Friday, May 27, 2011

On The Road to See America: Wisconsin & Kalamazoo Marathon Double Header

Wisconsin Marathon
The GeekGrl and I flew to Chicago just one week after flying to Nashville so we could knock out two more marathons and see if we could complete the “Double Double.” I have done three marthons in two consecutive weekends but never four so this would be a new experience for both of us. After landing in Chicago we drove to Kenosha Wisconsin and got checked in to the hotel before heading to packet pickup. Talk about a different vibe, the Wisconsin marathon packet pickup took place in two separate rooms of a Best Western hotel and you had to follow hand-made signs to get from one room to another.

Unlike the prior weekend of gargantuan expos and packet pickups that requires hundreds of volunteers to staff, the Wisconsin marathon expo was a couple tables, one of cheese of course, and about five people handing out bib numbers. This kind of scene is really more my speed and I really appreciated the lower key atmosphere.

The next morning it took us longer to drive from the hotel to the race start and I ended up having to park maybe a mile away. As soon as we got to the start we met up with Mike and Jenny Wimmer but I had to get in line for the restroom immediately so Misty was the only one who got to hang around and talk with them before the race started. As I was standing in line the clock was ticking much faster than the line was moving and when I was in the restroom I heard the starting gun go off. I finished up and when I came out the door I saw that I would get to start the race and the very back of the pack but at least I would be starting with the main pack and not running across the start after everyone was gone, not that it really matters because it is chip timed after all.

The people I was running with at the back of the pack were crowded in pretty tightly on the narrow streets and I found myself running up on sidewalks just to pass but I was able to break free in fairly short order. The course is the flattest I have ever run. There was a bit of a roll in it near a park on what I think was the northern end of the course but it couldn’t have gained more than 10 feet. We ran a little through the town of Kenosha, through some nice residential streets, a little bit of farmland and along Lake Michigan.

Where the people of Cincinnati at the Flying Pig were enthusiastic and boisterous the people of Kenosha were polite and reserved. This was a race where you could just get lost in your thoughts and run and that is exactly what I did. I saw the GeekGrl out on the course once and gave her a kiss. I saw Mike and yelled hi and I stopped briefly to give a cramping runner some Endurolytes but other than that I just zoned out and ran. I felt pretty good too and still felt good at the end. Unlike the Country Music Marathon the prior weekend when I got caught up in a sprint to the finish, I just moseyed on across the finish line in a time of 3:41:25 and immediately collected my Cheese Medal, which is really cool.

After getting my medal I walked over to get my free bratwurst. Sadly I decided to skip my free beer because I had about a 5 hour drive to Kalamazoo, MI ahead of me followed by another marathon in the morning. I hung out briefly in the post-race party area and listened to the rock polka band, which was awesome, and then headed out to see if I could locate our rental car and move it closer to the finish line so the GeekGrl didn’t have to walk so far after the finish. I finally found the car after walking for quite a while, drove back over near the start line and then wandered around a bit more and then I saw the GeekGrl wandering around wrapped in a mylar blanket. It turns out that she had finished with a huge PR about 20 minutes before I would have even thought to start hanging around the finish line.

We went and grabbed a bite to eat at Popeye’s and then started the long drive through Chicago to Kalamazoo, MI.

Kalamazoo Marathon
The drive was ok, not as bad as it could have been. I don’t have any idea how anyone could live in a town like Chicago. I need my wide open spaces and relative lack of traffic. It rained almost the whole way to Kalamazoo but it was nice. When we drove through Gary, IN both the GeekGrl and I were dumbstruck as how hideous the city was. I have a Social Worker who works for me that I like a great deal and she is from Gary. I also apologize to anyone who may stumble on this post who is from Gary but I’ve got to tell you, from the road we were on it looked like a post-apocalyptic toxic waste dump and it smelled like sulfur. There were mountains of coal, power lines galore, coal burning power plants and there was even a sign “Gary Indiana Welcomes You” painted on a structure that was obviously integral to their sewage treatment facility. We just kept telling ourselves that there must be a better side of town.

Once out of Gary the landscape turned to farmland and then to the rolling hills and pine forests of Michigan. We arrived in Kalmazoo and headed straight to packet pickup so we could just spend the rest of the night relaxing. Packet pickup was just like a small-scale expo that you might see at any large marathon, there was a fair amount to do and see but the highlight was taking the GeekGrl over to get her free pair of New Balance running shoes and entry fee refund for being the first person from New Mexico to register for the race. After packet pickup we went and ate at a local pizzeria, which was really good, and then to the hotel to sack out.
Morning came quickly and we headed out to the race. They had parking near the race and more remote parking with shuttle busses and we opted for the remote parking and shuttle busses because that turned out to involve a lot less walking. It was all very well organized so the morning went smoothly.

My goal for this marathon was a 3:41. While my original goal for the Marathon Double Double was simply four under four I changed that after having run the Flying Pig faster than the prior days Country Music Marathon. I decided that I wanted to try and run each consecutive marathon at least one minute faster than the previous marathon.

In all honesty I was feeling the effects of the cumulative mileage and travel within the first mile of Kalamazoo. I kept checking my watch for pace and really needed to stay focused to keep on track. I was expecting Kalamazoo to be a flat marathon but that’s not how it turned out, or at least that’s not how it felt. In reality there was only about 1100 feet of climbing compared to Wisconsin’s 900 feet, which I had perceived as pancake flat the day before. In any case, I really had to focus and for the most part my race was pretty grim. I was aware that it was a nice course through mostly residential neighborhoods and I was aware that there was plenty of support and the event was well supported by enthusiastic locals but beyond that my attention to detail was pretty poor.

Oh, I did notice one thing that gave me a chuckle. There is a brief section of the course that is run through a kind of high-tech business park and there was a company that was names Inotech, I think, which reminded me of the “Initech” office from the movie Office Space. It was a laugh I sorely needed at the time because it came after the first of three substantial climbs on the course.

By the end of the race I was pretty much praying for it to be over. It was starting to warm up and I was just really beat. There were a lot of people cheering at the finish line and it was a really good setup with people packed along both sides of the finishing chute for maybe 100 yards. When I finished I just grabbed something cold to drink and a bagel with peanut butter and a banana and went and sat in the shade under a tree. It was really nice to finally be done. My final time was 3:42 and a few seconds. I had missed my goal time but I had still gotten it under four so I was not disappointed in the least.

Four marathons in four states in two weeks are tough. I could probably do more at a slower pace but I’m not sure why I would want to because the logistics and travel get pretty involved. I would probably do it again especially if I were to do something like take a long vacation somewhere on the East Coast where I could pick up several states with less travel but it’s not something that I have in the works again right now.

I will say this though, running these four marathons in different parts of the Country so close in time gave me a very nice perspective on my fellow Americans and quite honestly I like what I saw. It is my belief, quite frankly, that the ways in which we as Americans tend to learn about each other, through biased news, biased politicians and each other’s biased opinions based on lopsided information is just plain poison. If you really want to get a sense of the average person in our country you really need to go and see them, observe them and have a good conversation about running, where to get a good slice of pizza or which kind of cheese is best.

Monday, May 09, 2011

It’s Like Falling in Love Again: Country Music & Flying Pig Marathon Double Header

I have been on a steady diet of trail running over the past couple years almost to the complete exclusion of the roads. My most recent road marathons were Las Vegas and Tucson back in December 2010. Las Vegas, apart from the excellent vow renewal at the run through wedding chapel, was a real drag. It was just miles of pointless running through ankle deep refuse amid an ocean of people. Tucson, not nearly so bad, is a relatively uninspired marathon as well. While Tucson will always have a special place in my heart because it was my first marathon and my first Boston qualifying race, I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way to run it for the scenery.

Yes, the roads hold no pull for me, that is, until this last weekend when the GeekGrl saddled up and headed out to collect some states. Honestly I wasn’t expecting anything from the Country Music Marathon except 26.2 miles in the great state of Tennessee. I mean, it’s a Rock-n-Roll race series event after all, the circus or the marathon world, the events that every “true” runner loves to hate. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Not even the Rock-n-Roll brand was able to cover the spirit of Nashville in the wet blanket of homogenized commercialism that is its trademark.

Flying Pig, now that is a different story. I had high expectations for that one because it has a growing national reputation as a must do marathon, one that has the enthusiastic support of the good citizens of Cincinnati. I was not disappointed. In fact, by mile four I knew I was in road marathon nirvana. The only annoyance was the fact that some of the local citizenry had set up some aid stations of their own between the aid stations that had been set up by the race. Actually, that wasn’t really an annoyance so much as something you had to snap to before drowning yourself. When I run a marathon I carry one hand held water bottle to sip on between aid stations. It’s really more to wet my whistle than to actually stay hydrated. When I roll up on an aid station I grab a cup or two of whatever I think I need. At the Flying Pig I was rolling up on aid stations fast and just mechanically following my plan but it soon started to dawn on me, “Hey, wait a minute, I just drank a cup of water back around that last corner and here is another aid station just a hundred yards ahead.” Anyway, it was an awesome weekend so, onto the events.

Saturday, April 30th Country Music Marathon, Nashville Tennessee
Race morning was a bit chilly just standing around but once you got running it was perfect. I lined up in corral number 8 with the four hour group and looked back up the street where about 28000 other runners stood behind me waiting for the start. Despite the gargantuan number of participants things spread out pretty nicely pretty quickly. Probably within the first mile I had my own little three by five box of space in which to run. The race begins at a local park that has a full size replica of the Parthenon. I found that funny because I had been to Nashville before on a business trip and had run to that very park and did a lap around the Parthenon. Just the day before I was trying to get my bearings so I could find it and show it to the GeekGrl but no luck so I just headed to the hotel.

So, the race began heading toward downtown and Nashville has an interesting mix of some modern architecture alongside plenty that comes from an earlier era. As we headed into downtown we passed several large, old stone churches. In the morning light their appearance was both powerful and serene and I was moved by their presence. The other thing that got to me was the experience of running in a sea of people. Sometimes this can be pretty annoying but in this case the streets were wide and the numbers were just so vast. No matter how far ahead you could see or how far back it was just wall to wall people, a mob on the move but a mob filled with individual goals and aspirations all directed into a singular activity. Instead of obnoxious it was both liberating and humbling.

Heading into downtown was short lived and we did a quick U-turn and headed back out into a nice residential neighborhood interspersed with funky little businesses. The course is laid out in what amounts to three looping out-and-backs with the first taking up about the first 12 miles of the run. This first section was the nicest section and the one we shared with the thousands of half-marathoners. Section two was a combination of industrial and commercial but the return route had us running right toward a huge green space with walkways lined with Greek style columns and a large, ornate building at the center.

The final loop was only memorable for the large park we ran through, which had a small lake that we ran around. It was nice and shaded with a slightly cool breeze blowing off the water, which was really nice because by this time the temperature was pushing 85.

Because this was my first marathon in a series of four over two weeks I decided to run it smooth and easy. I felt good all day and the heat, while definitely making its presence known, wasn’t effecting me as much as usual. I think this was mostly due to the nice breeze that blew most of the day. I kept a steady pace and just bided my time until the people ahead of me began to falter. I have gotten really good at either running an even split or a slight negative split on marathons and have discovered this means that virtually nobody passes me after mile 18 and few, if any, pass me after 15. However, I was passed at mile 22.5 by a woman in a pink shirt. She was going way too fast for me to try and hang on all the way to the end. I just kept plugging away and finished in 3:46:11. I’m always real happy with a sub-4 marathon. Somehow even though I know I can consistently run sub-4 it is still a thrill.

After the race the GeekGrl and I immediately began our drive to Cincinnati and once we were well outside Nashville we stopped for a bite to eat and toweled off with some baby wipes and then it was back on the road for Flying Pig the next day.

Sunday, May 1st Flying Pig Marathon, Cincinnati Ohio
We were making good time and enjoying the drive from Nashville to Cincinnati until we got about 10 miles from Cincinnati. The three lane highway we were on narrowed to one lane right at the bridge over the Ohio river so rather than arriving for packet pickup an hour and a half early with time to spare so that we could grab a bit to eat and relax we arrived 32 minutes after packet pickup had closed down. Fortunately the people in charge of the Flying Pig realized that there was some terrible traffic and people would likely be delayed so as the rest of the Expo was being broken down a small group of volunteers stayed behind ready to give out race packets and swag to all latecomers. It was pretty cool of them and evidence of things to come.

The GeekGrl and I ended up shoveling down our pre-race pasta meal that was hosted by the Millennium Hotel where we stayed. Despite coming in at the tail end of the pasta feed the cook staff continued to put out fresh pastas, garlic bread, sauces, meatballs and broiled chicken breast. Other than the relative lack of people you wouldn’t have known we were the last people around. After a rushed dinner we headed straight back up to our room, put together our race outfits for the morning and zonked out.

The morning of Flying Pig was cool and overcast as we walked the half-mile from the hotel to the start area. It was pretty much like any marathon/half-marathon event with about 20 to 30 thousand participants, just loads of people milling about trying to say warm and engaging in idle talk while waiting for the event to start. At some point before the beginning of the race a steady drizzle started to fall but there wasn’t much else to do but stand in it and just get wet. Apparently the GeekGrl’s starting coral, or Pig Pen as they are called at the Flying Pig, was under a bridge so she was able to stay relatively dry. I was not dry at the beginning of the race but at least it wasn’t a shoe soaking pouring rain.

The very beginning of the race was unremarkable. There was the usual countdown, the bang of the starter’s gun and the rush of adrenaline as the mass of runners let out a roar and lurched into motion. During the initial jockeying for position I was really feeling the marathon from the day before. My angry left hip was complaining again and my stiff—legged hobble didn’t allow for much lateral mobility. After a couple hundred yards my herky-jerky forward motion gave way to and awkward gait that resembled human locomotion and then finally into an effective, if not smooth, run.

It was hard to tell where exactly we were at the very beginning of the race because the gray of dawn was darkened by a cold drizzle. Soon enough though we emerged onto the downtown streets of Cincinnati and much to my amazement they were lined with umbrella wielding, rain coat wearing yelling and cheering Cincinnatians. It was so cool! The mass of runners flowed through the urban canyons created by the high-rises crowding the streets like a flash flood suddenly appearing after a torrential downpour upstream. In spite of being one of thousands I had no sense of being caught up in a sea of humanity like I had at the Country Music Marathon the day before. Somehow I was much more cognizant of my individuality and the individuality of those around me. The soggy spectators were cheering specifically for that guy ahead of me and the woman next to me and then me and then the couple running next to each other behind me. Much later in the race I saw a couple women holding up a sign that exemplified the odd relationship between the runners and the spectators. It said, “Hey complete stranger, we’re proud of you!” and they were very enthusiastic and it did feel very personal.

After leaving the downtown area we were soon in a kind of back behind the scenes industrial area next to some railroad tracks and it was devoid of people. We were then running across a bridge that crossed some small tree lined river and I was settling in for a morning of running largely devoid of people but as soon as we were across the bridge we emerged into an urban neighborhood that was pretty run down. It was lined with small local grocers and bars with cheap neon lights hanging in the windows advertising such beers as Pabst, Miller and Budweiser…no microbrewery honey wheat ales here.

However, these streets too were packed with the denizens of this neighborhood and they were equally soggy and equally enthusiastic. I even saw a small punk band, one snare drum, one electric guitar and one guy screaming, standing in the entrance to some bar trying to keep the electronics from getting fried as they belted out one tune after another. We then left that neighborhood behind and entered another unpopulated industrial area and then back again to a different neighborhood and a different flavor of the citizenry of Cincinnati.

This is how the day went, urban areas, residential neighborhoods, industrial backwaters, wealthy areas, modest areas and areas that were clearly impoverished and crumbling. I ran from the gritty inner city punk scene to a barbershop quartet crooning on the well-manicured lawn of a huge public green space to a six year old girl standing outside a modest bungalow, water pitcher in hand and a TV tray filled with 3 ounce Dixie cups.

I don’t know anything about Cincinnati except that it was, at least on the script, the setting of the short-lived 1970’s sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati”, however, I left with the distinct impression that Cincinnati is a city that is proud of itself, all aspects of itself, and if you want to be presented with some one-dimensional fa├žade, some “image” of the City then you can go run some other damn race. I May be way off base and I’m not saying that as a city it doesn’t care or want to clean up it’s more dilapidated areas, I’m just saying that I was consumed with the feeling that all of Cincinnati really owned the race and to the greatest extent possible in 26.2 miles we covered it all and
no matter where we were the citizens proudly proclaimed “We are here, We are Cincinnati!”

Early in the race, quite out of nowhere, I had the thought, and was convinced, “I am in road running Nirvana.”