Thursday, January 29, 2009

Aramco Half Marathon Report

First of all, thank you to all of you who made a donation to the American Cancer Society. Your generosity just overwhelms me. Also, thank you to everyone for your support and well wishes as I prepared to run the 2009 Houston half marathon. I’ve run in the Houston event six times now, three full marathons and three half marathons. The excitement and anticipation on race day was as fresh to me early this morning as it was for my first marathon.

My friend Keith has been my “support person” for 4 of my marathons, and as always he arrived promptly to pick me up just before 6:00 AM. I’m ready and waiting for him, got my GatorAde and my camera loaded on my fuel belt, and have my neckerchief – a Houston marathon tradition – which bears the name and dates of a friend who died this past September of ovarian cancer. Each year I memorialize one or more people who have died of cancer by wearing their names on a bandana that I wear during the race.

It’s a short drive to the start line, where he dropped me off. He’d me meeting me at several spots along the route and then be there for me at the finish line to drive me home.

Words cannot describe the magical atmosphere in the chutes as we await our turn to start. The skies begin to turn pink as the sun rises, and we runners stand huddled together, keeping warm and chatting with one another, each of us complete strangers yet not strangers at all, as we’re all in the same place to do the same thing. Bits and pieces of other languages can be heard from all around…runners from more than 25 countries are registered for the event.

I am in the second chute, or wave, of runners. We hear the cannon go off for the first wave and although we are too far away to see them, we cheer them off. Suddenly we’re moving up into the next chute to await our turn to start, and the 10 minute gap seems to go by very quickly, hardly time to fill the first chute before the second cannon fires and we’re off and running. Well, really, we’re off and walking and it takes me about 3 minutes to make it to the start line and another minute or so before any of us can break into a slow trot. The running chip on my shoe will record my start time. The first two miles of the course run up and over the Elysian Viaduct. As far as I can see ahead of me, the runners create a colorful stream of bodies snaking along the bridge, as it rises and falls and curves to the left. The excitement and chatter of the other runners helps to keep the adrenaline levels up, even on these early uphills. There were even a few Elvis impersonators to entertain us at mile 1. Finally, by mile 2 the congestion breaks up and we can each settle into our own comfortable pace, and I move along feeling pretty good, considering my bout with the flu these past two weeks. I shored myself up with a healthy dose of cough medicine and a decongestant pill before leaving the house, and my pockets bulge with Kleenex.

The masses move together along White Oak Bayou then into the beautiful, historic Heights district. Jefferson Davis High School Band provides some great high-stepping music to run by and there are many supporters out along Quitman cheering us on, wrapped in blankets, their coffee cups in hand. Into the Heights and the runners begin to spread out a bit, as we reach the 5 mile marker. My friend Keith is there at a turn in the route and I hand him my camera to take my picture. I’m feeling pretty good at this point, having run most of the way, walking only on some of the uphill sections.

The next 5 miles take us south along Studemont which turns into Montrose and there are a number of radio stations and bands along this stretch, pumping out good and loud music with a great beat to keep us going. There are a few underpasses as the road dips beneath cross streets and we all take advantage of the downhills, letting gravity increase our pace a bit. I had the distinct pleasure of running alongside a tall, young and gregarious fellow who, at every dip would turn around and announce “come one, everyone, it’s a downhill…crank it up” to whoever was nearby. It was great!! I loved it!

Keith was waiting for me at mile 8. It’s a staple in my “support person” list of places to stand because it’s right in front of Christi’s Donuts & Kolaches. Seems like the perfect place for a support person to stand, don’t you think? He snaps another photo and we agree to meet up again across the street near the mile 10 marker after the turnaround. The half-marathon route takes us another mile down Montrose, where we then turn around and head back up Montrose toward Allen Parkway.

By now, I’m beginning to run out of steam…my cough medicine is wearing off, as is my decongestant pill and I’m beginning to run out of air as a result. At the turnaround, I slowed my pace somewhat and folks that I’d passed earlier begin to pass me, which was very discouraging. But I’m just happy to be out here on the course, able to participate. Ahead I see Keith waiting for me near the mile 10 marker and I let him know that I’m slowing down and to adjust accordingly at the finish line and not worry if I’m not on schedule. I had given him a pace sheet so that he’d know when to expect me at the various points along the route and the finish.

A couple had been moving along pretty much at my pace for the last few miles; I would pass them as they would briefly slow down, then they would overtake me further along the course. Somewhere between mile 10 and mile 11, shortly before we took the last turn to head toward downtown and the finish line, I heard the woman say to her companion, “We need to hurry up and get to the finish line, ‘cause the sooner we finish this, the sooner I can get in my car and go home.” She pretty much expressed what all of us were thinking at the moment, I’m sure!! Another runner within earshot chuckled, and I turned to him and said, “My thoughts exactly!”

The turn onto Allen Parkway, with the Houston skyline finally visible to us runners is always one of the most magical moments along the half-marathon race course. On the full marathon course, it’s when the route turns briefly onto S. Shepherd from Memorial, and then jogs onto Allen Parkway. The skyline reveals itself above the tree tops along Buffalo Bayou and it is a most welcome site.

Our half-marathon route runs alongside the marathon route as it heads down Allen Parkway toward downtown. From this vantage point we can watch those marathon runners who are, at this point, running a 3.5 hour completion pace. They were moving along briskly in sharp contrast to those of us on the half-marathon side who are mostly walking at this point. The first time I ran the half-marathon I had dropped down to that distance from the full marathon in order to motivate a co-worker who was doing her first half-marathon. Since I was well-trained to do the full, I was moving along at a faster pace and had the good fortune to be running along this stretch of the route at the same time as the front-runners for the marathon…the 2.25 hour finishers. Watching them move out was like poetry in motion.

Finally, the route brought us into the downtown, where the skyscrapers cast deep shadows and cool breezes. Only one more mile to go and I had to concentrate to keep the pace up. I was pretty much out of steam at this point, my chest was getting tight, and I desperately needed to give my nose a good blow! Oh, for a fresh, dry Kleenex! My medicines were definitely worn off!
One more turn, onto the final stretch, and I could see the finish line well off in the distance. The crowds were growing larger along the sides of the street and the spectators began calling out our names, pushing us on to the finish line. As I approached the mat and the finish line I had no energy and could not bring myself to break into a jog. Keith was there on the sidelines, just a few yards from the finish line. It was so good to see him at this unplanned spot!

Finally, I was crossing the finish mats, waving at the camera man, and heading toward the “barn” which in this case was the George R. Brown Convention Center. First stop was to get my finisher’s medal, then through the chutes to the food. H.E.B. puts on a great spread for the runners…way too much. I don’t know about the others, but after a long run like this I have no appetite. I grabbed a banana, some cookies, and banana nut bread, but took a pass on the eggs, sausage, bacon, and whatever else they’d cooked up for the 18,000 runners.

The next stop was to pick up my prized finisher’s shirt, coveted for its statement on front and back: I am a half-marathon finisher! The medal is nice and will go into a display case at home, but the shirt…I can wear it and let others know that six months ago I made the commitment to train for and complete a half-marathon. I’m proud of that and of the fact that I raised more than $2,000 for the American Cancer Society.

This year is no different than the last two. As proud as I am for having stuck to a training program to complete this event, in the back of my mind I know that I’ve done full marathons before and can do them again. Injury has kept me from making this greater commitment the last two years. But I completed this year’s program without any problems so I know that I can do it if I put the effort into it. So with the event fresh in my memory, I make a new commitment for next year: Go for the full marathon in 2010! Just don’t hold me to it. ;-)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Tucson RTE and Return to Houston

We arrived in Tucson late Thursday afternoon, catching the last bit of sunset before checking in to our rooms at the Red Roof Inn. An MTF member and his wife - Tucson residents - joined us for dinner later that evening at the Dennys and we made plans for Saturday's ride to Bubb's Grub for the MTF RTE.

The next morning another MTF member and area resident joined us and led us to the Pima Air & Space Museum. The museum is staffed by volunteer docents, all retired military men with a wealth of information and stories. We spent the morning walking the hangars and outside exhibits before returning to the hotel so that one of our group - from Ft. Worth - could go in search of a new rear tire for his DR. Less than 1500 miles and it's toast! I was more than willing to stay around the hotel for the afternoon, and we walked to a nearby sports grill and had hamburgers and some micro-brews.

Saturday morning, we were led on a ride that took us southwest out of Tucson and through the west unit of the Saguaro National Park. Here the Saguaros are plentiful as the road winds up, over and around the craggy terrain. A scenic turnout on this road proved to be too much for two of us, as we lost the battle with gravity on a very slanted parking surface. Nothing a few bits of duct tape couldn't fix temporarily and $12.00 at the dealership couldn't fix permanently.

We were the first ones to arrive at Bubb's Grub, but it didn't take long for others to begin arriving. Soon the small gravel parking lot was packed with bikes, with license plates as far-flung as CA, NV, FL, TX, and AK. The food was excellent! And plentiful!

The three of us were back on the road, headed east toward Texas by 1:15 PM MST. We pushed hard to make it to El Paso by dark.
The next day was cold and windy and our Ft. Worth fellow traveler got an earlier start. We left the hotel and got on the road at around 8:00 AM MST with the hope of arriving in Houston before too late on the same day...a 780 mile day. The temperatures dropped to the high 20's as we passed through the mountains east of El Paso. It remained cold with a strong north wind across West Texas where, at Ft. Stockton, we stopped for lunch. The temps here had risen to a relatively balmy 36 degrees, and it wasn't much warmer inside the McDonald's where we'd stopped! They were undergoing re-construction and had signs apologizing for the disruption. Patrons sat bundled in coats, hats, and gloves as they tried to eat their meals quickly, probably eager to get back out into their warm cars. I know I was anxious to get back on the bike and plugged back in to warm up!
We were making very good time, keeping the gas stops brief and were on the east side of San Antonio before dark. We stopped at the Buc-ee's in Luling for gas and ordered deli sandwiches, eating them outside in the cold crisp evening air. Only 170 or so miles to home!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

First Ride of the New Year: Tucson RTE

A new riding year and it's off to Tucson AZ for an MTF RTE. The last time I was westbound beyond San Antonio's borders was when I rode to San Diego for the 50CC. This trip two fellow MTF members - Ray and Don - would be joining me in the ride from TX to AZ. We met in Kerrville Dec 29 for dinner at Cracker Barrel, then got on the road early the next day to ride some of Hill Country's best offerings. Highway 16 and FM 337 tortured us on tight, steep twists, spitting us out in Leakey where we headed south on US-83 to US-90. The many low water crossings were bone dry - thankfully - and no deer were spotted.

We had lunch in Del Rio and then turned due west into a strong head wind. A must-stop along this stretch of the greater Pecos is the Pecos River overlook. The waters were high, and the Rio Grande could easily be seen at the mouth of the Pecos. A little further along 90, Langtry sits amidst the dust and cactus, the dry air preserving the original saloon where Judge Roy Bean meted out his justice. The visitor center is a good place to take a break. Walking through the old saloon, leaning on the old wooden bar, Don wondered at the history that took place in that small room. This is the original building, rescued and preserved by Texas state park commission. Judge Roy Bean built another building behind the saloon, and called it the Opera House. He was smitten by Lily Langtry and hoped that the new building would convince her to come to Texas. She did come, but just months after Judge Bean died.

The next gas opportunity would be Sanderson, and it would be a stretch for one of our riders, on a Suzuki DR-650. Our stop for the night - New Year's Eve - would be Ft. Davis and we arrived just as it was getting dark. The late afternoon sunlight reflected on the mountains, turning them a rich orange as we rode north toward town. The air was getting brisk, but I hardly noticed, as I enjoyed the high speed sweepers on 118.

Not much was open in town, except the restaurant at the Lympia Hotel, so we continued to the Ft. Davis Motor Inn, got checked in, and rode back to town for dinner. We had a bottle of champagne tucked on one of the bikes, so had an early New Year's celebration. I was tired and ready to call it an early night. We'd have a very long day the next day.

Temps were in the low 40's when we left the motel and rode north on 118 toward McDonald Observatory. The visitor center was closed and two of the three of us didn't care to ride to the top, so we continued on 118 north through very pretty and deserted country. Beyond the Observatory, the road becomes very narrow and twisty, as it climbs and dips over the rugged terrain. Coming around one of the tight twists I could see ahead to the next hairpin and noticed Don's brake lights. When I'd caught up with him, there were two enormous bucks standing on the shoulder. They were frozen in place and I had a few moments to admire the really large antlers on the one on the right. The one on the left was certainly a prize specimen as well. As Ray caught up, the two deer bolted off the shoulder and into the woods.

We turned onto 166 to continue riding the Davis Mountain Loop. This stretch of road was more relaxed, with fewer tight turns but many roller coaster hills. As the road turned south I had a fantastic image of Don on his bike with Baldy Peak in the background. It would have made a winning photo for sure! We turned west onto 505 which would take us to 90 and a straight shot northwest to Van Horn and I-10.

It would be all business getting to Tucson before dark. Gas stops were brief and we took no lunch break, intent on getting into Tucson. We would be staying at the Red Roof Inn with a Dennys next door, a perfect place to spend the next two days.