I am dedicating this blog to Brian Dutter, who has been after me for weeks to update my blog, like a tenacious terrier. Usually he reminds me of this while nipping at my heels during a track workout. Then he invariably charges past me to finish far ahead of me on every interval.
I apologize to friends who still check it every once in a while, because I am a fickle, mercurial blogger. The reason is, as I confessed some time ago, I don’t really write blogs. Drea writes blogs. Very GOOD blogs. I write essays, and it takes me far too long, so I put it off. But here goes, Brian…
My last entry was after a disastrous race in April. I had a bad cold, and I ran three races back-to-back: Carlsbad 5K, Tough Enough, and the Chardonnay 10-miler. Who promulgated the myth that runners are usually intelligent people? Predictably, I fell into a black hole that didn’t lighten up, so I took some time off from hard running. Mike Swan, my coach, suggested I still do Saturday tempo runs with the group, so it wouldn’t be too painful to come back when I was ready. It wasn’t painful at all to show up to track workouts at 6 a.m., warm up with the group, and then take off for an easy 10 miles…bye, guys! My body was deeply grateful, and I wasn’t resisting.
My comeback race was Semana Nautica. I went into it thinking I was in 7:15 shape, and I ran…7:17 pace. Not bad. Good enough, in fact, to earn mention in a USATF newsletter blog, because I had joined the Grand Prix for the Southern California division, and I came in 1st place (out of USATF members) with my age-graded score of 79.9%. My final time, 1:07:48, wasn’t a PR by a long shot, and I am not satisfied with anything under 80% (now that I’m a “veteran” runner over 50, 80% is quite achievable because of the strange, convoluted math behind it, which eludes me), but it was respectable. In fact, it was a fantastic race, as races go. I went out a little slow, but picked it up and ran very consistently. I really raced at the end, too, passing people and giving it some heart.
I started to feel good about running again.
McConnell’s was more of a challenge. Anything under 15K is, for me, a “short” race. My sister was visiting from Portland, and the whole fambly turned out to watch me dry heave at the end. I finished in 43:45, waaaay over my stretch goal of 43:00, and just over my I-can-live-with-it goal of 43:30. Still. 81+% on a 55-mile week…no complaining here.
I love Pier to Peak—a half marathon that starts at Stearns Wharf and finishes at 4000 feet—for very personal reasons. This was my fifth foray into mountain madness. The first time I ran it—in 2001—I was in the middle of a divorce, and all that messy, complicated pain seemed to metamorphose into fuel for wicked running. Apologies for the cliché, but it was cathartic. I ran 2:12.
My plan was to run relaxed, have fun. That lasted until my naturally competitive alter ego—let’s call her Magdalena—took over, and I decided to race. Mike gave me a heart-rate range to shoot for, in three sections: take it out at marathon-pace heart rate, run the bulk of the climb at half-marathon rate, and the last two miles, turn on the jets.
I laid out my clothing Saturday night. If you hate girl trivia, skip the next part.
1. Bumblebee colored bike top, given to me as gift by Marguerite Bianchi almost 10 years ago. I wear it so I can carry a flask of Gu and water jiggle-free in the back pocket, and because it is comfortable, and because I love it.
2. Running skirt. Black. The most comfortable running apparel I have ever worn in a grueling race. Ask Amy Travis. I’ve worn it in three marathons. No chafing, no bunching.
3. Carlsbad 5K hat, purchased when I ran a fast time (for me) of 20:40 for the 5K. Yellow and black. This is getting ridiculously coordinated.
4. Ah, well, why fight the fashion maven? Yellow and black racing shoes, which I already owned, I want you to know.
At 6 a.m. Sunday morning, Mason Street was still remarkably uncrowded, and I whipped into a spot just 1 minute from the start. Score! At the Dolphin Fountain, runners, cyclists, race officials and police were all bathed in the romantic haze of dawn. Camaraderie, greetings, warmth and fellowship. The little plaza is abuzz with pre-race excitement. But…the BATHROOM IS LOCKED! OK, I’m giving away a secret here, I jog down to Sambo’s, where they always take me in.
Paula Waldman, Brian and I huddle. What’s our plan? Paula has similar heart-rate goals, and Brian wants to hold on, so we agree to stick together. The gun sounds (actually, Jake Clinton yelling “GO!”), and we’re off. We know we’re crazy, we know it’s going to be brutal, and we know we can’t run the tangents, but we are joyful.
Joe Howell—the incarnation of a non-coot, and always an inspiration to me—is running with his lovely daughter, Sarah, and I get an introduction. I see Kevin Forever Young ahead, in a long-sleeved T. “Are you keeping that on the whole way?” Yep…of course. Mr. Sunscreen. He’s sensible, and he’ll probably outlive us all. I pass mile one in 8:10. Slow, but that’s OK. Very fast girlz Mariann and Desa are starting out with 9’s, I heard. I think I am running faster now, but mile two is 8:20, and my breathing isn’t good. I only warmed up a mile, not enough for my exercise-induced asthma. My pacing is always off when the breathing isn’t right. Paula and Brian drift ahead, and I let them go…better to slow down and let the airways calm down, sort of like building a warmup into the race.
On mile 4, the first climb up Mountain Drive, I’m feeling better. My heart rate is nowhere near the targets Mike gave me, but I’m working hard enough. One young woman passes me. She and I will trade places for a few miles, and she will eventually surge ahead. I hear some spousal chatter behind me, and it is Liz and David Groom, running couple extraordinaire. We pace together for most of the race. I keep Paula and Brian, in her turquoise matching duds and his red Tough Enough shirt, in sight, and manage to keep the distance between us from shrinking so much that I lose contact. I send them mental boosts every now and then…go, Paula and Brian! I also know Nichol is somewhere close behind, and since I am sandwiched in bright colors by bright people who are dumb enough to run this race, I am happy.
Five miles in, I look ahead and see Kathy Calhoun, a colleague from DP. “Go Mags!” she yells, and we high five. She will appear like a blessed mirage several more times during the race, encouraging me with her huge smile and gargantuan good nature.
I get into a labored, panicky breathing pattern around the halfway mark. Liz calms me down, talking me out of it, and I am grateful. (I also know how annoying it is to pace with a loud “breather,” so I remember my running etiquette and suck it up.) Dave is ahead a few beats, and checks in with us periodically. Running with these two is a great comfort: they’re consistent, cheerful and generous. Liz has a very distinctive stride…solid, compact, powerful. I try to emulate her and it keeps me focused.
The hairpin turn: Tamara and Elda offer essential sustenance: water and mojo. They look so cool and refreshing. Thanks, ladies!
My heart rate is stubbornly low, around 155 max. The target was 165 on the climb…ain’t happ’nin’. I can’t seem to move the legs fast enough to tax my cardiovascular system. I punch in the mile splits on my Garmin, but purposely ignore cumulative time. I’m having a ball, and I jettison any thoughts of a PR. Magdalena, get off my back. Lighter load, now.
Humor ahead: hand painted signs offer ice for sale, 5 cents, correct change only. The beneficent couple handing out ice and ice cold water bottles turns out to be dear Jack and Marguerite Bianchi. I am so moved by the generosity of all these people out on the course: friends, colleagues, strangers, all in a friendly conspiracy to haul our butts up this mountain. “Look!” I gasp between gulps of water and air, “I’m wearing that bike top you gave me years ago!” Synchronicity rocks.
Where the *@%$! is Flores Flats? The road is deceptive here, and it seems just around every corner. The exaggerated camber is getting to my right piriformis, and I am forced to stop and stretch every so often. It isn’t too bad, though, and I know I can run through it. Liz and Dave get a little further away with every stop, so I try to gut it out as long as I can between stretches. Ow!
Flores Flats at last. Now, this area is just plain weird. The shanties and abandoned cars are a throwback to the era of communes and Sunburst, with hints of Southern Oregon. A rooster crows for us, reminding me that, unbelievably, it is still morning. We enjoy the respite, knowing the steepest section is just ahead.
Hallelujah, though, the road has been repaved! It used to be the steepest incline and the most precarious footing on the course, with deep potholes and chunks of asphalt littering the road. Now smooth, but still unspeakably steep. I look up, and see a big smile beaming me up the hill. William Bermant, Melissa Marsted’s son (and my current 9th grade student) is holding out a Cliff Block for me: “Go, Ms.Mason!” And a half mile up, Brooke & Co., like angels of mercy, are handing out frozen grapes and moist towelettes. This is getting deluxe. I’m feeling downright spoiled.
I can still see a spot of turquoise (Paula) and a dab of red (Brian) up ahead, and Liz and Dave are a few beats in front of me, Nichol not far behind. I hang onto the imaginary rope connecting us all, and try to ignore my barking piriformis. We arrive at the intersection of the spur on Camino Cielo, added in recent years. I’ve never run it, and don’t know what to expect. About 100 meters up, a car comes down the road, with people inside yelling, “You’re going the wrong way! Turn around!” WTF? I linger for a moment, unsure what to do, then Turquoise Paula lopes down the hill, yelling go on, the turnaround is just ahead. It is, but it’s clear why there was confusion. The road isn’t marked at all, the cones are off to the side, and no one is officially stationed there, but a kind cyclist confirms this is indeed the turnaround. A relatively painless diversion for me, but disappointing, it turns out, for others. I later find out that one member of our training group was targeting a 1:45 finish, and was within reach, until he ran an extra mile. This, after training for months…heartbreaking.
Now, the fun part: wheeeeeeee! Downhill for almost a mile! A chance to catch up, remind my legs they still have life in them, and pass a few folks. I motion them forward: “Come on! This is IT!” Now starts the uphill grind, a steep mile and a half to the finish. I am reminded of Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, a seminal work on chronos in literature and the way we experience time. Our need for organized time, a beginning and an end, tick-tock, leads us to bend our fictions into false paradigms, leading to false comfort.
But, I think, in a race, our sense of apocalypse—the end is near—leads to tangible purpose in terms of real arm-swinging, lung-heaving drive. I want to share this with the several young men I pass in the last half mile, but I can’t talk, and they’d think I was crazy anyway.
I get to the final turn, and the whoops and cheers I hear above energize me for the last evil uphill climb. Apparently it energizes a young man I had passed, too, because he whips up behind and passes me just before the finish. Dang! I’m always passed in the final stretch by testosterone on legs half my age.
I haven’t looked at my time the entire climb, and I’m surprised to see 2:17 on the clock. Not bad! If I subtract the time it took me to run the spur, I came within two minutes of my best time. Paula (2:15) and I exchange sweaty hugs, and I go find Dave (2:16) and Liz (2:17) to spread around some more sticky fellowship, and then Brian (2:15). Nichol comes in at 2:20, so we were all within 5 minutes of each other.
My legs are just a bit sore, and every time I gaze up to the distant peak far above, it seems impossible we actually propelled ourselves up to it on our own legs, with a little help from electolytes and water, and a LOT of love from the volunteers. Thanks to all who make this such a special race. And to those of you who actually read this far, you get an A+ for essay endurance!
Next up: Education 4-miler, September 20th. Which I’m hoping will seem easy after yesterday. Magdalena, where are you?
***All SB Pix photos used with permission***