Monday, October 11, 2004

Running the Bizz
Well, it was pretty remarkable. I mean, there was nothing great about my performance -- I finished in just under 3 hours and 50 minutes, which is good for a first marathon, good for someone who has never run more than 16 miles, and good for running at altitude (between 4200 and 5600 feet in elevation). Good but not great. Great would have been sub-3:40.

What was remarkable about my first marathon -- the Bizz Johnson Trail Marathon -- was everything about it. Signing up less than two months before the race, quickly working a few long runs into the busy schedule, being careful not to destroy the knees in the process of getting ready. Not coming up with an excuse to bail -- and not being derailed by work or life. Then getting up there ... the five-hour drive from the Bay Area, the pre-race dinner with all these freaky and cool Western States veterans talking about 100-mile and 100K runs and shit. Waking at 5 on Race Day to get some coffee and food in me, and a dump out of me, before leaving the motel. The bus out of Susanville to the trailhead where we started: I love the conversations that pop up in the hours and minutes before a substantial endurance test. You see pretty far into people. I talked to an young guy from San Francisco who, beneath his cool, seemed to have a burning intensity; and an older woman from Seattle who was looking to do Ironman Canada in '06 and you knew she would. Then there was standing out in the woods in the 28-degree chill before the race began, waiting for the line to the Porta Potties to move, dammit, move already. And then running. Running and running and running. One down 25 to go. Two down 24 to go. Three down, 23 ... it's a long run. Of course, the mind is wandering all over the place while it happens. I must say, however, that I thought almost not at all about my soon-to-be ex-wife, who earlier this year unilaterally decided that her only way to happiness was to destroy our family. I'm tempted to say flat-out that I didn't think about her at all, because I can't remember doing so, but surely I must have. I don't know why my mind didn't go there. It always does on training runs. Maybe this was just too interesting in its own right. Sometimes it's hard not to see divorce and the overwhelming sense of loss and the bigness of the challenge ahead as "real life" -- you know, lots of "real life" going on, etc. But here, on Race Day, was a case of life overtaking life, and thank goodness for it.

About Mile 12 my knees began to hurt and I was going slower than I had anticipated. Beforehand I'd been thinking, oh, maybe an 8:15-8:30 pace. But I was closer to 9. Some serious doubt crept in: If was hurting at Mile 12 running 9-minute miles, what was going to happen at Mile 21?

Turns out I got faster. I hit the halfway mark about 1:57 and ran the second half in 1:53. The fact that we were losing about 80 feet of elevation each mile on the second half surely had something to do with it.

But I really believe the key for me was in accepting the pain and then letting it fade away. This mindset allowed me to just keep running. I wasn't tired. Aerobically and as far as my nutrition and hydration went, I was great, perfectly fine. The question was could I take the sharp joint and muscle pain. That appears to be what doing a marathon is all about, assuming you run at a comfortable pace.

So between miles 13 and 20 I tried to relax and cruise through it, enjoying the scenery as we hooked up with the Susan River and moved through the canyon it cuts in the Sierra. Not New England, certainly, but lots of brilliant yellow leaves alongside the river held between orange and brown walls. Every so often I'd approach another runner and that would give me the chance to fall into his (actually, more frequently, her) pace, think about how she was doing, imagine what she was feeling.

Things only became a little desperate around Mile 24. My big leg muscles were shooting off rockets of pain and were heavy as lead. But they had been performing the same action for so long, it's all they knew what to do, so they kept doing it: One foot in front of the other. One foot in front of the other. Thank God the course -- a hard dirt/gravel road/trail all the way -- was smooth. If I had been required to vary from the sameness of the action, I'm sure I couldn't have kept running. A couple of times I sort of stumbled, after hitting a rock or something, and my leg muscles were so zapped, I almost crumbled to the ground.

But I kept running, never stopped and somehow, I stopped trying to fight or ignore or even embrace the pain, and simply brought it aboard as my companion. I got this idea in my head, crazy as this sounds, that this was why I was hear, on the far side of the Sierra, on the edge of the Great Basin: to run with pain.

By about Mile 23 it had become apparent that I might be able to beat 3:50, so that became my goal. At Mile 24 I was around 3:31, giving me 19 minutes to travel the last 2.2 miles. I tried to pick it up a bit. I figured if I hit Mile 25 by 3:39:30 I'd be in good shape. But at 3:39:30, there was no marker. A minute later, still no marker! I didn't think I was slowing down -- but maybe I was becoming so out of touch I just couldn't judge anymore?

No. There was no Mile 25 marker! This became apparent when I still hadn't hit it by 3:53 or so. Relieved and inspired, I gave it everything I had.

I finally got to Mile 26. Only a fifth of a mile to go. We crossed over the river one last time, went down a narrow trail hugging the side of the hill, then straight down into the finish at Hobo Camp, the trailhead just outside Susanville. A crowd of a few hundred was there and they cheered and said "Good job, great finish" (I finished hard, as always, but they say that to everyone). The clock was somewhere around 3:49:45 as I crossed. They stopped me, asked me how I was doing ("great," I said, and I was -- wasn't even breathing hard), and handed me my medal.

So now I've done a marathon. Twenty-four hours later, I'm not sure if it means nothing or everything.