Monday, June 18, 2012

Ann Arbor Marathon

I wish I could say I have a home town advantage today for the Ann Arbor Marathon, but the only advantage I really have is knowing where to park. Still, I’m happy to be here, though a little sad because this is my last race in Michigan. I’m glad to leave on a high note like this.

I guess I feel more confident going into this, knowing that I’ve run most of the route at some point in my three years in Ann Arbor, so that I know I’ll be able to run this barefoot with no problem, despite my not being in the shape I’d like, and not having my 100% summer hobbit feet.

The race starts outside The Big House, the U of M Stadium, and will end here on the fifty yard line, which will rock. In the meantime, we’ll be running all over Ann Arbor. This isn’t a loop course, there’s a lot of ‘out and back’. It’s also early, 6:45 (!), with the halfers starting at seven. We seem a meager bunch of marathoners lining up. When I picked up my bib and t-shirt yesterday, the list of people signed up was only like three columns, and it’s possible to sign up even this morning. I’ve been told that’s normal for a first marathon, but still, given the size of the city, and the proximity to the Detroit area, I would’ve thought more folks would be here. The price might have something to do with that, at a whopping $100, though that seems to be getting the norm. At least for this one I think most of that money goes to charity, not to the race directors.

I’m trying something new-ish: starting towards the back, and slower. I’m tired of starting super fast, then getting passed the whole race. That’s just mentally brutal on my ego. I’m going to see what it’s like to pass people for most of the race. I think though, that that will put me at a slower pace overall, because there does seem to be an advantage to starting fast and strong and taking advantage of the adrenaline. But not this time! I’m lining up right behind the 4:20 pacer, and see where that takes me.

The weather is warm, already this morning. There was a thunderstorm last night west of here, but the streets are dry in this area. Very muggy though. Even with the cloud cover, I think we’re going to running through hot soup. Many guys are already going shirtless, though one poor muslim woman is dressed head to toe, including a head scarf. Brutal.

And, with the ringing of the air horn, we are off. No starting in stages for this one. And everyone around me seems to be doing the same strategy—starting slow. I feel no adrenaline rush at all, really, maybe due to the familiarity of the terrain, and/or the smallness of the pack.

I was wondering if there’d be any more barefooters here, and soon I start hearing comments from some of the onlookers about a barefoot guy just ahead of me. We take a right on Liberty, a street I’ve walked many a time, particularly to go to Jerusalem Garden here on the right. Best mideastern food in the city, and maybe best food period. This is the point where the halfers break off. I haven’t seen any of them, I was wondering if some of the faster ones might catch us, but it’s still really early. They’ll all be done before I even get to Mile 20.

We do a zig and a zag and end up on Geddes, downhill, heading for the river area, I spot the barefooter. He’s someone I haven’t seen before. I shuffle up and say, “Nice shoes.” (Barefooters can say that to each other, because it involves irony).

He looks down at my feet and laughed. “Hey! Nice! Now they can’t say I’m a freak out here.”

“Well, I think we’re still freaks.”

He’s running with a friend, who’s name I don’t catch, who’s running in some kind of minimalist shoes. They’re from Grand Haven area and actually not part of the Barefoot Running Society Michigan Chapter, though I do my best to sell it. The barefoot guy is Mike, and this is his first full barefoot marathon. We chat a while, exchanging info, then I move on ahead for a little bit.

Geddes is kinda rough. I’m trying to run on the middle paint line, which is much smoother. But once we get on Huron River Parkway, it’s smooth smooth brand new pavement. Doesn’t get better than this. Yes!

Interesting: this is one of the ‘out and back’ areas, so I finally get to see the frontrunners of a race. The guy in first has a hundred foot lead on everyone else, and he looks effortless, smiling and waving to us. Also noticeable with the whole front pack of dudes is how little body fat they have. Probably not a coincidence. None of them seem like in a ‘balls out’ sprint at this point, but that may be deceiving, they may just be relaxed, while their legs are ‘busy working overtime’ (as the Beatles song goes).

We move into the North Campus of the University of Michigan, deserted on a Sunday in summer. There are a bunch of mini out-n-backs in here, where we just slow down, run around a cone, and head back the other way, so I get to see people twenty minutes ahead, and behind, and lo, here comes another barefooter coming at me, in the ahead-of-me category. He smiles and points at my feet. “Rocking the barefoot!” I don’t recognize him either. Another rogue barefooter, not associated with the BRS website. Michigan seems to have its share of them.

Barefoot Mike and his friend has passed me at some point, and now I catch up to them. So really, all three barefooters (that I know of) are running around the same (medium) pace.

Another guy I run next to for a while kinda looks around and says, “There doesn’t seem to be that many people running anymore.”

I smile. “What are you saying? That we’re some of the last people?”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying!”

We shoot back out on to Huron River Parkway and my heart kinda breaks, because I’m seeing the real last of the pack come through the other way, stragglers who are already walking, and/or doing the ‘penguin waddle’. Man, they’re just going to be out here forever.

I gotta say though, that even if I’m on the slower side, I’m enjoying not being passed. For the most part I’m running with people at the same pace, and gradually, slowly, passing others. I’m not full of energy, but not tired either. Slow and steady. I AM sweating my ass off though. Time to pull off the t-shirt, the sky is still overcast, I won’t get burned and I can even out my farmer’s tan.

We head toward the University Hospital, which requires a hill, ugh. And, now the moment I’ve been dreading, The Arb, a wooded park north of Ann Arbor. I did many a run in here a few years ago, so I know what’s coming, my old enemy: gravel. There’s a flat gravel road that parallels the Huron River for a while, and it just sucks. Or, it did. There seem to be less of the bigger stones than there were before. That’s a bonus, though there’s still many smaller ones, and grit, which at this point, basically halfway, is kinda...gritty on my feets. They’re not raw, but they’re not at their toughest anymore. So, ouch ouch ouch.

And then there’s a steep hill, also gravelly, though with some sandy parts, and dead leaves, so I at least don’t slow and walk. I anticipated getting beaucoup passed at this point, but the hill, and the heat, and the humidity seem to be getting to people. Lots of sweaty flushed faces. And then behind me I hear, “Hey, it’s Tarzan! Hey Tarzan!”

Grr. It’s one of the pacers, the 4:10 guy, with a small cadre, trying to be way too upbeat with me. He points down to the gravel. “Hey Tarzan, did you have a clue that we’d get this stuff?”

I grit my teeth. “Yes. I knew.”

“Man, I sure didn’t!

They continue on and we pop out on the hill, exit The Arb, and head into the main campus area, which is blessedly smooth and clear cement sidewalks. Aaahhhh.....

The pack is noticeably spread out by now. So, well, if I’m just behind the 4:10 pack, that’s ok. I’m not sure I’ll be able to step the pace up, but as long as I stay ahead of the 4:20 pack, I’ll be happy.

We head out on to Washtenaw, a main thoroughfare between Ann Arbor and it’s small sister, Ypsilanti. We go out that far, but this is one of the longer out and backs, with hills. This pavement is kinda rough, enough that I’m sticking to running on the paint lines. The 4:00 pacer and his group pass going the opposite way, so that pretty much seals the deal—I’m not gonna catch them. As long as—

Huffing and puffing behind me. A large group. No! Is it? Yes, the 4:20 group has caught me. Argh. Well, ok. It is what it is. But I try and stay right behind them.

Two lanes of traffic are coned off for us, but we’re all mostly a single stream of runners, no big wide groups. I get to the farthest point out and simply loop around the cone. Surprisingly, there are people stopping and walking at this point, which seems odd for this part of the pack, this early, but I think it’s that heat and humidity combined with the hills. I’m still good, able to maintain on the hills, though I’m definitely starting to feel ‘it’, meaning the legs are a little stiff. I’m trying to be good on hydrating, carrying my own bottle, plus using the stations, sometimes dumping water over my head. I’ve brought some Paul Neuman organic raisins this time, two little boxes. I was eating them a lot for my recent backpacking trips, and I thought, huh, why not for races too? Natural energy. They certainly taste good!

And then south, on State Street, another main road that connects the downtown Ann Arbor, and the university, with I-94. A couple miles, runners even more spread out, though a nice mellow downhill, which I take advantage of by just leaning forward and doing my best Barefoot Ken Bob imitation, lifting my feet as fast as possible.

State takes us down to the huge Briarwood Mall. We’ll do a complete clock-wise circuit of it’s outer circle, and in fact the main road in and out is cut off for us, so the detour brings cars heading to I-94 in the opposite lane. There’s a lot of them, and they don’t look happy with us for this inconvenience. Sorry ladies and gentleman!

Somewhere in here, maybe it’s the raisins?, I get some energy. Or, maybe it’s just that I’m maintaining energy, and others around me are tiring, but I’m passing some people. One couple, stops completely, the guy saying that he can’t even breathe in the humidity.

Out of the parking lot, and back onto Main Street, south of where we started. This too is a main road into town, and we have one lane of traffic coned off for us. The road is rough. That and my feet are getting tender. But we’re close! Somewhere in there we went over Mile 20! And we actually pass the stadium again, where we were this morning. I was wondering about that. I can’t remember the details of how we end up back inside the stadium, but something is odd, because I’m seeing people with half-marathon medals on the sidewalk, walking back south towards us. That’s weird, shouldn’t the be coming out of the stadium? Maybe I misunderstood. Wouldn’t be the first time.

The road feels rougher this time around! No paint lines to run on, but there are long strips of tar that have been used to fill in cracks, which is nice and soft. Feets are gonna be black at the end, but that’s ok.

Instead of taking a right on Liberty, this time we stay on Main and continue north for another ‘out-n-back’ in two traffic lanes. So, we’re close. Now that’s it’s later in the morning, there are people out on the sidewalks, walking and eating breakfast outside at some of the restaurants. Plus more onlookers.

And then, suddenly, oddly, there’s that one barefoot runner, the one that was way out in front. He’s stopped, talking to a guy on a bike who must be his brother. I slow down when I get to him. “Hey man, what happened?”

He looks at me and, as if he had been waiting for me, says, “Oh. Alright. Let’s go.”

He’s been dealing with some kind of injury. “Might be a pulled muscle, or something in my knees joint.”

I smile. “Well, it can’t be your knee. Barefooters don’t have knees problems, right?”

He smiles. Turns out he’s from Ann Arbor, has been running barefoot for three years, but this is his first marathon.

“Dude, you were going fast for a while.”

“Yeah, I think I started a little too fast.”

I like seeing the ‘double-whammy’ looks on spectators when they see two barefoot runners. Kevin and I chat about how hard it is to find a sense of community, to find other people to run with. As we’re talking, we’re zigging and zagging through some back roads that I’ve never been on before. I can see the Stadium to the south, but, seemingly suddenly, there’s smaller football field coming up, with lots of people around. It’s like the U of M band practice field. “Oh, is this it? Are we at the end?”


“Well then let’s go! Finish strong!”

I see a moment of ‘oh shit I thought I was just going to jog in’ flash across his face, but when I start sprinting, he’s right there with me. And we get onto the field, grass, so we can just let loose with longer harder strides. He actually pulls ahead a little, which pushes me to push myself to catch him. I’m also aware of how awesome a moment this is: two barefoot runners pumping it out at the end. The crowd goes wild. We cross at the same time. Yes!

I check my watch. Ha. So, in honor of the new Bob Marley documentary out, I’ve run the race in 4:20!

I get my medal and turn to give Kevin a fist pump or high five or something, but he’s bent over, breathing hard, looking pale. Come to think of is, I’m feeling kinda a little nauseous. Like, heat stress-ish. A woman medic comes over to me and asks how I’m feeling, looking very concerned. Someone else hands me a water bottle, the thought of drinking water makes me almost vomit. Yeah, that’s kinda bad.

But, poor Kevin has his family and a couple medics hovering around, not for his heat stress, but because his left foot is covered in blood. Wow. He had a HUGE blood blister going, I didn’t know about it, maybe he didn’t either, but the sprint at the end popped it. I check in with him and he says it’s fine, and I actually agree. There’s blood trapped inside the blister, making it look like a huge bloody gash. I tell him he’s earned his Red Badge of Courage, though I’m more concerned with how pale he looks, though I suspect I look just as bad.

Anyway, he’s got his family there. I wander off on the grass to stretch a bit, testing myself. Still don’t want to drink, but I do spot the tables where the food goodies are, and wander over. Oranges. Yes. THAT sounds good. And, just on general principle, since they have it, I take a slice of pizza.

I sit on a curb, next to two amazing hot barefoot women. Alas, they’ve just taken off their shoes after the race, as have many runners, making me think, well, if it feels so good to take off those shoes, maybe you don’t even need them!

My feet are ok. They don’t actually seem that raw, not even the normally easily raw spot on the ball of my left foot. Though, they are really black from all that tar. I guess it’s that they don’t feel raw.

Ok, I don’t think I’m going to pass out. And now a light sprinkle has started. Where have you been, rain?

I walk back out to Main and there’s still people coming north. Man, the people at the end are kinda more incredible than that fast ones, to stay with it that long, to be on their feet that long. Also, to maybe do that plus have the doubt of, Am I going to be able to do this? That’s brave. I offer a raised fist to them as they pass. As for me, time to head into town, for a huge mango smoothie at Espresso Royale, and later, some fatoush and hummus at Jerusalem Garden. A great last race in Michigan!