Tuesday, February 22, 2011

GW Marathon (Relay) Redux

Ebo and Caroline don't need no stinking relay;
only the full marathon will do.
It was billed as a smaller marathon.  No crowds lining the side of the course cheering you on from start to finish.  A skeleton crew manned each of the three water stops, and at one point, asked if the relay runners waiting could help out.  The streets weren't closed off and runners flirted with oncoming traffic.  All this we knew going into it.

What we didn't know was just how hilly the three loop course was going to be!

As we clustered around the starting line, a simple chalk line drawn across a common neighborhood street, a man walked to the front of the crowd.  A collective shhh started from the line and traveled back.

"Ok," he began.  "We're going to get started here.  When you get just past the first mile marker, I need to tell you that the gate is closed, so you're going to have to go under it.  We tried to get it open and we'll keep trying, but for now.  It's closed."  

A murmur traveled through the antsy runners, shuffling from ankle to ankle.  But before the groans grew too loud, the man stepped aside into the grass, raised an arm, and cried, "Go!"

I've done plenty of major marathons and larger races in my day.  Been part of the sea of people that seems to stretch on forever.  At the Army Ten Miler this past year, I was rounding the Washington Monument on my way to mile 5 when my wife was just crossing the starting line.  This race, however, took less than 20 seconds to see the last runner cross the start line.

Those of us running legs two and three put our cameras away, looked at one another, and said, "Well, let's get to the exchange point."  And as we piled into one car, the urgency to get to the next destination upon us, thoughts of relays past came to the surface.

The 50th running of the GW Marathon meant different things to our group of friends participating, eight in total.  Two ran the full marathon, one as a training run for her upcoming IronMan, the other to cover his first 26.2.

Team Duck Tales
My wife, my running partner, and another friend, they did it simply to run, while for two others, their relay legs would mark the farthest they'd ever run.

For me?  I did it as a confidence-building run, to show that I could cover 9.2 miles on pavement without any knee pain and offer further evidence that my Boston training could progress.

So, you could say that we all came to the line for different reasons, but with the same ultimate goal: to cross the finish line.

When we arrived at the relay exchange point, the sun disappeared and reappeared from the clouds.  A cold breeze sent chills up and down and brought on wardrobe doubts.  What would be too heavy? Too light?  Too hot? Too cold?

That's when we were approached by a race volunteer, "If y'all aren't doing anything, would you mind helping us at the water station?"

We trotted over and started filling cups and handing them to the runners coming through.  That's when we spotted Rohan cresting one final hill and making his descent into the exchange point.  "Mark!" I called.  "Rohan's on his way."  And just like that, Mark was off.

"Dude," Rohan said, hands on his head.  "No one said this was a hill course!"  I laughed, while he started to stretch out.

"Mostly up or mostly down?" I asked.

"Up.  You should be fine."

You see, lately, it's the downhill that's hurt my knee, so while I hadn't done much in the way of hill training, I preferred to slog through that rather than wonder if every step would be my last on a downhill course.

I watched the clock and began a slow warmup that included more debate about what to wear.  "It's warm on the frontside and windy and cold on the backside," Rohan said.  

"And good luck with the last hill," our other friend Megan said.  

"Yeah, I thought that was never going to end."  Great, I thought.  "You want to do a quick warmup jog," Rohan offered.

"Nah.  Nothing hurts right now, so I want to keep it that way."  I had to calm myself down and not let the adrenaline get the best of me.  It's just a training run, I repeated.  No need to scald dogs today.

We yelled for our two friends running the full marathon as they ran by, still looking strong, and then I got ready to take my turn.  Mark came over the hill with a final burst of speed.  "Get after it," he said, handing me our green sash.  

And I was off.

My legs fell into a nice, easy rhythm, and before I could completely settle in, my watch beeped for the first mile marker. I glanced down: 6:10.  So much for a training run.  

But as the hills began to roll, I found a more realistic 6:30 pace and rode that for as long as I could.  I took each hill as it came and tried to absorb the views of the wheat-colored fields unfurled to each side.  At certain points where old stone walls lined the road, and windswept trees bent to the will of the wind,   I swore I was in the French countryside.  

As I ticked off each mile, I overtook runners who had many more miles on their feet that day than I did. I tossed a "Looking good," or "Nice work" to them as I went by, hoping that they'd see my green sash and know that I was in the relay.  I got raised eyebrows or grunts as a response.

Team 1 Life to Run goes sub-3 at the finish.
I came to the final mile and began to climb the cruelest hill: a half mile ascent that continued to rise around every bend.  I dared not peek at my watch to see the pace rising but instead trudged on, quivering hamstrings and all, until finally I reached the apex and shot down the backside.  A man waved an orange flag at me and I darted into the woods for the final quarter mile.  

When I could see the finish, my friends burst into shouts as I rounded the corner and made one final kick for the finish.  The clock read 2:55:35.  Team 1 Life to Run finished 7th overall and 5th in our division.  And not once did I think about my knee hurting.  

A volunteer tore the bottom of my bib number off and threaded it through a safety pin.  I made my way over to a cooler and filled a dixie cup with cold water.  

We gathered near the finish for our other relay team to finish and our full marathoners.  With each person rounding that final turn, we went crazy to reel them in over the final 100 meters whether they were on our team or not.

When the last person crossed the finish line, 3 hours 53 minutes had passed.  The afternoon had gotten warmer and there was still a full evening ahead of us.  But that smallness of the race carried with it an intimate charm.  Instead of being lost in the crowd, you were the crowd.  As we made our way back to the rec center, each of us hobbling to varying degrees, we exchanged war stories from our time on the course, both with each other and other runners, before settling for some final photos and a warm bowl of chili.

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