Saturday, March 13, 2010

Spring is on the way

The big melt is underway, spring is getting close. The sun is rising earlier every morning, and evening runs aren't completely dark. We've had lots of dense fog over the past couple weeks as the warmer air moves in over the quickly-melting snow. Several days over 50 and some warm sunshine here and there have encouraged tulips and crocuses to start poking up, and snow drops to even come into bloom. Living in a place with seasons is essential to me, because of what they represent about life and faith. As the seasons return and repeat, they can feel so profoundly different from one another that it almost feels like a new life beginning or ending - this is very refreshing to me. I only have one life to live, but each spring somehow feels like a new beginning, and faith through the long, cold, dark winter always gives way to a fresh start in spring time.
Friday 3/14 was this year's first outdoor bike ride for me. (Last year it was a chance 61-degree day on 3/5). The sun was just barely out, but the air was mild and the path was mostly dry. I joined up with my friend Luray and her brand new bike, and took a welcome-back loop around the Cap City trail: the start of another season. This morning I visited Bike-o-rama and resisted the temptation to purchase a new $5,500 racing bicycle. Phew!

With a new season, there are always new goals, new objectives... this year I'm certainly feeling excited for what lies ahead. On my desk is a single 11x17 piece of paper in a grid of 12 months and 365 days. I've picked some of my favorite races and colored those days in orange. I've picked some fun vacations and colored those in green. In between, there are holidays, commitments, celebrations... and white spaces perfect for getting ready for all of the above. A whole year there on one page. In a way, it goes pretty fast. I find that you if you leave just the right amount of white spaces, though, there's time to slow down and appreciate it all. I think it's going to be a fun year.

As for racing goals? At least right now, I'm focusing on having a good time, making new friends, and helping teammates achieve big fund raising goals and personal finish line successes. I'm sure that as I live the proverbial multisport lifestyle, and keep playing outside, I'll naturally get stronger and quicker along the way. This year's schedule might not look as technical as last year's, because I'm simply not as concerned with the outcomes or standings, more with a summer of fun. Of course, I did promise myself March as an off-season after Mardi Gras, so we'll see how things change as I get back to feeling really "into it."

Here are some photos from the melt around the yard...

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Race Report: TNT Inaugural Mardi Gras Marathon!

This race weekend was the most meaningful Team in Training experience than I’ve had in my three years with the organization. On race weekend it became crystal clear that over the course of four months, our team became a family.

My race was a challenging mental battle between wanting to do something that I believed I could do if I really worked hard during the race – finish in under four hours – and wanting to spend the whole day, running included, with my teammates. For most of the season, my top priority was to be the best mentor I could be, stay healthy, and train smart to become a better runner, simple as that. I ran at whatever pace allowed me to spend time with my teammates, and added some hills and tempo work mid-week to make myself stronger. It wasn’t until our 16-mile training run that I took off with the “speedy” runner group one morning, because I wanted a chance to spend some more time getting to know Mike, Maggie, Gill, and Beth. From there, something clicked and told me wow: you can be a “speedy” runner!

So I came to the race with a pace card drawn up that showed a series of negative splits for a 3:58 finish. I’d spend the weekend with my friends, corral up with my “speedy” gang and get started together, and see how I felt as the race unfolded. I have such mixed emotions about speed that I feel guilty even writing about a time goal – I’m not going to write a race report about all my splits and speeds. To finish a marathon - or half for that matter - is the ultimate accomplishment. I’m not going to boast about my time or compare it to anyone else’s, just like I’m not going to win a marathon. I just want to run with the Team, run for joy, and keep challenging myself because I don’t ever want apathy to replace the excitement I have for the sport. As John Bingham says “the miracle isn’t that I finished, the miracle is that I had the courage to start.”

This season, between the mid-week buddy runs with all sorts of old and new friends, and the weekend Team runs, I discovered that for the first time in my life, I really liked running. Up until now, I had done it for training, for health, for a way to meet people, but always felt like it was beating me up or was too hard to be fun in and of itself; I realized this weekend that that’s changed – it’s become something that I truly enjoy.

New Orleans is a pretty fun place. When you travel somewhere with the primary intention of racing, you don’t necessarily see the city for all it has to offer, you try to stay off your feet, stay off the drinks, and get to bed early. But we were able to tour around a bit and get a taste of this really unique place. The French-influenced architecture is particularly stunning and distinctive, and the food is particularly tasty and carb-loaded!

Our Team in Training inspiration party the night before the race got me charged up and proud as ever to be a member of the team – and proud to be a mentor for the Wisconsin team. About 700 Team members from around the country attended this inaugural event, and raised over $1.1 million! This race would be covered in purple! Fellow mentor Kelli was recognized as the nation’s top fundraiser for the event, and the Wisconsin chapter stood to proudly applaud her accomplishment. Inspirational runner and author John “The Penguin” Bingham addressed the group and offered his unique and important perspectives about running, running slowly, and running fun.
Race morning began with an alarm at 4:00am, and even though I didn’t do a whole lot of it the night before the race, I was glad to discover the alarm clock waking me up from real sleep. Preparing for races does get a bit easier with experience, but carefully checking over everything still takes time, and some nerves. The more tricks you know for race prep, though, the easier things are on race morning – like how to wear warm clothes and then send them in gear bags to the finish line, and stay warm in throw-away trash bags up until the gun goes off. All the Team gathered in the Sheraton lobby, and headed out for the most fun walk to a starting line I’ve ever had – we “second lined” it. Like in a New Orleans-style funeral procession, a brass band led the way down the streets and all 700 of us followed along, waving purple handkerchiefs and the like. Other racers looked down from their hotel rooms as we passed, and waved us on. Timing was perfect as we walked (a mile) to the starting line, used the bathrooms, dropped off our gear bags, and made our way to the corrals. No unbearable periods of waiting, no shivering in the cold.

Over 15,000 runners participated in the race (I’ve also heard over 18,000), between the half and full marathons, and were divided into 20 starting line corrals. Gill, Beth, Rebecca, Maggie, my roommate Tyler, and I were all together in corral 10; Coach Art explained that he would start in the “OK Corral.” As we began moving forward, we laughed about the super-hardcore announcer who sounded straight out of a monster truck rally. We went nuts when he exclaimed “THIS IS NOT A DRILL!”

The race directors did a really nice job of blending the half and full marathons: runners in each race were intermixed in the corrals, and side-by-side on several of the streets, separated by cones or boulevard medians. The two races split and re-connected through the day, so runners in each race would see runners in the other race at various mile markers, for a better chance to see friends in the other race. Jo was able to spot me once and connect.

I was so glad to start the race with my running buddies from the season. We helped each other hang on to the reigns as we got going gently but steadily. I had secretly shared my race pace plan with Gill the night before but she wasn’t sure it was what she wanted from the day – and I certainly didn’t want to put any stress on her. The first five miles, the five of us ran together through some tough neighborhoods in the southern part of the city – Cat later said she saw one house still bearing a spray-painted “1 dead in attic” on the wall. However, mixed in with delapidation were beautifully-maintained homes; both of these types had residents in the windows and on the porches waving and shouting encouragement.

Some of the roads were rough, but with a little attention none of them were harder to manage than the snow we were used to. It’s always nice on race day when roads are completely closed and runners can use either side of the road’s crown – it’s easier on the legs than always running on one slope. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many police officers on a race course – not only were there a lot of street crossings, but I think the race organizers also wanted to be absolutely sure there would be no problems in this dangerous city on their big inaugural day.

At mile 5, I was feeling good. The pace was steady and I was feeling healthy and positive. The sun had come up and the air was warming; it feels so good to go from training in the snow to racing in shorts and a tank top. All five of us were together, and Gill made a stop to remove her base layer shirt. We were getting ready to make a turn and run through Audobon park, and I stopped for some Cytomax to wait for the rest. I was right on pace for my goal time, but it was time to make the first negative split, and the clock was ticking as I waited. This was my day, I had to go for it. When the others came out of the water stop, I asked Gill if she wanted to kick it up a notch – she didn’t. I hated to leave them, but I explained: I had to try something crazy. And so began a series of twenty 8:50 miles and the hardest marathon I think I could have set out for myself.

Audobon park was lovely. Most of the neighborhoods we ran through were lovely – palm and shady oak trees and huge, old, beautiful homes. Residents who had been woken up by all the commotion were outside and supporting us – I didn’t hear an unkind word all day. The Saints’ recent victory had clearly given the city a significant morale boost; Saints stuff and “who dat” were everywhere. Mile 9 took us down St. Charles Avenue straight back towards downtown, with the skyline in front of us. Around mile 11 we turned onto Decatur St. which took us right into the French Quarter – the same street we had walked the day before as a Team to have mufaletta sandwiches for lunch the day before.

Miles 12, 13, and 14 went down Esplanade Ave., from the French Quarter to the huge City Park in the northern part of the city. On the other side of the street, I could hear half-marathoners’ excited tales of reaching double-digit miles, and I felt good about those achievements. It was in these miles, though, that I started really noticing just how fast I had decided to run. I continued to eat every 30 or 45 minutes for energy, and take on Cytomax at the water stations; the day was getting hot and I didn’t want to cramp so I stayed clear of the water and stuck with sports drinks. Should I take salt? My knees and hips were hurting more than they had in the last couple months – maybe from too much walking the day before? – so I had a few ibuprofen along the way, too. My mind had already started playing the classic games: can I keep this up, will I make it? Knowing ahead of time that the mind will do such things makes them slightly more manageable. I might describe this race as a very fine line between my time goal and complete disaster, with only my mental stamina between the two. This is what makes the marathon magical.

At mile 16, we turned north along the edge of City Park, into a head wind. The sun was hot so the wind was nice and cool, but added some unwelcome resistance. Since increasing my pace at mile 5, I was gradually moving up through the field the whole day. I encouraged everyone in purple I saw, and I gave some shouts out to the fast runners who went flying by in the other direction at their mile 24, heading towards times like 3:00. Mile 16 is also where I came up on my roommate Tyler, who was running slowly but not looking too good. A great guy and good teammate, I had a fun time getting to know Tyler over the weekend. I bit my tongue the night before when he had said he hoped to run this marathon – his first – in four hours, and as he said when I saw him and again later, he started too fast. I also learned that he didn’t really eat anything, so he was hurting. I encouraged him a bit and he said he wanted to run with me, which I would have enjoyed, but I was locked into my pace and he couldn’t hang.

At mile 17, I decided to take a sort of half-time break and recompose myself. I grabbed some Cytomax and put some ice in my hat, and stopped into a porta potty (the first time I only made one bathroom break during a marathon!) It was nice to stand still and breathe for just a minute. Outside, a good band was rocking out and I was getting jazzed back up. I was refreshed and ready to rock n roll! It’s amazing what a minute of good relaxation can do in the overall scheme of things.

At mile 17.5, I was excited to see that the next purple shirt up ahead came into focus as Mike! My first thought was how excited I was to see a fellow running buddy, then my second thought was a jovial “Mike you bastard, I’ll outrun you yet!” He had just started a walk interval (he does 8-2 run-walk, and successfully) and I asked him if he’d run a minute with me. I was sad to hear him decline, saying that he was hurting – Mike is a strong runner and I felt bad that he wasn’t feeling good. I hoped he would have a second wind like he often does and get to feeling better again; I tried to encourage him a bit, shouted “go team” and went on.

I went on indeed – into a few really tough miles. Out at this edge of the course there were no bands, and almost no spectators. I was in the “bite me” zone – at least I could recognize it. I pulled my hat down a bit and, since the pavement was smooth, closed my eyes and tried to focus on relaxing, breathing, and zoning out for a bit – maybe then I’d snap back to life and it would be a mile later! Same deal at mile 19, but there were some cool birds and nice houses along the Bayou St. John and I focused on them. Thank goodness, there waited Gateway chapter coach Rudy, who I had never met before, but who started running with me and raised me up out of my slump. I told him how glad I was to see him, told him about my goal, and asked him to help me keep the faith – he helped me keep my pace up and talked with me about our Teams. He was right there when I needed him the most, and I told him that at the end of the day when we walked home together.

Miles 20 and 21 were an out and back, and sharp swings between doubt and confidence. I was a minute ahead of my goal and still ticking, but hurting. Fortunately, I could see one after another purple shirt going by in the other direction, and I shouted “Go Team!” to each of them. Most seemed to snap out of a similar funk and respond. I saw Mike, who shouted “Dano, you’re a madman!” – which was the best thing he could possibly have said to me. Then I saw Rebecca, Gill, and Maggie and was enthused to see them together and still making great progress. I saw Tyler again and was glad he was still at it too.

I guess at mile 22 I was confident that I could keep hanging on, but I was deep into the pain cave. At mile 23 I grabbed some CytoMax, walked to drink it, and had a pretty tough time getting going again. I tried to make some remarks to the runners around me, and got the sense that they might have wanted to talk, too, if we weren’t all in such a tough spot. I though about Coach Rudy and thought how cool it would be to see Coach… Art! There he was! With him at my side, all of a sudden I was an Olympian, a world-record holder, a Kenyan! The nerve – he started to videotape me, which was pretty fun, until I spontaneously burst into tears. Go figure. The marathon takes you to your edge in many respects, where you are very fragile. Art said he’d run with me as long as I wanted, which was a great assurance, but didn’t feel fair to the others. We made it to one turn where I thought he’d leave, but he didn’t – that was really good. He said he’d run me all the way to the finish if I wanted, and we talked about the race so far, and how I was doing. Overall, I was super tired, but good. We both shouted “Go Team!” to the runners heading the other direction. Suddenly we saw Cat headed the other direction, and Art turned to go with her; she was at mile 16 and I was glad he could now go pick her up for a bit. I was headed for the finish. I saw Dan Eccles and had the presence of mind to shout “congratulations” – Dan was wearing his medal already and I learned later that he met his goal of qualifying for Boston with a 3:14! Near him were James, James’ mom, and little Christopher, who were also going crazy. As I neared the finish line, the fans were getting denser. In numbers, that is.

Mile 25 was weird. The course turned to go into the center of the park, but this mile was forgotten by all fans, bands, and coaches. It was a silent, infinite, miserable wasteland. I felt like I was running much slower all of a sudden but told myself it was OK, just as long as I kept running. My arms were exhausted. There was an extra out and back that I couldn’t see the end of, and I was worried about how much farther we would have to go! Silly thought, looking back on it, since the race is always 26.2 miles long. There didn’t even seem to be a lot of other runners around, just hot sun, bright concrete, burning legs, and people walking around.

Just around the monument, finally, was the 26-mile banner. I’ve made it! I started to feel pretty good, then the fans picked up again, then I started to feel great, then I saw the finish chute, and I was a new man. I slowed down, straightened up my outfit and number, turned back to let any sprinting people go past (one did), and stood up tall into my best form to salute the crowd and – hands up – finish photo! All day I had wanted to enjoy the day, but also be finished, and now I couldn’t believe that I was, and that I had made my goal to boot. I was tougher than the marathon today, I had put in the hard work all day and all season and earned the reward, and took a moment in the quiet to allow a few tears to seal the deal. There’s no reason to hold back emotions that are real and true.

From there, it was gently stretching, slowly starting to eat again, walking funny, and feeling great. I checked in at the TNT tent and received the coveted 26.2 pin, and then did the only thing that I could possibly do next: go back to the finish chute and cheer in my teammates. I could hear Sister Hazel (my favorite band) playing on the main stage, but wanted even more to see my friends finish. Gill, Mike, Rebecca, Maggie – I was so happy for each of them. Even better, though, they hung around the TNT tent in the sun, enjoying the day. As others watched the concert and headed home, Wisconsin stayed. Cat and Suzi came in. Beth, Roz, Bri. Marathon finishers! The end of the race was getting nearer, and Wisconsin was still hanging around – celebrating, taking photos, and being together. We just had Nina on the course, this season’s walker, and we all decided to go back out to the finish line and wait for her.

As the end of the race drew near, announcer John Bingham and TNT director Jennifer Grandy opened the gates and invited the few of us remaining to form a human receiving chute at the finish line for all the remaining participants. One by one, they came walking or running in, and we gave them each a hero’s welcome. Nina arrived with Art, and we gave her her royal celebration. We learned that there was one more TNT participant on the course, and after a long pause looking anxiously down 100 yards of silent finish chute, in an incredible moment, she appeared. Around her was a purple and green second line of every coach and staff member who were out on the course, bringing her in. I had never before stayed at a race until the last person crossed the line, but today for me and for Team Wisconsin, we knew it was the only thing in the world that we needed to do in those moments. “Ohana means family, and family means no one gets left behind or forgotten.” Team in Training continues to amaze me; it totally changes lives. We did a great thing this weekend.