Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Marathons - The Times of Our Lives

Honestly, I had the time of my life while in Portland, Oregon over the past weekend to run the Portland Marathon. I was with a group of nine people, men and women, that often swelled to include others, and we hung out for three days together. That in itself is amazing when considering that we were bunked three to a room. It was a little like that time at Band Camp.... Exploring the city, shopping, doing the Expo, riding the amazing Portland Tram Line, eating together - the food was uniformly excellent - and even hot-tubbing it and having our very own pool party.

We shopped - the Apple Store became our home away from home - and we offered up a prayer of thanks for George W. Bush for allowing the US dollar to have the crap kicked out of it.

As for my Marathon - #23 - it was and is difficult to describe. I began suffering the signs that portend the onset of an asthma attack within the first three miles, which has been an issue for a few months now. So far this year I have had to drop out of a couple of tempo runs completely. My heart rate hit 171 and I knew that was not something I could hold for three and a half hours. So I slowed and walked and then allowed myself to come to a complete stop for about a minute. In all honesty, I was as concerned about panicking as I was about having an asthma attack.

I made a decision to fall off the pace a little and abandon the plan for a new personal best in Portland. There was not going the be a 3:24 or a 3:25. My fall back position was re-qualifying for the Boston Marathon. I needed another 3:30:59.

Even with a full minute or more of stopping, and with the walking, my 10K split was a still manageable 50:33. I picked up the pace but my breathing would not , or more accurately, could not, return to normal - I had taken all my asthma medication two hours before the run and did not have my inhalor with me. My heart rate was elevated from what should have been 158-160 to the mid 160's and higher. At eight miles I started to gag a little and couldn't draw a full breath. I willed myself to keep my heart rate in the mid-160's which was still too high but I thought I could manage that level without throwing myself into oxygen debt. I seriously thought about dropping out at this stage. After all, it's just a marathon and there is always another one.

At the half way point, my (new - thanks to Alex) Polar RS 800 showed that I had turned the corner at 1:48:29. My pace band of course pointed out to me that I needed to be at 1:44:07. So, after thirteen miles I was just over four minutes behind. And I had nothing more to give, nowhere to turn to for more physical reserves, more mental toughness, more resolve, no bright ideas. My legs, while not cramping, were absolutely flat. Just dead with no bounce or rebound. There would be no riveting second half dash, no scintillating negative split. In short, I was faced with nothing but failure after ten months of training, hundreds of hours of sweat, thousands of miles of painful effort. All come to nought. My race, for all intents and purposes, was over.

So at the halfway point in the Portland Marathon I quit. I pulled the plug and stopped racing. I would be lying if I didn't say it hurt like Hell. Felt like not only had my lungs had collapsed, but my heart and my resolve as well. I left a little of my soul on the side of the road in Portland.

I seriously wanted to withdraw from the race, but wondered what kind of message that would send to all the people who I try and teach that finishing a marathon is your first goal and that your finishing time is secondary. Funnily enough, one of the shirts I had purchased at the Portland Marathon Expo helped put me in a fighting frame of mind, the technical shirt that said, "Quitting is not an option".

So I thought of this marathon as a learning experience in a long line of marathon learning experiences. You have good races, best races, and races that don't quite measure up for a variety of reasons. Some things are out of your control. Part of life is learning to accept that with a certain amount of maturity and equanimity - and hopefully, with time, a certain measure of dignity and grace.

I thought of all the first time marathoners, and the large crowds of supportive spectators and the thousands of volunteers - all who had come out to cheer on people just like me and I tried my damndest to stop feeling sorry for myself. So I kept running. Smiled and thanked the volunteers. High-fived some kids.

As I soldiered on, as best I could, the 3:40 pace group passed me, then the 3:45 pace group and with about a mile to go, the 3:50 group. I would be lying if I said I didn't speed up a little each time at the sight of the balloons passing me by, but in less than a minute each time, the sensible part of my brain weighed in and I fell back into my lope.

I finished Portland in 3:50:50. There was no sprint for the finish line. But also, no cramps.

The trip to Portland was one of the best I have ever had. Anywhere, any time. The group of people I traveled and roomed with, some of the best I've ever had the pleasure of spending time with.

I still haven't figured out how I am getting back to Boston next year....


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