April 8, 2014 26 Comments
When people talk about “the ups and downs” of something, they can often mean it literally.
Four years ago, I ran the Go! St. Louis Half Marathon. My cousin Mau had been living in St. Louis for almost a decade, so I made it an excuse to visit him and brought Steph with me. Much to my delight, Mau signed up and trained for the race. I cannot understate enough how special it is for me when someone does that, especially if they weren’t a long distance runner in the first place. It’s like asking someone to join a class, learn the material, and take a grueling test just for the hell of it.
Four years later, I was back at the starting line of the Go! St. Louis Family Fitness Weekend, this time sporting a bright orange marathon bib and an ambitious goal. It won’t be until November that I’ll be able to run a fast marathon, so I set my phasers to Attack.
A few corrals back, Steve, Scott, Greg and Jim were waiting for their own start. Jim was running his third marathon, while Scott and Greg were donning blue half marathon bibs. Steve hadn’t registered for the race and intended to run seven miles before heading back to the hotel, skipping all aid stations and avoiding true banditry. The harsh winds that had bellowed through the Midwest all week were gone, replaced by calm zephyrs from the east.
I joined the 3:25 pace group led by Jordan, whose wife had just recently qualified for Boston at a race called the Circular Logic Marathon. As the name implies, she ran 26.2 laps around a 1-mile loop. If her husband was anywhere near as dedicated, then we were in good hands.
The race starts in the middle of the city, by a cluster of compact parks, facing the famous Gateway Arch. It heads south about three miles and into the Anheuser Busch Brewery before returning to the heart of the city. With the exception of the brewery itself, these opening miles were the least scenic of the entire course. Much of it was run on bridges surrounded by industrial complexes and highways. It wouldn’t be until the 10k mark that we’d return to the city and start the long, undulating trek on Olive Street.
“I remember the hills being brutal,” I told Steve the day before. We had arrived in St. Louis after a long drive from Chicago and were finding a parking spot at St. Louis University. “But seeing them now, they don’t look so bad. I wonder if my memory has altered them because I was such an inexperienced runner four years ago.”
For the time being, I was proving myself right. From start to finish, the stretch on Olive is about 2.4 miles, none of which is flat. I was either springing on my toes upward or stomping downward, the pace group usually nearby. The organizers placed giant, inflatable arches with timing mats around halfway through Olive’s hills, meaning we were about to run up “Holy Hill,” a separately-timed section thrown in for the hell of it (pun squarely intended). The loud, celestial knells of Christ Church Cathedral rang across Olive and there was even a priest throwing consecrated rice onto runners as they ran through the arch.
The journey on Olive was characteristic of the rest of the race. Not only was it unceasingly hilly, but the top of each climb would reveal miles of unraveled course ahead, almost all of it composed of long, concrete waves. It was as if St. Louis had been flat at some point in history, before a giant had clutched both ends of the city and pushed them towards each other.
Around mile 10, the course finally flattened out on Forest Park Avenue. I turned onto the boulevard, anticipating the beautiful spring colors that welcomed me in 2010, but found only dead trees on the divider. The harsh winter certainly hit everywhere.
Once the half marathoners were split from the course, our pace group became the only cluster of people for miles. We were a tight pack with our own gravity. Some runners were experienced and a bit too garrulous, others camouflaged themselves by never speaking a word.
The avenue became a highway, cutting through the corner of Forest Park, one of the largest urban parks in the country, which houses the St. Louis Zoo, the Science Center and various museums. But we weren’t at the scenic area yet, instead quite literally running on a two-lane highway. It felt a little surreal, if not dangerous, as if a speeding car could have turned the corner at any second and plowed through us.
For the next four miles, we would trace a spaghetti path through the park, which was so large that it was difficult to think a large city was just a few miles away. We crossed the halfway mark in 1:42 and I couldn’t help but smile. Four years ago, I finished the half marathon in 1:46 and almost collapsed at the end. But my smile was short-lived. For though the pace group had been talking about dogs, last year’s Boston Marathon, and funny spectator signs, I was choosing to stay silent. It was no longer easy to tackle each new hill with the same élan as before.
“So how do you do hill training in Chicago?” an Australian named Tim asked me as we left Forest Park and began a steady climb on Forsyth Boulevard. It was almost as if he could hear the strain in my breathing and had picked out the dog among wolves.
“I don’t,” I replied between gasps.
But I should. I’ve done a handful of hill repeats on the treadmill but honest to Haile I hate them. I would rather run up a mountain or run the same hill 30 times than dial up a treadmill a few degrees. I’ll do interval runs indoors, knock out mile repeats and pyramid drills happily. But hills on a treadmill suck the enjoyment out of running. And it was precisely that unwillingness to do what it takes that led to my eventual demise.
Forsyth Boulevard cuts straight through Washington University in St. Louis, where my cousin earned his undergraduate degree. I had but a few seconds to soak it all in before we were past it. Jordan and his pack had pulled ahead of me as I stopped for an aid station. We reached downtown Clayton, the course’s western border. At the turnaround, I had bridged the gap to the pace group to just a few seconds.
Until the next hill. I couldn’t keep my legs turning fast enough to stay with them and I had to give up the chase. The next two and a half miles were an eastward slog down Delmar Boulevard. From the beginning of this portion, you can see for miles, and I could practically hear the course itself laughing at me. It’s not exactly empowering to see the endless course before you when your body is screaming at you to quit. At the very least, Delmar starts downhill as a tree-covered residential area before transforming into a small town. I ran through this never-ending stretch almost perfunctorily, with most of my drive having been drained by the ups.
It was my calves. I was breathing normally, my heart wasn’t exploding in my chest, and my quads (the usual suspects) were shoveling coal like champions. But the constant change in slope had punished my calves, with each step attenuating them until my gait was reduced to a dodder.
I kept seeing the same people. A young woman with a white Arkansas Grand Prix shirt would run faster than me, but stop and walk frequently. Opting for a similar strategy, a tall gentleman with a yellow Marathon Maniacs singlet would cruise by me only to stop at every uphill and let me pass him. We continued this dance of perpetual exchange as Forest Park Avenue became Market Street for the final stretch. I looked ahead.
No, that doesn’t look right.
Unless my eyes were deceiving me, the finish banner was perched at the end of a hill, another damn hill. While there was a definitive crowd of people running toward it, I didn’t see many running up its face. Maybe there was a turn in between that I couldn’t see yet. But as I approached the familiar din of the city, the hard truth became undeniable. As if to remind us that no prize worth having is easy to earn, we would have one last hill to crest before finishing this race.
I managed to climb out of the depths of my ever-languishing pace, pumping my arms and pulling my legs up with enough brio to disguise the pain in my lower body. Once at the top, with the blue finishing banner just up ahead, I let momentum carry me to the finish. I must have looked confident and strong, but it was all theater. I heard my name announced on the loudspeakers before crossing the timing mats of my twenty-first marathon in 3:31:53.
Perhaps it was overconfidence that killed my chances at a PR. I thought that experience alone would allow me to conquer the course, that time on my feet over the years would somehow translate to a better performance. But that, as George R. R. Martin might say, is a mummer’s farce. St. Louis isn’t flat and my unwillingness to specifically train for that challenge effectively shattered my armor. But with the colorful medal and ribbon resting on my chest and my fifth fastest marathon time in the books, I couldn’t be too hard on myself.
Plus, this race marked the beginning of a future goal. When I began my quest to run all fifty states, I was focused intently on half marathons. The full distance was far too demanding, appearing only now and then in my schedule like a church spire in a small town. But in the last two years, as I’ve become more comfortable with the challenge, more able to handle the pain, I’ve opted for the full distance instead. Eventually, I will want to re-visit all the states that I’ve colored in half marathon green and welcome them to the marathon club.
Missouri wasn’t the first state to achieve that special red color on my map (that honor belongs to Florida, and later Wisconsin), but it is the first that I’ve done exclusively for this purpose. Because let’s face it, there is always a bigger challenge, a tougher goal or simply another new experience on the horizon. Hills may disguise the path, offering us a potential end to the anguish. But those of us who lace up for the long run know that the top of a climb isn’t a rest stop, and even finish lines don’t mean we should stop running.