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.


1 comment:

  1. Love these race reports! The course sounds a little bit like the Zydeco, which I recently did (mid-March; Lafayette LA)—a very very smooth profile, loop course. The Missoula Marathon is one I would recommend too (mid-June), very scenic with the 'River Runs Through It', farmland, ending in a really neat downtown (point-to-point course).