Thursday, December 30, 2010

When Things Don’t Come Together…

So my entry on the Marshall University Marathon was a fun one to write. What a great marathon experience! I ran a PR, qualified for Boston for the first time, and we just had a great all around marathon trip. I couldn’t have asked for any better, and I feel blessed looking back on it all. I’ve had several conversations with other marathoners about how so many variables have to come together for a marathon to really be great. You know the ones I’m talking about: training, lack of injuries, nutrition, hydration, sleep, weather, health, stresses, etc. Some of those variables you can control, some you can influence and some are in the hands of God. Having a very bad marathon experience, where so many of those variables did not come together, also makes me appreciate the experience we had in Huntington. The marathon that provided perspective for me was Des Moines, Iowa. Katie and I ran this marathon on October 18, 2009.

First of all, this marathon followed the Maui Marathon Katie and I ran during our five year anniversary trip to Hawaii (our strategy is to run a few marathons about a month apart once we’re in “marathon shape”). We decided on this marathon because it was about a month after Maui and geographically close to Katie’s sister, Laurie, who lives in Madison, WI. We all decided on Des Moines over Grand Rapids, Michigan. Our original plan was to meet up and visit in Des Moines, and then Laurie would watch the kids while we ran. That turned out to be the first of many things that didn’t work out according to plan. School/work responsibilities precluded Laurie from making the trip. No problem; Katie’s mom, Ginny, agreed to join us. So this trip would still work out. (Looking back we were very determined to make this marathon happen.)

The next part requires me to explain a bit about my work situation at the time. I’m a Thrust Vector Control (TVC) engineer with Jacobs Engineering (NASA contractor). The group I work with is responsible for, to put it in layman’s terms, the power steering system on the rocket that directs it as it ascends. In our group, I was given the responsibility as the “Ares I-X guy.” If you are interested you can learn about Ares I-X here. Anyway, I supported all things TVC for Ares I-X, and an issue with the Ares I-X TVC system was discovered on October 14th during launch preparations. I was at Kennedy Space Center on October 15th (three days before the marathon). Not knowing how serious the issue was, I wasn’t too optimistic about making the start of the race. I decided not to tell anyone at work that I was registered to run a marathon on October 18. I would do the marathon if work situations allowed, but I wouldn’t race instead of taking care of work responsibilities. Anyway, we worked the TVC problem and the fix came together very quickly. So I made plans to fly from Orlando to Des Moines and join Katie, Ginny and the kids and return soon after the marathon. I made my flight arrangement as last minute on Friday as possible (leaving Orlando at 5:30 p.m. and arriving in Des Moines at 11:15 p.m.), knowing anything can happen when it comes to rockets. That turned out to be a good thing, because I received a call at my hotel room on Friday morning that a group at work was getting together to discuss some other options for our system. I was bummed because, at the time, I thought for sure this would mean that I wouldn’t be able to drive to Orlando and catch that last minute flight. Well the meeting went quickly (that never happens), and the group basically decided to leave the system as it was. So I hopped in my rental car and dashed off for the airport. Things were not exactly coming together, but I’d do my best to make them come together if I could.

So now it was time to transition into a marathon mindset (and get halfway across the country). I packed a small backpack with some running clothes and one set of clothes other than what I was wearing. I made it to the airport with very little time to spare, and I was all set to make a late night race eve arrival in Des Moines. I would have to ad lib all of the usual marathon preparation stuff in airports and during the flights. Carb loading was: Chinese fast food at a food court in Atlanta and snacking during the flight on anything from an airport convenience store that seemed appropriate (granola bars, trail mix, etc.). The flight into Des Moines was a bit behind schedule so I arrived a little later than expected. Things were still not coming together, but the taxi driver gave me a brief description (as best he knew) of the marathon course on the way to the hotel. That’s something right? I quietly snuck into the hotel room after midnight. After a short discussion with Katie and Ginny, I changed my return flight to originate in St. Louis (we’d visit Katie’s Aunt Rosie/Ginny’s sister and take in the St. Louis zoo on Sunday) instead of Des Moines on Sunday before it was too late. After all of that craziness, I attempted to slow the spinning gears in my head long enough to get a few hours of sleep before the race. I really wanted to do this race and hoped that it would go well despite the craziness leading up to it. Saturday morning came early and I (foolishly) had a bowl of hotel “Raisin Bran” cereal and some yogurt for breakfast.

The organizers for the Des Moines marathon do a pretty good job. We found a close parking spot easily, and I remember thinking the start area and activities were well planned. Something we did, dropping a bag or something I don’t remember now, had us a bit rushed to make it to the start line. It was quite crowded at the start and we were standing on a sidewalk perpendicular to the course with several others as the gun went off. Nothing else leading up to this marathon was relaxed, why should the start be any different? We made it into the start area quickly though and were shuffling with the sea of runners for the start of marathon state number 14 for Katie and me.

The first several miles actually went pretty well for me. I think I was aiming for somewhere under nine minute miles. I thought I could have a decent marathon but the bigger goal for today was to have a good experience and check Iowa off of the list of states left to race. I remember running up a decent hill around mile four and seeing a wheelchair racer inching his way up the hill backwards. He was going so slowly, and it looked painfully difficult. I also remember Katie and I saw a very animated pacer (the 3:30 pacer I believe). He had a lot of personality and was telling the group how fast they were running, how many seconds they had “banked” in the last mile, how far ahead of schedule they were, and cheering on runners around him. It was pretty interesting and I was doing well enough at this point to be amused.

Then things gradually started to take a turn for the worse. I don’t clearly remember the first urge to find a port-a-potty. I probably thought that I would just make a quick stop and be going again without too much interruption. I made the first pit stop and not too long after I was keeping an eye out for the next port-a-potty. This process would repeat over and over during the race. Mile after mile I was focused on the course ahead and hoping that cresting a hill or turning a corner would bring a port-a-potty into sight. At first, the stops weren’t eating into my pace too badly and I had hopes of finishing at a reasonable pace. Katie had already pulled away, but I was determined to make the best of it. I remember the course went into a stadium and around a track at one point. I saw Katie coming out of the stadium as I was going in. Somehow I communicated it wasn’t my day for a good race (and then I made another dash into a port-a-potty right by the stadium).

Over time, I realized that not only were my stomach issues not going away, but they would be a big issue at this race. The urge to search for the next “King Johnnie” would arrive immediately after I had finished at the previous. A few times I contemplated back tracking on the course. But another thing the organizers did well was set up the port-a-potties along the course. They were all over the place and set up where the course crossed back on itself so that I could visit the same one twice. Looking back, I believe this was the only thing that allowed me to finish this marathon. If I had attempted to run several miles in this condition without relief, I probably would have pulled out. I also remember at one point later in the race, I thought the worst was over and maybe I could make a push for a few decent miles before finish. I wanted to have at least a final slice of enjoyment from this race. That thought lasted for a mile or two at the most. When I thought I wouldn’t possibly have to make another stop, around mile 22.5, I did. This will sound strange, but I’ll say it anyway. For some reason I was counting these stops, and I ended up with 14 total during the race. As all of this was going on I passed the same guy a few times. One time when I was passing him again, he commented that he didn’t remember passing me. There was a reason for that…

As much as I wanted to deny it at the time, this issue was affecting my energy and ability to run. It was inevitable that this issue would catch up with the rest of my body. I wanted so bad to keep some kind of “running” pace going near the end. I gave an audible grunt of frustration around mile 23.5 when I just couldn’t push myself to keep running any more. I was going to finish this marathon, but I was mad that it would be so slow and that I’d have to walk it in. The last miles were miserable because I was so spent. I remember one nice guy encouraging me to jog the last half mile or so with him and I just couldn’t do it. He had a whole different gear that I didn’t have at that point. It took a big effort to shuffle the last bit where the crowds were lining the finishing area and the photographers were snapping away.

Walking it in…

This finish line picture sums it up

It really is too bad that I spent so much time focused on an unpleasant feeling and not as much on enjoying this marathon. What little I was able to appreciate about the course was very nice. Going around the track was cool, we spent quite a bit of time running in residential areas where trees canopied the course, we ran through a scenic park and along a small river, and we ran over a cool bridge where prisms cast rainbows on the path. I just wish I could have taken in and enjoyed these parts of the course more because the course really did exceed my expectations for scenery along a marathon in Iowa.
Oh well. When you plan to do 50+ of these, I suppose there will be ones like this. Hopefully they are few and far between.

I ended up finishing in 4:14:36. Here are my splits





























  1. Nice write-up, thanks for sharing. Somehow marathons like these seem to become "training runs"!


  2. It should've been unlucky number 13 and not the 14th state for us, Baby. You did so good given the circumstances. And I am so glad you were able to come up for the race and to ride back with us to St. Louis. What a trip of memories! I also like hearing your perspective on the races. You do a good job blogging :)