Sunday, May 18, 2008

Perennial First Loser

As kids we all have been dreams: to play in the NBA, be a ballerina, or maybe an astronaut. But as we get older, our lot in life becomes clear, and you realizes that you have to adjust your dreams: You probably won't be pitching in the major leagues if you are riding the pine in high school; The NBA is a pipe dream if your height tops out at 5'6"; you won't be dancing Swan Lake if you can't even touch your toes; and when you fail calculus you can pretty much kiss your astronaut career goodbye. Fortunately, most people are able to make the necessary adjustments to still be successful adults: you weren't an athlete but you are great at art; or your athleticism led you to be a firefighter instead of an all-star quarter back; and maybe you aren't going to be the prima ballerina, but you are flexible enough to be a great mom. I am lucky I had my brains to fall back on, because when it comes to running, it seems my lot in life is to be the first loser.

In another one of my now too common "What the hell? How will I know if I can do it unless I try?" moments, I decided to enter today's Capitol City marathon in Olympia, WA. I have done several two hours runs recently, and feel I am in pretty good half-marathon shape, but then, when isn't more better? So I signed up for the marathon instead.

I woke up this morning at 6:41; the alarm hadn't gone off. The drive to the start was about 20 minutes away - not good at all, considering the marathon started at seven. I was instantly wide awake and in a panic with my heart racing. Fortunately, the whole thing was just an anxiety dream, it was really only 3:30. But with all the adrenaline coursing through my veins at that point, I didn't sleep another wink until I finally got out of bed at 5:15.

At seven we were off - this time a cannon boom heralded our start. My plan was to go nice and easy - the whole thing was just a stepping stone on my way to Portland, where I am hoping to have a great race. In fact, I put 3:50 as my predicted finish time - just under nine minute mile pace and something I would consider a good solid workout and nothing more.

About two-thirds of a mile in I passed a lady who's shirt said, "We love you Grandma Lee" with a picture of cute Asian kids beneath the text. Most of the others around me seemed to be guys pushing 60. "Ah, running with the grandmas and the grey-hairs," I thought, "certainly this must be a nice easy pace." My first split was 7:41. "Oh [crap], that is way too fast." When I first started road racing after college, I seemed to have a problem with going out too fast - not a good strategy for endurance races. Before my running hiatus (kids), I had gotten pretty good at avoiding this, but it seems like I am starting from square one again. I decided to slow it down a lot for the next mile; my split was 7:44 -aaargh!

Right about the time I was coming up on mile mark two, there was the pounding of quick footsteps as I thought someone was making a pass, but this guy (Bob) fell in step and ran along side me. "I have been about 8 steps behind you for the last mile, so I thought I'd catch up so I'd have someone to run with." That sounded good to me, and we ran together for the next 15 miles, chatting it up every now and then.

At mile 4 a woman up ahead went crashing into the bushes, presumably haven given up on finding a port-a-potty on the course. I kept expecting her to come roaring back, but I never saw her again. By mile six the volunteer informed me that I was running in second for the women's race. Huh - that was completely unexpected! I still wasn't expecting much out of this race, so I kind of just gave a shrug-my-shoulders acknowledgment, as in "whatever, that won't hold up."

Running with Bob was a bit of a mixed blessing. I really enjoyed his company, he was great to talk to and he made the miles go by a lot faster. But he was in good shape, meaning he had actually been training for a marathon (imagine that!) - for a full year no less! - and was ready to have a good day. Because I liked having the company I kind of got caught up in his pace instead of running my own race. And that pace was getting faster - we strung a couple of 7:30's together between miles 6 and 10 and even threw down a 7:28 at one point. Not the direction I wanted to go!

By mile 16 I was feeling it, and slipping. It didn't help that it was now over 70 degrees. We lost 4 seconds. I slowed down another 4 seconds in the next mile. Right after we passed mile 17, Bob kept going, while I kept slowing, but I was still running in second.

Bob's wife was also in the field and also a speedy runner; the two of them had done a lot of research about the course (Bob could always tell me exactly when the next hill was coming or how long we were going to have a downhill stretch). When I expressed my surprise at my position in the field, he had told me that 3:30 was usually good enough for top 3. So at that point, I started thinking damage control: how could I stay under 3:30 and at least place? The only thing I could come up with was just keep running, even if it is very slowly; re-evaluate how you are doing when you get passed.

I hit mile 18 and a volunteer let out a big whoop - "First woman!" That became contagious and the small crowd all started cheering for me, the "first woman." I hadn't passed anybody, so what happened? Did she drop out? Right at the end of the crowd, somebody was finally paying attention. Right as I passed I heard her yell, "that's not right but you are doing great."

In the 18th mile we were back into the neighborhoods and onto the roads shared by the half-marathon course and I started passing all of the half marathon walkers. Many of the houses had small little crowds out to watch the race. For the next four miles, I was alternately told I was first woman or second woman. I knew, though, that I was running second. I mentally joked that the woman ahead of me must be very butch, and therefore not always recognizable as a woman.

Miles 20-24 were painful. I hit the proverbial wall and this wasn't any ordinary wall - this was a wall with barbed wire and and spikes coming out at every angle. These all fell just barely under nine minute pace, which was my initial goal for the whole race, but at this point I was pretty disheartened by it and the slower pace didn't seem to make it any easier to run. in fact, I walked through the mile 24 aid station. I prolonged the rest by taking two glasses, but when they were gone I started running again, intent to keep going till the finish. Mile 25 came and I set my last split - ten more minutes I told myself. And then we passed 19th street. In my mind I only had to make it to third. I started counting down: 19th, 18th, 17th, aaaah! - Maple Crest? what the Hell is that doing here? Finally 16th. On down to 14th and then Union? What the %$#@ is wrong with these people? Don't they know how to number their streets? But then I could see the finish and I no longer cared that 13th was actually two blocks away from 14th. It helped that the finish was also on 7th and not third as I had expected. I crossed in 3:27:44 - second in the women's race (32 of 315 overall).

At the finish a lady handed me a card - "2nd W"- and told me I could redeem if for a top 20 T-shirt. It turned out this was an awesome turquoise running shirt with the marathon logo on the front, quite easily the best thing - schwag or prize - that I have ever gotten from a race. I put the shirt on and limped over to the free massage area, which was heavenly and left me limping a little bit less.

Afterwards Bob came up and I am sure meant to be congratulatory, but it felt like he was taking a cheap pot shot: "Good job. You managed to hold on to second place!" Managed, as in "Boy you were really flailing big time, I can't believe nobody passed you!"

The woman's winner finished in 3:05, twenty-two minutes ahead of me. She had a thick blond pony tail and wasn't at all masculine, as I had joked. It seems she was just so far ahead of me, that she no longer registered in people's short term memory by the time I passed by. Or more likely, she was so far up in the half-marathon pack that people mistook her for a half-marathon runner. Bob kept up a great pace after he shed his extra baggage (me), and finished in 3:19, averaging 7:36 miles. He was a little upset to miss the Boston cutoff (3:15), but I know he'll be there soon with little additional effort. His wife was seventh in the women's race. Her 3:34 was good enough to qualify for Boston.

So to date my marathon history is as follows:
1) Washington Birthday Marathon, Feb. 1999 - My first marathon. My only goal was to finish. I was woefully under-trained (longest run = 10 miles) but I was too ignorant to even know it at the time. The course was three loops on deserted rural roads on a sunny but very chilly day. The puddles were all frozen at the start; it hit 36 degrees by the time I finished. Besides the aid stations there was nobody on the course. I had no idea where I was running and I didn't care. I finished in 3:13:53 - still my best marathon time (hoping to break it in Portland!). The time would have handily won that race pretty much every year since, but that year it was only good enough for second place.

2) Sacramento Marathon, Oct. 2000 - I had been training hard for Portland, but we got invited to a Napa wedding, so instead I opted to do the Sacramento Marathon, which was on the same day as Portland. I led the race for 22 miles but totally bonked in the 80 plus degree heat ( I am sure it didn't help I spent the day before outside at a wedding on a day so hot, a bridesmaid fainted). I got passed in the last four miles and finished second, in 3:22.

3) Valentine's Marathon, Feb. 2001 - My friend wanted to do Boston in 2002, and I thought I needed a qualifying time (turns out the Sacramento Marathon was actually in the 18 month window so I ended up using that time). Again, I had don't much long running, but was in good shape for the short stuff. I led for 20 miles but really wasn't up to the distance, so I ran/walked the last six miles as slow as I could and still be under 3:40. The eventual winner actually stopped when she passed me walking because she was certain something was wrong. Nope just not ready to go more than 20 miles I assured her. I finished second.

4)Boston Marathon, April 2002 - This one doesn't really count with the rest as it is a marathon of international acclaim and not just a community marathon. I trained really well for this one and even did a five hour race for "training," running six miles more than a marathon (ironically, this is the one event that I have ever won). I thought for sure I'd set a new PR, but I just started slowed down a little too much at heartbreak hill and never picked it up again. I finished in 3:15:53 (267th female out of 5,251; 3452/14400 overall)

5)Capitol City Marathon, May 2008 - you already know how that turned out: Second place.

So you see, I am well established as the first loser!

Side Note: Really I don't care about winning one of these (no really!). I know my place is all based on who shows up for the race as there are MANY women out there who are faster than me, and always will be. And unless you win one of the BIG races, the prizes aren't that great. I will, however, be very disappointed if I never break that 3:13:56. Running really comes down to being competitive with yourself; no one wants to think their first effort was their best and that they never improved after that. I hoping that I will be at that point for this year's Portland Marathon (October).