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Walk Towards The Light: A Race Report

Posted Jan 11 2009 5:41pm
January 7, 2007--the morning of the Walt Disney World Marathon--dawned perfectly . . . if you're a tropical fish. I'm pretty sure that I found Nemo in corral A with me, and he found the 90% humidity much to his liking. You could actually see the air under the glare of the arc lights. I kid you not. Nemo's gills were working just fine thank you. We humans, however, might have preferred 55 and dry.
The day actually dawned about four and a half hours after I did. To do the Disney Marathon, with thousands upon thousands of your closest friends, you have to hop a bus to the start area before 0400, so that you can eat, wait, pee, wait, walk approximately 1k to the start corral, wait some more . . . .
Unfortunately, I had a Nytro-like moment before the start. In the "transition" area, one could find untold hundreds of those little blue houses. I have a well trained body that ordinarily knows that when I rise early and eat, I expect it to . . . er . . . "transition" approximately 60 minutes later. This morning, however, I got nuthin'
So I joined the herd of humanity down to the actual start line. About half-way there, the road forks. To the left went most of the party-goers, first-timers and just-finishers. I'm not putting them down at all. They were loud and jovial and having a great time. They belong on the roads every bit as much as the lanky run machines who can break three hours. To the right, however, went the non-virgins and those running for times into start corrals organized by proven finishing times. They were quieter, more grim, and more than a little worried because they were well aware of what the conditions meant. In the end, I think most of us turned into "just-finishers."
I went to the right with my group and went to "Corral A" which was designated for those who had finished a marathon under four hours. It was a grim lot those Corral A-ers. Lots of skinniness and softball calves and fleet looking dudes, but most wearing that 1000 yard stare of a jump veteran who knows what is about to happen when the door opens on the airplane. The Disneyfied big screen MC shouted out, "WHO'S DOING THEIR FIRST MARATHON TODAY!!!!" A cheer went up across the road. Corral A, not so much.
After an interval of time, a Disney National Anthem in which there were actually rockets that glared red and bombs bursting in air. Then the start gun with a huge conflagration of fireworks. Time to go.
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I knew the humidity would be a factor, but I had no idea the magnitude of the handicap it would pose. Within the first two miles, it became very clear that survival was going to be the order of the day. My first mile was very comfortable, very easy and slightly under 9 minutes, which is what I averaged for my last marathon pace. My heartrate, however, told another tale. Although my perceived effort was very low, my legs were very fresh, and my breathing was easy as you please, the heartrate was well over 150, which I cannot sustain for a 3+ hour effort. Through the first 3 miles it became clear that in the conditions that prevailed, I physically could not run slow enough to bring my heartrate down sufficiently below my lactate threshold to complete a marathon.
Plan B: there are 22 aid stations on this course. Permission granted to walk the aid stations in order to lower the heartrate and clear lactate buildup so that, while running, I can go at least fast enough to maintain somewhat efficient form.
This worked fairly well though the first half of the race. I was relaxed, fresh, and unlabored while running, but the heart rates were consistently 155 through 160, which I would ordinarily not expect to see unless I were doing an interval session. A walk interval generally reduced the heartrate to the 140s, and I was able to maintain splits of about 9:15 or so through the first 10-11 miles.
There is a long stretch from Mile 3 to Mile 10 where you are outside any of the Disney parks running on a dark Florida highway. I thought this would be the worst or most discouraging part of the race. Strangely, it was the most fun. I felt good. I was relaxed. It was calm and dark along the roads. I was maintaining low 9 minute splits with no perceived effort. The only worry was the heartrate. How long could this go on?
Mile 10 brings one into the side entrance of the Magic Kingdom for a run down "Main Street USA." It is a little surreal and makes you feel a little dirty to enter "the happiest place on earth" and run by the likes of Wendy, Jasmine and Alice while Buckcherry is blaring "Crazy B*tch" in your ears. Similarly, running past a line of Disney furry characters in Disney MGM studios while Nine Inch Nails screams "I wanna [bleep] you like an animal" is more than a little disturbing. Whaddayagonnado?
Thankfully, my own Crazy Beyotch pain in the neck was largely quiet during the race. I only paused at the medical tent at mile 14 to slather on some Bio-Freeze, mostly as a preventative. There was no need to resort to Greyhound's Little Helper.
After the Magic Kingdom is a long stretch of no parks while you run to the Animal Kingdom. I passed the half-marathon mark feeling OK given the circumstances, but the sun was rising, and the effort was starting to show. The heartrates had risen from 155-ish to 160-ish while running, the pace was starting to come down, and the recovery walks were less effective. Instead of 140 for recovery, I could only manage 150 or so while walking.
"Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming."
The Animal Kingdom bit between miles 15 and 17 seemed particularly brutal. The concrete surface is rutted and pock marked with elevation changes to mimic a dirt road without the dirt. It totally tears up your legs, joints and stride. Exiting the park, however, is no improvement. It just dumps you from relative shade to open parking lot and highway in the now-fully-risen-sun. By this point, the course was littered with pace bands that had been discarded in digust.
From there, obviously, the splits continued to deteriorate and the heartrates continued to climb. Polar tells me I reached 178, which is higher than I have ever seen in a track workout and is only two beats shy of my theoretical, untested max heartrate. In fact, based upon that untested maximum, Polar tells me I did an entire marathon in and above zone 5. No surprise that my time deteriortate to well slower than 4 hours.
The last four miles I vascilated between wanting to do as well as I could under the conditions, finishing as close to 4 hours as possible, and just wanting to manage the effort to finish without injury or a debt of exertion that would delay a resumption of training. The last mile was especially long. Two hundred yards of very slow running by that point caused my hands to tingle from oxygen debt and the little black dots appeared in my tunnel vision.
WALK.TOWARDS.THE.LIGHT.
In the words of Bill Bowerman, describing his first "jog" with Arthur Lydiard, "The only thing that kept me going was the hope that I might die."
For all that, I think I'm as proud of this race as I am of the Houston Marathon where I first broke 4 hours and changed my whole concept of what was possible for me. In this race, my mind raced better even if my body raced slower. I overcame the negative head talk. I was able to largely stay in the moment without worrying too much about what was coming up. I was able to solve problems, surmount hills and tactically work through challenges as they occurred. I focused on my own body and its feelings rather than being overcome by the power of suggestion from other racers who were dropping out or having their own problems.
I'm sure things are different when you have that little 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike to warm up for the marathon; but, all-in-all, I'm encouraged. If my body will hold together through the training, I think my mind might have the resources to carry me over the course.
I'll have some more pics when I get to the other camera in Mrs. Greyhound's purse, so check back later. For now I'll leave you with the Disney Bling:
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