Cornfield Meet

Things collide here.

Seventeen Saturdays: Episode XVI

Saturday, Sept. 26

I ran in my first marathon today.

Being part of a relay team in the Akron Marathon isn’t the same thing as Running My First Marathon, of course, but still, it was a Race Day, and that meant pre-run adrenaline and excitement, no matter how much I kept telling myself, “This is just your regularly-scheduled 12-mile run; just the normal ‘X’ through today’s box on the calendar; a distance you’ve covered eight times already.”

Even so, I wanted to run well.

Adam and I left for Akron at 5:30 a.m. – an hour-and-a-half prior to the start time – when it was still dark. I’d had a bagel and cream cheese for breakfast, which was more than I usually eat before a race, but pretty much standard for my long run Saturdays.

And I decided to run with my belt, carrying my own water and gels, figuring I’d rather be in total control of when I wanted to “eat” and drink rather than having to plan the consumption around the relief courses on the route. Also, I’ve gotten used to taking the gels and drinking on the run rather than stopping completely, and I’m pretty adamant about sticking to the rituals and patterns that seem to work for me.

We parked the car around 6:15 and met up with our fellow runners about 6:30, hanging out on the fringes of the mass of people at the starting line, pinning our numbers on and talking a little about the logistics of the thing.

After Dean, our leadoff runner for the first 3.5-mile loop, headed toward the starting line, Adam and Angie and I walked to the first relay point, where I’d take over for legs two and three – 5.7 miles and 6.3 miles – and then hand things off to Angie for her 2.8 miles. Adam’s 7.9-mile finish would bring him into Canal Park where we’d meet up.

Waiting with Adam and Angie at the relay – after all, once I took off, they’d have plenty of time to get to their own spots – I really started getting race nerves, especially when the first competitors started passing through: First the wheelchair marathoners, and then a few solo runners. As the relayers arrived, they’d announce the team number over loudspeakers so we could keep our eyes open and get ready.

One minute I was standing there joking with them about the anticipation and letdown of similar numbers being called out, and then we heard “8-6-5-4” blare from the amplifiers, and I was out at the edge of the waiting crowd looking for Dean.
And then, 28 minutes or so into the race, I was taking the bright yellow relay bracelet from him and jogging south and uphill.

Because I’ve only run one race a year, those first few moments of competing feel new to me every time: The sudden change in the surrounding sounds, as the crowd around me is suddenly making noise only with its feet and not its voices; the realization of my commitment to a particular run and passing the point of no return.

Although I considered loading up my MP3 player with songs or podcasts to listen to, I’d simply run out of time last night, and at any rate, I’ve run the vast majority of my mileage without that distraction. I figured that this being a totally new experience, I wanted to really soak it in and see how my mind and body reacted.

For the first mile or so, I regretted the decision: The dozens of racers around me made it extremely difficult for me to get my mind into that “running place” of personal calm and near-detachment, and of course, like trying to fall asleep, thinking about getting to that place only made it impossible to do. That the first two-and-a-half miles were a pretty straight stretch on single street probably didn’t help things, since I couldn’t think ahead to the turns and other landmarks.

Eventually, though, I forced myself to think about maintaining a comfortable-but-not-too-relaxed pace and reminded myself that if I weren’t here, I’d still be out running this same distance on this same cool, cloudy, hovering-on-the-edge-of-rainy morning, only I’d be alone and on familiar roads instead of here in new territory with a couple thousand strangers.

And then the discomfort sort of melted away, and I was just running.

We passed Firestone Stadium, and I thought for a minute or two about when I was a sports writer covered a couple regional high school softball tournament games there, one of them, I’m pretty  sure, with Kelsey in tow on a Saturday afternoon.

And several times I found myself glimpsing parts of Akron through my eyes as a 15-year-old, when I had my first girlfriend, and she lived up here. The course didn’t go near her neighborhood, but it took us past areas I remembered, and the houses and streets and trees had a familiar feel.

All along my first 5.7-mile leg, there were spectators. Not a constant crowd, of course, but there was never a stretch where there weren’t several clusters of people on either side clapping and hollering encouragement to both specific runners and all of us in general. This wasn’t a totally new thing, since parts of the Hall of Fame 2- and 5-mile races attracted a few watchers, but somehow, it felt different. (I was wearing a Lake Track & Field T-shirt my brother gave me, and three times along the way, I heard someone yell out “Go Lake!” to which I flashed thumbs-up.)

I was feeling energized as we got to the second relay point, especially knowing I was going to run right through it, not handing off my bracelet, but keeping it for another leg. I heard my team number called as I entered the hand-off zone, and I admit I was half-hoping a volunteer would ask if I needed help finding my teammate just so I could oh-so-casually say, “Nope: Running two.”

Also, I was a bit surprised to find myself suddenly back on familiar ground: We ran past the new University of Akron football stadium, and then onto the campus itself. “Hey,” I thought, “There’s the building where I met LeBron James -” (It was for about a minute, when I caught him for a brief, shallow interview about his marketing company and advertising deals.) “- and there’s the parking garage; and there’s E.J Thomas Hall…”

And then, with a quick right turn, I saw the starting line ahead and realized I was just a couple hundred feet from where I’d been fidgeting in anticipation just an hour or so ago.

I was on the second leg now, though I had honestly forgotten the specific lengths of each one, focused as I was only on the 12-mile total. I knew the longer part of this one, though, would be on the Towpath Trail, down in the woods along the Cuyahoga River. As I ran my last few city miles, I noticed a few more landmarks: “Hey, that’s where I had lunch a month or so ago! And hey, Luigi’s pizza place is right down there!”

Just past the 11-mile mark, realizing I had less than five miles to go, I got another burst of what I’ve come to think of as “calming energy.” It’s not like a new charge, but a wave of comprehension that I just feel good and maybe I can go a little faster, or at least not slow down. (A huge, steep downhill stretch at this point helped, I’m sure.)

My own toughest stretch was probably the one between Mile Markers 12 and 13. For one thing, I had to go to the bathroom, and, not to be too indelicate, not the kind of going to the bathroom that, say, kids figure they can do unnoticed in a pool. This has happened enough for me to know I can run through it and the urge will go away, but it makes for some discomfort.

We were also on the Towpath now – the same Towpath I’ll be running, further north, in just two weeks – and so frankly, there was less going on around me to take my mind off the run. Yes, it was new territory for me, but it was also fairly repetitive: Trees; glimpses of the river to the right, a near-constant hillside to the left; a few short bridges.

Awhile back, Keith and I were discussing the pros and cons of running part of the Towpath Marathon route ahead of time, and I decided against it, in favor of keeping it an unknown to be experienced. And though I still feel strongly about that, I think I probably will make sure I have my music player stocked for that run. Not that I see myself listening for the entire 26.2 miles, but it would have been nice today to have it ready for this stretch.

I distracted myself by mentally playing songs, recreating movie speeches and generally trying to, you know, Think Inspiring Thoughts.

And around this time, I passed a relief station sponsored and staffed by the Ohio State Association of Nurse Anesthetists, and it reminded me of Dad and put a lump in my throat. Just for a second or two. But it also made me smile, seeing them there in their scrubs and surgical caps, handing out cups of water. I didn’t take a drink, but when I passed them, I felt better.

At this point, withabout three miles to go, I started drawing parallels: “If I were at home, running our usual 10-mile loop, I’d be passing Giant Eagle.” Two-and-a-half: “I’m almost to the traffic light at Applegrove.”

When I reached Mile Marker 14, with a mile-and-a-half to go, I lengthened my strides and started to kick. It’s further out than I usually start at home, but then again, at home there’s usually one big climb in the final mile, and that wasn’t the case here. I started passing runners who had been in front of me awhile, or who had recently passed me, and though I knew it meant little overall – many were full marathoners and still had many miles to go – the burst felt good, like the charge up the hill at the end of the Hall of Fame race.

At Marker 15, with a half-mile remaining, I thought, “I’ve just come down the hill near our house: I’m almost there. Pour it on.” I never went into full-on-barrelling-huffing-and-puffing, but I tried to keep my strides strong, even as my mind went, “Hey – where’s the relay point?” I couldn’t see it like I figured I would have been able to. We climbed briefly from the riverbank to the intersection of several busy roads – blocked off, of course, for the run – and I realized I knew exactly where I was: Last month I drove up here to meet with some editors about work.

But more importantly, Where’s the frakking relay point?I’m going up hill now, in danger of losing steam, and I still don’t see it, and- ”

A quick turn to the right, and I’m there.

I can’t do a dead sprint into the crowded relay corral, but I keep things quick until I’m over the timing bar – I hear the announcer call my number – and then I’m looking for Angie, and then I’m trading the relay bracelet for my car keys, and I’m saying, “All right- Go!” and she’s off, and I have ducked into the crowd and am making my way off the course, hitting my stopwatch button: 1:40, almost on the dot.

For 12 miles, I later figure out, that’s an 8:20 pace. And while I do keep telling myself this was just a part of my training, I’m still proud of having run this far with a Race Day mentality.

The shuttle bus back to the finish line inside the Canal Park baseball stadium took longer than I thought it would, and when I get there and make my way inside, I realize that Adam and Angie and I – Dean had to leave after his leg for a football game – have made no plans for meeting up afterward. I figured it would be easy enough to watch Adam cross the finish line and then catch up with him.

I went to the bathroom, then decided to wait until Adam arrived to get my post-race food. I found a front-row seat on the first-base line, with the Finish Line just a few yards off, and settled in to watch.

It was chilly and starting to mist slightly, but having never been at a marathon, I got wrapped up in the joy of watching runners complete their races. I was a little jealous of Adam, in fact, since, as our final runner, he’d get to do the final hundred yards or so, coming in the center field gate and seeing the stadium rise around him, hearing the crowd. But I was also tremendously excited to be where I was, and every so often I’d get goosebumps watching finishers and thinking of how I was going to holler my fool head off when my baby brother came running into the stadium.

A funny thing, though: I missed it.

Somehow, I had missed his entrance, and as I watched the clock run, I got more and more uncomfortable and cold and hungry, and my seat was hard, and my muscles still wouldn’t relax because at any moment, I figured Adam would come into view and I could stand up and yell and clap.

The numbers on the clock got bigger. I struggled to do the mental math figuring out whether we, as a team of semi-experienced runners, could possibly have taken this long.

By 11:15, I knew I had to have simply missed his finish, and I got up to look for him.

We ran into each other about two minutes later.

He’d come in at the 3:32:49 mark, which baffled me, since I’d been sitting there watching since the three-hours-flat point. Or had I? I’d seen the women’s champion arrive at 2:51, but then I couldn’t remember if I’d been sitting down, or if that was before I’d gone to the bathroom and walked around for a little while. Could I somehow blame the people who insisted on squeezing past me to watch other runners finish? Or maybe those obnoxious few who came and sat on the wall in front of me to see their own friends and family come in?

Not likely: Even if someone had blocked me for a few seconds, it was a long enough run across the outfield that I should have seen Adam, and I was just pissed off at myself that I hadn’t.

So Adam had finished, collected our team medals, gotten his bag of free post-race food – by the time I got mine, the sandwiches were gone – and had been wandering around looking for me for the past 45 minutes or so. Angie had caught her ride home long before.

Walking to the car, my anger dissipated, and on the drive home, we talked about our race and the runners we’d seen and where we’d been.

I ate lunch, and then I took a nap – I still felt chilly and achy, more from having sat in that damn stadium seat shivering for an hour plus – but even after waking up and taking a shower, I still felt drained. Much more so than I figured I would have after a normal 12-mile run. Again, I blamed the post-race situation.

Later, when the marathon results were finalized and posted online, Adam and I learned we’d finished 81st overall in the 970-team relay field, and 40th in our “mixed” division of 682 teams comprised of both men and women. I thought this was pretty cool.

I’m glad I did it, and grateful to Adam for roping me into it.

Two weeks until I do one on my own.

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September 27, 2009 - Posted by | Current Affairs, Ohio, running, Sports | , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] Akron Marathon relays – two legs in 2009, and one each in 2010 and […]

    Pingback by New feet friends. « Cornfield Meet | February 2, 2013 | Reply


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