Hartford Marathon: an experience I won’t soon forget
Thursday night I started collecting all of my clothes and food together. As I mentioned last week I purchased a Clif bar, PowerBar, Snickers Marathon Bar and a few regular Snickers bars to take with me.
Friday night I gathered the last few items together and started packing. I pulled anything I didn’t need out of my gym bag and packed too many shirts, extra running socks and my cold weather gear. I knew it was going to be cold and wanted to be ready for rain also. Just in case. Anything can happen.
I checked the weather forecast on the Hartford Courant’s web site. It said the temperature in Hartford at 8AM would be 290 and in the 50’s by Noon time. At that point I knew I would be wearing my Under Armor shirt and was considering wearing my running pants. I love the Under Armor shirt because it is so tight that nothing can chafe. I don’t like the pants so much as I feel they slow me down. That’s probably all in my imagination.
My bag was packed and re-packed at least twice. I had all of my maps to get to Hartford and to find a good parking lot. The car was gassed up and ready to go. I thought about one last dip in the hot rub but it was too cold to go outside fully dressed. I set my Timex and the alarm on my phone to 4AM. It was going to be better getting up early than getting up late.
When I signed up for Hartford, four of us were going to go and make a weekend of it. We would go down Friday afternoon and go to the Expo, hit a bar or two and have a decent pre-race dinner. Then one friend got hurt and had to stop running all together. Another friend decided not to go. That left two of us. My friend Chuck was still going to Hartford Friday but I decided to drive down Saturday morning.
Since Hartford does not have a race day pick up I asked Chuck to pick up my number at the Expo. When we signed up we were all going to the Expo, so I didn’t sign up to have my number mailed to me for $15.00. That didn’t seem to make sense to me. I faxed the release form and a copy of my driver’s license to Chuck.
At 6:20PM Friday night Chuck sent a text that he had my shirt and number. Mentally, I checked that one off of my list. Now I just worried about sleeping through my two alarms or having any sort of difficulty getting to Hartford. I sent a text back to Chuck thanking him and told him I’d send him a text when I got to Hartford. I settled into bed just after 10PM.
At around 4:25 I woke up to my phone vibrating on the floor. Apparently I had slept through 25 minutes on incessant buzzing. In my pre-conscious haze I must have shut off my watch alarm because I do not even remember it going off. As soon as my brain spun up and the race day gyro took over, I was on a mission.
I tossed a piece of bread into the toaster, stripped down in the kitchen and proceeded to put on my racing clothes. Standing there naked I could feel that the air was cold but I never felt cold. I never took a chill or shivered. Normally I would have been freezing.
While I waited for the toast to brown up I checked my bag one last time. Made sure I had my keys and wallet in my coat pockets and laced up my shoes. I put peanut butter on my toast, grabbed a glass of OJ and ate and drank as much as I could in 5 minutes before heading out the door.
As I started the car I noticed that it was not yet 5AM. I don’t recall the exact time but it was still 5 or 10 minutes before the hour. I gave the engine a minute to warm up, as it was probably 350 out, and headed for Hartford.
On the road to Hartford
I hit a turn pike rest stop to grab a coffee at Dunkin Donuts. There were 5 of us in line at 5:45AM in the morning and there was one girl behind the counter. I could tell the people in front of me were frustrated the second I got in line. I was tired and impatient and had not had any caffeine yet and she seemed to be unbelievably slow. I went from feeling bad for her for being there all by herself to feeling bad for all of us standing in line, and then back to feeling bad for her.
As I stood there trying to dampen my rage at having to wait more than 5 minutes for a coffee I realized that most of these bozos were ordering breakfast sandwiches. WTF. This girl had to put on plastic gloves each time she made a sandwich, then take them off, throw them away and take the money. Of the five people in front of me three ordered toasted bagels or sandwiches.
As I stood there, I watched her work. She was very methodical and efficient. She never touched anyone’s food unless she had the gloves on. Even with a line of pissey customers she never lost her cool and she always followed procedure. While it took me 10 minutes to get a cup of salvation, I left with a certain amount of respect for that young lady behind the counter.
Touchdown in Hartford
I arrived in Hartford around 6:30AM. My GPS was very good and took me right where I needed to go. I had two street maps as a backup and knew exactly which lot I wanted to park in. As I sat in traffic I rolled down my window to talk to a police officer who was getting her gear out of the trunk of her car. As we chatted I asked her about the temperature and she said her car thermometer said 290 just a few minutes ago. Nice.
I pulled into the lot I was looking for and got a great spot a few rows back from the street. Across the street, all of the porta-potties were lined up and kitty corner to my space a group of girls were blasting tunes, dancing, taking photos, getting dressed and having a great time. I do so love the pre-race scene. I sent a text to Chuck at 6:47AM and headed across the street to the porta-potties.
It was so early there were no lines. You could walk up and take your pick. I took the one on the end that looked large enough to park a car in. It wasn’t marked, and it would have made little sense at a marathon, but I think it was a handi-capped facility. I was probably the second person to use it, so it was pristine inside and didn’t even stink yet.
I walked past the party girls, went to my car and stripped off my shirt. I think I got an aborted whoop, but then they realized that I don’t have the physic of Brad pit or the stud du jour. They let me slip on my Under Armor in peace and humility.
I loaded up the pockets of my running vest with my various food bars. Stuffed a GU in the little pockets on the outside of my gloves, grabbed a water bottle and tossed my bag in the trunk of my car. Chuck sent a text at 7AM that he was heading over to the starting line in 15 minutes and was not taking his phone. I sent a quick text back and told him what I was wearing and where I’d be standing.
The starting line was about a quarter-mile down Capital Ave. I went and stood on the steps of the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. I figured it would be easier for Chuck to see me on the steps and it also turned out that this was the bag drop. Excellent.
This was about 7:20AM. I did a little stretching but mostly watched the crowd and kept an eye out for Chuck. Chuck and I have only met twice before. I was afraid he may not recognize me and I was having a hard time recalling exactly what he looked like. I thought maybe if I take my hat off he might see my red hair and recognize me. After about 5 minutes without my hat on I began to get cold and shiver. But I didn’t dare put my hat back on and risk Chuck not seeing me.
At 7:45AM I was getting concerned. I could look down the street and see the lines at the porta-potties. That was exactly where I needed to be right now if I was following my pre-race routine. I turned on the GPS on my watch as I knew it would need 10 minutes to lock onto the satellites. I nervously ate my Snickers Marathon bar and scanned the crowd.
At 10 of I was getting nervous. Even if Chuck showed up right now I would not have time to get to the porta-potties and then to the starting line on time. Did I mention that I was getting nervous?
This was beyond pre-race jitters now. I was beginning to panic. How could I run the race without a number? Why would I run a race without a number? All of this work and time devoted to getting here and I wasn’t going to run? Why would I put myself through a marathon if it wouldn’t count for anything? How could I go through all of this and not run anyway. Where the fuck is Chuck? Jesus Christ! Holy shit, I’m F-ing nervous now. May Day, May Day, we’re going to crash!
At five of I could hear the announcer at the starting line. I didn’t know what he was saying, but I damn well knew what he was saying. You’re fucked dude! Well that’s what I heard.
The bag check people were just sitting there now. Everyone had checked their bags and was lined up to run the race. In a panic I turned to them and in 10 words or less described my problem. They were all volunteers and had no idea what to do. None of them were race officials, but they told me I might find someone in the park.
I’ve never been to Hartford before. I knew the park was around there somewhere, but where. I ran to the top of the hill where the runners were and started asking about race officials. Someone pointed me down the hill in another direction where I could see a sea of people and white and orange tents. It looked like a mediaeval encampment.
As I ran to the park and away from the starting line I had to navigate people coming at me in every direction. Their minds were obviously not moving as quickly as mine. Oh My God, get the fuck out of my way!!! I see stupid people. I was ready to tackle anyone who froze and dared stand in my way. I was heading down hill with a lot of momentum and I was on a mission.
I got to the barricades and asked several blank faced people where I could find a race official. Finally someone pointed me in the direction of an orange colored tent with the race logo on it. I had a slight glimmer of hope. The first tent I went to wasn’t the right tent. I have no idea what they were there for, but they pointed me to the right tent. I sprinted a hundred yards to the tent.
There was some lady there yammering on about something that definitely was not an emergency. Something about an address. She seemed very intent on repeating the same thing many times. A scene of violence flashed through my mind. Somehow I managed to keep my cool. I managed to blurt out to someone behind the table what was going on. This person interrupted the person in charge who was listening patiently to Miss Yammering. Thank god!
As someone was singing the National Anthem, I explained my situation. This lady very patiently explained that she could not give me a number bib with a timing chip. She could give me a number bib without a chip so I would not have to run as a bandit. Initially that did not seem like a solution to me. No race time! Absolutely unacceptable. Rage was at the barricades. Reason had been clubbed to the ground.
Another official saw my Garmin and explained that I could still run and have an un-official time at least. I saw her logic and began to think of my carefully worded appeal to the race organizers after the race to get my Garmin time on the record as official. I know now that would never happen but at the time it was enough to walk me back from the edge. The nice lady helped me pin the provisional number to my belt and asked me to check in after the race and let them know how I did.
To get out of the park I had to run around the barricade that was the finishers corral. I then had to run up the hill to get to the starting line. Running to the official’s tent and back to the starting line must have been a quarter mile, with half being up hill and all of it in a mass of people. I had wasted energy. Physically and psychologically.
The last to start
I had to look for the starting line. There were people on the sidewalks but the street was clear; no one was in the street. As I got closer to where the runners had been crowded just moments before I saw the timing mat across the road. As I approached the mat I started my watch and started my run. I don’t recall seeing a clock at the start. It probably wasn’t there as the finish was in the park.
I had the high honor and distinct pleasure of being the last runner to cross the starting line. I was pissed and frustrated but the uniqueness of the moment brought me some joy. How many people get to say they were the very last person to cross the start line? And, do it all by themselves. I wasn’t the last of the heard; I was totally alone in the middle of the street and the road was open before me.
I can only imagine what people must have thought. Who is this moron showing up 10 minutes late for the race?
About 100 yards into the course I came to the first intersection. Normally there would have had thousands of runners running shoulder to shoulder with me at the first turn a race. But, I was all by myself on a course I had never been on before. This was exactly the opposite from my experience the week before at the BAA Half Marathon. In a crowd, you don’t need to know where you are going. You just go.
I called out at least three times “where does the marathon go”, “where do I go”, “which way”? I must have looked like an idiot. This moron doesn’t know where the marathon goes? BTW, all of your friends ran by 10 minutes ago! These people were probably a little confused by all of this also. It was 8:15AM and the caffeine hadn’t yet worked it’s magic on them.
Finally someone, maybe the cop, called out to turn right. I had watched the course video on Friday and I immediately recognized the street as I turned onto it. Imagine that!
As I looked down this street all I saw were spectators. Not a single runner in sight. Holy shit! I’m really fucked now. And lots of other expletives ricocheted through my hazy brain.
I looked at my watch real quick and saw I was running something like a 7:58 pace. My goal pace was 9:00. Sprinting at the beginning of a race is never a good idea. It was cold and I had done very little stretching. I knew all bets were off for this race.
I don’t recall seeing a Mile 1 marker but somewhere around Mile 1 I began to catch of with the last of the hoard. These are the brave souls who may have never run a marathon before or just run very slow. Probably 15 minute miles. These folks were going to have a very long day. I knew it, but they probably did not. I’ve been in the back of the pack before, but I’ve never had to catch up to the back of the pack. Yet another novel experience.
I knew that these people were not the 8:00 minute mile club. I knew they were probably not even the 10:00 minute mile club. It was still an amazing experience to pass all of these people. I do not intend to demean their effort and sacrifice to run this race. It takes a lot of heart and guts to step up to your first marathon starting line. To throw yourself into the unknown shows a lot of character. I doff my cap to them.
The Race is on
Catching up to someone gave me some encouragement. I was not lost and I probably wouldn’t get lost now that I was with some runners. I had started, I was progressing to the finish and up through the ranks.
At the next turn we, yes we this time, ran into the same problem. Folks standing around but no officials and no signs! I was beginning to get pissed at the race organizers. Two turns and no signs? A bunch of us were calling out for directions. By the time someone sent us in the right direction a few of us had gone straight through the intersection in the wrong direction. We had to turn left.
At either Mile 2 or 3 there was a race clock. Comparing their time to my watch time I figured I had missed the start by about 10 minutes. In order to PR not only did I have to run 1 minute faster than I ever had, I needed to make up 10 minutes and hope my buddy started the race with my number. So I was 11 minutes in the hole and was not sure where my race bib was.
After mile 3 I caught up with the 5:00 hour pace guy. I’ve never seen a pace sign with a finish time on it. Usually they have the PACE on them. I knew this wasn’t the 5:00 minute club but I still asked the guy in disbelief. Yet another person thought I was a complete buffoon! These guys were not very far ahead of the end of the pack. Then I caught up 5:30 pace group, they were ahead of the 5:00 pace group!
I finally caught up with the 4:15 and then the 4:10 group. I ran with the 4:10 guys for a while. They were running slower than me and by this time I knew I needed to back off a little bit.
Up through mile 12 I ran sub 9:00 miles and my first two miles were sub 8:00 miles. I was trying to make up for lost time. At mile 18 I finally caught up with Chuck. I was not 100% sure it was him but as I approached from behind I called out his name. I figured if it wasn’t him I might be able to pretend it wasn’t me who yelled out “Chuck”.
Thankfully he had my number stuffed in his pocket! He passed it over and I started walking to that I could pin it over my provisional number. He walked with me and told me about how he was at the bag drop around 7:30 but did not see me. I think neither one of us had a clear picture of who we were looking for. I thanked him for taking my number with him. I was so relieved to have it. At least now I would have a finishing time.
I knew I was more than 10 minutes behind the official time. There was no way I was going to make up for that and get a PR. I had been running hard for about three hours at this point and all of the water and Gatorade were beginning to speak to me. I told Chuck I was going to stop at the next porta-pottie. Since I wasn’t going to PR I might as well be comfortable. Chuck pointed out that one was coming up on our left in a few hundred feet. I spotted it and as I started across the road I told him I’d catch up.
As I approached I could see that no one else was standing there waiting. Awesome. As I got closer I could see the little door latch was green, no one was inside!! Score! I opened the door but then had to fumble getting the lock in place. I partially untied my shorts and then the string got knotted. They were loose enough to pull down though. I checked the seat real quick and sat down. As I relaxed I untied the knot in the dark wearing sunglasses. Thankfully I had taken my gloves off as I approached the happy booth. It seemed to take forever to untie that knot!
It seemed like I was in there for 2 or three minutes. Maybe I was. As I was pulling myself back together someone knocked on the door. I yelled that I’d be right out. I grabbed a spot of Purrell and headed back on course. I’m not even sure the person was still there when I left. I know I would not wait more than 15 seconds unless I was desperate.
Sitting for a few minutes seemed to give me a recharge. Before we got to mile 19 I caught back up to Chuck, but he was not moving very fast. As I passed by he waved and said something. Not sure what though.
We were deep into the race now and approaching mile 20. There was a switch back at Mile 17. As I ran back towards the city, I was amazed at how many people were behind me. Since I was the very last guy to cross the starting line, I must have passed all of them. It was like compound interest, I never noticed it building up. I was in no state of mind to count runners at mile 17, but there seemed to be thousands of people behind me. I was amazed at how far I had come. It was just unbelievable.
I had run through many of the early water stops. I had my 500ml with me. When the stops were not crowded I did grab a Gatorade probably starting around mile 5. I only had 2 GUs with me and figured I better use the Gatorade to supplement them.
At one stop people were yelling out that they had GU. I looked to see who was holding it for me to grab. No one! They had a pile on a big table. I had never seen this before. But, they were there for the taking so I grabbed two. Now I felt I had enough to get me through.
Amazingly, throughout the race they had race support people on bikes handing out GUs! Wow. I’d never seen that before either. Even the BAA doesn’t do that. The HMF had redeemed themselves with me. What a great idea.
After mile 20 the word Bataan began to creep into my mind. It often does at this stage of a marathon. I was spent and running on GUs and Gatorade. I was running on the desire to finish and to do my best in spite of my situation. I could not overcome a 10 minute deficit but I could not let it overcome me.
I walked and ran and walked some more. I peed at mile 18 so I drank all the water and Gatorade I could get my hands on. At this late stage in the race none of it was likely to end up in my bladder.
As I ran the last few miles I knew I wasn’t going to remember much. Maybe the pain, in general. But not the streets, the roads or the people along the way. Not the folks I ran beside for a few minutes. Each of us locked in our own battles of will. Each of us deep inside scavenging for that last bit of drive to make it to the end. Each of us looking for that next mile marker. One step at a time.
As we turned a corner and headed up the Founders Bridge the lady next to me uttered “Fucking Bridges”! The guy next to her said “Fucking Bridges”? and I said “Fucking Bridges”. We then went silent and pushed to the crest of the bridge. As we came over the top I could see that lovely decline. Oh baby! Oh mama!
I opened up my stride and started cruising down that bridge. I passed a lot of people. There were people walking. There were people stopped and stretching out a cramp. So close. I kept going. I knew I had some kick left and I wasn’t taking it home with me.
I kicked in the after burners and they sputtered and coughed. Not a lot of gas left. But enough. At the bottom of the bridge there was another hill. I knew I could not keep the same pace up the hill that I had running down the bridge. But I did keep kicking it in. I pushed hard up the hill and kept passing people. As we turned left into Bushnell Park the road turned into a path. Maybe 6 feet wide. Then it got narrower where they had placed pots of Mums to keep us to one side and corral us over the timing mat. I kept running hard and in the middle so no one was going to blow past me in the last 100 feet.
I ran my final .34 miles at a 6:58 pace. A sprint.
I got my Mylar-foil blanket and waited for my Hartford Marathon finisher’s medal. The medal was the tower that I had just run though as we entered the park. Cool, I thought.
I headed for the food tent which required a ticket off of my bib to get in. I thought there must be something good in here. I was disappointed. No hot food at all. I was starving and cold. The apple crisp was great but the cold rice and veggies were not only cold, but under cooked.
So I headed for the beer tent. It dawned on me that I had two bibs which meant two beer tickets! Whoa! At the entrance where they were checking ID’s the lady looked at me and said “you can go ahead”. I did chuckle inside. I got my drinking bracelet and headed for the Harpoon pavilion. As I drank my pint of UFU I stood at a table by myself and did some stretching. I was surprised how easy it felt and was careful not to over do it.
That beer tasted so good, I went and got a Harpoon IPA. Nectar of the gods! It tasted so good I felt like I could have drunk a twelve pack. I never saw Chuck again that day. So I was alone in a crowd of thousands. Many people were with their groups like I usually am. Not today. It felt odd.
I had a brief conversation with some guy who had run his first marathon. Something like 4:10. I found a medical van and asked for a bag of ice. They had one of those chemical bags that are cold and warned me not to put it directly on my skin. It turned out that they were a local PT practice looking for clients. I said thanks and headed off to the official’s tent.
I didn’t recognize anyone there. All I saw were hats. Finally someone recognized me from earlier and told one of the ladies there that she had spoken with me earlier. I explained that Chuck took my number with him across the starting line and that I had caught up with him and finished the race with the number. She said she couldn’t change my finish time. It was what it was.
There was a young guy there who punched my bib number into his laptop and showed me my official time: 4:09. He said it was a good time. I wasn’t sure if he was serious or knew what he was talking about. To be fair he had no idea what my goal was or what I could do if everything went right. I told everyone there that my watch time was 4:01. I was obviously not impressed with 4:09.
They were all quite nice but I knew I couldn’t do anything. Not here and probably not ever. It was what it was. I wasn’t angry. I’m not sure I even felt disappointed as I walked away. I had a unique race experience that few people get to have.
I was the last guy to cross the finish line, and all alone. I had run some solid splits and managed to finish in front of 1258 people, each of whom I had passed on the course. I didn’t start in front of anyone. I earned each one of those places. I didn’t keep up with anyone at my level, I caught up to them. Out of 207 guys in my age bracket only 132 finished in front of me and they all had a 10 minute head start.
I’m not worried about the race that could have been. I’ll get my next marathon PR. I have no doubt at all. I had a truly unique and special experience few others will ever have.
I had a glass of lemonade. Until I chugged that bad boy down and wiped the drops off of my chin with my sleeve.
Thanks for stopping by and sticking with me long enough to get this far. This was just never going to be a few paragraphs.
Run well my Friends!
© 2012 anagelin