand lingered on my shoulder. "It's OK hun," she said. "It's a long way to the finish. You take your time."
That's when it hit me. These people were not only here to cheer me on. They were here to will me to the end. 
At that point, I dropped all my natural defenses and hesitations and let them wash over me. I gave thumbs up, high fives and cheered right along with them, even when I had to frequently walk. 
I had a smile on my face the whole time. But more than that, even when it was apparent I'd just miss the four-hour mark, a landmark that most marathoners consider a goal, I just shrugged my shoulders. I ran the last mile the whole way, even when I had to grit my teeth through it, and I didn't do it for myself. I did it for them.
The people who didn't know me did something amazing. They made me not care, at least not too much, about my time. They forced me to understand what a cool thing it is to be able to run a marathon in a big city. I preach all the time to my friends to be grateful for what they can do before they start a race. Chicago made me follow my own advice.
Later, dozens of people passed us on the street, and they continued to lift me up. Far too many congratulated us. I thanked them as best I could. But I prefer to think about when I crossed the finish line.
I didn't cheer, raise my arms or clap. I simply turned around and blew them all a kiss, before I turned around, joined the hundreds crowding around me, and reveled at how comfortable I was in their masses.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Helloween Show, Oct. 2

Sometimes, something happens that blows your mind. If your mind printed a newspaper, the headline would be 80-point type. Yet it would probably only sell one copy on the newsstand because no one else seems to care.
Granted, it doesn't happen too often. The marathon's world record was broken recently, and I thought that was awesome, and while I realize this was probably not front page news in most people's Brain Bugle, my Twitter feed was full of people saying, at least, "huh, look at that."
But it did happen to me many months ago. That's when Helloween announced they were coming to Denver.
Helloween, as you probably guessed, is a metal band. But they're a fascinating one, and they've always been one of my absolute favorites. They also almost never  come to the U.S.
Helloween came out as one of the leaders of the speed metal movement of the mid-80s, and for a while, they almost made it as big as the Big Four (Anthrax, Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth). They were a faster version of Iron Maiden. They were also weird. Their first big album featured a 13-minute opus, "Halloween," and it was titled "Keeper of the Seven Keys, Part I." What the hell? The title made it seem like a soundtrack for a "Dungeons and Dragons" movie. Yet I bought it because I read a review comparing them to Iron Maiden, and as a huge Maiden fan, that was enough back then. I was in high school. It's not like I had a girlfriend to spend the money on.
That name didn't help either. Helloween sounds like a demonic, thrashing band with a vocalist who swallowed a broken bottle. It is exactly the opposite. In fact, I can't think of a goofier band in metal. One of their biggest hits was "Dr. Stein." "Dr. Stein grows funny creatures, lets them run into the night. They become great rock musicians and their time is right." That sounds like a nursery rhyme, doesn't it? I think the band thought Helloween was a funny, ironic name that would make people laugh, but I have a feeling it scared more people off than made them laugh.
Anyway, this is already more than you wanted to know, but Helloween released Part II a couple years later. Both albums, in my mind, were metal masterpieces, a perfect blend of melody, whismy, terrific musicianship, songwriting and soaring vocals. The band had a hit, "I Want Out," from the album, in addition to "Dr. Stein," and MTV put them in heavy rotation on "Headbanger's Ball," which was big in the late 80s. By that point, Helloween was a top-5 band for me, just behind Iron Maiden and Metallica, and I desperately wanted to see them in concert. Only, as I said, the German band never came to America much.
And then Helloween fell apart. They released two albums after, and both of them emphasized even goofier lyrics and more of a commercial sound, and both were just terrible. Awful. I've never known a band to be so good, and then so bad. Yes, many bands come out with good debuts and fade away, but those bands were usually just enjoyable, not as epic as Helloween. It was as if Steely Dan decided to become a polka band.
So I gave up on them. Years later, I heard they got a new lead singer and were still putting out albums. I bought a couple and was underwhelmed, despite showing some promise with one, "The Dark Ride." So I gave up on them again. 
I'm not sure why I bought "Gambling With The Devil," Helloween's 2007 album. I can't remember. I guess I heard from the two or three other people I know who like Helloween that it was really good. And there was a basis for that. Helloween had a stable lineup and was releasing fast, hard and heavy songs again. Their lead singer had been with them a long time and had turned into not only a good vocalist but a good songwriter as well. The band's core was still there.
I loved the record. And the next, "7 Sinners," was nearly as good. When Helloween released its next in January, "Straight Out of Hell," I bought it without question, and I can name a handful of bands I'll purchase without hearing the album. Helloween is back in my top 5.
So a band with a revamped lineup has had two periods of releasing outstanding albums, including its current one.
So you can see why I geeked out. You can see why I'm geeking out now.
* * *
No one else would go with me to the show. I had a couple friends, some WPBT buddies, of course, who would go, but Colorado is too far. 
Helloween, as stated, is from Germany, and papers are a problem to tour for more than a few days. That's why you won't see them all over the U.S. I think the last time they made it out to Colorado was in 2003.
The other problem, as stated, is most, if not almost all, people don't share my infatuation with them. Helloween is a little too much for even my metal-loving friends back here. I'd argue less than 1,000 in Denver or northern Colorado ever owned one of their albums, and that was probably 20 years ago. I was worried that the band might think the trip wasn't even worth the trouble.
My fears seemed realized when I arrived at The Gothic in Englewood, after an hour drive from Greeley. There were 20 waiting in line, a half-hour before the show. Oh man. Would the band even get 100?
Three bands were opening. To show how things have changed from high school, this annoyed me because I really wanted to see Helloween and get home to bed. I also wore earplugs. Like I said, things have changed. I'm old now.
Even with my worries about getting to bed at a decent hour, I was pleasantly surprised to see Cellador on the bill as well. No, I'm not going to write 750 words on Cellador. The band is a part of the melodic speed metal resurgence and sounds a lot like late-80s Helloween. They played five songs, including one, "Leaving All Behind," that sometimes makes my 5K race playlists. They're fast, like Dragonforce, and kind of annoying like them too. But they're also great musicians, and I enjoyed their brief set.
The first band was local and horrible, and the third seemed to take all the bad qualities of Five Finger Death Punch and blend them together without bringing any of the good.
Helloween hit the stage at 9:30 p.m. after "For Those About To Rock" blasted over the soundsystem (awesome) and opened with "Eagle Fly Free," the opening track to part II. I was immediately enthralled. I wouldn't have been surprised if Helloween had ignored the late 80s. Even if that was the band's heyday, the breakup with their lead singer wasn't good, and there was a lot of strife at that time. So I was thrilled that I was getting to hear some of the songs I adored in high school live for the first time. Andi Deris couldn't hit the highest notes, but the band ripped through it, which was impressive for a bunch of older guys, as the song's HARD. Dani Loble's drumming was especially impressive, as Helloween couldn't perform the song live for years because they couldn't find a drummer who could pull it off. Loble had no trouble. 
I glanced around from my perch in the balcony, where I could sit and yet was practically on top of the band, and noticed I wasn't the only one enthralled. Suddenly the place seemed alive and full of maybe 300 people.
Helloween, as I expected, didn't scowl or drink blood or sacrifice goats the way their name implies. In fact, they avoided all the cliches. They didn't bang their heads in that way that makes their hair fly. 
Instead, Sascha Gerstner spent most of his time playing a game with bassist Markus Grobkopf, where he would toss a pic at the feet of Markus, and he tried to kick it into the audience. Michael Weikath looked bored until he made goofy faces to us in the balconies.
This show was no frills. Not much dry ice smoke, minimum lighting, that sort of thing. I always found that stuff distracting anyway unless Iron Maiden was doing it. 
Helloween then went right into "Nabataea," the first track off its latest, another fast, difficult song, and they crushed it. After a few more tracks from their latest, Loble launched into a drum solo that was, as they usually are, too long and too cliched to keep my interest.
I perked right up when I heard "I'm Alive" when the band came back out. "I'm Alive" is the title track to "Keeper of the Seven Keys part I." I used to listen to it in high school when I was depressed, which was more often than I'd like to admit, and the lyrics always perked me up a bit. It's a catchy, inspirational song, and it was fun to hear it 20 years later.
After that, the band played a terrific mix of old and new hits. They played a track from "The Dark Ride and a couple new ones and a couple classics, including "Future World" and "Dr. Stein." 
Those last two were encores. The band did two encores, and I know they are a concert tradition, but I've never been a fan. We shouldn't have to beg the band to come out, and on the second, we had to wait more than five minutes. Did one of the guys have to take a shit? Just get out there and play the songs. 
"Are You Metal," one of the band's best, wiped away any annoyance I had (and let's be honest, I was probably cranky because it was past my bedtime and I knew I had an hour's drive ahead of me). There were other tracks I wanted to hear that I knew weren't going to be played, but after that, I was satisfied. I got my money's worth, I thought. I heard what I could reasonably expect to hear. There's no better feeling when you know a concert's winding down.
* * * 
I did a little people watching while I let the crowd thin out. This is what amazes me about metal fans. It's pretty rare to see another or talk to another metal fan outside of a show. Hey, the music's abrasive, loud and hard to follow. I get it. It's even rarer to see a metal fan who is pronounced about being a metal fan, like someone with long hair or wearing a black concert T-shirt or headbanging in public. It's not like we're ashamed of it. But metal has to be the only music that seems to demand an identity as well as a preference for shredding guitars. You could argue that for hip-hop, too, but it's far too popular now. It attracts too wide a demographic. Dave Matthews fans are some of the most passionate in the world, one of the few bands that inspires the kind of loyalty that metal fans display, and yet, they look like everyone else too. Metal fans, when they are being metal fans, look like metal fans. They do not look like accountants going to Katy Perry. They stand out in huge crowds. They look like Al Can't Hang. 
Well, most of them do, anyway. I am a massive exception. In the throng attending the show, there was a guy who wore one of those Vegas-type button-down shirts and had short hair, and there was a guy who wore a bow tie, a pink button-down shirt and jeans the color of a 50-year-old woman who had a lifetime membership to a tanning salon (that guy, by the way, had to know what he was doing). And then there was me. I wore a Dream Theater long-sleeved, long-underwear looking concert shirt, but my short hair, thin jawline and nervous expression just can't pull off the metal look. I've even tried to have long hair, but it curls in several wrong ways and tends to frizz more than kick ass. I had to settle for a mullet with an earring in high school, and if I wore that now, I'd look creepy, not badass. I am far too Kohl's and not nearly enough Spencer's. 
My point, though it is drifting, is that although these people stand out in society, at a small show that only a tiny portion of the population would ever attend, we're all together. I stand out at these shows, but in society, I blend, probably far too much. There was a sea of black glorifying Masterplan and Gamma Ray and Slayer (of course) from both the guys and the girls. Long hair, tattoos, piercings, you name it. I loved it. I loved it because they share a love for metal, and knowing that makes me feel less weird about being so passionate about a form of music that most people find scary.
It turns out I wasn't the only one excited about Helloween coming to Colorado. I just had to wait to stand with them.

Starter list:

Here's a starter list of albums, with key tracks, in case you're actually interested in Helloween after reading this screed.

• "Walls of Jericho" — "Ride The Sky," "Guardians" and "How Many Tears." 

(Look for "Judas" and "Starlight," a couple rare tracks, on iTunes as well).
• "Keeper of the Seven Keys" Part I — "I'm Alive," "Future World" and "Halloween."
• "Keeper of the Seven Keys" Part II — "I Want Out," "Eagle Fly Free," "Save Us," "March of Time" and "Keeper of the Seven Keys."
• "The Dark Ride" — "Mr. Torture," "The Dark Ride," "If I Could Fly," "Salvation" and "We Damn The Night."
• "Gambling With The Devil" — "Paint a New World," "Kill It" and "Bells of the Seven Hells"
• "7 Sinners" — "Are You Metal?," "Where The Sinners Go."
• "Straight Out Of Hell" — "Nabataea," "Burning Sun," "Waiting for the Thunder" and "Church Breaks Down."