Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Race Report: San Diego marathon!

Just when I think that it doesn't get any better - it does.  Again and again, Team In Training takes me to higher mountaintops and shows me the purest beauty of life and the human spirit.  People coming together, helping each other, encouraging without boundaries, all while pushing themselves beyond physical limits they thought possible.

To be there as a coach makes me feel like I have made it.  Coaching in the Big Game; San Diego is like the World Series of Team In Training.  It's the second-largest national event, drawing over 3,200 participants from all 57 chapters across the USA and Canada, who raised over 9 million dollars to fight blood cancer.  That's serious stuff.  That says to anyone going through treatment or grieving a loss "we are with you, in full force."
Here's a photo from the inspirational dinner TNT holds for participants the night before the race.  A picture, that is, of the second seating.  John "The Penguin" Bingham delivered both touching and hilarious stories, and we helped one of our fellow runners remember his daughter who lost her battle, but motivated us nonetheless.

On Friday morning, I drove over from Madison to Milwaukee with one of my runners, Jess - and the car ride flew by as we recalled stories from the season and she considered, with some incredulity, how the race weekend had finally arrived.  At the airport, we met up with the runners from Milwaukee.  Friday morning, this group of groggy acquaintances exchanged some pleasant introductions during breaks from texting friends and wrapping up other things from the week; by Friday evening we were moving as a group, sharing personal stories, and fully engulfed in our Californian vacation.  What a blessing to let go of the ordinary for a weekend and dive headlong into an experience.

As usual, Team In Training took care of all the transportation, lodging, and race registration, so it was easy to kick back and be on vacation.  At the same time, I helped keep an eye on everyone as a coach - pointing out drinking fountains, suggesting easy activities, avoiding long hours on our feet.  We first visited the race expo to pick up our race numbers - and I took photos as Jess and Dayo received their first-ever marathon bibs.  When Jess was reluctant to buy a really nice-looking race jacket, I reminded her that she will only have one "first marathon."  I'm glad I helped give her permission to splurge, because she loves the jacket.  Not surprisingly, when I came across a TNT "Coach" jacket, I bought one of those, too!

We had dinner together in the gas lamp district and got to know each other.  One of the most important things TNT teaches us is that you just never know.  You never know what people are going through in their lives that they set aside for the weekend to come to the race.  You never know what kind of connection they have to cancer or how dangerously close to them it's been.  At the inspiration dinner, we honor all the survivors and when they stand up, it's always a surprise to see who's been through it, but never even mentioned it.  Imagine what life would be like if we treated everyone like we just discovered they were facing insurmountable odds?  How much better would life be then?  Try it.  Start today.

We walked home and got to bed early Friday night.  Saturday morning I joined our state Director Naomi and my fellow coach Robyn at the staff meeting.  There were literally hundreds, from all the chapters, gathered to prep for the race.  I loved it.  There I was: getting the inside scoop and tidying up all the details for the San Diego Marathon.  I got my first "coach" bib - but no chip.  Coaches are allowed on the course, and we do a lot of running, but we don't do it for ourselves, we do it for the participants.  I like to modify the old race rule: "No chip, no time... no problem!"  I did have my own personal goal of running my first 50k (31 miles) over the course of the day, which I would track using my Garmin GPS watch as I covered the course.

We decided that our day-before-the-race activity would be a trip to the beach!  This would include a good deal of time riding public transit, which coach approves, because it's a fine way to see the city, but stay seated!  I'm not sure San Diego would be a very good fit for me to live: a pretty strange group of people living there, from what I saw.  Of course, the beach itself attracts all kinds...  Nevertheless, teammate Jess stepped up to the plate with her excellent trip-planning and -guiding skills, and led us to the water, where she dipped her hand in the Pacific for the first time.  We got plenty of photos before having a healthy lunch, then heading back for the inspiration dinner and getting to bed.  Race day was upon us.

With a start time of 6:15am, we met in the hotel lobby at 3:45am to catch our bus.  Though I had my things laid out and my alarm set for 3:20, I woke up at 2:55 and was wide awake.  I slathered on sunscreen, suited up, packed a bag of everything I thought a coach ought to have on the course, and headed down.  This is it.  In the wee hours of the morning, when the team was a combination of groggy, nervous, and excited, I was glad to be there to lead them.  Hopefully they were a little less anxious knowing that I had their back: I ensured they had chips, bibs, sunscreen, and body glide.  I brought Gatorade and energy gels; I took photos the whole way.  I helped them put on plastic bags on the way to the starting line so they didn't shiver away their energy stores, and I led them to the porta potties with the shortest lines.  I was fortunate to have been assigned coaching duty on miles 22 - 26.2, so that I would have time in the early morning to go to the start with my team.  The faster runners on our team voluntarily moved back to corral 22 so that we could all toe the line together, and we were early enough to get a spot right at the front.  The open road was before us, our worries were behind us, and all our training was inside us.

I shouted my final piece of advice: "THIS IS NOT A DRILL!"  The horn blew and the moment we had all been waiting for arrived.

Without meaning to, "leaping off things" became a trend of the weekend.  In touring around town, we had come across a couple roadblocks, which I simply leapt over; the Team followed with a few eye rolls.  Well, once I reached mile 1 of the marathon with my team, it was time to get to work: time to short cut over to mile 24!  Once again, I leapt - this time off an overpass - to get down to the mile 10 mark down below.  I ran along (and even saw the Kenyans come by in the lead) for about 5 miles, making a couple stops to check the map and scramble up embankments or across medians and whatnot, to get across the course in the quickest way.

My assignment was one of the toughest parts of the race: the island.  Around mile 22, runners can see the finish line in front of them, but must make a turn and travel around a 3-mile island, devoid of any trees or even features.  And there I waited in the shade of a UPS truck, clapping for the Kenyans, drinking lots of water, fueling up on Powerbar, until the first purple shirt arrived.

He came up with another TNT coach, who briefed me that he was looking to qualify for Boston and holding firm to a mid-7-minute per mile pace.  The runner himself barely spoke - he was right at the breaking point.  So I said a few words of encouragement, and quietly ticked along with him for nearly two miles at the perfect pace, minding the task at hand.  Once he got to the next water station, my day had begun: I turned back and ran 'upstream', alongside the course, cheering on the runners until the next Purple shirt arrived.  Soon enough, a fit and jovial fellow came cruising along and I joined him.  I asked how many marathons he had run and he replied casually "oh, I don't know, a bunch... but this is my first one back since treatment."

Team In Training.  Saves.  Lives.  A Boston-qualifying marathon after having a disease that was once called "100% fatal."  Thank you, Team In Training.

Other features of the morning included putting my arm around a (non-TNT) runner drastically weaving around the course, then helping him to the ground and helping keep him conscious until race medical people arrived.  Running alongside another man just hanging on to his Boston-quailfying time: as he approached and saw me, me beckoned me over to run with him - I liked that, I liked knowing that I could help.  I asked about his honored patient, and suddenly the perspective seemed to change.  As these runners came through, I kept drifting farther and farther downstream, until I eventually stuck with one runner all the way to the finish line.  It's the best thing a coach can do: jump in alongside someone and support them in the toughest parts of the course.  I said, "I'll turn back now, or if you'd like I'll stick with you."  "Could you stay with me a little longer?"  "I'll stay with you all the way to the end."  That's what it's all about.  How rewarding to sit at the dinner table after the race, and have people I had never seen before that morning thank me for running with them.  Don't thank me - you're the one who did all the work!  I could think of nothing I would rather have been doing than bringing home TNT runners all day long.

Soon enough, the runners from Wisconsin came by, one by one.  I had really hoped to run with them around the whole island, because it was so tough - and they each recounted later how they were thinking "where's Dano?!"  I know, I know - I ran as fast as I could to get back up the course, but I kept getting so excited when I saw a runner who seemed like I could help them, that I kept running back and mostly stayed between miles 25 and 26.  They came by in various states of physical well-being, but all of them were positive and excited about the finish.  I was so moved as I sent them into the finish chute - it was certainly an emotional day for many.

All told, I ran to the finish line 13 times and exceeded my own distance goal by running 34 miles in my 8-hour-10-minute day on the course.  Each time I went to the end, I thought "give me more!"  I overheard some spectators say "there he goes again!"  I had a high that I needed to keep feeding, the joy was simply contagious.  I can only ever have my own first marathon finish once, but on this day, I felt it over and over again.  So much hard work, faith, patience, courage, and perseverance goes into finishing a marathon.  The reward is a feeling of satisfaction so overwhelming that you feel indestructible, and a title of "marathon finisher" that cannot ever be taken away.

The day concluded as the final TNT participant walked down the final stretch.  As she did, each coach and staff member stationed along the course fell in line with her - so that as she approached 26.2 miles, she wasn't last and she sure wasn't alone: 300 of us all joined her across the finish line.  In our camp, nobody ever gets left behind.

Sometimes I tell people about the races I go to, and they ask if I won, or who won the race.
You want to know who the winner is in this race?  The one wearing a purple shirt.


  1. A. 3:45 is stinkin' EARLY!
    B. Loving the reappearance of the green hair! It is so you.
    C. 34 miles, Woah! Congratulations, that is far!
    D. You never know. So true. What a great reminder that we are all running for something, but some are running for their lives. Or the lives of others.

    TNT is an amazing organization. Thanks for being a pn encouragement to others when they need it most. Y'all are doing a great thing!

  2. I was coaching out there as well and logged in quite a few miles! Thank you for being a coach and sticking with the team from start to finish! Isn't it the best "job" in the world??

  3. Ohmygosh I remember seeing you at the dinner! lol
    And your team was right behind us in line waiting to go in. Pic in my blog :)

    I found your blog trying to google that race photographer that was out on the course just for TNT (have any idea how to find the pics?), and I loved reading your recap from a coach's perspective!

    There are many heros when it comes to TNT, and thank you for being one of them.