08 August 2008

Racing in the San Fracisco Marathon

I've woken up in many odd places over the years. A random field behind a bus station in Providence, RI; on a picnic table in Puerto Rico; behind a storage container in a Nordic town park; underneath a train bench so narrow I could not turn my head; 20 feet from a restaurant's entrance; a public bathroom in Sweden; and in the middle of a hiking trail in Alberta. And I'm only getting started. Contrary to what you may think, all these "hotels" were by choice in the name of saving money. One place where I woke up which was not by choice was splayed across a street curb. Though to be fair, a more accurate assessment would be "came to on a street curb" rather than "woke up on". And the reason was biking too hard for too long without caloric intake. Or in other words, I bonked to the point of passing out thus falling off my bicycle and onto the curb.

And how this relates to the San Francisco marathon is that I knew the danger and symptoms of "hitting the wall" (same as bonking) and could take precautions against this as I planned my grand race-strategy.

The strategy began with with my submission of my running resume to the marathon coordinators requesting elite/invited athlete status and associated complimentary admission. Once that was taken care of, I then focused on my training. And with one week to go I planned my exact race plan: Go out in 6:05-6:10/mile pace which would likely land me in the top five as the top San Francisco finisher in a time of 2:39 or so. Concerning fluid and calorie intake during the race, I would drink the sports drink offered at the aid stations rather than water and also take part in the energy gu offered at mile 16. This two-pronged approach would provide a small bit of fluid and some energy. Perfect for me as I can easily run 18 miles unsupported. For a slightly longer run of 26.2 miles, the aid would provide insurance against/prevent hitting the wall.

To delve into a bit of science (to shine some additional light on this matter) one's body has approximately 1500-2000 calories of energy on hand stored as glycogen in the blood, muscles, and liver. The conversion of glycogen to glucose and then glycolysis is what fuels our bodies. Once glycogen is depleted the body then relies on fat for energy. The breakdown of fat into glycogen takes significant time such that during a high-output activity conversion of fats cannot keep pace. By consuming simple sugars one can buy time for the fat conversion to occur. So as I use 700 calories an hour, by imbibing in the Cytomax beverage and gu at a rate less than 700/hour I can still keep going. So my plan was to supplement along the way and finish the race with the calorie tank nearly empty. Very efficient.

And my last bit of preparation was noting the parts of the race where I would have six, four, three, two and one miles left. Or as I like to phrase it, note where to "drop hammer and leave the fools in my dust". I was rearing to go.

Race Day
4 AM I wake up, eat a quick race-breakfast of oatmeal and a banana and then alight my bike for the leisurely four mile ride to the starting line. Arriving at 4:50 AM I check my bike at the valet station, locate the elite athlete tent and drop off my sweats, go for a warm up run, stretch, find a quiet corner to take a leak, and then take my rightful place toeing the starting line with the other elites, with the humdrum of 20,000 0ther racers behind us. Following some generic pep talk we take our marks and then start to the sound of the announcer shouting "go".
Running strong before sunrise
In the first mile I comfortably settle into an easy trot. In the pre-dawn darkness we are racing by the illumination of street lights and the flashing sirens of the police motorcycle which is keeping the raceway clear. It is a cool, crisp end of a foggy San Francisco night. As the race winds past the first aid station and up a hill into Fort Mason I feel my legs powerfully moving me forward and up. Hills are my specialty and this one feels good. With the effortless stride and barely audible breathing of a distance runner I slide past a number of racers who are slowing from their excited and too-fast start. I shortly pass the three mile mark and check my watch by the halogen roadside glow. 18:12. Perfect. The pace is easy the pace is fast. (6:04/mile.)

I soon pass Chakira, a running buddy of mine, who I outpaced a couple weeks previous on a 11 mile run to the top of Mount Diablo, a nearby 3000 foot peak. I ask him, "Are you running the full or half marathon? What time are you going for?"
"The full marathon, 2:40."
The pace is not so relaxed that we will chat incessantly like any good distance runner would do on a Sunday long-run, though it is certainly comfortable enough to emphasize to the other runners around us how relaxed the pace is for him and me.
Relaxed crossing the Golden Gate Bridge
A few miles further as I run across the Golden Gate Bridge I find myself hugging the shoulder of a random runner so as to hide from the cross winds which are blowing strongly. We shortly strike up conversation. I ask the usual questions of where are you from, what distance are you racing, what time are you going for? Once covering the basics I take the lead and he settles in behind me with the agreement to alternate as the wind-blocker.

From my unobstructed view in front I am better able to see the small group of runners ahead of us. I ask, "Are those the 2-4 runners?"
The pace is good, the company friendly, the race position exactly what I want. I'm in a good mood despite the fog which is obscuring the now rising sun.

As the sun continues its ascent we knock off the miles. 10 in exactly 60 minutes. 12 in 71:48. I am on pace to run well under 2:39. Crossing the half marathon mark though I began to feel myself falling off the pace. Not that the pace feels fast but rather that it simply feels hard. Seemingly the race starts here.

I continue pushing myself though the race is ever so slowly getting away. I fight the fatigue though have lost the cockiness and competitive push to hang on, which is so easily found when the race is in its early stages. I soon pass within four blocks of my apartment and am filled with a desire to end the race now and simply go home. I begin to worry about my energy levels and resolve to drink Cytomax from every aid station rather than pass some of them by. I also look forward to the mile-16 gu. As I push on I slowly lose sight of the runners in front of me. They travel at 6:00/mile in the fast lane with me simply in a different lane and a different race. At the aid station I hastily grab a packet of gu which I squirt in my mouth followed by a cup of liquid to wash it down. Ahhh sweet verite.
Beginning the bonk
As I travel down JFK Drive by mile 18 I hear a "Go Anda, Go Wesleyan" shout. I turn and am unable to focus and see who it is on the far side of the road. Regardless it is encouraging to hear someone say my name.
Leaving the park
As the race exits Golden Gate Park onto Haight street I am confronted with a long straightaway stretching into the distance. In my foggy mental status I notice only two things: the cops standing at every intersection directing traffic as I pass block after block and the runner 30 yards ahead of me who too seems to be traveling at my same slow pace. I do not notice the lack of cars on the roadside nor do I think about the famous history of this neighborhood beginning with the Summer of Love.

At some point I overtake my slow friend. And then he overtakes me. I notice the delicious smell of early morning brunch wafting through the air. I negotiate a turn. I see a motorcyclist wearing a leather jacket. I realize that at the pace I am going 2:40 or 2:45 is no longer an option. If I can run 8 minute miles for the rest of the racek I will finish around 2:50-2:55. I keep running with the self-awareness of a lumbering pachyderm. My purpose in life is to run and I will do that until instinct tells me otherwise. I run another mile. I realize that I am actually on pace for just under 3:00. I contemplate stopping though my instinct is still alive and well. Go on, go on, don't stop. I push on.

I am undoubtedly in a daze now, though am entirely unaware. Unlike being drunk in which you have full mental capacity to assess and say, "I am sooo drunk," as my blood sugar goes down so too does my ability to recognize that it is so. Instead I plod on. I do want to stop though wont let myself. Though like a restive mule who goes forward when it wants and stops when it wants my legs suddenly stop running. I am walking, though hardly because of any decision I made. I stumble onwards,with my legs seizing up and cramping nearly every step. In the cobwebs of my mind one thought seems to come through which is keep moving lest I stop and have my legs lockup entirely. I keep walking, my stride resembling that of a late night reveler making their way home to then pass-out in bed. I stumble up to the last aid station two miles from the finish. I grab an offered cup of sugar water which is downed in an instant. I gulp down another; and another; and another; and perhaps some more though I don't remember. I then push onwards, walking sideways one step for every three I go forward. I somehow pass by the medical table without being accosted. After walking another 100 meters or perhaps a mile, I am unable to stand. My legs don't quite crumple beneath me, though they more or less say no more. I sit on the curb. That requires too much effort. I lay down on the curb. My legs have charlie-horses their entire length. Despite my lack of self-awareness I can tell that I am in pain. I push myself into a sitting position. I lie down. I push myself up. I lie down. I stay down. I turn my head left. I turn it right. Left. Right. And then out of nowhere a bicyclist arrives. "Do you want me to get the ambulance.?"
"No...food...I need food."
"I don't have any."
And then a cliff bar appears out of thin air. And as quickly as she arrived she disappears. I scarf the bar and like a child suffering from anaphylaxis following a bee sting, the chocolate mocha fudge has the effects of epinephrine. Within minutes I am on my feet. I walk ten paces. I stop to rest hands on my knees. And then twenty paces. And then thirty. And then I run some. And walk some. And run, and walk, and run, and run. I've gone a mile or so. Back from the dead
The daze is still there but I am at least moving forward. And then I look up and see the finish line ahead. My ordeal is nearly over: 13.1 miles of racing; about 8 miles of slowly bonking as gu and Cytomax acted as a panacea prolonging the fun; 3 miles of walking until I could walk no more; some minutes of incognizance; and 2 miles of awakening. I've arrived. I see a shirtless racer between me and the finish 60 yards away. I'm jolted back into reality--competition! The past half-marathon of indifference is forgotten. I drop the hammer, speed past him, and finish hard. 3:15.47 good for 152nd place.
Finishing hard with my body mostly recovered, mind half there, looking mostly asleep

I completed the race about 35-38 minutes slower than I had hoped for. I'm looking forward to another marathon in which I will run both halves rather than only the first one. To do so I will need far better food management. Now that I've bonked twice, I can say with confidence that my body is especially prone and I should eat gu every 4-5 miles downed with liquid.

A note on writing this narrative:
Remembering the details of the second half of my race, especially distances and locations, involved investigative work with the course map and some guessing. My memory of it is mostly muddled with occasional points of reference such as hearing my name shouted, the smell of frying bacon, the sounds of Soulja Boi playing through race-side speakers and other phantasmagoria.


JG said...

My heart swells with pride. Anda you are a one-of-a-kind brother, runner, oenophile, intelligence analyst, adventurer, chef/bartender, and so much more....AND you write a damn good narrative. Congratulations on a brave effort- still not too shabby for your first marathon. And like a true Greeney you have a great story to tell.
your sis

Anonymous said...

Dear Anda,
Dad read your eight-page narrative to me this morning. You know me. I don't have much patience when it comes to reading stories. With so much jargon in chemistry and physiology, no wonder I could not read it last night before I went to bed. After he finished the first page, I almost said to him, "Why don't you just jump to the last page and see if he accomplished his running goal?". Well, I resisted the urge and listened to him read through the rest seven pages.
Congratulations. This is your first marathon and you reached the finish line! Hope you are recovering from it nicely. I was very surprised to read in your epilog that you were alreay talking about what you would do differently when you run your next marathon. I suppose you already regained your strenth and bounced back.
Beth is away in England visiting Paew's sister. I will print out a copy for her to read. It will be very interesing to see if she can identify with you. She ran several Boston marathons in the past.


mad dog said...

Anda, you look naked in some of these photos. I don't feel comfortable looking at them at work. Nonetheless, you got your first marathon out of the way. Hope life is good out west.
-mad dog