Thursday, July 29, 2010

Missoula Marathon July 11, 2010

It’s Monday, July 12, the day after the Missoula Marathon, and my friend Joanna has come up with a great idea for spending the afternoon: let’s drive the 40 miles over to the old Lolo Hot Springs resort so I can soak my legs in the natural hot springs and mineral water. I ponder this for a moment but a higher priority intervenes: I want to drive to Big Flat Road and get a more relaxed look than I did the day before of that three-mile uphill section on the otherwise relatively flat marathon course. And so we did, cell phone camera in hand, for a sweet tour of this scenic area (adding on a hike around Maclay Flat, a nature preserve a mile southeast of there next to the Bitterroot River ).

In my view, the oddly named Big Flat Road is the marquee section of the race. It offers wonderful views of the Clark Fork River valley below, and it is a real challenge to both your race preparation and race day strategy. I haven't done that well with either. Both years I’ve run this race I’ve overestimated my preparation for maintaining pace up to the highest point on Big Flat, at mile 15 or so, and let’s just say that is pretty much a guarantee of several grueling miles before finishing, as flat as the latter part of the course may be.

The first 11 miles are a fine warmup to this section. Ample numbers of busses have previously taken 1,500 of us out to Frenchtown, a few miles west of Missoula , where the 6:00 a.m. Army cannon sounded the start. You then start running essentially due east on level road, with a splendid view of the rays of the rising sun that turn the mountains ahead of you all the various pastels you could hope for. You soon may be able to make out Mount Sentinel on the far eastern edge of town many miles straight ahead. That’s the mountain with the big “M” that casts its morning shadow down on the University, just as it did throughout my college and law school years in the 70s, and as it apparently still does to this day. When this big valley was under a glacial lake 20,000 years ago, Mount Sentinel was a mere island poking out of the water, the big “M” no doubt obscured by that deep, cold water.

At about mile 4 we run through the edge of the Smurfit-Stone paper mill, with a decidedly different look this year now that it has closed in bankruptcy. We see dozens of hard hats tied to the wire fence, left behind by the workers as they clocked out of their final shift. We make the right turn at about mile 10 to cross the Clark Fork River and head to our climb up Big Flat and those amazing views that I will not fully enjoy until the next day. We won’t be seeing Mount Sentinel again until the last few miles of the course, and only then if we make a point of looking up -- sometimes hard to do at mile 22 or 23.

The downhill section of Big Flat ends before mile 16, and before you cross Maclay Bridge over the Bitterroot River, which will be joining the Clark Fork a bit north of there. Drive about 10 miles south up through the Bitterroot Valley to the town of Lolo and you can visit Traveler’s Rest State Park , said to be verified by physical evidence as the only identified campsite of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06. The captains and their crew stayed there in September 1805 before heading west over Lolo Pass and the endless snowy peaks of the Rockies, almost starving to death in the process, and again in June the following year, just before Lewis split off with a separate contingent to follow the Bitterroot to the Clark Fork and go upstream through downtown Missoula and then over the continental divide for a return to the Great Falls of the Missouri. Lewis and Clark might have thought this marathoning to be rather odd business indeed. However, I do remember reading that their men enthusiastically engaged in footraces with Indians in what is now Washington State before beginning the eastbound return journey in 1806 -- obviously viewing a good run as an enjoyable and effective way to get back into condition after a winter of relative inactivity. Sound familiar?

After mile 17 a series of turns through several friendly neighborhoods follows, featuring abundant sprinklers of many residents for the runners needing some cooling off to run through, as I did with the sun bearing down in full force the last 10 miles. The last several such turns are in the University district, before heading to a welcome and fitting finish over the Higgins Avenue Bridge -- and one last crossing of the Clark Fork -- into the funky and revitalized downtown area. The finish area included showers, a medal, a finisher's handkerchief with the course map imprinted on it, and a pose for a free finish photo by the official race photographer. Hydration, pasta, and popsicles were also offered. Then it’s down the steep stairs to the park under the bridge for the award ceremony, free beer, and other festivities. Watching runner after runner limp down those stairs was worth the price of admission -- it was humorous, at least, after you were done limping down them yourself.

The Missoula Marathon had a lot to live up to after having won the polling in Runner’s World for Best Overall Marathon earlier this year. I must say that’s a big part of why I returned. A lot of people may have come expecting something really off the charts – a bit of a wrong-headed approach, I think. (A marathon is always 26.2 miles, and isn't it always tough?) I noticed a few critical comments in questioning the award, but c'mon folks, let's keep things in perspective (says I from my biased point of view). It’s Best Overall Marathon , which means it’s really good in pretty much every category. It didn’t win most scenic, but it is very scenic. It doesn’t have the biggest crowds, but it has excellent crowds for the town’s size with plenty of eager volunteers, and believe me, the whole town knows about and supports the marathon. Everyone -- from the barista making my latte to the clerk at the Post Office -- responded positively when I told them I was in town for the race. And I’ll bet a lot of Missoulians now know who the Marathon Maniacs are. The expo is small and you won’t find a lot of different vendors besides the Runner’s Edge, the local running store, but it’s more than adequate, and it’s creatively placed in an outdoor pavilion in the park right next to a wonderful Saturday Farmer’s Market, which is staffed by tables and tables of vendors of organic vegetables, rhubarb pie, and other enticing homemade goods. This is the "green" culture of Missoula , and your goodie bag and technical shirt are attractively made of recycled and natural products. In addition to the free finish area photo, an extra 10 bucks at registration gets you access to all your photos taken throughout the course. (Mine are now safely tucked away in my computer, most never to see the light of day.) And don’t forget to top off your marathon with a tour of Traveler’s Rest, Glacier Park , or whatever outdoor glory may suit your fancy.

For my money, the race organizers outdid themselves this year in every detail and delivered a great race. It’s not a New York or Chicago race; it’s a Missoula race through and through. To me that's a good thing, a very, very good thing. Just train and strategize properly, and the race will bring its best for you. Don’t train properly and, well, it’s still well worth it.

Eugene Marathon May 2, 2010

Marathoning and Unfinished Business

It’s a bit oxymoronic to write a race report about a destination marathon in which the memories that stand out the most are not moments in the race at all, but rather from two days of sightseeing after the race. Having signed up through the local community college for a two-day tour of the Oregon coast following my second running of the Eugene Marathon on May 2, I am now finding myself more inclined to recall the geology lecture about the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate that is crashing into the westward-traveling North American plate and thus creating a subduction zone which uplifts the coastal mountain range and exposes the great mounds of volcanic basalt all over Oregon beaches. Or recalling expert birder Anne and her shouts of “Bird up!” and pointing at a flying cormorant with one of her two canes as everyone refocuses binoculars skyward. Or recalling the tour of a trail high above Cape Perpetua, led by naturalist and cartoonist T. McCracken, who has the funniest shtick you’re ever likely to hear from a trail guide. For some reason those thoughts predominate over memories of things like the marathon finish on the legendary Hayward Field track of Track Town USA. – as very cool as that was. But I digress.

This trip follows a similar trip two years ago when I ran the second annual Eugene Marathon and visited big brother Brad and his wife Stephanie, who are having a great retirement on the Oregon coast. At that time I was getting introduced to the history and mystique of Track Town USA, and immediately after the 2008 race I proceeded to read my autographed copy (from the expo) of Kenny Moore’s great book on (Coach Bill) Bowerman And the Men of Oregon, and then watched the definitive Steve Prefontaine biopic Without Limits (also written by first-hand participant Moore). The race had gone well, with some signs I was moving toward a PR, and I felt there was potential to move more that direction upon a return. I also had listened briefly to a talk of coach Joe Henderson at the 2008 expo, encouraging people among other things to visit “Pre’s Rock,” the spot where Pre had overturned his sports car one night in 1975 on a windy road on the east hills of town, and thus ensured the continuing legend of his running talent and grit. I thought at the time that sounded a little macabre, but looking into it later convinced me that it was a runner’s imperative. Add the fact that I had enjoyed a wonderful visit in 2008 with Brad and Stephanie at their new home and while driving around coastal mid-Oregon, and I now had plenty of reasons to make a return visit to the Eugene Marathon. Unfinished business.

This time I didn’t train adequately for the marathon, which is the norm for me lately anyway, so the PR I was somewhat hoping for was never in the picture. But I started out the pre-race day with having Brad drive me up to Pre’s Rock so I could visit this running shrine recommended by Coach Henderson and see first-hand that part of the culture. I then went to the expo and bought a copy of Fire on the Track, the documentary movie on Pre that I had been unable to get through Netflix. I also made time to hear the full lecture Henderson was giving at the evening pasta dinner. Henderson, who now writes for Marathon and Beyond, also teaches running classes at the U of O and leads a marathon training group out of the Eugene Running Company store. I struck up a chat at the dinner with one of the runners in Coach Joe’s marathon group, someone who obviously thinks the world of his coach. At the lecture I could see why, as Henderson is soft-spoken and modest, and conveys an obvious joy in seeing his students (young and older) overcome obstacles and prove time and again that anyone can break through boundaries. He has a nice interaction with the audience, giving away gifts to those answering trivia questions, and freely recognized running students who had particular accomplishments – including one 60-something fellow who shared with Joe the distinction of recently overcoming prostate cancer.

This time I ran what was probably my best 14 or 15 miles going out in any of my marathons, but then the lack of proper training (and going out too fast in view of that training deficit) led to a fairly vicious wall to go through, accompanied by IT band/knee pain that made most of the rest of the race a repeat of some other not-so-great attempts in recent months. But I had my handy cell phone to take pictures, which I did primarily at the end. Oh, that cell phone thing is not necessarily such a good idea, such as when I pulled it out and saw a text message from Judy telling me the car had been broken into during the night and telling me to call asap so she could take inventory of anything missing. (I saw Brad at mile 19 and asked him to make a preliminary call until I could finish the race. It turns out nothing of any value was taken.) The course changed somewhat since 2008, to include, of course, the Hayward Field finish, and also some more street mileage and a hill in a nice scenic neighborhood in the south part of town. But it maintains the signature river and bike trail sections that make this race so “green” and scenic. Course support and entertainment are ample, including many live music spots, aid stations, and lots of people cheering from their porches, as well as picnickers just out enjoying the parks on a beautiful spring day (sunny and about 55 degrees). The finish offered nice hot Krusteaz pancakes and a good variety of other rehydration and refueling options.

The race is a wonderful event and I recommend it highly – a great experience in a historically meaningful environment. But back to the Juan de Fuca thing. I can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. Never mind that he was a great explorer who is mistakenly thought to be from Spain because his Greek name was too hard to say. But with the scientific push these days to understand the dynamics of plate tectonics, and how the plate named after him may cause the next Real Big One, who remembers his actual discoveries? As we toured beautiful Newport, OR, and learned that NOAA is moving its Pacific Marine Operations Center there next year, I began to appreciate the significance of this area, beyond the obvious abundant natural beauty and wildlife of all kinds. Completely unexpected discoveries of the dynamics of Mother Earth may be coming.

So as you might have guessed, I am inclined to feel I’ve “been there, done that” as to the Eugene Marathon, but there is more out there I would love to see and do. I’d love to rejoin Brad and Stephanie and get back to watching those birds, and also try another turn at looking for whales, ideally on calmer seas that don’t require the boat to turn back to the bay, as we had to do. I’d also like to hear what more NOAA and others are learning about JDF and his mischievous plate. And there’s other unfinished business to tend to. You see, there’s this very popular little marathon in Newport, and . . .

Disney World Marathon Weekend 2010

Honolulu Marathon December 13, 2009

Sitting in the IHoP across the street from my hotel in Honolulu about to eat my pancakes, I was letting myself feel a little too smug about finishing a marathon the previous day -- not a very good race performance by any means, but feeling smug nevertheless from the satisfaction of finishing my fourth marathon or longer race that fall, and believing I was well on the way to recovery for the next. All sense of smugness was shattered, though, when I realized I was pouring coffee, not syrup, all over my pancakes. Yes, the Marathon always gets the last word.

And why Honolulu? I wish I could say going to Hawaii has been a life-long dream, or that running this marathon has long been on the top of my list, but none of that is really the case. I guess my interest has developed over the last couple years for various reasons--watching the Ironman telecasts on the tube, and being encouraged by friend Kate who goes out there regularly for outrigger races. This fall things just seemed to work out; I had some frequent flier miles, a good hotel discount thanks to my daughter working at Marriott, and a short break between deadlines at work, so why not just go and do it already?

I flew out on a Friday morning and got in about midnight Honolulu time, or more than 19 hours later. (We were delayed a couple hours out of Minneapolis because the winds were too favorable and ATC wouldn't let us leave. Go figure.) I managed to sleep relatively well on the plane, and even the turbulence rocked me off to sleep, but man it's a long way from the west coast to Honolulu. I slept a few more hours when I got to my hotel room, had a good "trucker's" breakfast at the IHoP, and went over to the Expo with a 9 o'clock plan to meet up with Jeff, a nice guy and fine marathoner I met through a Disney World runners' forum who wanted to get a group photo of some fellow forumites. Mission accomplished, and then I got the usual bib, chip, race brochures, and a souvenir or two. No shirt yet, since you have to finish the race to get that. It was about a mile walk back to the hotel, where I went directly to my room to watch the playoff game of the Montana Grizzlies. They played in the cold and snow in Missoula against Appalachian State, in one of the best games I've seen in quite a while, even if I do say so. (Several people at the Expo saw my shirt and said "Go Grizzlies!" How great was that!) After that I walked over to Kapiolani Park, the finish area, to check a bag of a few items for after-race wear. Then it was back to the hotel to meet Liz, a friend and co-outrigger racer of my friend Kate, for a driving tour of the course and Italian dinner. (Running partners Sara and Gayatri will remember the trouble I have pronouncing Italian meals, from our pre-race dinner in Richmond.)

Early on race morning, I started out in the wrong direction walking toward the race start, and then after a mile or so of somewhat frantic run-walking I just made it to the start area as the fireworks were going off (5 a.m.). Shades of the JFK 50 Miler start--still very dark, a crescent moon high in the sky--except it was much, much warmer than Boonsboro in November. I had to work my way through the corral of hundreds of 10K walkers to get up to the marathon runners' corrals, and then it was a good hour and a half of running on sidewalks, weaving in and around people, etc., to get to where I fit in with the paces of other runners. I took the hassle somewhat "in stride" and was just hoping to get into a rhythm soon.

The local paper said this race of 22,000 is something like 65% Japanese, about 25% locals, and about 10% mainlanders. Japan Airlines and other sponsors seemed to have some kind of promotion to bring tourists out for the race, and they must have been successful in their recruiting the general populace because this was the slowest overall field I've ever seen in a race. Perhaps not unexpectedly, the day after the race there were many people wearing finishers' shirts limping really badly all around Waikiki. (Of course, there were lots of very good runners as well, and the elites were world class.)

This was the first race where I wore my Marathon Maniacs singlet, and I found that pretty cool. Other Maniacs came up and introduced themselves, took a picture, or waved as we passed, and people in the crowd regularly yelled "Go Maniac" or something like that as I went by. Recalling races where my name is printed on the bib, I found it much preferable hearing "Maniac!" called out rather than hearing my name. Normally I wouldn't want to join a club that would have the likes of me as a member (to quote a famous Marxism--Groucho, I believe), but the Maniacs seem like a good group to be a part of.

As Liz predicted, once daylight was in full swing, by about 7 a.m., we had nearly an hour of sun in the eyes, except for a few turns here and there. In general, there are not a lot of turns in this fairly simple course. After a loop at the start away from Waikiki, it turns clockwise back through Waikiki, Kapiolani Park (10k mark) and then up the edge of Diamond Head, and out several more miles following the shore line (but not usually seeing the shore) to the Hawaii Kai area, then a turnaround and heading back toward Kap. Park. The last climb gets you up to mile 25 on Diamond Head, then it's all downhill, or at least flat, the rest of the way to the Park. As Liz also warned me, the sun is very hot there in Hawaii! I drank Gatorade like a fish at the water stops, poured water and ice on my head, and grabbed the ice-cold sponges they were handing out at every opportunity. Each stop was refreshing, but I needed that refreshing regularly. I might have been a bit dehydrated to start, but there was only a brief time where I felt dizzy or anything like that. I didn't feel particularly tired from traveling, but clearly I didn't have a lot of fuel in the tank. I just tried to "enjoy" the sucky part the last few miles and go with the flow. Later, I chatted with a woman headed back to D.C. on the same plane who runs this marathon regularly, and she said she always takes about a half hour longer than in races "on the mainland." If that's the case, my advice is just to enjoy it while it lasts!

At the finish you're given a shell lei, and a medal you can clip on it, or not. There was no need for space blankets to keep you from overcooling, and the finish area showers to cool you down were much preferable to that amenity. There were the usual tents with food lines, and you needed to pick up the all-important finisher's shirt--a pretty good one, I think. I didn't really need the clothing change I had checked the day before, but put on a fresh hat and stuck my medal in the bag. The walk back to the hotel was about another mile, a slow one and kind of tough with my quads stiff and sore. After cleaning up and resting a while, it was out to refuel with Mexican food, hydrate with a couple local brewskis, and watch Sunday night football at the bar in the middle of the afternoon.

So the next morning, after my humbling experience with that weird syrup at the IHoP, I shopped a little more for souvenirs, including returning to Kapiolani Park to look at the post-race "finisher" merchandise (but deciding to skip the long lines to get my finisher's certificate), then checked out of my room and took a bus out to tour Pearl Harbor for the afternoon. (That was a wonderful experience, and is a whole story in itself.) That all made for a pretty full time and in many ways I was ready to leave and get back home by the time of my Monday evening flight. (Holiday parties awaited.) Of course, that's not nearly enough time to spend out there in paradise. I don't know if I would do the marathon again, but I'm definitely happy to have had the experience. It's just amazingly beautiful out there, the people are very friendly, and, well, it was just a taste of paradise after all.