This isn’t something you just do on a whim. There are many things in life that you do on a whim, but a marathon, to me at least, is not one. No, this required a training plan, careful attention to laying it out and then the studious care to follow at least some of it, until you get tired of that and just kind of find yourself waiting for the thing to be here and then wonder how you’ll hold up, right up until the first 14 or so miles.
And that run-on sentence was pretty indicative of my training. We started in November, just as I was getting over a two-week head cold and the weather turned. We started precisely then, in fact. And I followed along with the big parts of the workouts as my schedule and ambition allowed. I made it up to the 18-mile run, anyway, and then had no energy the next week for the 20-miler and then got sick and then it was time to taper in advance of the big run, which was yesterday.
And so there it was, at 6:30 a.m. in California, on a morning that saw the forecasts call for more rain and cold the closer we got, getting off of a school bus just as the rain stopped.
The race director welcomed us, another individual offered an invocation of sorts and a local man worked his way through the national anthem. All of this time we intrepid runners stood shivering, trying to stay loose, or get loose. And I refused to think about the 26.2 miles in front of me by, instead, being happy I didn’t have to swim first. At least, I smiled to myself, I wasn’t going to drown out here.
We found ourselves here because The Yankee has a group of fitness friends and they occasionally take a ladies trip to some run or triathlon of some sort. And this time the boys got invited. So there were four women, all lovely people, and two guys. And only the one of us, me, running. I’m not saying I got tricked into this. Not at all. I am saying that when I volunteered to run a marathon with my wife — in solidarity, as you do — in October or November this seemed like a more chivalrous idea. And I assumed there’d be some guys from this group running, too. But that’s OK, some 3,000 other people were taking part, we’ve already divvied up the glory enough.
So we set off under the starting line inflatable at 7 a.m. It was in the low 30s. We were due to run a significant part of the Napa Valley, which is beautiful country and is surrounded on both sides by big hills and small mountains. And in some of those you could see the snow falling. The snow stayed up in the hills, at least. The snow did. But we’ll get to that.
Because we were running on a road and because part of the course was closed to motorists, but not all of it was, people couldn’t run with headphones. That’s not my habit, but many people use them, and the absence of their music or podcasts or ambient tree frog noise recordings could make for a long, boring morning. So people run with friends or, as I learned in the Napa Valley Marathon, they make friends along the way. There’s something of a “We’re all in this together vibe” in my part of the race, which is to say, near the back.
A nice older man from down around Oakland ran with me from mile six or so until mile 14. We had a perfectly entertaining chat, and somehow I can now jog at a reasonable pace and keep up my end of a brief conversation. (The people that can do that mystify me, and that they can annoys me. But suddenly here I was, doing it, too.) He told me all about the marathons he’s run, one in Utah he hopes to do one day to qualify for Boston and he told me about his daughter’s road races. All the while he kept complaining about how this run was hurting him, so many hills and so early in the season and so on. Things he was certainly saying just for my benefit. I didn’t ask his name, or even think to look at his race number so I could look him up later. I just assumed it would come up. Then I took a little stop at the mile-14 aid station and never saw him again. And, in some part of my mind, in the quiet and lonely miles that followed, I reckoned I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that this man I’d been running with was a ghost. Or, maybe, if I made it to the finish line I’d see some creaky old man in a wheelchair point a bony finger at me and wink, just a bit. And then I would realize that this man’s younger spirit was who I was running with. And that I was also in a 1980s television show.
You think up weird stuff when you’re out there sucking wind for too long by yourself, is what I’m saying.
Let’s talk about what fell from the sky. Sometime after I lost my not-at-all non-corporeal running buddy sleet descended from the clouds above. Now, I learned several years ago that walking around in sleet is an utterly demoralizing thing. Running in sleet, however, was kind of grimly humorous. See, one of the ladies in our group had been kind enough to pick up a few cheap sweatshirts for us to use early and discard without having to lose any expensive cold-weather running gear that we hadn’t packed for this trip anyway. It was a thoughtful gesture and my sweatshirt was so nice that I didn’t want to abandon it at an aid station. Besides, once I get warm I’m warm. So long as I keep moving and keep my heart rate up I’m fine. This even works in genuinely cold weather, as I learned in a training run earlier this year when my sweaty hair froze together on a seven-mile jog. But in this run I’d get warm, and then cold, and then warm again, and then cold again. And then the sleet came. We’ll come back to the meteorological happenings.
This race was offered as a good race for the beginning marathoner. You climbed, the literature said, only 99 feet over 26.2 miles and it had a net decent overall. That’s what the propaganda said. That’s what the lies said. Running, you learn pretty early on, is full of lies. The most basic, the worst one and the most frequently uttered lie is “Almost there!” But that’s a story for another day.
It was a fine run, and the scenery was lovely. I took a selfie, and then a guy happened along and offered to take one that wasn’t as good:
That’s an important spot because every step after that was going to be a new personal best. This was how I calculated the day: I knew I could work my way up to 18 miles. And at 18 I could use this glow of a new personal best for at least two miles. Well, after that, its just six more miles, a simple 10K. I can run a 10K with no trouble.
Can I do that after having already run three other 10Ks? That’s the question.
Well, the one thing the propaganda had right was that it is a lovely course, and not bad for beginners. You finally run out of the hills, for the most part, around mile seven. But the problem was the angle of the roads. You found yourself weaving all over both lanes just looking for some flat place to shuffle in the curved banking of the road. Dear California Department of Transportation and the Unified Union of Napa Valley Road Unionists, please give my poor, already-tired feet some place flat to land. That staggering from left to right (the first half of the course was on a closed course and these twisting roads lasted almost that long) was probably how I added the extra half-mile to my run. Because, no, 26.2 miles wasn’t enough for me.
The views though:
And that is after the road had flattened out, when the sun finally peeked out, I’d almost given out and the views were thinning out. So, if you must run a marathon, you could do worse than the Napa Valley Marathon.
I never caught back up with the ghostly friend I’d made. Mostly because the orange slices at the mile-14 aid station were just too good. You know how that goes, you’re approaching some stage of out-of-your-mind hunger and everything is amazing. I stood there scarfing down these slices of oranges a kid is cutting right in front of me and I’m saying things like “Is this orange on some special diet? I bet this orange is juicing! Is there EPO in this? You cut such a good orange! What do you mean this is just a navel orange? I, sir, have had navel oranges in my day and those things are dry, drab slabs of boring fruit flesh compared to what you have so thoughtfully offered me today. I commend you, and the parents who brought you here today, and my family shall sing songs to your produce wizardy generations hence!”
I can’t imagine how the guy I was running with managed to get away from me.
But, around mile 20, just about the time I took the scenic picture above, right as I was bored thinking about how every step was now a new personal best, I caught up with Cristina:
I passed her, she passed me, I passed her again and, for a moment I thought it was going to be like that to the end, which would have been no fun at all. But Cristina, you see, was really suffering. Her knee was hurting — I looked at her times after the race and she had been hustling — and she was really limping it back in.
I happened to be carrying some Ibuprofen for just such an occasion and offered some to her. She asked what dosage they were and I knew I had a friend. So I decided to run with her a bit, because you could see the pain on her face and I thought maybe I could distract her for a while. Soon after, we passed her husband and a few friends who were cheering her on. She waved at them and said, “He gave me Ibuprofen!” She was running on grit.
Which meant I was invested. So I spent two or three miles trying to say every inane and long-winded thing I could think of to keep her mind off of her leg. Cristina told me she was a nurse and that she thought she might have torn her meniscus midway through the day. She had just had a child and her husband works in the oil industry and she really wanted me to drop her and press on. But I refused. I gently goaded her on, not that she needed it much, because she was determined to not get on the support van, no matter how badly her knee hurt, and her knee hurt. She wanted me to run on without her, but I’d walk a few paces with her instead and then start jogging again, so she would, too. “You’re from Texas,” I said, “and I’m from the South, so you’ll appreciate this, but we’re going to the line together and you’re finishing first.”
She’d run and then she’d have to walk and she would ask me to go on, but I wasn’t interested. We passed a few people and she’d walk and then she’d look at her watch and she’d shuffle and run some more.
And then, at the 25-mile sign, she got a surge of energy and the pain went away and she ran, she just about flew, and that was awesome. And then it started hailing on us.
Hail. Really quite big hail. Of a size that, you’d see it falling around you and think, “That’s going to sting in a minute when it hits me.” And then you think, “You know, back home, when it hails this time of year you shouldn’t be outside.” And then you’d think, “That’s an awful lot of hail on the road. This is going to become a slippery hazard in a minute.” And by then you’re bracing for some big chunks of ice to hit you and hurt. And one hit the bill of my cap, but I didn’t feel any more pieces hit me in the last mile. And it hailed a great deal.
Cristina finished strong and gave me a hug and I said something about how she did a great job getting through it. I wish I remembered precisely what I said, because you want that to be meaningful, but I was also wondering whether I could continue to stand up. I’ll have to look her up later and ask about her knee.
Meanwhile, also running, the coolest person in the marathon:
We’d run together for the first few miles and then we got separated in a big clutch of people. I expected to outpace her by a small amount anyway, so I continued on. She said she didn’t lose sight of me until around the 10th mile, which must have meant a great bunch of splits for her. I was running below my training averages for the first 20 miles, at least. Anyway, I’d just gathered my wits about me in time to see her finish, which was easily the best part of my day.
I think she said at one point “I never want to do that again.” If that holds up that’s fine, she pretty well crushed the thing her first time out.
So, naturally, we’ll soon begin training for a full triathlon which is anchored by, yep, a full marathon.
That’s the course we ran. Oh, one of her training friends broke the four-hour mark, which is a sign of impressive accomplishment in the marathon. Another said she realized it wasn’t a day to press and proceeded to have a lovely run which, to me at least, is the point. And the other was looking for a Boston Marathon qualifying time. She hurt her foot a bit, so she missed out on that. (This time.) But get this, she hurt her foot, stayed in a medical tent for 20 minutes and still set a new personal record. That is, hands down, even more impressive to me, than hitting a qualifying time. So everyone, you see, was successful. And now everyone is sore and pleased with themselves.
I had a cheeseburger for lunch yesterday and a salad for dinner. I ran a marathon that morning.
I do not know what is happening.