Adventures in marathoning; The 2013 Ground Hog Day Marathon part 1

The day started…the day started the night before.

We had driven across the state of Michigan moving westward, starting in the Detroit region heading towards our destination in Grand Rapids. It was a Friday evening and we were travelling to run in the Inaugural Ground Hog Marathon February 2nd, 2013 which would take place the next morning.  It was an unusually frigid day in Michigan unlike in the early winter. Then, when I had registered for this first annual winter race it was another (another as in recent history, another) mild winter day. Then I had dreams of perfect fast conditions. Now as snow fell in blustery near white out conditions and ice and slush framed the interstate highway into Grand Rapids I wondered exactly what I had gotten myself into!

As we exited the highway and entered the city my doubts were validated. We were met with snow covered streets and even poorer visibility than we experienced on the highway. Why were we even out in this weather? A few blizzard like miles later we had made our way to our first destination of the weekend, the race start area where I was to pick up my race packet for the next morning’s race. I found a spot to park and left my passengers (my son and father) waiting in the warm car while I went out into the chill and frost of the night. Snow blew in what seemed every direction. “This wouldn’t last until morning,” I thought to myself.

I found my way into the tented shelter that would serve as event headquarters for the weekend. Chilled volunteers helped me attain my race credentials and answered my questions, even the inane ones. Outside they were having a snowshoe race. I returned to the car and we headed to the hotel that would serve as our personal event headquarters for the weekend. In the meantime weather and road conditions worsened. My brain played this recording as I navigated traffic and roads, “winter marathon??? When did you think that was a good idea?”

Evening at the hotel included a fast food dinner of both fish and beef burgers and chili washed down with shakes. This isn’t exactly the perfect prerace meal but at least it is high in calories. Calories mean fuel and running 26.2 miles in cold weather through ice and snow would certainly require plenty of fuel. I strapped a pair of galoshes that have spikes on the heels and wire piping under the toe box to my trail shoes. This set up would hopefully give me some traction in what was due to be a snow covered 26.2 miles. What it would do to my feet I didn’t know? What I did know was that I committed to this journey and if I was going to complete it then the next morning I would need to get “er” done! This was to be the first of 4 marathons in 4 months that I would be running this spring to help support The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society through Team in Training in its mission to find a cure for blood cancers. I was pot committed now. Successful people only really need to do two things in order to be successful; they start things and they finish them. I needed to get this journey started and this race finished, no matter what it took.

Jr, grandpa and I were up later than I would have wished mostly waiting for Jr to fall asleep. We watched Japanese styled cartoons on the hotel television which at first glimpse might seem dull but hours later the soap opera style plot kept thickening and never ending. Eventually everyone else fell asleep and I was able to get a few extra things ready for the morning before heading to what was left of the bed myself.

Morning always comes too quick for these things…always. My cell phone alarm woke me up and luckily only me. I am certain that most of my competitors in these things are not up past midnight with their three year olds trying to get them to sleep or up with them in the middle of the night to get them a glass of apple juice. They are likely rested, fed, stretched and rested again. That is too bad for them. They may have things easier but my life is far more “enriching” than theirs. As I have many times before I made coffee in the little in room pot and stuffed down a banana and looked around the fridge for something salty to fuel my day with. “Okay, let’s do this,” I said to myself.

I started to lay out my gear and tied the radio frequency timing chip that would keep track of my progress on race day into my shoelaces. “Oh, oh.” A quick look in my race bag provided the day’s first dilemma. I had failed to pack the insulated running undergarments I intended to wear. The insulation part of these shorts would have been just a bonus what I really needed was the short’s anti-chafing capacity. If I wasn’t careful now, 26 miles later my inner legs might be rubbed raw by the friction caused by 4 hours of running. I was extra careful to apply a thick layer of petroleum jelly to my legs, under my arms and other sensitive areas that would over heat during the race. This would create a moisture barrier that would help relieve the stress caused by friction. I also put a thick dab under my eyes and around my nose to protect those areas from the wind. I then layered up and prepared to leave. A good bye kiss to Jr’s forehead as he slept and a few quick instructions with my dad who travelled with us to baby sit (Jr’s mom was travelling for work) and I was out the door with my running gear.

I was now leaving later than I intended originally and had a mere hour to make the trek to the start staging area. I grabbed a couple bananas and a coffee from the complimentary continental breakfast that the hotel had out. When I got to the lobby doors I met the outside sights with surprise.

The night before when I returned to the hotel with dinner, though still snowing temperatures were dropping into the frigid range. Snow will only form under certain conditions and not when the mercury drops below a certain point. Certainly we were getting into that range. I definitely did not expect to be met by another 8 or so inches of snow blanketing the car and everything else too. On top of that it was still snowing heavily too! I cleaned the car of snow, packed up and headed out towards the highway where I was met by conditions I would not normally be out in and that others were obviously not capable of navigating correctly. It always amazes me how when conditions require caution and visible deterrents such as cars spinning out and others littering the ditches some drivers still cannot use sound judgment.

As I neared the race staging area, exiting off the interstate I was met with conditions similar to what we had the night before except there was an incremental increase in snow cover. I was aware that there would be limited parking at the race start area and that I would likely have to find parking at an alternate lot designated by organizers where shuttles were promised to pick us up to escort us to the start staging area. I had no idea where the alternate lot was so here I was out in this strange city in blizzard like conditions looking for somewhere that I didn’t have directions for. That is what I like to refer to as faith! I decided the best plan of attack would be to crawl the car through the snow in the direction of the race start area. On this morning at least my faith served me well. As I came nearer my destination I spotted a herd of cars gathering on the other side of a park across the way. “Who else would be out in his weather,” I thought.

When I arrived in the parking lot the display of neon shoes, pants and jackets confirmed that yes indeed this was a hard core group of runners. Correct; who else would be gathering in this weather! I found a spot between  snow banks for my car and made some quick gear decisions. The temperature didn’t seem to be rising to the point where shorts would be appropriate so nylon pants would cover my legs and two pairs of socks including a good tight pair of running socks closest to the skin would be shrouded with my trail shoes which in turn had extra treading attached via rubber strap on galoshes with spikes and wire piping attached to them. I decided to strap my cell phone on via arm band just in case of emergency (not knowing the course) and also for posterity pictures. I had already decided on wearing my best running coat, the one that afforded the most protection and a hooded sweater for extra warmth over an old race shirt that had been with me on many such adventures (for luck if nothing else). At the last minute I decided to put on an extra sweater; a thin one ,neon orange to go with the neon yellow hoodie and the red coat with silver reflective stripes. Some people dress for style. My style is called functionality and comfort. I knew the extra sweater would have me overheating early in the race but if this weather continued running pace would be hard to maintain and as I slowed I knew that my body temperature would drop as my body moved slower. It would gradually be more affected by the conditions and it would be then that the extra sweater would come in handy. I also packed in my pockets 6 energy gels, an extra hat and extra gloves. I double checked that I had my wedding band taped securely to the second finger on my left hand so as not to lose it and then I headed to join the others who were waiting for our ride to the staging area.

All the while I was smiling. I know this implies a little bit of simplicity on my part but I can’t help but feel that the surreal way I live vicariously through myself and the way I third person view the world to be a little bit humorous. Yes even as I grew chilly changing into extra gear in the snow blurred parking lot and others giggled at the “crazy”, I was amused by the whole scene. I was also amused when I dropped my hat in the snow and had to go find it. And when I forgot my extra gloves and had to climb back through the snow banks to get them and when I forgot to attach my music player to my waistband even though I carefully took extra time to string my headphones through my clothes and around my neck just so. I had to climb back through the snow to get that too. All this time I had to keep fumbling with the car keys and double and triple checking to make sure they were secured in my pocket so as not to lose them in the snow where they might not be found till next spring. Finally it was time for the bus.

The bus turned out to actually be a converted old trolley car. This was getting almost too good to be true. We all piled in. The trolley/bus was soon full of runners dressed in various shades of neon and grey. In spite of the weather outside inside it was warm and dry. Rock and roll played on the PA system and to make everything just groovy enough various colored bands of rope lighting followed the interior trim line. When Van Halen came on the stereo system someone (the driver I assume) cranked the volume. At this point I couldn’t resist anymore and had to say something. My quip of, “I didn’t know what to expect when I signed up for this but I certainly didn’t expect this,” elicited laughs and helped thaw some of the nerves of those aboard. The mood seemed to lighten after that and soon our little rolling runner’s “nightclub” had arrived at our destination.

There was now little time before the race was scheduled to start at 8am. Some of the commuters hustled to the start line. I joined some others and hustled towards the blue portables. It was time and a combination of stress, adrenaline and coffee was making me volatile. In the air a young lady began to sing the Star Spangled Banner. I took off my blue and white Toronto Maple’s Leafs hat and held it over my heart as I continued my journey.

After nature’s call I headed back towards the start line where the race was beginning. I would usually like to get near the front especially in what was likely to be mostly a single track race so that I could run with my peers and would have to do less shuffling forward during the race but on this day that wasn’t happening. I missed going out with the leaders by a few minutes as I waited in line to get to the start line. Due to the snow space was tight and organizers were trying to get everyone to start in waves to avoid clustering but in reality most everyone was in a sort of, “what are we doing  here daze” and they were taking their time getting to the start line. There timing mats were set to begin timing each individual the moment they crossed. It looked like it would be easier to get nearer the front than I thought and I easily edged my way through the crowd. I overheard someone telling his friends how “excited” they were that they would be participating in their “first”. I couldn’t help but chuckle and ask, “This is going to be your first marathon?”

“Yes,” they replied.

“Good choice,” I answered.

Everyone laughed heartily especially the first timer. I made my way to the start line and with a beep, beep of the timer I was off!

End of part 1

Part 2 to be published Sunday, followed shortly after by the “writer’s” comments!

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