Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Race that Lived

My last post covered through Week 9 of training for the virtual Detroit Marathon. In the weeks that followed, I learned how to create a workout in Garmin Connect and use it on my Forerunner. I did some workouts that intimidated me. I took the training plan one week at a time. The moment the long-range forecast included October 18, I was checking it constantly. My friend Dan and I discussed everything from music preferences to packing lists to logistics. 

Welcome to the (belated) race summary of what turned out to be a silver lining of 2020.

I'll start about a week before the race, when a mysterious box showed up with our mail. I stalked it on the kitchen counter for a while before remembering that my friend Robin had randomly asked for my address about a week before. Robin was one of the first people I met when I moved to Cleveland. My epic injury (long form here), finally taught my stubborn runner brain that cross-training is my friend. When I wanted to start strength training, I turned to Robin. She was amazingly gracious about meeting me where I was, which was step 1. Ground level. Not only clueless about what I was doing, but also...just weak. She cheered me at every step, worked within my limitations and goals, and has been a huge part of my recovery and a damn good friend. With this gift, she cheered me on remotely in the best possible way. <3

Two and a half days pre-race, carb loading started. A very few of you might remember the saga of the day I learned about fueling the hard way. Ever since, I've used a fueling plan I found in Runner's World. You eat more calories than usual, and about 85% of it is carbs. While that sounds like fun, it's hard on digestion. This is what breakfast looks like. You better believe that is the sugary yogurt, too. 

My friend Dan, who had agreed to bike Sherpa my race, was hard at work taking account of his storage capacity for water, food, gear, etc. He asked if I wanted music and I told him I hadn't run with music in years--too many cars, too many dogs. Same for him. But, I told him, if he wanted to play music, I was good with any era of rock other than the song "Blinded by the Light," which I hate powerfully. We talked Gu (so hard to choose!) and figured out how we'd handle water stops. He knows the trail toward Akron well, where I do not. He made sure we picked a starting point that avoided construction and traffic, and that local knowledge is worth its weight in gold.

I checked the weather 583 more times. 

Had it been in person, the race would have started at 7am, so we planned to start at 7am. I had all these jokes ready for the start line, about how like downtown Detroit the Towpath Trail outside Akron is. All that relevant early 20th century commercial architecture! That radial street network! But when I arrived about 6:45am, we were focused on stowing gear and using the bathroom (A REAL BATHROOM!). 

I'm pretty sure Dan had purchased a bigger bag to store gear/supplies/etc for the race, and when I handed him my *actual* handful of stuff to carry, probably either wanted to laugh or cry a little. It consisted of: 
  • 2 Gu packets (I had the other 2 in my water bottle)
  • 3 baggies of folded up TP (to which he said, "no dude would ever have done this")
  • A very small bottle of liquid band aid
  • My driver's license, credit card, and med insurance all rubber banded together
  • My phone (maybe? not even sure I took it?) and car key
He had packed water for both of us. In the 60-ish seconds he went into the restroom and I was standing alone in the pitch black parking lot, a Jeep came flying into the parking lot, and two guys jumped out of it. I was definitely gauging my distance to my car door for a second, but they took off toward the trail. Dan came back, we took our start line selfie, and headed down toward the trail too. 

It turned out the two guys were cheering for a friend doing a virtual marathon! Chicago, I think. Somewhere else along the way we met someone running the New York marathon. I'd hesitated about wearing the bib the race organizers had sent me because it felt like of cheesy, but in the end, I'm glad I did. It helped create this spirit of community, because the people who are on that path every weekend could ID and support people who were racing. 

I hesitated to start for a moment because...well, it's sort of strange to just start a marathon. No fanfare, no anthem, no gun, no corrals. Just hitting the start button on your Garmin like any Tuesday morning. And we were off! 

Our pre-race discussions about pace had made us realize that cycling and running use different vocabularies. Dan had asked if I anticipated our pace would be over 10mph. I explained that this was not the Olympics, so no, but also that I'd need to do some math to figure out what mph I run. So a lot of our conversation focused on math of where we were, what time we'd be someplace else, and how overall pacing was going. I recognized the spot where a friend had taken a picture the previous day by accident. 

But Dan and I have known each other since 1998 (when I joined the Experience Learning family), so we talked about all sorts of things, too. And that path! Oh man! I don't have any pictures from the path itself, but what a knockout! I really think we got the best possible morning for race day. The foliage was spectacular and, while 5 degrees cooler than ideal for Dan, it was pretty great for running, at about 48 degrees. The path parallels a river and train tracks for long stretches, and forest. Gorgeous. 

When you're training, it sounds INSANE that you are going to run 26.2 miles at an 8:24/mile pace. INSANE. But then, you put in the work, and while you taper, it's like winding up a Jack in the Box, and you carb load, and it fills those glycogen stores, and then, your body really can do precisely the thing you trained it to do. I ran super, super even splits. My first mile was the slowest, at 8:28, as it should be. After that, every mile was between an 8:15 and 8:23 except one a few seconds faster (after which I 100% said what Shalane Flanagan said in New York that day). And for 24 miles it was all just smooth. 

At one point we passed a herd of middle aged guys, a few of whom wore Boston jackets. I told Dan how it was called "chicking." The herd was jovial. We saw a handful of other smaller groups and single runners out. Everyone in good spirits. We passed a spot where a woman had been attacked last year while running. I was incredibly thankful for Dan's company.

At about mile 23.5, we passed the Canal Exploration Center, which was also the planned finish line. I'd invited a small group of folks, mostly runners, to a socially distanced finish line party. Many of them were there when we passed at 23.5. My husband and kids had made signs--a first--and I might have gotten a little choked up about it. 

When my Garmin hit mile 24, I was ready for it to be over. I'd warned Dan that things get dark late in a marathon. Deals are made with devils. Self talk gets desperate. I tried reeeeeeally hard not to verbalize those thoughts, but I had a decidedly grumpy, but on-pace mile. At mile 25 I asked if he would stay behind me, because the bike in my peripheral vision was going to make me motion sick. Then I told him I needed to stop talking, and just "go inside" my head. I needed to put my head down and focus on grinding out the last 1.2. It had always been inevitable--I could feel it coming around mile 17--and it was much better than it usually is, but I was tired.

Know what else isn't easy? Math when you're that tired. So I misjudged our turn-around by a few hundredths of a mile. Coming back toward the finish line, first I saw my friend Laurie standing at the bridge with her cow bell. A welcome sight for sure. I could just see my kids up ahead holding up the finisher ribbon the race organizers had sent. Garmin hit 26.2. I just stopped. My brain couldn't process what to do. Laurie said, "You can't stop. They're waiting for you." I said, "Right!" and clicked it back on and kept going. Four one-hundredths on up and through the finisher tape. 

Then my knees buckled, and I stopped and put my hands on my knees for a minute and tried to calm my breathing and not sob wildly. It was over! My goal was 3:40 and I ran a 3:39:17. My boys were ready with the race medal and the wrap the organizers had sent. Sidebar here: I was crazy impressed with the Detroit Marathon throughout this whole process. They canceled my hotel, contacted me about shipping my race packet, and the social media game was strong. 

My husband was a rock star who ordered this amazing cake, brought every conceivable thing I might want post-race, and made sure we were all fed and happy. Dan's wife and son came, and they brought me flowers. Flowers! I was beyond blown away by all the love and support of my family and friends. That picture above--I am glowing! That's how it all felt. I had a dream, and my friends and family came out, on a bike, at the finish line, and remote, to cheer me on. Masks and all. 

The most bananas part of this is that, because there was no prize money, I won my Detroit Marathon age group. That's crazy. 

In a year where so many races did not happen, this was the day the Towpath turned into Detroit, Chicago, and New York. This was--to borrow from Harry Potter--the race that lived. Was I bummed not to visit Detroit? Not to experience the magic of a big race? Sure. But the race I had was incredible, and probably once in a lifetime. A real highlight, and silver living, of 2020. 

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