Saturday, October 30, 2010

Merci Canada

Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.Norman Maclean.

You could indeed be haunted by waters, in the Niagara Falls International Marathon, as you run 20 miles downstream, the Niagara River usually in view, on your right. I haven’t run a race so far along a single stream since my last JFK 50 Miler two years ago, with its marathon-length section along the Potomac (usually in view, on your left). You have plenty of time to think while spending hours along side something that continually moves, yet doesn't really change. It's indeed a kind of haunting, but it’s a good haunting, and I do recommend it, if you think it might be for you.

I first looked into this race while considering dates to visit my daughter Natalie, who has started graduate school in Buffalo. Late October seemed a good time for both, and this race boasted of many positive reviews, and I thus began looking forward to a nice visit with Natalie (while taking care not to interfere with her study time). It indeed was a nice visit, albeit somewhat short. I also had the fortune of connecting with my long-time friend Gail, now from Toronto, who drove around Lake Ontario to join in a little touring of the area and dinner, on the day before the race. It also happened to be her birthday. (Our friendship goes back to grade school and junior high days, and while in recent decades it has been largely confined to on-again, off-again correspondence, we scarcely missed a beat in catching up when we got together. What a treat!)

Three weeks earlier I had DNF'd at the Freedom's Run in the Harper's Ferry, W.Va., area, due to very nagging foot pain related to an earlier sprained ankle. The problem now seemed almost entirely resolved and I was eager to get in another marathon, for ego and conditioning purposes alike. Although my training had been lacking by this time, I felt confident I could do it.

And so it began, on race day October 24, 2010, with an early morning bus ride from the hotel and casino area of downtown Niagara Falls, Ontario, to the start in Buffalo, N.Y. A prerequisite to getting your bib at the expo the day before you had to be checked off by Canadian Customs, so as you run into Canada during the race you are already cleared and can just waive to the folks at the Customs booths as you go by. The bus ride to the start will stop at the U.S. border, where an agent will board the bus and check everyone’s documents before you proceed. That interlude only took us about 10 minutes, and we were back on our way to the start, with no more document checks.

The race schedule builds in a lot of time to take care of all this. Now I’m not a big fan of long wait times at the start, which is why I often go for the smaller races. But the two hours at the start area in this race was a
remarkably pleasant time for me. The bus lets you off at the lovely Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and you basically have the run of the place until start time – you can browse the Van Goghs or Pollocks, listen to the Flamenco group playing in the hall, or, as I did, go to the quiet auditorium and lay down on the carpeted floor and sleep for an hour. Did I mention there were several restrooms there as well, and that the lines in the men’s rooms were practically non-existent?

Anyway, at 9:30 or so I was ready, and went outside and checked my bag in time for the 10 a.m. start. The bags were well-secured on the buses to go back to the finish, but I decided to carry my passport card with me anyway, in a pocket in my waistpack. Four pleasant miles in Buffalo were followed by a run on the International Peace Bridge, the location of the only real hill on the course, and then about a mile and a half loop in Fort Erie, ON, before starting your 20-mile downstream trek on the Niagara Parkway, still decked out in glorious fall colors.

The numerous water stations on the Canadian side are staffed by some of the best-themed groups I’ve seen in a marathon/ultra – high school groups and private clubs, all showing their spirit and reaching out to give you their high-fives. My fave: the group dressed up as jailbirds (“Caution: Do not pick up hitch hikers. Chain gang at work up ahead.”) This is a great feature of the race that should be advertized. It was about 10 miles from the finish that we caught our first glimpse of the Skylon Tower, the iconic structure that signals the location of the Falls – and the finish. In any event, the curves of the river won’t let you see the Tower again until about three miles out, when you also can make out for the first time a small puff of mist from the Falls.

You again you lose sight of that area as the course twists around some more, but you know you’re getting closer. The last mile takes you away a bit from the river, and you're pleased to see that the roads are now slightly downhill as you wind around some of the downtown streets to the finish.

The finish could hardly be closer to the Horseshoe Falls, and you'll catch a glimpse of the them as the finish beckons. No time for sightseeing yet, but you'll have plenty of time after the race to do that. If you don’t get any mist on you in the finish area, you will in a short walk along the Table Rock area nearby.

There you’ll have some of the best views of both Falls available, as you walk along on your tired legs. And tired and sore they were, as I stopped at the Falls to take a few pictures, and then trekked about a mile and a half to the parking garage that was so convenient to the bus pickup early that morning. (What shuttle bus?) I kept telling myself the walk was doing my legs good, and I'm sure that's true, although it was quite slow going. I then rejoined Natalie at our hotel on the American side, cleaned up and enjoyed a fine "dinner" of pancakes, eggs, and hash browns.

I started home the next morning, and Natalie went back to her class. The eight-hour drive through pretty Pennsylvania was a most pleasant wrap-up to the trip, and I certainly had to count this trip as well-worth it in many ways.

Thank you, Canada, for a memorable experience.

Next up: "We Are Marshall."

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Limping Along the C & O Canal

Don’t sweat the small things. And just about everything is a small thing. At least that’s my take on it all, and I’m sticking to it.

These are the days when marathon runners thrive, as the first true signs of fall and its crisp mornings replace the dog days of summer, seemingly for good. As a runner, you’re also a fan of the sport, and there’s no way you can’t get excited about these beautiful days of near-perfect running conditions – even when you’re finding yourself more observer than participant. That’s what I became this weekend, not really by choice, but due to the eventual recognition of physical inability to continue. Yes, that dreaded balrog, the DNF.

It started with a simple ankle roll during a routine run four weeks ago -- at least I thought it was simple. Hey, I was able to keep going another 17 miles afterward, so it couldn’t be that bad. Could it? Well, in certain ways it’s been healing in good order, but there’s been something on-going underneath in the “soft tissue” as my doctor called it (the ultimate medical term for junk inside that’s not bone), causing a stabbing, burning feeling under the foot when I try to run. It was all starting to behave much better, so last week I decided to give it the old college try in the half-marathon event at the American Birkebeiner Trail Run in Hayward, WI.
This was held on a perfectly glorious fall day, with brightly colored trees in northern Wisconsin on a well-groomed, if rather wet from recent heavy rains, cross country ski course. I was surprised how strong my ankle felt, particularly on the many ups-and-downs of the terrain, and the annoying pain underfoot was really quite manageable.

But it was a matter of “pay me now or pay me later,” and the past week was the “pay me later” time. I knew (deep inside at least) that I had aggravated something and had no business running the October 2 Freedom’s Run marathon, from Harper’s Ferry to Shepherdstown, WV. But of course, denial is a powerful thing, especially when it comes to running on some of your favorite ground and you think there’s some way you can run-walk fast enough to beat the cut-offs and not require your friends Chris and Rebecca, who carpooled with you, to wait hour upon hour for you to finish. Well, after arguing with myself for two hours on the marathon course, I decided that it made no sense to keep going when I couldn’t even walk at a moderate pace without a limp. I eventually found a ride at a water station and was driven by some nice volunteers to the finish area. All the stress was now gone and I truly began to enjoy the whole event. I visited the food tent for the runners and helped myself to pizza, did a few pushups in the parking lot, and got my free beer glass (and beer) at the Bavarian Inn. I then met up with Chris and Rebecca, who both had done a very fine job in completing a tough course.

It’s interesting how this day was truly “déjà vu all over again.” My last DNF was four years ago, when I dropped out near that same point (on the C & O Canal) in my first attempt at the JFK 50 Miler, on another glorious fall day, when I got a ride to the finish line and also got to sit and watch all those strong runners basking in the victory of crossing the finish line. Both occasions were opportunities to celebrate others’ achievements, and also to regroup and learn from my own miscalculations. And what have I learned? Well, I’m not going to try any marathons at all, for at least three weeks.