Writing and running in Austin, TX.
A week ago at this time, I was sitting at an outdoor cafe in Aachen, eating a giant bowl of spätzle, wearing a skirt, and wondering if I’d ever be able to face my jeans again. (Not, actually, for reasons relating to the giant bowl of spätzle.) Now, a week post-marathon and back on speaking terms with my jeans, I will try to dredge up the memories of what actually happened.
The week leading up to race day was…odd. A lot of runners talk about how hard it is to “taper” in the week before a race. They talk about how they get antsy, dying to squeeze in one last speed session to make sure they’re “still sharp”.
This does not happen to me at all. I felt positively gleeful when my last speedwork session was over. I like to run fast times as much as the next person, but I positively hate training to run fast. (Perhaps this is why my dreams of a professional running career have never panned out. That and flat feet and a distinct lack of Kenyan ancestry.)
Once I was in the taper, I started to feel like the hard stuff was done. I was getting to sleep in a bit more and all I had to do was get through one last long run before I could kiss my religious 5-day-a-week routine goodbye.
Naturally, this laissez-faire attitude towards the race morphed into complete panic by race day. It was going to be HOT. Not Texas hot, but definitely “unseasonably hot for Germany in May” hot. And my last unseasonably hot run – a 20-miler just a few weeks previous – had ended in me staggering the final two miles home.
Plus there was that 5:30 cutoff time that’s literally been haunting my dreams and that I’ve “casually mentioned” in 8 out of the last 10 blog posts.
|Maybe I should have picked a different race…
(At the expo the day before race day.)
The night before the race I had a mini-breakdown, to which Handsome J responded with one of the best motivational speeches outside of a Mighty Ducks film (this is from memory, so it may be slightly paraphrased):
“You’re not going to get picked up by the car at the back of the race. There’s no way you’re not going to make the cut-off time. You trained for this. AND, even if by some unbelievable circumstance an asteroid crashes into the middle of the course and you can’t finish because there’s a mile-wide hole in the ground, you’ll still have me! You’ve practically won already.”
I reflected on this. I briefly considered saying, “You’re right, there’s more to life than just running.”
Instead what came out of my mouth was: “But I’ll have to admit to it on the blog!”
Lucky for all of us, when my confidence is flagging, my vanity remains intact.
Back to race day. It was warm, but I had planned for the weather and had a running skirt and short-sleeved top ready to go. The skirt was actually a last-minute decision prompted by my realization that it had a big pocket in the back that could help resolve the eternal question, How do I carry a water bottle and a cell phone and an iPod AND 4 packets of GU?
The iPod was a bit of a last-minute decision too. I had previously prided myself on never having listened to music all* the way through a marathon (*I consider the last 6 miles open game), but I had trained with a mix of music and NPR podcasts for the past six months, there was no pace group slow enough for me to join, and even though I can now handle basic chatting in German, we all know how well my brain operates toward the end of a long run. I’d be lucky to handle basic chatting in English. Besides, Germans don’t do small-talk with strangers.
|I decided to wear my Chicago Marathon shirt in hopes of looking like this wasn’t my first rodeo. The Doof decided to check if GU tasted like Milk-Bones.|
The official start was at 9:30, which felt incredibly late for a marathon. Not only did I not have to set an alarm, but I also was able to eat and digest a full hotel buffet breakfast. (Okay, two pieces of toast and a handful of scrambled eggs for “protein”.) This was a good thing, because my emergency back-up breakfast – Clif Bars – has been known to cause gastrointestinal distress under race conditions. And I am NOT a fan of Port-A-Pottys. Although I did get in line for one 10 minutes before the start. It was something to do.
Luckily, my interest in the Port-A-Potty was more distraction-related than an actual emergency, because I never got into it. The guy in front of the girl in front of me went in and never came back out. I can only presume he was really worried about the 5:30 cutoff.
While I starred in my one-person melodrama in the line for a portable toilet, the real elites hit the course. These guys:
|I am not making this up. These guys went 26.2 miles on unicycles. No offense to all you long-haired hippies who put on knee pads, shoulder pads, and crash helmets to unicycle 500 feet down Town Lake trail, but now you kind of look like pansies.|
At 9:28 I abandoned the Rent-A-John and went looking for the white flags that signaled the “everybody who barely deserves to pay the entry fee” race pace. Naturally, that pace was starting directly under a bridge. I started up Garmin, who promptly froze 3/4 of the way into “Acquiring Satellites”. I edged forward, holding my arm out in front of me like you do when you’re trying to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night without waking your significant other or walking into the dresser or both.
I was still doing this about 10 feet later when I noticed a stranger giving me a sympathetic look. Germans may not be so into small talk, but all runners can bond over trying to acquire a satellite.
Garmin did eventually come to life, just in time for the starting gun to go off. (They really did have a gun, and the race director fired it directly at the inflatable arch over the start line. It took ever bit of self-control I had not to nudge the girl next to me and say, “Lucky they don’t have real bullets in that thing, huh?” and then guffaw at my own cleverness.)
The start was amazingly…calm. After Chicago and San Antonio, I had completely forgotten what it’s like to be at a race with less than 30,000 people. As a group, we all calmly walked toward the start, began jogging about 10 meters out, and were at full race pace by the time we hit “Go” on our watches. There was none of the typical jostling for position or darting around people who think they can run 6-minute miles with a baby jogger. I felt a warm glow toward my fellow runners. We are one! People from all over the world united by the joy of running! And our deep-seated fear of the cutoff time!
Around 1K–okay, who am I kidding?–around 150 meters I glanced down at my pace. 10:09. Too fast! I took a deep breath and tried to focus on being calm. I’ve found this works better than thinking “slow down”, because I’m so good at slowing down that the mere suggestion would have sent me into the 12:30 range.
I also started looking for someone to surreptitiously pace off of. I found those someones in a father and two sons dressed in matching shirts with their names screen-printed on the back. I settled in behind Uwe, David, and Kevin and took a few moments to wonder when it became popular for Germans to give their children boring English names. (Then I thought about the American trend of naming our children Madison, Brooklyn, and Apple and decided we were still safely ahead in the pretentious baby name competition.)
Around kilometer 2, a cheer went up. The first 6K were a loop around Düsseldorf’s Nordpark, and the elites were rounding the turn into kilometer 6 and heading back our way. I experienced one of the cheesiest moments of my running life as I joined in the cheering with my fellow back-of-the-packers. I began to choke up a bit. Here I was, in a foreign land, plugging away at a sport that I’ll truly never excel at and surrounded by hordes of the equally ungifted, and all we slow people could do was call out our admiration for those who represent true excellence in our field.
This is where running trumps every other sport out there. In what other discipline can you enter the exact same competition as an Olympian? Sure he got a private bus to the start and will be doing post-race interviews when I hit the halfway point, but at least I get to tread the same pavement. Maybe that sticky puddle of energy drink I just leaped over was spilled by a world record holder! This is why we run.*
*Of course you should take all this with a grain of salt. Other things that have caused me to choke up include the ending of Never Been Kissed and the part in The Man From Snowy River where the star and his brumby stallion chase the herd down the really steep hill.
After seeing the elites – and a few stray unicyclists – nothing much exciting happened until around 10K. Actually, three exciting things happened around 10K:
Eating at 10K always feels a little silly to me – kind of like having a snack to tide you over while waiting for the microwave. (I’ve done that. You have too. Don’t deny it.) But, I was bound and determined to prove I had learned something from past experience and all those long runs where I spent the last few miles with pretty blackish-green spots swimming around in my eyes. I had brought 4 GUs, one for every 10K, and dammit, I was going to eat them.
I must break here to point out another lesson I learned–and applied–from the Antwerp 10-Miler. Honor thy aid stations. Düsseldorf had THE BEST aid stations I have ever seen in my life. First off, there was one about every 2.5K. This was close enough to never feel like you were going to dry of dehydration, but far enough that when you get to the dark times of negotiating with yourself to “just run to the next aid station”, reaching said aid station feels like you’ve actually accomplished something.
Also, Düsseldorf kindly solved for me my Chicago issue of drinking so much sugary energy drink that I couldn’t decide if I was more likely to die from exhaustion or diabetes. In a stroke of brilliance, the organizers made every other aid station “water only”. Was this a cheap move on their part? Possibly. But it saved my stomach and I love them for it.
|The magnificent houses on the west bank of the Rhine.|
We hit the halfway mark not long after crossing back over the river, and I glanced down at Garmin. (Something I’d been doing roughly every 200 meters. Again, it was something to do.) 2:20.
Holy sh*t, I’m going to have a massive PR!
I know. I know. I KNOW. I know better than to think things like this, and I immediately began to mentally flagellate myself for such foolishness. But I couldn’t help letting just a little excitement creep through. I was feeling good. Stronger than I’d felt on a long run in months. And this was quite a bit slower than my 10-miler pace in Antwerp. Maybe, just maybe, I really could maintain this until the end. Or at least hit 4:45?
Naturally, I hit a bit of a wall roughly 5K later. Holy sh*t, I’m going to have a massive PR! became, Holy sh*t, I have a long way to go!
I knew before the race that my own head was likely to be my biggest competition, but I also knew that trying to ignore it would get me nowhere. So I decided to compromise with myself. Just run till the next refueling station, as I’d come to think of the 10K GU-eating intervals.
That took care of another 5K, and when I hit the 30K marker I was ready with some more proposals for my inner wimp. It’s only a 10K from here. Just run this last 10K.
My wimp thought that was too far.
Fine, just run the next 5K. That’s only 3 miles you lazy a**!
And I kept telling myself that at every kilometer marker I passed, like one of those demonic gym teachers who tells you to just do 10 more push-ups and then keeps getting distracted and losing count.
|I think that guy in front of me was having some conversations with himself as well.|
There were a few other factors in addition to mental fortitude that got me through the last 10K. One was the miraculous appearance of Coca-Cola at the aid stations. I had heard of Ironman competitors drinking Coke mid-race, and it always sounded a little funny to me. Call me a convert – I have never had a better quick hit of sugar. It felt like karma smiling upon me for all those miserable long runs where I would see a billboard advertising cold soda or Gatorade and know that all my water bottle held was 2 ounces of lukewarm backwash.
The other lifesavers were the showers. In our pre-race goody bag they had handed out sponges that we could carry with us and dunk into water buckets at each aid station. My reaction to this was a logical one: Who the heck is going to run 26 miles carrying a sponge??? Whoever you are, I thank you, because in that last 10K the volunteers gave up on sponge dunking and just rigged up their hoses to spray over the course. (I also thank the kind families who did similar things with sprinklers, and that one dude who just threw a bucket of water on me. I’m going to tell myself you’re not a creeper.) I ran straight for every water source I saw. It was 82 degrees by this point, and my concern for whether Garmin might suffer water damage was at an all-time low.
The actual last 5K was rough. Thanks to a truly sinister twist in an otherwise beautiful course design, you could actually see the finish line from 5K out…only you still had to run AWAY from it and do a long loop around the Königsallee, Düsseldorf’s high-fashion shopping drag. (I knew I wasn’t actually going to die when I found myself admiring a Prada window after 4 and a half hours of running.)
There was no more negotiating with myself at this point. It was a mental dressing down. Walking is NOT AN OPTION!!! I don’t care how slow you run you will NOT STOP!
I don’t usually like to be yelled at, but…it worked. With 1K left to go, I knew I wasn’t going to get 4:45, but I tried to squeeze the last bit of energy out of my dragging legs. I still wanted the PR, after all. Plus, I’d never made it through a full marathon without walking some part of the last 6 miles. If I was really going to escape my own head, I needed to do it running. Or at least shuffling.
I skipped to a Shakira song on the iPod and gunned it. It wasn’t much of a gunning, and when we finally crossed the finish, I’m pretty sure the words “Gott sei Dank” (Thank God) came out of my mouth, which is vaguely odd, because I’d never actually said that phrase in German before. But, it was the first thing that popped into my heat-addled brain.
It was quite a trek from the finish to the refreshment tent, where I helped myself to another life-saving Coca-Cola–maybe if I say Coca-Cola enough times, they’ll offer me a lifetime supply!–and a jelly donut, but passed on the meat sandwiches and Alkoholfrei beer. (Umm, I know you guys are German, but…eww.)
There was no seating to be had in the tent, so pulled up some cobblestone and tried to keep Garmin alive so I could show Handsome J my time. And that’s when I realized the last-minute decision to go with the skirt might not have been my best move. I don’t usually have issues with chafing, but the combination of heat and showers had caused some…problems. Even though I had just finished a marathon, I practically leaped to my feet out of fear that someone would see my…situation. And I don’t mean my abs.
I’m going to stop now, because I’d rather you all not visualize that particular part of race day. Instead, I’ll leave you with this:
|What’s a little chafing in the name of a 7-minute PR?
Hmm, and judging by the total distance, I have some work to do on that “running the tangents” idea.
With or without the PR, I have to say that Düsseldorf was the prettiest, best-supported, and friendliest marathon I’ve done. A big thank you to the city for being so welcoming, to my fantastic support crew of Handsome J, Mom, and The Doof, and even to Aachen, for all the hills. I’m pretty sure that’s what made 10:45s on a flat course possible.