So, I gradually got over myself after my spectacular blowup, cramping, and walk of Personal Worst shame at the Birmingham Mercedes Marathon back in February. I mean, it’s just a marathon, right? It’s not like you can’t take a few naps, eat some crap, drink 54-ounce beers for a week or so, regroup, and begin training all over again. After all, there’s a marathon taking place somewhere every 15 minutes. So I gauged how long it would take me to sort of forget Birmingham, estimated about 15 weeks, and picked out an early June marathon in Michigan.
Why Michigan, you ask?
The description of the course and weather seemed reasonable enough, and it was in Ann Arbor where I lived during a handful of my post-tot/pre-teen years, so I thought it might be fun to run around a town where most of my distant memories evoked super-relaxing things like my pet canary, ice skating, the Partridge Family, Space Food Sticks, and Green Acres. Plus, KoB and Amy were going too, so laughs and fun out the wazoo were guaranteed no matter what the outcome of the race might be. Happily, there was also a half marathon, so Cheryl joined in, too. (She wasn’t ready to commit to another marathon yet because, apparently, she has a functioning brain.)
The training cycle went noticeably better than the one leading up to Birmingham. Long runs finally felt like they used to feel, my mileage was higher, paces faster, and a couple of decent races were run during the buildup. And I think I had been a tad cavalier about marathons prior to Birmingham, so I committed myself to being mentally a little more ass-kissy toward the distance as I prepared this time. During taper, I became respectably angsty and even enjoyed a severe phantom pain in my knee, obligatory bouts of GI distress, and undue snappishness. This marathon was going to be GREAT!
Race morning dawned a touch more humid than one might appreciate when facing trotting 26.2 miles, but it seemed okay. I felt fairly normal (I mean, for me), and my outfit was astoundingly color coordinated, complete with shoe laces the color of Pepto-Bismol that made the purple in my visor simply pop! There was a pleasant breeze, and everyone (all 400 of us) looked cheery in spite of their tragic Michigan post-winter vampiric complexions. Some dude sang a super-dramatic Star Spangled Banner as we gathered in front of the Michigan Stadium (Go Blue or whatever), I wished Cheryl good luck in her half which wouldn’t start for another hour (wtf?), and then we were off.
I’ve never followed a pace group before, but I had decided to go out with the 3:55 group. It was a slower pace than what I had targeted for marathon pace in training, but I wanted to try and do something really insane like have even splits and possibly a negative split for the first time ever in a marathon. Furthermore, I liked the concept of maybe not feeling like raging death on a stick for the final few miles. And my main objective in this marathon was (aside from redeeming the horror of Birmingham) to get a BQ minus at least 5 minutes. So I joined the gaggle behind 3:55 Pacer Dude, and hoped I was making the right decision and that no one would talk to me even though I was part of a “group” (ugh) now.
It was fairly hard for me to believe that we were running anything faster than a 10-minute pace at first, it felt that easy. But Pacer Dude kept up a just-this-side-of-shut-the-fuck-up chatter of announcements about how the pace was dead on and how great we all were and so on. We actually kept closer to 8:45 for the first several miles, and everything was dandy. We cruised through a few hills, out by a river (I think), around a park, up a moderately hideous and endless parkway, and then back down it. At the 13-mile mark, the tidal wave of half marathoners joined us which made for some weaving and profanities and a jackass who ran right into the back of me at a water stop. *SIGH* Still, I felt good and was beginning to sort of allow myself to think that this marathon was going to work. I felt significantly better than I had at mile 13 in Birmingham.
Then came a really ridiculous long corkscrew uphill on a trail around mile 17, for the love of God. It was a quagmire of people walking and even stopping (!!), and Pacer Dude pulled ahead maybe 50 yards…Vague panic for a moment, but I had figured out by that point that he attacked the hills and then let up a bit on the flats, so I knew I could catch back up during the next mile. At the top of the hill, I got some water and managed to make a spectacular mess with a gel, including some attractive sputtering when the water went up my nose. Nice! Pacer was up ahead getting ready to turn a corner, so I took off like a mad woman.
At this juncture of the race report, let’s take just a moment to reflect on common nightmares distance runners have, shall we? How about the one where you’re running along in a race, doing pretty well and getting excited about how it’s going, and then suddenly and totally unexpectedly, you don’t know where to go. Isn’t that a fun recurring runner’s dream? As the dream progresses, you realize you’re not on course. You frantically bark out questions to people nearby, and they give you vague and unhelpful directions in scary monotones. In your head, a mocking clock loudly ticks away valuable seconds as you spin around to look behind, then in front, then back, and finally at the steady stream of other runners who, you realize with a sinking black dread, are not in the same race as you.
Welcome to my nightmare at about mile 18-something.
Somewhere between working to catch up with the pacer and entering the growing mind-blur of the last third of a marathon, I had missed the turn where the marathoners split from the half marathoners. I have zilch recollection of that moment, but I suppose I had just followed the other runners in front of me and kept on going. I do remember wondering where on earth mile 18 was and why the pacer was no longer in sight. I kept looking at my watch, thinking I must have slowed down drastically even though I felt like I had picked up the pace. Then I saw the mile 13 marker up ahead. And then the field with the finish lines beyond that. And then…oh hells no.
I asked a volunteer where the marathon course was, and she looked at me like I had 4 heads and then kind of smiled at me sympathetically. I bellowed, “I’m in the fucking marathon! Where do I go??” Two other volunteers kind of backed away from me in moderate alarm and pointed toward the finish. “Straight ahead! You’re almost there! You’re doing great!”
I harbored this splinter of ridiculously inane hope that the marathon course did, in fact, cross the finish line and then kept on going for another 7.5 miles, returning back to the finish again. I mean, that would make sense, right? Good grief. But as I came in and everyone was staring at me and clapping and the announcer excitedly said my name (as if some old chick in a purple visor and a gel mess had just run a 2:50 marathon! Come ON, people!!), I realized it was over. I just stopped and walked sideways out of the finishing chute while shouting a few things I probably should regret if I could actually remember what I said. Someone handed me a finisher’s medal, and I just dropped it on the ground and kept walking out into the field trying to get away from everyone.
At some point, a volunteer grabbed me by the arm and dragged me over to the race director who was already “discussing” my same issue with 2 other people who had missed the turn. I had calmed down a little by then, but the RD’s utter lack of understanding about what had happened (“So you only ran the half?” “Oh, I see. You must have cut the course short.”) kind of reinvigorated my hackles. Apparently, a couple small signs and a volunteer waving her arm had been missed by other runners too. FFS.
Anyway, there you have it. In 35 years of racing, that was a first. I think I was misdirected by a cop in a 5K back when I was 24, but that didn’t have quite the same sting.
Even so, I wasn’t even off the field before I began thinking, “So, what’s next, then?” I mean, it’s just a marathon, right? It’s not like I can’t take a few naps and drink a tankard of bourbon and then begin training all over again.