Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Exciting Conclusion (Part 2)

When I arrived at the start line I looked down and started my watch. The sea of runners in front of me on Market street was a sight to behold. Quite a nice crowd had gathered near the start to cheer on the runners. One little guy in a baby stroller was a bit freaked out by the sight, I think, based on his howling cry, but that reaction was a singularity. Most people smiled, waved, and cheered. Kids seemed to cheer the loudest. I looked down and realized that I hadn't started the stopwatch. I had spaced and pushed the wrong button. I started the clock, I guessed about 30 seconds late. In the opening miles, I found myself among runners at a slower pace, and I had to pick my openings to pass runners, sometimes having to leap laterally through gaps in moving humanity. As we passed the 2 mile mark, runners were already beginning to shed layers. Gloves, hats, windbreakers, etc. were tossed to the side of the course. At the same time I noticed that some runners were already having to stop to urinate. This I couldn't really understand and I thought of my father preparing the kids for a long car trip.

I was still slowed a bit by the slower runners. I probably should have started with a faster group. At least my legs were feeling good. My fears about my left knee had been left at the start line, but I was still relieved that my stride felt smooth and not jerky like my last training run.

As we approached the freeway overpass, the sound of David Lee Roth was on the air. There was a DJ under the bridge playing "Beautiful Girls" LOUDLY. I looked around and spotted more than a few beautiful girls in the pack, looking good at the beginning of the race. That's enough to put a spring in anyone's step.

Next it was to Indian Mounds Rd, a two lane asphalt trail along the southern bank of the Grand River. Within another few mile or so, the pack had sufficiently thinned enough that I had plenty of space to run comfortably at my own pace. We had already passed two aid stations, but I ran right by them. Runners continued to pull off the trail to visit the woods for bladder breaks, and there was even a line 2 deep at a port-a-potty around mile five. I thought of those family car trips again. I had done the entire course a few weeks back, and I had run this leg every week for months. Only once did I have to take a break to pee.

At a first aid station a woman is seated, injured and in tears. Tears not of pain, but disappointment.

The aid stations were well manned with very enthusiastic volunteers of all ages. Served on outstretched arms to runners was water, Gatorade, and ice in cups. Also, at each station there were a few folks holding out hands thickly coated with petroleum jelly for runners who were experiencing chafing (I had lubed up before the race, but at the end of the day, my nipples were still a little tender). All this was something I had never seen before, since my longest race to date had been 5K.

Where Indian Mounds met up again with normal roadways, another roaring crowd off onlookers had gathered. I passed the first of three high school cheerleading teams. In the crowd was a lady who looked to be about 70 who held a sign that read "I Love You, Rick," her face beaming with what I assume was anticipation of seeing Rick pass by. I wondered, do I look cool? It didn't matter too much, because I felt cool. I looked at the faces of the people who stood in bunches at the side of the course. Most probably had gathered to cheer on a loved one, but surely some had come simply for the spectacle. In a lot of these faces I saw something like awe. Eyes wide with incredulity. Eyes that were hunting for the secret. Curious eyes that could not comprehend exactly what drove people to these levels of suffering. But also eyes that urged us on. Eyes that drove us to continue. Windows to the souls of these people who were living vicariously through us runners, who hoped we would not give in to pain.

Thanks to months of training, I was still feeling strong and really not suffering much. I was running at a pace just a tad quicker than my training pace. We crossed the bridge over the Grand River and headed back up off the North Bank. I crossed the halfway point at one hour and 4 minutes according to my calculations. I was off pace to finish in two hours, but all was not lost. I still had the second half of the race to quicken up, and I still had good legs. I turned it up half a notch.

The problem is that the second half of the course is the hilly half. Now, the course in general is pretty flat, but there are a few rolling hills, and they are all between miles 9 and 12. I had been particularly concerned about how my knee would perform on this part of the course. It's not the going up that I have trouble with, it's the pounding that comes along with running back down that racks the joints in my legs. I would have to deal with all this, and faster, if I was break the two hour mark, a goal set more by the pure roundness of the number rather than a sense that it was realistically attainable (hint).

There was a young lady running ahead of me that caught my eye. She had her long brown hair in a thick braid running down her back. She had a good stride, but her physique was not a purely economical one ideal for running. No, hers was a form enhanced with bounties ideal for other pursuits. But as the course began the fist mild incline she began to drift back in the pack and there I was passing her with no ceremony. The first downhill. I lengthened my stride and let gravity do more of the work as I accelerated down the slope. Knee feels good. On the second and more severe hill, more runners drop behind. One ahead on the left stops running altogether and is quickly behind me, but there's a core group of us that are still going strong. There's the short guy in the grey and the headphones. The tall guy in the dorky running singlet who looks like he's not working at all and his female friend who looks like she is. These are my pacers, and these are the people I want to keep in sight, unless I pass them first.

A few more hills. At around mile 12 I'm really starting to fatigue. This is the same spot I started to weaken when I ran the course a few weeks back. Just when I'm hating the fact that there are still more than 3 miles left, there's a guy on the left cheering us on.

"Good Job! You just finished the worst of it, It's flat from here on it!"

This is reassuring and I think about the time. I'm not making much headway on the 2 hour mark, but maybe I can take it up another notch on the flat course ahead. But now my legs are not so strong. I don't have a lot of reserve to dip into. I remember reading about long distance runners. They say that at the end of the race, your legs are done, and your head is done, and all that's left is heart. You're running on pure heart. To be honest, I don't think I was quite there, but I learned what it meant. As more and more runners broke stride to catch a breath, I had to rely on my heart for a lot.

Entering the city again after the hills meant more cheering supporters. This really does make a difference, especially at this point. I just keep thinking that only 3 miles left, 2.5 miles left, 2 miles left. I want to take it up another notch, because the 2 hour mark is all but lost. I know it's unrealistic that I'll break it, but I want to come as close as I can. But I have a hard time digging deeper. I'm no longer as confident that I look cool. I think that maybe I look like I'm flagging, because that's how I'm feeling.

I'm touched as I see more than one runner, and then another, pause (very) briefly to greet friends at the side of the course. I'm thinking about time, and not stopping, but these folks have a broader view, and are smiling more than me.

We pass the last aid station.

"One more mile! Keep going! You can do it!"

There ahead of me are two old guys. I'm reminded that apart from the elites, you can't tell by looking who might be a good runner.

Finally we turn the last corner and the finish is almost in sight.

"Go Joe!!"

I look left and there's Bridget, the wife of my coworker and co-runner Carl, the first familiar face I've seen all day. I smile with a wave, and think of those with the broader view, but there ain't no way I'm stopping now. I dig for something and find enough to prepare for a strong finish. I can see the banners and hear the ruckus. Even as I find more strength, it's comes with a hint of disappointment. I know that I could have run this race just a little faster. But that emotion is quickly overwhelmed with relief when I cross the finish line.

In seconds my legs feel like concrete. I'm walking to seats to remove my timing chip. Give me some protein!! Some yogurt and a banana, and a free massage, and then I'm heading home. I leave the post-race party pumped with adrenaline and exhausted. There's a sense of accomplishment and also the sweet sadness that is the end of anticipation. Crossing that finish line was the end of a journey that started months earlier when I began to train. Now it's over. My official time is 2 hours 7 minutes and 10 seconds. I ran the second half just about a minute faster than the first. I was running 8 minute 13 second miles, on average. I'll take a few days to let my legs recover and have a few beers in the meantime.

What's next?


Blogger Laba said...

Way to go Joe! You've made me both proud and inspired! My training has completely halted due to the time restraints of work. Through your writing I'm once again motivated to get back on track. "Racing" is truly what pushes me to run. I never compete against others - in fact, the best I've ever placed is 3rd in my age group - but I'm always competing against myself. It's that struggle to beat your last time, your last placement, and the quest for better performance that makes racing enjoyable. Further, I love the insanity of runners. Again, congrats on a great race!

9:18 PM  
Blogger dharmarae said...

"he had a good stride, but her physique was not a purely economical one ideal for running. No, hers was a form enhanced with bounties ideal for other pursuits."

you perv... ;)

3:45 PM  

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