Saturday, May 28, 2011

Memorial Day Weekend

Here I am, at one of my favorite markets in Colorado. 
 If I was nervous to start the blog writing about an anticlimactic marathon, I'm on the opposite end of the spectrum regarding this entry.  Watermelon.  It's fitting for me to start Memorial Day Weekend (in Minnesota, summer's unofficial start) with a note on watermelon.  I imagine suspect that I consume my body weight in watermelon in a typical summer - and probably even more since I started making annual summer trips with Josh to his hometown in Colorado, a huge melon producer because of its hot, dry climate.  

I'm no culinary expert.  My watermelon consumption usually involves either using it in smoothies or just devouring it after a hot run.  My most exotic use of watermelon was last summer, when I tried making watermelon, lime, and cilantro popsicles. (Hint: in slush form, this is one of life's true delights, assuming you are a lover of cilantro.) 

Yesterday, I went to Cub Foods with a five-item shopping list that did not include watermelon. Unsurprisingly, as soon as I saw a big pile of melons next to a big shiny sale sign, I found myself slinging one into my cart, completely forgetting that I had parked way, way on the other side of the parking lot.

Anyway, the long haul was totally worth it. I'm heading out soon for my first post-marathon run.  Can you think of anything better to find in the fridge upon return? I can't.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

You're There

I'm gently wary of starting my first blog entry with such a mundane lead, but the road to marathon weekend in Fargo, North Dakota was a sort of anticlimactic one. Before I even began the Fargo Marathon, I had the odd feeling of wanting to be past the race. It wasn’t that I wanted the race to be over, exactly, but I didn’t have the typical slush of excitement and nerves in my mind. I was calm—or rather, I wasn’t feeling much of anything. I had put in the miles, missing just a couple of runs in my 18-week training cycle. When I look back on it, it felt like I was slogging through the Minnesota winter until practically taper time, when the major work was already done, and I was surprised to be so close to race day. 

I got to the FargoDome on Saturday morning plenty early, ate my breakfast and drank coffee before finding a spot where I’d camp out for 15 minutes or so before moving to the next spot. I was still expecting rain. Other runners had garbage bags covering them as a precaution. Many of us wore hats. It was a small, cozy race, and it was a tiny miracle to me that I noticed it was 7:10 or 7:15 and figured I should head over to the starting area in time for the 7:30 gun, instead of the usual incessant reminders blaring over the loudspeaker. I stood in the crowd, stretching and thinking about how my running had evolved since October 2009, when I ran my last marathon.

For three races in a row, I had badly wanted to run a 3:40 and qualify for Boston. My training indicated that it was a longshot but that if stars aligned gently, I could get there. I haven’t yet, and after each race, I’m embarrassed about how hard on myself I was about what went wrong and what I didn’t do well enough. Leading up to Baystate Marathon in 2009 or even during the race, I ended up with a stress fracture in my foot, with the subsequent six weeks totally off running and then a long, long, long, slow build-up back. It was frustrating and boring, and as I racked up magazine subscriptions for my long workouts on the stationary bike during gorgeous late fall weather in Minnesota, I remember thinking I’d do anything to go out for a run of any length.

As I recovered over the next year, I felt the marathon bug creeping back into my mind—for a spring race, not wanting to wait until fall 2011. All of a sudden, during some random and unspectacular run, I had an epiphany of sorts, the kind that you can read and hear about over and over but have to figure out yourself for it to stick. I could train hard and be excited for a spring marathon, but run it for fun, without rigorous time goals. 

This was liberating to me. I realized that I train for these fiendish races not just for the finish time, but because I truly love the process of preparing and training my body for a challenge like this. It’s really—excuse the cliché—a labor of love. I love conversations with Molly during a long run, I love my podcasts, and I love finishing a workout in the best humidity blizzards rain weather Minnesota can throw at me. I love seeing improvements in a workout from one month to the next. I love how strong I feel during a great run. It makes all of the early wake-ups, tired miles, and lackluster days totally worth it.

As soon as the gun went off in Fargo, all of the emotions that I had been shoving down cropped up, and I completely choked up for the first minute of the race, thinking about my recovery, the first run post-stress fracture, the slow buildup and all of my made-up re-injury scares along the way. After hundreds and hundreds of miles, here I was, on a start line I wasn’t sure I’d ever stand on again last year.

I settled into an easy pace with the hope that I’d find the first 10 miles very easy and be able to rachet up the pace in the second half of the race. By mile 10, though, it started to feel unlikely that I could hold that pace. My face was hot under my hat, but I didn’t toss away my hat for fear that the sun would pop out right away. Later, I found out that while the temperature stayed low enough—mid-60s—the humidity was 92 percent, and it didn’t rain for more than five or 10 minutes that morning. I touched my face, then my collarbone, then my shoulder, and all three were salty with dried sweat. I decided to start drinking more powerade and water as I started to run more by effort than pace, and each time I grabbed a cup of powerade, I tasted the salt in it and that tasted like paradise: a bad sign.

The course meandered along out-and-back sections around the city, mostly on concrete roads, with lots of great spectators. My favorite signs were “Finish before the rapture!” “You’re so not almost there!” and “Worst parade ever!” Some runners later mentioned someone dressed in a Grim Reaper costume at the end of the race holding a sign that said “The end is near,” but I was in such a fog of fatigue that I barely glanced at him and then didn’t want to see him again. There were bands at every mile, too.

The miles were ticking by quickly, but I just wasn’t having fun with them the way I wanted. My splits started slow and got slower, and my legs just felt heavy. All along, my goal was to pick up the pace halfway through, but instead I shifted my eye toward mile 17, when the single-digit mile countdown began. I started walking at every mile marker, and then more toward the end. I ate a freezie, a chunk of watermelon, and a lot of blue powerade. (Gross.) Everyone around me looked like how I felt, and the course intersected with the last few miles of the half-marathon, which faded to a lot of walkers by the time the marathoners overtook the course. The energy of the race started to lag and feel more like a grind—as most marathons often do around mile 23. Toward the end, I looked at my watch and figured out I could walk the last mile in 20 minutes and finish under 4:30, but then decided to try to shuffle under the 4:20 mark. 

As soon as I got to the FargoDome and the course began curving around the stadium toward the finish, I started to move more quickly and felt lighter. I noticed someone holding the “You’re so not almost there” sign with “so,” “not,” and “almost” crossed out, and I remember saying “Oh!” out loud. Among all of the cheers, I heard a man yell “385 yards to go!” and all of a sudden I realized I made it. You turn a sharp corner, and you squint into the tunnel into the FargoDome and see bright lights and a huge “FINISH” banner with a clock. I started moving as fast as I could toward the finish line and all of the emotions hung on me again in the last 100 meters—that I had done it, I came back, I finished this race. I had an impossibly huge smile on my face when I crossed the finish line and then, as soon as I stopped my watch, I burst into tears, for the first time ever after a marathon.

I’m left now with the feeling that what happened in the race itself didn’t matter. I worked hard to prepare, but what happened out on that race course isn’t so memorable or special to me, and it’s telling to me how sharply my heartbeat at the start and finish contrast to the dull feeling in my legs for the rest of the run. The start and the finish and what it symbolized are what I’ll always remember: the heightened joy and pain, how heavy a finisher’s medal feels on my neck, and the miles of preparation that helped get me to the finish. After every other marathon I’ve run, I’ve felt drained and disinterested in running for weeks and sometimes months. By the car ride home, I was already brainstorming about summer training and how best to prepare for Chicago in October. I had moved on.