Monday, May 30, 2016

Nice in a Blah Way -- Med City Marathon Race Report

This was, if not quite an impulse marathon, at least a last-minute marathon. It was drivable (9.5 hours each way = totally drivable by Marathon Maniac standards), cheap (only $85 even for last-minute registration), in a state I hadn't done yet (Minnesota), and smack in the middle of a holiday weekend, which meant I would have time to drive out, drive back, and still recover.  The reviews on Marathon Guide were mostly good. I had never been to Rochester, Minnesota, home of the Mayo Clinic, and probably (hopefully!) will never have any reason to go, so it was sort of a sightseeing trip, too. Also, I start teaching class at Leader on June 5, which means the whole month of June is pretty much shot as far as marathons go. The stars were lined up and I decided to go for it.

Will and I drove out on Saturday. It was a long drive. We had the dogs with us, which never makes for a really relaxing trip, but we figured that for one night it would be doable. Rochester really, really feels like the middle of nowhere. We drove and drove through what felt like a couple hundred miles of rolling green hills, farms, and big blue skies before we rolled into Rochester. I looked at the map and it didn't look like there was any civilization any closer than Minneapolis-St. Paul, which was still a good ways away. I cannot figure out how anyone decided to build a city here at all, let alone a world-famous medical clinic. At the same time, Rochester looks like a very... nice place. I mean nice in that bland, Midwestern way, the way that most of Michigan is also nice. People are friendly, scenery is pleasant if not exciting, there is a nice, sort-of-scenic river (with the cool name the Zumbro River) flowing through town with lots of parks and multi-use paths attached to it... but to me, places like that are neither exciting nor interesting. I would much rather live in gritty places with cars up on blocks in the yard and pitbulls behind chain link fences, where no one cares whether you're zoned for the animals that you have living in your backyard and where people have loud front yard parties that anyone strolling by on the street is invited to, and where no one complains if your dog barks because it's a dog and dogs bark. Rochester did not look like my kind of city at all, though I didn't spend a lot of time there and I'm sure it is a perfectly pleasant place to live.

I picked up my number while Will walked the dogs. I was surprised to find that you actually have to finish the race to get the T-shirt! That's different; usually they just hand you the shirt along with your number. (And one marathon, the First Light Marathon in Mobile, mailed me a finisher's shirt even though I never even started the race, or even went to Mobile on race weekend!) It probably goes without saying that the expo was small and I did not get any free food samples, nothing but a bag full of fliers for other races. (One of my personal pet peeves... such a waste of paper! I immediately go through those bags and dump every paper thing in the trash, and save the bag to use as my dirty laundry bag for the trip.)

We stayed in Motel 6, and that Motel 6 parking lot had to be the most ghetto place in Rochester. I'm always glad when I have Frieda to walk with in places like that. It's like walking through a crowd of vampires wearing a clove of garlic around my neck. Her alert and suspicious demeanor makes people cross over to the other side of the parking lot when they see us coming.

The race started at 7:00 a.m. at the elementary school in Byron, a town seven miles west of Rochester. My last three marathons have all been big urban ones with complicated logistics. This one was not complicated at all. We parked in the school parking lot, walked the dogs around, took part in the Maniacs pre-race picture. There were plenty of Porta-Potties, or you could use the bathrooms in the school. It was warm and humid, but there was a nice tail wind blowing, which I was very grateful for because I am not acclimated to humidity at all! I mean, two weeks ago I was running through snow flurries. It's never a good sign when you're sweating at the start line of a marathon. It reminded me of the Shires of Vermont Marathon last May. That had not been a pleasant experience and I really hoped this one would be better.

The first seven miles into town were on rolling hills through farm country. We were running right into the sunrise and I was pouring sweat. Still, I was keeping up with the 1:45 half pace group. 1:45 was my half time in both Atlanta and Boston, and, while I had no specific time goal for this marathon other than to hopefully be under four hours, I would like to keep my B.Q. streak alive if possible. There were early signs that that wasn't going to happen. For one, I was thirsty, really thirsty, so thirsty that I deviated from my set-in-stone fueling pattern and had water at Mile Six rather than waiting till somewhere between Eight and Nine and having water with my first Gu. For another, I was cranky about running into the sun and about how much sweating I was doing. I brushed those feelings aside and told myself I was always cranky in the beginning of a race and that I should feel lucky because nothing was hurting and because my stomach felt fine. Also, I should feel lucky because Will was going to be at Mile Nine. (Another nice thing about a small race: easy for spectators to see you multiple times on the course.)

We were back in town now, running around the place where the expo had been yesterday and close to where I knew the finish line was. This was one of those races where you're close to the finish line and then sent out on another loop away from it. I hate those! When I know the finish line is close, I just want to cross it and be done. But I kept going because I knew I would see Will soon. Sure enough! He was on the grass next to the multi-use path we were now running on, playing the ukulele. We had discussed this before the race and I told him if there was one thing that would not be out of place on a a marathon course, it would be a guy playing a ukulele. He had been dubious about that, but there he was with the ukulele. "Hi, baby!" was all I managed to say as I ran by. "Is that your boyfriend?" asked another girl who was running with me. "Yup," I said. "You're lucky," she said. "My husband won't even come to my races." This is a really, really common thing I hear from tons of runners! I never expect Will to be supportive of my marathons -- he is totally entitled to his own interests and hobbies -- and yet he is, like, the best and most dedicated race sherpa ever. I have no idea why I am so lucky. It just goes to show that the world is not, in fact, a fair place, because if it was, there is no way I would have a boyfriend as good as Will.

Anyway, I had had my first Gu and should have been feeling good, but instead I was feeling cranky. The course went through a nice but boring residential neighborhood, then back into a park for more path. Then back downtown. The half-marathoners had been with us this whole time. As we approached Mile 13, they kept going straight and the full marathoners turned left, away from downtown. I did not want to make that turn! I thought to myself, what if I just run straight, pick up my half medal, call it a day? Come back to Minnesota later for Grandma's or Twin Cities. But I knew that wouldn't happen. I was going to cross Minnesota off my map for good today no matter what.

My half time was 1:47. Will was at Mile 14 playing the ukulele again. He asked how my time was and I said it was fine right now but it was about to go bust. I whined that I was tired and didn't feel like running. Oh! I forgot to mention that my new wireless earbuds had died after less than an hour and a half. The same earbuds that I can use for an hour and a half working out in the morning, then put in my purse for the whole day, then use for another hour after work doing housework. I have no idea what happened with those. I gave them to Will and accepted the fact that I would be doing the rest of the run without music.

The route headed out of town. Multi-use path running along the river, no spectators, few other runners. I had just passed the Mile 15 banner when, right after that, I saw the Mile 25 banner. Suddenly I realized what kind of course this was -- a long out-and-back on a mostly-empty path, my least favorite! Oh, man. I wish I had known this before signing up for this race. The thing is, the path was beautiful. It was shady and green and the river was making nice happy burbling noises off to the side. But there was nothing else to look at. There were even some runners out there not participating in the marathon, just out for their regular runs. Oh, how I hate this kind of course! It's pretty much a supported training run as opposed to a marathon. I tried to calculate how far to the turnaround but I suck at math, and couldn't figure it out. A long way is all I could come up with. No music, no scenery, no spectators.

The rest of the race was pretty much a drag. I was wrong about one thing -- it wasn't just an out and back. It was like four miles of path, then a couple miles of highway. Sunny, exposed highway that made me grateful to be back on the path. I was drinking like crazy at every aid station, water and Gatorade both, and still thirsty. I even took two salt caps, which I haven't done in a long time. I walked after Mile 21. I texted Will and told him I wasn't even sure I would be under four hours. He told me to take my time. Then a girl ran past me and said, "You're a Maniac, you shouldn't be walking!" I said, "You have a point," and started slow-jogging, although, actually, she did not have a point. Lots and lots of Maniacs walk. There are pretty much always more Maniacs in the back than in the front. I told myself that if I ever felt close to puking, I was going to walk again. A sub-4:00 finish was not worth it if it came at the cost of me puking. (Although I have considered the possibility of, after finishing all 50 states, going back and doing a sub-4:00 marathon in all 50. Out of my 34 marathons, exactly half have been under four hours. Not that I'm planning on doing that for sure, but just in case...)

The course slowly headed back towards town. I realized I would be under four hours unless something terrible happened. I kept jogging. That last mile seemed endless! I could hear the finish line noise but it didn't seem to be getting any closer, and even the timer on my Garmin seemed to be dragging. Finally I was crossing the river one more time and headed for the finish line. There was a Jumbo Tron and the announcer was calling out everyone's name as they finished. I know exactly what he said about me only because Will was recording it on video; I was totally out-of-it and not thinking of anything other than stopping running. What the guy said was this: "And this is number 17, Christie Bane, from Madison Heights, Michigan. She's a Marathon Maniac! These folks do a bunch of marathons in a row! I'd love to talk to that gal and find out when the last time she did a marathon was. It was probably last week. Maybe even yesterday!" Ha ha! No, sir, actually a month ago.

I managed to finish with an official time of 3:52:32, a respectable time though not great. I felt terrible, hot and dehydrated and not quite all the way there mentally. I didn't look at the medal or the shirt until we were back at the car, and answering Will's questions seemed like a lot of effort. I couldn't even drink my post-race chocolate milk till I was back at the car reclining with my feet up, unlike the past several races where I've chugged it as soon as they handed it to me.

People seem to love this marathon on Marathon Guide, but I guess I'm just not a fan of nice little hometown races, because it was one of my least favorites, right along with Lehigh Valley, Trailbreaker, New Mexico Marathon, and Narragansett. I need either really stunning scenery or an exciting urban course to really like a marathon. I will give them points for organization and friendliness, but there is no way I would ever do this marathon again. Oh well, on to the next one! Right now I have nothing on my calendar till the Extraterrestrial Marathon in August, and the saddest thing ever is that in my time off after class -- June 25th through July 5th -- there is not a single marathon that will help me in my 50 states quest! Is that a bummer or what?

34 states down, 16 to go. I'm getting there!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Pacing in the Rain -- The Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon Race Report

State #33, Marathon #42, second marathon leading a pace group, and it was going to be a wet one. Possibly a wet one with thunder and lightning, no one knew for sure, but we all knew we were going to get rained on. The forecast had been unchanging in that regard for the ten days leading up to the race. I have led a pretty charmed running life, weather-wise. Out of 41 marathons, only three of them had any significant amount of rain -- St. George in 2008, and New Hampshire and Maine in 2011. I had begun to think that my presence at a marathon was a sort of charm protecting everyone in it from icky weather. Wrong! My streak is now broken.

I had two worries going into this run. One was the blister on the sole of my foot. I had run Boston in totally dead shoes, which left my legs and feet feeling like they had been beaten by boards for several days afterwards. So I bought new shoes, the same make and model I've been running in for years, no break-in time ever required, but I took them for a break-in run anyway, six miles. And I got a blister. A giant blister right in the center of the sole of my foot. That was a painful sucker that made working dogs really, really painful last week. Along about Wednesday, it dawned on me that the blister might cause a problem during the marathon. So I taped it up and hoped for the best. The other problem was this cold or maybe bronchitis by now, not sure which. I had it before Boston, I had it during Boston, I've had it since Boston, and I have it now as I'm sitting here typing this. Nothing terrible, just enough to annoy me and to make me not look forward to waking up every morning with a sore throat. I'd been hacking up gobs of green stuff for the week leading up to the marathon and wasn't sure what I would do with that stuff -- as in, where would I spit it? -- during the marathon. If there's a group of people following me, where does the spit go? I figured, worst case scenario I could spit into my shirt. It wouldn't be the first time.

This was a quick trip down to Louisville and back. One perk of being a pacer is that I get to stay in the host hotel, which in this case was the Galt House, a semi-fancy, historic hotel right on the Ohio River and walking distance to everything race-related -- expo, start line, finish line. (When I go to marathons by myself, I stay in Motel 6 or Red Roof.) I have actually stayed at the Galt House before, many years ago for a convention, but I remembered almost nothing about it. It's very nice. It is actually two towers, one on each side of the street, connected by a skyway with an atrium full of cool things like a giant enclosure full of canaries and a glass-topped bar with fish swimming under the glass. I checked in and as I was walking across the skyway to get to my room in the other tower, guess who I spotted lounging in a chair with a drink in his hand but John from my old running group in Tucson! John is a long-time pacer and I probably would not have ever become a pacer myself if not for him. I took my stuff up to my room and then walked over to the expo with John. The pre-race email had said that all the pacers were supposed to get to the pace team booth at the expo as soon as we could, to talk to runners and encourage them to join a pace group.

I think I get how pace teams are organized, sort of. I am pretty sure that sometimes a race will hire a "professional" pace team and other times they will designate a local person in charge of assembling a pace team (as opposed to using a pre-existing one). The first time I led a pace group, in Harrisburg, it was for an organized pace team, Marathon Pacing. The guy in charge of that group was very specific with how he wanted me to prepare for the marathon, when we were all meeting and where, what to do if we had a bad day and couldn't keep pace, et cetera. Pacers from Marathon Pacing lead pace groups at races all over the country. I heard about the chance to lead the pace group for this marathon in a Facebook group, and jumped on it right away because I needed Kentucky as a state and because it was easy logistics-wise, definitely the shortest drive of all the states I have left. Anyway, beyond the vague instruction to meet at the pace booth when I arrived in town, I really didn't have any other directives from this guy.

When I arrived at the expo, I got my number and my race shirt and also my pacer shirt. That was kind of cool -- a dark blue, almost purple, tech shirt with the marathon logo on the front in orange and the word PACER on the back in giant orange block letters. I liked the pacer shirt much better than the race shirt, which was the same blue as Ann Arbor and Lehigh, a color I definitely don't need more of in my running wardrobe. I also picked up the pace group sign. The last one was like a big laminated square with the goal time, 4:30, on one side and the pace, 10:18, on the other, and it had a really long stick. This one was more like a thick, heavy-duty, cardboard-like rectangle on a very short dowel. It was heavier than the other one, and the length of the dowel meant that whoever was holding the sign up had to hold their arm up high too, and therefore work harder. Several people made the observation that this sign, if used as a spanking paddle, would be able to deliver quite a satisfying crack.

One other new thing about pacing this marathon was that each group had two pace leaders. This was a tiny relief. I mean, I know I can do 4:30 with minimal or no trouble, but still... what if something went wrong? How nice to know if I had to make an unexpected stop, I had someone else to take over for me! Male pacers way, way outnumbered women, at least 5:1. This was fine with me. My co-pacer was named Jarrod and the first thing I noticed when he showed up at the booth was that he was hot, which was nice. I mean, he is married with children but still, any run is better in the company of a good-looking man.

Our pacer perks, in addition to free registration and free hotel, also included free pasta dinner. The pasta was good, nothing fancy, but unlimited, which was cool. I ate double helpings of chicken alfredo and four or five pieces of French bread. But the best part of this pasta dinner (except for the free booze, which I did not touch out of fear of causing problems the next day) was the Derby pie. It's kind of like a pecan pie with chocolate chips in it. I was only going to eat one or two little squares -- still haven't forgotten what happened when I ate that giant bread pudding before Rehoboth in December -- but then someone brought a plate of the squares to the table, and then John kept insisting that I eat more. So I ended up eating like nine or ten of them. Probably the equivalent of half a pie. I waddled out of that expo and up to my hotel room.

I had a roommate, and her stuff was in the room, but she wasn't. There was just a note saying she might be in late. Fine with me. I got everything ready for the next day and then had some whiskey with John. Whiskey is the only alcohol I actually enjoy the taste of. It was actually very peaceful sitting way high up in Galt House drinking whiskey and looking down at the Ohio River far below. Weather was gorgeous and I only wished it would be the same on race day.

We actually did get a little lucky with the weather in that it was not raining at the start line. I had come prepared with a trash bag but I didn't need it. This race starts and finishes downtown. It is a good-sized race, with 16,000 between the full and half. The full and half course are the same until the split between Mile Eight and Mile Nine. The start area was very crowded. Jarrod and I stood in our assigned corral, D, and took turns twirling the sign around and holding it up high. We had a pretty large and friendly group of people with us. Lots of first-timers, one of them a 16-year-old girl named Nicole. Her mom introduced her to us and told us that she also barrel-raced horses at home and this was her first marathon. I thought back to what I was doing at 16. Mostly reading, playing with my dogs, and wishing I could get a boyfriend and that I was more popular. I looked at Nicole and said, "You are going to have a very interesting life," and she and her mom both laughed. Jarrod and I did not really have a strategy. My strategy was keep an eye on my watch and confirm we're in the ballpark when I see the mile marker sign approaching. Jarrod had more experience than me as a pacer but did not seem to have any strong opinions about how things should be done. We decided randomly that we would switch off holding the pacer sign at 3-mile intervals. That would just be one more thing to make the miles go by faster, and finishing a marathon for me is all about breaking it into small chunks. Never, ever think of the full distance.

As we shuffled up to the start line with the crowd, both of us had our fingers poised on our GPS buttons. We pushed them at the same time as we crossed the start line mat. We heard them both beep as they started. But somehow, when we got to the first mile marker, mine was six seconds slower than his. At the second mile marker, mine was twelve seconds slower. Even more confusing, our distances were exactly the same. What the hell? We tried to figure out how to explain the difference. Distance variations are just a part of GPS. But the timer should have been exactly the same. We decided to go with his since the potential consequences of trusting mine if it was off were worse than the potential consequences of trusting his. Still, it was not a great way to start off a race. We had to spend our time having serious, important pacer conversations instead of being entertaining and encouraging for our group.

The course took us out of downtown and into a residential neighborhood full of trees (and how nice it was to see trees with leaves on them, instead of the dead sticks we still have here in Michigan!) and beautiful old houses. The rain held off until Mile Six and then it started to come down, a gentle, warm drizzle at first, not bad. We knew it was going to rain and were mostly relieved that we had been dry at the start line and for six miles of the race. We were also relieved that it was warm rain, still well over 60 degrees out, and not windy at all. Still, I was glad I had a baseball cap with a brim, because it was clear my rain-free marathon streak had come to an end. Those dark grey clouds were clearly here to stay.

This would be a good place to say that this was one of my favorite courses ever, in terms of being easy and comfortable to run. There were very slight, gradual rises and downslopes, but almost nothing that beat up your body. At the same time, the very slight changes in elevation worked different muscle groups so nothing got sore. The scenery was pleasant in a sort of dull way, with two exceptions. One was Iroquois Park, a 3-mile loop through a park between Mile Twelve and Mile Fifteen. Everyone talked about "the hill" in Iroquois Park, which appeared as a giant spike in the elevation profile. But that giant spike was only 200 feet of elevation gain. It was an easy climb after Boston and Atlanta. And the scenery was terrific. It was almost like a redwood forest even though the trees weren't redwoods. I felt like I was in a scene from prehistoric times, running through an ancient, misty fern forest, like I might see a pterodactyl soaring overhead or something. The park was something new to look at, somewhere to stretch out our legs, and a mental accomplishment to check off once we were done.

The other spectacular thing about this course is that it went through Churchill Downs. Not actually on the track, but all around it. There was a Jumbo Tron with giant Thoroughbreds galloping on it, and then there were actual Thoroughbreds out training on the track. We watched them through a curtain of falling rain. ACTUAL race horses with ACTUAL jockeys! I know I was not the only one whose inner horse-crazy girl was awakened briefly. Talk about a unique marathon feature! I may forget everything else about this marathon but I will never forget Churchill Downs.

After Churchill Downs, the marathon and half-marathon split. And, really, nothing much happened for the rest of the marathon. We stayed right on pace. (Well, almost right on. We had a cushion of about a minute.) We traded the sign every three miles. We walk-jogged through water stops. We had a big group and they kept saying very nice things about us. It rained steadily but not in a way that made us miserable. The course was pleasant, pleasant, pleasant. Hardly any spectators because of the rain, but we had plenty of company. We headed back towards downtown and the last four-mile loop we had to do before the finish. It headed into a grittier part of town -- older houses in not quite as good shape as the other neighborhoods, more cars up on blocks, some abandoned buildings that made me feel like I was back in Detroit -- in other words, the kind of neighborhood I would want to buy a house in if I lived in Louisville. Then, with about four miles to go, the rain changed from friendly to a downpour. It wasn't fun anymore. I was keenly aware that it would be physically possible for me to sprint for the finish and be there ten minutes faster than I would be if I stuck to pace. I grimly pushed that thought out of my head and encouraged the people in our group to go for it if they had anything left. Instead of going faster, we had to slow down and burn up our one-minute cushion. As we headed down the last stretch into town, we looked sadly at all the deserted bleachers that had been set up for spectators. The most pathetic sign we saw was one couple sitting on an otherwise deserted stand of bleachers. The last couple feet of the bleacher seats were under an overpass, and that's where this couple was sitting, bundled up in raingear but still wet, holding up a sign that said "Go Jenn!" Oh, rain, you suck.

We crossed the finish line at 4:29:33, pretty close to perfect. (Perfect would have been 4:29:30.) We didn't have any of our original group with us -- some had left us in the dust, others had fallen off the back. The medal was nice. It had a map of the city engraved on it with the marathon route highlighted. We didn't want to linger in the rain. We both had to get on the road as quickly as possible, so we found the guy in charge of pacers, returned the sign, picked up as much free food as we could carry, and slogged through the muddy field that was supposed to be the finish line festival and back to where our cars were parked.

Running in the rain will never be my favorite, but I do feel like more of a badass for doing it, so it is not entirely without merit. This was a very nice marathon, well-organized, just the right size, a really comfortable course, and of course an awesome run through Churchill Downs. It's a solid choice for Kentucky.

What's next? I don't know, nothing on my official calendar until Extraterrestrial Marathon in Nevada in August and then I-35 Challenge (back-to-back Kansas City, MO, and Des Moines in October), but we all know I won't go that long without a marathon. I'm thinking about maybe doing Med City in Rochester, MN, Memorial Day weekend. Still looking for a late-June, July, or maybe September marathon; any suggestions? With 17 states to go, I'm itching to get some more done.