Thursday, March 26, 2009

3/15/09 Little Rock Marathon

I look a lot worse in this picture than I actually felt!

In mid-February, I ran the National Marathon to Fight Breast Cancer as marathon #198. On the first weekend in March, I ran an obscure 6-hour race ("run as far as you can in six hours") near Seattle called Invest in Youth. I ran it slowly on purpose, and once I had run 26.5ish miles, I stopped. That was #199.

It was time to hit a milestone. There's nothing magic about "200" except that it is a round number. It's a whole lot of marathoning. I remember running the San Francisco Marathon a few years ago: it was my 39th. It also happened to be some lady's 100th, and I saw signs all over the course wishing her a happy hundred. I remember thinking that "100" seemed really, really big and wondering if/when I'd ever get there. Turns out, I got there in 2006 at Yakima. Fast forward, and now it was time for 2x100. The odd thing is that as I've kept running them, my sense of scale has changed. 200 doesn't really seem like a lot... heck, it's a lot of most anything... unless I think about it hard. It is. 200 marathons and ultras since September 2001. More than 5300 miles of running races spread over 7 1/2 years.

At the same time, though, it's just a number. One more than Invest in Youth. A couple hundred LESS than a few runners I know pretty well. I didn't really feel like targeting a 'special' race for my 200th and I didn't feel like creating a bunch of hoopla around it.

I had registered for Little Rock because I knew I was going to be in Dallas (nearby in air travel terms) during mid-March to help take care of my Dad. I've not done this race before, but it has a very fine reputation. And by coincidence, it was going to be my 200th. No extra hoopla, but enough of it just as a function of being a well organized midsize city race.

Little Rock is one of those cities that has a big river running through (or next to) downtown. I didn't know what to expect out of downtown Little Rock, but what I was NOT expecting to find was... a Russian submarine in the river. There is one. Ho-kay. There's also a ton of cool things to check out and a nifty trolley to take you other places. And a race.

At the highest level, The Little Rock Marathon course is a loop that starts and ends downtown. It is an extremely interesting course. After a roly poly 5 mile loop that hops across the river to North Little Rock and then back through downtown, runners are treated with a long, gentle uphill through various neighborhoods in (what I assume is) the central part of the city. At about M14, this hill gets substantially steeper. Up and up you go. Just past M16 on a road rightly named "Lookout", the course winds along a ridge and then SWOOP - down you go. At M18, the course turns along a road through a park near the river. This is a fun and flat out-and-back between M18 and M23.5. The final 2.7 miles follow the same road along the river back into downtown and the finish. Described differently, after the turnaround at M20.5, the rest of a race is a straight, flattish shot to the finish. Well, flattish except for a couple evil little bumps.

The race prides itself on its hills. Everybody describes the Little Rock Marathon as hilly. They sell shirts with the slogan "What Hills?" It is hilly. But compared to some of the races I've run, it's really not *that* hilly. The reputation is earned mostly by the big ol' hill in the middle. Not unlike the hill in the middle of Flying Pig.

The race also prides itself on its organization. This is well-deserved. My favorite aspect of this turned out to be something which they don't really advertise, and something I don't recall seeing at any other race. The course offers up a great tour of all kinds of Little Rock history. And to help ensure that everyone knows a little about what they are seeing, the race puts up little signs in front of historic buildings explaining their relevance. This was so cool! The only thing I knew I wanted to see in Little Rock was Central High School. I had heard it was on the course, but I didn't know where. Sure enough, there was a sign. I didn't need a sign for it, as it turns out, because Central High School is huge and remarkably pretty. This was unexpected. It turns out that Little Rock has all kinds of OTHER nifty buildings and parks. Thanks to the signs, now I know about them too. You know, I bet that this is true about many, many of the other 199 races I've run in various (and sometimes obscure) places. But I'll never know. Little Rock? I know. Little signs add value.

Little Rock also offered up great aid stations with friendly volunteers. The occasional band too. And permanent mile markers: blue versions of those highway markers you see on Interstates. I suppose it helps that the governor of Arkansas is a big fan of marathoning :-). Two race shirts as well.

Now, what Little Rock seems to be most proud of is the medal they provide to finishers. It is very, very large. I knew this coming into it, but I didn't realize HOW big. I'll come back to that.

Let's play Where's Waldo. This is Corral B at the start. Where's Roberto?
Race morning offered up perfect weather. Overcast and 45. It was a bit breezy and threatened to get quite warm, so Island Boy went with various pink and black peel-offable layers. As a well organized medium-sized race, Little Rock had a reasonable corraling system to help ensure that folks lined up appropriately. And pacers. I stood in corral B wondering about a race goal. I was *in* corral B because I had estimated a finish time between 3:30 and 3:45 when I signed up. Was this reasonable? Hmmm. I mentioned in my 2009 Goals that one of my big goals for the first half of the year is to get ready for a race in the 3:15-3:20 range. To get there, I promised myself to run fewer non-goal marathons and to be smarter about how I ran them. This is specifically why I took Invest in Youth slowly. I decided that since Little Rock would have mile markers (Invest in Youth didn't) that I'd try to run it "medium slow(ly)" but more importantly, I wanted to run as even a race as I could. At this point, a medium slow pace would be 3:45ish. I lined up with the two 3:45 pacers and waited.

Not long. Boom, off we went. For about half a mile. I needed to potty. This wasn't a surprise. What WAS a surprise was the number of portapotties after the start of the race. I figured I'd be holding it for awhile. No need. I ducked in, I came out, and I started running again. However, I had lost the 3:45 group and my legs were telling me not to try to catch them.

I settled in where I was. Tons to see in this race. Many people to meet. Lots of historical signs to read. I did it all. I also took the time to reflect on 200 races.

The first miles of this race were uneventful. This was the loop that sent us over the river to North Little Rock and back. I thought about my very first marathon - 2001's Portland (Oregon) Marathon. It was a few weeks after 9/11, and we all wondered whether the race would happen. It did. I ran a stupid race, including a half marathon PR in the first half followed by a major slowdown in the second half. But my finishing time was really cool to see: 4:04:04. I had picked a good race to start with, and I've returned to it several times since. Back in Little Rock, my legs were still really stiff as we passed back through downtown and M5.5. I saw that the course looped back on a different road and noticed the elites run by. Turns out, they were at M9 as I approached M6. Zoom.

I have a weird relationship with speed. I like to run fast, but I don't do it that often. My fastest recent half is 1:36. My fastest full has been my 3:28 at last year's Eugene Marathon. I'm trying to take 10 minutes off that. Yikes. Not counting ultras, I've "run" six marathons over 5 hours. My slowest road marathon was my second one. A couple months after my 4:04:04 at Portland, I ran the Seattle Marathon with a friend. Only after our 5:03 finish did he tell me that he had wanted to break 5 hours. Ooops. Still, though, that's almost two hours faster than the 6:53 I spent on the Leadville Marathon course. None of that compares to the 12:30 I spent going up and down mountains at the White River 50 Miler. Twelve and a half hours!

Anyway, Little Rock wasn't shaping up to be a slow race, nor a fast race. As planned. It was a great day for running fast, so I had to hold back at first. The half marathon course broke off somewhere around M11.

Just past M11, the course turned onto Park Street, and there it was: Central High School. It was big and really pretty. Standing out in front of it, a woman yelled something like "hey, thanks for running for breast cancer!"

My response? "You're welcome. (pause) But actually, I'm against it."

The lady looked at me kind of like I insulted her, but many of the runners around me broke out in laughter. I like making people laugh. More importantly, this told me where my brain and emotions were - in a good place. This meant that my nutrition was fine and that the day was going ok SO FAR. Based on the laughter, this seemed to be true for those around me as well. Cool.

Looking at the marathon course map, it is obvious that the organizers went out of their way to ensure that we saw Central. The course made almost a two mile detour to run past it. Thanks, organizers!

I find cool things to look at in many of the races I've done. As I mentioned earlier, it is 100% likely that I've run by cool things in races and didn't even know it because they weren't marked. It's hard to beat the Marine Corps Marathon for thing-specific sights. The two miles through Magic Kingdom during Disney are close, though. For overall scenery, I'd pick Crater Lake and the now defunct Kilauea marathons as my favorites. The thing is, you expect places like that to be pretty ahead of time. I like unexpected things. Like hitting the turn around in the middle of Frank Maier (Juneau) and suddenly noticing the BIG GIANT GLACIER.

Too bad the half marathoners didn't get to see Central. We merged back onto their course around M12. I was running behind a guy in a "Brasil" shirt. He looked very confused. About M12.5, the full turned left and the half went straight. It was marked ok and they had volunteers telling us this. In English. I realized why Brasil was looking so confused when he turned to me and said, "Fool? Fool?" And pointed.

Hey there. I'm no fool, no siree. Oh wait. I thought about it quickly. He had a thick accent, and he wasn't saying "fool". He was saying "full". Ah, he wasn't sure what to do with all the merging and de-merging of the half and the full! Aha. In broken Spanish, I told him to follow me because the full was turning left.

Of course, they speak Portuguese in Brazil/Brasil. Heh. He figured me out, though, and off we went. My legs were having trouble keeping the pace. By the time we hit THE HILL at M14, off he went.

Hills. I love hills. I don't always run them well, but I do like roly poly races. Leadville and the obscure Mid-mountain Marathon (going between ski resorts in Utah) have been the hilliest races I've done. Message boards light up with discussion periodically regarding the flattest courses in the nation. Skagit Flats, and there's no debate :-).

I hit the halfway point of Little Rock at 1:56. So much for 3:45, and I wasn't sure if my legs could deal with a second 1:56. Especially going up the hill. Up and up. Spectators were extremely encouraging through this section. In general, spectators don't make or break a race for me. Most of my races have none and I still like them fine. The biggest exception to this for me was Twin Cities. That course was lined with people for 26.2 miles and they were REALLY into it. I loved it. Marine Corps had lots of spectators too, but this was the night-and-day opposite experience. At Marine Corps, people kept trying to cross the street right in front of me. Including a lady with a stroller that I had to hurdle. GAH.

Up and up. I had slowed a bit, but so had everyone else. I wasn't being passed, but then I didn't pass anyone either. I crested the hill somewhere around M17 on a street named "Lookout" as in "lookout below!" I wish I could say that I ran down that hill super fast. But I didn't. I rarely do; I am a poor downhill runner. My favorite downhill of all time is the second half of Haulin Aspen. Aside from that, I usually merely tolerate downhill, and that's how this one went. I did not make up the time I had lost.

At M18, the course turned onto the out-and-back section. I was in a pretty good place emotionally and I was still having fun BUT my watch was telling me I had slowed. I could tell that this was starting to bug me, so I decided to play a game. I consciously tried to speed up, but I decided to stop staring at the numbers on my wrist. I love out-and-backs because I get to see folks going the other way. The fast folks in front of me and later on, the not-so-fast folks behind me. I call out to people I know; I offer up encouragement. My favorite race, Kona, is an out-and-back. While I don't love the Seattle Marathon, the out-and-back section across the floating bridge is one of my annual favorite memories.

As I started into this section, a guy I know from a message board (Maniac Matt) called to me from the other side. That was nice. He'd go on to PR with a 3:01. WOOHOO! I had no such designs on a PR, but I was running noticeably faster now. I was passing people too.

About M19, I saw Maniacs Yolanda and Larry running the other way. They had started early; I decided to try to catch them. I ran 65 marathons in 2007. Yolanda ran 65 in 2008. I've mentioned Larry before. He ran 95 in 2007 and 105 in 2008. Ok then. Just before the turnaround at M20.5, I caught up to my friend Jim. He ran 72 in 2007.

Time to head to the finish. I wanted to make some of these final miles as fast as my early miles. It would be hard, which reminded me that this race advertises itself as hilly and hard. It is hilly, but it isn't THAT hilly. The hardest marathons I've run were Crater Lake and Estes Park. Little Rock wouldn't make the top ten. But that's ok! It was going to be plenty hard to finish fast and even out my first half/second half split.

As I ran on the back side, I noticed a ton of maniacs on the out side who I hadn't yet met. I hooted and hello'ed all these folks. Sometimes I got a big smile. Usually, I got a blank stare. Ah well. I run in pink which is 1) weird and 2) incognito for a maniac. At M18 of a hard race, I'd probably wonder why some strange guy in pink was yelling at me. If I wasn't, you know, that guy.

I felt pretty good. Not as good as I did six weeks before at Surf City when I ran my 3:39 with a negative split, but much better than I did four weeks before at the Breast Cancer Marathon. I wasn't ducking into portapotties every few miles either. Always a plus.

Thinking of the Breast Cancer Marathon made me consider some of my most 'meaningful' races. That would definitely be the main one. Bataan too. Seeing thousands of soldiers climbing the big hill at Bataan with 35 pound packs was cool. Shaking the hands of several Real-Bataan survivors after finishing was quite moving indeed.

The final miles clicked by. I felt like I was holding my faster pace, but I also wasn't looking at my watch. I thought about my other senses besides 'sight' and marathon memories based on other senses. At the top of the final hill at Twin Cities is a church with a giant Big Ben-sounding bell. I will never forget the deep "BONNNNNNNNG (pause) BONNNNNNNNNNG (pause) BONNNNNNNNNNNG" as I crested that hill. The taste of the huckleberry shake after Mesa Falls. The rumble of the C-5 passing overhead at Air Force or the jet fighter flyovers at Houston and Dallas White Rock. The smell of Wilmington! Heh.

At M26, volunteers were handing out lipstick (!). But not to me. At M26.1, another guy I know from a message board (spiderpig!) called out to me.

At M26.2 I was done. 3:52. And that meant that I pulled a 1:56/1:56 split. COOL! I didn't run exactly even miles, but I never do. And this was a hilly course. I did what I wanted to do, although I was 7 minutes slower than my initial goal. That was alright.

Did I mention that Little Rock has a big medal? Indeed. It even says so.

What a fun day. And a reflective one too. This was an incredible race, even though I personally did not run an "incredible race". I had a great time. Then I headed back to Texas to help take care of my dad.

Next up: The Grasslands Marathon. And let me tell you, that was a real adventure. Not all in a good way, but it worked out. I'm still here. I'll be back with that story Real Soon Now.

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