Thursday, November 11, 2010

Marshall University Marathon
November 7, 2010

This mania of marathon running works in strange ways. It would have made more sense to have made the 400-mile trip to Huntington, WV, in 1995 or 1996, when Montana, my alma mater, played Marshall in back-to-back years for the national I-AA football championship. But as much a football fan as I might be, that seemed too far to drive at the time, while now undertaking that 7-hour drive just to get in another marathon was no big deal. Especially when I needed more long training runs to prepare for the JFK 50 later in the month, or when it notched my ninth state in a year to move up to the four-star level of Marathon Maniacs.

I know that’s not very convincing, but there were other attractions as well. Aside from remembering Marshall as the team that Montana had to face two years in a row (winning and losing one), I had a vague recollection of reading during my first fall at college about the November 14, 1970, plane crash that killed virtually the whole Marshall football team and coaches as they returned from a game against East Carolina. I certainly remembered going with my daughter Natalie to see the 2006 movie, We Are Marshall, about the rebuilding of the team, and the community, after that event. I tend not to go to a lot of tear-jerker movies, but that one was pretty good, and I did think Matthew McConaughey did a nice job (if not a little too cute) as the new coach. (Natalie seemed to think he was very good.) It was a compelling story, and I was curious to see where it all happened. Having now been there, I can say the town has never forgotten for a moment that bit of history. There are memorials, plaques, renamed streets, and, soon, the 40th anniversary.

The drive through beautiful western Maryland and West Virginia on the day before the race got me on time to the packet pickup and pasta dinner (included in the race fee), all held in the school’s big new recreation center across the street from the football stadium, where the finish would be. There was no parking left at the stadium, because it was taken up by the participants in a big state-wide “battle of the bands” (marching bands, that is), but downtown parking was available, just as it was the next morning when I drove in from my motel in the still-dark, West Virginia morning, after scraping the frost from my windows, to the start area about three blocks from the stadium. It was a beautiful, crisp, fall morning all around.

The marathon was sponsored by, Inc., an organization formed to bring healthier habits to an area that evidently has lagged behind in several health indexes. The runners, of course, were the usual very fit people, most of whom left me well behind. The course was one of the more complicated routes I’ve run. By the map generated by my new Timex GPS watch I never got off course, but there were moments when I wasn’t so sure, even though course marshals were usually within sight of the turns. The course had out-and-back loops both east and west of the stadium on the city’s broad avenues, alternating with two loops headed south a few blocks and then by and on sections of the city’s pretty Ritter Park. About three miles of the park trails were soft crushed gravel, and everything else was the usual asphalt and concrete of a typical city. Although the east and west routes were parallel to the Ohio River, we had but minimal views of that great river.

My running tights had no pockets, and I forgot my waist pack, so I could bring along but one gel packet, crammed into a small shirt pocket, but I thought that would be all right. Well, I did get pretty starved for energy as the race went on since the course aid was limited to water and Gatorade, but no gels or other snacks. Good for the diet, I guess. The other runners were particularly friendly, and I chatted with several other Maniacs, all from out of state as far as I could tell.

You knew the finish was getting close as you entered the campus and saw flowers on the ground, dropped by some of the runners who tried to grab them from a volunteer to place by the memorial fountain as they ran by. The flowers were all taken by the time I got there, but I stopped at the fountain and picked up one from the collection basket and placed it on the ledge of the fountain. Then came THE BIG EVENT: getting tossed a football as you entered the stadium, and then heading down to the other end of the field to make a u-turn and run up the field to score a touchdown at the finish line. (“Did you spike the ball? Do a Lambeau Leap into the stands?” a co-worker wanted to know on Monday. “Yeah, except I was penalized for excessive celebration.”) After enjoying the post-race junk food and drinks on the tables on the sideline I limped slowly up the ramp out the side of the stadium, where I encountered four or five football players in gym clothes on their way to work out in the team gym just next to the field. They looked at me as if they were wondering why I was limping, and in turn I was wondering why they weren’t limping, knowing they had just played a game the day before. (Maybe these guys didn’t get that much playing time.)

Soon it was back on the Interstate for my seven-hour trek home. I stopped a couple times to eat, refuel the car, and, finally, change out of my running tights. I was in a bit of a hurry to get in at least a few hours on the road before the early sundown now that we were off Daylight Savings. I found that I had a lot to think about during the drive home, going over the race and the whole experience of my short visit, and the trip went relatively fast and smoothly, considering the normal post-race aches and cramps.

Did the effort do the job in terms of preparing for the upcoming ultra? I didn’t run well or feel very strong during the race (similar to how I felt at Niagara two weeks ago), but I’ll take it as a positive. I recovered enough to run five miles the next day in relative comfort, and at least I’ve got nice memories from the event. I saw a lot of beautiful country along the way, and I clearly see more West Virginia races in my future.


  1. Good story and nice looking marathon shirt. I liked the phrase 'soft crushed gravel' - made it sound like a nice place for a cushy nap. But seven hours is a long way to drive for a marathon.

  2. congrats, Barry --- and good report!