Monday, July 14, 2014

"Go Big or Go Home" - Running Alaska's Mayor's Midnight Sun Marathon

Less than 24 hours before a marathon, there I was - walking and climbing all over the Matanuska Glacier.  It was cold, slippery, and definitely one of the craziest things I've ever done. More than once I simply froze in place - not because it was that cold, but because I was unsure about my footing on the rugged ice.  But with a little help - thanks Larry, and those French tourists - I made it to the glacier's summit.  If this was one of Alaska's landmarks, I was all in.

You would think I would have figured it out by now.  The Mayor's Midnight Sun Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska was going to be my 11th marathon.  I had read the books and magazines, and followed my coach's marathon plan religiously.  The week before a marathon is supposed to be an easy week. The experts recommend maybe a few slow miles around the block each day, and not much else.  For my first 10 marathons I followed their advice.

But for this marathon I was in Alaska.  I had been waiting to visit our nation's 49th state since I was a little girl, when I first read stories about Alaskan families enjoying life while braving harsh weather and wild animals.  I couldn't wait to sample all that Alaska could offer me in one week.

Larry and I arrived in Alaska on a mission - to complete our 50 States, 50 Epic Rides project by bicycling in our 50th state.  Our first full day in Anchorage, mission accomplished! 

We spent the day cycling on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, a trail outside of town that both hugs the Cook Inlet - along the same route that Captain James Cook himself sailed to Alaska back in 1778, -  and meanders into the woods.  Much of the ride was also the marathon course.  It had been several years since anyone running the marathon had seen wildlife on the course.

 However, after only cycling for about 3 miles, a woman walking in the direction that were cycling said, "Be careful there is a baby up ahead."  My first thought was:  I love babies!  But she did not mean a chubby cheeked human toddler but a moose baby.  And where there is a moose baby there is also a moose mother, and the rule in the woods is:  never come between a moose mama and her baby.

We didn't.  But Larry was able to get a very cool picture of the mother and child moose.

And then a few miles later, we came upon a group of cyclists peering into the woods.  One of the men raised his hand up in the "V" for Victory sign (or peace sign, depending upon which generation you come from) behind his helmet.  Well, no matter what generation you come from, turns out this is the universal sign for - watch out, there is a large male moose with antlers up ahead.  Larry was able to get a picture while I stood as still as I could, thinking I had never seen "stand a few feet away from a moose 4 days before a marathon" in my books, magazines, and marathon plan.


Eager to see more wildlife, the next day we found ourselves climbing into a sea plane - taking off from a water parking lot and landing again in the water. 
 We were then whisked away by boat to view bear catching their lunch - fresh salmon swimming upstream. 

Next up was to see a piece of history - Crow Creek Mine, the preserved gold mining camp from 1898.  Larry and I both panned for gold.
 I found a few flakes but Larry caught gold fever and found a bunch of flakes!  He said he found enough for us to retire; as long as we have teeny tiny dreams.  I think we'll keep our day jobs.

We enjoyed the food in Alaska, everything from casual dinners at one of Larry's favorite restaurants on the planet, Humpy's

to  upscale dining at our Hotel, The Hotel Captain Cook, with our good friends Jackie and Harry Whiting's son, Harrison.  Harrison is now an Air Force pilot stationed in Anchorage.  We spent several hours enjoying our catching up with him, swapping Air Force stories from the past and present.
We stopped by the marathon's Expo the day before the race.  I picked up my bib number and met the marathon's mascot.  This time I wasn't nervous standing so close to a moose.
Then began the pre-marathon rituals.  There was the pasta dinner, the laying out of the entire outfit for the race, and the obsessive checking of the weather.  Then there was the Alaska specific ritual - the covering of the windows with aluminum foil to block out the midnight sun.  The marathon was scheduled for the summer solstice, so since there sould be sunlight almost all night long, Larry came up with the idea to block out the sun coming into our hotel room.  It worked! 
Every time I clicked on Weather Underground, the forecast grew worse.
"Stop checking!" Larry said, when he realized that each time I checked, the rain forecast went up 5% and (up to 90% the last time I checked) and the temperature went down (glad he made me stop checking when the forecast went down into the 40 degree mark).
The Mayor's Marathon race director, Michael Friess, sent us a message through Facebook:   "12 hours until the first gun.  Let's have some fun Anchorage!  And we never let a little rain spoil a party...Alaskans are much, much tougher than that!"
Well, this Florida girl had never run a marathon in cold rain - but I could be as tough as any Alaskan. I come from a land where there had been 4 major hurricanes in a few weeks... sharks have nipped at our toes when we swim in the ocean... and I have survived standing in line for Early Bird Specials. 
 Game on, I was ready!
The marathon staff did everything right.  Instead of having us wait outside in the cold rain for hours before the race, we gathered inside a warm, dry gym at a local high school, just steps away from the start.  I met many of the other runners.  Most were either Marathon Maniacs - runners who run many marathons a year, or 50 State Club Members -  runners who have run or are running marathons in all 50states.  (My goal!) For whatever reason, all of us were eager to cross running a marathon in Alaska off our list.
The race director called us all outside, we sang the Star Spangled Banner, the gun went off - and the race began. 
The cold and rain became irrelevant as I ran, because the scenery was spectacular.  This was my first marathon where I ran by mountains shrouded in mist.  It was also my first marathon that was about 1/3 a trail run - running in the woods over rocky paths.  Our speed was slower while running in the woods, but I get it now why some people enjoy the challenge of trail running - you feel as if you are part of the woods, the environment.
We also had to divert into the woods for a bit about a mile before the finish line, due to the Westchester Lagoon Bridge that had collapsed when too large a truck drove over it 4 days before the marathon.  This was the bridge that connected the Coastal Trail to the Chester Creek Trail.
Another bonus to running slower, due to weather and trail running, was people watching and hearing the others runners talking.  Most of us hadn't anticipated inclement weather, so many runners were wearing whatever they had available to protect them from the rain.  This was my first marathon where I saw lots of people wearing Hefty garbage bags while they ran. 
My favorite outfit was the woman who wore a hospital gown.  I couldn't help but smile - she looked like an escapee from a mental institution as she ran along the trail, her hospital gown flopping in the wind behind her.
And the conversations - it was like legal eavesdropping, listening to everyone talk.  Most runners were commenting on the route, the weather, which mile marker we had just passed.  But one conversation that will always stay with me was the man and woman talking about attitude.  "My friend takes anti depressants," the man said to the woman.  "I just like to run".  The woman said, "Me too."  I smiled at them as I ran by and said, "This is our anti depressant".  "Yup," the man said.
The marathon pack was small - there were 852 finishers.  Small in numbers, but we represented all 50 states and 15 foreign countries.  Three Kenyan brothers, two from University of Alaska at Anchorage and one from Tulane University, finished 1st (David Kiplagat) 2nd (Paul Rottich) and 3rd (Solomon Kandi).  Another University of Alaska Seahawk, Davya Flaharthy, won the woman's race, by over 5 minutes.
On of the cool things about the Mayor's Marathon was that it was several races.  In total over 4400 people ran or walked, not only the marathon, but marathon relays, half marathon relays, and runs and walks of only a few miles.  So, at the finish line, we marathoners were finishing with people who had run or walked a half marathon or only a few miles.  It was fun to finish with parents pushing kids in strollers or holding their hands.
After the race, I went back to the hotel room to relax for a bit before flying back to Florida that night.
Alaska more than lived up to its reputation.  It's bigger than life, beautiful, tough, and worth the long distance to get there.  I can't wait to go back.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

"We own the finish line" - Boston Marathon, April 21, 2014


I heard him before I saw him.  He was singing that song, the one that will get stuck in your head for the rest of the day after you read this.

"Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.   Because I'm happy... Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth. Because I'm happy..."

This was at about mile 7 of the 2014 Boston Marathon.  It's supposed to be A Serious Race.  Most of us had to qualify by running a fast time at a previous marathon to be allowed to run Boston.  Other runners had to raise a lot of money for charity, or be invited to run the world's most prestigious marathon due to special circumstances.  But on April 21, 2014 around mile 7, those of us running next to the singing runner were anything but serious.  We couldn't help ourselves. We were happy, all of us, and showed our fellow singing runner that we were by slowing our pace, and  singing and clapping along with him, to Pharrell Williams' mega hit song.

It was that kind of day.  It was sunny and warm, not a typical Boston spring day.  But the 2014 Boston Marathon was anything but typical.  It was much more than a race. This year, it wasn't personal - it was political.  It was about showing the terrorists of the world that in the end -  we win and they lose.  Good will always triumph over evil.

After the horrific events at the 2013 Boston Marathon, when 4 innocent people - a restaurant manager, a Chinese graduate student, a university policeman, and an 8 year old boy - lost their lives, and more than 260 others were injured - runners from around the world knew that we had no choice but to return to Boston and show the terrorists that we will run again.  Just days after the tragedy, President Obama spoke to a nation in mourning.  "Next year," he told us, "We will finish the race."

And a few days before the 2014 marathon, at an event commemorating the lives lost and people injured at last year's race, Vice President Biden set the tone for the upcoming race:  ""Next Monday, on Patriot's Day, when 36,000 people line up to start the marathon, you will send a resounding message around the world.  Not to just the rest of the world, but to the terrorists, that we will never yield.  We will never cower.  America will never, ever, ever stand down.  We are Boston.  We are America.  We respond.  We endure.  We overcome... and we own the finish line."

When I arrived in Boston a few days before the marathon, everywhere I looked I saw signs of support for the marathon. Just about every store, hotel, restaurant, bar, house of worship, street corner - everywhere were signs welcoming us, and showing the city's and the nation's support.

And where there weren't signs, there were yellow daffodils wrapped in blue foil lining every mile of the course - Boston Marathon's new symbol of rebirth.

The Old South Church handed out scarfs made by people from all over the US in Boston Marathon yellow and blue, to show support for the runners.  My friend Sue was one of the lucky recipients of the 7,000 scarfs handed out Easter Sunday, the day before the marathon.

Even at the Expo, where runners go to pick up their numbers

 and browse tables where vendors sold all things related to running, there was a sense of excitement in the air.  There were long lines to meet some of the rock stars of our sport.

Dean Karnazes, uber ultra marathon runner, (he's that guy who ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days, among other accomplishments) was a super nice man who was happy to talk to me about tips on running when I met him at the expo.  For the record, Dean eats Greek yogurt and a banana before a marathon - something I will try. He also likes to run 26.2 miles from his hotel room to the start, then runs another 26.2 miles once the marathon begins - something I will not try!

Then I met Dick Hoyt.  Dick and his son Rick, have competed in races of all distances together, including marathons and triathalons.  Dick has raced and pushed Rick, who is in a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, to the finish line of over 1,000 races.  This Boston would be their last marathon, and I was honored to be racing Boston with this inspirational father/son team who show the world that with love and determination anything is possible.

I noticed the local Boston TV news station filming a story at the expo.  I chatted a bit with the cameraman, and before I knew what was happening, I became the "Veteran Boston Marathoner" telling the world why she was running the 2014 Boston Marathon. 

After a pasta dinner and a good night's sleep, I was ready to run the greatest marathon in the world.

The next morning, bright sun and perfect temperatures greeted us at Boston Commons as we loaded the buses for the 26.2 mile ride to Hopkinton. 

All of us - from the elite runners to the age group qualifiers to the charity runners and invited guests - waited in the Athlete's Village at Hopkinton for the start.  We all had the typical pre marathon nerves, as well as the unspoken prayers hoping for no repeat tragedy at this year's race.

The largest security force ever assembled for a marathon awaited us.  Over 3500 police and military members - that's what was reported, but I bet there were more than that - were on duty to protect us all.  I noticed military men in camouflage holding machine guns on tops of buildings.

 Military and police forces not only lined the course but ran different legs of the race with us.  And the homeless people sitting on the sidelines?  A closer look at some of those people revealed not only clothes too new and clean to be homeless people's clothes, but earpieces in their ears.  So there were undercover security forces out as well. 

Once we hit the start mat, we were comforted by all the security.  We let them do their job and we did ours - running.

 We ran through Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Brookline, then Boston.  And we ran past a crowd estimated about 1 million strong.  They didn't have to be there, but they were, screaming for us until our ears were ringing.  I have run 10 marathons and have never seen or heard a crowd like this.  Screams of "USA, USA" and "Boston Strong" were heard the entire 26.2 miles.

Kids on trampolines cheered for us and they jumped up and down. 

As the sun rose high in the sky and temperatures got warmer than expected, families brought glasses of water from their homes as well as popsicles and ice and offered them to the runners. 

And then there were the Boston specific spectators.  At least once every mile, there were radios tuned to the Boston Red Sox game.  Fans would yell out the score from Fenway Park, which was waiting for us at mile 25.

At around the half way point, we approached the college coeds from Wellesley were standing on the sidelines doing what they have done for over 100 years - the Wellesley scream, a sound you can hear about a 1/2 mile away.  I passed a blind runner running with her guide, who was describing the course for her. 

"We are close to Wellesley,"  I said to the runner.  "Any minute now we will hear the girls screaming". The runner and her guide both smiled at me as we approached the college.  The Wellesley girls, each with signs begging the runners to come over and kiss them (Kiss me, I'm from California; Kiss me, I have been out here since 4:00 AM; Kiss me, I won't tell your wife) began to scream and cheer for us.

The girls' screams helped us through the remaining down hills of the race course, and gave us strength as we began climbing the hills of Newton. 

It was also the volunteers - 10,000 strong at the 118th running of the Boston Marathon - who kept us going as they cheered for us, called us out by name "go Cindy, you can do this!" and gave us much needed water and Gatorade at every mile of the race.

 Many of the volunteers were injured during last year's bombings, but they put their fear of another possible tragedy at this year's race out of their minds as they stood on the sunny streets for hours, supporting us runners.

It was about the time we crested Heartbreak Hill, the last and greatest of Boston's uphill stretches,

that I heard one runner call out:  "An American man won Boston"!  We all cheered as we heard this news.  At the finish line, I found out the American was Meb Keflezighi.  Meb, 2 weeks shy of his 39th birthday, was the first American to win Boston since 1983.  He was not only Boston's champion but a hero:  he ran Boston for a higher purpose, wearing the names Sean Collier, Krystle Campbell, Lu Lingzi, and Martin Richard on his runner's bib, remembering and honoring the innocent victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

As I passed mile 25 and Boston's iconic CITGO sign,  I heard Larry call out my name.  I smiled at him and he caught the moment on his camera. 

And for that second, the world melted away.  In my mind, it was about 15 years ago, when I decided to start exercising.  I asked Larry to walk with me outside after dinner.  But Larry, a foot taller than me with a fast walking pace, was a hard person to keep up with, so I started to jog alongside him.  He noticed me jogging, and then started running.  I couldn't let him get away from me - this was my idea! - so I starting running too.  When we finished - we couldn't have gone more than a mile from our house then a mile back - I was so exhausted I couldn't even feel how every muscle in my body was screaming at me to never do that again.  But I couldn't let Larry know that, so we began running together.  Thousands of miles later,  I wound up at the Boston Marathon on April 21, 2014, smiling at the guy at mile 25 who tricked me into becoming a runner.

The last mile of any marathon is physically challenging but mentally uplifting - the runner is almost there, about to complete a 26.2 mile journey that most people in the world never accomplish.  But this Boston Marathon's last mile was special.  Not only were the crowd's screams so loud that our ears were ringing, but it was a very emotional moment.   Last year, the bombs were placed on Boylston Street, not far from the finish line.  These spectators could have been injured again this year, but they placed their fear aside to support the runners, the marathon, and the idea of showing the world that Boston, that the United States of America, are strong.  Instead of sprinting towards the finish line, we slowed our pace and remembered Sean, Krystle, Lu, and Martin as we passed their memorials on Boylston Street.

Last year, my friends Abi and Rose and Patti were stopped by the bombs between miles 25.5 and mile 26.  This year they were back to complete the race. 

Abi, Rose, and Patti crossed the finish line this year.  We all did:  31,931 runners from all 50 states and 80 different countries.  We owned the finish line.  It was the triumph of good over evil.  It was exhilarating.  It was emotional.  It made me happy.