10 October 2008

Paying the Price at Wineglass

This entry is longer than usual due to the exceptional events of the day.

The scabs are starting to come off. But there’s other damage, both physical and emotional. On the results page, my run of the 27th annual Wineglass Marathon from Bath to Corning NY looks like a smashing success. I clocked my second 2:54 marathon, a mere 4 seconds off my PR. I won my age group. I even almost won some cash. But smashing was the word of the day.

To steal a favorite phrase from a co-worker, let’s cut to the car crash. I went down at the finish. Hard. Face plant on the bricks. Yes, for real, my face served as the shock absorber. Very little damage to the hands and knees. And yes, they were bricks. Tripped? Yes, I think so. Collapsed? You could say that. I had nothing left to catch myself. And despite shouting, “Catch me!” as I went down, physics intervened and denied the best efforts of the finish line staff. Gravity won. My face is a mess.

But that’s probably not the worst of it. A few days later, my face is healing rapidly. The loose tooth is tightening up with an all-clear diagnosis from dentist Dr. Bruce. But the day after the race it became apparent that my already troublesome big toe has morphed to a nearly non-functional big toe. That’s a major problem. And my psyche is really beat up. I’m questioning myself repeatedly: simple accident, or stupidity? Such feelings of doubt haven’t been helped by the apparent demise of the global economy. It’s enough to make anyone feel bleak.

How did we get here? Let’s go back to the start of this odyssey.

I’m always amazed at the logistics of preparing for a marathon, especially when you’re away from home. The amount of crap I packed for this trip, which began nearly a week earlier and included travel to Ohio for a family funeral, was simply astounding. When leaving a week early and trying to pack for every weather possibility and every other contingency, well, you can imagine. I spent Saturday evening sorting, strategizing, and of course, mixing rocket fuel. What clothing would be sacrificed? What would be enough to keep warm? As it turned out, there was far more indoor space at the starting location than the race organizers had let on to, and morning warmth wasn’t a big issue.

This being marathon #8, my routine for these things is established. The dreaded 4 AM alarm, my least favorite part of these events. The pre-warm-up at home, a brief jog up and down the street before departing to shake things loose, this time being at my sister’s home where there are no street lights and it’s really dark! Then grab all that pre-staged stuff, out the door, off to Corning to grab the bus to the start in Bath. Mild fretting over when to dump the warm clothing on the baggage truck. Then the real warm-up, a quick mile, feeling good. All is well.

By 8 AM, it’s warmer than expected, around 40° with only the slightest almost imperceptible breeze, so we’re not freezing. The sun is up but completely obscured by fog. That fog will break for about 10 minutes as we pass through the village of Bath, then blanket us again all the way until mile 20, keeping conditions cool and ideal and significantly minimizing fluid loss and replenishment requirements. In short, it’s a perfect day for a marathon.

But barely 100 yards out of the gate something goes twang in the front of my right foot. There’s a moment of discomfort, then all’s well. This is both odd and concerning, since I’ve had trouble with this big toe and foot, but I’m old enough to know that things do this now and then. It’s not hurting and doesn’t appear to be hampering operations, so I move on.

While the past two Wineglasses have sported relatively weak fields, the early reports were that this year’s would be stronger. To nobody’s surprise, a few speedsters quickly open up a big lead. By about a mile and a half we’ve formed a chase pack of about six – a chase pack in name only because none of us are deluded enough to think we’ll actually chase the guys up front. It’s an amiable group, and we’re really enjoying our tour of Bath together.

Departing Bath we encounter the first of the two stretches in the course that could be considered hills. This one is about a half mile of gentle rise. I’m a hiller, and I’m cruising, and our amiable pack breaks up. At the top, it’s me and a guy named Jim. We’ll each endure very different trials over the next 21 miles, and finish a mere 7 seconds apart. But for now, we’re on autopilot. Our splits are absurd, but with the ideal conditions, I’m not concerned. My plan was to go out fast on this flat, forgiving course, and see what was in the tank.

In Savona at mile 9, the local newspaper gets a nice snapshot of us. Sis is there to cheer me on; later I’ll learn we were moving so fast that she missed us in Bath. In the first known tragedy of the day, a passing car flattens the empty bottle I toss to her before she can reach it. A crushing omen, but I was unaware. Just out of Savona, Jim pulls up for a pit stop. He’ll catch me, then have to do it again, then catch me again. I feel for him. That, uh, issue can’t be fun.

I’m through 10 at 6:21 pace. My target was 6:30. I’m not sure if I’m worried. Mile 11 clocks in at 6:39. I’m worried. But mile 12 flies by in 6:17. I’m not. At the half, I’m on 2:47 pace. I’m worried again. I wanted to go out fast. Not that fast.

At 14 I realize that the twang in my foot wasn’t harmless. My foot is cramping oddly. I won’t realize it till the day after, but something has apparently happened to the tendon that pushes my big toe down so that it’s not pushing. My second toe is carrying way too much load, and it’s suddenly decided to take up the picket line and protest. I work to flex it out, and the beat goes on. I’m over the other “hill” in the course at 14.5, and clocking steady 6:30s till 18.

Then it gets ugly fast. Sis is at Coopers Plain at 18.5, and I already know it’s going to be a tough morning. Though I don’t look too bad when she snaps a picture from the moving car at 20, this is reminding me of my first Buffalo in ’07, when I watched the big PR slip away, but still captured a painful yet small PR. I slow to the high 6’s, and hold sub-7 pace through 22. I’m doing the mental math. That low 2:50-something is slipping away, but I still have a PR in sight, my best being a 2:54:09 in my second Buffalo earlier this year. Mile 23 hurts. Mile 24 is misery. Just into 25 I start to feel a bit unstable.

It’s around this point that I lean on my faith and remind myself that my suffering is nothing. I’m not certain that did me a positive service. In hindsight, the prudent act at this point would have been to take a break, walk a stretch, and be happy with a 2-colon-anything. But there’s only two to go, and a PR is still quite realistic, at least mathematically. Surely I can gut out two miles!

And I do. But it’s ugly. Really ugly. Jim has caught me again after his latest pit stop, and is only 20-30 yards up. I’m thinking I’m hanging in there OK since he’s not pulling away. More than likely he’s just doing the minimum needed to stay up on me. Smart dude. Miles 25 and 26 slip to the 7:30s, and the PR is slipping away, but it’s not gone yet.

At 26, sis is waiting on the approach to the pedestrian bridge – the home stretch! I’m in such agony that I shout to her not to take any pictures. I had imagined hitting this point and, being a hill guy, putting on a burst to take someone at the end.

Surely, you jest.

I’m on the bridge. I’m staggering, but I’m going to make it. I might still eek out the PR. The line…

Now, the funny thing, if this could be considered funny, is that the day before, when we’d checked out the course, we’d noted how the finish was on a slight down slope coming off the bridge, and how the actual line was the seam between the macadam on the bridge and the bricks of the walkway in Riverside Park. My sister had commented that someone could trip over that.

She’s a pretty smart observer of potential risk. When it happens, as you knew it would in this story, I have nothing to stop gravity and downgrade-enhanced inertia. I am in free fall, crumbling, wilting, melting forward into the bricks. The next few seconds are hazy. I don’t think I passed out, but I wasn’t entirely there either. Arms lifted, supported, and guided me to the medical tent a few feet away. The haze passed quickly, I recall sitting down carefully and burying my face in a bag of ice.

The good news is that sis didn’t see it happen, as she was walking over the bridge from her vantage point on the other side. The better news is that mom didn’t make it to the race. At least sis has seen her kids get beat up and injured on the scholastic sports fields. She took it in stride. It probably would’ve killed poor mom.

Being an early finisher on a cool and perfect day, I was their only customer for quite some time and got fantastic attention. Calm, competent, and saint-like, these volunteers from the Guthrie Clinic in Sayre PA, led by Dr. Phykitt, deserve unending thanks. They clean my wounds. They assess my consciousness (though asking me who the President was admittedly wasn’t a calming question). They provide an hour of TLC. They even go and get my medal. And Wineglass has really cool handmade glass medals.

When the smoke clears after my horse-race style ‘win by a nose’ finish (as one of my running club friends likened it; another commented that I’d ‘taken the bull by the bricks, or something like that’ – what exactly was he thinking?) I learn that I came agonizingly close, but didn’t get a new PR. I finished in 2:54:13, a mere four seconds off my best. In retrospect, I’m glad. I wouldn’t want this race to go down as my best, since it clearly wasn’t, no matter what my time was.

I ended up in 13th place out of the 550 finishers and won my 45-49 age group, the first time I’ve won my class in a marathon. At Wineglass as in many races, age group awards start after the overall and overall masters award winners take their slots. But the top three masters were all in the 40-44 group, so I really did top the 45’ers. I ended up 7 seconds behind Pit Stop Jim, who took the 3rd and last overall masters cash prize. The 7 seconds is irrelevant. I couldn’t have made up one.

And why did it end up so ugly? After all, I virtually cruised to my 2:54 in Buffalo. I even had a kick at the end that day. Sure, I went out fast, but not to the extent as to cause this level of crash. Perhaps it was the big emotional travel week? Perhaps the insidious impact on my stride of the protesting toe and foot? Perhaps, as they say in the NFL, it was as simple as, “Any given Sunday…”

Now, the irony is that I ended up with only small scrapes on each knee, and, thanks to a pathetic pair of holey (not to be confused with holy) gloves that were supposed to be tossed early on, but due to the cool weather made the entire trip, only a single small cut on each hand. My face, however, is a work of art. Most of the left side is abused: chin, nose, temple, forehead. A couple days later a nice shiner has appeared. I’ve been telling everyone that I got in a fight with a brick walkway.

It was a long 6-hour drive home. Enough time to condition the kids any my wife on what they’d see. Presenting myself wasn’t easy – for me or them. And it’s been a long several days since, reflecting on what happened. On one hand, it was bad luck, I tripped, I fell, I got banged up. On the other hand, perhaps it was stupid, perhaps I pushed too hard, perhaps it could have turned out a lot worse. I won’t find the answer to that question anytime soon.

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