Uphill Battle: Part II
By: Asia Shah
Where were we? Oh yeah! The gun sounded.
And the 2012 California International Marathon had begun, YAY. The mob of runners moved slowly at first to get up to and past the starting mats, at which point it was still impossible to pick up the pace due to the traffic. If there is one thing I learned after years of running cross-country and track it’s that you must have sharp elbows and be willing to use them when things get dicey in a race. However, even with my superior defensive skills I was quickly turned into a human pinball within the first few miles. Many threats are abound when you have thousands of cold-crazed, hyper-competitive, taper-anxious runners in the space of one narrow road. Even though I figured the runners who had ziplocked their bodies into plastic would eventually discard some of their ineffective layers, I did not count on just how many of them would do so within the first three miles. Bags were flying, ponchos whipping over, under, and beside us, and there was little time to prepare for such hurdles. I saw at least two people go down due to a most unfortunate plastic bag ambush. Fortunately, a few nice people yelled warnings when these rogue bags would come flying, but for the most part keeping the eyes akimbo was about all we could do. It took a surprising amount of effort and timing just to get positioned so that our little pack of Kam, Jim, and I, was actually running together. I kept waiting for the race to thin out a bit so that we had space to run without being impeded, however this too took far longer than I remembered from two years ago. Eventually, we were running with a bit more freedom to move about the road and plenty of big guys to draft off of. Our splits were also around where we had planned, faster even. The 3:05 group had gotten away from us during the first miles of survival and by the time we got to mile three they were gone. This was somewhat curious considering we had run all of our miles significantly (by this I mean 10-20 second per mile) faster than 3:05 pace. They weren’t kidding when they said they were going to bank time!
About six miles into the race we made a hard left turn onto a road that would be our friend for at least the next five miles. This also happened to mean that we would be running directly into the wind. The 35 MPH wind, that is. Oh, and did I mention that it is uphill? To say that my race went south in an instant would be pretty close to accurate. Another truth is that I was not built to fight heavy winds, no sir. This was the factor that most worried me before the race and it was laughing in my face, literally, as we made our way South. For the next few miles I ignored my splits and Kamran and I maneuvered around other people and each other in an attempt to draft as much as possible. To add a bit more torture to my plod I could see the 3:05 group up ahead and boy was it big and likely quite a good wind blocker. I wanted to catch up sooo bad!! I felt that if we could just close that gap and tuck in right behind that group as Jim had, then maybe we could hold on and survive through the wind and rain. Welllll, we never made it to the pace group. Around mile eight my trusty hat went flying from my head with no hope for retrieval. It had been set three sizes too small for my noggin and my ponytail threaded through the back and it still flew off my head like nothing. My first thought was that it would be annoying but wouldn’t really matter much considering I was already sopping. My second thought was about how unpleasant it is to be gouged in the eyeballs by needles and droplets of hydrochloric acid. Some guy next to me yelled “HAIL!” and I nearly scissor-kicked his ass right there. His excitement was not shared. But, we were still running, attempting to fall in with groups as they passed by, and hoping for a reprieve from the wind. With my foot hurting quite badly from running in shoes that turned into mush when drenched and the fact that this run was now about running just to finish, we had a decision to make. It was either finish this as an easy run or save something and race next week. Every ounce of my being wanted to finish the race out of principle, but those same ounces knew that just finishing was not what I had gone there to do. Due to the conditions, the effort to even just run easy was significant enough that it would jeopardize the possibility of racing the following weekend. I regretted not making a cut and dry (haaa dry!) plan as to how and when we would make this decision. Ultimately, the fear that finishing might mess up my foot, making not only another race questionable but also my health for next season, made the decision simple. Simple, but still not easy. Even dropping out intentionally and with prior plans to do so tastes sort of like swallowing vinegar, which I can attest to because as a child I accidentally swallowed a cup of vinegar……..
At the mile 13 medical tent there were a few guys taking chips and supporting those who were stopping the run. There was a guy already shivering his ass off under a tin-foil blanket when we got there. Due to what I can only call “poor planning” they had absolutely nothing at this tent, so the nice helper took us inside the auto shop we were standing in front of. This is where I got a swanky size mens XXL bright green T-shirt with doggies and kitties on it. Why the auto body shop had an abundance of these shirts in the back I do not know, but I was getting cold, so I took it with a smile. Mmm smells like dust-mites. We decide to call a cab because Kam is a super genius and carried $60 with him. Before long there was a sag bus that had come to rescue us, or so we were told, so we bagged the cab idea. We got on the bus, parked kitty corner to the race course in a parking lot, with about six other cold and dejected runners. At this point, I thought we were saved and that we would now take a nice Sunday drive the remaining 13 miles down to Sacramento, home of our hotel and warm clothes. Yeah, not so much. After about twenty minutes another passenger on the bus to hell decided to go on a pilgrimage for coffee, since we were told that we may not move until AFTER the race.
What??! This man who bringeth coffee became the messiah of the bus, carrying hot black liquid that would cure us all and make us believe in our ability to stave off hypothermia before making it to our hotels. The one drawback, as I would later learn, is that drinking coffee and not having peed for about five hours is rough when the school bus pulls away from shore. Speaking of shore, we also got to witness a car get submerged in a ditch and then precariously rescued by a Jeep. Much commentary was made from within our bus as we all huddled up looking out the windshield at the scene like it was a freaking Law & Order episode unfolding before our eyes. Our bus driver was a particularly interesting fellow and had lots of emphysemic laughter for the men trying to riddle out how to get the car free of the ditch-lake. Somehow, he managed to chain smoke throughout our, oh three-hour encounter, which is a feat when it is down pouring with heavy winds and you can’t smoke on a school bus. Due to the crackling dispatcher yelling at him often, I came to know him as Lenny. This name seemed perfect somehow.
After around 1.5 hours of waiting, Lenny got the go ahead to “sag” BEHIND the race and pick up anyone who looked like hell along the way. Now, it turns out that most people who run a marathon in this kind of weather, and particularly after the halfway point, look like shit. I gotta hand it to Lenny though, he was being one of those people you hear about, “nice” or something, by idling creepily besides runners and making sure they didn’t need a ride. Now, generosity aside, this was KILLING those of us freezing our remaining pride off inside the bus. Not to mention that by this point, that coffee I mentioned before, went from fruit of the gods to the nectar of my bladder. Finally, a young woman sitting beside us on the bus yells out “I AM NOT OK! I NEED TO GET BACK! I AM NOT FEELING OK!!” This was in direct response to the radio dispatcher who had told Lenny, now going an aggressive 6 Mph, that if everyone was ok he should just continue to sag until the finish line (another 12 miles). Fortunately, this woman’s plea worked and the plan was for us to switch buses at mile 20 and then head straight downtown on the highway. HIGHWAY!
Our new bus required us to stand as it was nearly full of marathon refugees by this point. The ride took an extra long time because part of the highway was flooded, so things were getting dicey for me as I STILL had not seen a bathroom. Kam had kept the coffee cup and when I noticed this I decided it might be the answer. There was an empty seat and we whispered about me going in there and taking care of it when a woman sitting in front of us offered to hold her tin-foil blankie as a shield for me while I peed. Several people offered their support and said they did not mind at all if I peed in a cup. I was among friends. My heart felt warm. However, we passed the highway flood and began cooking with gas, so I decided to limit myself to one public urination experience for the day. Getting off that damn bus was awesome. Obviously, it is great that races have such services, but the logistics and timing were mucho disappointing. Once back at the hotel, showered, clothed, and warm, I looked out the window at the lovely sunny sky unfolding, drying the pneumonia-filled lungs, pruned fingers, and tear-streaked faces of the runners below.
Clearly, this scenario was far from anything we had imagined when stepping to the start line. The redeeming factor in all of this was that my coach had gotten me into a marathon in College Station, TX just one week later. Surely, I could recover from my CIM “experience”, sharpen and taper-up, and go for a solid race in one week’s time. I had even run the inaugural race the year before, so I had an idea of what the course would hold. This race was the thing that kept me going for one last week after CIM because it was my opportunity to finish the season right, with a big ole’ PR.