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.

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