Friday, January 07, 2011

Marathon Man

This post will be seriously revised in the next few days and I'm not happy with it at the moment, but I've been sitting on it since November and wanted to somewhat wash my hands of it!

I recently ran my first marathon, and as it turns out, running 26.2 miles is not easy. Who knew? I'm not going to say it's the hardest thing I've ever done physically, but it's pretty damn close. I enjoy running and can wax philosophic about the Zen like trance one falls in to on a long run when one settles into an easy stride and breathes just so and it feels like the wind is blowing one effortlessly along one's route. I can do that. This was not least not after mile 15 or so. I was pretty vigilant about my training schedule, but toward the end of the 16 week cycle, I started to take a few liberties. It's not that I lost motivation or commitment, but that life happened. Life always happens. Work and travel and any number of other things conspired to cut a few miles off this run and delay that run by a day or so. By the end of the training, my initial goal of breaking 4 hours had been somewhat tempered by the realization that this was probably a bridge too far and that finishing with some semblance of self respect was a more realistic carrot for which to strive. All foreshadowing pointed to a disastrous outcome.

The ominous feel to the event started long ago (although I didn't realize it upon registration), when the marathon was scheduled for Halloween. Let's be honest, a celebration of the macabre seems an inauspicious date on which to do anything except celebrate the macabre, but at the time I registered for the marathon, things in my life were going swimmingly and an extended weekend with loved ones all endeavoring to the same goal seemed like a great idea. That was before two of the original participants succumed to catastrophic injuries and had to withdraw their participation. Then one of the aforementioned catastrophically injured and I broke up. Without going into detail, morale dipped. My roommate and I pushed on with our training and achieved a level of confidence that started to taper off long before our actual tapering should have started, but plane tickets, a planned proposal (to the other catastrophically injured original participant), entry fees, and hotel reservations committed us for the long haul. Our last long run with one another, a 15 miler that kicked off at 6:00AM, was completed as a cold front blew in and sleeted all over our final seven miles. Our conversation for the last hour of the run consisted of my roommate saying, "This fucking sucks." And me replying, "Yup."

On the morning we were supposed to leave to catch our flight to DC for the marathon, my roommate, his girlfriend (now fiancee!), and I were rerouted at 4:00AM from our planned route to the airport due to a horrific looking car accident. And by "horrific," I mean I'm pretty sure someone punched out for the final time. At least two cars no longer resembled cars and the entire road was closed down. This was Omen #1.

We boarded separate flights with plans to meet up at the airport in Baltimore for the short trek to DC. Their flight came off without a hitch, but a guy died on my flight. Seriously. I don't mean to make light of the gentleman's death, but as far as bad omens go, an unexpected death on your flight tends to get one thinking. This was omen #2. By the time I finally got to DC, I was tired and a little on edge.

I was staying at a friend's apartment in Cleveland Park and needed to catch the Metro to Georgetown to deliver my roommate's engagement ring to him (he asked me to travel with it to avoid his girlfriend potentially finding it and ruining the surprise). After an epic plane ride and ensuing cluster fuck at BWI waiting for a shuttle bus that never came then finally renting a car to drive to DC, I decided a long walk from Cleveland Park to Georgetown was just what the doctor ordered, so I decided to forgo the Metro. I immediately reconsidered my decision as I settled into my jaunt south on Connecticut Avenue. In front of the zoo, a bird flew inches from my face, into the backside of a bus stop shelter, and then fell dead at my feet with a crushed head. This was omen #3. At this point, I was feeling a little like The Become Death, but I pressed on.

Things started to look a little better that afternoon when my delivery of the engagement ring met no snags and my roommate and I were able to get some passable BBQ into our stomachs (side note: BBQ isn't exactly what I would call optimal pre-race fueling). The uptick in omens continued that evening when my Baylor Bears managed a famous win against The University of Texas (this looks much less famous now that the Longhorns weren't even in a bowl, but whatever), but after leaving the sports bar at around 11:30PM, I realized all that had really happened was that I had managed to stay up way too late, had 2 too many beers, was stuffed full of grilled meats, and was about to spend a short night's sleep on an air mattress. Non of these things were recommended in my training plan as Ways to Succeed in Your First Marathon.

4AM came fast and furious just as it had come the previous morning when I woke up to catch my flight to Baltimore. Mercifully, things started to look up at the metro that morning. I met and wound up running much of the race with a wonderful woman who lived in the area. This is one of the things I love about runners, especially runners in what guarantees to be a difficult event. I used to race bicycles and there's an alpha male element to cycling that just really pisses me off. I can remember rolling neutral onto a course for a 60 mile road race in one of my first events and being told by the guy next to me in the pace line that he wasn't at the race to make friends. He told me this after I asked the horribly offensive question, "How are you doing?" Cocksucker. Runners would never do this. They're more likely to offer you a banana and make you believe that you're about to qualify for Boston than they are to look you up and down and describe how thoroughly they're about to destroy you.

I met Juliette on the platform of the Cleveland Park Metro stop. She was obviously a runner which made my, "Are you running the marathon," question that much more ridiculous. What else would someone be doing in the Metro well before sunrise in running gear on race day with a what-the-hell-have-I-gotten-myself-into expression on her face? As it turns out, she was also running her first marathon and had the same target time in mind...and she didn't drop dead in front of me which was good considering the previous day's events.

We boarded the Metro and as we snaked our way underneath the DC streets more and more runners started to filter onto the train. By the time we had gotten to the Pentagon City stop, the train was packed to capacity and the buzz of excited anticipation was palpable. My roommate had met us on the Metro after spending the evening proposing to his girlfriend and celebrating when she mercifully said "yes." I say "mercifully" not because there was any doubt she would say no, but because I couldn't stomach the prospect of running the whole event with a heartbroken buddy...or doing the "good friend" thing and bowing out of the race to go help him drink his sorrows away. I mean, I may or may not have been responsible for multiple deaths and a bird suicide the day before. I had to participate.

The three of us made our way off the Metro and followed the crowd through a security checkpoint and into the staging area where we reluctantly stripped into our race clothing (it was cold!) and started to limber up. This will be entirely too much detail, but I'd not been able to take care of business AT ALL the previous day as I was never in the company of an unoccupied and/or quiet restroom with more than two minutes to spend using it and now I was eyeing the phalanx of Port-O-Potties with increasing anxiety. Everyone's seen the photos of marathoners who suddenly lost bowl control during their run and I was convinced that I'd better not push my luck (those damned omens again).

After waiting in line for over 30 minutes, my time to take care of business finally came. I rushed into the Port-O-Potty, dropped my shorts, and...nothing. The fact that the race was scheduled to kickoff in mere moments and there was still a line of hundreds of people ALL WAITING ON ME mere feet from where I was then anxiously seated conspired to induce the most distressing and crippling stage fright I've ever experienced. I left the Port-O-Potty empty handed (full boweled?) and made my way to the start line with Juliette and my roommate to begin what I was now sure would be an epic disaster to entail possible death or, at the very least, violent and embarrassing bowel distress.

My thoughts and feeling per mile:

Start: It took us 10 minutes to get to the start line from the 4 hour corral so by the time we crossed the start line much of the pomp and circumstance of the official start was over. Also, I imagined the Kenyans being halfway through the course and I suddenly felt pale, pasty, slow, and lumbering. Sort of like an Imperial Walker from Star Wars.

Mile 1: Smooth, effortless gliding. We ran a mile already?!

Mile 2: I'm still feeling pretty good. Good conversation. Good friends. Good people watching.

Mile 3: Cake.

Mile 4: Seconds on the cake.

Mile 5: Maybe BBQ and constipation are secret recipes for success.

Mile 6: I could shit right now.

Mile 7: That was a big hill. I could REALLY shit right now.

Mile 8: I have to stop to shit RIGHT NOW.

Luckily, mile 8 is apparently where a lot of people feel this urge and a nice sprawling bank of Port-O-Potties was set up on the side of the road for just that purpose. Unfortunately, a lot of people feel this urge at mile 8 and I had a good 10 minute pit stop when the wait and actual performance of the deed are taken into account.

Right before I ducked off the course, Juliette said something like, "I'm going to keep going! Catch up!" I didn't realize it at the time, but this is terrible advice to give anyone in an endurance event.

Mile 9: Unencumbered by extra weight, I'm feeling great. Breathing through my nose.

Mile 10: Let's gear it up a bit. I'm flying.

Mile 11: Did I just run a 7:15 minute mile in the middle of my first marathon? Yup.

Mile 12: Maybe I should dial it back a bit.

Mile 13: Halfway there!

Mile 14: That 7:15 minute mile may not have been a good idea.

Mile 15: This is kinda staring to suck.

Mile 16: This sucks.

Mile 17: Hey, it's the Washington Monument. Whatever.

Mile 18: Sweet Baby Jesus, my calves are tight.

Mile 19: Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Mile 20: Second wind! Awoooooooo!

Mile 20 1/2: That didn't last long.

Mile 21: Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming....

Mile 22: [white noise]

Mile 23: Where are my legs? Oh, there they are. Why can't I feel them?

Mile 24: Pain. Hurt. Legs.

Mile 25: Dooooon't stop...BELIEVIN'!

Mile 26: I'm seriously going to finish this thing!

Finish: Those people who say they get choked up are so full of it....wait, why am I crying?

The end, and I knew this from my previous marathon experience as a spectator, is the most chaotic, frustrating, and endless process of the whole event. Unless you're super badass or super not badass, you're going to finish with a whole gaggle of runners and it will take an eternity to go anywhere. During this eternity your legs will feel like someone has tapped into them with a funnel and poured molten lead into them. If you're like me, you eventually find a place to lay down, stretch, and JUST STOP MOVING. This place will be maybe a mile from where you're actually supposed to meet everyone but you just won't give a shit. You just ran a freaking marathon.

Eventually, I made my way over to the reunion area and met up with Juliette and my roommate's fiancee and relived the marathon mile by mile as we waited for him to show up. I'd known during the race that he wasn't feeling it (silence, a grimace here and there), but I figured a night of engagement celebration would have that effect. I lost track of him at mile 8 when I ducked off the course to relieve myself. Apparently he'd had a similar need at mile 13 and it was then that I'd overtaken him. When he finally did show up, he revealed that he'd started cramping up at mile 8 and had seriously considered running straight to the hotel at mile 16, but he'd stuck it out and now here we all stood, Juliette, her parents and a friend, my roommate, his newly minted fiancee, and myself among a bustling but exhausted crowd of runners. It had been a tough few months of training, least of all because of the training, but we'd done it and that odd, twisting course replete with bird suicides, actual deaths, catastrophic injuries, brutal training runs, bowel distress, new friends, cramping at mile 8, and an engagement all somehow seemed to fit...or maybe I was just too exhausted to make sense of it all.

Either way, I'm definitely doing it again.

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