Sunday, June 22, 1997

1997 Mayor's Midnight Sun Marathon
Anchorage, Alaska
June 21, 1997

my first race!

I was first introduced to the Mayor's Midnight Sun Marathon in Anchorage as a part of the Leukemia Society of America (now the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society) Team in Training program. The concept is relatively simple - participants agree to raise funds for leukemia research, and in return they get coaching and support in walking or running a marathon. In my case, part of the draw was that I had an old friend from college living in Anchorage and this seemed like a good way to go there. The thought of walking 26.2 miles didn't seem particularly daunting... I was in moderately decent shape as a result of doing a lot of cycling... and my original plan was to walk the route.

So I set about raising $3600 - not as awful as it seems, because I was able to ask for donations from the families of students at the private school I was working at, and many of them were quite wealthy. (With their help, in the end I raised $4200.) I also set about making arrangements to stay past the four days of the Team in Training trip - after all, I could stay at my friend's place for free, and it didn't cost anything to have my return ticket dated for a week after the rest of the group was returning. All in all, it seemed like a nice vacation to look forward to in Alaska.

Except somewhere along the line I began wondering if I could actually run the marathon. Now, when most people talk about trying to run a marathon, their friends look at them as though they're crazy. 26.2 miles is a long way to run. In my case, the thought was even crazier, for one very simple reason: I wasn't a runner. The most I'd ever done was a half mile through the combat course at karate camp or maybe a lap around the practice fields during karate class. I was a cyclist, not a runner. But as I thought about it more and more, I realized that I wanted the challenge of running the marathon. And after all - the summer before I'd worked up to 200+ miles a week riding my bike. I figured I could ride a lot to build up my overall endurance and do some running to get my legs used to that type of movement, and between the two I'd run a marathon, and then never run again.

Being totally ignorant, I went out for my first run in March - I "ran" four miles. (I've since been told I probably should have started out with a shorter distance.) The main thing I remember about that run is that it was slow going (I think it took me 45 minutes or so) and it hurt like hell. I was sore for a week afterwards. That started me wondering what I had gotten myself into...

I consulted Grand Master Crandall, who'd run several marathons, and he gave me a basic training program: three runs a week, one short, one medium, and one long, with my long runs increasing by 1-2 miles a week. He also gave me some info about tapering. (And when he tried to recruit me to run with the AMAI team for the Utica Boilermaker that summer, I said no, I wasn't planning to run at all after the marathon.) I also consulted with a friend in Connecticut who had run numerous marathons. She not only helped me with some of my training plans but also took me to the local running store where I purchased my first pair of running shoes - Adidas Argonauts, I believe.

So I ran. And ran. And ran. The shorter and medium length runs improved over time, but the long runs always hurt like hell. I'm talking hours of pure misery. Once I started hitting 10+ miles for my long runs, I began having serious problems with blisters. I remember hobbling along for the last miles of painful long runs feeling like white-hot needles were being jammed into my feet every time they hit the pavement. My goal on my long runs was simple - finish upright. Those long runs were bloody awful. I did the last one, a 21-22 miler, over Memorial Day weekend, and it was the most miserable and painful of the lot. It took me over 5 hours, and left me thinking that I had a long, miserable time ahead of me in Anchorage.

Tapering for three weeks before the race was scary - it felt like all my work was draining away. But I trusted the various folks I talked to about it, and kept the mileage low.

We flew into Anchorage on Thursday, picked up our race packets and did touristy-type things on Friday... actually, I seem to remember spending part of the day visiting with my friend and attempting to see part of the marathon course. There was a dinner that night for all the Team in Training folks... a relatively famous runner spoke at it (for some reason I'm thinking it was Frank Shorter, but back then I knew zip about running and runners... it's actually pretty funny looking back on it now!) The main thing I remember about that dinner was the absolute lack of food... as my runs got longer and longer, my appetite had skyrocketed to the point where I was eating four full meals a day, and the miniscule portions at that dinner were barely an appetizer - I remember going back to my hotel room and visiting the local convenience stores to try and find stuff to eat.

the Upstate NY/VT Chapter team

On the morning of the race we had our picture taken as a team and then boarded a bus to the start of the race. The bus took us over to a school where we waited in the slightly chilly air for things to start. I remembering noticing how warm it was in the middle of the crowd, and wondering where I should be in the lineup (the only thing I knew for sure was that I shouldn't be on the starting line!) All around us was a sea of purple... out of the 1000 or so people in the race, approximately 800 were from the Leukemia Society! I'm sure the RD said something, but I can't remember what it was... all I remember is the race starting and thinking "This is it..."

The first part of the race took us about 7 miles down bike paths along a highway... I could see mountains off in the distance, and runners both in front of me and behind me for as far as I could see. I got caught up in the run and ran the first 6 miles without stopping - the furthest I'd ever done that, having trained to take 1 minute walking breaks every 10-15 minutes. At 6 miles I reined myself in a bit and got back with the program, and started taking breaks every 15 min or so.

7-8 miles in, the course took us on to military lands along something called "the Tank Trail" - basically a rough dirt road through the woods. A lot of runners had trouble with the footing along this stretch, but I'd run enough crumbling road shoulders in the country that it didn't give me much difficulty. (Funny, I've never really thought about it before, but I guess that was my first trail run!) I wish I still had the pictures I took along this section, but unfortunately I lost the disposable camera at the Utica Boilermaker 15k a few weeks later... After 9-10 miles or so, we exited the woods and ran down a long hill on the road. Partway down the hill I had my picture taken by the race photographers, and also by Tom, the Leukemia Society coordinator for our group. My friend from college, Julia, met me at the bottom of that hill with a fresh water bottle and Powerbars, and also took my picture. (So every picture I have from this race was taken in the space of about a mile!)

somewhere between 16 & 17 miles

at the bottom of the hill - mile 17

From there the course took us along the road and through some suburban-type neighborhoods. I remember feeling pretty good as I ran - much better than during the awful training runs! Somewhere around mile 20 we left the roads and ran on a paved path through a greenway - I especially remember running through tunnels where the path ran under the roads, and how pretty the surroundings were - not like running through a city at all! It was during this section that I also noticed the distance taking its toll... not because I hit the wall, fortunately that didn't happen, but because whenever I stopped concentrating on maintaining my pace I'd slow down and people would start passing me. Then I catch myself, pick the pace back up, and catch up to them. Kept that up all through the greenway and around a lagoon, beyond which was a major obstacle: a steep hill approximately half a mile long, right around mile 25.

At that point, there was nothing to be done for it but to run up that freakin' hill. About halfway up it curved around out of sight, and a well-meaning spectator was telling folks "Keep going, the top's just around the curve!" Well, he has no idea how angry I was with him when I rounded that bend and the hill kept going... at that point I think I slowed to a walk for a bit, then ran the rest of the way to the top.

looking back down the Hill

The crowd's really picked up for that last half mile or so, especially when we got to the finish, which was run on a school track. Once I saw the finish line, I knew I had it in me to finish strong (unlike my long training runs, where I often hobbled the last mile almost in tears) and seeing other folks from our local team there cheering me on just added to the energy. So I gave it my best sprint to the finish and crossed the line at 4 hr 19 min 54 seconds - an absolutely phenomenal time, considering how difficult my long training runs were!

Afterwards, my friend and I went to Wendy's for lunch, where I plowed my way through a baked potato and a bunch of other food, and I remember saying that the race itself had been kind of fun, and I could see myself running another marathon if only the training wasn't so god-awful. Of course, I spent the evening icing my knees, and the next day when I went for a hike with a group that included a very pregnant lady, she was walking faster than I was by the end! And I needed a nap every day for the following week... so the race definitely took its toll! But what's really important is this - I had a wonderful time, and in the end that race made me what I am today, something I never would have thought I'd ever be: a runner!