05 June 2011

Any Given Sunday in Buffalo

The old saying in the NFL is that on any given Sunday, anything can happen. Into Buffalo I went, sailing off a strong Boston, enjoying a strong training streak – indeed, today, just a week later, I hit one thousand miles for the year, well ahead of expectations – and just plain feeling strong. And found myself anything but strong, mired in a struggle-fest. Never before have the wheels come off so early in a marathon. Any given Sunday.

There’s really no mystery to it. It was hot. Not hot as in the average Joe flocks to the beach hot, the electric utility makes their capacity fears public hot, or there are air-conditioned shelters open for the elderly hot, but marathon hot, which means much warmer than you want. As in, it probably hit eighty by the end hot. They didn’t give out space blankets afterward hot. And you didn’t care hot. Because once you weren’t running, it felt wonderful hot. But when you were running…

To think, my concern had been that the forecast showers would have made things wet, soddened the feet to blisters, and chafed the pointy bits. But the overcast that would have generated such wetness would be oh so welcome, since a rise into the seventies was predicted. And things were going so well, too. The cloud cover didn't disappoint,
making for a pleasant morning on my arrival downtown at six AM. Hope abounded…

But no, it’s never that simple. Half an hour later the clouds didn’t just part, they vanished, just like that. Looked up, no trace of them. Hello? Throughout the race the sun would be so strong as to give me a trace of snow-blindness at one point. It multiplied the impact of the humid warmth, broken only by the predictable breeze on the last six miles southbound, which was, of course, in our faces. Not that we were going fast enough at that point to care.

I can point to the word hot and lay waste to any blame. The fact is, the wheels were already loose at the half. They fell off only a few miles later. But despite the crumble, few people passed me in the second half – and for the few that did, I probably took about an equal number back. Yes, it was hot, and it affected us all, and even the Kenyans up front (with whom I got a good mug pre-race) were a little slower than usual. All of this is true, and all of it contributed to the result. But I have to take some personal responsibility, too.

I made a pretty foolish mistake. I can’t say whether it really made a difference or not, but it was still pretty foolish. I forgot to take into account that since I last ran this race in 2008, they’ve re-engineered the start so that the full and half marathons now start together. In the past, they started in parallel, a block apart, which was fun as you’d see the other pack briefly as you passed the cross streets, like watching a race in strobe effect. There they again! And again! And a few blocks later the packs would meet up and head on their merry way.

The downside of that coolness was that the two groups were offset by a tenth of a mile or so, which made the mile markers rather confusing. Whether that was the reason or not, now the races start together on their first-half journey. But this never occurred to me when the gun sounded, as I tried to place myself roughly where I was used to being in this race vis-à-vis the starting pack. And I couldn’t figure why the ignition burners failed to ignite. The body seemed to be dragging, refused to get into gear, and this was only at the half mile! It was looking like it was going to be a long day, (which, it turned out, would be accurate).

Then we hit the mile in six-oh-two. Yeah, six-oh-two, as in 5-k pace. Oh, criminy. No wonder it felt so hard. Emergency dial-it-back time.

By the time I stabilized back to sanity pace, we’d burned through the brief few miles along the waters of Erie which that morning had a wonderful watery scent, the only cool stretch of the run. Once we turned inland, the heat was on. Who’d have thought I’d notice the supposed hills of this course, really just a series of overpasses in the second ten kilometers? By about the third one, alarm bells were ringing. When a large looming building cast a long shadow over Exchange Street around the ten mile mark – and I noticed and appreciated it – it was all hands on deck, she’s going down, mates.

Probably the toughest bit was not taking the out. It was right there. It was so easy. Coming up on thirteen, because of the combined courses, the half marathon finish loomed a mere couple hundred yards away. It was like Jesus being tempted in the desert. Just cross the line. Be done with it. You know you want to.

I could claim it was marathoner’s perseverance, but in large part it was the fact that my uncle, gracious provider of local lodging and hospitality as well as race support services, was stationed at mile seventeen with fresh bottles of rocket fuel, and I didn’t know his cell phone number to let him know I wouldn’t be showing up. Sometimes I’m so ludicrously practical. Soldier on.

I’ve written previously how the perfect marathon is recorded with a blissfully level splits chart, while the nightmare is the constantly upward sloping highway to hell. You already know where this one went. By the half, the trend was already set, and when mile thirteen topped seven minutes (already? awww…), there was no denying it was already seriously unattractive, and rapidly progressing past one-, two-, and three-bag status directly to coyote-ugly. The coyote in me motored on, taking a few walk breaks at the water stops, and actually putting on a little burst at the end.

When I’ve told this story over the past week, this is the part that annoys people. OK, all this drama for a three-oh-nine and change. You battled the heat? You tanked? And you nailed the twenty-minute-below-Boston-quali
fier that lets you sign up on the first day come September? Well, yeah, but let’s not forget the three-flat at Boston, and that Buffalo’s course usually wins me a few minutes back. Was it fast by my standards? No. But am I OK with it? You bet I am. No complaints. In fact, I find it kind of ironic
, since my goal for Boston was three-oh-anything and I nailed the low end on that day whereas here I squeaked the high end.

The day’s toll on the field was pretty grim. A thousand started the full marathon and then the flies started dropping. Sixty seven souls succumbed to the temptation and called it a day at the half. A full dozen who were ahead of me at the 10-K and plenty more behind vanished from the final results. In the end, only eight hundred seventy one crossed the line, an attrition rate of about a seventh. Of those survivors, I landed in thirty-second place, and fourth in my age group, but once they peeled two off for the overall masters’ awards (warm hard cash, it was a hot day, remember?), they handed me an attractive second place trophy complete with a little spinning thing on top that’s provided hours of mindless fun. All in all, not bad for a thousand-mile odyssey.

Tidbits: In the, “Don’t think you can do something embarrassing just because you’re far from home,” department, the day served up a number of small world incidents in rapid succession. Amidst five thousand
runners in the half, full, and relay, what are the chances that the first person I see after parking the car at six AM is the young gent, Cody, with whom I shared pasta the night before (and who, I note, destroyed his goal time in the half – you go!). We shared a warm-up jog, came to a stop, and the next person we encountered was Raj with whom I’d chatted extensively at the expo the day before. Off for a second jog, and we hadn’t gotten a block before running into former co-worker Kevin. And of course there was my friend Mike who snapped the fine race pictures herein (thanks!) and recorded an interview at the finish for his cool motivational web site, but at least I knew he’d be in town.

1 comment:

  1. Boy you are fast even in the heat. I can relate to heat though I'm not nearly as quick. Heat took me out of a race once. And then last week I ran a pretty hot half marathon, and we started off with the 5k racers, which meant I was running way, way too fast to start. It killed me for the end. But I finished. : )

    Enjoyed this entry. And loved the title. Not a football fan, so I haven't really heard it. I'd like to use it some day.

    Happy Running!


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