Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Marine Corps Marathon Redux - Part II

Read Part I.

Tethered to Rohan.
In all D.C. races, if you ask runners what sections of the city they fear the most, the majority would undoubtedly mention crossing the 14th Street Bridge and rounding Hains Point. In past Marine Corps Marathons, runners faced the two-plus mile section called Hains Point that comprised miles 18, 19, and 20 before heading over the 14th Street Bridge. Organizers have since altered this cruelest of cruel mapping by routing runners to Hains at the half way point during their Odyssey. 

This segment is not hard physically. In fact, it’s relatively flat and the headwind you fight on the way out is returned to you in a tailwind after you round the point. The trouble with Hains is that it’s fairly inaccessible to spectators, leaving runners alone with their thoughts of the pain-staking journey that remains. Evenly-spaced cherry blossom trees line the one way road, and while pretty, they give the perception that you're running in place. The landscape never changes and the elevation remains constant. It is torturous and maddening.

Already in dire straights, I dreaded Hains. Rohan and I started heading out around the point, running side by side. The absence of wind worried me because I knew then we’d have to face it as we made our way back into the city. The wet blanket fatigue wore on me and I tried desperately to distract myself. I read the signs on the course. I tried to sing the Counting Crows' "Rain King" in my head, a song I often got stuck in my head on training runs. I called back to previous workouts. Nothing helped, and yet, my watch still impossibly read 6:30. 

The cherry trees ticked by one after the other, never changing, never altering until finally I saw the halfway mark, which we went through in 1:25 flat.

Here, the road began a slight bend and my spirits lifted some knowing that the tip was near. We leaned into the curve and the wind took us head on. Rohan and I began taking turns leading so that the other person could draft. The pace dropped to 6:40 when I took the lead. Rohan slipped ahead of me and I had to quicken my turnover to hang with him. I threw an imaginary tether around him to keep myself locked on the back of his shirt. "Almost out, boys," a marine called to us as if he knew.

Mile 15 came and went and we were free from Hains Point. I still felt like garbage.

“You okay?” Rohan called back.
“Terrible,” I acknowledged. “Go if you want,” I said, while the Jefferson Memorial went by on our left.
“Ah, no,” he said. “I don’t know what’s coming ahead so I’m sticking with you.”

We ran that way around the Mall, Rohan  between five and 15 feet ahead of me as I kept a grip on the tether all the while rationalizing with myself. I've written before about how we romanticize suffering through runs. Yet, it's one thing to talk and write about emptying yourself and an entirely other demon to confront when you're in the middle of it.

Rounding the Capitol.
If you walk, it’s over, I kept telling myself, knowing full well that my legs would seize up and it would be an even bigger battle to find the finish. My mouth hung open and I blew fluffs of spit to the side of the road. I closed my eyes and pulled out my deck of "rolodex workouts," the ones I made it through somehow and vowed it would make me stronger physically and mentally on race day. I thought about running up and down Old Rag, the base miles in the summer heat, the 12 mile tempo runs....None of it seemed to help, until my eyes focused again and I looked up at where we were. I had spent so much time focusing on those workouts and keeping the tether on Rohan that two more miles had gone by.

The monuments continued to flash by and soon, we came to mile 20, the final marker before leaving the city. I checked my watch and saw 2:10. A sub-2:50 would be tough to make but I knew I could string together a sub-50 minute 10K to at least come in under three hours.

From there, I broke the course up into three sets of two miles: two miles over the bridge; two miles in Crystal City; two miles on the highway to the finish.

It could have been that that galvanized me or that the running gods felt that I had sufficiently proved my worth, but as we headed over the bridge, my stride opened up and the clouds in my head parted. I caught up to Rohan and we came off the bridge side by side for the first time since mile 10.

“You good?” He asked.
“Somehow. Yes.” I said.

And we began to ride.

Our strides fell in synch and the roar of the crowds in Crystal City spurred us on. I started looking for Vanessa, a fellow RW Loopster and D.C.-area resident. Somehow I missed her. But Rohan and I were locked in. 

We rounded the back side of the Crystal City portion and started to make our way out toward the Pentagon. Mile 23 came and went. I checked my watch. 
Hard to the finish.

“We just dropped back-to-back 6:15s,” I said to him. He huffed.

Morning miles, I said to myself, thinking of the easy 5Ks I would run each morning during my base building phase.

I could feel my left hip flexor start to tighten and the adjustment brought on a dangerous quivering in my hamstring. The elevation leveled out just in time that I could resume my normal stride and keep those cramps at bay.

We took 24 under an overpass and began our tour around the Pentagon. I started to put a bit of distance between Rohan at this point. I looked back at the five foot gap and tried to slow for him to catch up until the hamstring quivers returned. I pushed on coming up and over a ridge onto Washington Boulevard where I took the head wind full on. I leaned forward and tried to drive myself into the wind. 

It wasn't until the exit ramp that it subsided. I wound around the ramp and slingshotted onto the final stretch of highway where it had all began. 

My father-in-law stood on the side of the course and bellowed, “Come on, Brad!” as I smiled and charged by him. The crowd grew thicker and the cheers washed over me. I made the final turn and went up on my toes to take the final hill. The finish seemed to come out of nowhere and with it a tremendous sense of relief. 

I walked a few feet before turning to see Rohan finish. We staggered together, he a debut marathon of 2:55, and me, a shiny, new PR by three minutes with a 2:52:59.

I found my dad and promptly felt my face involuntarily contort as I tried to hold back the tears. I had wrung all of the physical and mental energy from myself.

At the finish.
“Great job,” he said, hugging me.
“Hardest one I’ve ever done,” I said.

Rohan and I found an open spot of grass where we crashed with our families. I waited for my wife and the rest of our friends to finish and we traded stories about the course as the wind picked up and the sky darkened.

We were the same people and same friends we were prior to the gun going off, yet somehow standing there in the pre-hurricane, post-race euphoria, we were all somehow different.

I guess completing a marathon will do that to you.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Marine Corps Marathon Redux - Part I

I remember getting out of a bed that wasn’t mine, at least not in real life. I padded easily around the room and looked at my wife who had just flicked the light on. “You know,” I said, shaking out each leg, “I feel pretty good. Almost like I didn’t even run the race.” Then the beeping. Then I snapped awake in our still dark bedroom. It wasn’t until I got to the bathroom and started slathering on vaseline that it hit me: I hadn’t run the race yet.

Hours later, in the pre-dawn light, our troupe of marathoners fell into the ant lines of other runners marching across the Pentagon parking lot toward the hill. We were veterans seeking PRs, first timers seeking to know the anguish and elation of the distance, and repeat offenders seeking the journey. All of us sought the finish line.

Outside a city that lends itself to vibrant sunrises, we stared across the river at the flat, gray light that had begun to filter through the clouds and silhouette the Washington Monument and Capitol dome. Sporadic gusts of wind foretold what awaited us later in the days and nights to come. But before then, there was another storm to get through.

Our group began to subtract members as we came upon each pillar marked with projected finishing times. After kissing my wife good bye and good luck, it was only Rohan and I.

We ducked into the trees for one last “bathroom” visit. “Eight minutes to the start runners!” boomed a voice from the speakers, and I took what felt like a gut shot. Rohan and I trotted up toward the start line, stopping initially at the 2:30-2:59 estimated finish time until I spied another marker that read Bibs 1-499. “Let’s go up,” I said, pointing to the 283 on my bib.

We went through a quick dynamic warmup and hopped the fence into the corral, chucking our warmups to the side. 

I tried to offer last minute instructions to Rohan who would be completing his first 26.2. But as I got going, I realized I said them to reassure myself as well. 

They moved us up to the start line, Rohan and I just three rows from the front. The cannon blasted and still reverberated in my chest as we took off down the highway....

We ran by the final left turn that would mark the race’s final .2 miles, a brutal climb, but one that would have to wait.

During the first two miles, Rohan and I ran side by side attacking the long and steep hill that climbed through Rosslyn. I tried to stick to my plan of disconnecting for the first 10 miles, to run the hills by effort, and not worry too much about pace. I stole a glance here and there at the watch as my breath labored some and I reminded myself that we were climbing. Once the second mile came and went, we sailed down the backside and I grabbed the reigns and pulled back on the pace, which read 6:05.

Approaching the 5K mark, Rohan and I found ourselves in a pack of four runners. The course was lined with deep yellow, red, and orange woods made all the more vibrant against the slate-colored sky. A gust of wind sent a curtain of leaves helicoptering down toward us. The four us eyed one another and laughed, enjoying the brief distraction from the task at hand.

Around mile five, the pack began to string out as we hooked a left over the Key Bridge and prepared for an out and back along the Potomac River. This would send us into the final climb of the race just prior to mile seven. We caught up to a short, fit blonde decked out in Brooks gear. “What are you guys looking to run?” she asked in a low, confident voice, almost as though she didn’t have a pulse.

“2:50ish,” I said.
“Let’s do it then,” she said. And we took off with her and two other runners.

It was here that I started willing myself to relax. Something just didn’t seem right. We clicked off the miles and the pace came steadily and easy enough, but the pre-race pit in my stomach hadn’t gone away yet. I took water at the next stop and nearly threw it back up. Relax!  I commanded.

At the turnaround point, we hit the final short, steep hill and Rohan and I pulled away from our small pack. When we crested the top and began our speedy descent, I looked at Rohan, “We fucking owned that hill,” I said, finally feeling that pit in my stomach break up.

With Georgetown and mile nine in sight, we began seeing our friends flash by to take on the out portion. We exchanged cheers, waves, and high fives as they started out. Later, they would tell me independently that I looked “pissed” through that portion. “Not pissed,” I would say, “Just hurting.” I decided not to run with my sunglasses and unknowingly wore the pain in my eyes.

Mile 10 came and went and though I had been uncomfortable, I marveled at how fast those first 10 miles disappeared. Rohan and I came around behind the Lincoln Memorial. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a shirt that said “1 Life to Run” on it and thought how weird that was to see someone with Rohan’s shirt on. Then it hit me and I pointed. 

“Your wife!” I said. He looked over and darted across the road to her to switch out his water bottles. Two other women with her went wild cheering.

“My mom,” he said, smiling.

He was the only one. I started hurting at this point. Really hurting. I couldn’t explain it. My legs felt fine. My breathing was not more than a whisper and we were still hitting our pace. Yet, my body felt out of sync and uncomfortable. 

The crowd began to disappear behind us, the cheers dissipating until it was just the sound of our footfalls and the storm  raging in my head. The course took us out toward Haines Point, the graveyard of the marathon.

I wasn’t sure what to do.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Tales from Taperville

I sat at the kitchen table this past Sunday with a plate of eggs, toast, and kale in front of me, a hot cup of coffee filled to the lip, and the Washington Post spread out before me. It’s my weekend ritual – or rather my Sunday ritual. It’s the one day during the week that the alarm doesn't go off and I don’t have to pull running clothes on in the dark. While that punctured egg yolk began to bleed into my pile of kale, the clock on the oven caught my eye: 10:55 a.m. I turned to our roommate who sat across from me.

“What?” she asked.
“This time next week,” I said, nodding. “This time next week it will all be over. I hope.”

As if on cue, Mrs. Onthebusrunning walked into the kitchen, phone in hand, “Just got a text from Ebo saying, ‘This time next week Brad will be done and we’ll be close.’”

Ah, the “This time next week” game. Normally reserved for vacations, visits from friends, or the conclusion of work presentations. But also applicable to major races.  

Yesterday, for example, I thought, “This time next week I’ll be getting a massage.” And, “This time next week, I’ll be cracking out my celebratory Chimay Cinq Cents.”

But I’m quick not to let my thoughts wander too far ahead, after all, there is still the task at hand. 

Because it’s the final taper week, I can’t keep my mind focused on one thing for very long. I’m filled with so much extra energy that I’m like a child with ADD who’s just been given pixie sticks and a drawer full of shiny objects.

At work, it’s not much better. I settle in to work on a task but every new Outlook e-mail that pops up quickly steals my attention. My thoughts are a running ticker for a news station that might scroll across my eyes something like this:

Any new Yahoo e-mails? | Need to get more brown rice for pre-race breakfast | Lance Armstrong is a dick | Is the debate tonight? | Any new Yahoo e-mails? | What’s the weather for Sunday? | Almost time for afternoon Starbucks run | Any new Yahoo e-mails? | I love this song, when is Mumford & Sons touring? | Weather for Sunday | Yahoo e-mails …

And on it goes. I yearn for my afternoon run just to get rid of some of this energy while my fingers fly across the keyboard and I shovel snacks down my throat. At 10:00 last night, I watched the TV fully coherent and alert as opposed to the heavy-lidded / near coma stare I usually wear. Sigh. Five miles is so unsatisfying.

More often than not in that steady stream of information, my thoughts wander to Sunday morning and I have to temper expectations or else that ball of nervous excitement will fester in the pit of my stomach and I’ll walk around in a constant state of nausea. Instead, I try to associate with one of my better workouts and then let it go.

Still, on my run yesterday, when I tried to remind myself that this was just an easy run, I found my thoughts drifting to the Marine Corps course, particularly coming off the final turn that dumps you onto route 110. The “25 mile” marker flashes by and you sling shot onto the highway for a long straightaway mile where, God willing, you can let your stride unwind and summon whatever last ounces of energy and will to carry you to the finish line. The chills wracked my body so hard that not only had I started running tempo pace but my hat felt like it had lifted from my head. I enjoyed the moment for a second more then grabbed the reigns and pulled back. There would be plenty of time for that on Sunday.

When I returned to the house, it was only 5:50. Just what would I do with the rest of the evening? I went to the grocery store to buy more food and added a valuable caveat to the “never shop hungry” edict: never shop hungry while tapering. Especially at Whole Foods. Too many pretty colors and delicious treats. There are so many types of olives, and … I wonder if I have any new Yahoo mail?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Finely Tuned

There’s a scene in “Once a Runner” when Quentin Cassidy slingshots around the curve and flicks on the afterburners to put an exclamation point on his 200m repeat workout. His coach looks down at the stopwatch and shakes his head at the 0:25 on the clock face. While he wants to chastise Cassidy, he can’t help but remember what it feels like to be able to conjure that type of speed, when you’re so finely tuned that a few sips of wine can send your head whirring.

Yesterday, my running partner Rohan dropped by for an afternoon run. The schedule called for 12 miles with eight at marathon pace. It’s our last workout of the week before the weekend long run, so we both had three workouts on our legs, not to mention four full days at work. The Thursday speed session, in other words, often requires a dip into the “dark place” to wring everything out of the workout. After all, when the race is going to hurt, why not practice hurting.

We set out from my neighborhood at an easy pace. The sun had already begun to set bringing on a welcome chill to the air and heightening the crisp fall smells. I told Rohan about the route while we ignored the heckling from the middle school kids making no effort to hide their disgust at our “gay wedgy shorts.” Even at 31, I just can’t get away from being made fun of by middle school kids.

For two miles, the conversation, like the pace, was light, though as we neared the second beep on our watches, I noticed the pace gradually beginning to increase. When we crossed the last intersection of our warmup, the words suddenly ceased. And the work began.

In recent weeks, Rohan and I – with the help of our friend Ebo as Sherpa – have taken on the mandatory 20 milers that make up every marathon program. Over a full table of breakfast after each run, we dissect the workout. During a particularly flat effort, Rohan carried me on that first 20, while on the second, we reversed roles. At that breakfast, a weighty silence fell over the table as we let the idea of both of us being “on” on the same day linger….

When I heard the beep that ticked off mile 3, I stole a quick glance at my watch: 6:12. At mile 4: 5:56.

We wove seamlessly around obstacles in the road, dog walkers, and oncoming cars. We floated up and over hills and shot down the backside like a rollercoaster toppling over the apex. The synergy was there and we just flowed.

Neither of us had to be pulled along today. Instead, we pushed each other, fed off of one another’s footfalls, and set the road on fire.

After what would be our slowest mile (6:24), one consisting entirely of crushed gravel and tree roots, we emerged from the woods. “Long. And steep. Ahead,” I breathed as our stride unwound on the smooth pavement once again. There, we arrived at that one perfect moment where our strides fell in unison. Our shoes pounded the pavement in rapid succession, turning over like well-oiled pistons on arguably the most challenging portion of the route. A steady calm set in around us, a cocoon that rendered us numb to any outside forces, except the task at hand. 

When we came to a stop at the light, a crime to break our rhythm, I lifted my sunglasses and raised my eyebrows at Rohan. The traffic whooshed by and swallowed our shallow breaths while our chests heaved to keep up. He looked back at me, wearing a smirk that said, "What the fuck?" and shrugged his shoulders.

When the light turned green, we shot across the street to cover the final 1.75 mile "marathon pace" segment. Descending into the woods once again, we sent evening strollers diving for the side of the trail as we thundered past. A thin blanket of yellow leaves already covered the trail, and the crunching under foot announced our arrival to startled deer that surely wondered if we were predators. We weaved in and around one another to stay in the worn groove along the path. At last, we made the final turn to climb out of the trail. I pulled alongside Rohan and we drove one another forward, arms pumping, legs churning, to the top….

We clicked our watches and I let out a “Yeeeeoooowww!” I turned and walked back toward him and shoved him. “Come on!” I yelled while we waited for the green light. He started laughing and we stood there for a moment with the orange sky glowing through the black spires of tree limbs.

A soft white glow seeped in around my eyes and we started our two mile cool down. The words came back to us as we pulled back on the reigns to make it a true cool down.

“I’m not sure what just happened,” I remember saying.

We returned to the house and did a quick walk around the parking island. It was all over and time to get on with our evenings. But for those 49:24, we had a glimpse. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Does a Runner Poop in the Woods?

There are running clubs, breakfast clubs, and dance clubs, secret clubs, and poppin' bottles in 'da club. Then there are, um, "other" clubs.

We’re all runners here, right? With that statement alone, you have to know that this blog post is about to head in the direction of a handful of topics: snot rockets, farting, black (or no) toenails…in other words, something gross that you can really only have a serious conversation (or any conversation) about with a few people, as I did on Saturday with my Breakfast Club.

Today, as the title suggests, I’m writing about pooping in the woods.

I suppose it was only a matter of time. Sure, there have been close calls in the past, but I always found some way to cinch those cheeks tight and make it home.

Thanks to Scott Jurek’s new book “Eat and Run,” I spent the majority of Sunday evening doing some preparatory cooking for the week, things like refried beans, hummus wraps, homemade salsa. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not becoming a vegan or even a vegetarian as evidenced by my dinner the night before “the incident.” Needless to say, there was a lot of vegetable intake, which translates to a lot of fiber, and as Mrs. OnthebusRunning can attest to, a lot of gas.

So after one day on this new diet, plus our new roommate’s beef bourguignon for dinner, some might call it a recipe for disaster…that or messy shorts.

I awoke the next morning to squeeze an eight miler in before work because of evening commitments (can't let the mileage suffer). Normally, I can get rolling in 5-10 minutes, but something told me I should take an extra minute or two for a pre-run, err, evacuation. One of my running friends will always declare that “There’s nothing more important than a pre-race (or run) deuce.”

I set off into the pre-dawn darkness, enjoying the steady sounds of my footfalls on the pavement and the rare solitude on the main roads near our home. Two miles into the run, I headed down a ramp to the Big Rocky Run trailhead where I clumsily attempted a 10x1 min @5K pace *ahem* fartlek with nothing but the triangle of light cast ahead of me from my headlamp.

I exited the trail and wound my way through quiet neighborhoods, watching homes come to life behind lighted windows. Again, wrapped in that pre-dawn quiet, the rhythmic inhale/exhale of my breathing, the…gurgling of my stomach.

It came on at the farthest reaches of my loop and jolted me enough to pull back on the pace. I tentatively ramped up for that last interval, turning back again onto the trail. The woods were still dark but I mercifully made it through and took a slow jog to get back to the main road. Then, as George RR Martin (Game of Thrones author) has written on a number of occasions, “my insides turned to water.”

I had just over two miles to home and the woods, along with the darkness, disappearing fast. I trotted over the final bridge and faced one of life’s most important decisions: Is it a fart? Or something more. The answer did not take long to reveal itself: Something more! Something more!

For the first time, I knew I would not make it. I stepped off the trail, clicked off my hand lamp, dropped trow, and, well, you can figure out the rest.

Instant relief. Until I started looking around for something to, you know, clean up. I didn’t want to pick up anything off the ground, unsure of whether or not it would be poison ivy. So I looked up and pulled a leaf off the tree in front of me. I put it in my palm and narrowed my eyes. Then I pulled two more leaves off.

It didn’t do much except make my hand a little funky. So I pulled those shorts back up and completed the two odd miles back home.

When I arrived at my front step, I started to unlace my shoes, realizing that yes, in fact, that smell was coming from me. And no, I was not going to stick around long enough to say good morning to Mrs. Onthebusrunning and our house guest.

I headed for the shower and explained my tale of shame and woe to my wife when she came up to brush her teeth. “Oh, no!” she said, laughing, before her face straightened. “Where are the shorts now?”

Later that morning, I shot an e-mail over to my dad, the eternal runner, knowing that he would understand.

“Welcome to the club!” he wrote back.


Anyone else in this club?
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...