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Thursday, May 31, 2012

A true runner of steel

I'm sitting in my hotel room, two and a half hours before the start of the Pittsburgh Marathon but my mind is still busy processing the events of my last marathon.  Big Sur was by far 26.2 of the most challenging miles I have traversed, but also the most beautiful.  The pictures you see, and the stories you hear pale in comparison to the actual beauty you experience when you are standing on the edge of the world.  With those thoughts still fresh in my mind, I couldn't help but wonder what Pittsburgh would bring.  The bragging right of this race- upon finishing I can proudly proclaim that I am a "Runner of Steel" and that I have conquered the "City of Bridges".  This would also be the final event in my challenge of running 3 marathons in 20 days.  I set out to find the race start with a smile on my face. Enjoying the ride was my goal.

The sun was shining and the race was off without a hitch.  I found myself admiring the neighborhood restaurants and hangouts and cheering for the crowd support. Yes, they need support too! The miles were moving pretty quickly which I was quite happy about. Not because I wanted the race to end, simply because you can never be sure how your body will feel 7 days after 26.2 miles of wind and hills. We hit the first bridge and I was happily surprised to find that it was relatively flat.  Pre-race talk of bridges immediately brought me back to the Running for the Bay Marathon in Apalachiacola, Florida. Miles and miles of bridges- over the bay- high enough for large boats to maneuver under (read: steep grade). To say I was relieved to cross a bridge that was relatively flat would be a major understatement. Another highlight of the bridges- this is where I first spotted someone dressed as Steve Prefontaine.  Shaggy blonde hair, mustache, tiny running shorts and 1970's striped socks.  Perfect! 

The relief that I felt having crossed five flat bridges faded quickly as we began to climb Forbes Ave. From there on out it was all rolling hills just in different neighborhoods. The temperature was rising.  Thankfully the neighborhood trees provided ample shade over the course. I was using my experience from Boston regarding my hydration- some in the mouth and some on the head. A delicate balance. It seemed to be working. The last three or four tenths of a mile was an up hill climb on a freshly paved road. Ugly. Hot. But I was still smiling. Three marathons in 20 days. Done. I was officially a Runner of Steel!!

 The next morning I gathered my things, stepped out of the hotel and hailed a cab. Time to head home. Small talk in the cab is something I am used to.  Conversation with the driver, a middle aged man speaking in a distinct accent, was no exception.   It started out innocently enough as he asked if I had been in town for the race. I confirmed his suspicions and he began to tell me that he had run a few back in the day.  I didn't think too much of it as he moved on to asking me about all of the ins and outs of how the timing chips and corrals worked. The races he had run had nothing like this. Very interesting I thought. Before I knew it he was telling me that he was forced to run marathons. 
"Really?" I asked.
"Yes" he confirmed.
The distinct accent I was hearing was one of a man from Iraq. He had lived there most of his life. His marathon experience was one of celebration- only not HIS celebration.
Every year a marathon was run on Saddam Hussein's birthday, in his honor.  Athletes were collected from every area with a sports program.  Basketball, boxing, soccer, it didn't matter. A minimum of twenty athletes form each area were collected and forced to run in the celebratory marathon.

I was in shock. It is challenging enough to run a marathon when you train for it, when you want to run it.  I could not imagine being an athlete whose sport requires maximum 20-30 seconds of effort before a rest and then being forced to run 26.2 miles! That is a TRUE runner of steel.

He went on to tell me that growing up in Iraq great athletes were not allowed to play for successful teams in other countries, as is quite common for athletes in other parts of the world.  They were forced to play for their own country. They were threatened before hand that if they did not win, they would be severely punished and thrown in jail for an undetermined amount of time.  I recalled reading stories of the Iraqi soccer team and cruel punishment, but to hear it from someone who lived it was a completely different experience.  

The drama and sadness of our conversation then turned to an update of the sports teams of today.  He told me that since the war, things were getting much better. Athletes were more successful and were allowed to take their talents to the teams of their choice. Freedom meant so much more than just life without a dictator. It meant having the ability to enjoy every aspect of life whenever and wherever. As an Iraqi he was thankful for the war and for the new life it brought to his country.

I was so elated to hear the positive impact of the efforts of the United States and our military forces. Their efforts not only freed a country from a horrible dictator, but also revived the county's pastimes.  People were allowed to take part in sports that they chose and were no longer forced to run marathons to entertain others.  

I am thankful to live in a country where I know people will not only fight to maintain the freedom I have to choose to run marathons or not but also fight for those same freedoms for others.  

Happy Memorial Day and thank you Pittsburgh for this amazing experience!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

We arrived in Monterey, California a few days before The Big Sur International Marathon- the capping event of the Boston to Big Sur challenge. We had scheduled our trip this way so we could take in the sights and have a day or two of RnR.  We walked around Cannery Row,  made our way through the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium and enjoyed lunch while the harbor seals barked playfully.  Life was good, and then...somehow in all of our preparing for this trip, we seemed to have missed the part about having to take a bus, at 3:30 am, an hour drive to the start line of the race. Now I KNOW that surely this would not have been a detail that any of us would have missed.  That means getting up at 2:30 am to eat, dress and drive to the bus pick up. WHAAAT???! There are other races famous for this sort of thing- Disney is one of them.  Ok, you may not have to ride in a bus for an hour to get to the start, but the race starts very early in the morning.  Both NY and Boston require a long trip to the start coordinated by either buses or a combination of cab, boat AND bus.  I certainly had ben warned about those instances.  So why had we not heard about this? Hmm, oh well.  There wasn't any other way to make it happen so we just put on our happy faces and did it.

The hour long bus ride was an experience.  We were thankful it was pitch dark outside.  None of us wanted to know how it was possible that Houdini, the driver, was able to maneuver a school bus along the cliffs of Big Sur. We were distracting ourselves with the cool blend of Usher, Michael Jackson and some mariachi bands looped over the PA system.

Arriving at runner's village we were greeted by a few thousand runners and some volunteer's who obviously had a sense of humor. Some were wearing funny hats and outfits and some had placed playful signs on the porta-potty doors.  The humor definitely livened the early morning crowd.

 It was a bit chilly and we were eager to get started.  The forecast called for a great day- in the 60's, sunny, and no wind.  PERFECT!  The first few miles were downhill through a beautiful park in Big Sur. The redwood trees were gorgeous, constantly commanding my gaze.  "Wow, this is gorgeous"...Yes I actually said it out loud. After 5 miles or so we came out of the trees and into the grasslands.  I couldn't decide if I was in another country- like Ireland- or if I was in a commercial. Specifically the commercial for happy cows from California.  There are a few- either about milk or cheese-in either case they talk about happy cows and the fact that they live in California. Yes, indeed they do.  This was breath-taking. Rolling green hills with happy cows that seemed to be smiling.  They were either smiling because they were happy or laughing at the silly humans that were running down the street being chased by...nothing.  Weird.

Just about that time, as I was reveling in the beauty, I felt it. The wind.  Not just a light breeze, but real wind. Things started to get chilly and the fog was closing in on us. I was cursing myself for tossing my gloves, but just kept moving forward.  I tried a few times to draft off some of the taller people in front of me.  It didn't work too well but at least it kept me out of the wind for a step or two.  I did mention that it was a HEAD wind, right? One step at a time I just kept going and then I heard it.  Someone behind me said, "Look, it's the ocean".  I looked down to the left.  I could barely see it through the fog, but it was there.  The ocean crashing against the cliff. "AMAZING", I thought to myself. After a half a mile or so the fog lifted and I could see it- the ocean, it was breath taking. Here we were running along the cliffs of California, with nothing between us and the water except the salt air. I took a deep breath in and smiled.  I couldn't help it.  I must've been smiling from ear to ear, I was so thrilled to be exactly where I was at that exact moment in time.

The views didn't stop. Twenty-six point two miles of the most magnificent views.  Sure there were hills.  In fact, one was 2 miles long (see below).  THAT one also had some of the strongest head winds.

There were hills, fog, headwinds (which we later learned were over 40 MPH),  canted roads and virtually no crowd support. Somehow, through it all I was smiling.  No one was complaining.  Not one person. Runners were stopping, taking pictures of the views all the while smiling and laughing.
The local newspaper renamed the Boston to Big Sur Challenge -Boiling to Brutal. No doubt Boston was hot, and this was by far the toughest course I have run, but I would do it again in a heartbeat. The views were enough to lift us out of our suffering; or at the very least to distract us enough that we failed to notice any longer.

 It was after the race, when we were all reliving our individual experiences that we solved the mystery surrounding the early morning bus ride.  After experiencing the energy and grandeur of the edge of the world  no one could remember the unpleasant moments endured to get there. This happens a lot in life.  We have to endure some not so pleasant things.  Things we would rather avoid, but in the end the payoff is so great, we would gladly do it all again.  No matter what.  This is exactly how it is with The Big Sur International Marathon. If it isn't on your list of things to experience, put it there.  You'll be glad you did.