GO! St. Louis Marathon ~ Part Two
They say that the survival of our species depends on women forgetting the pain of childbirth. I’ve never given birth, but I think I can say that I understand about forgetting pain. This St. Louis Marathon was my third attempt to run the distance. I had run Portland a year and a half ago and Kansas City a half a year ago. I thought I knew what I was doing, was building on experience, and understood what was coming.
Of course, I didn’t. With Portland, my knees gave out (at mile four!), and at Kansas City, my hips did (somewhere in the upper teens). But there are apparently so many moving parts in the human body that are used during a marathon that something new can besiege me every time I try. So too with St. Louis.
#1 Son, Seth, was our driver for the day. He got me to the start and got Libby to various points on the course to meet me, cheer me, and put candy bars in my hands. He got us down to the start about an hour before gun time, having parked several blocks away (which would prove beneficial after I was finished). Although the temperature was in the 40s, I did not feel cold (yet) because I had my throwaway jacket on (the one I have not been able to throw away for a couple of years). Few of the vendors in the athlete village were open at that hour, so I didn’t mill about there much. I used the portapotty because you always do that before a run. And then I wandered toward my corral (far) behind the starting arch, bemoaning the slight drizzle that had begun (it would go away soon). We would be let loose in waves — to reduce crowding on the course — and my wave was well back, which is fine.
There was the usual speechifying before the start, the anthem sung and the hats doffed, and the color commentary as each wave was let fly, made by someone who clearly has never been a runner in his life. I shuffled with my wave toward the start as those before us were gone. Starting with my wave and the three behind it, we would all be let go as one. I guess there was a sense in that — the bulk of the runners were already on their way — but there were still thousands of us at the back of the pack. Soon we were off, though, and I managed to turn on my watch just as I crossed the starting mat. My run had begun.
And a pleasant run it was too, there amidst the tall buildings of downtown St. Louis. We went our way, made our turns, lost satellite signals on our running watches (I think mine reported me running a 4:29 mile pace along here), and were soon approaching the Eads Bridge that would take us into Illinois. I was not moving fast; I was deliberately holding back because I needed to marshall my energy for the full distance. Even so, I was passing some people. But more importantly, it was crowded. People were weaving around others. Some were running on the empty sidewalks. Elbows were knocking. Runners behind were kicking the heels of runners ahead (guilty). I don’t know if this would have been lessened had the last four waves been started separately, but regardless, it was part of the experience that you just have to manage.
I grew up in St. Louis, but I don’t think I had ever been on the Eads Bridge. Historic, impressive, and awe-inspiring when seen from below. On the deck, however, it was just rutted asphalt and too damned many orange barrels in the middle of the road. Each lamp post we passed rattled and swayed with the pounding of the runners’ feet; I’d heard of this kind of thing about long spans with many runners. Soon I was in Illinois. I like the idea of the course incorporating East St. Louis, this being part of what made the NYC Marathon become so popular when it included all of the boroughs in the course redesign forty years ago. Yet while it was clear that the part of East St. Louis we ran through had been cleaned up, it was sad to see how run down the place was. We had perhaps a half mile run down Main Street there, and most of the store fronts were boarded up or burned out or literally falling down. The once fabulous Majestic Theater was vacant, with actual trees growing out of its elaborate facade.
We didn’t spend much time in Illinois, for we made the turn that would lead us up the long ascent of the Martin Luther King Bridge back into St. Louis. Because I had driven this the day before, I knew it was coming, but that still didn’t prepare me enuf. Somewhere about mile 3.5 I reluctantly made the decision to walk for a short while, at least a bit of the ascent, so I could make my legs and lungs last a little longer. It was a long hill, what can I say? I wasn’t the only one walking it, and plenty of people were taking advantage of the conveniently placed portapotties staged there as well. I took the opportunity to tear one of the packets of GU from the waistband of my shorts to slurp down the nasty energy goodness. Then I picked up running again after a hundred feet or so and soon crested the bridge and was heading down the far side. It was there that the 4 mile flag was waiting. Its placement did not match what my watch told me about the distance covered, and I immediately began to worry that I was going to get to the end and my watch would say I only ran 26 miles rather than 26.2! I can barely do simple math when I’m running, but I could calculate that fear.
Once off the bridge we looped under it and lost many of the runners. It turns out that along with the 5K on Saturday and the half marathon and full marathon on Sunday, there was also a 7K run on Sunday. (This comes to 4.4 miles, and that point was reached just after we returned to Missouri.) So hundreds of runners peeled off to the right, into a party area. A course marshall was yelling at all of us to stay right or stay left based on the color of our bibs. (Mine was dark blue – the color of the full marathon.) I gathered that many of the 7K runners were first timers because many of them were struggling with the distances (also, that bridge ascent). I suppose they may not have been aware that they needed to leave the pack at this point. Or maybe they were eager to. And maybe because there were so many going to the right, longer-distance runners might have mistakenly just followed them. (You get in the zone and stop thinking sometimes.) Hence the barking course marshall.
This was where we headed into the bleak area north of the downtown. It was just as ugly as I remembered from the drive through, though there was a water station that was well staged, so I didn’t have to bypass it as I had the first one where packs of people were standing around socializing between me and the water cups. (More evidence that many of the 7K runners were first timers.) Remember that I was wearing my throwaway jacket, which is lined and has a hood. By this time the lining was soaked with my sweat, and it felt as though it weighed ten pounds. I was tempted to toss it (finally), but I knew I would likely be seeing Libby and Seth in only a few miles, so I kept it on but unzipped it fully to let some air to my torso. The sky was dark with clouds, but as yet the 60% chance of thundershowers had not materialized. Somewhere along here I was passed by a man who had a yellow trash bag around his neck like a scarf. I was glad I wasn’t stuck with that solution to the impending rain. (I was actually carrying two folded-up trash bags with me, tucked away in a private place.)
We wove through streets, making our way back to the downtown, to cross the very street we had started on, and it was there that I expected to see Libby and Seth (and a candy bar — as well as my back-up supply of dry socks, lip balm, cortisone cream, bandaids, and a spare hat since I expected the one I was wearing to be blown off when I was on one of the bridges, which didn’t happen). The cheering crowds were thick here, which was a change from most of the miles I had already covered, and while I was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, I was also trying to scan the faces for two that were familiar. I was looking the wrong way it turned out. Libby and Seth were on the far side of the street where there were fewer people, and where they would be more easily spotted — if I had been looking that way. As it was, I heard Libby shouting my name; I never would have seen her. I paused long enuf to grab a Twix bar and begin my push to the south. I wouldn’t see them for another six miles (which meant I would be wearing that throwaway jacket for another six miles since the wind was cold, unless I threw it away).
The next route was down to the Anheuser Busch Brewery and back. This took us through the Soulard area of the city: very old and historic. The open-air market here has been in continuous operation since 1779, which, for this part of the country, is quite old. The pack was spread out by this point. No more dodging or weaving. I passed a few people. A few more passed me. This was a grind, though it was blessedly flat. Once we entered the gates of the brewery complex I kept my eyes open for the promised Clydesdale horse that was going to be there to greet us. It must have been on its coffee break when I came through because there was no horse waiting for me. (This was a sign of further, coming disappointments about the race, but I didn’t realize it at the time.) We looped around the brewery and headed back the way we came through the Soulard area. It was here that I came upon the Chocolate Station. A dozen people were handing out candy to us poor, suffering runners. I’d already had my Twix fix, so I didn’t need the chocolate, but I was intrigued, so I accepted what was given. It turned out to be a single chocolate wafer with sprinkles on top. Not much (and not all that tasty). And so I ground on. I was on the return leg of this out and back, and this gave me the chance to see how many runners were behind me, still on the outward bound leg. There were hundreds, though most had the light blue bib of the half marathoners. It was much too early for me to begin beating myself up with the fear that I would be the last runner in, so I just tried to keep throwing one foot in front of the other.
The route followed the same streets we took to get out to the brewery, which meant that we would once again be at the start, this time running west on the street that had started us going east. The starting arch was gone, as were most of the barricades. Once I turned the corner, I was halfway done. And I was more than halfway tempted to just quit and collect a half marathon medal. In fact, there was a time limit in which I had to get to this point or I’d be removed from the full marathon. (With the more and more frequent walking breaks I took, I feared/wished this was likely.) Part of me was hoping that would happen so I could stop and it not be my fault. But no one was waving me off the course, though most of the people running around me did exit here since they were only doing the half.
And so, the second half of the effort began.