from mile to marathon

The journey of a thousand leagues begins from beneath your feet.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

duke city – fourth marathon race report

I woke up at 3:30 am to have breakfast, a novelty embraced following Lora’s suggestion to eat three hours before start time. When the alarm rang I had to convince my boyfriend to stay put – this was not a coffee making opportunity, I would be back, and we still had another hour of sleep afterward. It was eerie to eat in the dim kitchen without being hungry. But bread with butter is my favorite food, and I added just a bit of Jarlsberg cheese for protein, and strawberry preserve – Einstein liked it too – for carbohydrates.

The frigid pre-start half hour chased runners into the lobby of the corner hotel, where Starbucks enjoyed a tide of brisk business. I talked to a bare-chested hero outside who upheld the theory he could prevent his body heat from going up too much before plummeting. I think he accomplished that. I also saw sensible Navajo runners wrapped in blankets, ready for the relay, a sight that in the manifold colors and lights of downtown reminded me of desolate Shiprock.

Then the seconds coalesced into the frenzy of the start, and we stepped over the mat in a long wave. We turned right on Central Avenue, the historic Route 66 of Americana fame, running through that segment of serene buildings that always reminded me of a seaside resort, as if vacation were at arm’s length. Running past the Motel Blue where I spent my first night ever in Albuquerque, not certain that one day I would make this city my own. Running on to reach Tingley Beach with its artificial lakes of improbable blue and its whimsical iron sculptures, where on July 4th last year I ran my first race ever, a 5K that placed me in my age group, unaccountable beginner’s luck.

Leaning over the fence, chatting at leisure, was the director of that race and of my last NM marathon, the one who used to shake his head over me running too much and too little at the same time. We hugged over the wire, and I pointed to the emblem of the Royal Victoria Marathon on my shirt. “Two weeks ago” I said. His eyes widened with understanding, and he shook his head again.

The weathermen lied, they lie here often, it's part of their lifestyle – the day was not cloudy as foreseen. The New Mexico sun rose into a gorgeous vault of pure blue, but the wind see-sawed through any incipient comfort, and I kept my long-sleeve on for the first several miles. We ran on the path along the zoo. I hate zoos, had never been there before. Then we turned into the Bosque bike trail. I felt good and stable, and thought I could go on like this forever.

And I went on like that for a long time, mile after mile, aid station after aid station, they were abnormally frequent enough to confuse one as to distance covered. I did not even take a watch with me, I would run as fast as I could anyhow, a watch would not change that.

I got tired eventually, somewhere close to the half-point, I had taken my shirt off and put it back on innumerable times, in tune with the sun shining brighter and the wind picking up and fading down again. The few miles before and after the turnaround were the hardest, the course winding up and down, the wind blustering, the sun glare blinding, a relentless advance against the grain. Mile markers were for some reason more obvious in the second half. I counted the miles, but I was intent on ignoring their meaning.

I wanted to reproduce in this race the best part of the otherwise gruesome experience of the Royal Victoria Marathon – I wanted to replicate the steady, unperturbed advance of the last 10 or 12 miles. And I did. I ran on and on, without wavering, slowing down at aid stations only, where I always took the time to bend over and embrace my ankles, a reply to stiffness that kept me supple and fresh. I missed the 20-mile marker, so I did not place a timely smile there, but if I had seen it the smile would have been for the first time in my marathon history genuine and supplanted by fact. It did not make any difference whether I was before or after glycogen depletion – I was on track.

The wind picked up, sand filled my eyes, dust settled on my tongue. At slow pace I passed one or two runners pulled forward like puppets on strings, and I wondered if I looked the same, a caricuture of my own being propelled by something stronger than body. All of us engaged in the same stubborn struggle, we were tracing back our morning course, resources exhausted, redemption ahead. The last mile on Central Avenue had a world-end feeling to it, and I realized I had never experienced Route 66 without traffic. The utility poles screeched harsh and metallic in the wind, and the only other sound was my breath, a whimpering orchestrated by the metronome of each step forward. Do you remember the last scene of the movie “On the Beach,” the world awash in radioactive waste?

That is how Central Avenue felt like, deserted on a Sunday morning, a few ghosts shuffling forward. I wanted to finish with grace, this was not the end of the world, just the end of my reserves, I could hold on for a little while longer. I wanted to sprint, as I did in Victoria, but the best of my exertion did not thrust me ahead, only kept me moving. When I finally turned left on 3rd street, the bells of a church starting ringing, and I knew it was noon. 5 hours. Just a little stretch left.

You were fast, my boyfriend told me as I folded on his shoulder and started crying. 5 h 3 min 8 sec, 18 minutes better than my last, 9 minutes better than the one before, a half an hour behind Shiprock.

But this was the marathon I was most in control of. And the beep of the mat as I crossed the finish line certified me as Marathon Maniac #675.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

the bad, the good, and the ugly

The Bad
God only knows where my mind was when I assessed the criteria of being a gold level marathon maniac with four marathons in four different states, etc. - it has to happen within 8 weeks, and my projected time span is 12 weeks (from September 2nd in NM to December 2nd in AZ), so it won't happen.

The Good
God only knows where my mind was when I assessed the criteria of being a marathon maniac any level, but I already qualified, unwittingly, for one star, simply by running my "in the meantime" Duke City Marathon race. I just joined tonight, MM number pending. Think large grin here.

The Ugly
I have a hard time convincing my boyfriend we should still travel to TX in November and AZ in December, while I am already a marathon maniac as is. Apparently he was willing to do so for the sake of my insane desire to be certified - dreams count in his agenda, even if crazy. But since the extra effort doesn't even upgrade the status, the gruesome endeavor of driving 10 hours to San Antonio and back doesn't seem worthwhile. We will probably still do Tucson, because the University of Arizona houses this awesome photography institute, and we planned to stay a few extra days just for that. Negotiations still in course.

The Honest
I am not looking forward to that 10 h drive to San Antonio either. Part of me liked all these races neatly lined up. Part of me is just plain tired, I am fighting a cold, I drag myself through the day, I cannot sleep at night because of exhaustion.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

in the meantime

I ran New Mexico Marathon Plus in September, and The Royal Victoria Marathon two weeks ago. With San Antonio Marathon in November and Holualoa Tucson Marathon on December 2nd I can become a gold level Marathon Maniac - four marathons in four months in four different states or Canadian provinces.

I owe it to Michelle, of course, that I even thought of such a thing.

Someone asked me once what "do you get" if you become a Marathon Maniac, sort of: what's in it for you? I said "not only are you crazy, you are certified." That should count for something, he, he.

In the meantime, I signed up for the Duke City Marathon tomorrow, since it's right here in my backyard. Starts and ends at the Civic Plaza downtown.

Someone commented: "I thought you did not enjoy running."

Well, I don't. I calculated that by the time I recovered from Victoria I'd had to start tapering for Duke City, so I didn't have to run that much in between. It's just the way my mind works.

I am a bit scared though. I mean, they seem to get more and more difficult. I thought it would be the other way round. And I leafed through a copy of the Runners magazine I got unasked in the mail, and all stories go with horrendously high weekly mileages, where mine are so negligable I am embarrassed to state the number.

But I have my outfit ready - its' going to be cold and cloudy and windy, no New Mexico sun for us, and I plan to wear the awesome technical shirt that came with the goodie bag in Victoria. And I plan to run, for what else is there to do in a race?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

royal and unforeseeable

I started the race day by engaging in a no-no. Never do before a race something not rehearsed and tried out beforehand. I thought about it, and decided to do it anyhow, a calculated risk.

The weather forecast robbed me of delusions even before we left. No crisp autumn day – it was going to rain. Light showers on Saturday, real rain during race day. I assessed my quasi-inability to ingest any kind of fuel while running, and concluded no way I could uphold a race in rainy cold without having food on board. That is, for the first time ever I had a full breakfast one hour and a half before gun time. On the spot, it felt good. The strategy paid off during the second half of the race, but made me uncomfortable during the first part, so in the end I am not sure how beneficial it was.

With a loose understanding of space coordinates gleamed from rough pdf maps, I had made the most inspired hotel reservations ever. The start line was situated a half a block away from our backdoor, and we could see the finish line from our balcony. The day ensued overcast, but when my boyfriend walked me over to the start, the sky lit up and the sun broke forth. The crowd was fretting on the spot, exuberant, happy, impatient. I took the redundant gear off and lined up.

It started off much too fast. I must have been too far ahead for my pace, since for a half an hour everybody passed me, a furious wave parting around me and closing up ahead. We left behind the boats in the inner harbor, speeded up along the waterfront, breezed through quaint streets, outlined downtown Victoria, and turned south to the bay again.

The course was beautiful. It meandered through green parks and residential areas where everybody was up and about, coffee cups in hand, stereos blasting, lounge chairs on the lawn, signs hanging from trees. I am so used to running in the desert, I gaped at that. They have trees in British Columbia, you know. I have not seen in any race before, not even in the Phoenix Rock’n’Roll half-marathon, such an involved, enthusiastic audience. We followed the contour of the bays, running through the gray-golden glitter wafting up from the inland extensions of the Pacific Ocean. The air smelled of salt and iodine and energy.

I could not find my comfort zone. I had barely gotten into the rhythm whan I was already exhausted. I knew I could run much more, much faster, on any given day, but today was not that day. At km 10 (I realized with horror I was not even a quarter through) I was spent. At mile 10 it started raining, and I understood why so many runners had kept their gear on. By the halfway point I gave up on making good time. A bit further, at the turnaround, the rain was coming down in sheets. With nothing left in me, I felt hopeless, inadequate, trapped.

A couple of times I cried with exhaustion, striving blindly forward, tears mingling in my eyes with rain. I was walking when a volunteer in a reflective vest approached me on bicycle and asked me how I was doing. “No matter what I do from now on,” I said, “I still have to get back somehow.”

He offered me a garbage bag. “To ward of hypothermia,” he said. I was cold, of course, I had long running tights on, but the same top I used in NM in 70 degrees weather. Still, hypothermia? I searched his face trying to see what he was seeing, but I could not detect anything besides hidden concern. Duly I slipped into the black plastic, and went on.

He circled back to me several times over the next couple of hours. I always knew kilometers to be shorter than miles, and can adequately handle the conversion, but on this day kms were much longer. Sometime after acquiring my new designer marathon wear, I fell into a resolve that resembled stoicism and trudged on forward, steady, relentless, resigned.

Returning along the course of the bay I had a schizophrenic moment. In spite of rain and wind, volunteers and onlookers protected by hoods and umbrellas and tents still lined the road, but here the street was deserted. Nobody ran in front of me, the turbulent expanse of the bay was the only witness of ordeal, and I looked down on my bare arms to feel estranged, as if somehow, by an erroneous shift in the gears of the universe, I had fallen into someone else’s slot of life – a seafarer on a wild shore, an adventurer on a remote island. I was living their experience. There was no discernable reason for me being here, my mind full of novels and art, running along the sea, lost and exposed to the elements.

At mile 18, against my better judgment, I swallowed a half cup of Gatorade that instantly made me nauseous, the only intake besides water I indulged in along the course. I learned something from this race. You do not have to break down at mile 20. The last six miles were no different than the six miles before. No letdown intervened. I kept pushing ahead, before and after, on automatic pilot, with the same thought-free advance. I registered the accrual of space without passion, one more km, one more mile, one more hour, one more load of rain, whatever.

I had about one mile to go, I cannot be sure of detail, when something unscrambled at my center, and broke loose, and sprinted forward in a long stride. I took the next curve flying ahead, and I heard the awed exclamation of a spectator, “oh my god, look at her,” as I spurned forward. The end was so close I could almost sense it, although every turn of the street still disappointed me – I wasn’t there yet. My knight in reflecting armor showed up on his bicycle (“you are sprinting!” he said) and rode along me in silence until close to the finish line. By then the impulse had deserted me, and I was on my own, breathing the last breath out of my body. Somehow I would make it.

A stranger embraced me beyond the mat. “You are hypothermic,” she said, “have something hot.” I stumbled around in search of my boyfriend. I had given him a much too early estimated arrival time, and had agonized over the last hour and a half about him waiting in the cold, straining his bad back. The hot stuff in the refreshment area was all gone, and we wobbled to the hotel entrance. In the mirror next to the elevator I saw my face, drained of all color. Upstairs, I got out of the running shoes and pulled off the wet socks – my feet were blue. Oh, so this was hypothermia.

I attempted a cold bath, but had to step out of it after a few minutes, the feet hurt too much. I had a hot shower instead. We cranked the heat up, I crawled under the covers, and sipped as much as I could on a hot tea. It took me about three hours to stop shivering. We cancelled dinner, and waited until I was halfway whole again to order room service. My choice was a tiny bowl of hot Pacific seafood chowder, so good I wish I knew the recipe.

I was too mindless to register my time on the electronic display while crossing the finish line, but I heard the announcer say that I gave my best in Shiprock. How true. Roughly 30 runners were still behind me, out of close to 1900. The longest marathon I have ever run, at sea level of all places. It should have been easy. It should have been easier, at least. It was brutal.

But I do not mind. It was a good marathon. Thinking back at the stubborn advance of the last 10 miles in frigid rain, I cannot believe it was me. At custom control in the Vancouver airport the officer asked what I had brought back from Canada. I was still musing about missed shopping opportunities when my boyfriend pointed to the medal hanging around my neck and said, “She brought this.”

And there was this moment, transcendental… Oh, how can I explain it? The best moment of the marathon. Around km five or six, too early for the endorphins to have kicked in, not that I felt the endorphins kicking in at any time during this race, not that endorphins kicked in ever during my love-hate relationship with running. We were in that green park with overlapping loops, I reached the top of a soft incline, and took it all in: strings of runners streaming by in opposite directions at a three-way crossroads, in a six-way unfolding of energy. A band was playing at the intersection on some tremendous wooden instrument I could not identify, a wistful sound between flute and drum, an alert rhythm between primeval upbeat and French nostalgia. It was not raining yet, but the pavement still wet from the downpour of the night glittered in the pale sunlight breaking through layers of clouds.

Time and place fell away. We were runners of the 21st century, in technical shirts, identified by a number, running a race in British Columbia, Canada. But the specifics were incidental. This could have been a medieval fair, with the sound of mandolins rising in the background. This could have been an oasis in the Saharan desert, where Berbers on their camels stopped during pilgrimage. This could have been the bustle of trade routes intersecting in the dark core of Asia. The concept of alocality emerged in place, and timelessness settled in my heart. This was anywhere, anytime, the unfolding of human fervor as a single constant dimension – the striving of the body to surpass itself and reach its soul.

It lasted only for an instant, but out of the 5 h 21 min 25 sec, this is the second I best remember.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

victoria, british columbia

first night view

street corner, china town

architecture of a city

a matter of taste

gold & hay



finish line setup, day prior

me & my weapon

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

countdown to victoria

I love week-ends with small big runs – I ran a half last Sunday, and had enough of me left to do another 1000 things during the day. I did not start packing for British Columbia yet, but I hardly can think of anything else. I am excited about everything - the ride on the ferry, the hotel room with a view to the harbor on which we splurged, the pictures I am going to take, the new pretty dress I am going to wear. Even the marathon, he, he.

When I started running – only a year and a half ago? – I pictured myself running a marathon with nonchalance one day. I am not sure about that anymore. I do not believe the body was designed to run 26 miles. A half, certainly, 20 miles, maybe. 26 is stretching it, at least for me. At least as of now.

But if I ever come close to that envisioned easiness it’s going to be in a race like this - a crisp day in autumn, a flat course, and – oh, I am so looking forward to this part - sea level altitude. Oxygen.

I am also thinking of a personal record. I am not sure how hard I am supposed to think of it. I probably cannot establish one if I do not aim for it. But if I aim for it, I will push myself, and then I forfeit the potential for nonchalance. On the other hand, if I do not push myself here, where am I ever going to surpass that magic momentum that carried me forward in Shiprock?

I do not have firm goals yet, not beyond the simple one of somehow making sense of this blend of desires.