Light shifted subtly over the Willamette River. You sensed God working the sliders on his heavenly lighting board, blending shade and tone while sipping coffee from an immense mug. As marathon day began in Eugene, temperatures hung around the low 40s. I was reluctant to leave the warmth of our rented Rav. But MDW (My Darling Wife) pointed out that no man ever raced crouched over a hot air vent. So it was out into the cold near Hayward Field on the University of Oregon campus. MDW vowed to meet me at mile 18. There I'd planned to leave my water belt: a symbolic act to "lighten the load" for the arduous last miles where head games are mandatory. Meanwhile, I lined up behind other shivering runners at a Port-O-Potty.
Back in January, around the time I began training for this race, the wife of a friend died battling leukemia. I asked Peter if he'd mind my dedicating the marathon to Rosina. He and the kids were cool, but I had forgotten to bring anything. Fortunately, MDW grabbed some art supplies and cobbled together a fine inscription for me to wear. As I ran that day, spectators called out Rosina's name, encouraging me to keep going for her. In those moments, it seemed Rosina was present but just out of sight, as if she'd gone to fetch something from the car.
As to the course, imagine a drawing of a bolo tie such as gentlemen might wear in a square dance. Now imagine that same bolo tie drawn by an angry man. This will give you an idea of the route's shape. The opening miles led out from the campus, up a hill, down another, then into a park area where the metal tips would be if it really were a bolo tie. Doubling back to the U of O campus, the course led up another long hill, down to the Willamette River and across. Instead of a turquoise clasp, Autzen Stadium provided the center piece around which the race swirled, looping along bike paths around the Willamette. Tree-lined and tranquil, the river flowed under quaint foot bridges. The finish line was just outside the stadium where you could purchase bolo ties and other treasured souvenirs.
Finally, we go. Despite last-minute wavering, my goal was to break four hours. That meant a pace of 9:10, 49 seconds per mile less than my previous best in Phoenix. Since January 2007, my only marathon had been an extended walk in Chicago. The night before, I'd phoned coaches Jimmy and Kate for a little advice. They told me many useful, savvy things that I promptly forgot. But what I recalled was to stay on pace and save something for the end.
The first mile led uphill. I ran way too slow (9:40). I wanted to sob like a weepy old man, but didn't.
Mile 2: Mostly downhill.
Mile 3: More downhill. Now I was almost a minute ahead of pace. Cool.
Miles 4 and 5: Running the dangling string section of the bolo tie. Ate some yummy goo.
Mile 6: Doubling back to campus through Amazon Park. Still slightly ahead of pace.
Mile 7: Up a long hill. I slowed again, keeping my heart beat even. Runners blasted by, huffing and puffing. I smugly watched them pass.
Miles 8 & 9: Back through the campus, then across the Willamette on a foot bridge. At one point, I thought my legs were buckling. But it was only the bridge wobbling from impacting runner feet. Still, I hurried across.
Mile 10: On the bike trails along the river; more yummy goo with double caffeine.
Mile 11: We'd been running mixed in with a half-marathon. Now the half-marathoners veered off to finish their race. I remarked to a woman next to me, "I thought they'd never leave."
Mile 12: MDW surprised me at 12. I was still ahead of pace, feeling great. Perhaps I'd made too much of this marathon business? We confirmed our date for 18.
Mile 13.1: Half-way assessment. I was at 1:56:52, about an 8:55 pace. A little brisk, but no strain. Figuring I could hold it a bit longer, I decided to press on.
Mile 14: I encountered the Clopper. A lean man in his 60s with short, silvery hair, he slapped the ground loudly with every stride like a farm horse walking on cobblestones. Whock-whock-whock-whock! The sound grated. I sped past. But since I was walking a minute every seven minutes, there was no escape. I'd prepare to run again when I'd hear whock-whock-whock coming up behind.
Mile 15: What was on the menu? Surprise, it was another double-caffeine goo! (Damn the Clopper!)
Mile 16: Holding steady two and three minutes ahead of pace. I was looking at a solid finish. I uped my run/walk ratio to 8x1.
Mile 17: Something happened here but I can't remember.
Mile 18: MDW took my water belt after I washed down the last of my salt.
Mile 19: I finally ditched the Clopper. Hurray! Oh, God, hurray! First little twinges of leg pain.
Mile 20: Back across the Willamette. We're now running on the south side bike trails. I was still ahead, 3:00:06, but my pace had dropped to 9:00. My legs were beginning to feel a tad thick.
Mile 21: Now began the Track of Broken Dreams, better known as the last miles of a marathon. I dropped a full minute.
Mile 22: Dropped another minute. The same effort took tons of energy. My calves felt like iron knots. The four-hour pace group leader, whom I hadn't seen all day, breezed past with several runners in tow.
Mile 23: Leaking seconds badly, I dropped intervals and ran. All around, marathoners were breaking down: a young, bearded guy fast-hobbled on an injured foot; a husky Asian man cramped out in pain; a girl in tangerine shorts ran backwards to ease the ache; a guy in a floppy hat staggered off the trail and heaved a great spray of liquid. He heaved again and again. Meanwhile, sunlight shone through the trees and the Willamette flowed serenely.
Mile 24: For the moment, I'd plugged the time leakage and was almost exactly on pace, but fading fast. My hip flexors felt as light as a parking structure. Walking at a water station, I ate jelly beans and realized I enjoyed walking. Forcing myself to run, I focused on a large man in a red T-Shirt and passed him.
Mile 25: On pace, but maintaining the effort brought a bonus hurt. A side stitch arrived as I passed a balding runner in a blue and gold singlet. His feet quickened as he tried to catch me. Pretending I was in the Olympics staving off a Kenyan, I moved ahead to the next runner.
Mile 26: Reaching the shadow of Autzen Stadium, I was roughly on pace, but gassed. MDW waved and cheered. All the blood in my upper body had migrated to my legs. Woozy and light-headed, I lumbered along on auto pilot.
Mile .2: An orange snow fence lined the final kilometer. On the race clock ahead, red LED numbers inched into the four-hour district. I tried recalling how many seconds had passed before I crossed the start mat. However calculations were oafish folly as I lacked blood north of my waist.
I made it by six seconds: 3:59:53.
MDW helped me to a curb where I sat and stared at nothing for several minutes. I was fortunate to have reached my goal. Nevertheless, I finished what I set out to do. Plus, I honored Rosina and pumped money into the Eugene economy so they might purchase yet more commemorative bolo ties.
It's been two days since the marathon, we're back home and life proceeds. We have to move in a few weeks. And there's still the TNT Summer Team and preparing them for their first marathon. Oh yeah, and finding a job. And jury duty.
But today I'll rest and eat pizza and think about running another marathon in a few months.
That'll be fun.
(Start line photo by Rick Russell. All others by MDW Joy.)