It took a simple press release to make me decide that the first marathon I was going to run in 2006 would be in the Big Easy.
“In an unprecedented move to assist with the rebuilding of New Orleans,” the article read, “the 41st running of the Mardi Gras Marathon and Half Marathon will donate all net proceeds to a special Hurricane Katrina Fund called ‘Back to the Big Easy’. This fund will give all net proceeds from the Mardi Gras Marathon, Half Marathon and 5K to local charities based in the city to help with the Big Easy recovery efforts.”
So in the months preceding the marathon, I ran and ran. Well, 5 or 6 days a week, though not as many miles per week as before last summer’s Foot Traffic Marathon in Portland. This was winter, after all. Ok, lame excuse for not training as much as I could have considering the particularly mild winter we had out here in Colorado.
But training was going reasonably well all the way until my very last training run before the race. On that day, I decided to join some Fort Collins trail runners for the first time for what was purported to be “a nice social run”. Turns out these guys were pretty hardcore and a red flag should have been raised in my head if 6 miles “up and over the hogback with under 1000 feet of climb” was considered by them to be “easy”. In any case, the guys were cool and all was well until, while hauling downhill, my foot caught on a rock and I tripped and fell. Just a quarter of a mile from the finish… darn.
“Hmmm, falling probably wasn’t the most ideal thing to do five days before a marathon,” I noted as I hobbled around the parking lot after the run and blood started gushing below my right knee.
But things could have been worse. For example, just one day before the start of the Tour de France last year, Jan Ullrich crashed through the rear window of his own team car at 25 mph without a helmet, and I didn’t see him complaining. And didn’t Steve Prefontaine once set a NCAA meet record running with a bloody foot and six stitches in it acquired after a swimming pool accident just 4 days before?
And so there I was, hobbling off of a jet at the Louis Armstrong International Airport on Friday, fully confident that things would be all right come Sunday.
The Day Before the Race
I was still limping around like Nancy Kerrigan—after she was ambushed by Tonya Harding’s boyfriend—while meandering around the Central Business District of New Orleans on Saturday.
“Perdido” was one of the street names I encountered down there. The English translation of this Spanish word—“lost”—was an apt description of what I was when it came to trying to find the pre-race expo where I was supposed to pick up my race number and timing chip.
One of my problems was that I had unwittingly left directions I wrote down at home. It also didn’t help that I suffered from terminal amnesia when it came to the name of the hotel that the expo was being held in.
Marathon runners to the rescue! They were easily identifiable by the bright orange Gatorade baggies they were hauling around from the expo. That they were slim, in high-tech running shoes, and sipping large bottles of water also helped give them away.
One of these runners, Mark Perez, was from Houston, Texas. Actually, he was equally lost. But a couple of other marathon runners had just come from the expo, and pointed out the expo to the two of us.
As we walked on over, Mark and I got to talking. “You can call me Pinman,” said Mark, as I glanced at all of the pins he was wearing: American flags, Olympic pins, World Trade Center pins, etc. “I’ll be running the course backwards.”
Backwards, as in running the course in reverse? “No, running facing backwards.”
“Wow, it’s hard enough for me to run 26.2 miles forwards,” I replied.
Before I had the chance to decide if this guy was a bona fide lunatic, we entered the expo and all of a sudden the Pinman was giving the hotel bellman a hug.
“You know this guy?” I asked, or rather, stating the obvious.
“Yeah, man, we went to high school together!” Apparently, Mark lived in New Orleans before Katrina washed away his home. I was left to ponder this when Mark bumped into another person he somehow knew and proceeded to embrace her as well.
The Pinman effused the rejoiceful, festive spirit that defined the Big Easy.
The Night Before the Race
I was back in the India House Hostel Saturday night, reading a book and resting my legs when a smiling woman walked up to me.
“Hey, you’re doing the marathon tomorrow, yes? I saw you walking back here with an orange Gatorade bag,” she said.
Turns out Sylvie, a French woman now living in Montreal, was doing it as her 9th marathon. She wondered if I could walk with her to the start of the race the next morning as it would be dark.
Hmmm, escort a bubbly blond French gal 1.5 miles to the Superdome on Superbowl Sunday? It didn’t take me long to think about that one.
The funny thing was, here was this petite woman chucking down an extra-tall can of Budweiser as we spoke, just hours before trying to get a restive night’s sleep before the early morning race.
“Ah, it’s no big deal,” she assured me. Why, during the Marathon du Medoc in France last year, she explained, she (and everybody else) was slugging down whole bottles of red wine while eating cheese and olives not just days before, but during the race. Many people had two bottles of wine but one was “enough” for her. Holy kidneys, Batman. That is one marathon that would put even the Big Easy’s Mardi Gras spirit to shame.
The Morning of the Race
At 5:10 a.m. on race day morning I was in the hostel’s kitchen munching on an apple when Sylvie came in and unloaded a bag of grub.
Her pre-race fuel: extra-strong coffee, a small bottle of orange juice, Red Bull, and pasta. Mine: one apple, two bananas, and water. I was on the second banana when Sylvie started eating Chef Boyardee spaghetti straight out of the can.
It took us just 30 minutes to amble over to the Superdome which, though not habitable on the inside (and won’t be until the Saints host a home football game this September), showed no remnance of what it once was: a sinking ship drowning in the floodwaters of Katrina.
In contrast to the hurricane season, today there was little wind and temperatures of 47-61 degrees—ideal running weather.
Five minutes before the race, 2200 runners (700 for the marathon, and 1500 for the half-marathon) congregated at the start. Then the Louisiana governor gave an inspirational speech noting how rebuilding New Orleans “is a marathon, not a sprint,” and Lindsay Cardinelli from American Idol sang the National Anthem. It was a poignant moment.
Finally, seven o’clock rolled around. Go!
I was five yards from the starting line when I almost ran smack right into the Pinman, who indeed was running backwards. I slapped him a high-five. Best of luck!
I was just 100 yards past the line when I turn to my right, and there was Craig. I had met Craig at the airport on Friday and had lunch with on Saturday, as reported in my New Orleans write-up. His personal best—at 3:32:xx—was just two minutes faster than mine, and I was really happy to see him, knowing that we’d be going about the same pace at least early on.
We were fairly talkative and relaxed as we passed by the French Quarter and the Mississippi River along Decatur Street. Neighborhoods became less picturesque and decidedly more ghetto as we headed northwest towards Midcity and City Park. Rubble lined some sidewalks and plywood shuttered several windows as a few residents gave us a hearty cheer.
At Mile 3, our overall average pace had dipped to sub-8-minute-miles. By the 10k point—Mile 6.2—our average pace was probably around 7:35, despite having just crested the only “hill” of the course, an overpass rising over Interstate 610.
Not long after we saw the leaders already heading in the other direction. Sub-6-minute pace, no doubt.
As we turned back towards the Central Business District and their skyscrapers. Craig and I had settled into a brisk rhythm and were now talking much less. About 50 feet in front of us was a young petite woman who was one of the only three women ahead of us at this point, not slowing down even one iota with arms pumping strongly as we crested the I-610 overpass again. I wondered if we would catch her by the time we got to the halfway point. The answer was no.
Craig and I did cross over the 13.1-mile mark at 1:38:06, however—a new personal record for me for any half-marathon I have ever done, part of a full marathon or not.
“All you need to do now,” I said to Craig, “is do a 1:42 for the second half, and you’d finish in 3:20.” We both knew that for Craig, 3:20 was the magic number for qualifying for Boston. My own chances of achieving my qualifying time—3:10—were well over, but that was not my goal for the race, and I was very pleased with the half-marathon PR already.
Whether this pace was sustainable for either of us was a question not verbalized as we headed towards Uptown.
It turned out my legs were the first ones to give out. By Mile 17, instead of striding side by side Craig, I was 10-15 feet behind him. It was only until the Mile 18 water stop—when Craig briefly slowed to grab some fluids, whereas I was a bit quicker about it—that closed the gap again. The moment was fleeting, however. My legs—as they had always been in past marathons—were toast by this point. It wasn’t long that Craig was out of sight, well ahead in the distance.
With eight miles to go, it was already time to dig deep for the paucity of reserves I had in my system.
On My Own
I was sucking on my third Hammer Gel of the day when I was going through verdant Audubon Park. My legs—quads, calves, hamstrings, the whole shebang—were right at the threshold of cramping, so I hastily chucked down a salt tablet, followed by water. I repeated this procedure a couple of miles later.
Miles 21-23 were definitely my slowest, perhaps exceeding 9-minute miles. People were passing me, including a triumvirate of women. Now at least six women were leading me.
Somewhere around here, Sylvie—who was going the other direction on this out-and-back part of the course—saw me and yelled out “hey!” I meekly said “hey” back to her. She basically saw me at my worst and even told me after the race, “wow, you looked really tired.” Er, thanks, and, yes, I was.
Despite the struggles I occasionally glanced at my watch and was buoyed that a 3:30 marathon was still looking achievable. But only if I kept pushing and pushing.
I seemed to get something of a second wind with 2-3 miles to go. My legs were still very close to meeting the death grip of the cramp demon, but I was back up to a more decent, 8:00-ish pace. It was just a matter of maintaining velocity as we headed back through the Central Business District and around the Superdome.
One last person passed me at Mile 25. Furthermore, I could hear pounding footsteps right behind me the entire last mile. That motivated me to up the tempo a notch ever so slightly, which was all that I could do. Finally, a woman (who was already done with her race and now spectating) yelled out, “the Mile 26 marker is just around the corner…”
I saw it, and then 30 seconds later, I could see the finish. I commenced a sprint 150 yards out. “Go, go! For New Orleans!” I shouted to myself in a frenzied sprint. Funny how at that moment there was no hint of leg cramps whatsoever. The sight of the finish line and an onset of adrenaline will always escape the damnation of lactic acid (unless your name is Julie Moss). I crossed with 3:29:35 on the clock.
At last, a sub-3:30 marathon for me.
I munched on some of the post-race rice and beans and mini-Subways while looking for Craig. When I found him I asked him how did it go.
“3:20 something,” he replied. Good enough; the Boston officials would accept him as long as his time was under 3:20:59. The day before Craig hadn’t even fathomed qualifying for Boston until he turned 45 (when his qualifying time would dip to 3:30), and here he had done it, 3 years ahead of schedule. Amazing.
I stuck around for Sylvie, who came in an hour later. By the way she looked at the end, it seemed like she had as much fun as she possibly could have without getting drunk. She confirmed this as we talked moments later, this time with cups of Michelob Ultra in the hands of both of us.
“Near the end I confused miles with kilometers, and when I saw the Mile 24 marker, I was thinking, ‘just 2 kilometers to go!’ So then I even stopped at the water stations to dance.”
She showed me some pearls that some spectators gave to her in the Mardi Gras spirit. “These pearls kept clanking against my chest so I had to wear them around my wrists like a bracelet,” she showed me.
We then talked to a retired couple from Florida named Wayne and Fiona wearing shirts that read, “Marathon Maniacs.” Sylvie asked about what marathons they did, and Wayne professed that despite starting just a couple of years ago, they have done quite a few. “Last year we ran a marathon a month,” he replied.
“A marathon a month!” exclaimed Sylvie. “Why, that’s just crazy!”
Indeed, just walking the 1.5 miles back to the hostel after the race seemed daunting enough, and much less than running another marathon in four weeks. After loading up on more rice and beans and Subways, we managed to saunter back to the hostel, with Sylvie’s legs being much less stiff than mine were. All I could do was walk like a robot, and steps of any height could well have been Mt. Everest as far as I was concerned.
After I showered and settled in, I talked with Carolyn on the phone. She informed me that while watching the Today Show on TV at her sister’s place in Washington D.C. Sunday morning, she saw me cross the start line of the Mardi Gras Marathon. My 0.15 seconds of fame… cool. Other good news is that the Pinman successfully completed the marathon running backwards, and he did not even finish last. (This blogger even saw him.) He finished a whole ten minutes before the final two participants.
The overall men’s winner was hometown hero Brendan Miniham, who unabashedly wore a singlet reading “New Orleans: Proud to Call It Home”. The runner-up—who sported the same jersey – was his training buddy with the rather appropriate name (for this neck of the Mississippi River) of Tom Sawyer. (I will refrain from making any Huckleberry jokes.) The overall woman’s winner was Karen Voss from—why doesn’t this surprise me?—Denver, Colorado.
A great article about the race was written by Devlin Barrett, a writer for the Associated Press. He passed me at about Mile 22 and ultimately finished 2 minutes before me.
Regardless of one’s time and overall placing, all people involved should be proud of just participating in this historic event. The race was, after all, a marathon, and not a sprint.
Here is a course map (PDF, 1 MB).
- 1st half: 1:38:06 (7:29/mi pace, 53rd place)
- 2nd half: 1:51:29 (8:31/mi pace)
- Overall: 3:29:35 (8:00/mi pace, 73/698)
(for future reference)
- 1:45 before the race: 1 apple, 2 bananas, and 1 glass of water
- 0:30 before the race: 1 Hammer Gel
- 2:00 into the race: 1 Hammer Gel
- 2:45 into the race: 1 Carb-Boom Gel
- 3:00 into the race: 1 PowerGel
- 2:35, 2:50, and 3:10 (all approximate) into the race: 1 salt tablet
- Some water or Gatorade at Miles 6, 8, 10, 13, 15, 18, 20, 22, 24 (all approximate)
Despite all of the above, my legs were still on the verge of cramping.