Sunday, October 11, 2015

Hartford Marathon Race Report -- A Surprisingly Cool City, and a Surprisingly Great Marathon!

Connecticut: State #29, Marathon #36. Throughout the month between Pocatello and now, I wasn’t sure this marathon was going to happen at all (or the Rhode Island one tomorrow). I have been dealing with a constant, chronic, low-grade Achilles tendon problem, or maybe plantar fasciitis, or maybe both at the same time. I’ve been foam rolling, stretching, icing, taping, wearing a night splint… pretty much everything except resting the foot and going to a doctor. When I finish a day of training dogs, I am so sore I take the elevator from the second to the first floor, and I park myself on the couch as soon as I get home and don’t get up other than to hobble to the bathroom and to bed. But I had pretty much decided that if I could walk at all, I was going to at least do my Saturday marathon. If the foot blew up, I could skip Rhode Island with no shame at all. (There is no shame not starting; to me that is different than a DNF. Not that there is any shame in that either, I just have never had one in 75+ races, so I don’t want to start now.) So when I could still walk on Thursday, I knew I was heading east on Friday as planned.

One thing that made this marathon weekend extra special was that I was going to finally get to see Fidelco, the guide dog school in Bloomfield, Connecticut, that breeds and trains only German shepherds. I lived in New York and New Jersey for seven years, but somehow had never seen Fidelco. Will came with me this weekend for the road trip, and he contacted Fidelco to ask if we could stop by and see the place while we were in town. They said sure. Then they went a step further and invited us to their pre-marathon lunch. It turns out that “Team Fidelco” was one of the official race charities. I wish I knew that before; I totally would have joined Team Fidelco! It’s just that the intersection of my career with my marathon hobby is practically nonexistent, so it never would have occurred to me to think that the two had a connection. Anyway, everyone we met at Fidelco was very nice. And they have some beautiful shepherds. I have always thought they have the nicest-looking shepherds in the business (not to impugn any of the beautiful Seeing Eye, GEB, and Leader shepherds I know). We got to see their facility, have lunch with other GDMI’s, and play with a litter of shepherd puppies ready to go to their puppy raisers this weekend. Much appreciation to Fidelco for the warm welcome and the puppy fix!

This marathon had a good-sized expo right in the middle of downtown. I bought a new case for my iPhone that hopefully will actually fit and not migrate down my arm to my wrist even when it’s on the tightest setting, and also these great flip-flops with a big, gently cushioned arch support. Around the house I usually wear my 2011 Boston Marathon flip-flops, which are thin-soled and have as much cushioning as five-year-old flip-flops that see heavy use could be expected to have. I slipped these new ones on my feet and it was like I could hear my feet singing “Thank you!” They cost $40 but are probably worth it because I am not going to stop wearing flip-flops around the house and I’m sure that habit is not helping my foot problems. I put the new ones on at the expo and have not taken them off other than to actually run the marathon and sleep since then.

We stayed at Motel 6 because of the dogs. It is $50 a night for a reason. It is the kind of place where I don’t go anywhere, not even to the vending machine, without Frieda (the criminal element retreats from her like vampires from garlic), and after returning from a stay at this motel, I suspect I would fail a drug test even though I myself did not smoke anything. But, it is cheap and walking distance to lots of different restaurants, so for that I can put up with the unsavory environment.

The marathon had an 8:00 a.m. start, which was nice because it meant we got to sleep in. Marathon weather was perfect – 50 at the start, low 60’s at the finish, sunny with a light breeze. New England colors are spectacular this weekend – orange and red everywhere – and Hartford is really kind of a pretty city. I never thought it was, but then I never spent any time there either. They have an actual living downtown, and really nice parks along the Connecticut River. There were plenty of parking lots, garages, and street parking, all clearly labeled on the map they gave us, so finding parking was no problem at all. This is the biggest marathon I’ve done since Nashville, and I like big marathons. There is something about the energy of many thousands of runners coming together, especially in the heart of a big city like Hartford, that creates a spectacle just not present at Pocatellos and Grandfather Mountains and Deadwoods, not that I didn’t enjoy all of those, because I did.

Right before the gun went off, the race director announced there were people here today from 46 states, as well as three people finishing their 50 States quests here. I have always planned my 50th to be Honolulu, but Honolulu is a super popular final marathon for 50 Staters, and I kind of wish I had held out NYC or Chicago instead of doing them first. Or maybe I should finish in North Dakota or Oklahoma or some other random place instead of Hawaii? Something to think about.

Anyway, the gun went off and we started. My plan was to run at a pace that 1) didn’t hurt my feet, and 2) kept me breathing easy, so that I would have something left for tomorrow in Rhode Island. I planned this to be a 4½ -5 hour marathon. But within the first mile it was clear that my feet weren’t bothering me at all. I sped up a little but not much. A marathon is an entirely different experience when you run it completely unconcerned with your time – almost enjoyable. Miles ticked off without me really paying attention. The first couple miles were in the city itself, and heavy on screaming spectators, which was great. Then we went into one of the parks along the Connecticut River, also great. I passed one of the 50 State finishers. She was wearing a laminated tag that said “Finishing my 50th State today!” and everyone was congratulating her. I congratulated her too, and said, “I want to be you some day.” I do; I am becoming obsessed with the thought of how it’s going to feel to finish this crazy quest. This year I will have done eight marathons (and I’m not promising I won’t sneak in one more state before the end of the year, like maybe Rehoboth Beach in Delaware in December), twice as many as I’ve done any other year. It would actually be possible logistically to finish in Honolulu in December 2017, though I’m not sure if I can afford to do that or not.

A good chunk of this marathon is a long, long out-and-back through a residential area, something like nine miles total. I was dreading this part because I hate out-and-backs, but it turned out to be awesome. The area and houses were beautiful, and the community was totally into the race, with more spectators than I’ve seen in a long time, maybe more than I’ve seen at any race all year. Lots of them were having neighborhood yard parties, offering all kinds of food, et cetera. We had a headwind on the “out” part but it was barely noticeable because the course was so flat. Other than a few little climbs, like on-ramps and bridge approaches, this is a flat course, and I think it could easily be a BQ course.

On both the “out” and the “back” parts, I passed a lot of Maniacs coming the other direction. That was fun. I love being a Maniac and meeting other crazy Maniacs. I love it so much that I am taking the time to do laundry tonight just so I can wear my Maniac shirt again tomorrow.

I hit Mile 20 feeling great. In fact, the whole race I never had one moment of feeling bad. No pain, no nausea, no cramps, not hot, not cold, not even tired. At Mile 22 and Mile 24 I was still feeling strong. I hadn’t looked at my watch but knew I had passed the 4:00 pace group a while back. While some part of me thought, “Oops, I should have run this slower”, another part of me knew that I had not pushed myself at all the whole race. Considering that, and the flatness of the course, and the total absence of any pain, I think (hope) that I did not make any gross errors in judgment that would make me unable to finish the Ocean State Marathon tomorrow. I guess we will see tomorrow!

At Mile 25 we ran up and over the Founders Bridge back into the city. Downtown Hartford looked clean and sparkly in the clear fall air, and was a beautiful and motivating sight. I passed people right and left during the last two miles, and got down below 8:00 pace, still feeling good. I just couldn’t believe how good I felt. I have the feeling that in my race pictures, for once, there will be more pictures of me smiling than of me wearing my usual grimace of pain. We finished in Bushnell Park by running under the arch, which was a great finish and absolutely packed with spectators. I was handed not only a medal but also a heat sheet (which I haven’t gotten at any other marathon this year – I wonder why?) and a snack bag with a brownie, granola bar, pack of almond butter, and fruit cup. Then I walked through the athlete’s food tent, where I got a banana, a cup of chili, a piece of cheese, two pieces of pumpkin bread, a bottle of chocolate milk, and a cornbread pancake. I ate all of those things voraciously while icing my foot, even though I didn’t feel like I needed the ice. I was ravenously hungry and didn’t have a reason not to inhale the food since my stomach felt totally fine. Presumably, unlike that poor guy who finished at the same time as me and leaned over the ropes on the side and threw up an unbelievable amount. I just averted my eyes, kept walking, and focused on my accomplishment – 3:52, my second-best time this year, no injury, not even a moment of discomfort. Go me!

I am now in my motel room writing this and icing again although I still feel pretty good. I feel like I CAN run another marathon tomorrow, but that is not quite the same as saying I want to. I don’t want to. But I do want to check it off my list, and I do feel like I can finish it. We’ll see. Meanwhile, Hartford is a solid choice for Connecticut. I don’t think it would be possible to find a nicer marathon than this one in Connecticut, at least for people who like big crowds and urban marathons.

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