Running Backward in Mad City

Event: Madison Half Marathon
Where & When: 7:25 a.m. Sunday May 25, Madison, WI
Results: 2:10:11 (9:57 min/mile)

The Madison Marathon has been on my list of to-do races for a couple years. During grade school I lived in this fun, progressive college town and have fond memories of the city. My parents met here as students and grandparents lived here, so it’s a significant setting in that way.

This year I had plenty of incentive to register. The race was scheduled at a good point after the Boston Marathon to be something to look forward to. A group from the Kickrunners  online community were coming in for the race, so it would be a fun Memorial Day weekend of running and meeting some Internet acquaintences in person. I signed up for the half marathon to see what kind of performance I could achieve in the 13.1 mile distance five weeks after a marathon.

Picnic Point pathAfter an 8 1/2 hour road trip and what seemed like dozens of tolls, Lloyd and I arrived in Madison from Ohio on Friday. We settled in and headed to the University of Wisconsin for a short run. In 45 minutes we got an out-and-back foot tour of State Street, the Memorial Union terrace, the dirt path along Lake Mendota, and popular recreation area Picnic Point. Probably from excitement, my pace was faster than usual for easy pace, but it didn’t feel like any effort. Post-run, we enjoyed a pitcher of Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale and meeting a small group of early arriving Kickrunners in the student union.Mmm ... BEER!

Saturday was perfect late-spring weather that brings everyone out to stroll, run, or cycle
along Madison’s lakes. Lloyd, who would be leading the 3:50 marathon pace group on Sunday, worked at the race expo in the morning. I spent time at the expo and neighboring World’s Largest Brat Fest, a celebration of sausage organized by the same promoter that puts on the marathon! I people-watched and soaked up the atmospheres at the two very contrasting events before Lloyd finished his shift and we joined his friend Mindi for a take-out lunch in front of the state capitol building.

An especially nice part of Saturday was the pre-race dinner hosted by Kristine, a fellow pacer and Madison resident. Before the dinner I noticed my stomach felt slightly upset, but attributed the discomfort to traveling and being away from a usual routine and diet. At the dinner I had little appetite, but made myself eat enough pasta, bread, and salad to be fueled for the next morning. The meal tasted delicious, but didn’t settle well. I counted on a good night’s sleep to take care of that.

Race morning was early as usual, especially so since Lloyd needed to meet his pace team near the Capitol Square start area by 6:30 a.m. We downed breakfast, parked at the finish area, swiftly shuttled to the start, and camped out in a nearby hotel lobby. With three indoor restrooms and relatively few runners, it was like having pre-race VIP status. I was extra appreciative of the comfortable bathrooms, as I discovered my gut had a “runs” plan of its own and apparently wanted a head start on my legs. I chalked it up to pre-race nerves and was grateful my innards’ workout was over in time for the main event.

I warmed up by running the first half mile of the course just before the marathon race started. Coming back I got to see the entire marathon field begin its journey, including Lloyd leading his 3:50 runners. Conditions felt slightly warm in the high 60s with sun, but considering Madison had evaded a soggy forecast, I was grateful for a lovely morning, excited for the race, and several times thought about how I felt ready to “knock this one out of the park” and have a run I’d be really pleased about.

A 5K I’d raced a week earlier predicted I could do a 1:48-1:50 Half and I fully planned to aim for that. I felt fit enough and extra motivated by personal connections to the course. Before race day, I had studied the route carefully. With a little help from my dad I was able to recall quite a few significant landmarks along the 13.1 mile route, and was excited to run through half a dozen nostalgic spots.

Fifteen minutes later, it was the half marathoners’ turn to line up. My plan was to start with the 1:50 pace group to begin comfortably before hitting my own pace and going for whatever it could get me.

In a sense, that’s exactly what I did.

Mile 1 took us downhill from the Capitol, getting the group out 15 seconds ahead of pace. It felt easy, just like mile 2 which we came to 16:52 into the race. This portion brought us to the first landmark, a lagoon that freezes to an ice rink I had loved to skate on as a kid. In the second mile I noticed my stomach still had jitters, and was surprised my nerves hadn’t calmed after the gun went off like they usually do. But the pace was very comfortable, so I urged myself to relax with it.

We came to the first aid station. Because it was warm, I grabbed a cup of water and almost spit out the first sip. It was like gulping a mouthful of chemical fluid. I tried to ignore the foul chemical flavor. Near the third mile of the course, we rolled over some hills on Gorham Street. Maintaining focus on running helped me forget the taste in my mouth. Mile 3 was just a little slow and I planned to make up time knowing the course would flatten along Lake Mendota.

Another aid station, another mouthful of what I can only describe as spoiled chlorine. My hydration plan instantly changed to drinking only Gatorade for the remaining 10 miles. I tried to ignore thoughts of how far away that distance sounded. That is not the mindset for a good day!

What I couldn’t ignore was no longer having Pacer Tim, our 1:50 group leader, in my sight. By Miles 3 and 4, my pace had already dropped from about 8:20. I was now officially queasy and had the feeling that I was barely staggering forward in slow motion. When I pushed the pace, my stomach threatened to push up its contents. I was amazed I was still maintaining a faster than 9 minute/mile average, hitting 5 miles in 44 minutes and change. Coming to the same lakefront path Lloyd and I had run two days earlier, I marveled at the difference less than 48 hours could make as I lost count of all the runners who seemed to be flying past. Taking motivation from my friend Meredith who completed a 100 mile endurance run while battling food poisoning, I revised my plan to what would turn out to be a very optimistic goal of now coming in under two hours. Again I shook off thoughts of how long and agonizing it would seem to keep moving forward for eight more miles. I wished I could just stop and lie down, but no way would I DNF a race I’d wanted to do for years, or a “mere” half marathon for that matter.

I shuffled on. More runners passed. The 2:00 pace group leader passed. We turned from the lakefront to travel past the Badgers’ Camp Randall Stadium. How could it be that the gentle incline leading along the arena felt more brutal and slowed me down more than Boston’s Newton Hills had?

I kept staggering forwad, feeling semi-comatose, turning onto Monroe Street. “Go Andrea!” I heard and came out of a partial stupor to look for a familiar face. I briefly made eye contact with the woman who had been kind enough to cheer for me, wondering how she knew my name? I was so out of it, I forgot race organziers had printed each runner’s name on their bib.

I had been looking forward to this section in Mile 7 that passes my old ballet school, now a futon store. What I didn’t recall was the endless uphill grind heading west. At least I wasn’t the only miserable soul — “What kind of run is this?!” the zillionth runner to pass me asked. Along Monroe Street, I spotted a generous man handing out bottles of water to anyone who wanted a drink. Grateful for non-putrid tasting liquid, I sipped from the sport bottle as I trudged up.

Turning off Monroe, we met a sheer drop-off that hurtled us down to the Vilas Zoo. Normally I love downhill running, but this time I clunked down, feeling the impact reverberate through my entire body with each clumsy thud.

Oh God, there were still five miles left. How could this marathoner be feeling more fatigue and agony in Mile 8 of a half marathon than at the end of the past two marathons I’ve completed? Why didn’t I sign up for the 6.5 mile quarter marathon? Or join a relay team? I consoled myself that I hadn’t registered for the full marathon, something I’d briefly considered, and reminded myself that no one was making me complete 13.1 miles today except for myself.

I did my best to stay distracted by playing tourist to endure the remaining distance. We passed Randall Avenue a block from where my best friend Rachel had lived. We ran along Drake Street, where my parents rented a house as newlyweds; St. Mary’s Hosptial, where my mom was born; and Lake Wingra, a man-made water body my Great Uncle Al had helped construct.

Noticing Wisconsin-isms in my fellow racers also amused me, even as the nausea I’d had since Mile 3 became an official stomach ache. One woman who passed me (of course) sported a dairy-cow printed tank top reading “Milk Does a Body Good.” Another runner wore a singlet displaying the Pabst Blue Ribbon logo and name of the tavern that sponsored him. Somewhere in my own private hell I was able to chuckle, and wonder if the next person who passed me (of course) would be chomping on a bratwurst.

Shuffle, stagger, struggle. I had avoided reading my mile splits, but at Mile 11 I found my pace matching the mile. 11 minute miles in a half marathon! That’s slower than recovery run pace! This really was a run back in time, taking me not only on a tour of a childhood home, but reuniting me with the pace of my very first half marathon five years earlier. What was the point of even running? I wanted to walk, but knew that would just prolongue the misery. I told myself if I could finish without walking, that would be the day’s victory. Ah, the mind games we can play in a race.

Just after Mile 12, I spotted the angled roof of the Alliant Energy Center marking the finish. At least it would all be over soon. Trudge, slog, trudge, slog. Oh look, there goes 2:10 pace group leader, last night’s gracious hostess Kristine. I made it to the cheering spectators lining the chute. Normally this would be my cue to kick it in with everything left. What was the point? A few fans hollered my name, and I replied with a half-hearted attempt to pick it up and at least look like a runner. Kristine stood at the finish yelling encouragement. Between watching her excitement at her groups’ success and realizing I was finally done with the death march, I couldn’t help but smile as I felt the chip-timing mat under my weary feet.

Dizzy, I slowly walked to Lloyd’s car, where I reclined for 20 minutes before taking my time to return to the finish area to watch him lead his marathon group in right on time.  He needed me to retrieve business cards to hand out from his car, and I was able to run back and forth for that. Funny how when duty calls, it’s easier to transcend discomfort.

UW Union TerraceMy best guess is I had a slight bug that wouldn’t have bothered me had I not attempted to run on Sunday. I didn’t feel 100 percent, but revived enough to enjoy post-race festivities at the Great Dane, Monday breakfast and time on a Kickrunner pal’s farm, a final visit to State Street and the Union Terrace with Lloyd, and quick neighborhood tour and dinner in Chicago. By Tuesday night’s group run in Ohio, I was back to my normal training pace and felt great.

If you race enough, at some point you’ll encounter and learn from anything and everything. The Madison Half Marathon was my opportunity to realize how to run with tummy distress. Hopefully I won’t need to draw from the lesson for a long while, but now know I’m prepared to lurch through the miles with a lurching stomach.




3 Responses to “Running Backward in Mad City”

  1. 1 Jay May 30, 2008 at 6:00 am

    I’m sorry to hear you had a challenging race, and sorry as well that you hated the water of my fair city. You must have GREAT water where you live, as Madison’s water is pretty good.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences of the run. The half-marathon was the longest distance I’ve ever run, and reading folks’ blog accounts is really helping me learn about the sport.

  2. 2 Tim May 31, 2008 at 6:11 am

    Sorry you had trouble in Madison. Bugs have a way of undoing the best laid plans. I was hoping you and Lloyd would make it to Ann Arbor. We have good beer and nice trails to run on. Next time I hope our paths will cross.

  3. 3 Amy June 1, 2008 at 7:21 am

    Yuck. Wasn’t a good day for either of us! I think PDR would make a good revenge race, don’t you? 😉

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