Monday, October 18, 2010

Angels and Demons in the Motor City: Detroit Marathon Race Report

Yesterday, October 17, I finished my second marathon of 2010. The first one was in Pittsburgh in May, a warm-up for Ironman Lake Placid, and it would not be an all-out race. This one was in Detroit, an alternative plan for not making it to Ironman Hawaii, and it WOULD be a race. They were both supposed to be "fun." But Pittsburgh didn't hurt. Detroit would.

I entered the Detroit Marathon because Columbus, my choice race, was sold out. A friend convinced me it was the equal of Columbus without the stress (in his words, it wasn't a local race "where the streets know my name"). He was absolutely right -- the Detroit Marathon is a mostly flat and fast course. And the weather was near perfect -- in the low 60s by the finish.

The other reason I decided to run the Detroit Marathon was a reunion with my former student and good friend Jess (her blog). After being sidelined by injury and taking time off to have her first child, Jess was finally ready to tackle her goal of running a marathon this year. Knowing how badly she wanted to run a marathon and how excited she was to be healthy and at the starting line, I would enjoy seeing her finish as much as having a good race myself.

In the two weeks leading up to the marathon, I tapered my running mileage while keeping my swimming and biking volume up. Although I wanted to have a good marathon, my goal race of the season was still Ironman 70.3 Clearwater in November. It may not have been the best way to approach it, but I had already worked too hard to sacrifice my ultimate goal. Throughout last week, I never felt fully rested and my running legs continued to feel fatigued even with low easy mileage. I constantly complained to my husband Jim about "how crappy I felt." His answer? He wished he had recorded it every time in the past that I complained during my taper. That way he could play it back to remind me that I sounded like "a broken record." So I tried not to worry. Even when my legs felt wasted on my jog the day before.

Cold and dark, I dreaded taking off my sweats
Sunday, race day, began in the upper 40s. We met Jess and her husband Chris (who was running the half-marathon) at 5:30 a.m. in the hotel lobby to take Detroit's People Mover to the starting line. I was bundled in sweats, a beanie, a long sleeve shirt and a t-shirt over my race shorts and top and was still cold. But somehow they got by with only short sleeves and shorts. We hung out on the street as a record-crowd showed up -- over 19,000 runners in four events: the marathon, marathon relay, half-marathon, and 5K.

Runners at the start were divided into corrals which would be started as waves -- waves would be separated by two-minute intervals. Based on my predicted finish (an optimistic 3:10), I was designated to start in the second wave. I had never seen waves in a running race. The wave start was expected to alleviate congestion on the Detroit-Windsor bridge.

This brings me to my next point. The Detroit Marathon is mostly in Detroit, Michigan, but features a few miles in Windsor, Canada. At registration, all runners are required to provide their passports or international ID's, and runners and bib numbers are scrutinized as they cross the border(s). And on the way back into the U.S., every runner does an "underwater mile" -- complete with certificate and mile split -- through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel. How cool is that?

The race began at 7 a.m., just before the crack of dawn. Before I started, I made one race vow to Jim: I would not do anything to jeopardize my race in Clearwater, even if it meant dropping out. This is NOT the best attitude with which to approach a marathon. Within the first mile, I was already feeling heaviness in my legs. As I approached the 5K marker near the apex of the bridge to Canada (and the only real hill on the course), I was very concerned that I would have to end my race when I got back into the U.S.

By mile 6, I had settled into an uncomfortable seven-minute mile pace as a new problem arose. I needed a porta-john. And I needed one soon. This could not be taken care of, as they say, "on the run." The first opportunity was a line of porta-johns at the first relay exchange. I passed it up because of the wait lines, remembering there were porta-johns at every water stop. And... there was a water stop just ahead. Did I say "just ahead"? I meant "right now"! The water stop and the relay exchange were one and the same, and yes, you guessed it, those WERE the only toilets. As I continued on, I prayed that I wouldn't have to ask someone in Canada where their nearest toilet was.

As we headed into the tunnel at mile 7, conditions changed from the 40s and cold (outside) to near-stifling (underwater). The short climb out was a great relief, as was mile marker 8 and the expectation of another "bathroom break" opportunity. At the water stop, I grabbed a cup of water and carried it until I saw the great plastic answer to my prayers. I was at such a point of desperation, I didn't know if I'd even get the door open in time. And at that particular moment in time, I can say, without a doubt, that I didn't care how much time I lost. However, upon regaining my composure, I did manage to maximize my "down time" by multitasking -- consuming a Gu Roctane and the aforementioned cup of water.

I estimated I lost about two minutes for the stop, but once I was back on my feet, I felt much better. And lighter. I knew from experience that trying to make up the time I lost was a bad idea, so I settled back into my "uncomfortable" seven-minute-mile pace. Feeling so fatigued so early, I didn't think I could hold that pace for the entire marathon. In fact, it was around mile 10 that I started to have thoughts of dropping out. My mind started asking those tough questions: "Can I live with myself if I don't finish?" and "Is it better to DNF than to embarrass myself with a really slow time?" Yes, my legs were tired. But not once did I consider dropping out because I would hurt myself and/or ruin my race in Clearwater.

And, in a nutshell, that was it. I made one vow. I would only drop out to save my race in Clearwater. A slow marathon would NOT sacrifice my race in Clearwater, it would only hurt my mental state. Time to suck it up. I began the wrestling match with my demons.

I look like I'm going faster than I am
I went through the half at 1:35. To finish in my predicted (read: acceptable) time, I would have to negative split this marathon, something I've only ever done once (without a bathroom break). At mile 13, I consumed  another Gu, and, to my surprise, by mile 16 I felt like I was gaining stamina even though I still seemed to be running on the edge of anaerobic. I knew that around mile 19 or 20, the race headed out to Belle Isle and would almost certainly lose crowd support until we were back on the mainland at mile 23. The demons fought back. I wrestled them down.

And at mile 17, along came my race savior, an angel by the name of Laura. For two miles, I chased her down, only to find that she wasn't IN the race at all. She was one of a group of high school runners who were running seven miles of the marathon course as a workout. Her coach told her not to take any aid or hinder runners. And Laura did quite the opposite. She ran my pace and she made me laugh. She told me she "loved to run" and wanted to be an ultra-marathoner someday. I don't know who was pushing who, but by the time we hit mile 23 and her workout ended, I was mentally energized and ready to tear up my final 5K. The only thing threatening to stop me was the onset of a sharp pain in my left hip at mile 20 that was steadily increasing in intensity.

The last thing Laura said to me was "Do it for me, Jeanne!" and I took off. I don't know how many people I chased down in that final 5K, but I do remember the ones who had passed me earlier in the race. My pace was slowing, but to my surprise, I managed to get through mile 24 in seven minutes.

From Belle Isle back to downtown, the Detroit Marathon is one of the prettiest urban courses I've run. It travels along the waterfront on something called the "Detroit Riverwalk" (I think) while heading to the finish line. And you can tell how close you are by spotting the towers of the Renaissance Center just up ahead. For me, the last mile and a half was agony as my hip decayed further. I just tried to maintain my stride and hoped it wouldn't give out. The only thing worth fighting for was to close the gap on two women in front of me, but I ran out of road. When I saw the finish chute, I finally looked at the total time on my watch. I would, indeed, finish in under 3:10 - in 3:06 - 87th overall, ninth woman, third master and first in my age group (45-49). And I wrestled the demons into submission -- for now.

But Detroit wasn't a disaster-free race. I met Jim shortly after the race and we found Chris after he finished the half-marathon. While we were deciding what to do next, Chris got a phone call. It was Jess. She developed a severe I-T band problem and had to drop out at mile 16, unable to take another step. My heart sank. I knew what she was going through. I know what she will GO through in getting to the next marathon start line. But Jess has one thing going for her. She's a bona fide angel. I knew it the moment I met her -- she was an angel in my devil's classroom. And, therefore, she has the one thing she needs -- the ability to fight those demons. All the way to the finish line.

Here's a 17-second video of my start if anyone is interested:

1 comment:

  1. Could you please define, for the class, what constitutes a slow race for you? Oh, and once you’ve answered this question could you tell us all what color the sky is in your world?

    So, had it not been for your multitasking poop break you would have run a 3:03:XX? As someone who shares your age-group but not gender (although I have been told I run like a girl) I have to wonder if there’s hope for me to actually run a sub 4-hour marathon one day or is that a time reserved for the girls….*sigh*

    When you crossed the border into Canada did your Garmin start tracking your pace in Kilometers in lieu of miles? Did you’re iPod Say you were listening to funky jazz of Kilometers Davis in Canada? If you got hurt on the Canada side would the healthcare be free? Did the course music suck on the Canadian side? Did they hand out maple syrup at the aid stations?

    I wish I ran like a girl….