To the cyclist I accosted at Mile 6 of the Foot Traffic Flat Full Marathon this past Sunday, I offer my apologies—and my gratitude. That Gu was most appreciated.
This was on the first out-and-back spur off the Flat Half loop, a long, wayward, north-south spur. Two-thousand ran the shorter race, 400 embraced the perverse charms of 26.2, and there we were in the lonely early-morning nether reaches of Sauvie Island. Through the odd shady grove, the many open spaces along Multnomah Channel, past farmlands and marshes where insects buzzed and birds sang.
I should have been blissfully alone in my mind at this point, avoiding pondering Terri Moulton Horman's recent visit to the island. There were a dozen or two runners in front of me, only a few in view, no footsteps heard. Cruising at three-hour pace, as planned. The check-engine light off: troublesome hips mellow, PF issue nonexistent, often-tight calves loose and beautiful (if I do say so myself).
Then came a little organizational snafu. Four miles or so in, Aid Station No. 2 would, according to the course map and website, offer the carbohydrate drink Heed and Hammer Gel as well:
Although I prefer to run unencumbered, many races don't provide what I want when I want it, so often I tote my own calories. At Berlin I set out with not one but two gels in hand, 65 grams of carryon. Sign me up for Himalayan sherpa duty. But if the good people of the Foot Traffic Flat Full Marathon would have a petit sac of sugar waiting for me, on cue at Mile 4—then again at Mile 17 on the out-and-back return—then I say let's lighten the load.
Aid Station No. 2. Card-table legs barely locked in place. A couple of people scurrying to set out and fill water cups for the trickle of marathoners, girding, no doubt, for the deluge soon to follow, the horde of halfies, fast deft ones who grab well, first-timers who don't, walkers, talkers, balkers.
“Gel? Heed?” I shout on approach. “Not yet,” the reply.
All right. Another aid station two miles onward. No gel promised there, but Heed, yes, a few healthy gulps a measure of the calories needed early in a marathon.
Aid Station 2B, around Mile 6: water, period.
“No Heed?” “Sorry.” An expletive. Regret. An over-the-shoulder apology.
There are no carbs on this course! The voice inside my head screeching—the one that barely puts up with marathons under the best of conditions.
BONK, BONK, BONK like an alarm sounding shouts the voice, footage of me dry-heaving at Wildflower ’05 splayed paralyzed in a cold stream in the Flint Hills of Kansas at Death Ride ’97 rolling now for this audience of one scared-shitless dude his race falling apart.
There are attempts to remain calm, good faith efforts, rational entreaties. A little traction comes with the reminder that, aha! I do much of my training “low,” as they say—without sustenance. Yes, my ridiculous familiarity with running on fumes could save me from complete disintegration here and that is a good thing, but of course the point of this exercise is not survive-it-end-of-story. Because if making my way from the beginning of the course to the end was the only goal I wouldn’t be running so damn hard. No, I'm about the three-hour barrier.
(Barrier? Really? The three-hour wall so high and intimidating Gov. Jan Brewer would look at it and say, “That'll keep 'em out”? Or just another number made powerful by its mere roundness? You may cite personal experience in formulating your answer.)
And who should appear in my moment of need, a cyclist, two cyclists, a young woman and a guy, their voices evident first behind me, the guy saying, "This part of the ride is so peaceful," the woman murmuring her assent. Together they roll on, the guy now even with me, he has a small pack on his back. Apparently thick with provisions, surely there must be, there, in the pack, a gel, a zipper pull and a reach of the hand and a little feeling about. All it would take.
Not slowing down, I explain my predicament to this guy on a bike and although he does not look pleased to do so—quite appropriately, I submit—he rides up ahead, pulls to the side, removes the pack and retrieves a gel, a Gu, specifically, fruity flavor I will discover, and hands it to me. "Thanks, I love you," as I run away.
I assumed he and the woman would pass me and I was ready to tell him if he ever needed someone to co-sign for a home mortgage or donate a major organ, track me down, I'm good for it. But I never saw them again.
Then everything was normal. It was just another marathon then.
I ran on. That check-engine light illuminated around the midway point. The hips: tightening. I slowed. Maybe I tried not to—a matter of some internal debate, you understand—but in any case I slowed. The three-hour pace—6:52 per mile—leaked away the way it always does, by drips. Mile 12: 7:00. Then 7:07, 7:04, 7:06, 7:07.… I hit seven-flat three or four more times but never got below that.
So what else is there to say? Just a few things, briefly. Around 18 miles there was a second spur for the Full runners. This was a surprise in many ways, not least because its very existence is not noted on the course map pictured above. Then again, it is on this map, which organizers also provided a link to. In any case, when pointed off the loop—"Full runners to the right, Half runners go straight"—I seethed. A somewhat hilly unannounced spur, another rhythm-destroying 180-degree turnaround, the cruelty.
Ten minutes later, about to rejoin the loop, I'm still sour. Looking to get out of my head, I say to a guy I had drawn even with, "How you doing?" He's younger and I don't know why but I assume he has more in the tank than me. I want a compatriot. I'll give extra. He'll give extra. We'll lift each other. Hope flickers! But in his training he had only run once a week, one weekly long run, because of the kids, you know? He's not looking for miracles, just plugging along, losing faith in a PR (old one 3:05). At the next aid station I go first to grab Heed and that's it, I'm a few feet in front, then 20, then I don't look back, I feel him falling away.
Between 21 and 24 brief electrical impulses attack my calves alternately every minute or so, nearly knocking me off my stride. Not cramps. Just powerful, quick rockets of pain. I ought to be worried but something needs to be at stake to worry, right? Nothing is at stake. I'm not scaling any three-hour barrier today. I'm just running, running, running, faster than I've ever run this distance before:
Napa, March 2007: 3:24:46
Boston, May 2008: 3:18:52
Berlin, Sept. 2009: 3:09:54
CIM, Dec. 2009: 3:06:16
Eugene, May 2010: 3:05:07
Flat, July 2010: 3:04:05
Is that the most ridiculous progression you've ever seen? I'm aghast, amused and proud.
Anyway, couldn’t have done it without the bicyclist and his Gu. Couldn't have done it without caring. Still with the caring.