Wichita Marathon, 3:29:10

On the drive down to Wichita for the marathon, I was too tired and Melanie took over. It was during my usual weekend nap time, and I was low on caffeine in hopes that I could sleep that night. On the drive back, I was wide awake. I should have driven home.

At dinner with my support crew (Melanie, Brent my cousin, and Julie his girlfriend), we were planning the race. Brent was willing to do anything within reason. He was going to drive me to the start. And from there, he would head to the third mile marker and meet Melanie and Julie. Then, they would get donuts, and be back on the race course to hand me a fuel bottle at mile 16. I was counting on that. I asked Brent if he would be interested in running the final miles with me, but he wasn’t. Instead he did a short jaunt with me in mile 16 to hand off the fuel bottle. That was awesome.

From there, Melanie and Julie would go to mile 22, and Brent would head to the finish line with my recovery bag. We would meet up, and head out for brunch. That all went pretty much as planned. It was the marathon that didn’t quite work out.

Race Day Morning, Sunday, October 9, 2016: I was awake at 4:14 and out of bed at 4:35. Gathering myself, preparing in the kitchen, I felt as if I was in a foreign town, a strange country.

In a foreign kitchen, you can see exactly the impact you are making; however, in a foreign country (when you are the out-of-town geek in a small town) you never know your impact, how you are perceived. You feel the stares of strangers. You fear their misunderstanding. You swing from caring and not caring what they think.  You worry. You hope for acceptance, grace, and a little space.

With my breakfast and fuel spread out on the counter, I was once again reminded of the chemical experiment that I was about commence. The marathon is a chemical experience.

I was putting a pinch of salt into my Tang; I thought, “You are the salt of the world. You are the sacred sand mandala of the impermanent earth. You are one of Abraham’s children, one of God’s children. A grain of sand, a star in the heavens, a pinch of salt.”

I asked myself, “You’re forty-five years old, and this is how I have fun?” I answered, yes.

After getting breakfast and all my stuff gathered, I laid down on Brent’s couch, and I took some deep breaths. I thought I was ready, but (really) I wasn’t. Once Brent woke up, and I started grabbing my stuff to leave, there was still some last-minute sorting and sacking to do.

We left just a little too late, and that was my fault. 6:45 was the target departure; but we probably didn’t get into the car until 6:50 or so, and I had just barely made my second cup of strong coffee.

When we arrived in the starting area, the line for the porta-potties was horrible. I went wandering around, and I found some excellent flushing toilets in a parking garage! The line was only two deep. I need to use those again.

In Cheyenne, Wyoming, they host a free pancake breakfast every morning for Frontier Days. It is awesome. From the time you leave your car until you are sitting down with your pancakes, you never stop walking.

To form a line, there is a guy with a sign that says, “This is the end of the line.” People kind of stream toward him in all directions, and as people get in line, he forms them up, snaking through a big parking lot. There are no ropes to keep you from cutting. There is just no cutting. And you walk, slowly, but steadily, following the person in front of you.

As you near the tent, you can see the volunteers (boy scouts and girl scouts, civic clubs, rodeo cowboys and girls) fixing pancakes, hauling them, serving food. You are handed a plate with three pancakes, a set of plastic ware and a napkin. Someone is standing there with a stack of butter, “Do you want butter?” If yes, you get a pat. Someone is standing there with a gallon jug of syrup, “Do you want syrup?” If yes, it is poured right onto your plate. If you want milk, you are given a half-pint. Coffee? You pick that up yourself, but someone is there pouring cup after cup of the (awful) stuff.

It goes like clockwork. There is no missing a beat. The enterprise is a well-oiled, intuitive machine.

I would like it if there was a marathon that started with a breakfast like that. Then gear check, and off you would go, running your 26.2 miles. After that, you would come back through the same line for a banana, bagel, and chocolate milk.

I just barely got into the corral in time for the National Anthem, and as the starting time neared, I wove my way up to the 3:27 pacers. When the gun went off, they were just within sight. I had some traffic to get through, but I soon pulled even with them and left them behind, for a while.

At about mile 4, there was a high school pep band playing the fight song. That took me back.

Wish Them Well by Rush played with a huge impact on my perspective.

The ones who’ve done you wrong The ones who pretended to be so strong The grudges you’ve held for so long It’s not worth singing that same sad song

I have held some grudges against my high school classmates. Often times, when I am putting in a hard interval workout, especially eight-hundreds, the half mile; I find myself traveling back in time to my (physical) glory days, when I was the fastest half-miler for miles around.

Where are you now? I ask my ghosts, my demons. And in the middle of this song, in the middle miles of the Wichita marathon, I put a few of them to rest. I let go of some of those grudges.

Where the streets have no names

Running in this foreign town, I literally did not know the names of the streets. I didn’t care.

There was a portent that things would unravel, not go as planned. In mile 8, we (marathoners) were following each other through a park, around a little pond, when suddenly, the guy three people ahead of me stopped, and we accordioned into each other. There was a fork in the path, and no indication which way to turn. We quickly spotted other runners looping back onto the street, I saw the cones, and we re-routed. But by the time I made it to the mile 9 marker, I figured I had lost at least a tenth of a mile, a minute, maybe more.

The spectators were great, familiar with the marathon and its demands. I had people cheering me with, “Good pace!” And reading my bib, shouting, “Go, Nelson!” And (anonymously), “Go, marathoner!”

As we ran through the feeder streets, there were people gathered in driveways, having an extended brunch with neighbors, cheering us on, enjoying themselves and our parade. Their smiles reassured me that we sojourners (strangers in this flat-land) were welcome.

I was playing leapfrog with a runner who had many fans on the course. They recognized her without straining to read her bib, and cheered her on. I was running 7:40s with her, but lost touch when I picked up fuel from my support crew in mile 16. I was not worried; I was running strong.

We had dropped a big guy with a plodding gait a few miles back.

I thought I was running strong. But in miles 17 and 18, I fell off pace by about 10 seconds; so I thought to myself, now’s the time to push a little and see if you can pull through. Unfortunately, I pushed for several miles with my heart rate spiking out of marathon effort and my pace did not improve. It got worse.

The nail in the coffin was looking down after a super-flat mile 22 at an 8:03. My virtual partner was 1:44 ahead of me, and I had another 0.1 miles to run. And it was my third mile with my heart rate at 156. My legs were killing me, my core was shredded, and my Boston Qualifier was out of reach. I pulled back and took an assessment.

The next three miles were a bit of a pity party, culminating with a 9:05 for mile 25. During these miles, the signs from the course came back to me, and they reminded me that my support crew didn’t care how fast I was. They were just there for me. The signs said, “Don’t stop running! People are watching you!” And “Keep on running! We’re waiting for you to finish!”

I didn’t want to disappoint. I didn’t want to get pulled into a pain-cave and not come out. I didn’t want to drag through the final miles.

That’s when I picked up the pace a bit and started wondering, “How deep does this well go?” I got back in flow, and pulled mile 26 down to an 8:44, and finished with a final half mile at 8:27. This was a huge improvement from the butt-dragging I had been doing, but these were the longest, most-painful miles I have run.

In these miles, I also thought about a friend, who had recently become the first person to run across Kansas. He did it in eleven days. I thought, he ran harder miles than these, and he didn’t have a guy with a “Smile if you peed a little” sign to cheer him on. I had to smile a little at that, even though I hadn’t peed. And the guy pointed, nodded, and laughed. My smile got even bigger.

As you finish the Wichita Marathon, you run along the river. It is perfectly flat. You can see the hotel where you finish from two miles away. You can see the Keeper of the Plains, a giant statue of a native American in a headdress, lifting cupped hands to the sky. And you can hear the names and finishing times of the racers who are ahead of you. It is motivating. Along this stretch, the 3:27 pacers passed me, but I had my sights set on a sub 3:30 finish. I was on pace and not worried.

As I came in to the finish line, some guy (jerk!) tried to sprint past me. I dropped the hammer and had enough to hold him off. I finished in 3:29:10.

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