Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ragnar Calling

Posted up on the side of the road in Natick, MA last Monday, my friend Ebo and I spent our morning hollering at the throng of runners who had braved the heat to complete the mother of all marathons: Boston. We picked out attributes of the runners going by to yell encouragement, anything from names stenciled on their shirts, to colleges, to track clubs. In the end, the name we yelled most had to be: RAGNAR!

Fitting that at the mother of all marathons, the mother of all relays became the biggest topic of conversation. We spotted that medieval looking mask emblazoned on running shirts and visors and cheered extra loud. Why exactly is hard to capture. Perhaps because when you run Ragnar, you’re not just completing a race, you’re joining a brother (or sister) hood.

Curious onlookers, running store patrons, and even employees stopped us throughout the weekend to ask, “Just what is this Ragnar?”

Eyes widen at the mere mention of covering 200 miles, let alone with 11 other people. This becomes a pivotal point in the conversation, where, faced with this figure, subjects either check out or become more intrigued. If they stay with me, one of my favorite stories to tell is this:

Somewhere in the middle of Maryland, in the middle of the night when dawn drew closer than midnight, three of us clung to consciousness trying to drive to the next major exchange point. My wife navigated, I drove, and our friend Paul kept us focused. It proved an exercise in short-term memory loss. “Turn right on Barnesville,” Rachel would say. “Ok.” A beat. “Wait, turn left on what?”

Finally we arrived at the middle school. Without a word, I grabbed my sleeping bag, found an open patch of grass on the soccer field, climbed in and fell instantly asleep while the sky began to lighten. An hour later, I awoke to the tink tink tink sound of spikes being pounded into the ground. My whereabouts slowly came to me as voices piped in over the tinking. A little girl. “Coach, why are all these homeless people sleeping on our field?”

I have Ragnar on the mind for more than just seeing shirts at Boston last week. With May rapidly approaching, so too is the inaugural Ragnar Cape Cod. Mrs. Onthebusrunning and I joined a team of her former rugby chums, all of whom are Ragnar virgins. As a two-time Ragnar veteran, I find that one of the best parts of the relay is to experience it again through the eyes of the newbies, and watch their transformation. Heading into my first Ragnar, another blogger told me to soak it all in because it is truly an experience that will stay with you days, weeks, and years after you cross the finish line.

And it does.

Something happens in those 30ish hours where you come to depend on one another whether it’s to have a Gatorade and dry shirt waiting at the end of your leg, a reassuring stop in the middle of your night run to let you know you’re still on track, or a shoulder to sleep on. You depart the start line as six friends or acquaintances crammed into a Suburban, and you cross the finish line some 200ish miles later as Ragarians, bonded by the memories that will live in your photos, videos, and shadowy memories that will surface whenever you see someone else wearing a Ragnar shirt.

There’s a scene in Michael Crichton’s book Travels that captures it well. Crichton encounters a family who’d just come down from Kilimanjaro, the same hike he planned to make the next day.  "Why don't you ask them about it?" his girlfriend says.

So he does.  As the conversation struggles forward, he notes, "As they spoke, the dull look never left their eyes.  I couldn't tell if they were tired, or disappointed, or if something odd had happened that they weren't talking about...I was disturbed by the flat intonation, the inward manner....Finally the wife said, 'It was good. It was a good climb.'"

Trying to explain these "fun" experiences to non-runners at work, it usually gets met with a blank stare.  And when I know I've lost them, I stop.

“How was it?” I get asked.

"It was good.  It was a good run."

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Ashburn Village 10K Redux

“What are you lookin’ to do today?” The voice came from behind me. I’d taken my place at the front of the pack as we inched up toward the starting line. The weather gave us a brief window where no rain fell. A chilling breeze pushed the grey clouds across the sky.

“Oh, it’d be nice to run 6’s today,” I lied. “You know, if everything comes together.” He plucked an ear bud out and snickered.

“I won’t be up with you, then,” he said. “I just don’t like having to wade through the crowd at the start.” We exchanged a few more words about marathons past, when I realized that all eyes fixated on me. I had finally become “that guy.” I looked around and noticed I was the only one in split short and a singlet, and one of the few without headphones.

“You running the 5 or the 10?” another guy in a green shirt asked.

“The 10,” I said. “You?”
I remained friendly and upbeat. I asked him about the course and had he run it before. We shook hands, offered each other luck, and turned our attention to the starter.

A sudden calm settled over me, the one I’d been trying to instill all week leading up to this past Sunday. The doubts vanished. I replayed this race in my head for weeks as the lactic acid bound my legs on the track or I faced another hill somewhere in the middle of a two-mile interval. Just seconds away from the start, I knew I had nothing left to do…but race.

At the gun, green shirt bolted from the start and made the first right turn onto the main road. I drove the course the day before, so I knew that we would run the first two miles along this stretch before weaving our way through the local neighborhoods. I held back knowing that I had another 6.1 miles to catch him and whomever else went with us. But after 200m, I’d pulled even. And then away.

I didn’t bother to look back but rather focused on my form, keeping my legs churning, and not overstriding. The Sunoco station appeared on the right and I knew I had about a quarter mile to go before the first mile marker. My legs felt strong and I felt light. I glanced down at my watch hoping to see 5:30, knowing that was 15 seconds too fast, but burning some of that adrenaline off. When I saw 5:06, I hit the brakes. Whoa! Let’s everybody relax! I thought. If green shirt could hang, good for him, he could have it.

I rode the hills and came to the 5K turnaround. “Right turn,” one of the volunteers yelled to me.
“10. K.” I breathed.
“Oh. OH! Right on, dude!”

I smiled and surged on.

The two mile marker appeared at the bottom of the next hill. I made the turn and glanced over my shoulder. Green shirt was way back but still visible. Having driven the course the day before, I knew I faced a serious climb here, but, tapping into my trail racing knowledge, I thought, He’s got to climb too and he’s doing the chasing so he’s working even harder.

I settled in and found myself dropping the pace as I crested the hill. I waved off the water station volunteers and circled back to the main road. When I got ready to disappear into the next neighborhood, I glanced back again and saw that I ran alone.

I tried to shut my mind off here at 5K and just ride. The pace had started to get to me but I didn’t want to falter so I continued to press. The neighborhood streets were empty save for a few cars backing out of their driveways. I tossed a “thank you” wave if they stopped to let me by. For all they knew, I could have been out for a Sunday morning run. The houses and street reminded me of my old neighborhood where we used to ride our bikes to the pool and where, these days, I run through on one of my 12 mile routes. Some of those early memories distracted me from the work for a bit until the main road appeared again.

In the final neighborhood, I had just under two miles remaining. I started to catch some of the 5Kers who urged me on. The course double-backed on itself with a mile to go and I got to see just how big my lead had grown. Green shirt was nowhere to be found.

With a quarter mile left, I threw down one last kick and heard my friends calling out my name. The announcer picked me up but not in enough time for them to get the tape out for me to break.

I finished in 36:43, a PR, and course record. Green shirt finished 2:17 after me.

I put my hands on my head and walked over to meet my friends. “Nice job, man. This probably isn’t the best place to puke, though,” he said as I let the wave of nausea recede.

We stayed for the awards and watched my friend, Karen, also capture first place in her age group. While we walked back to the car, the rain began to fall. I stepped into the car, letting the relief wash over me. This one was important to me and had been for many weeks. It’s nice when the hard work turns into hardware at the finish.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Boston Road Trip Redux

Just outside of Gettysburg, PA on Monday evening, the stoplights and strip mall storefronts disappeared in my rear view mirror along route 15. Bucolic fields dotted with cows and budding trees rolled across the dusky landscape and the sky glowed orange just above the mountains. I clicked the cruise control and readjusted in my seat for the final 90 minutes back to Virginia. Of the seven hour drive home from Boston, this is my favorite stretch, so it came as no surprise to me that the euphoria from the weekend hit me here. Truly, I love the Boston Marathon.

Two days earlier, my friend Ebo and I stepped off the T and came above ground. That’s where I spotted the first orange bag. That’s when I felt the first pangs of jealousy. We made our way under gray New England skies to the Boston Marathon Expo to meet up with his girlfriend who’d be running the race for the first time on Monday. The crowd thickened and the air buzzed with anticipation and excitement. We waded into the sea of people going in and out of the Trade Center and Ebo turned to me and said, “This is unlike any expo I’ve ever been to.” And my first thought was, That’s because there is no other race like Boston.

I’ll admit, when Ebo first asked me if I wanted to road trip up to the race with him, I had some reservations. I’d run the last two Bostons and wasn’t sure what it would be like to head to the race and not run it. But, it’s hard to turn down a road trip, and part of me wanted to experience the race from the other side, soak in all the revelry without all the anxiety of actually running (plus I’m qualified for 2013). In short, I was in.

When the weather reports started rolling in for race day – as well as the subsequent warning e-mails – I found some solace in the fact that I wasn’t running. I survived the 2007 Chicago Marathon meltdown, and one 88 degree marathon is enough, thank you.

Ebo’s girlfriend ran as part of the Tufts Marathon Team. Tufts trains its team members to prepare them for the race and provides a sweet setup for not only the runners but also their friends and family. This is the way to spectate at a race. After a team-sponsored pasta dinner Sunday night, Tufts provided buses to take us to mile nine in Natick to cheer on the runners. Once the roads opened back up, the buses took everyone to the finish line, and then back to campus. I, however, drove myself so that I could hit the road back to Virginia once the roads opened back up.

The air felt heavy and warm when we arrived at mile nine. Morning clouds had burned off and the sun beat down on us. We munched on Dunkin Donuts and chatted with his girlfriend’s parents, checking our watches and Twitter to find out when we’d see the first runners.

Ebo and I posted up on the side of the road as the first wheelchair participants zoomed by. It wouldn’t be long now. I likened the experience to running a relay like Ragnar. Time slows when you’re waiting to start, but as soon as your van takes off, it’s suddenly 30 hours later, you’re exhausted, hungry, haven’t showered, and are closer to five other people than you ever thought you could be. Ok, so perhaps it’s not exactly like running a relay, but time does fly.

A car driving Meb came by, which elicited shouts of the only thing I could think of, “Meb!”

Then the elite women gracefully flowed by us, followed not long after by the men. I’ve never been up close when a pack of world class elites have gone by. It is awing and beautiful all at once to watch them cover ground so swift and elegantly.

From there, Ebo and I went into full spectator mode, practically clapping for two hours straight and calling out the names runners had drawn on their shirts. We commiserated over how good it felt to get the thumbs up from a runner passing by, a “thank you,” or simply when someone started running again after walking by you.

Ebo’s girlfriend came by looking strong despite the climbing temperatures. We resupplied her and then she was off again.

The river of runners eventually dried up and we retired to the tent for another Tufts provided meal. The exhaustion began to wash over us as well.

The road opened back up not long after 1:45. I said good bye to my friend and pulled out of the lot aimed south toward Virginia.

I may not have brought home another Boston jacket, but I packed with me another year’s worth of Boston memories. The trip became all the more rewarding to experience the race through a beginner’s eyes. Though, I wasn’t at the finish line, Ebo’s girlfriend raised goosebumps in her race recap abouther final stretch down Boylston Street. It’s a quarter mile you’ll never forget.
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