This was Marathon #27 and State #20, and in all those marathons I don't remember saying, "This was the worst (anything) I've ever seen in a marathon" very often. I did say, after San Diego Rock and Roll in 2011, that the line for the shuttle at the finish line -- a line a mile long in the sunny, blacktop, 85-degree Sea World parking lot -- was the worst logistical mess I had ever seen. And it was -- until this weekend in Allentown, Pennsylvania! Somehow this race managed to have BOTH the worst start line parking and the worst finish line shuttle ever, which is quite an accomplishment for a marathon calling itself a runner's marathon.
Anyway, I had picked this marathon a few months ago with the goal of qualifying for Boston and with the secondary goal of visiting friends in New Jersey, where I used to live. I knew I was not going to qualify for Boston -- since the Ann Arbor Marathon in early June, I had run 18 miles once and 17 miles once, and that was it for long runs -- but I was still looking forward to the marathon. The Lehigh Valley is beautiful, the course was described as easy and scenic, and fall is the best time for marathons. Also, I got to see Joan from WOG the night before, and that was great too. So it should have just been a nice day running, even if I didn't get the time I wanted.
The first part of the problem was-- I admit it! -- my fault. Even though the event website told us exactly how to get to the start line ("If coming from west of the Northeast Extension", etc), I was too lazy to look at a map to figure out what direction I was coming from and instead just used Google Maps to get directions to Lehigh Valley Hospital. (Quote from the Athlete Guide: "This net descent course starts marathon runners and relay teams at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, PA. Maybe an odd location to start, but it’s easy to find and has plenty of parking." Ha.) So I searched Lehigh Valley Hospital Allentown PA and my map told me I was only 1.7 miles from it. Perfect! I slept in till 5, and at 5:45 was turning into the hospital parking lot for a 7 a.m. start only... there was no one there. No race setup, no signs, no nothing. I was sitting in front of a giant neon sign that said "Lehigh Valley Hospital" but it was, obviously, the WRONG Lehigh Valley Hospital. Okay. This was a setback but I was still early and had plenty of time. I opened the Athlete Guide on my phone and typed in the name of the exit and found that I was 14 miles away. Well, geez! Who even knew that Allentown was that big. Anyway, it was all freeway so it went fast until I got about a mile from the exit. At that point traffic in the right lane stopped. There was no other traffic on I-78 except for traffic in the right lane. The backup started at the top of a huge hill and I could look down and see a long line of brake lights all the way to the exit. Well, actually three long lines of brake lights. One line in the right lane and the other two lines parallel to the right lane as drivers, desperate to get off at the exit, passed up as much of the line as they dared and then shoved in.
I sat in this bottleneck and at first told myself not to worry, it would move, but it didn't. It wasn't even creeping. It just wasn't moving at all. I decided someone must have been hit, and it must have been serious for traffic to be dead stopped for so long. It was 6:15, then 6:20, then 6:30. Parking lots were supposed to close at 6:40. Some runners (who presumably had other people driving them) were running along the side of the freeway. I thought about getting back on the freeway and going to the next exit and letting the GPS reroute me but then I realized with road closures and the way Pennsylvania roads just meander around in random directions that might just be making a bad situation worse, so stayed where I was. As terrible as it was, I began to think maybe I would just get out of doing this marathon! If I didn't get to the start line soon, I wouldn't be able to finish and get back in time to check out of the hotel. So maybe I could just NOT RUN! Go back to bed, have some more coffee, read my book, have a leisurely day with my friends in New Jersey, do the Pittsburgh Marathon later for my Pennsylvania race and just write this trip off as a visit to Jersey PERIOD.
Then traffic started moving at 6:40. Moving slowly, but moving. Bummer! By now I had almost accepted the idea that I wouldn't have to run, and now it looked like I was going to have to. I saw that some runners had parked their cars on the side of the freeway and left them there. I guess they were more concerned about missing the start than I was!
The assigned parking was closed by the time I pulled up at 6:55. I just parked in the first visitors lot I came to and then sprinted for the start line. I got there at 7:02 and stood just this side of the first timing chip mat adjusting my waistpack, setting up my music, etc while people yelled, "Go! Go!" and pointed at the start like I didn't know where it was. Do they not know about chip timing? I glanced at the Porta Potties and should have just stopped there! but I didn't. I was tired of being yelled at to GO and I figured I would just go on the course. (NOTE: starting a marathon without going to the bathroom -- especially after a giant cup of coffee -- is one of the dumbest things I have ever done. Did I think there wouldn't be an issue with that? Seriously?)
I have never started a marathon after the gun went off; it was a totally new experience. Kind of fun, actually, as I passed hundreds of people without hardly even trying in those first couple of miles. I was cranky because I had been thinking I was going to get out of running and now I had no choice but to run. Also I felt tired and out of breath from the beginning. (Probably those extra 15 pounds I'm carrying! All that junk food consumed in the process of fixing up the house, coming back to haunt me...) I can't even tell you what the course was like, really, except that it did have a lot of downhill. It was warm and humid. This would not have been the day to forget a sweat/spit rag and luckily for me I did not forget it. Eventually we wound up on a towpath running alongside a canal, and that was pretty. The footing was dirt and sometimes chipped asphalt, which I enjoyed but apparently a lot of people didn't (based on the reviews on marathonguide.com, which slammed the race for not warning people it was more like a trail race than a road race).
The course was shady and pretty but boring after a while. Flat, green, yes, pretty next to the water with steam rising off it but after that many miles you get tired of looking at anything no matter how pretty. The website had advertised aid stations every 1.5 to 2 miles but there was a stretch of almost 4 miles with no aid stations, between Miles 8 and 12. I would've been mad if I had been planning on a drink at Mile 10. That was really the only problem I had with the course itself.
Around the half-marathon mark we got to get off the water and briefly run through a park of 18th century industrial buildings in Bethlehem, which was cool. I really have always liked this part of Pennsylvania and wish I had had more time to look at stuff. My time at the half was 1:48, which was just under BQ pace, but I had felt crappy the whole time and knew I would slow down soon. It was back on the waterside path after that nice little break. I honestly don't remember much about the second half other than a general impression of shade, trees, water, and flat. Oh, except that I finally had to stop to pee at Mile 20. I could not believe I had waited that long! I must have the best bladder in the world.
By then I was still running only because I was so worried about getting back to the hotel (where Duncan had been in his crate since 5:30) and checking out in time. Nothing was really hurting and for once I wasn't nauseous. Oh, of course my legs felt like sticks of dead wood since they hadn't run this far in three months but I didn't have an injury. By the time I got to the finish I saw I would be just under 4 hours. My GPS said 3:56 but my chip time was 3:57:22. Not the time I wanted, but the time I deserved. (Actually BETTER than the time I deserved.) I didn't feel sick for once, and after picking up the unspectacular medal I went to look for food. There were granola bars and pretzels and that was it. I asked about fruit but the volunteers told me it was all gone and pointed at empty bags and boxes that used to have oranges and bananas. Gone? Finishing around 4 hours is not super impressive but it is not slow enough that all the fruit should be gone. On a hot day like this that was all I really wanted, so I took a couple water bottles and went in search of the shuttles.
After being directed to a completely wrong place by a volunteer, I finally wandered around enough to find the line, and right away got a bad feeling. Not only was the line incredibly long, it was in an active parking lot with cars constantly pulling in and out and with no shade at all. Marathoners and half-marathoners were in the same line and no one knew how often the shuttles were running. The guy in the front of the line had been there 45 minutes and had seen one shuttle. After 40 minutes in line, two shuttles pulled up, one giant charter bus and one the size of a paratransit bus. Luckily the giant one was for marathoners and the small one for half-marathoners. I made it onto the bus; it was standing room only and we were packed in there, which no one minded because at least we were not standing in that parking lot anymore.
The bus was like a sauna with all those people packed on. It reeked like... words fail me. Imagine a couple hundred runners having just finished a warm-weather marathon and then having stood in the sun for anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour and a half. It was not a good smell. Everyone was desperate for the bus to get going so the air could be turned on. Finally the bus pulled away from the curb and started crawling through the completely jammed up streets of Easton. Still no air. Everyone was playing with the vents above the seats but there was nothing, not even the tiniest movement of air. People yelled at the driver to turn on the air but we were in the back and couldn't hear his response and don't know if he even heard us. It was not possible to open the windows so eventually we gave up and just suffered. Those of us who were standing had to hold the handles above us to keep our balance and sweat just poured off of us. I watched the guy standing next to me drip sweat like a faucet on the guy sitting in the seat next to him. There was nothing anyone could do. Finally we got out of Easton and onto the freeway. I had never looked at the course map so didn't realize just how far we had to drive. Oh! 22 miles, said some guy who had his phone out. Everyone shut up when they heard that, thinking of enduring this bus for that long.
That shuttle ride was the single most miserable thing that has ever happened to me that was in any way related to a race. Other marathon problems -- freezing cold at the start line in Boston, that Sea World parking lot in San Diego, walking the entire Mt. Lemmon Marathon on a stress fracture -- NOTHING came close to this. It was hard to keep a lid on the sense of impending panic attack -- no way out, hard to breathe, intolerably hot, lots of other people in the same situation any one of whom might give in to the urge to panic and start a mass panic where people would get trampled... I truly believe that could have happened. It got worse when we finally got to our exit and people started mumbling, "Just open the doors and let us out! Hurry up, man!" I cannot describe the relief that everyone on that bus felt when they stepped out into the fresh air. That shuttle ride scarred me to the point that I not only have literally experienced it in a terrifying dream once already, but also I know that I will never, EVER get on a shuttle without assurance that the air is working. What excuse could there possibly be for not having any air moving? Not even a fan? I can't imagine.
Of course I had no idea where I left my car, AND I was desperate to get back to the motel for checkout, so I had to run through what felt like acres of parking lots until I finally stumbled on it mostly by luck. Just what I wanted to do after running a marathon -- run through parking lots! I made it back fine, I'm glad to have another state done, I was no more sore than usual, it was great to see Joan and my friends from Jersey, but that marathon I have to say was the worst marathon experience out of all the ones I have done, and that's saying something!