Sunday, December 04, 2005

Chasing Ray
I know why they do it. By making us get up at 4:30 a.m. and be on a bus to the start line by 5:15, and then beginning the race at 7 after we've stood out in the freezing cold for an hour, most of the time in line to use the typically inadequate number of portable toilets, race organizers can no doubt promise the cops and city officials the whole big stinking mess will vanish from their streets before nightfall. Still. Running 26.2 miles is pretty tough -- for me and for most non-Kenyans. If the race is being held April through October (we're restricting Pete's Law of Marathon Start Times to the northern hemisphere), by all means, start it early to avoid heat issues. But in December in Sacramento? Fat chance midday temperatures will peak higher than the mid-60s. So you start the race at 9 a.m. Most folks -- who also might be known as "paying customers" -- would end up running with temps in the 40s and 50s. Maybe a few people would plod the final, gruesome few miles with the temperature hovering around 63. Oh, the oppression! To me, this seems like a very good plan -- and even with a generous six-hour limit, it still leaves your course clear by 4 p.m.

But don't get the wrong idea. I loved the California International Marathon, begun in Folsom before sunrise and ended in the shadow of the state capitol with the sun very low in the southeastern sky indeed. I loved it in the way that this sort of thing is always loved by a me sort of person. (This sort of thing: a long, physically and psychologically challenging athletic event. A me sort of person: fairly fit and dedicated, but not especially gifted at the discipline.)

You get out there and you take your first step and you say to yourself, OK, one step closer to done. And you say that periodically but often for the next nearly four hours, maybe 6,000 more times. And in between you go a million places, pondering the (running) form of the woman up ahead in the black tights with fluorescent green shorts over them and a tight purple bib top with some red sports bra straps showing above the neckline; appreciating the subtle but helpful hand signal of the guy moving left in front of you to pass someone; noticing after eight miles of having a wet nose and finally wiping it dry that it felt better to have wiped it dry (with the $2 cotton gloves you bought at the expo the day before) ... the list could go on forever. I said your mind goes in a million places! Of course, most of those places are in the neighborhood of How You Are Doing. Also known as, the Pace Place.

Which is where Ray comes in. Ray was my pace guy. Maybe you didn't know this -- I only learned about it in the past few months -- but at a lot of the bigger marathons they recruit volunteers to run the race at a specified pace, allowing competitors gunning for a time to be pulled along to success and admiration among their peer group. Ray was the 3:30 pacer at CIM this morning. Ray looked like he was in his late 40s or early 50s. He was a little scruffy and ridiculously, perfectly suited for his job. The pace was easy for him to hold (easy for me to say) and he had big ol' biceps that made running the whole damn 26.2 while holding a stick with a red "3:30" sign atop it appear to be no great feat. This required keeping his carrying hand at shoulder level, which is hardly the way you want to run a marathon. Not to cast aspersions, but quite a few of the other pacers were not so diligent as Ray on this count.

Ray talked, though wisely he did not keep up a constant chatter. He talked about the course -- letting us know when hills would come and when we'd have a chance to coast a bit, always spinning whatever we were about to encounter in a believably positive direction. He celebrated the arrival of another mile marker and reminded us that it meant that we had one fewer miles to go than we did before (analogous to the step thing I talked about earlier, but a good bit more powerful). He talked about Boston -- a lot. Most of the 3:30 group were aiming to qualify for Boston; it's the time 45-49 year olds need to race in the world's most famous marathon. As we ran, Ray said, "This sign shouldn't say '3:30,' on it. It should say, 'Boston.' We are on the road to Boston." Ray was confident, though not obnoxiously so, that we would all make it.

For the first four miles I ran just a little bit in front of Ray, then alongside him for a while, then just a few steps behind him for a very long time. I came into the race not really trusting I could run a 3:30. I'd run only two previous marathons, with a best of 3:41 at Napa in March. I was worried the 3:30 pace -- 8:01/mile -- was quick for me. Going out at that pace, I wondered what would happen come Mile 15 or 18 or 23. I wondered if I'd make it, period, after stretching myself from the start.

Wondered. Ha. The word I should use is "feared." I was afraid -- but a part of me wanted to take on the fear. Ray made it a lot easier to do so. Through Folsom and Orangevale and Fair Oaks I told myself to stay with Ray as long as I could. At Mile 8, I said that would be the halfway mark, at least. At the halfway mark, I said Mile 16, at least. (My left knee was hurting terrifically then, but I concentrated on staying with Ray and I listened to Ray and the pain eventually subsided.) At 18, I said 20. Still I stuck. And then, at 21, Ray began to pull away. But of course Ray was running the same pace he had the entire race. It was his job, his duty. I, meanwhile, was fading.

In many ways, I felt good. I had been enjoying the race. The crowds were great. I wanted to be all cynical and dismissive of the spectators shouting nonsense like, "Looking great, 755," when I had snot dripping out of my nose and I was listing and pallid. But it was all great. There was the guy who looked like he just finished the swing shift at the steel factory -- imagine there were still factories in this country -- reading from the Sacramento Bee's list of the entrant numbers and names, calling out, "Way to go (pause to find the name) … Suzy!" "Uh … (pause) … James, you are so all over this race it isn't even funny!" There were old folks, young folks, rich folks, poor folks -- the whole darn beautiful tapestry dipped in a melting pot that is this great nation of ours, all of 'em out early, in the cold, to watch people run by them and shout words of appreciation and encouragement.

So I was having fun and I was with Ray and then came the fade. Yes, the fade. Not stomach trouble. Stomach was great. Head, too, was solid, no foggy-groggy where am I stuff. It was my quads. Tight, tight, tight. I ran as hard as I could -- it didn't hurt any more to run hard than it did to run easy, really. Only stopping would have made the pain go away. But 9-plus miles were all I could manage. I hit the Mile 21 sign at 2:48, an even 8 minute/mile pace. The next 5.2 miles took me 47:32, a 9:07 pace. Miles 22-24 were the toughest. You dream of it being over and embrace and push back and embrace and push back again the sense of deliverance you believe the end will bring. Yet somehow, even as you sink deeper into your own pain and the contemplation of it, the experience moves beyond you and you beyond it. You notice among the scattered spectators a little guy just barely old enough to stand teetering and falling, plop, and another maybe three years old doing two quick toddler sneezes. It brings up a mental image of your little boy and you wonder what he'll think when he's 43 and looks at Dad's silly collection of marathon and triathlon finishing medals. You endure DJs spinning tunes way, way too loud, and an indiesh band playing a song whose lyrics capture you for five or 10 or maybe 20 yards, who knows? The marathon is a weird sort of parade but better because the crowd is performing too. One time, a woman in the crowd tailed her running friend for about 100 yards shouting encouragement, offering gu, taking her cap, always coming up with one more thing just when you thought she had been left behind. She was really loud and the guy running next to me kept muttering quietly but with scary intensity, "Shut up! Shut up!" I understood his point, she was obnoxious. But she was beautiful, too, this the Wacky Friend who so much wanted to help.

I don't know. It was nothing special -- there are dozens of marathons like this around the country every year -- but it was, like life itself, spectacular.

Oh, my time: 3 hours, 35 minutes, 32 seconds, according to my Garmin and the chip.


Anonymous said...

Great job, Pete!!!! Sounds grueling. Love, L

dan said...

Lovely story, my friend. Really nicely delivered.