10 November 2012

Alternate Hell

Imagine you’re holding a party, and you get a few unexpected guests. What do you do? Now imagine you’re holding a party, and you get over four hundred unexpected guests. Now what do you do? I’d lock the front door, bar the back entrance, and run for the hills. But the folks putting on the Manchester City Marathon rolled out the red carpet, welcomed a huge number of New York City marathon refugees, and pulled it off nicely. Of course, we really did have to run for the hills.

Four hundred additional runners (and some sources said more) in a large race wouldn’t be a big deal. Manchester is not a large race. Last year’s full marathon had fewer than four hundred finishers. Granted, when you add in the half marathon and relay, the refugee influx didn’t double the whole event, but they certainly added a hefty percentage. And while it’s not hard to let a few hundred more people run down the street, it is hard to suddenly increase the amount of everything from refreshments to port-o-johns on barely twenty-four hours notice. But they pulled it off.

I’d already commented on how they’d run out of yellow full marathon bibs and had to issue me a blue half marathon number. The extent of their extension became clearer Sunday morning when I found many running not just with re-purposed blue bibs, but with generic plain white bibs with generic plain red numbers – in other words, whatever the timing company could find in the back closet. Where they came up with extra finisher’s medals (or even if they had enough), I know not. Granted, we were a huge financial windfall to them, but it would have been very easy for them to complain or simply shut off the spigot. Instead, we were welcomed every step of the way.

In these unique circumstances, a unique environment emerged. Wearing my “Refugee” bib on my back made it into a bit of a party, especially through miles seventeen and eighteen, where we full marathoners rejoined the slower half marathoners in their final miles, giving plenty of opportunities for others to enjoy my backward-facing statement as I weaved through that crowd. In retrospect, it was a smart move: their encouragement was pretty desperately needed, because the reality was I was already several miles past toast status.

The irony of the day is that in the big picture, it was a great day. But the race itself? Pretty lousy. One of those days. Seriously ugly in the high miles, and the high miles started way too soon. Hell, really. I escaped the Hell of a crippled New York to slog through my own personal Alternate Hell in New Hampshire. But hey, we came, we ran, we celebrated our circumstance, and we loved it.

I can blame the course, I can blame the weather, I can blame the week’s accumulated stress, and I can blame myself. Since this was an election week, I’ll vote for all of the above. They all played their parts, resulting in a time that most yearn for but I yawn for.

Manchester is not flat. That itself isn’t a big problem. Hills are in my DNA from youth, and continue to be a strength springing from the significantly lumpy area where I live. But Manchester’s hills are not nice hills, they’re city street block-to-block jut-up-and-down-rapidly hills that break your rhythm on the way up, and drop off briefly and steeply, giving nothing back on the way down. They’re a net loss both in both directions.

Layered on the challenging course was a wind that seemed to grow in intensity as the day progressed. Blasting from the northwest, it made forward progress feel at times like plowing through Jell-O, first insidiously sapping us throughout the first four miles, when our freshness masked the extra effort we were expending, and later, returning for the kill.

At fourteen we turned west, into the wind, and the real brutality commenced. At fifteen, turning north, we discovered that we thought was brutal was just the warm-up. In the space of a single mile, the torque needed to drive into that wind wore a two-inch blister up the middle of my left foot. I felt it happening, tried to compensate, but there was no hope for defense. By the time we turned a corner at sixteen, mercifully escaping the worst of that gale segment, my day was effectively over. In that two mile stretch, I went from functional and cruising to burnt tempest toast, put a fork in me, fully baked, and, oh yeah, still ten to go. And still the wind would return to haunt us, notably in a last ditch insult at twenty-five plus, blasting us full-force along the Mighty Merrimack River. Despite the flat ground at that point, ropes and crampons might have been useful.

But in the end, I can’t kick anything but myself. I knew about the hills, and while the intensity may have surprised, I knew about the wind. Damn the torpedoes, I went out full speed, crossing the half on two-fifty-one pace. Such audacity (here, a euphemism for stupidity), hammering a major PR pace on a tough course on a tough day, well, shame on me, I should know better. Once through the gauntlet of fifteen and sixteen, my error obvious and unrecoverable, the day’s goal shifted tectonically from a decent time to merely protecting a 2014 Boston qualifier less twenty minutes, the new gold standard to assure easy early registration. Two-fifty-one to three-ten is a lot of space, but the outlook was ugly enough at that point to imagine the evaporation of even that big a cushion. Happily, crossing in three-oh-four, it didn’t.

Friends offered up the rationale that the week’s ups and down would have taken a toll on anyone. I’d concede there may be some truth to that. By the time I toed the line, I did feel like I’d ridden the roller coaster. So I guess it’s fitting that the roller coaster week, hanging on the edge of each day’s news from New York, would end in the roller coaster day, hanging on the edge of staying vertical on Manchester’s roller coaster topology. This is how it turned out. Life’s like that. Move on. Number eighteen is in the books. Time-wise, it’s not one for the record books. But on the whole adventure dimension, it won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

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