And now for my next disaster…

Four years ago I watched the women’s 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials race on television and, noting that a few of them were over the age of 40, thought maybe. Maybe. About six months later, when I ran a 3:19, I again thought maybe. Maybe. I embarked on the pursuit of a 2:46 marathon time, believing there was some outside chance I could run that fast one day, despite all evidence to the contrary. I went through two coaches, about 9,000 miles, lots of shoes, and bouts of overtraining and injury. I finally gave up in May.

Over the years this pursuit turned into a chronicling of expectations that have gradually lowered over time. Scratch one race, target another one in six months. Hope I come back from injury. Okay, so I wouldn’t run a qualifying time at all. But maybe I could get the first masters award in the 5K race in Houston that weekend. At least I could go interview some professional elites. But I got turned down for a media pass. Okay, so maybe I’ll just interview some of the amateur elite runners I know who will be there. Or at least meet them for dinner. Drinks? Anything? Okay, if not, I’ll just go watch the Trials then.

In the meantime, my partner in running, travel and life was beset by his own injuries and setbacks. A rock placed in his path by some mischievous running valkyrie on a 20 miler resulted in a sprained ankle mid-training cycle, then a compensatory injury in his quad. This was on top of years of injuries. So rather than running the stellar comeback marathon he’d planned, his sights were on just running a halfway decent pace and finishing in one piece.

We got to Houston on Thursday the 12th. Had dinner. Slept. Got up. Had breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Went out to buy groceries, $92 worth of food and drink for a long racing weekend. We even bought extra beer to host people with, just in case. Entering our hotel room, I saw the red message light blinking on the room phone. I figured it was hotel management pushing room service or something, but it was a terse message from my sister to call her as soon as possible. I put down the phone and said to Jonathan, “Something terrible has happened. I am about to get some bad news. You need to prepare yourself.”

And I did indeed get bad news, on Friday the 13th. My father had been killed in a car accident near his home on Long Island while we were out buying $92 worth of groceries.

I won’t go into all of that here.

We left immediately to come back east and spend the long weekend closer to home, with family and family friends. On Tuesday afternoon we got back to our house in Yonkers. That evening, in a daze, I watched the Marathon Trials coverage, dutifully recorded for us by Tivo. I looked for my Houston Hopefuls, the runners whom I’d interviewed (or just meant to interview),  the handful of women who had both carried and achieved the dream. I didn’t see them, but that didn’t surprise me because they wouldn’t be in the front of the pack. Then I looked at Jaymee Marty’s blog post about the Trials. Jaymee (whom I had so hoped to meet up with in Houston) finished last, and she ran most of the way with Susan Loken, who had also been hobbled by injuries. Both started the race with Ruth Perkins, who was running with a sacral stress fracture, the same injury I had in 2010. Perkins would drop out early.

Marty, Loken and Perkins

These two women, Loken and Marty, bookended my experience as a Trials wannabe. Susan was the first masters runner whom I followed, as the face of the now-defunct More Marathon, the late-starter masters runner, someone who took up jogging in her thirties to get in shape, who went on to run in the 2004 Trials (at the age of 40) and 2008 Trials and win multiple masters championship titles. Jaymee was the second masters runner I followed and my first Houston Hopefuls interview — the woman who inspired the series, really. I have followed Jaymee’s running career for at least three years and was elated when she qualified for the trials in Chicago in 2010, the third-oldest first time qualifier in history (sorry, Jaymee; that’s not a backhanded compliment, just a fact). Not only did both of these women make the Trials, but they are also both phenomenal runners when they are running well. But now, here they both had been, struggling just to finish.

And, you know, I’m really proud of them both for running and finishing. But at the same time the whole thing — marathoning, the Trials, setting goals — it just seems like such a giant cosmic joke. You can make all the plans you want, but in the end life is going to happen. And just when you thought you’d lowered your expectations as much as you possibly could — “I’ll just race the 5K and watch the Trials…” — you end up having to lower them even more.

Why do we strive? Why do we set goals? Fate laughs at them sometimes, reminds us of how temporary we all are, and renders our grand plans totally trivial. But what else are we to do?

Race Report: 1st Day 5K

2012 began with a race in balmy temperatures. It was 49F at the start of the 1st Day 5K, a little race in Fair Lawn, NJ that’s part of that state’s USATF Grand Prix series. With that distinction, I figured it would be a good race to use as a final tuneup for Houston since it was likely to be accurately measured and well organized. I was not disappointed in either regard. But what I didn’t expect were the hills. And the wind. Both colluded to rob me of my goal to get close to 20:30 today. I ended up with a 21:11. Meh. But, boy, did I have to work for it.

I decided (on Ewen‘s advice) to look at my watch in the first 1K to ensure that I wasn’t going out too fast. My goal was to run between 4:00-4:06 per kilometer (that’s 6:25-6:36 mile pace). Ha ha. Not today. My average was 4:12 per. But when I look at my kilometer splits and consider the course conditions for each, the data is actually pretty encouraging.

The course was a little turny — probably around eight or nine right angle turns, and a few gentler ones. But the turns weren’t the problem. At the start, I noted the flapping American flag. Wind was coming from east/southeast. Most of the first 3+ K headed either east or south. The race also started with a gradual uphill, and one steeper hop up a side street. I decided to run the first kilometer “conservatively” by trying to stick with 4:06. I managed a 4:08. Running into wind, my pace quickly cratered to 4:21, then 4:18. As we approached the start of the last mile I was struggling mentally. I knew there’d be no bettering my PR of 20:50 a few weeks ago, let alone hitting 20:30ish. I knew I probably wouldn’t even break 21:00 today.

I was so tempted to stop and walk at that point. But I decided to use it as a mental training session instead. I would try to get familiar with this feeling — this tiredness at the 2 mile mark — and make friends with it, make her my running partner. Didn’t Jaymee recommend that recently? I set new, impromptu goals — pass that guy in front of me; don’t let the guy running with the veteran’s flag get too much farther ahead; run the whole race without water and see if it makes any difference.

Once we turned out of the wind, things looked up. My pace dropped to 4:15 for the fourth K. There were two men running ahead of me, although I swear to God I thought one of them was a woman. A sturdy woman. This runner held fat in very womanly locations, so I just thought it was a short-haired woman who was built like a brick shithouse. Like me! “She” also had short hair, and had the mildly compromised skin elasticity that suggested a period on the planet of around 40 years. I had no idea how many women were in front of me but I wasn’t going to not pass this masters female.

I passed her, taking a surreptitious peek in the process. And she turned out to be a he. Oh, well. It was the motivation I needed at the time. I managed a 4:00 last kilometer, kicking it in at 3:24/k pace for the .04 extra that I managed to run. I’m glad I wore a Garmin today because otherwise I would have failed to see proof that I can run at 4:00 or faster at the end of a race. That alone was worth the trip and effort.

There were some familiar faces there, too, which I didn’t expect. First, I ran into Ansky and his daughter (AKA L’il Ansky) in the registration line. The last time I saw Ari he was on his way to PR in the Long Island Half as I was having a mile 9 meltdown. It was good to see him under happier, more relaxed circumstances. Then at the start I spied fellow Harrier (and 2nd F overall at the Ho Ho Ho Holiday 5K last month) Shari Klarfeld. Shari won the women’s race, and as a bonus hung out in the home stretch and cheered me on to second place.

The highlights were, as they so often are in smaller races, at the finish. First, when I came in, the guy who was tearing off bib tags was talking to me and I guess I didn’t look so good because he stepped back a foot or two and mumbled, “Uh, oh.” I think he thought I might throw up all over him. My choked laughing at this realization probably didn’t help to correct that misconception.

After getting some water I sat down on the curb to watch other runners coming in. There was the usual mix of people you see in local races. But there was one man whom I was not expecting, a guy with a style all his own. I called him Ali Baba. He was fortyish, with a full beard and mustache.

He was frantically trying to break 29:00. But it wasn’t his finishing speed that I noticed. It was his choice of clothing. On the bottom he wore black MC Hammer pants. I don’t even know where you buy those anymore. On the top he wore a peasant shirt of some sort of semi-transparent material. It was bright yellow. It was also open to the bellybutton, revealing a square foot of chest hair that rivaled Karastan for its luxurious mat. But the crowning sartorial achievement was found on his feet. He was shod in what I think was some kind of bullshit barefoot running shoes. All I know is that he shouldn’t have worn socks because they caused one Vibram ballet flat to go flying off right at the finish.

So. Now you know. I am a terrible person. I laugh at people at race finish lines. (But only people who deserve to be laughed at.)

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