“This is it. This is how it ends.” I thought as the plane tilted violently to the left, then the right, then dropped dramatically, precipitously, as the girl across the aisle from me gasped, “Jesus Christ!” Laura grabbed my hand with a vice-like grip. I made gestures of a drunken pilot doing shots while attempting to balance out the plane. Laura and I laughed nervously, but inside I was screaming profanities and crying, “I’m not ready to die! I’m not ready to die! I have to run Boston one more time!” The really scary part is that this was the second time in the past two days that I had such a thought – I’ll tell you about the other one in a minute. First, Back to Monday’s flight.
We were flying to Salt Lake City from Oakland after a weekend filled with with one epic plot point after another, which as you all know by now is standard fare along Allen’s road to Boston. If you wrote this weekend’s events in screenplay format and handed it to a movie producer, he/she’d tell you, “Come on, man. Nobody’s gonna buy all this. Can you write something that remotely resembles reality, please?”
It all started innocuously enough on Friday, although the travel day ahead would be more a test of our endurance than Sunday’s actual marathon. Laura and I were uncharacteristically on time as we left the house early for a 6:00 AM flight, and it’s a good thing because as we walked into the Charlotte Douglas airport, the security line extended the length of the airport. Uh-oh.
But the TSA employees were pros – screw that “remove your laptop from your bag” and “take off your shoes” business. They rushed us through and we hustled to our gate and immediately boarded the flight to Detroit. So far, so good. I pleasantly killed an hour and a half on the way to LAX watching Bad Words, a crass little movie about a 40-year-old man (Jason Bateman) who finds a loophole in the rules of a kids’ national spelling bee and throws the whole thing into disarray by entering as a contestant (Example of why I liked it so much: When an annoying kid hounds the Bateman character with questions of “What’s your favorite word?”, Bateman responds, “Can it be shut the fuck up?” That is precisely my kind of humor.) The flight was refreshingly uneventful, the only exception being as I was tracking our flight details on my little personal TV screen: I was enjoying reading off our descending altitude to Laura “One thousand feet…five hundred feet…” until I read, “238 feet” as we simultaneously touched down. I looked at her with this shocked look on my face and we both laughed as I asked, “What the fuck? Did we land on top of a building?”
The rest of our cross-country travel was pretty typical stuff – boring, mundane, and time-consuming. One pleasant surprise was that we flew into Oakland this year, instead of San Francisco like last year, and the lazy little airport was laid back and virtually empty – we had our luggage and secured our rental car probably an hour and a half faster than we had a year earlier.
Faced with bumper to bumper traffic on Hwy 101 between Oakland and Santa Rosa, we wisely decided to make a little detour and stop at Lagunita’s brewery (aside: what’s a gunita?) – you’ve probably heard of their famous brew, “Little Sumpin’ Sumpin”. We ordered a flight (of the brew, not air, variety) and decompressed while the traffic cleared out a little, easily our wisest decision of the weekend. Photographic evidence:
We finished our beers and headed toward Santa Rosa. We finally rolled in an hour or so later and got excited at the sight of our 2014 digs – the Flamingo Hotel. Here’s a shot Laura snapped of the “historic landmark tower”:
We quickly checked in, chatting with a runner from Alabama who was there seeking a BQ of his own, and then dumped our stuff in the room. Exhausted, we walked to the closest restaurant (the Crepevine) that appeared to have something-approaching-edible food, ate, and walked back to the Flamingo and crashed. Hard. Like the-sleep-of-the-dead hard. It was glorious. No kids, no dogs, no alarms, just sweet, wonderful, sleep. I can’t remember the last time I slept so soundly.
Saturday, we lazily, gradually pulled ourselves from our immaculate slumber, threw on some running clothes, and headed over to Julliard Park, site of the marathon start, for a little shakeout run along the course. We both felt like shit, grumbled about all our aches and pains, and Laura expressed feeling a little panicky. I talked her off the ledge, explaining how I almost always feel shitty on the day-before shakeout run. With her fears mostly assuaged, we hit Target for a few supplies, before returning to one of our favorite Santa Rosa restaurants, Arrigoni’s. I was a little upset that we were mere minutes too late for breakfast, but lunch was fine and we enjoyed soaking in the perfect weather from the open-air, patio-esque front room. Our bellies full, it was expo time.
At the Deloach Vineyards, site of the expo, we were a couple of kids in a candy store. There were quite a few good deals going, so I bought a couple of singlets, including this kick-ass Oregon Project winged-skull one:
But then, inexplicably, I started feeling really crappy at the expo – fatigued, nauseous, achy, and my throat was sore and scratchy. No, no, no, no, please no! I found some shade, tried not to flip out, and sat down in some short, cool grass while Laura bought a few more things, including one of those hand-held water-bottle with hand-strap deals which I would so make fun of here if not for the fact that I know I will be asking to drink out of it on some long run in the not so distant future. Feeling poorly, I eventually managed to pull Laura away from the expo.
This is the part of the story where we drive the course, and that is always such a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s good because you get a preview of what to expect in the race. But on the other hand, you are forced to acknowledge exactly how fucking long 26.2 miles is. (Yet another aside: Let me take this opportunity to just say that ultrarunners are completely and utterly insane – I cannot imagine running one step past 26.2 miles. Hell, I am still cursing the Queen of England for adding the 2.2 miles!)
Laura expressed more concern as we drove along with comments like, “Wait, what’s this? I thought this course was supposed to be flat!” Again, I tried to ease her fears, “There’s just these few gentle rollers and trust me, by this point you’re welcoming the opportunity to use a few different muscle groups.” But secretly I wasn’t so sure – the hills around the vineyard seemed longer and steeper than they had a year ago.
The rest of Saturday is a fog. I felt shitty and was definitely coming down with something. We went back to the Flamingo, showered, and then headed downtown to Mary’s Pizza Shack. I had eaten my pre-race pasta dinner there a year ago and it was acceptable so why try something else? But still feeling bad, I rushed us through dinner so I could get back to the room and rest and pray that this little illness would pass by race time.
We went back to the hotel and climbed right into bed. Laura slipped into sleep quickly while I absentmindedly flipped through TV channels and silently panicked as my throat grew more and more sore and my breathing more and more labored. I had these bizarre little waking-nightmares of my throat swelling shut on the course until I couldn’t breathe and then some random runner performs a tracheotomy on me with a ballpoint pin. Laura woke up at one point and I asked her if she knew how to perform a tracheotomy. She, correctly, looked at me like I was insane.
At some point, I thankfully drifted off to sleep, but it was fitful as I woke time and time again to the sore throat. In desperation, I took some ibuprofen. I fell back asleep and the next time I awoke, the sickness had seemed to have leveled off a bit. The throat was still sore and I felt congested, but the aches and nausea were gone. I felt a sliver of optimism as I drifted back asleep.
Then it happened – I awoke to a shaking room. My first inclination was that I had overslept, that Laura was shaking the bed to wake me, but then I felt her lying next to me and she grabbed my shoulder. I, still groggy, asked the obvious question, “Earthquake?” and Laura answered, “Yeah, I think so.” But we were both glued to the bed.
“This is it. This is how it ends.” I rolled through the survival-what-to-do-rolodex in my head but came up blank on earthquake. I think what I did, lie still and don’t move, works better for bear attacks.
It seemed like an eternity but maybe 30 seconds later it was all over. The time was 3:22 AM and my alarm was set for 3:30. I got up and looked outside to see if there was any damage – I couldn’t see any. I turned on the TV and flipped through the channels – I couldn’t find the local stations and the national news channels were all Ferguson, all the time. Maybe 30 minutes later, CNN’s flashy little “BREAKING NEWS” logo popped up and the newscaster said something like “We’re getting reports of an earthquake measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale near Napa, California. We’ll update you as more information becomes available.”
We started checking the race website for updates, but there were none. Still not feeling anywhere near 100%, I actually hoped the race would be cancelled.
But after half an hour or so, updates on CNN seemed to indicate that damage was not extensive and mostly confined to Napa. Nothing on the race website or Facebook page. It looked like we were a go. Just as an added bonus, I had one of those god-awful crick in the neck things. You know what I’m talking about – the thing where you can’t turn your head to look to the left or right, but instead have to turn your entire torso. Yeah, that. Awesome.
But what could I do? Time to nut up or shut up, Buttercup. Laura and I went through our standard race morning routine. Garmin? Check. Bib? Check. Shoes? Holy shit, did I forget my running shoes? Here they are, oh thank God. You know the drill.
By 5:30, we were parked in a deck near the starting line. We walked to the start, took our place in the port-a-john lines, took care of business, and stepped into the corral.
One of the by now ubiquitous drones buzzed some twelve or fifteen feet over our heads. The draft from its propellers was downright chilly and we kept relocating to avoid it. But over and over, there it was, buzzing directly above us. But can you blame it? The operator knows beauty when he sees it. And he got shots of Laura, too.
Finally, even after the day’s shaky start (get it?), the race was all set to begin. We lined up in the starting corral. I was cranky about the chilliness until I reminded myself that the chilliness was exactly why we flew all the way across the country. The announcer made some remarks, very few of which I understood, and then something-something-something-“30 seconds”-something-something-something-“Ten, nine, eight…” until the air horn sounded and we were off.
The first few steps I took, I forgot all about the sickness – the stupid neck crick thing was excruciating. I told Laura about the pain, adding, “If it stays like this, I won’t finish! No way I can run 26 miles with this pain.” She convinced me to relax, that it would go away.
I wanted to start out slower than goal pace. Laura and I had talked about possibly running the first two miles or so together. I wanted to run a pedestrian 7:55, then ease into my coach’s prescribed plan of 7:40 – 7:45 for the next 10 miles. But, spoiler alert, I went out faster. Not a half mile in and Laura had wisely dropped back. I came through in 7:40, not egregiously fast, but it still annoyed me.
The crick was gone by the first mile and I just tried to relax and settle into 7:40s. Which I mostly did, but it was a little tricky because I was doing a lot of guess work. I’ve finally recently realized that my watch is a little, shall we say, optimistic – it likes to tell me that I’m going faster than I actually am. So if it displayed 7:30 or so, I could count on it being closer to 7:40. And the autolap function would beep at what it thought was 1 mile, which was almost always short of the actual mile marker.
So I settled into a little routine. When the watch beeped for the mile, I’d check out what it displayed. Then, when I passed the actual mile marker, I’d hit the lap button. Add the two times – that would be the actual mile split. Over and over and over.
The weather was as close to perfect as one could hope for in a marathon in August – high fifties, overcast. It was the Goldilocks marathon day – never too hot and never too cold.
We zipped around downtown Santa Rosa for a few miles, then we entered the greenway. I leap frogged with half a dozen folks. I’ll be honest, it bothered me that most of the runners around me didn’t look much like marathoners. But hey, what can you do? Stick to the plan dummy – don’t take off and race some chubby lady with gray hair at mile four. For all you know, she’s some random lady doing speed work on the greenway. Ignore.
Being the competitive asshole that I am, I tried to make a mental note of everybody that passed me, in hopes I’d see them again. Big muscular black guy – looks sort of like Derrick. Note. Tall bald dude with cap – looks like Jay Baucom. Note. Etcetera. When a fit little Asian lady in a neon orange singlet sprinted by me, seriously, she had to be traveling at sub-6:00 pace, I thought, “Oh, I will definitely see you again.”
But I didn’t spend all this time and money and fight all these natural disasters to try to out kick some lady at mile four. I came out here to qualify for Boston. Focus on the task at hand. Ignore everybody and stick to the plan.
There was one thing I forgot about – the pavement in Santa Rosa SUCKS. Potholes, cracks, uneven spots, angles, nooks and crannies abound – it’s rough and the footing is uneven for the vast majority of the race. I found myself wondering, “Why is the asphalt so jacked up around here?” I mean it’s not like there are these crazy temperature fluctuations – the climate is about as moderate as you can find, anywhere. So what’s the deal?
Regardless, there was not much I could do about it. I tried to stick to the tangents, avoid potholes and cracks and crevices as much as possible, and stay on pace. And I mostly did.
We left the greenway for the roads around mile 7. I was pretty locked into low-7:40s pace at this point. Right around mile 8, a young guy with a beard passed me. Then he stopped to stretch and I passed him back. Then he passed me, and semi-stopped again – he did some Nazi Stormtrooper high kicks, so I passed him. Then he pulled up beside me and asked, “Hey, what kind of pace are we running?” “7:40″, I told him. “What is that? 3:25?” “More like 3:20″, I said. “Wow. Much faster than I expected to be at this point.” he said, and backed off.
Mile 10, we turned into Deloach Vineyard. There was a rubenesque girl up ahead and I marveled at how she had maintained low-7:40s pace through 10 miles. We ran through the barrel room and I had that same surreal deja-vuey feeling that I’d experienced a year earlier (for those of you that never read last year’s post, I have a recurring dream where I run through buildings during a road race. Santa Rosa is the only real world race where it’s ever actually occurred).
Ten miles down and still on pace. I felt comfortable, but now the plan called for picking up the pace a bit, so I did. I focused on catching and passing the rubenesque young lady, which I did by mile 11. Then I spotted neon-orange Asian sprinter up ahead so I started reeling her in, too. Oh how the mighty had fallen – no sub-sixes now. I did not envy her – she was fading badly at mile 11. I’ve been there before and trust me when I tell you that it is a very unfun place to be, or would be in the later miles.
I was in the rolling section of the course, and just like I told Laura the day before, the hills were welcomed – it was pleasant to break up the monotony of the flat. I rolled with it, pun intended, ever trying to gradually speed up and stick to the 7:30s goal for miles ten to twenty.
I came through the half in 1:40 and change and was a little disappointed. I expected to be sub-1:40 and seeing that four in there took some of the wind out of my sails. I tried to play mind games with myself, “You’re done with your warm-up, now run your half marathon. Just run the same as you ran in the Sunset Beach half and you’re in business.” But the first signs of fatigue were popping up.
Obviously, I kept trying to hit the splits and maintain the pace, but I was starting to feel a little long run loopy. Simple things like addition seemed a little more difficult, and a pace that I thought was fast enough wasn’t. I’d think I was running a solid 7:30 only to cross the mile marker and discover I was closer to 8. I started to get a little confused, a little frustrated. And occasionally someone clearly much fresher than me would zip by, frustrating me more.
But all was not lost. I was still hovering around a 3:20, near PR territory. I wasn’t exhausted or destroyed. The crick was long gone and I’d forgotten about my sore throat hours ago. Fueling (I took a Huma gel roughly every 40-45 minutes) was going well – I was drinking at every water stop. All the little stuff that destroys the rookies is old hat to me by now. If I could just hang on, I could A) PR, B) Break 3:20 and/or C) Qualify for Boston, the primary objective.
We finally hit a stretch of road around mile 16 where the road was well paved (Fulton Road). Ah, what a relief! I could run a straight line and focus on form instead of choppily jumping, dodging, zig-zagging between imperfections. It was so nice. I spotted a girl about half a mile ahead and I tried to reel her in.
There were some eccentric fans along this stretch. An older lady played a ukelele. A younger girl, I’m guessing in her early teens, wearing a leotard pranced around and repeatedly chanted, “Jazzercise!” We had some of the best crowd support of the race along this stretch. I tried to pick up the pace.
Unfortunately, this stretch of good road lasted no more than a mile before we turned back onto the bedraggled streets. After 17 miles of the stuff, I was beginning to lose patience. The truth be told, I was getting downright cranky as attempting to maintain goal pace was getting, much like the tectonic plates in this godforsaken part of the world (hometown of Jordan Kinley!), shakier and shakier. But while I was grumpy and tired, my legs were hanging in there – my pace was getting less and less consistent, but I was still hovering around the mark. If you think of goal pace as a bullseye on a dartboard, while my early miles were dead on throw after throw, now the darts were getting more erratic. I’d still occasionally hit the mark (mile 17, 7:30), but my misses were getting farther away (mile 18, 8:08).
We reentered the greenway around mile 19. I was determined to finish strong and I dropped a 7:26 mile. But the body was beginning to give out on me. Bonk time. Hiya Darkness, howya been? Haven’t seen you since the Newton Hills!
I was trying to do the math, but the numbers were just bouncing all around in my head. I thought I had enough time in the bank that I could just break 8s and be good enough for a solid BQ. But I was fading.
And still I didn’t feel as fatigued as I usually do in the last 6 miles. “Race a 10K!” I told myself, but my little mind games weren’t working. I was cutting deals with my body. “Just run sub 8 for the duration and I’ll reward you with a giant burger and lots of beer!” But I was running into the back of the half marathoners so now, in addition to trying to maintain a pace fast enough to get me into Boston, I had to contend with the 3-hour half marathoners on a narrow path.
Which would be fine if only they would stay to the right. Or to the left. Or were only two wide. But they weren’t. Some went three wide. Some drifted from left to right. Some drifted from right to left. Some meandered in unpredictable directions. Some groups of two drifted to their right and met other groups of two drifting to their left. Which had me hopping into grass, and making tailback-like cuts. Which might not be so bad if I hadn’t just run 22 miles. But I had.
I was slowing down. I occasionally glanced behind me to see if Laura was approaching. I wanted to see her. And I didn’t.
As I neared the mile 22 marker, my watch beeped a 7:55. When I passed the mile 22 marker, I hit my lap button and it displayed :15. I was barely able to do the math – “Oh shit. I just ran an 8:10 mile!”Reel it in dude. Lock in at sub-8. And I did. I figured this thing was in the bag – the time was banked. I could make those Boston reservations. I started daydreaming about that sweet condo we shared with the Crockfords and wondered if we could book it again. I zoned out.
I neared mile 24 and and looked down at my overall time. 3:05. I tried to do math. I thought, “Okay, so if I run the next 2 miles at 8-minute pace…” (which was far from a given, by the way), “…and let’s say my Garmin is off enough so that I still have another .5 to go, and let’s say I run that in 4 minutes…” Shit, oh shit! That’s 3:25! This is not a done deal!
I had a flashback to a moment in high school basketball. My team was up about 13 points with maybe two minutes to go when my coach, assuming like everybody else that the win was well in hand, put the bench scrubs, including me, into the game. Two seconds after coming in, I found myself defending the kid who was dribbling down court on a fast break. He leapt and I leapt with him and I was all set, I mean I knew I was going to, block his shot. And he dunked the ball over me and the ref blew his whistle and called a foul and the opposing crowd erupted into cheers. The coach stood up and screamed, “ALLEN! What are you doing?!? THIS GAME IS NOT OVER YET!”
And that’s what happened in Santa Rosa – the inner coach in my head screamed, “ALLEN! What are you doing?!? THIS GAME IS NOT OVER YET!” I sped up. Some little guy in a hat that read “Pacer” zipped past me and I thought, “Maybe he’s the 3:20 pacer. Go with him!”
I caught a second wind. Suddenly the little pacer seemed slower so I passed him. Another guy passed me so I latched onto, then passed, him, all the while dodging half marathoners. A third guy flew by and I tried to go with him – he was motoring, I wasn’t catching him. But if I didn’t lose any more ground, I was golden.
Finally, we exited the greenway, and I passed the mile 26 marker. Kick. I gritted my teeth and went. As I crossed the finish line, I looked up and saw 3:22-something on the clock. I won’t lie – I was disappointed. I honestly believed I had a sub-3:20, maybe even a PR (3:19:13), in me on this day. But then I realized that my time was nearly two and a half minutes under my Boston qualifying – that cushion would have been enough to get into any Boston marathon since they changed the qualifying format. I was okay with that. I took my giant spinner medal, grabbed some water, and circled back to the finish to wait on Laura. She should be coming in any second.
I hopped up and down to try and stave off the inevitable muscle tightening, and to keep warm – after all, I was standing around in wet shorts and a wet singlet in sub-60 temps. I watched for Laura. When the marathon clock hit 3:30 and I hadn’t seen her, I started worrying. I wondered if maybe I had missed seeing her cross the finish line. I thought maybe I should make my way back to our designated meeting spot inside the park. But then I decided I’d better stay put until at least her Boston-qualifying time (3:45) had passed.
Then, maybe a quarter of a mile away, I spotted the gait of the girl I have run quite a few miles next to. The good news – she was significantly under her Boston qualifier. The bad news – she was significantly slower than her goal on this day. But as she got closer, I had an idea as to why. I could see blood on her knees and shoulder. She had taken a spill somewhere. I cheered loudly.
She finished and the announcer called out over the sound system, “Laura Gray from Charlotte, North Carolina. Check out that smile!” I met her at the finish line and immediately asked her what happened.
Her story is much more interesting than mine. On the greenway, somewhere around mile 3.5, before the sun was fully up, she stubbed her toe on something and went down. Hard. How hard? Hard enough to bust the strap on her watch. And hard enough for, well, this:
We went to the medical tent (it wasn’t me this time!) and I wanted to rip the stethoscope off the lady’s neck when Laura took her shoe off and the lady gasped. She and her counterparts stood there and stared for a minute before the head lady (I would say doctor, but I really doubt she’s a doctor) asked, “Do you want some ice for that?” And then she asked, “Would you like me to clean those?” and pointed at Laura’s various lacerations. She came back with some packets and said, “All we have is alcohol or iodine. Do you want me to just put some antibacterial on that?” Laura said, “Okay”, but I, frustrated, intervened, “No, please clean it off first – either is fine, alcohol or iodine”. Anyway, long story short (well, less long), we got Laura’s many wounds (I am still asking, “How did you hit everywhere when you fell?!?” Seriously, her hands, knees, shoulder, hip, and thigh all have abrasions!) cleaned up a little, went home and showered, and then we rushed to the nearest Urgent Care. We were on the clock – the beer garden (for which we had purchased tickets at $20 apiece) was set to close at 4:00 (or so we thought).
The Urgent Care took forever (as I expected, but Christ, it was even longer than I thought) even though there was only one other person in front of us – we finally got out around 2:00 and after a quick stop at CVS for medical supplies, made it back to the beer garden at 2:30. I nearly lost it when the security guard checking IDs told us, deadpan, “Sorry, only California IDs allowed. They didn’t tell you this?” I started yelling at him when he laughed and said, “I’m kidding! I’m kidding!” Dude. We. Are. Not. In. The. Mood.
We got our first beer at about 2:30 when someone told us the garden was closing at 3:00. What?!?! First an earthquake, now this?!? I didn’t know which event was more tragic. But we got our $20 worth. Pounding and hitting as many of the 25 local breweries’ tents as possible in less than 30 minutes. Finally, all was right with the world again.
Oh, back to Monday. Where were we? Right, the plane was careening left and right, jostled about by turbulence as we neared the runway. But somehow, the pilot righted everything a split second before we touched down. And that was not the worst flight of the day.
After a 3-hour layover in Salt Lake City, we finally boarded the plane where we waited another hour for some mechanical issue to get repaired – that always gives you a warm and fuzzy. We eventually made it into the air, and back to Charlotte. Mike Moran, aka Ghost, who had just taken the same flight on his way back from Hood to Coast in Oregon, waited by the luggage carousel with me. Everyone got their luggage and left until it was just Laura, Mike’s wife Melissa, Mike, and me waiting. My bag was literally the very last bag to come off. Mike said, “Wow, yours is the very last bag” and Laura and I just laughed. “Yeah, that’s pretty much the way things go for me.” And we headed home, exhausted, but with a couple Boston qualifiers in our back pockets.
See you on Boylston Street.