5 May 2013 – 16:11
The day began cool, in the mid 30s, with they sky clear and the air still. The former would last throughout the day, but the latter would kick in shortly after the race started.
I arrived at the start with four members of my relay team. We were on the last bus to leave and so found ourselves in the end of the line for the port-a-potties. Standing in these lines is a right of passage for any race. Talking about the port-a-potties, their cleanliness or how many are available, is som ething we all like to do. Standing in that line is a pre-race ritual, like stretching or retying a shoe lace or swallowing that last bit of water. No marathoner wants to start a race with either of the B’s (bladder or bowel) full. I stood in line as as the line grew shorter and shorter the starting line became more crowded.
Seeing it from afar, I realized how small this race really was. Race organizers had increased the total number of available marathon spots to 300, though I don’t know whether the race maxed out or not. Combined with the 100 or so runners for the 5-person relay teams, the numbers here looked a lot like the numbers at the start of the Javelina Jundred. More people run a 5 mile race in New York City’s Central Park than were even registered for this event. For that matter, nearly as many people run a 5 mile race in Central Park as live in the Shiprock area!
After my pre-race pit stop, I dropped my bag in the back of a black pickup and raced away to the start. I saw a couple of runners from the Dine College cross-country team and asked about their coach. I’ve run with the team a few times and have enjoyed it tremendously. Unfortunately, I haven’t made enough time to do it more, but that’s been my choice. Having a kid at home means I have had to sacrifice things like that, but I’m happy with my choices. I’m happy with where I am and happy with what I have done while I’ve been out here.
The First 8–Hills:
I missed the singing of the national anthem, and the playing of drums, but I didn’t miss the start. Just a man with a microphone who said, “Go!” And we were off. The first two miles of the course were uphill and lead to the highest elevation on the whole route, just above 6000 feet. JZ passed me, plodding, methodical, her rhythmic steps and running form like a metronome. She looked strong. My neighbor, A, running only his third marathon, was gone as well. I took my time, made my slow way up the long first hill. At the top I skipped the first water station since I had decided to do the Javelina thing and carry my own hydration. I would wind up skipping most of the aid stations until about 15 when I needed to refill my bottles.
The scenery was spectacular, and while I knew this would probably be my second slowest marathon ever, I set out to simply enjoy myself, run strong and consistent, and keep moving forward. I chatted with a couple who were born in Shiprock but now live in Flagstaff. He had run this same marathon last year, which was his first, and since then he’d run three more. In one year he was already running his fifth marathon. “It’s addictive,” I said. Soon he separated from his companion whom I ran with for a couple miles. She had never run this race before, so I gave her some tips that I’d learned from last year.
“The race will thin out after you pass the first five mile marker at the relay exchange,” I said. “Afterwards you’ll be running a lot by yourself. After about 18 miles, you’ll begin to pass the slower half-marathoners and when you feel like stopping you can tell yourself that you’re passing people who’ve run less than half the distance you have and maybe it’ll make you feel better. Be cautious of the last six. They may be all downhill, but it’s still six miles to go. Don’t think you can coast, and save some quads for the pounding you’ll get in the final two miles.”
Soon it was time for me to turn off at hit another potty, so I bid my companion farewell and mentally prepped myself for slogging through the rest of my race in my own head.
At about mile 7 or so I came upon the World Record holder for the heaviest man ever to complete a marathon. He ran the LA Marathon last year in 9h48m. He was wearing a tye-dyed T-shirt that read “Super Dad” on the back, and as I came up behind him I shook his hand and said, “Super dad, indeed. Good luck!” He didn’t look as big as I had been led to believe by pre-race rumors, and until I read reports about him online I found it hard to believe he was even a sumo wrestler. But he is, and he’s apparently quite a good one. I have a lot more respect for those guys, now. Kelly Gneiting is a dense man with a lot more muscle than fat on his frame.
It’s hard enough to run a marathon, to lace up shoes and get out of the house three to five days a week to get in the training; to mentally prepare for toeing the line and hearing the starting pistol fire, or the man say, “Go!”; hard enough to slog through the miles, one step at a time, knowing the kind of pain you’ll be in at the end, knowing the cramps will probably come and your mind will tell you multiple times that you just have to stop and you have to dig deep and overcome all that, you have to tell yourself you can do this, you can do anything, just keep putting one foot in front of the other. It’s hard enough to do all that, but then to do it with this physical and metaphorical weight on your shoulders, to set out to prove that sumo wrestlers are athletes who have endurance and stamina and strength, both mental and physical. That takes the kind of courage most of us don’t possess, the kind of courage that makes marathons, and the people who run them, amazing athletes and amazing people. We all get up and run ever day, and we all run with and through our demons, and somehow when we get to the end we have overcome those demons, overcome those doubts and those questions and we’ve crossed the finish line. And we’ve won.
These thoughts plowed through my mind as I made my way down the long straightaway that is miles 6 through 10. Around mile 8 I passed a sign for a church, and I mentally marked it as the end of the first part of my race.
The Second 7–Slowing down:
Mentally I wanted to speed up along this long flat stretch of road. Physically I knew I would pay the price later. I made the effort to slow down and, using my Garmin, kept my pace in the 9 minute/mile range. Give or take 30 seconds, I didn’t do bad. I monitored my breathing and ran even up the hills so that I could still keep up a converstation. Not that there was anyone there to talk to. Somewhere around mile 11 or 12 Z caught up with me. I turned to find him climbing the hill steadily behind me and I ran backwards for a couple hundred feet to get a view of the valley behind and chat with him a bit. I slowed down and as we ran together I told him his wife blew past me in the first mile looking like she was going to win the thing. He looked strong, like the sun and the altitude were not having any effect on him. I knew my pace would hold him back, that from here I would keep it at or above 9m/m, so he took off. Before long he was gone.
We passed the Shiprock Wall, dike-like wall called a minette. It literally looks like a wall and stretches from the Shiprock itself (Tsé Bitʼaʼí in Navajo, or Rock With Wings) south along the western edge of Red Valley. Here a long slow climb took us back up to an elevation of almost 6600 feet, past the starting line of the half marathon and the techical halfway point of our race.
For me the halfway came three miles later, just past the fifteen mile marker, where the only medical tent was stationed along the course. Two of my friends were manning the station, and this being mile 15 (the distance of each loop at Javelina) I thought it would be a good time to stop and chat for a minute or so, take a breath, relax, remind myself that I was out here to have fun and not to win any awards. It was nice to see some friendy faces, and I got a laugh when I asked for cortisone or steroid injections in my feet. Soon, though, it was time to move on. I refilled my bottles and waved goodbye, then kept moving.
The Third 6–Making the Turn:
By mile 18 I had caught up with the half marathoners, and I was moving at a slower pace. I’d taken a few pit stops at aid stations, devouring orange slices like they were water. The real test of the marathon was about to begin. The last several miles had been slogs. My legs had turned to lead bricks. Lifting each one was a test of will, a study in the concentration of the mind. Now I was passing the half marathoners, and as I did I urged them on. It is much harder, in my opinion, to run a slow race than to run a fast one. In this climate, with the heat of the sun bearing down on a runner, the longer one is moving over the hot, radiating asphalt, the harder it is to motivate oneself to keep moving forward.
I made the turn at mile 20 and determined not to make the same mental mistake I made last year. It was foremost on my mind: the last six miles are all downhill, so they must be easy, right? Wrong, if only because one still has six miles to run. This was stretch in every marathon, where mettle is tested, where the mind must overcome the matter.
The Final Five–”You are Your Own DJ”:
I knew at this point that making a sub-four hour marathon would be difficult if not impossible. I would have to run these last five miles in less than 35 minutes. That’s sub seven minute miles. On a good day, when I was well trained and in great shape to speed through a marathon, those times might be doable. Today, coming off a couple of injuries, not having run much in four months, I was not prepared for that. So I walked a bit, slowed down, ate more orange slices at the aid stations, cheered on my fellow runners, and focused.
Above a blue sky spreads
Into infinity where whisps of
Clouds first show signs of forming.
A yellow truck rumbles towards me,
Followed by a green one.
I pass a runner and urge her on
While inside my head the voice tells me to stop.
Before me there is only the white line
And my feet falling on it,
First this one, and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one.
And all I see is the white line, and all I hear is the voice in my head.
And all there is and all I see is the white line.
There is not sky, there is no road,
There is no yesterday and no tomorrow,
There is only right now
And there is only the white line
And my steps,
This one, and this one, and this one, and this one.
There is only the white line.
In the middle of my meditation, my focus on the present, on the here and the now, I felt a light touch on my arm, and I jumped out of my skin. I think I may have even screamed a little. A boy, a teenager, no more than 15 years old, sped past me. I could not see his bib. Probably the final leg of a relay team, because that kid would not be passing me from the half marathon.
“Looking good,” he said. “Keep it up.”
I was knocked from my internal dialog, thrown back into the race and back into the world in that moment. Traffic roared around me. Suddenly there were other runners, and I was not alone, and the world was big and I was in it, moving forward, still moving, still running! Amazingly.
And then the cramp. With three miles to go I pulled up lame, at close to the same place I did last year. My left hamstring just tightened up completely. I stopped, stretched. A half marathoner was there and he sympathized. An ambulance slowed and an EMT stuck his head out the window. “You all right?” the EMT said. “I’m fine. Just a cramp.”
I stretched, yelled. “Oh, you little bastard. Come on, stretch out, you.” After about thirty seconds I began to move again. I drank some water and took a couple glasses of Gatorade at the next aid station, and then I determined that this was it, the show would end soon and I was not going to limp across the finish line. Waddling at first, as my legs began to loosen, I moved slowly into a more natural gait. And then I began to sing. At the top of my lungs I began to sing, “The Gambler,” by Kenny Rogers. It’s the first song I ever learned, a song I sang at a talent show when I was in third grade. A song I still remember every word of to this day.
You got to know when to hold ‘em
Know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run!
I was screaming now, my throat hoarse, my mouth getting dry, but I didn’t care. This was my race and I was going to sing my way across that finish line. I sang the song twice, and then I caught my breath for a bit, and then I sang it again, thanking the police officers as I passed. One runner, wearing the brightest orange shoes I have ever seen, said, “You are your own DJ.”
As I made the final turn onto a sandy dirt road I changed tunes. “Defying Gravity” came out of my mouth, and though I couldn’t remember all the words I remembered the most important ones.
And nobody, in all of Oz
No wizard that there is or was
Is ever going to bring me down.
Tell them how I’m defying gravity
I’m flying high defying gravity
And you can’t keep me down!
I ran the last mile in just over 8 minutes, and my pace for the final 0.2 (God Save the Queen!) was a little over 7 minutes per mile. Those were my fastest miles on the whole coarse.
My final finish time was 4:08:38, almost exactly one hour slower than my fastest marathon. That’s what comes from being untrained. Oh well. The important thing: I had a great time out there. And singing myself across the finish was definitely the way to go. My neighbor, A, finished 11th male overall and placed 2nd in his age group. JZ finished 3rd female overall and placed 2nd in her age group, too. I may not have gotten an award, but I’m glad to have seen some of my friends win what they deserved.