Last year, after running Tucson Marathon for the third time, I concluded it was time to move on to other events. When I read that Runners' World would be there with a pace team this year, I changed my mind.
It was not the provision of a pace team itself that drew me back. I've never run a marathon with a pace team, nor did I intend to this year. Rather, it was the anticipation that Runner's World's mere presence would likely bring improvements to the race in its wake, and I was curious to know what would change. Also, I hoped to catch up with John "the Penguin" Bingham, author of the popular Chronicles column in Runner's World, whom I've known through the running lists for several years.
Race expos are costume parties. Most runners show up mainly to read each others' T-shirts, and to meet running friends, both old and new. Sometimes we even buy things, or else they wouldn't have expos — two new Coolmax headbands in my case. I got off cheap this time.
John Bingham was the first person I saw as I walked in the door, or I should say he saw me, since the RW booth was first. This was my first opportunity to meet his wife Karen in person. We traded running and trombonology talk for fifteen minutes[*], and by the time I left the booth, I'd been persuaded to pick up a 5:00 sign to put on my back, even though I was planning on loafing the run, aiming for maybe 5:10. Tucson was to be just a fun, long training run for me, on the way to bigger things later this month.
[*] We were both trombone-playing musicians in a previous life.
The next stop was to pick up my race packet. They did a repeat design on the T-shirt, but changed the color — not very creative of them. And they failed to advertise that it would be a chip race. Last June I bought my own ChampionChip with an Arizona Road Racers logo, but didn't even bring it to Tucson. In the future it will always be in my pocket whenever I pick up my stuff at a race.
The Tucson expo has improved much over some previous years, when there were just a handful of vendors in a cold outdoor tent. Still, we toured the whole floor thoroughly twice in a half hour, and found nothing new worth mentioning.
Afterward, we got in touch with some friends from Dead Runners Society who were staying at the race hotel to do a drug dropoff. Ummm ... that is to say, I left Sally a couple of Succeed! electrolyte capsules since she forgot to bring them, and was able to email me before we left.
Last on the agenda was to sit and be entertained by the Runners' World pace team, with Bart Yasso of Yasso 800s speed training fame presiding, and John Bingham bringing up the rear in his usual inimitable style.
By then we were hungry, so we hauled off to Cibaria, an outstanding Italian restaurant a few miles north on the marathon course. We've now been there five times. Good sense prevailed, as I managed to limit myself to salad, some bread without butter, and a main course of pasta stuffed with spinach.
We checked in a bit later than we have in the past, so didn't get a suite at our hotel. There wasn't enough room to spread out all my gear, nor a door I could close behind me in the morning so to avoid waking up Suzy. Before turning in I tried watching TV in bed, a silly cartoon on HBO about a giant robot that ate cars (but a really sensitive guy for a robot), while propped up by a pillow. I'm never comfortable doing that. I can't read in bed, either.
It was one of the worst pre-marathon nights sleep I've had. The room was too warm. I could have fixed that, but I wanted to lie there motionless. Too bad for me. When morning came it would not matter.
There's a chronometer built into me that synchronizes with the pulse of the universe. My ability to wake up at precisely the minute I want to, without the assistance of an alarm clock, is uncanny. I set the alarm for 3:45 AM. At 3:44 I turned on the light to see what time it was. This happens all the time.
For me the hardest part of any marathon is the period between when I first get up on race day until I am coffeed, showered, fed, dressed, out the door, and know what the weather will be like, and that I can cope with it. Being uncompetitive but also confident in my ability to complete long distances, I'm never outright nervous on race day. Who on earth am I out to beat? What would it prove? My object is always just to have a pleasant long run, enjoying the scenery and the experience, while doing the best I'm able for that day.
On this morning I muddled through my preparations without a checklist, digging into unopened bags to look for stuff I knew I must have packed. In the end I forgot only two things: I usually either carry or wear a bandana, but left the one I brought in the pocket of the jacket I sent back in the gear bag; and I neglected to bring running gloves, but after one mile my hands were warm enough I could have sat down to play the piano, so they were never needed.
The early morning temperature was cool but comfortable, in the lower forties. The stars were out, and I stared at them intently from the dark bus on the way to the start. It was to be a beautiful, sunny day, with a high temperature in the low seventies.
I got on the second school bus out, one of those cramped vehicles designed for little people, and made the mistake of sitting directly on top of the hot air vent. It was stifling until the driver cut it back a notch when we were almost to our destination.
We arrived at the site about 5:45 AM. The start was not until 7:30. This was a half hour later than previous years. Pam Reed, the race director, happened by and explained the change was because last year the police got a bit excited because the race started a few minutes late due to traffic complications. Fortunately, we were able to remain on the bus until 6:50, when we had to clear out because the first three buses were being commandeered as gear transports.
After a successful visit to the portapotty I met up with John and Karen and the others who would be bringing up the rear. By coincidence, two of the runners I know best back in Phoenix happened by, so I introduced them to the Penguin.
The hardest part of the race was over. Now all I had to do was run it.
For the first few minutes I ran right behind the Binghams. However, John is sold on the Galloway technique of running six minutes and walking one. I'm not. So at the first walk point I broke away, saying they'd probably catch me up the road. I never saw them again.
The first six miles is run around the backroads of the town of Oracle. They changed the course slightly once again this year. The previous three years there has been a killer uphill at about mile three that lasted for most of a mile. Assuming they didn't bulldoze Oracle in the last year, we must have been rerouted, because other than a minor uphill at the very start, there were no uphills to speak of in the town.
When I came to the first hydration stop, I asked for Zing, but they didn't have it. Very bad! Therefore, rather than accepting water instead, I ran on. The same situation existed at the next water stop. It was mile eight before I finally stopped and drank anything. Fortunately, they had Zing, but I was ready to consume just water if necessary. I also carried with me a seven-ounce bottle of Hammer Gel, so was able to depend on that for energy, since the race wasn't providing us with much.
After the turn onto Oracle Road just after mile six, it's the same all the way to the end of the race — steady downhill on the shoulder of a mostly straight road, with only orange traffic cones to keep the runners separate from certain death.
The first half went very well, as I plowed steadily ahead. At mile eleven I felt invincible, but experience told me it wouldn't last. Eventually I caught and passed the 4:45 pace group, and was starting to catch straggling 4:30 runners. One man passed me saying: "You're going to have to slow down some if you're going to make five hours!"
At 2:16:38 chip time I hit the halfway split, as compared with 2:29 when I ran St. George in October, and ended with a chip time of 5:00:00. Short of outright collapse, I would beat that time, perhaps by a significant margin.
By mile 14 the 4:45 leaders passed me by again, and I chased them for the next two miles before falling hopelessly behind. As far along as 22 miles I entertained heartfelt and realistic expectations of coming in between 4:45 and 4:50.
Four runs in Tucson have taught me that eventually the downhill does get to you. Running downhill is easier on the lungs and lets you go faster, but it doesn't come without cost. It's true that I set my PR on this course three years ago (4:25), but it was following a 2:06 first half. On that cold and rainy day I didn't burn out, but still slowed down substantially in the second half.
Eventually the quadriceps just stop functioning. Whether it's at 13 miles or 22 miles depends on how passionately one has been seduced by the hill.
As usual, my disintegration took place gradually, starting about mile 16, but I plowed on unfazed until mile 22. I don't remember when I finally started taking walking breaks between water stops, or ceased leaving the ground with every step, but it was no later than mile 18. In contrast, I walked not a step except at water stops in St. George two months ago.
The last two miles the course won the battle. I ran the bulk of it, but also had to walk frequent little bits. Whenever I get past mile 22, it always seems as though God has recently changed the laws of the universe, and has temporarily inserted either seconds into minutes or yards into miles. That couldn't possibly have been only a mile I ran from marker 23 to 24!
The ultimate insult on this course is the very end — after all that downhill, the last 0.4 miles up to the 26-mile marker, which sits right on the corner of the turnoff, is an ugly uphill that leaves you feeling like a moron for all the thrashing arms, gasping for air, and getting nowhere that transpires. Last year I saw a guy standing just before the final turn wearing a T-shirt that said: "Your village called. Their idiot is missing."
Then we round the corner to run the final 0.2 miles and we're suddenly approaching the Gateway to Paradise. It's once again gently downhill, running east, straight toward the beautiful Catalina mountains for the first time, with the balloon-festooned finish line straight ahead, and hundreds of guardian angels enthusiastically guaranteeing us greater health, wealth, a better sex life, and eternal salvation, if we can just make it a few more yards.
Unbelievably, I suddenly started to run hard once again. First I saw a Dead Runner friend, cheering for me like a madman, and I was able to pull myself together well enough for him to get a picture that may even suggest I was in motion at the time.
Imagine my surprise when, fifty yards later, I saw Suzy holding and waving the 5:00 pace group leader's pennant, trying to hand it to me as I went by! I knew perfectly well that I was way ahead of the group, and ahead of schedule, so wondered how Suzy got the stick. In my perplexity, it never registered that she was trying to hand me the flag so I could carry it across, even though she was nearly falling over the fence from trying to give it to me. I just smiled cluelessly and waved, as I ran on to the finish, where I arrived in a chip time of 4:55:37, a bit short of my wildest dreams, but much better than I had expected for the day.
After dumping my chip and picking up my medal, Suzy found me. She explained that the Binghams had both gotten sick on the course, so bailed out at 18 miles and rode in to the end. It turned out to be Karen's first DNF ever. John had seen me on the ride and told Suzy I looked strong and was way ahead of the pace group. He gave her the pennant to give to me. The fact that it says "Fig Newtons" beneath the 5:00 makes it just a little more meaningful, I suppose. (Kids used to call me Figgy when I was young, which I always hated.)
The quality of one's performance must be analyzed in light of context and expectations. A marathon finish time of 4:55:37 is barely mobile by almost any way of reckoning. But for me it was not bad because:
The provision of a pace group is something I like conceptually. Perhaps if I'd been really up for it, and started out initially with the intent of keeping up with the 4:45 group, I might have come in with them. If I ever attend another race with pace groups, I'll definitely try to pick a group that tests me out.
Tucson was marathon number nine for me (in addition to three ultras). Next on the agenda is my Big One for this year: Across the Years, Decades, Centuries and Millennia Run, Walk, Nap, and Eat 48-hour race, from December 30, 2000 — January 1, 2001. At this writing there are five people signed up for the 48-hour race, including Aki Inoue from Japan, one of the best ultrarunners in the world. I'll give you one guess what geezer is not going to win that one.