Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Tulsa Route 66 Marathon

OK, this report really should have been written in Nov/Dec 2007, but hey, I didn't have a blog site set up yet back then, but I wanted to capture the Tulsa Route 66 Marathon anyway. I chose this race for a number of reasons:

  • My last marathon in Idaho left a bad feeling after walking the majority of the last 6 miles
  • It wasn't too far of a trip
  • My cousins live a short drive from Tulsa and this would be a great opportunity to visit
  • The website advertises a classic car show as part of the draw

I had been thinking about attempting another marathon before the years end, after dealing with cramping problems in my last race. While I acted very proud of my accomplishment in Idaho, I had different feelings inside. I thought that I was well prepared and although this marathon was supposedly more of a 'fun run' during our summer vacation to Yellowstone, I certainly wanted to do better than my previous time of 4:55. All this was gnawing at me until one frosty Sunday morning in late October. I had set out to do my typical weekend long run, on this day, choosing to run on the Indian Creek paved trails. The miles very coming quite easy that day as I continued on past my anticipated turn-around. Soon it would appear that I'm going to go 10 miles before turning back. A motivating theme continued to enter my head that day, "if I can do 20 miles today, then I will enter myself in the Tulsa Marathon." That thought kept me going strong and I finished the run feeling tired but with an increased sense of excitement. Later that day, I was registered and overjoyed to be officially ready to redeem myself.

The big weekend was finally near. My biggest supporter and wife Sue would begin the trek early on Saturday, Nov 15. This trip would also include the faithful family dog, Ringo, aka 'The Boy'. This would be his first trip to an out-of-town race, but no problem, Ringo just loves to go anywhere! It's about a 4 hour ride to get to my cousins place. We will have all day Saturday to visit and explore Tulsa and the race will begin on Sunday. After a few hours and a good old fashioned country breakfast at a small town diner, we arrive in Tulsa. Today is the big day in college football for any Michigan fan and I'm happy to see that when we greet my cousins, I notice the Michigan - Ohio state game on the TV. This is good news. In between sneak peeks at the TV, we have a nice afternoon visiting. My cousins' children, young adults now, are all so very nice. They have certainly been raised well. The afternoon doesn't go quite as well for the beloved Wolverines. Oh well, it's Lloyd Carr's last game, they won't have him around to beat up on anymore!

Later in the afternoon, we move on to the Race Expo and set out to drive parts of the race course. The expo is nothing special, it seems like there are more and more booths that are hawking some type of miracle health concoction. Maybe it's just me, but I expect to see some free samples before I'm going try any of these high priced remedies and the freebies are hard to find. The good news is; the race packet includes probably the nicest race shirt I've seen yet. We move along and head out to drive the course. I make this a standard part of any race trip. Somehow, I feel more comfortable knowing the elevation changes that will be in store for me on race day. Early indications are; there's only going to be one tough stretch, from miles 22 to 24.

What's up with those people on street corners dressed in some silly costume, trying to get you to order a pizza or something? Does that type of advertising really pay for itself? How much do they pay those poor souls? I wonder if it would be a good career move?

Another part of any out-of-town race is the search for a unique Italian restaurant for the traditional 'carb load.' On this day, we find a place called Biga, and it's even located right next door to a specialty running store. Now, what could be better than getting the lowdown on the marathon and the restaurant from the same source. Perfect! Biga, while being a bit on the pricey side, does come highly recommended as arguably the best Italian in town. My meal would include spicy shrimp with pureed chickpeas as an appetizer, followed by chicken parmigiana over spaghetti as the main course. This, along with some of the tastiest bread ever, are enough to stuff myself and an anxious dog who awaits the aptly named doggy bag. We finish up the evening with a walk along the Arkansas River. I'm quite envious of local runners that get to train in this area. The riverside includes a long stretch of asphalt trail through a park-like setting that follows the river, beginning in the downtown area.

Sunday morning finally arrives and I'm revved up like a duece (whatever that means, no time to disect Manfred Mann's lyrics now, it just sounds cool.) My wife and I go over the logistics, as she will be waiting at certain points for either an excess clothes drop or to supply me with salty snacks. I cramped in my last race, so I want to be sure to have enough salt in my body. I'm really lucky to have such a supportive wife. It's got to be boring out there waiting for hours just for me to pass by for a few seconds, but she never complains and is happy to be there to cheer me on. Hmmm.....must be the cheerleader in her from her youth! The weather on this day is quite pleasant, chilly, but not too cold where I'm struggling to stay warm before the start. I take my place in the starting gates along with the 4:30 pace group and soon, we're off and running.

The beginning of a race is always quite curious. I watch as people sprint to the sidewalks, cut the corners as much as possible, just to get a jump on the masses. I start near the back already, why were they lined up behind me if this is their game plan? Of course, there's always the opposite problem too. A quarter mile into the race and you already have to dodge walkers in front of you. I don't know, doesn't seem too difficult to me to figure out where to line up in a race! Myself, I settle into a nice easy pace early on and plan to stick to it. The race soon makes it's way onto the road of it's namesakes; Historic Route 66. I notice a small historical plaque along the road, but I can't say I'm too impressed by the area. This appears to be an older area of town where gated apartment buildings and bars on the windows are commonplace. It's just a short bit of the race along the old historic road and, well, that was disappointing. After a few miles, we're running alongside the Arkansas River. The river this time of year looks rather strange, as if it were the 1930's and the Dust Bowl had just blown through. Locals assure me that while it is quite dry this year, this is somewhat normal. Even with much of the riverbed dried up, the scenery is still somewhat interesting and provides a nice backdrop for the next couple hours.

The first half of the race is going quite well. I'm cruising along feeling quite comfortably with the pace. I've chosen to run with the 4:30 pace group and we are now beginning to get to know each other. The pace leader is a nice young lady from Oklahoma City and has kept us slightly ahead of our desired time in anticipation of the tougher hills to come in the last few miles. The group is an interesting mix of young and old, men and women, and we all seem to be helping each other. I normally throw on the headphones and get lost in the music, but this time I'm really enjoying the camaraderie. After a short run through the town of Jenks, we're back on Riverside Drive heading back up the same road. At this point, the road, the concrete surface, the scenery, all become quite monotonous. I'm really looking forward to turning off this road and running through anything different. The miles between 15 and 20 are doing their best to spoil an otherwise good start to the race. The urge to walk is becoming overwhelming and I need to get this thought out of my head. I just have to keep telling myself, I refuse to stop. Finally, around mile 20, we make the turn away from the river and into new surroundings. What a relief!

The next few miles are an eclectic look at the city, from night club districts, through beautiful parks, to quaint sidewalk coffee shops. The change in scenery is quite welcomed, but there is another evil lurking; the hills. As we make our way through Woodward Park, the first significant hill arrives. Just as our pacer suggests, I lean a little forward, swing the arms slightly more and power up the first hill. Well now, what's going on here, I've hit the imaginary wall at mile 20 and a good sized hill at mile 22 and I'm still feeling good. These two roadblocks have now transformed into motivating factors and I repeat to myself, "I refuse to quit." Suddenly, I find myself believing that I can finish this race without walking at all. It's about mile 24 now and I'm the only one left from our pacer group. We're still slightly ahead of schedule and the pace leader needs to slow down to help with the others that have dropped back some. She encourages me to keep going and finish strong. The thought of coming in under 4 1/2 hours is now so close to reality. The last half mile is mostly downhill and I begin to run as if I were qualifying for the Olympics. I turn the last corner where Sue is waiting to snap a picture. My amazing speed has caught her by surprise as I blow right past and she misses the shot. I cross the line in 4:28. It may not show on the outside, but right now, I've got a 26-mile long smile on the inside. I've beaten my previous best time by over 25 minutes.

Overall, this race has been a wonderful experience, mostly from the personal sense of accomplishment. However, the post race party was quite disappointing. They ran out of beer quite some time ago, there was very little food, and the car show was no classic. Somehow when I think of the cars that rolled along Route 66, I think of GTO's, Barracudas and my favorite, the AMX. Visions of downing a beer with a medal draped around my neck, all while strolling along looking at 60's muscle cars were quickly laid to rest. This race is fairly new, so hopefully they can continue to improve and make the car show something worth traveling to see. As it is, I went home one satisfied runner.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Psycho Wyco

Now, why would somebody want to spend a nice winter morning slopping through cold, slushy mud on a Saturday morning? I'm not sure why, but I'm attracted to the race where mother nature plays her trump cards assertively. I guess when I was young, we always played outside, no matter what the weather. There were no video games or computers back then, just a desire to enjoy a bit of freedom and a playful imagination.

This Saturday, Feb 9, 2008, started off like most other race mornings. I woke well before the alarm clock just like every other race I've done. My internal clock must know the importance of rising early enough. There are so many things to do on race morning, important things like eat, stretch, organize, prepare mentally and, well, take care of some important body functions. I always fear being in the middle of a race and 'the urge' comes. I meticulously go through my race packet, check the maps, get my gear together, charge the iPod and prepare a new songlist. A new radio station format here in KC has been playing some classic rock tunes I haven't heard in awhile. Rod Stewart was one of those artists that strikes the nostalgia chord in my head, so I download some old Rod tunes to head up the new playlist. Did you ever notice how many great songs are on the album "Every Picture Tells a Story?" This has to be one of the best classic rock albums of all-time, but I digress. I know this is going to be a very tough race physically, so I add plenty of blues and jazz to the list. The jazz will keep me relaxed and slow me down, while it's obvious I'll be singing the blues somewhere along the course!

The sun is now beginning to poke it's head above the horizon. It's going to be a perfect day, right about freezing now, but the warmth will be spreading rapidly once the sun has fully awoken. It's time to head out to Wyandotte Co Lake Park, where the PsychoWyco Race will be held.

Now, any race that describes itself with 'psyco' in the name, ought to scare ya. Who's crazy enough to run a trail race at this time of year? Do you have to be nuts to run through the woods in the winter? Have you lost most of your senses to run a course that was partially designed by the race director's dog, Fester? Who names their dog Fester? A 'Psycho' seems to be the theme here. I guess there's just a bit of psycho in me and 300 or so other Midwesterners. The race itself is either 10, 20 or 30 miles. I've chosen to do the 20 miler, as this is only my second trail race ever and it's touted as one of the toughest courses in the area. The course is a 10 mile loop, so I'll need to run the same route twice.

After a short termed panic session; one that arose after leaving my timing chip and race bib at home, I rush back home to grab the forgotten items. Luckily, I had only gone a couple miles before the light went on. All that early morning planning seems wasted now. Oh well, I guess it's natural to forget things at my age. Shortly after this episode, I arrive at the county park and begin to find my way around. Even though the sun is up now, it's still cold, and I stare in amazement at the runners wearing shorts. I like to run in shorts myself, but damn, there's still ice on the puddles and it's just beginning to break the freezing mark. OK, call me a wimp, but I've got on my long tights and 3 layers on top. I know I tend to overdress for every run, but I can always take off what I don't need later. It's now approaching the 8 am start time and the race director gives us his final instructions. "Don't cross where you see these signs" he proclaims, as he holds a sign that says wrong way. "If you do, you may find yourself winning the booby prize for the most lost runner".

The race director gives his cue and off we go. It's difficult to pass people on trail runs, so I take off very slowly in order to drop near the back of the pack and into my comfort zone. Soon, we make the turn onto the trail and begin to climb the first of many hills. The pace is slow as it is still crowded but it should thin out quickly. So far, the footing has been pretty good considering the amount of rain and snow we've had lately. About a mile into the run, I step in my first slushy, muddy hole and now have a soaking wet left foot. Damn that's cold! I've got to be more careful at these spots. I continue on and before long, I've forgotten how cold and wet my foot is. It's a beautiful, sunny day and I'm just enjoying being outdoors. After about 5 miles, my legs begin to show signs that they're tiring. The strategy now will be to walk the steeper hills. This works pretty well, and besides, some of these hills are steep, slick and almost impossible to run up anyways. I've now entered the portion of the course dubbed 'Fester's Wander'. Fester, the race directors dog, supposedly charted this section by running wherever he pleased and the local running club built the trail from there. His efforts here did nothing to make me think of him as 'man's best friend.' It's a tough, narrow section which winds through some thick sections of woods. Apparently, Fester had no problems changing directions quickly and running uphill. My body now is wearing down quickly, but thankfully, the trail leaves the woods and leads towards a picnic shelter. Like a desert oasis, it's an aid station, stocked with all the goodies a runner would need. Hot soup, donuts, pretzels, oranges, gels, energy drinks, water and my favorite, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The volunteers are very friendly and help me find just what I need. I'm in no hurry to leave, and what the heck, why not wash down that PBJ with a nice Krispy Kreme! After milling around a few minutes, it's back to work. I'm feeling refreshed now and ready for the second loop.

Does a mother really need a Hummer to pick up her kids from school? Doesn't owning a Hummer just seem excessive, period?

The warm sunshine on this February day would create an unexpected turn in the course conditions. The combination of the sun melting much of the remaining snow and the masses of feet churning the moisture with the bare ground, create a slop that would keep Arnold Ziffle indoors watching TV. The mud has now become deeper, wetter and slicker. At times it felt like my foot was being sucked into the ground and it took more leg strength to pull out on each step. My body was already extremely tired, but I'm barely into the second loop. I keep slowing down but continue to push forward. Somewhere around the 15 mile mark, I'm surprised when someone comes up from behind and grabs my hamstring and twists it violently. Hey, what the heck are you.....whoa, I turn around to look and no one is there. Not to worry though, the hamstring pain in each step is offset by the burning in my quads. Like a fine tuned jalopy, each individual pain works in concert to create this laughingly awkward running stride.

Along the course there are humorous, motivational signs planted every so often. I remember one that reads; "Whiners will be buried in shallow unmarked graves." Geez, I'd better get those last few thoughts out of my head! Another sign though, will become my mantra for the rest of the race. "If it ain't easy to do, then it's worth more in the end." I repeat this thought to myself every time I think about how much my legs are hurting. As I continue through the second loop, it becomes more difficult to avoid the deep, wet mud and eventually, I don't even bother trying to find a safe spot to land each step. I've given in to the fact that my feet will be soaking wet the rest of the race. Each uphill section now becomes a challenge to get one foot in front of the other. Downhill presents a different challenge, as I slide to the ground on more than one occasion. Most of the bottom half of my body is now covered in mud. I certainly must factor in the extra weight I'm carrying when calculating the difficulty of this race.

I'm now over 5 hours into the race and the elite 30 milers are beginning to lap me. My calves, hamstrings and quads have all banded together and declared war against the brain. The revolting muscles load their weapons and begin their assault. "Stop now or you'll get shin splints, you want those blisters to get worse, let's just walk the rest of the way" are fired convincingly. They win a battle or two here and there, but the brain has a few tricks of it's own. I'm repeating my mantra over and over as we get closer to the finish. A tune by Queen begins to play and I sing along. "Don't stop me now, I'm having such a good time, I'm having a ball." Distractions now are welcomed as they keep me from thinking about the wishes of the leg group. Finally, after a long, hard fought battle, I crest over a hill and at last, see the finish line. I gather up all my remaining strength and cross the line with a mix of pain and jubilation. One of the wonderful volunteers tells me to smile and drapes a medal around my neck. A smile now seems so fitting; I'm so happy to be done and the hard work really does feel like it's worth more now. The race director is there to shake everyones hand when they finish and he deserves high praise for putting on such a well organized event. This run was more difficult than any marathon I've done and I will cherish this experience for quite some time.