Cornfield Meet

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Seventeen Saturdays: The Towpath Marathon

Sunday, Oct. 11

Ninety minutes or so after the Towpath Marathon, I double-limped through our front door, desperate to take a shower and stretch out on our bed.

Standing in the family room, I have never looked at a half-dozen stairs with such trepidation. Maybe I can crawl up there using mostly my arm muscles…

My morning started at 5 a.m. I toasted a bagel, smeared it with not-too-much cream cheese, and sipped water. Jenn and Kelsey got up, and we left at 6:15.

About an hour later, we were pulling into the Boston Mills ski resort parking lot. I walked around to get my bearings and eat a banana.

I’d decided that with sun in the forecast but only a 50-degree high expected that I’d run in my shorts but wear my Akron Marathon shirt beneath a long-sleeved Hall of Fame race shirt. I brought gloves for the early part of the run. Jenn and Kelsey caught up with me, and we hung around in the lodge for a few minutes while I got my things in order, strapping on my belt and my mp3 player, making sure I knew how to work the stopwatch Keith gave me.

We headed out toward the starting line at 7:45.

This was more than 24 hours ago, and thinking about it still stirs the nervousness almost back into reality. I was jittery and chilly and even though I’d spent 71 of the last 125 days going through these same motions and doing the same thing – running – over and over, and even though, as my brother’s voice said in my head, “It’s just distance,” I was still doing my familiar race-day freakout.

The starting line was about halfway down a south-facing hill just north of the Boston Mills ski area. I said goodbye to Jenn and Kelsey at the bottom, and walked uphill toward the back of the pack, not wanting to start off too fast or get in the way of runners going for faster times.

It was a far smaller crowd than I’d ever raced with: fewer than 500 people. I’m sure it had to be someone else’s first marathon, but I felt like the only person there who wasn’t relaxed and ready and comfortable with what was coming.

They announced one minute to start time.

And then it was here.

Up toward the back, of course, we didn’t move right away, and even after I did start jogging a bit, we came to a mass of almost dead stoppage while the crowd bottlenecked over the timing sensors in the road. I held back and let things clear so I could cross the timers at a jog, and then I was over them, looking for Jenn and Kelsey one more time, waving at them off to the right, and looking south to the longest run of my life.

It stayed crowded, and though I felt like I was at a comfortable pace, if a little slow due to the cold and nerves, I was also aware that my speed was still basically being dictated by the people around me. I didn’t want to weave and dart through the field for fear of getting off to too hot a start, so I just went with the flow.

We crossed a bridge and then turned off the roads and onto the narrow towpath itself, thinning things out somewhat. And though I felt a little more comfortable passing people at this point, when we hit the first mile marker and I looked at my watch, it was a punch in the gut:

TEN MINUTES?!?! You are freaking KIDDING me!!! My admittedly ambitious 8:23 pace goal and its 3:40 total time suddenly seemed insurmountably distant. I was alread a minute and a half further back than I wanted to be, and my pace-marking temporary tattoo felt like a taunt and a mockery. So much for my visions of letting off some steam at the start and then being able to afford slow-downs in the late miles.

I tried to push a little harder to see what ground I could make up. It didn’t happen quickly or easily: I got faster – though I remained slower than my goal pace – over the first few miles, and by the five-mile mark, I was between four and five minutes off the pace that had once seemed so reachable.

“It’s a long way to go, ” I told myself. “Get back a few seconds here and there, when you can.”

It was a beautiful morning for a run, and the scenery in the Cuyahoga Valley was fantastic. Certain stretches, you’d hear the river rushing shallow over rocks, other places fields on the opposite bank spread out, dotted with flocks of Canada geese. Highway bridges towered far overhead. Marshes and swamps were still and misted.

I wasn’t listening to my mp3 player yet, wanting to save it for the later miles, when I’d really need the distraction.

The southern turnaround – the marathon started and ended at points near the middle of a single stretch of the towpath – came somewhere between miles seven and nine, I think, and I felt like I was hitting my stride.

In fact, in the tenth mile, I had the crazy thought that I was actually feeling pretty good. I’d been checking my progress at every mile, and by now, I’d run a few in the low-eight-minute range, a bit faster than my goal pace. When I saw the Mile 10 sign ahead, I realized that I’d be able to pass it before the 90-minute mark, making for a nine-minute average, and gaining back a big chunk of what I’d lost in those first few miles.

Nearing a tunnel beneath a railroad line at around twelve miles, I couldn’t help but grin when I heard a horn blast and saw the engine coming toward the crossing just as I was passing through. (Trains and bridges hold special places in my heart, as anyone who’s read Crossing Decembers knows.)

The miles started catching up to me around the race’s halfway point, though, so I cued up a couple recorded podcasts to pass the time. I wasn’t panting or exhausted or anything, but I started to kind of feel the weight of the race piling up on my knees and upper legs. And during this stretch, the run became a solitary experience. I passed – and was passed – infrequently, and slowly, like when you’re on the highway on cruise control and you come upon someone else who’s got their speed set at about one mile per hour faster or slower than you.

Here’s where I also lost total track of my time – while hitting the play button and selecting the tracks on the mp3 player, I had somehow inadvertently reset my wrist clock. So it was just me and the miles ahead.

I’d been warned about the dragging miles between 17 and 20 – seems like they were hitting me a little early, maybe, but nothing that made me doubt that I could finish.

Not long after I passed the finish line area, southbound runners began appearing on the left side of the path, nearing the end of their races. I was jealous.

I found myself taking note not only of the mileage signs on my side of the path, but noticing the north-facing ones on the other side, which all started with the number 2 and trying to think of Future Me passing those markers instead of those on my side, which still began with those infuriating 1s.

At 18 miles, though I was feeling pretty whipped, I was able to tell myself that I still felt better than that terrible day I ran my 18-miler in training.

At 20, I told myself that every step from here on out was a whole new frontier, and all I had to do was just keep going.

It was hard.

My lungs were fine, and I had no side stitches or other cramps, but my legs were turning into squish.

During this stretch, I’d finally started piping my musical (and other) inspirations into my right ear. (My left earpiece had gone dead during the start of those podcasts earlier.)

They ranged from a clip of a Spongebob Squarepants episode culminating with a genuinely stirring bit of triumphant pop-metal to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” to The Cyrkle’s “Red Rubber Ball” to U2’s “Desire.” Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” music was in there, as was Yellowcard (“Way Away” and “Ocean Avenue”) and the oh-so-1980s song “Runner” by Manfred Mann. I was saving “Through the Fire and Flames” for the last mile or so.

During training, and as I had assembled this playlist pre-race, these songs and soundbites had gotten my heart pumping and my adrenaline skyrocketing.

By the time I turned around and headed south for the final five miles, the best they could do was just take my mind off the remaining distance.

Five miles, which I’d run so often and with less and less effort, was all I had left, and I was struggling.

I started closing my eyes, opening them every few seconds only to keep myself on the path and make sure I wasn’t running into anyone.

Every time I came around a bend and didn’t see the next mile marker, I felt like screaming or crying, neither of which I could afford the energy to do.

Look, other people are walking, part of me said, and you’ve run more than twenty miles, which is something not a lot of people can say they did, so why don’t you call it a day here and –

-because I don’t freaking WANT to walk. I wanted to RUN a marathon and KEEP running it and FINISH it running, and Future Me, who’s already up there at the finish line somewhere even though I can’t see him, he’ll be awfully pissed off if I quit now.

You know what, though? I just didn’t care.

I couldn’t make my legs work any harder, go any faster, or take any longer strides. I couldn’t shake my head and clear it and think, “Hey, you’re still breathing, so you’re in good shape.”

I just wanted to be done. I just wanted to be finished. Outside of the pain in my knees and legs, I was numb to everything else, and stopping seemed like a good way to start healing.

But I didn’t.

At mile marker 22, I told myself, “All that’s left is one more run around the block,” and I tried to look around and replace the woods and the towpath and the river with my neighborhood and its landmarks.

At mile marker 23, I thought of the place where there used to be a big barn that my friends and I snuck into as kids, and which they tore down a few summers back – it’s three miles from my driveway, going the long way around the block.

With 2.2 miles left, I imagined the halfway point of my four-mile route at home, a spot at which you can look across a field and a horse pasture and see our cluster of houses.

Somewhere just before I saw the mile 25 marker, I finally let myself listen to Dragonforce and though I had no adrenaline left to rush, “Through the Fire and Flames” at least chewed up almost eight minutes of time. I decided to listen again, and halfway through the first verse, the black-and-white sign crept into view ahead: Mile 26.

Beyond it, I could see people lining either side of the path, faces turned in my direction, arms waving and hands clapping.

I knew I wouldn’t stop now. Not this close. For the first time in miles, I remembered that I could do this. I allowed myself to know, in fact, that I’d already done it, and I’d be catching up with Future Me in just a few more steps. Not stopping to walk during the last few miles had been probably the hardest physical thing I’d ever done, but it was behind me now, lost there in the woods down in the valley.

When I reached that mile marker, in my mind, I was at the end of my street, and the mailbox at my driveway seemed closer than ever.

I yanked the earphones free and tucked them in my left hand, and I heard people yelling encouragement.

I leaned forward, incapable at this point of the full-on pumping charges I used to manage on the final stretch at home, but enough to give me a little burst of speed.

When I saw people looking past me, north on the trail, I thought, “Someone behind me?” And I pushed a Little. Bit. More.

A white-gloved man ahead waved me to my right, and I veered off the course and saw the finish line right there with the clock above at 3:56-and-something-I-think, and I pushed once more and then I was there, and someone handed me a medal, and I saw a big bin of orange wedges, so I grabbed one and shoved it into my face and it was the Best Orange Ever so I had another one. And then Kelsey and Jenn had rushed into the finishing area and thrown their arms around me with ferocity and I’m pretty sure they were holding me up at that point, like they always are, and I am through and I’m finished.

I have a couple more orange quarters and then go sit on the grass, swigging from a big plastic bottle of Gatorade and eating the peanut butter crackers Jenn brought for me.

When I take my shoes off, I dump a few small pieces of gravel from the right one. There’s a blister on the ball of my right foot where one of these has been rolling around for awhile, but I never wanted to stop and take it out.

We grab fast food drive-through for lunch on the way home. As we get closer, I think of all the running I did on these roads, and the mailbox as viewed from the end of the street doesn’t look quite the same anymore.

I gingerly made my way up the stairs inside the house, leaning heavily on the railing. After a shower, I took a long nap.

Later, I looked up the final official results: I finished in 3:56:07.14 – sixteen minutes longer than I’d wanted to run, and 12 minutes behind my little brother’s first marathon time. My pace was nine minutes and one second per mile – only six seconds per mile slower than I’d done my 20-miler, and at any rate, almost a full minute faster per mile than that 18-mile slog back in September. Still, it was under four hours, and I placed 192nd out of 488 competitors – so, hey: top half, right? – and smack in the middle of my division, 21st out of 41 men age 35-39. (And just to make myself feel better, out of the 20 guys in my division who finished ahead of me, only six were my age or older. The rest of ’em? Whippersnappers.)

And I never stopped running.

October 12, 2009 Posted by | Ohio, running, Sports, writing | , , , | 18 Comments

Your father wanted you to have this, when you were old enough.

A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. And a neatly-kept lawn.

A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. And a neatly-kept lawn.

Going through my image files for Saturday’s JediCon presentation, I rediscovered this beauty of an ad.

That Darth Vader rendering makes this one look positively breathtaking. Although it is fun mentally reading his word balloon in James Earl Jones’ voice.

October 8, 2009 Posted by | 1980s, eighties, Film, geek, Ohio | , , | 2 Comments

JediCon WV: Toys, Flashbacks and Fun.

Attention fellow Star Wars and/or 1980s pop culture geeks in the Western Pennsylvania/Eastern Ohio/Northern West Virginia area: Nerdfest coming up Saturday (Oct. 10) at the sixth edition of JediConWV.

It’s at the Kruger Street Toy & Train Museum, and I’ll be there most of the day signing and selling copies of “Collect All 21!“. At 11 a.m., I’ll be reading some excerpts accompanied by 1970s & ’80s photos (Brown corduroys! Avocado linoluem! Gold curtains! C’mon, hands up if you remember!) and 8mm home movie stills. It’ll be an unparalleled multimedia extravaganza, I swear. (Or not. But I’m planning to have fun, I can tell you that much.)

And if you don’t want to come all the way to Wheeling (though it is only 60 miles from Pittsburgh, 90 from Akron/Canton, 127 from Columbus, and 2,464 from Shumway, California) just to see me, I get that.

You should also know, though, that Jon Seay is supposed to be there with original Star Wars props and tales of working on the first movie; Kim Simmons, “The Man Who Shot Luke Skywalker” is on the list, and Don Pedicini Jr. created some exclusive artwork and posters just for the occasion.

Perhaps I can say it best by paraphrasing the poet-warrior John McClane: “Come out to JediCon, we’ll get together, have a few laughs…

October 6, 2009 Posted by | 1980s, Books, Current Affairs, eighties, Film, geek, Ohio, science fiction, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Go Mad (in a good way) with Jim C. Hines’ Mermaids and Princesses

Back in May, author Jim C. Hines was among the many incredibly friendly and cool people my daughter and I met at Penguicon 7.0. (Kelsey still cracks up over a disturbingly hilarious Sesame Street-related story he told during a Humor in Science Fiction panel.) I hadn’t heard of him before the convention, but after talking to him and hearing about the set-up of his book “The Stepsister Scheme,” I immediately added it to my To-Read list.

This summer, it grabbed Kelsey’s interest, too, especially when she read the first chapter one morning, since I’d left the book lying on the kitchen table. It’s good stuff: Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are reimagined as take-charge heroines, but the story goes well beyond just tweaking and spoofing the original fairy tales.

The first of three planned sequels, “The Mermaid’s Madness,” was released today, and Jim graciously answered a few questions for me via email in an interview for Wired‘s GeekDad.

October 6, 2009 Posted by | Books, Current Affairs, Fiction, geek, writing | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Seventeen Saturdays: Episode XVII

Saturday, October 3

This was it: Saturday number 17. The last one before the race a week from tomorrow.

It was sunny and right around 50 degrees when I set out around 8 a.m. with eight miles on the calendar. First nice morning this week, so I wore my shorts and a long-sleeved T-shirt from one of the the Hall of Fame races.

I wanted to get a feel for running with headphones, so I loaded up my mp3 player with a podcast for time-passing and a handful of songs to keep my adrenaline going over the last few miles.

Less than half a mile in, the podcast wasn’t coming through. I just bunched the earphones up in my right hand and kept going. I wasn’t surprised, really: The past 24 hours had been all about Stuff Not Working.

Friday morning, Jenn and I had noticed a huge drop in our water pressure. Some fluctuation isn’t uncommon from time to time – our house is 30-some years old, and we get our water from a well – but this was new. Yay. By lunchtime, we realized we were only drawing the water that was in our pipes, and we ran out just after noon.

Called a repair place. They managed to have someone out to our house by late afternoon, yanked our bad well pump, and showed us a massive repair estimate. What can you do? We needed water. They didn’t have everything necessary to get it done that night, so we arranged to spend tonight at mom’s.

I know you’re supposed to save money for rainy days like this, but damn, what do you do when it just never seems to stop raining?

And look, I know we’re blessed and fortunate in a ridiculous number of ways: We’re lucky to have a home about which I can complain when the well pump goes to hell. We’re lucky to have supportive and generous family and neighbors. None of us is facing a seriously life-threatening illness.

So, yeah, part of me feels really petty about whining over a massive water repair bill. Still, perspective alone doesn’t make a problem disappear.

Jenn got up and went to work this morning at 5:30, but I never went back to sleep. I just stayed there in bed thinking all this stuff and wondering how we were going to deal with it, and suddenly running in a marathon seemed awfully unimportant.

But I am out here this morning and it is clear and fall, and the leaves on the trees are fully into their changing, and it’s the time of year when the little white church about a mile from our house sits against the backdrop of the season shifting, gleaming in the rising sun, and just like every year, I realize it’s one of the many small slices of beauty I am fortunate enough to see in my life.

Just past the halfway point in my run, I started messing with the headphones again, to see if I could get the music files to work and help me maintain a good pace over the last few miles. The files played, but there’s a short in one of the earphone cords or something that either cuts out one of the sound channels completely or makes it sound like it’s coming from behind a tin wall.

The guitars and rhythms mostly came through, though, so I still felt like I could draw on the music’s energy, and in mile six, I hit “play.”

Music is a funny motivator. Some songs give me those great throat-clutch moments of wanting to scream even though in my heart, I know they’re bad songs that just happen to hit the right chords. One such song on the player was reserved for the final mile today. I have sung it in my head many times this summer, but never actually tried to run to it.

Before then, though, there was “Desire,” by U2. And then “Ocean Avenue” by Yellowcard.

Then I had to fight the urge to alternately wield an invisible lightsaber and a conductor’s baton: John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates,” from The Phantom Menace. (That chorus, with the vocals? Chills. Every. Time.)

Second-to-last on today’s set list, “Don’t Stop Believing.” I fall for it, as I always do. And I’m heading north now, and the sun is bright across the hills to the east, and there’s a deep thrum in my chest, and I can’t help smiling. I am seven-plus miles in and I am running and grinning. Journey fades.

I am looking at a climb.

And now the cheese, melted in blistering guitar rhythms, pours into my ears: I can’t help it. It’s the fastest song I’ve ever loved, and it’s ridiculous and irresistible to me at the same time. “Through the Fire and Flames,” by Dragonforce. It is almost eight minutes’ worth of utterly goofy lyrics and rapid-fire drums and guitars, but thanks to family video game time and Guitar Hero III, it has become my go-to tune for venting and adrenaline. (Hey, in fairness, at least it does include the line, “Running back through the midmorning light, there’s a burning in my heart…” – that’s appropriate, right?)

>Sigh.< Somewhere along the way this summer, “There is no try” and “It is not this day!” (Inspirational line from The Return of the King) have been joined by “Through the fire and the flames, we carry onnnnnnn!”

Of course, the beauty of it is that I find it impossible to do anything slowly or calmly when this song is playing.

Over my last few runs, I’ve tried a new visualization game: Having seen runners cross the finish line in Akron and getting goosebumps for them, seeing their tears and hearing their barbaric yawps, I’ve tried to imagine an actual finish line stretched over the street in front of my driveway. I live almost exactly two-tenths of a mile up our street, so it’s easy to make that turn and picture a Mile 26 marker standing at the corner, and I can look toward at my mailbox and think, “When I see that last mile marker on race day, that’s where the finish line will be – will I have the strength to fly there?

And on this morning, timing is on my side, and I am turning onto our street just as Dragonforce’s climactic guitar solos finish and the throw-the-rock-horns-and-scream last verse and chorus are unleashed.

In my imagination, my knees are coming chest-high and I’m pulling 40-foot strides and barely touching the pavement and the bead of sweat on my right temple can’t reach my jawline because it’s driven backward by my speed. In real life, Dragonforce is making my ears ring and I just may be lip-synching and trying not to laugh or slow down because I am just loving the moment.

When I reach the mailbox, I actually keep going full force for an extra half-dozen steps, because while my lungs are searing and my heart is racing, I kind of don’t want the run to end. I don’t want to have to look at my lawn that needs mowed but has a busted well pump and 75 feet of pipe snaked across it; I don’t want to have to take a shower at my brother’s house and haul laundry down to mom’s; I don’t want to have to think about all the things that need fixing.

I look at my stopwatch: 1:05:31. A seven-minute, 51-second pace for eight-and-a-third miles. My best time for this loop and the longest sub-eight-minute run I’ve ever done.

The morning stays sunny a little while longer.

October 5, 2009 Posted by | Current Affairs, Ohio, running, Sports | , , , | Leave a comment

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