"The time has come," the Walrus said "To talk of many things: Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
And cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings." -Lewis Carroll

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Walrus team debut race

Today was our first (partial) family race -- the Brookfield Zoo RunRun 5K and 3K. We had signed up for the 3K fun run/walk, which was more in the range of Alex's and Anna's current training. With the forecast for rain and the downpours on the way to the race, we arrived at the zoo expecting to be soggy before the end, but the rain decided to fall everywhere else instead.

Parking involved negotiating an obstacle course of other cars, dead raccoons, suicidal volunteers, and a policeman. Once in the zoo, the start area looked like a cranberry field that had been harvested too early, since all the cranberries were green (the race shirt color). There didn't seem to be an obvious path between us and the packet pickup at the other end of this area through the sea of people. Fortunately, a daddy with a stroller provided icebreaking services and we made it successfully to the first line of the day. Quite a few minutes later, we reached a friendly volunteer at the packet pickup table who informed us that we need to go back to the cranberry field and find our bib numbers. Hm... We finally found the postage-sized board with the names and numbers, where with some careful elbowing I managed to see our information. Back to the packet line we went, but by then we were pros, so we managed to get into one of its shorter tributaries. 

With whole minutes to spare, we got our packets and proceeded to find a spot to attach our bibs. Of course, we had no pins. Fortunately, Alex didn't mind sneaking back through the line (third time is a charm!) to get us some from the packet people. As we finished transforming from ordinary walruses into racing walruses, the excitement around us grew and people started packing themselves even more tightly into the start area. While this freed lots of room where we were standing, it presented a different problem -- there was a tightly compressed river of people between us and the porta-potties, and of course, Alex had to go. 

Going straight trough the ready-to-run-at-any-moment runners was an interesting and massaging experience. We enjoyed the unsurprisingly deserted porta-potties (no wonder, given the human-filled moat guarding them). Then we thought we'd watch the 5K race start (our 3K was supposed to start 20 minutes later). The air horn sounded, and the runner river started flowing faster and faster. 

Some other 3K-ers like us decided at this point to start merging into the runner stream, and so we merrily followed them in, first walking and finally gently running through the start line. Off to a great start, we thought. 

The first mile was pleasant, and I had to reign Alex and Anna in because they could go much faster. We approached the first mile marker, and I told them, "Halfway there!". All was going wonderfully, we were passing lots of people and feeling great. After a while, we took some mini walking breaks (a few steps) for certain young walruses to catch their breaths. A chipmunk nearly met a squishy end as we were entering the Bear Wilderness. All the while, I looked for any signs mentioning a 3K. As mile 2 drew nearer, dark suspicions arose that we may be in fact running a 5K. Seeing mile 2 confirmed our worries that we were, indeed, lost. In a race. In the zoo, where we knew every tree and corner. 

Of only eight total professional photographs of this event involving over 3000 people, we, of course, were in one of them. Well, I guess mostly Alex, since I'm looking down and only half of one of Anna's legs is visible. But still...

We didn't let this little unexpected 66% increase in the distance phase us, and proceeded to (mostly) run the rest of our race. Our time: 41:21. Not bad for a first! I didn't time it exactly, but about 5 minutes after the finish, Alex and Anna declared that they want to sign up for another one! 

From a photographical point of view, I noticed that Alex and Anna became significantly easier to shoot after the race. Possibly a previously unknown benefit of endorphins? Parents should let their kids run three miles if they want easy, hassle-free pictures.

At the finish, we let Alex enjoy the port-a-potties yet again, while Anna and I got various goodies, including metal water bottles and cool looking pedometers. And of course three more shopping bags (they came with our packets) because one can never have too many reusable shopping bags. And safety pins.  

After Alex rejoined us, we slowly headed back to the car. Quite a few walkers were still arriving. Our car was another 5K away (well, perhaps a bit less, but about as far as it can get and still be on zoo property). Most amazing, as we were driving past the race finish area, we saw the last two walkers, going at a rather relaxed pace. This was about 1.5 hours after the start! By then the finish area had been disassembled, and we wondered how they'd know that they've really finished. 

It was a great day, and the Walruses will surely run again!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

My first marathon

I didn't think I'd write my first marathon story, but it insisted (between 12:30 and 3 am this morning). I certainly enjoyed reading many stories while getting ready for my marathon, and now I see that it's a quite enjoyable way to relive this unique experience. And as marathons are all unique, so is this story, at least with respect to length and the prominence of a banana. That's your only warning.

My story starts with surprising myself (and the family) by signing up for a September marathon on May 5 (http://fv26.com). Just a month earlier, I laughed at the mere suggestion of ever running a marathon. So what changed? I ran a half marathon on May 1st, and man, was it boring! Perhaps I'm exaggerating a bit, but it was somewhat underwhelming. Half a what? The only redeeming feature was the beautiful spring weather and the occasional firemen… I mean fire trucks to gawk at (parental note: a child's obsession with fire trucks or anything else is often contagious). So enough about the half. I finished, in a not-too-impressive time, and with some walking at around mile 11. Bleh.

So on May 5, I was wondering "what next?", when I accidentally ran (!) into the Fox Valley Marathon web page, with the following irresistible description: "hassle-free, fun, picturesque and fully supported race day, our three races wind along flat, tree lined roads and paths overlooking the scenic Fox River. Starting and ending in historic downtown St Charles, IL, the course winds through picturesque Geneva, Batavia, North Aurora, and Aurora along the Fox River to a spectacular finish across the Illinois Street Bridge that can be seen from over a mile away." How can you not give them your money right there on the spot? Yes, I admit I'm an impulsive marathon shopper. Fifteen minutes later, huge doubts kicked in, but hey, no refunds. I had a summer month during which I knew I couldn't train, and I had been running for about half a year. But in my defense, when I signed up I hadn't read yet all the articles explaining how stupid it is to attempt that distance after less than a year of running.

Fast forward 4 months (a bit over 3 months of training) to the week of the race. Like most first-timers, I had been obsessing and impatient during the previous weeks, and had one final anxiety inducing item to resolve before the race -- the 20-mile banana. That was a major stumper. Two days before the race, I was advised to have a banana at mile 20 no matter what by an experienced marathoner, so as a good advice follower, I couldn't just ignore this. A note to experienced marathoners: please be super-careful how you advise newbies a few days before the race because they are not really sane adults at that point and will act in very unpredictable ways.

So, back to the banana at mile 20. I was stumped. There was no way I would run with a banana for 20 miles (at that point we'd be too intimate and I couldn't possibly eat it). I knew there were no banana trees near mile 20 from several long runs we did on the race course over the summer.  I was also pretty sure that I wouldn't personally know any banana owners among the spectators. After some of the most intense thinking of my life (and my job is mostly thinking) the night before the race, I knew exactly what to do! I shared my brilliant insight with John "I'll stash the banana right after I pick up my packet on Friday!", and of course he immediately squashed it with "But the race is on Sunday, won't raccoons eat it?". Darn! I did see plenty of raccoons driving to the race, so I'm sure they had somehow overheard our conversation and were hunting for my banana. So, after more agonizing thought, I saw no other way than to (1) disguise the banana and (2) hide it somewhere memorable just before the race. Simple, as most brilliant schemes are. After resolving this all important problem the night before the race, I slept soundly all night (apparently having something trivial to obsess with is so exhausting that it guarantees a good night sleep even before a race).

At the cruel but usual 4:00 am wake-up time, I almost didn't hear the quiet chirping of the iPod crickets, which never failed to wake me before. The shock of almost missing the alarm made the subsequently planned coffee completely superfluous as I was instantly wide awake, with adrenaline flowing. I then proceeded to get ready, casually breaking a few pre-race rules (eating something new, wearing untested equipment, but hey, I had a banana plan), smearing various substances in various places, drinking the coffee, checking the weather (more on that later) one last time, and in general not worrying at all. Everything but me was already loaded in the car from the night before. So getting ready for the race actually took much less time than getting ready for a typical long run. Sneaking through the dark house, trying not to wake up various family members and other creatures, I realized I didn't have the banana! It was John's fault, of course, because of all the things he bought when he shopped the day before, he forgot the one thing I cared for the most. So the evening before, reenacting a typical scenario from my pregnancy days, I demanded my bananas and he went out in the dark to get them, with barely a sigh. By the time he got back, I was in bed, so the banana didn't make it to the car. Alas, catastrophe was narrowly averted as I snuck into the kitchen and obtained said banana without waking the snoring creatures in the family room (some guard dogs we have). Armed with my banana, I was finally ready to leave for the great adventure of running 26.2 miles in mostly cloudy weather with 10% chance of rain.

Rant to weather modelers: I've never done so much obsessive weather forecast checking as I did in the few days (ok, weeks) before the race. On the very morning of the race, the forecast was exactly perfect for running, mostly cloudy, temperatures in the 50s, 10% chance of rain, and most unusual, all weather models agreed. Well, we definitely won the lottery that day, because it rained nonstop during the marathon and the rest of the day. I didn't mind the rain, not really, but I was hugely disappointed by the amazing lack of accuracy of simulations to which I've been entrusting my laundry reliably for quite a while now. I think you need more automatic differentiation, and definitely more uncertainty quantification {end of rant}.

If you are still reading, you should sign up for a marathon because you obviously have the necessary stamina. So back to the banana (no, it's not over yet). While I was familiar with the route to the race start, I had never driven to mile 20 (just run through it during the summer), so I thought I'd ask my trusty Droid to guide me there in the dark, raccoon-infested morning. The first 25 minutes of driving went smoothly, until I approached Fermilab, where my phone decided that it was in Wisconsin. The navigation program started acting rather erratically and after listening to it argue with itself about whether it's on County Road A or W, I finally shut the phone down. I'm sure being near Fermilab was a complete coincidence, I mean, why would anything strange happen near a place where unwilling particles are routinely accelerated to the speed of light and crashed into each other.

Sans phone for a while, I engaged my carrier pigeon sense, overlaying it with my memory of the race course map (which I had wisely *not* printed out).  I drove to a mini amusement park I remembered seeing from the trail on our long runs, and proceeded to sneak to the back, as close to the river as I could. Hoping I didn't get arrested for trespassing and flinching at the motion-activated floodlights, I did my pre-race warmup by running into the woods, startling a surprisingly large white cat, and finally finding the trail. I had previously disguised the banana as something else by placing it in a black doggy bag, which I quickly deposited in a spot by the trail that was easy to remember. Given what it looked like, I was pretty sure nobody would be enticed to pick it up before I got to it in about 4 hours or so.

Arriving at the start was quite uneventful after the morning excitement. As I was winding my way up the ramp in the parking garage and thinking good thoughts, the rain quietly started. Parking on the roof gave me a chance to enjoy the beautiful sunrise for a few minutes, after which the sun called it a day and let the rain take care of the rest.

I believe that most marathon stories start at this point. I did warn you. So I did all the race-y things one is supposed to do -- lock the car, hand over my possessions to perfect strangers at the gear check, strut around in a slightly more fashionable trash bag than everyone else's, chat with friends, eat a final pre-race gel, etc. I thought it would have been fun to see these pre-race activities from above, I'm sure we looked like bees circling and repeatedly entering the porta-potty hives.

I walked through the different pace areas, and settled on the 4:15 pace group (9:45 min/miles) because I wanted to be sure I finished, and this was slower than the marathon pace I trained for. Our pacer, Kristen, was a drill sergeant reborn in a 5-foot, at most 100-pound body. It was her first time as a pacer, which was fine with me, since it was my first time as a marathoner. I had no expectations, which makes it easier to be pleasantly surprised by developments. Kristen was wonderful from the first minute and attracted a nicely-sized herd of runners. She explained to us that she'd do everything in her power to get us to the finish in 4:15, and that's exactly what she did.

After hearing the last stanza of the anthem (the only working loudspeakers were near the start line, so the visible amount of patriotism decreased proportionally to runner speed), we were ready to go! Mass disrobing began, with a few unfortunate almost-misses of thrown sweatshirts. I, on the other hand, carefully removed my trash bag, and placed it gently in a trash can. A few waves later, it was our turn to cross the start line, which we did, to crowd cheers and not a few simian noises. That was the third-most exciting moment of the day, and I savored it as I started my watch.

As we trotted up our first hill in the gentle rain, our pacer entertained us with stories and with comments like "sure, I'd be happy to draft for you!". I didn't see the first three mile markers, and mostly ignored my watch. It was beautiful to just run in the rain and get to know the others in our pace group. Around mile 4, our amazing and diminutive pacer needed a nature break, so she handed the sign to one of us and ran swiftly into an unlocked porta-potty. To almost everyone's amusement, this resulted in a loud double shriek and the rapid ejection of our pacer from the apparently occupied facility. So one of the first marathon lessons learned on the hoof -- just because a porta-potty says it's available, it doesn't mean there isn't someone inside.

A few miles later, I still didn't feel like I was running and could easily breathe with my mouth closed, although I mostly didn't because I was too busy talking with some of the people from our group long runs and a few others I met at the race.  This marathon was small (about 2000 runners), but I think a lot less boring than a city race. For example, we ran on every possible surface -- asphalt, tile, concrete, grass, mud, gravel, and of course, water. We had a single-file section, a drippy overpass section, a "run on the left side and pretend you are in England" section, and many, many wonderful trees to compensate for the severely limited numbers of porta-potties along the way. The miles ticked by with almost no effort, and as we entered a two-way portion of the course, seeing the fastest runners go the other way just added to the fun. Around mile 11, we met one of the BQ pace groups and both their pacer and ours decided to enthusiastically wave their pace signs as we passed each other. In what looked like a medieval jostling match, the pace signs angled just right, the pacers got closer and closer, and then the fast group was past and our pace sign was airborne, flying over our heads and landing in the middle of the trail quite a way back. One of the back runners of our group picked it up and carried it forward to our pacer (who did not stop!), to the sounds of laughter and some muttering: "Of all things, being speared by a pace sign was not what I expected would happen during my marathon!". Yes, running is a dangerous sport.

Nearing the halfway point, we stayed on pace. It felt silly to walk through aid stations, even for the 7-8 seconds our pacer spent walking, but being with the group was good, so we all mimicked her like good little ducklings. And like a good duck mommy, she would call to us and count us after each water stop. Because I had done all my homework on how to drink and eat during the race, I took two cups of gatorade or water at each aid station. This was about as much as I drank during training runs. There was one minor, but important difference this time -- I trained in hot summer weather, and we were racing through the rain with no sun and temperatures in the 50s. So, I was slightly mortified when near the halfway point, I realized that I'd need a bathroom break. I didn't want to get left behind by my pace group, so naturally I sped up in search of that elusive available porta-potty. I met a couple of interesting runners on the way, including a woman who had been running for longer than I've existed (but she must have started at the age of 2 because she looked young!). Over two miles later and several obviously occupied bastions of civilization (some with lines in front -- who in their right mind waits in line during a race!), I decided that I had given civilization a fair chance and briefly reunited with nature. Note to spectators: it is highly disappointing to spot the perfect hidden little area in the woods, only to have two spectators thoughtlessly occupy the only passage into that desirable spot.

After learning my second lesson of the day (tight-fitting wet running clothes are almost impossible to manage with cold fingers), I happily rejoined my pace group, and ran ahead of our pacer for a while, alternating in various pairs. We passed miles 16, 17, and 18 in that fashion, with just slightly more effort than in the first half. Our pacer walked (very briefly) through each aid station, and did the urging/counting after that, and so we went on. By mile 19, most of us were smiling a bit less, but still responding to the few brave and very wet spectators and giving high-fives to the kids who obviously enjoyed this a lot. We all had our names on our bibs, but the letters were pretty small, so I don't think it prompted much specific encouragement by strangers in general. One of the benefits of being in a pace group, however, was that we were more interesting and had a collective name, "4:15s", so we had much support in the form of "Go 4:15s, you are looking awesome!".

Between miles 19 and 20, I had another thing to look forward to. Yes, you guessed it, the Banana. I really didn't feel like eating at that point, but I had gone through so much trouble to make sure it waited for me in that particular spot, that there was no way I'd simply run by and ignore it. So, in a wonderfully executed little swerve while running at the front of our group, I picked it up almost without slowing down. The initial silence from the group (likely thinking "wow, the brain really does go at mile 20, look at her picking up this discarded doggy bag") was followed by impressed exclamations as I freed the banana from its baggie and proceeded to eat it. This was definitely my second biggest achievement for the day.

Mile 20 went mostly unnoticed in the banana excitement and another aid station. Things definitely started getting a bit tougher for most of us. We had lost quite a few of the initial runners in our group, but our pacer was tireless and relentless and kept the rest of us going. We reached a point in the race I knew I'd hate -- a spot where we departed the main trail at around mile 22 to make a little pointless loop which brought us back to the trail near mile 23.   Somehow this felt like extra, unnecessary effort and the mind rebelled. The surprise uphill portion didn't help, but for some reason its unexpectedness made me more angry than discouraged, so I figuratively and literally kicked it's hilly butt and got through it mostly on pace. By this point, our group was passing many walkers, and our pacer did her best to get them to join us. I knew of the joys of fishing late in a race, but I found that passing walkers was not fun at all. Passing runners was definitely a much nicer experience.

By mile 23 most of us had to work pretty hard to keep up with the pacer. I couldn't believe this was the same pace that felt like "not running" earlier in the race. At this point, we had a 5K left, and our pacer no longer walked at aide stations, and so most of us didn't, either. I felt slightly bad for all the volunteers whose offerings we refused. Near mile 25, the pacer told us that we must run the last mile in front of her and that she absolutely had to finish in 4:15. Scary! Initially just two of us obeyed this order (and were hugely praised by her, quite like I praise our puppy when he does the right thing), then a few more passed her, and so we proceeded to run the last mile at the fastest pace of the whole race. About 35 seconds faster, to be precise, so definitely nothing that could be called a sprint. Just running at any speed felt like a rather major accomplishment. The second-most exciting moment, not surprisingly, was seeing and passing the 26 mile marker. And by far the best was running the final tenth of a mile, seeing my family, and then running through the finish with Alex and Anna. John and Anthony joined us and we talked for a while in the rain before heading our separate ways home. I got a chance to thank our amazing pacer, I hope I get to run with her again some time. The whole race was beautifully organized, but hers is the face (and the back) that will likely persist most in my memories of this experience.

Because I met all three of my goals for the race (finish in one piece, in less than 4:30, in less than 4:15), I thought I could find even more things to be happy and grateful about, which was surprisingly easy. I am happy I ran the whole way with the exception of a few seconds at most aid stations and the one nature break. I enjoyed experiencing the race mostly with the same group of people and I'm sure some of us will run together again. I was surprised that the final 10K took less than an hour. I am very grateful I didn't discover "the wall". I was relieved that I didn't see anybody get seriously hurt. Last, but not least, I was extremely happy to see the rest of the family near the finish (foolishly waiting for me for over an hour, thinking that maybe overnight I changed from my plodding self to marathon winner material). It was too long and too short, and I'll definitely do it again.