Monday, January 9, 2017

Supposed to Be #2 of a Back-to-Back, Ended Up Being Just Another Marathon -- First Light Marathon Race Report

That first hour on the road between Jackson and Mobile was terrifying, but once I was a little further south, the ice and snow were all gone, the sun was out, and it was a beautiful, if cold, day in the South. The ice and snow were just a memory. By the time I parked outside the expo in downtown Mobile, I could almost forget it was January except for the harsh wind that slapped me in the face as soon as I got out of the car. Oh well. I do not like wind, at all; I consider it one of the most demoralizing weather conditions to run in, but I would take it if it meant I got to take home at least one medal this weekend.

I had never been to Mobile. Forgive me for saying that I expect mid-size southern cities to be crappy – poor, ugly, not well-maintained, et cetera. This does NOT include Atlanta, which is fast becoming one of my favorite cities, or Nashville. I’m talking about the Birminghams and Little Rocks and Jacksonvilles and Montgomeries, and yes, I know there are awesome parts of every one of those cities but that does not keep my overall impression from being “crappy”. I expected Mobile to be this way too, because why wouldn’t it be? But no. It was clean, cute, historic, and had a downtown that would have been highly walkable if not for the frigid temperatures.

The First Light Marathon benefits the L’Arche charity in Mobile, an organization that provides services to adults with developmental disabilities. The medals are handmade by L’Arche clients. This is generally considered to be something that makes this race special. Marathonguide and other race review sites are loaded with comments about how these handmade medals are so much more meaningful than other races’ medals. I am an asshole because I don’t want my medal to be handmade by anyone, but especially not by an adult with a developmental disability. I cannot believe the number of people who could put a handmade medal side-by-side with, say, a Rock and Roll medal and say that the handmade one is superior. So I was not excited about the medal, but did not, of course, say so to anyone at the expo. They had also handmade a canvas… thing, I guess a plaque of some kind, with canvas stretched tight over a frame and painted in tie dye colors, for all Back 2 Back finishers. On the back of the plaque was a biography of the L’Arche client that had made that plaque. I felt like even more of an asshole for not going, “Awwwww,” about the plaque, but I did smile and say “Thank you.”

I was staying at the Holiday Inn downtown, which was one of the host hotels and was a block from the start line and like eight blocks from the finish line. I sat in the lobby and wrote my blog about yesterday’s race that didn’t happen while the hotel steadily filled up with runners. Lots of them were wearing the Mississippi Blues jacket, as was I. Hey, it is a nice, warm jacket and every time another guest came into the lobby, an icy blast of wind entered with them, so I needed the warmth.

Downtown Mobile had lots of restaurants that looked awesome, but I decided to eat in the Holiday Inn restaurant because I was too cold to go out. The night before in Jackson, I had eaten at the best marathon restaurant I’d ever eaten at, and last night in the Holiday Inn, I ate at the worst one. I ordered chicken alfredo, which should have been safe. They brought out a giant pile of linguini smothered in lumpy, room temperature cheese sauce with two thin, floppy chicken breasts the exact size of tilapia fillets perched on top. The whole mess was sprinkled with some kind of orange seasoning. I was dismayed to see that the chicken wasn’t cut up – you’d think for $17 they would have. I cut it up with resignation. My steak knife had a lot of trouble getting through the chicken. That was because it was the consistency of a rubber dog toy. Not a Kong, but the kind that costs $1 at the dollar store, the kind that no responsible dog owner would give their dog. If you had handed me a frozen chicken breast and said, “Cook this to the texture of rubber,” I would not have had the faintest idea how to proceed. The linguini was edible, barely. The chicken, no way. The waitress was so nice and overly helpful I did not have the heart to tell her how awful it was. I just asked for a box, trashed it on the way out, and dined on Sun Chips, Snackwells, and microwave popcorn from the machine for my pre-race dinner.

The morning was chilly, 24, with a 10 mph wind blowing but I had the clothes for it so I was okay. There are so many good things about having a hotel right by the start line! I got to relax in my 79-degree bedroom and read and drink coffee and use my own bathroom rather than a stinking, freezing, dark Porta pottie. The race was supposed to start at 7:30. I went down to the lobby at 7:15, and out to the start line at 7:25. Somewhere in there, I realized two things: 1) I hate winter races, and 2) I was so relieved that I was not starting the race on dead legs from the B2B, that I was GLAD the Blues was cancelled yesterday. Actively glad, not just accepting-the-cancellation-because-it-was-the-right-thing-to-do. Furthermore, I am not going to do any more B2B’s. I have a good job, I have disposable income, and I am almost done with the states, and I don’t have to do B2B’s! That’s it. No more. I stood and shivered on the start line and thought about how I didn’t want to do this race, but I did want the medal. I knew I was going to do it, but I wasn’t going to enjoy it.

The first part of the course went through some beautiful historic neighborhoods, with old, grand houses and giant, moss-covered oak trees. Then we went out onto a main road. There is a big gap in my memory as to what was between the main road and the I-65 overpass at Mile 10 or so. The course was flat until the overpass. Then we got to a couple of hills in a row that climbed around a park and golf course. The scenery was beautiful and I welcomed the hills to stretch out my legs. Despite the beautiful route, I was so not into the whole thing. I was stressed about a lot of things: whether I would finish in time to shower at my hotel (they wouldn’t give me a later checkout time than noon, which I think is pretty crappy for a host hotel), whether I would feel sick during the 4.5-hour drive to Atlanta, whether my flight would be delayed and I would have to worry about the dogs being stuck at home alone since Will left to go to California. My foot hurt but no more than it always hurts just walking around. Mostly I just didn’t want to be outside in the cold. It wasn’t even that cold, relatively speaking, high 20’s; I was just cranky because it was January and I knew that the next week temps would be in the 70’s every day down here and it just wasn’t fair. I could not imagine how bad I would have felt if I had run a marathon the previous day, especially one in weather as shitty as it was in Jackson.

After the golf course, the course went through the University of South Alabama, which was gorgeous and totally, 100% empty. Not a single person was moving around outside other than race volunteers and runners. Then came The Hill at Mile 18. This one was steep enough that it was referred to as The Hill or the big hill on most of the race reviews. Right before it was an aid station serving chicken broth. Oh yeah! Is chicken broth not the perfect winter marathon aid station food? Warm, salty, bland, totally balances out the viscous GU. I would like to say the chicken broth gave me wings and I was able to fly up that hill, but that would be a lie. I ran some and walked some just like everyone else.

There was lots and lots of downhill after The Hill, but I didn’t even enjoy that. My foot hurt, my IT band was twinging, and my guts hurt, like I’d been brutally beaten instead of just run 20 miles. Something definitely felt biomechanically off. I was running on old, pretty dead shoes because the orthotics in the new ones I bought last week didn’t feel quite right, so maybe that was it. No matter what the reason, when I got to Mile 20 I started really thinking about time. I was at 2:55, which meant sub-4:00 should be easily attainable. All I had to do was keep 10-minute/mile pace. But I was sore and now my stomach was sort of bothering me too. I always say I don’t care what my finish time is, but lately I have been caring, and really wanting to always be under four hours. There is a thing called 50 Sub-4:00, which is running a sub-4:00 marathon in all 50 states. I’m not saying that I’m taking that on after I finish my 50 states, but I’m also not saying I’m not. (Not that I’m counting, but I have sub-4:00 finishes in 20 of the 39 states I’ve completed so far. That means 19 I would have to repeat.  If I was going to do that.) I always say it’s not worth it to me to get a good time if it means I will feel bad afterwards, especially not today with a 5-hour drive right after the race.  But I wanted that sub-4:00 and so I kept going. The last few miles of the course were a repeat of a section we had already done, one of the most boring sections of the course, so it was even more difficult to stay motivated, but I managed.

As I got into the downtown area, I saw that it was going to be close. When I most wanted to slow down, I had to speed up. Well, okay, I did, and squeaked in with a time of 3:58:51. Totally unimpressive, but at least I was under 4:00. I got my medal, which did not look handmade (and I mean that as a compliment), and also my back-to-back medal even though I didn’t do the back-to-back. Now THAT is a nice medal, a shiny blue and yellow spinner medal with Alabama on one side and Mississippi on the other.  Too bad I didn’t really earn it!

This race is supposed to have great post-race food. I guess the people who say that like red beans and rice more than I do. All I ever want post-race is chocolate milk and they did not have any. Hot chocolate is not the same. I took a corn muffin and jogged back to my hotel in an effort to get a shower before they kicked me out at 12:00. The corn muffin crumbled apart in my hand but I didn’t really care because I didn’t want it anyway. I got into my hotel at 11:41, in the shower at 11:44, and walked out my door at 11:58. Housekeeping was lurking outside my door like they were ready to knock at exactly 12:00. I was more proud of my record-breaking shower than I was of my race time.

The 4.5-hour drive back to Atlanta took 6.5 hours because I had painful, nauseating hiccups the entire way, and had to take several breaks to put my seat back and my feet up. Reclining made the hiccups go away, but they came back as soon as I sat up again. I hope that the next time I think about saving a couple hundred bucks by getting a cheap plane ticket that requires several hours of post-race driving, I remember how much fun that drive from Mobile to Atlanta was not.

This was supposed to be States #39 and 40 and Marathons #48 and 49, but it only turned out to be State #39 and Marathon #48. For some reason, missing out on Mississippi has fueled a reckless, budget-ignoring passion to do MORE races this year. All of the states! Not really; Hawaii and New Jersey for sure and most likely Mississippi, Florida, and Kansas are going to have to wait, but I want to knock all the rest out this year. The next one I’m for sure doing is Fargo on May 20, but I am pretty sure I’m going to find a way to do both Little Rock in March and Oklahoma City in April. Why is it that finishing one marathon only makes me want to do another one more, even when I do not actually enjoy either the marathon or its aftermath? That is one of the great mysteries of running.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Marathon That Didn't Happen (AKA Mississippi Blues Non-Marathon Report)

Races get cancelled because of weather, and runners start races and do not finish them. But in nearly 50 marathons, I have never had either one of those things happen to me... until today.

I was supposed to do a back-to-back -- Mississippi Blues in Jackson, Mississippi, on Saturday, and First Light in Mobile, Alabama, on Sunday. The forecast was for extreme cold both days, with some precipitation for Saturday's race. Maybe snow, maybe ice, no one seemed to know. As race day got closer, the forecast got more dismal -- colder, windier, more inclined toward ice and sleet than snow or rain. Still, the thought of the race being cancelled never seriously crossed my mind.

I flew to Atlanta and drove to Jackson. It was supposed to be a 5.5 hour drive. I love driving long distances, so it was a no-brainer to me to fly to and from Atlanta and save myself almost $300 on the plane fare. It's always cheap to go to Atlanta. The road was fine almost all the way to Jackson, although there was a general sense of impending panic on the roadways, with dramatic freeway signs warning "STORM PREDICTED! SNOW LIKELY! LIMIT DRIVING AND USE CAUTION! BEGINNING 4:00 PM FRIDAY AND CONTINUING THROUGH 1:00 PM SATURDAY!" When I stopped at Kroger to get peanut butter and bananas, the store was packed with parka-wearing Southerners loading up their carts with milk and bread like they might not be able to get to the store for weeks after this (even though temps will be back in the 60's in a few days). There was literally only ONE banana left, and I bought it.

A wintery mix started coming down somewhere around the Mississippi/Georgia state line, but the roads were utterly unaffected. As I got closer to Jackson, the roads finally got a bit slick. Sleet was pounding on the windshield so loud I couldn't hear my audio book. I still wasn't worried even though the last 20 miles took me an hour. By the time I got to the expo downtown, the ground was carpeted with an inch or so of slush. My feet were soaked as soon as I got out of the car, and I slipped three times walking across the street from the car to the expo. There was a cop stopping traffic so runners could cross the street, and he was so cold he got back into his car between runners to warm up. For the first time I had a flash of doubt. It was impossible to walk without slipping. This inch-thick layer of slush was on everything, and the temperature was supposed to plummet to around 20 degrees overnight. What was going to happen to this slush? Why, of course, it would freeze, creating an inch-thick layer of ice. And what would be done about the frozen slush in the 12 hours between then and race start? It would be a huge logistics challenge for a northern city that is used to snow and ice, but what would a southern city do?

The atmosphere in the expo was subdued. The race officials behind the tables had to answer the same question over and over: "Is the race going to be cancelled?" There had been an email sent out earlier that day saying the race was still going on as planned and we would be informed of any changes in plans as they happened, and they were telling people the same thing at the expo. There was one guy playing the blues and he was amazingly good. I don't even like music and I wanted to sit down and listen to him, but I didn't, because I more wanted to get to my hotel and then get something to eat.

The sidewalk and road had gotten even more slippery during the fifteen minutes I'd been in the expo, and they had closed the main entrance because the floor had gotten too slick, and were directing people around the side of the building to use a carpeted entrance instead. The roads were pretty much deserted as I drove to my hotel. (The hotel looked very familiar, and when I parked my car and got out, I realized it was exactly where I had filmed a Leader Dog client's application video almost two years ago. Random! Never would have guessed I would be back here in this same exact spot, in an ice storm, getting ready to run a marathon.)

Still no word about cancellation. I wished I had brought my DueNorth traction aids with me -- I could've used them in the hotel parking lot! I googled, trying to find a place in Jackson where I could buy DueNorths. Nothing; the closest place was in Georgia. Same with Yak Traks. I tried to imagine some circumstances under which it would be remotely safe to run any part of tomorrow's marathon when it was totally unsafe to walk anywhere at all right now and it was only going to get colder. I knew there was no way running the race was a good idea. I also knew that I was stupid and stubborn and would do the race if it was not cancelled. Even if I broke my head open or broke my leg and put my job in jeopardy and wouldn't run another marathon all year, or ever. There was no chance I would fail to be on that starting line if the race went on, no matter what, and that was when I began earnestly hoping for cancellation.

I went out to dinner at the Iron Horse Grill. This was the very best restaurant I have ever eaten at before a race. Oh my God, it was so good I can still taste the roll and the chicken I had right now if I think about it. I don't really like Jackson but I want to go back just for that restaurant. By the time I left the restaurant, every surface including the parking lot and my car was covered with a pebbly glaze of ice, the texture I imagine a Gila monster's beaded skin would be if I could touch it. I was stalking Facebook like a madwoman, hoping for that cancellation so bad. Still no word, although there were plenty of posts from people stuck here and there along the way or stranded at airports because of the weather. Oh, God, this thing was going to go on. Resigned, I laid out my clothes for the next day, pinned my race number on my shirt, took a long, hot shower, and set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. I checked Facebook one more time and there it was -- officially cancelled. Oh, what a profound relief. I didn't have to break my neck. I could sleep in without hating myself for bailing on a race. Yes, yes, it's a bummer I won't get to color in Mississippi on my map or get to pat myself on the back for being a bad-ass back-to-backer AGAIN, for the fourth time, but I can live with all that.

The general sentiment on social media seems to be that it was the right decision, but there are always a few people who like to bitch about stuff. Specifically, I heard the following:

1) They should have told us earlier! So I wouldn't have had to (choose one) fly here to Jackson or drive 12 hours through snow to get here or take off work on Friday. But the thing is, no one knew exactly how bad it would turn out to be. Imagine if they had cancelled it 24 hours in advance and then there had been no accumulation of any kind and running conditions would have been fine. You think people wouldn't get pissed then? Oh yes they would! They cancelled it at the point that it became apparent that there was no way conditions would be acceptable.

2) We should get a free race entry next year instead of just a discount! Right, because the companies that supplied the medals, jackets, expo expenses, porta-potties, Gatorade, and all the other marathon necessities will just give the money back to the race director in exchange for their stuff back. Or else they will supply it all for free next year because they feel bad about this year. Nope, our registration fees paid for that stuff this year and will again next year. It's great that they are going to give us a discount for next year and I am going to take advantage of it, but I wouldn't even think of asking for anything more.

3) We should have been able to choose whether we can run or not! Now, listen, I am a pretty selfish person. But even I know that a marathon is not just about the runners. What about the volunteers manning the aid stations? 20 degrees with 10-15 mph winds is cold for runners, but doable. But can you imagine being stuck at an aid station for 6-7 hours, pouring Gatorade or water, standing still, spilling liquids on yourself, worrying about spilled liquid freezing? Or can you imagine getting up at 5 a.m. and driving over the (practically impassable) ice highways just to go do something for which you are not going to get paid and are not going to get the satisfaction of crossing off a state? I know that if I were a volunteer, I would not do that under any circumstances because that level of misery and danger is something to which I would not expose myself for any reason!

4) It's just ice, I live in Michigan/Minnesota/Canada and we run in that all the time, it's no big deal, just put on some traction aids or put screws in your shoes and go! Well, okay, but again, this is a SOUTHERN race and for many or maybe most of the people involved, this weather is not something they ever have to deal with. Jackson has no sand, no salt, no plows, no experience functioning in these conditions. It seems like people just don't go out on the rare occasions this happens. They stay home and wait for it to melt, which it always does. Also, our northern winters may be brutal, but I can say that I have never felt as imperiled by weather as I did during this brief little stay in Jackson. I have never felt so little confidence in my own abilities to stay upright and stay on the road, and I run outside in virtually all conditions, work outside all day almost every day, and have never once been unable to drive somewhere because of weather in all of my four years in Michigan and seven in New York/New Jersey, so don't talk to me about winter weather!

5) Just start the race a couple hours later, let it warm up a little! What, from 20 to 25? Race logistics, especially in a city, can't just be changed on a whim. Also, how do you communicate those changes to everyone? Also, the biggest reason of all, that ice wasn't going anywhere! It was still horrible hours later. It might still be horrible now for all I know.

In case you haven't figured it out, I am as sure as can be that that race director made the right choice. I think the majority of other runners think so too, especially those who made it into Jackson and saw how bad it was. I can't imagine how it must have felt to be the guy who had to make the call. Actually, I can. I have a vivid imagination. I can imagine all of it -- the hoping that it wouldn't be as bad as predicted, the denial as it got worse, the communications with law enforcement who were no doubt unanimously in favor of calling it off, the thought of all the months of training that people had put in for this, the thought of the expense that people had incurred buying plane tickets, the thought of all the people who struggled to get to Jackson and risked their necks on dangerous roads who would now find out that it would all be for nothing, the despair at the flood of incoming emails saying  Is it cancelled? Please don't cancel it!, the worry that the stellar reputation of this race would take a hit -- but deep down, the growing certainty that there was NO WAY I could justify the risk to the volunteers and runners, and the knowledge that if one person, volunteer or runner, was killed by a car sliding through an intersection, or by losing control of their own car driving to the race, I would see that person's face in my mind every day of my life and know I could have prevented that. I can imagine the moment when he (or maybe she, I don't know the race director) accepted the inevitable and put the word out. If I was him, I would probably sat down and looked at all the beautiful shiny medals and classy jackets that people hadn't been able to pick up and cried. So much work went into setting up this event, and now it's all for nothing. (Except it isn't. The race organizers did the right thing, and they know it, and I think 95% or more of the runners know it too, and the ones that don't know it right now because of disappointment will eventually accept it.)

This morning I had planned to sleep in, but I decided to leave Jackson earlier than planned because I thought the road probably was not going to get any better throughout the day, and I thought that probably it would be smarter to try to get on the road before it was too crowded. So at 8:00 I was on the interstate. I was literally the least intelligent person in Jackson at 8:00 this morning. Every single other person was smart enough to know the interstate was not drivable. I was the only person on it. Every overpass and bridge was iced over. Not just a little ice, but an unbroken sheet of ice. I crept over them one at a time at 5 mph, knowing I had essentially no control over my little Kia. As I drove up over yet another five-lane-wide bridge, it opened up in front of me looking like an iced-over football field. I felt a little slip under my front wheels. I couldn't go any slower than I was going, but I knew enough not to touch the brakes or try to correct the slip with the steering wheel. Somehow the slip got worse and my little car was fishtailing from one side to the other. I was looking at the guardrails from entirely the wrong angle and my car was facing the wrong way. I have almost-wrecked a car three times in my life, and every time it's like time slows down. I had time for all of these very conscious thoughts: This shit is out of my hands. Guess I should've gotten the insurance on this car. At least I'm not going to die; not going fast enough and no other cars on this road. Will I freeze while I wait for help though? Or should I walk for help? I am so, so dumb for trying to drive. What a dumb ass. Guess I won't be able to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail next year; I'll be paying off this crappy little Kia forever. Then my car miraculously righted itself and the slide stopped. My pulse was 159 (thank you, Apple watch!), pretty close to Zone 5, which I cannot hit even when I try during workouts. I am totally counting my drive out of Jackson as a cardio workout. After that terrifying episode, I decided that's it, I'm getting off the road. Only there was no exit right away. And when I got to a place where there was an exit, there was nowhere to go off the exit, no Waffle House or coffee shop, just a deserted industrial area where the road was even worse than the interstate. And then I reached the highway that I would take to Mobile, and it was slightly better than the interstate because at least there were tire tracks laid down in the ice that I could follow. I just had to straddle the ice line in the middle. And then after a few very slow miles on that highway, the tire tracks got wider and the ice thinned out. And then the ice disappeared and it was a cold, but very beautiful, day, and the memory of that terror on the bridge faded. (But it's never going to go away entirely, just like the memory of my other two near-wrecks, in 1994 and 2006, have not. You tend to remember moments when it could've all gone south quick.)

I've made it to Mobile and it is bitter cold outside, but there is no ice and I'm running that race tomorrow. If I'm bummed about only being able to color in one state on my map, I will try to balance that out by being happy that I'm still alive despite my stupidity and that I don't have to spend the next few years paying for a totaled rental car.