Friday, September 14, 2007

09/15/07 Air Force Marathon

That is my father. He was in the Air Force from 1948 (the Air Force itself came into existence in 1947) until 1968. He left soon after my mother was diagnosed with cancer to take care of her. As well as my sister and me. September is a very busy race month, and this particular weekend offered several intriguing runs, including Maui. I chose to do the Air Force Marathon specifically to honor my father and his service - both to the United States as well as to my mother. Dealing with cancer is a situation I've come to learn lots about.

As part of the weekend, I ditched this year's pink outfit and went with much more subtle Air Force blue and gray. On the back of my shirt, I wrote:
For Dad
German E. Lopez, Puerto Rico

The Air Force Marathon is held at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. This is the home of the Air Force Museum, and considered to be "the home" of the Air Force. WPAFB covers a lot of territory; 25 of the race's 26.2 miles are held within the base. The course itself is a "balloon on a stick": the first and last miles are an out-and-back, and the middle miles are a giant loop around the perimeter of the base. The organizers added a second brief out-and-back section this year that took runners out of the base into the small town of Fairborn. This allowed for non-military spectators to briefly glimpse the race. Aside from that, AFM is a pretty lonely race because civilians aren't allowed onto the base.

Many people find the course to be fairly boring. The out-and-back section is roly poly, but the hills aren't too traumatic. The loop is pancake flat. The sights are exactly what you might imagine on a big military base... buildings that are kind of spread out. Lots of fields. Some trees. However, this race offers something that no other race does: really cool airplanes. Runners not only get to see planes sitting by the runways during the flat loop section, but... and this is uniquely COOL about AFM... starting at about the 2 1/2 hour mark, the Air Force does flyovers. Big planes, all kinds of planes, make low level passes over the base. Fighters, transport planes, refueling planes with their booms extended. Wow.

The organization of this race is excellent, as one might expect from an event involving the military. Well, one might expect this. I actually don't think that the Marine Corps Marathon is organized terribly efficiently. Then again, Marine Corps involves double or triple the number of runners. In any case, the Air Force did a great job :-).

The expo the day before is held at a university sports arena. It was small, but it did have everything that a runner might need. It was also very efficient, which is something I've grown to appreciate after dealing with so many race packet pickups that were not. Before the race, the parking was plentiful and there were portapotties without long lines all the way up to race time. The race itself started on time.

And during the race? Of 132 marathons, this is the only one that made me say "wow, they have too many aid stations". Usually aid stations are two miles apart, and this is a fine interval. For races held in hot-and-humid locations, sometimes they will have aid every mile. At Air Force, the aid stations were generally less than a mile apart. In some cases, they were a few blocks from each other. Each one had a sign posted that indicated exactly what amenities would be offered. They all had water, sponges, and portapotties. Most also had sportsdrink and first aid. A few had gels and food. In all cases, this was indicated on the sign. I skipped aid stations because there were simply too many. I would have gotten sick if I'd tried to drink at each one.

The weather on race morning started out perfect - bright blue skies, almost no wind, and crisp-but-not-freezing temperatures. The wind would pick up later in the day, but it never became a problem. Two weekends ago, I did my first triple. Last weekend, I did a double. AFM was my first race on this weekend of another double. I've never run so many races this close together, so I wanted to be slightly conservative with my goal. On the other hand, the conditions were perfect and I felt fairly spry with none of the pesky digestive issues that have been dogging me this year. I decided that I'd attempt to run this race fairly evenly and go out with an "about 3:50" goal. If I wasn't feeling that great around M20, I'd slow slightly and settle for "about 4:00". My biggest training goals overall right now involve putting in the miles, irrespective of speed. I want to be ready for the quadzilla (4 in 4 days) at the end of the month, so it is no time to push it to the limit trying to set a PR.

Right before the race started, we went through The Star Spangled Banner process. Usually, this involves some music and runners milling around. Some people take off their hats, some people sing along, and unfortunately, some people continue talking. Not so at AFM. Hats came off, everyone snapped to attention, and it was quiet. This is how "The National Anthem" should be!

Off we went. This is a medium-sized race, and luckily they stagger the starting times. The chair athletes went off promptly at 7:30a, and we followed them at 7:35. Some time later, the relay started (which had a bad side effect... relayers whizzing by tired marathoners throughout the day), and then the half started. Starting the half later was a good news/bad news proposition. The good news was that our start was not clogged with that many more people. The bad news was that faster marathoners would have to zig zag through slower marathoners in the final miles.

No matter. Off we went. It was crowded, but not over-the-top awful. I tucked in with the 3:50 pace group. I never run with a pace group, and this brief experience reminded me why I do not. As people settled in, everyone was talking, which is fine. Several folks were a bit twitchy and nervous. This started rubbing off on me. Uh oh. In the first couple miles, a few different people recognized me and said hello. Chuck Engle, who would eventually finish second overall, passed me about M1. Wow. This meant that he must have started in the very back; perhaps he was in the portapotty when the gun went off. That's a bad way to start off your day.

The pace group folks had a hard time understanding the mile markers. First, we came to the aid station that was marked "Aid Station #1". Several folks thought that this was the first mile marker, but their watches told them that it wasn't a mile yet, unless we were all running too fast. And a pacer should never ever run too fast. Then a person with a GPS noticed that he had gotten to the first mile before we had seen a real M1. More discussion about that (see, with turns and the weaving that happens in a race, this ALWAYS happens). Then, the real M1. I figured that everyone would now get in a groove as we headed towards M2. Nope. Aid Station #2 freaked out more people, and then the guy's GPS chirped because he had hit M2 "early" and people discussed this and, well, it was time for me to leave. I sped up.

It is very interesting to consider how different races seem to flow differently. I've had races where I kind of zoned out and the miles flew by. AFM was not one of those races. I felt fine, and once I got away from the "energy" of the pace group, the scenery and conditions were perfect. I was running at the right 8:35-8:50 pace. But the time seemed to be passing like molasses. So very slowly. I wasn't feeling terribly sociable... perhaps this explains my reaction to the pace group, or was it caused by that?... so talking to other runners didn't seem like a great way to pass the time. Instead, I started thinking about my dad and the whole Air Force experience.

The miles did indeed tick away, albeit slowly. I was skipping every other aid station. We passed Wright State University and went over a highway overpass around M6. Then we passed through a golf course. I needed to go to the bathroom, but the first set I came across had a line. I didn't want to wait in line. Around M8.5, we exited the base and started the little out-and-back section through Fairborn. Maniac Dan Marvin caught me as we headed into town. I wasn't wearing maniac colors, but he told me that he recognized the "Lopez" on the back of my shirt. And more importantly, he recognized my running style. Had I been in a more gregarious mood, I would have explored this statement. I'm not sure what it means :-), and I wish I had that 10 minutes back. We chatted briefly, hit the turnaround, and then I spied a village of portapotties behind a bank. I bid Dan adieu and went to do what needed to be done.

After re-entering the base around M9.5, the course turned to head around the runways on the north side. At this point, the wind started kicking up, right in our faces. It wasn't strong, but it was enough to make the miles SEEM to go by even slower. I think my dad was stationed here at one point. Maybe he was stationed nearby in Columbus for a little while. I tried to remember the name of that base, and couldn't (it was Lockbourne, which I remembered much later. In the 70s, it got renamed Rickenbacker, and then it got turned into something else).

I hit the halfway point at 1:53, and I felt good. The course curved out of the wind, and the miles started going by a little easier. By M17, I could tell that I probably wasn't going to fade today. This was also the section where aid stations seemed to be mere blocks apart. I was skipping them, but thanking the volunteers as I passed.

At M19, I went through the half-marathon turnaround. As I passed half marathon walkers, I tried to say hello or offer encouragement. Some seemed to be happy, and others seemed to be pretty beaten down. I was worried that the course would clog up as I continued. I was right to be worried, but it never got awful.

I hit M20 at 2:52. This was my check-in point. Did I feel good? Yes. In fact, I felt really good. I decided to push it a little. Instead of "about 3:50", my goal became "about 3:45". This would mean a 53 minute 10k, just slightly faster than I had been running up to that point. And I would have to do it on the roly poly part of the course.

I passed more and more half-marathoners. The flyovers got more frequent. The scene was cool, and also fairly intense. M24 was a screaming downhill that also offered up a good view of the finish area and the museum in the distance. More flyovers. My dad was not a pilot. He was a medic. More half-marathoners. My dad spent several years in Spain working at various hospitals.

At M25, we turned the corner at the bottom of the hill. This was getting challenging. My dad had to do more and more to take care of my sister (age 13) and me (age 2) as my mom got sicker. That's a real challenge.

The course came up a side road that paralleled the finish area. I could hear music and people screaming for finishers. A loud transport buzzed the site. A year after my dad left the service, right before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, my mother died in July 1969. It would be all up to my dad now.

The course curved at M26 and went down a flight line of historical Air Force transport planes (and one Luftwaffe plane, huh).

People were cheering for me.

My dad's world had changed from what he had spent 20 years doing to becoming a single-parent of two in the civilian world. My sister was becoming a teen right at the end of the 60s... probably not an easy time for a dude who was used to a regimented military existence.

I was zig zagging around people. I think. I don't really remember.

My dad took me to kindergarten every morning. He and my sister shared making all the meals. Thumbs up for Friday night Dorito casserole. Thumbs down for Tuesday night liver. And carrot-and-raisin salad. Ew. I kind of wonder if my dad knew "the rules" of being a parent. I wouldn't have. I would have been zig zagging around. I wouldn't have any idea how to do it.

Blam. Finish line. I don't know if they announced me. I wasn't paying attention. A 3-star general gave me my medal and shook my hand.

I have pictures of my dad getting medals and certificates. Some guy is always shaking his hand. I have no idea what any of these pictures truly mean.

And... I will never understand what my dad went through in the Air Force, or what he had to do when my mother got sick.

But after this past year, I surely respect it more.

My dad's pretty awesome.

Oh. And I ran a 3:44, beating my goal slightly. I ran a 1:53/1:51 negative split.

If I could repeat this experience, I would have chosen this as an all-out go-fast race. As it stands, the last six miles of this race were pretty cool. And the last two miles were an otherworldly experience I will remember... but will never ever be able to repeat.

Next up: The next day, I ran the Lewis and Clark Marathon. I'll report on that soon. It'll be much shorter, I promise.

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