Monday, May 4, 2009

Never underestimate the prolonged difficulty of running a marathon. Seriously. It's far. And the marathon begins the day before -when you pick up your mother-in-law, load up the kids, and drive a hundred miles to the event. Check in to the hotel, figure out everyone's dinner, get your goodie bag at the expo and a few hours of uneasy sleep, and then try to find your way from one end of a point-to-point course to another at 5 AM without a map. There were a few problems. Hotel shuttle left early without us.

That being said, I got a new personal best! 3:46:32 (6 minutes faster than my previous record). But when I got to mile 15 I was actually thinking, damn, I wish that was mile 16 -as if it would've made any noticeable difference- and from there I did a slow disintegration. My realistic goal for this race was just to beat my PR, which I did, but I had a secondary, however more lofty goal of landing somewhere in the 3:30-3:40 range. I passed the 3:40 pace guy in the first two miles again and didn't see him again for a couple hours.

I don't know how those guys do it, staying on pace so consistently, but they always do, it seems. I thought he might have passed me when I stopped to drop a few ounces in the Port-a-John at 5, but I couldn't be sure. At the mile 21 marker, in a long straightaway, I turned to see if he was back there and I smacked my head into some poor guy's chest -thonk. I apologized and let him pass, and it was then that I noticed that it was the 3:40 pace guy -so I had been keeping ahead of him all along! I was stoked for a minute or so, and then I just watched him drift off ahead of me, while my legs increasingly cramped up. I guess I added six minutes worth of walking from there on out.

I'm not sure what happened. I think it was partially a lack of recovery time after a tough work week, and I just ran out of gas. But I also had a lot of cramping, so perhaps I had eaten too much the night before or had my body salts all out of whack or something. And I didn't get a final long run in during training, like something around 22, which I hold was a real mistake. Or maybe I just went out too fast -but I don't think so if you scrutinize my split times (bib #1020). Who knows with these things? The weather was perfect. The course wasn't too tough. I was going good and strong for the first half... and then?

Oh well. For the record, the OC Marathon is actually pretty nice. The Half Marathon, which garners far more entrants, runs along Newport Harbor and then on paved paths around the lagoon, which is beautiful. The rest of the race is only partially on the wide, engineered streets of Irvine, (nearly empty on a Sunday) and it then winds around on more bike paths along the concrete flood control rivers and other wild lands. A real surprise. I had expected asphalt and exhaust for 26 miles, and got quite the opposite. Race recommended? Sure.

It had its low points. Whoever set up the fifty Port-a-Johns at the start line in a circle facing each other was either feuding with the race coordinator or completely insane. I'm not sure I can aptly describe that pile of planning, but no one seemed pleased. If you've ever experienced the lines for the bathrooms at the beginning of a marathon, perhaps you can imagine the mayhem on your own. It was awful.

The expo was not particularly wow-tastic, as I'd seen most of the products before. This was a new one, however. I chatted with the company's owner and he gave me more information than I personally required, but I went ahead and bought some. It's pretty good. Evidently, the coffee I'm currently drinking is causing me to "age too fast" -it's what the guy said. (Aging too fast! I knew it!) Anyway, the additives have aided African witch doctors, Buddhist monks, and Himalayan Sherpas for centuries. (So, gimme some already.)

The real champion was Mrs. Ditchman. Up at 4:30 AM to nurse the baby and then out the door in the dark, wondering why she thought she could do this. She popped a few Tylenol and stood there at the start line with me and 6000 other people, bravely mentioning in passing, "my knee hurts." She'd been training as best she was able the past couple months, but two weeks ago she was about 12 miles out and in so much pain that she had to catch a bus back to the car. This kind of shattering disappointment is hard on the psyche, compelling you to quit with a thousand lashes of stabbing pain. She hadn't run in two weeks. The strategy had become to just STAY OFF IT, (impossible, if you're a working mom) take a daily Celebrex, and -come race day- give it her best shot. I left her in the back of the pack when the gun went off. Gave her a kiss and rushed off, worrying about her for the next 26.2 miles.

The Half Marathon ends at the same place as the full, so when you get to mile 13 you see two signs with two arrows in opposite directions reading "Half" and "Full". I thought this would be a good out for my wife if the pain got unbearable, and a few hours later I looked for her at the finish line, but she was nowhere to be found.

"Oh no," I thought. It meant she had tried to go for it, which I was secretly hoping she wouldn't do. Either that, or she was in some ambulance shuttle somewhere, being shuffled off to parts unknown with fifteen other limping dropouts who'd set their goals too high. "Live to run another day and save the legs for the rest of everything," I was thinking, but I know Mrs. Ditchman, and I know that she is not one to be stopped by mere pain. Her legs would have to fall clean off to put her out of the game. (And I'm not sure that would even stop her, as she clawed arm-over-arm to the finish line.)

And sure enough, an hour or so after I had stopped my clock, I saw her wobbling down the finishers' chute! She had a big smile on her face, and beneath that: steely gritted teeth. She was in a mental battle of superiority, mind over body. The mind had won, but the body wasn't happy about it. I snuck into the corral and got to hug her, amazed by the feat, but she was busy with other runners coming up to thank her -people who had wanted to quit but felt encouraged by my wife and decided to press on. I'm one of those people and I know the feeling. I know it daily.

I asked her later when the knee really started to hurt. "Mile 6," she said. Oh sure, I thought, it's only 20 more miles after that! She said she was tempted by the Half Marathon fork in the road, but opted out of giving in. Why? Who knows -probably because it was right around when the second dose of Tylenol was kicking in- but we were walking away from the line at the beer tent and a man, probably in his fifties, came up with his whole family. He was a big guy who looked utterly thrashed -like he'd just emerged from a human-sized garbage disposal. He was beaming. "Marci! Marci!" He hobbled over and bear-hugged her and introduced her to his family, who looked on in astonishment. "I couldn't have done it without you!" And then he shook my hand. Why did he shake my hand? You tell me, but I think I know.

Why do I do it? Because when I get out there on the pavement, just me and a few simple tools (the shoes) and with the wind blowing off my sweat, I get a feeling in my head that comes from nowhere else. It's the feeling that all the pain in life can be surmounted and overwhelmed by my living spirit, that I can accomplish anything. That it's that spirit that matters only and forever, and that there is hope for a good clean finish, and glory in the pursuit of it. The tiny, daily melancholies that come at me every day don't have a chance out there on the run. There's a feeling I get when I'm miles deep into it and it is simply this: I can take anything. It's the Infinite Loop that makes people call runners "crazy," but I'll do whatever it takes to feel that way, if even for a moment. Life's unworkable otherwise.

Later, I met some people in the hotel elevator. They were all business-like: stiff ties and makeup, saw my shirt and said, "Oh, the marathon was today? I thought that was weeks from now. How'd you do?"

How'd I do? What kind of question is that? It's a marathon, for literal crying out loud!

"I won!" I exclaimed, and their brows furrowed simultaneously. They eyed my medal suspiciously. They weren't sure whether I was joking.

They must not be runners.