Races and Stories

Dallas, Texas--

Forecast: El Nino strikes Texas as an upper-level disturbance moves into the state from the northwest, drawing Pacific moisture across Northern Mexico. Considerable early morning cloudiness will yield precipitation beginning late morning. Temperature at dawn will be around 46, and will drop to around 40 during the day.

White Rock Marathon, Dallas, Texas, December 1997

Nope, not the ideal day for a marathon. But I had cut a deal with a guy at the bike shop. Dave is seriously considering the pursuit of triathlon in '98, and he and I are comparing notes as he starts to train more diligently.

Last week found me on the road again, first in Boise, and then Tucson. My deal with Dave was that we would meet at the bike shop on Saturday after the weekly ride and decide if we wanted to enter The Rock as a relay team.

The week of Thanksgiving had been a good running week for me: 37 miles, which, at my slow pace, is a lot. Travel imposed a pre-race taper, and I felt lucky to get 15 miles. Plus, of course, the Saturday morning bike ride.

But neither one of us was willing to be the one to call it off, so 6:30 AM found us in a North Dallas parking lot to coordinate our attack. We drove to the race, with an interesting stop at the downtown Dallas McDonalds. (I like my Egg McMuffins, and my race would not start until about 10:00). We were there five minutes before opening, and waited on the cold, windy sidewalk with an odd mixture of street people and yuppie runners. They had piped Vivaldi at high levels to the sidewalk area, presumably to encourage those with non-classical tastes to move along. I ordered my breakfast and almost made it to the table before being panhandled by one of the customers. I didn't feel generous.

The plan was to leave my Jeep at the start, see my friend off for the first half, and then drive his car to the halfway point. He would pass the baton to me, and then have his car there to drive to work (ouch). He predicted 1:55, which is exactly what I predicted for myself, so I felt like we were matched for a relay.

The course is relatively flat, with a two or three mile climb, followed by a similar descent in the first six or eight miles. The middle third circumnavigates White Rock Lake, and is flat. The final third consists of another long, shallow uphill, with the last 4 miles to the finish being all downhill. "Hill" is a strong term: the difference between the highest point on the course and the lowest is about 200 feet of elevation. The grades were rarely steeper than 2 or 3 percent.

The rain seemed like it was going to wait, and I took the advice of the run-store guy and wore only shorts, a thin long-sleeved running shirt, and a ultralight vest to protect against the wind. While waiting for Dave, I was a little cold, but it was fine during the run, even after it started raining. Which, of course, it did. I felt the first mist just as Dave appeared in the steady stream of runners, looking most unhappy. Dave had blown up at Mile 11, and the last two miles had been a death march for him. I pointed him to his car, took the baton (a bright orange wrist strap) and took off.

Relays are a bummer for two reasons: You can't predict your start time, so you can't have an effective warmup. The first mile or two, therefore, is your warmup and you must go slowly. The second reason is that you will feel like the proverbial poser starting out fresh amid all those suffering souls.

I ran with the pack for a mile, and then started gently passing people. We traversed the eastern edge of the lake, and arrived at a small downhill descending to the dam. I decide to stretch it out a little, and see what was there. My pace dropped from the 9-minute mile range to the 8:30 range. The course began to ascend, and the raindrops started to fall. I can't remember when I was first aware that it was actually raining, because it started gradually and got worse and worse. You can boil a frog alive without the frog knowing it if you raise the temperature slowly enough. I never realized how cold and wet I had become until after the race was over.

Many walked up the hill, and I wondered if I would be one of them in that stage of a full marathon. But six miles into a half, I was smooth and strong. I maintained an 8:40 pace on the climb. The top was so subtle that it could not be predicted. I sped up in anticipation of cresting the hill, only to have the crest elude me for a mile. But that mile was 8:15. Then the land inclined downhill (very gently), and I bumped it up another notch. My remaining miles were all in the mid sevens, a full 90 seconds per mile faster than my race pace a month ago.

By this time, we were running in a steady 40-degree downpour. Most were bitching. But a strange thing happened to me: I found that I was enjoying myself. Happiness took me utterly by surprise. I was pushing my pace, and my limits, and flying past people (for which I felt a little embarassed--I was the poser after all). The more I pushed, the more I found. I could have run a conservative full marathon this day without doubt. Others were miserable (even those who had Relay tags, as I did, identifying us as pretenders). I couldn't see a damn thing through rain-drop-encrusted glasses. My feet sloshed with each thunderous footfall. My sleeves were filling with water and had to be drained from time to time. I'm sure I looked like the completely inept runner that I am, but I _felt_ fast. My mood seemed inversely proportional to the conditions.

No tunes interrupted my consciousness. No emotional swings broke through. No thoughts of the philosophy of what we do; no remembrances of lost friends. I'm not aware of the sound of my own feet on the ground. I'm only vaguely aware of the puddles, and my futile attempts to avoid them. The stretch of my legs as I run at 5K race pace in this 13-miler provide the only sensation. As the end nears, the stretch grew of its own accord. I did not manage this race: My body managed it for me, and carried me along. To hell with planning, and discipline, and compulsive training regimens, and engineer-induced precision. Just run, dammit.

By the finish, I was in a full sprint (at least for me), but euphoria carried me into the finish chute. I shunned the plastic rain blanket that was pushed in my direction. Hell, I was already wet, and loving it! One official ripped my tag, and another pressed two relay finisher's medals in my hand.

It didn't last. By the time I reached the Jeep, I was cold and wet again. But the joy is still with me. I stopped for lunch on the way home. A guy and his date, obviously fresh from church, stood in line in front of me. They were short of cash, and she was trying to write a check. In a Jack-in-the-Box? Get real. The guy's face fell, and he said "Nevermind our order." I shoved a bill across the counter and said "I'll catch it." They all looked at me dumbfounded. I was soaked, dirty, and ridiculously underdressed. I'm sure I made the same impression as the street bum who had unsuccessfully panhandled me that morning. The guy said, "How can I pay you back?" and tried to shove his only two available bucks into my hands. I told him to keep his money, and pass the favor along to someone else when the opportunity came.

Dave said, "You mean you finished?"

"Sure. Why not? It was just a little rain."