As always, there was a lot of apprehension before the start. The race officially started at 10 a.m., but the race start was 13.1 miles away from the finish, 10 miles up the Colorado River on Highway 128. SO, this meant a caravan of buses to transport the 1,500 participants to a staging area that was like a well-appointed refugee center?! Rows of porta-potties, music blaring, and lines for coffee, water and Gatorade, help make the two hours pass easily. I wandered down to the river to stretch, do a sun salutation, and write a message of gratitude in the sand.
The highway is narrow, with a small rise above the river at this point. As wave after wave of busses dumped their cargo of runners, the staging area became addled, albeit a very polite addled, but addled none the less. About 30 minutes too early, many of us started to lean towards the actual start line, about a quarter-mile further up the canyon. If already done a couple of miles of warming up, but we weren’t in the sun yet. My legs and lungs felt good, but my body was getting cold.
I decided to press my luck, and join the herd that was inching out. As we walked up hill, the wagons that would carry out “courtesy bags” we’re on the left. I still didn’t want to take off my jacket, and layers, but knew the time was coming, soon. Another column of porta-potties greater us, but so did the sun! I braved the cold and packed my gloves, jacket, hat and thermal, and headed to the sun. The race start was still 45 minutes away, but I had to keep moving. Too much time to get cold, too much time to think, and the start line was in the shade, I wasn’t going to stand THERE.
Minutes dragged, more runners found their way to the line, a snake of neon and sneakers started to grow. Two or three more “strides,” “stretches,” and anaerobic work, and I had to get to the line.
There were “pacers” in the crowd. These are runners recruited to help you set your pace and ultimately run a smarter race. I’ve never run with a pacer, as honestly, I’ve never been in a race WITH them. I knew what I wanted to run, I knew HOW I wanted to run. A sub 1:30:00 was totally doable, but I had to run MY race. To run this in less than an hour and thirty minutes, I needed a couple of 7:05 minute miles, a lot of them close to 6:50, and a couple under 6:45, and one or two in the 6:35 range. But really, I just wanted to finish. I’m actually terrified of a DNF. I’ve never quit. So, I inched myself towards to front of the pack. It was getting dense, and I made a space for myself between 1:30:00 and 1:40:00 pacers.
This last 10 minutes was just visualizing, and telling myself over and over, “Your first mile WILL NOT BE under 7 minutes!” Everyone else can fuck themselves up, but DON’T fall for it!
The started called “3 minutes!” And we frowned, and pushed forward… “2 minutes!” Collective “ugh…” “1 minute!” A hushed “shit…” resonates through the pack. “10 seconds!!!” No count… “BANG!” And we’re running…
“7:00, 7:00, 7:00!!!” I screamed to myself, fighting off the urge to move with the rest of the “whoosh” forward! Tempering this urge to sprint has NOT been a strong suit in the last few years. Running as a teenager I learned the “patient-and-pick-off” style of running. I NEVER started fast. I just couldn’t, or wouldn’t. In the last few years I’ve “started” faster, and while I’ve finished well, I haven’t always finished the way I wanted to. THIS race was going to different. This race was part of a plan, but this race also had it’s own significance.
It was “part of a plan” because the weekend that I turned 49, happened to coincide with the 40th running of the Marine Corps Marathon, in Washington D.C. I don’t (or didn’t) have any special attachment to the Marine Corps, I just knew it existed, like most major marathons, and thought mostly “yeah, out of my reach.” I listened with real interest as I drove home from school to an NPR piece about the “Ground-pounders.” These are the runners who run every single Marine Corp Marathon since it’s inception. Like most pieces it contained the human interest element that makes you sit in your car, long after your drive is over. The runners the interviewed, were great, jocular men. Runners and Marines to the end. And in this case, the are the end. They are the remaining two of all the “Ground-pounders.” THIS stopped me. I started running at 12, in 7th grade, and have stopped at points, but NEVER quite. These guys, in their 70s, had me beat. I had nothing to say. I just needed to shut up. And own up. I have been a runner of 37 years, and I’ve never run a marathon. I’ve run a lot of miles, thousands, somewhere north of 18,000 miles even in the years I only managed 500 miles. But I haven’t done that. A marathon. There just wasn’t time. Too many responsibilities with young children. Running was my meditation and my therapy. I ran to justify ice cream and beer, and with the thought that “someday” the boys will join me, and “someday” I’ll need to keep up with them. So, I just kept running.
But the “Ground-pounders” changed that. Something became finite. Yes, I’d overcome a torn meniscus. Yes, I had restarted my running when I didn’t think it was possible. Yes, I have a far more balanced approach to fitness and diet than I ever have, but, “someday” is on the calendar. I need(ed) to make “someday” a date… I didn’t have a plan, nor a date, but I knew what I was going to do for the weekend. I was going to be healthy, happy, and run 13 miles… because I could.
I’d been running strong through the fall after a really great summer of cycling! Yoga was spot on, and I just felt good, the kind of good I hadn’t felt in a while. I did look up a few races, I talked to James about “turning 50” and what it would mean to get my first 26.2 before that happened, but I definitely DIDN’T make a plan. I kept up with the running and the yoga, I knew ski season was just around the corner and I was heading into it in far better shape than I’d ever been. So, just stick to it. Stay balance, stay in tune, but don’t fixate! Another week or two of this passed along and Facebook provided the answer: the Moab Half Marathon!
So, yes, being in Moab was part of THAT plan. The “let’s do something about this turning 50 shit?!” plan. And I was really, really happy to be there (here), on that (this) starting line. Cold wind circling around, blue sky above, the Colorado River roaring and echoing in the surrounding canyon, with hundreds of arms reaching into the air, as we all realized our Garmins weren’t finding the satellite signals quickly enough (merde!).
And, we WERE now running. The “whoosh” is well ahead of me, 75, maybe 100 runners? I’d settled myself in between the two obvious pacers for “my” race. I was losing site of the front marker, and getting serious pressure from the group behind. But I wasn’t going to move. The start is downhill, and the a slight rise past the staging area. The sun was FINALLY breaking over the canyon wall and the entire course breathed a sigh of relief. The “slap, slap, slap!” of 3,000 or so feet was a welcome sound. We were moving and moving rapidly. The first mile was a racket of various running watches “beeping” and “buzzing” to announce that we’d made it. I glanced, caught a breath, glanced again and saw “6:56.” I couldn’t decide which emotion it struck. I felt good, REALLY good. Was it self-satisfaction, was it a genuine “good” for the start of the race? I still can’t decipher. I wanted to slow down. I wanted to relax just a bit. I wanted to race to unfold. I was keeping the first pacer in eyesight. He was never more than 50 yards ahead. Holding up a bit meant more runners crowding around me. I was alright with that. Mile 2 was unfolding, some of the wave was retreating, while the runners who’d started too far back, or hadn’t lept out were starting to push forward. Just like in the ocean, as one wave retreats from the shore and the other pushes forward, a crowd of runners was exchanging places, and I was in that place where the waves simultaneously push and pull at your legs.
I still had the front pacer in sight. But I didn’t like the “boxed in” feeling the exchange of runners was causing. We were in a flat section and would be for another half-mile, and the canyon was bending us to the right. As this next half-mile started to unfold, I realized that “box” was getting crowded. The first aid station, at Mile Two, was within 400 yards. I’d pulled up into a crowd of three runners, but had a couple other’s pressing behind. One runner had been pacing me to my left for most of the last mile, and he kept crowding me. I’m sure it was subconscious, but it didn’t want to get pushed. I felt like I was going to get trapped behind the three we were approaching, and I just didn’t want to break my stride. Was also wary of speeding up, there was still 11 plus miles to run!? I noticed that the runner to the right in the trio was peeling to the right. He wasn’t slowing, but he was creating a space. He wavered as we drew closure; now seven of us galloping, trying to sort out our pace and a rhythm. The shadow on my left stepped left, just a bit, I but he was too close to the three runners in front of us that going left would have been going WIDE left, and that wasn’t a good plan. Down to a 100 yards to mile two, and something had to give. The runner immediately in front of me teetered again, and it happened! A space big enough for ONE runner to squeeze through appeared!
I leapt through! I wasn’t taking a chance! I was not going to lose sight of the pace, and I felt to good. I felt like I really just should. I picked up my tempo to move clear of the group as the volunteers called out “water!” and “Gatorade!” from their various places along the course. I was four, maybe five strides up on my group and the sips and splashes of water then Gatorade brought instant and sustained relief. I didn’t slow, I needed this break. I wouldn’t sustain it, but I needed it.
“Mile 2!” was being called out by our wrists again. Eye’s shot through the beginnings of sweat, “7:03.” “Perfect!” I thought to myself! “This IS exactly where I want to be!” Especially with the my now quickening steps feeling really light as the road started to climb. It was gentle, but was real. I focused on the yellow card in front of me. I wanted to close that gap. The few strides I’d made were not monumental. A few of the runners finding their pace after the slow start passed me, and I simply let them go. I didn’t need “that” race. I had MY race. This is where I wanted to be. Another small pack was slowing, but not giving up. It was feeling like a long, open negotiation at this point. Everyone exchanging places, some easily, happy to find what worked, others resistant, something had gone wrong with their plan…Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate… Running alone, but still surrounded, the heat was rising, as was the wind. We’d all be so cold, and so annoyed by the later start, that getting into the heat now was a burden AND a blessing. The wind swirls from the left, then right, then suddenly the dust is rising above us, and we are pushed forward but dust and debris and heat. “Ah yes… THIS is running in the canyon…”
As we settle into mile three the canyon is a little straighter now, with the road climbing again, but it is more of an interruption than an actually climb. My pace feels so suited to the course, that I can feel my speed and I make the decision to not just KEEP the pacer in sight, it’s time to catch the pack. I’ve lost count, and honestly wasn’t thinking about it, of who has passed me, and who I have passed. It seems to always balance out, and again, I’m running my race. Two of us again are running close, one passes us, then another, as we pick up another two who are slowing. The end of mile three brings us to the end of a huge horseshoe we’ve been tracing. Unwittingly mile three had taken us backwards almost a full mile. This isn’t something you like to think about, but it happens. My wrist buzzes again, another mile marked off with the rest of the crowd. This time though, I’m uneasy; “6:39,” “THIS is not my pace…” I say to myself with a burst of laughter! I’m not running THIS fast?! But yes, actually I am. Hmm…
The thing is, I’ve cut my distance to the pacer my half. I can probably get into his group by mile five, and if I do that, then I can “relax” a bit. With eyes constantly darting to my wrist, I ease ever so slightly, knowing what his pace SHOULD be, and figuring where I need to be in order to shrink that gap. “6:40?” “6:42?” “6:45?” “Just breathe, stupid, don’t suffocate yourself out here!” Another 100 yards passes before I look down. “6:44.” Perfect. Just STAY. “This is good!” I think. The canyon is really beginning to shine today, and the wind can’t seem to make up it’s mind? Burgundy and brown hues create a palette on a thousand different textures of rock. Dry grass rustles and the other runners’ breathes fill the background of the tumbling, muddy river’s symphony. “That’s right!” Glance: “6:48.” I remind myself, I’m here for ALL of this, not just the run. I’m settled, I’m content. Another group of runners as loosened from the pace group and they hold with us for ten, fifteen, twenty strides. It’s not easy. You want to lift them, you don’t want to go with them. Knowing the next water is close, I don’t feel I need it, but I won’t pass it up. Glance: “6:46.” The gap shrinks a bit more.
What seems like the same voice call out, “Water!,” “Gatorade!” The same dance! Elementary aged children are excited to hand it out, and they do a great job! Just beyond the tables, the “buzzing” starts. Glance: “6:46.” “Yes.” “You got this!” comes the internal pep talk! “You got this!” The chatter of the pacer is now audible. They can only be what, five, six yards? Another pair peels off of his group. And, there is a string of an additional six or eight runner that THEY are within 10 yard of. But none of this will come easily. Mile five does that thing, that mid-race “gotcha!” move that we’ve all forgotten about. It starts to climb. The pace groups is a “bunch” and they can’t decide where on the road to run. The group they’re chasing is a line, one to two stride separating each of the runners. They’re string is at least 30 feet long, and they are gliding from one apex to the next, though the curves are mercifully gentle now. But the climb isn’t, and neither is the wind. It has actually picked up, and “the bunch” is being really inefficient, and I’m worried about get locked out of it. Glance: “6:46.” As mile five comes into view and passes, I’m three steps off the pack. The growing wind is telling be to “stay,” but the line in front of us says there are places to catch. Just like at mile two, I have a decision to make. This time, I stay. It seems the line isn’t as efficient as it looked, as they are beginning to slow. Our “box” is actually working. No one has to lead, we’re just “there.” Watches buzz signaling mile five; “6:46,” and I’m where I wanted to be.
The course is tilting away again as the river crashes down its rocky channel to our right. Running in this new pack is right. We’re actually bantering, looking at watches, checking paces, we’re relaxed. “6:50” feels perfect, it IS relaxed after the chase we’ve just given. Settle in and cruise, no more wasted efforts. Cruise, cruise, cruise… just breathe. And LOOK AROUND! Take all of this beauty in! I couple of runners from the line in front of us fall. Three more join our group and hold. We’re heading into mile six and the wind isn’t any easier. More shouts from volunteers, more water and Gatorade splashed. Gel is handed out, but I have my own. “Water!” Sip.. Gel, YUCK!, “Gatorade!” Swish, savour, gulp… Cruise on! Our chimes begin to rattle, “6:50.” “Thank you, Coach!” I say to the pacer. Just cruise, just cruise.
The canyon begins to narrow, the wall becomes sheer, and we’re running right on the edge of the river. We’re still tumbling, like the river it seems, but the wind gives us resistance. We’re all feeling this effect, but what is there to do? There is now a steady string of runners in front of our little pack. Runners’ in pairs and alone, small strings of three, holding their pace. Just as we get to mile seven, there’s a quick climb that we all attack, and stride down the back side of. A couple of racers are passed here, and the heat is starting to make it’s presence felt. We comment about the runners coming in 30, 40, 50 minutes or more behind us, and what that heat is going to feel like!
As mile seven ticks off, my brain starts to “count down” instead of “count up.” “6:49” felt easy, but there are still six miles to go?! Looking ahead, there’s a massive wall that arcs the canyon to the right. It’s HUGE. Towering, almost threatening. It’s also distracting, because there is one more hill in there, and it will be the biggest yet. But mile eight is approaching and the wind is beating us badly. The drummers our out at mile eight to rally our spirits. The wind is wreaking havoc on their sound, and it bounces in every direction off the canyon walls until we’re directly astride, and then the drums are deafening and beautiful. To feel the percussion reverberate through your body does lift us, yet our watches tell us the effect of the heat and distance, with five miles to go, “6:53” is registered.
As we arc to our right it all stops. The wind, the drums, it is silence, just our packs feet, and our breath. It is a sudden transition. The resistance we’ve been feeling the past three miles is gone! We’re running forward, without LEANING forward! We can actually make some time. And we do! “6:43” flashes on my wrist as we start our arc back to the left. And that’s where it is. The “hill” we’ve all forgotten about.
Growing up as a runner in rural Northern Michigan, our coach taught us and trained us to attack the hill. “Anyone can run downhill fast!” he’d yell, but the sand dunes he challenged us to run up made all the difference. 32 years later, I still run that way. I wanted to attack, not just the hill, but the pack. I felt I had more than 6:50 in me, but we WERE still four miles out. But I did it. The Pacer and I both lead a charge, the pack beginning to fracture. We picked up one, then two, then three runners as the hill started to crest. I had to keep pushing, to against them, but of me. SO, the downhill pitch began, and I let my feet fly, bigger and bigger strides, absorbing as much shock with my toes as possible. Be the time the road flattened again I could hear my companion’s breathing. I’d opened up a gap, and I felt a confidence grow as “6:47,” then “6:49” flashed with miles nine and 10 slid by along with our now gentle, river companion. “Three more” I quietly thought. The canyon walls now a coliseum for the triumphant, not a mausoleum for the broken. As mile 10 arced to the left, a strange memory emerged; where was the wind?
Our brains shouldn’t be so paranoid, but maybe that’s what “survival instincts” really are?! And as quickly as I thought it, I was “slapped” in the face by that very unforgiving gust of desert heat! “This, is what the race officials were hoping to avoid?!” I was in the middle of the road when the first gust stood me upright, and the other runners around me joined me in a collective and vocal, “Oh, shit?!” So much for “6:50!” It was dreadful. It was hot. It was swirling in from all directions at once, and yet mostly it was straight on. There wasn’t any shelter. Not even for the river. It’s current was getting pushed upstream! Small waves and white caps forming where the water was SUPPOSED to be perfectly calm?! The river had been bending to the left but my attention was lost on that fact. I was thinking “I can do ANYTHING for 2 miles?!,” but ultimately wondering at what cost? “Just focus, just…”
“You know it’s flat?”
“No?! Not all of it! We have to climb!”
That’s what my monologue said as my chest tightened and I leaned into the wind. “Just bare it, you got this!”
My calf? What? “What was that?!”
“Toes, flex your TOES!”
I’ve never actually experience sort of leg cramping in a race. Ever. This was weird, strange, beyond weird… “Keep them FLEXED!”
I was now “running” in the most ungainly manner down the canyon. Forcefully thrusting my right leg forward so as not to “push” off with my toes. I had to keep my toes rigid to keep the cramping from getting worse. The muscle fatigue skimmed and circled around my entire calf. Darting back and forth across the muscle fiber. It felt as if a serpent were under my skin, trying to find it’s way out. I couldn’t look down or I would break my “stride.” I knew my pace was slowing with this new, hobbled gate, but looking down to examine it would have been absolutely disastrous The end of the canyon was just coming into view and I could see the bridge and the highway that the course would lead us under. I shuddered with paranoia… “walk…”
“Yeah, just walk, a bit.”
I was halfway through mile 11, and now looking ahead I wasn’t understanding the course. I’d ridden it the night before and anticipated going under the highway and climbing up on the path to head into down. But the cones ahead marked a different path. What had been really simple just a few moments ago, “Just follow the road!” was now monumentally puzzling! I couldn’t distinguish runner from spectator and cyclists were beginning to pedal towards the course. An anxiety started to constrict my throat. I tried to verbalize “On your left!” as one usually does when coming to another runner/skier/cyclist, but the words just didn’t form. The thought was just locked there in my psyche, unable to mature, in a perpetual gestation loop. “Is someone going to say something?” “Where’s the course?” “Are those people in the race?” “Get the damn bikes off the course?!,” and on and on. “Just step, just step… one foot, one foot… go!” All this sudden work in my mind was a good distraction as I tumbled along. Gusts were building and blasting us. The roar of the wind and highway traffic was now such a stark contrast to the beauty of the canyon, and I shock as a ran under the highway, with semi trucks barreling over the top. It was a sharp left turn, another blast of wind, heat and nose, and now another rise of the path to meet the road grade. As this avalanche of thought and calculating came to a stop, my subconscious became engrossed in another thought…
“I s t h a t y o u r l e f t c a l f ?!?
YES… shit. The same darting and tension that my right calf was experiencing had now migrated to it’s twin in my left leg.
Uphill, wind gusts, heat, nearly 12 miles covered, yet two unhappy muscles were beginning to showcase their resentment. I could now hear the pacer’s voice. Thoughts of “too early,” and “too much…” sloshed around. This new double-shuffle was killing my pace. “FLEX!” my brain screamed at my toes! “Come on!” “Come ON!!!” Highway traffic within a few running north and south just amplified the fear.
“Veer right, that’s the finish route.”
“That’s mile 12!!!”
“There’s water there!”
Watches buzzing and voices congratulating and feet and hearts and lungs pounding, and we were just over a mile from the finish! It was a LONG mile… a straight, flat, stretch. HARD left turn, the 400 yard to the finish.
I don’t know why it stopped, I really don’t remember when. But I knew I had to run, now. I knew that no matter what, I was finishing, and I was going to finish stronger than I’d started. I had to. That was the plan. Easy start, strong finish. Simple plan. Stick to it. And now, I’m at the finish, I have to move.
“Legs, stretch… this is all you. You’ve got this.”
I opened up my stride. Not like my 28 year-old self, but the 49 year-old who’d shown up for this race after four months of preparation. Like the 49 year-old who was running for people who couldn’t and wouldn’t. Brothers, friends, teammates. Everyone I’ve run with in my life usually shows up at some point in a run, and this was no different.
“Stride, Stride, STRIDE!” Picking up speed, maintaining a form, opening my hands, eyes only looking to the runners just ahead. More spectators, more shouts of encouragement, cop car directing traffic and the frustrated driver wanting to know how to “get around this mess?!”
“Gorgeous sky!” “Look at the canyon!” “Look at the crimson and blue!” But always the stride… No pain, no cramps, no hurt. Lungs taking quick gulps, spitting out the used air. Scowl forming, not from pain or frustration, but focus, the epitome of “running bitch-face.” “Stride, Stride, STRIDE!” “CORNER!”
“Kick!” 400 yards. Flat. Straight. Finish. Two, three runners in front. “Move now, GO!” Kick… Just over half-way the watch blares again.
No Doug to hand a baton to, just a line to cross. “Just KICK!” Fluid, driving, arms pulling, breath synchronized to steps, “quick, Quick, QUICK!” “Run through the line, run THROUGH the line!
I’m sure it wasn’t my fastest 400 yards, but it was one of the most gratifying. Crossing the line to louder cheers, an anonymous announcer calling my bib number and name, I glanced at my watch and at the clock above the finish line: 1:29:35.
“You did it.”
One goal completed, one more to go. A lot of people and a lot of moments have given me inspiration. This one though, it was a couple of Marines, who’ve been running far longer than I’d ever imagined. “Thank you.”