Friday, February 3, 2012

Dubai Marathon - Desperately Seeking Spectators

This time last week the Dubai marathon was on.  It is still a fairly new race, but attracts a lot of world-class runners because it is a flat course so they can more easily qualify for the Olympics and break records.  The course starts and finishes at the Burj Khalifa, which means the course runs right by my complex after the start and it is just 3 kilometers away from the finish on the return.

My son and I started watching the runners on television as we had our breakfast.  They still seemed far away in Jumeriah but then suddenly they were at the Trade Center, just up the street.  It is amazing how quickly a professional marathoner will approach. 

We quickly put our socks and shoes on and ran out the door.  The poor kid didn’t even get to brush his teeth.  And he really wanted to.  He was worried about his teeth falling out!  It wasn’t my best parenting moment as we chose world-class running over hygiene, but we would be back soon.  Of course he asked very sweetly to return a few times,  “Um, Mom, you know.  I just really want to brush my teeth”.   We had just missed the leading men by a few seconds, but still got to see several other amazing runners and the women finishers.  I love the effortlessness they have.  Their stride is amazing. 
Dubai 2012 Marathon Women front runners

There weren’t many spectators so we clapped and cheered as everyone came in.   We really needed to get back to brush our teeth, so I took him back home and then returned to continue to watch the rest of the runners.  I had so much to do that day, but could not leave them.  There was no one cheering or supporting them that I could see except for a few runners that had already finished and cheered as they walked back to their cars.

Most marathons outside the US are typically very lonely.  They are incredibly difficult in my opinion because of the lack of crowd support.  Yes, it is only you, the runner, that can carry yourself over that finish line, but there is a lot to be said for the people you meet along the way.  Every little bit of motivation helps – especially when you are in pain or have hit your wall.   Some of the US marathons are an amazing street party.

As I watched the back of the packers start to arrive, I was having flashbacks of my first marathon experience years ago.  Because I have lived through that pain and loneliness on a marathon course, I just could not bring myself to leave them. 

My first marathon was in Houston in 1996.  I didn’t set out to do it, but as I ran with my running club, the distances became longer and I was addicted by then so kept going.  I was well prepared. 

Come race day, it was freezing.  Not just literally but figuratively.  These were the early days of dry-wick and other fancy fabrics that keep athletes warm.  And in Houston where it is almost never gets very cold, residents did not really own such novelties.  I saw one runner that had some warm gear – I recall they had just moved from Colorado.   I also recall that all runners within any kind of radius were in envy.  That runner looked like a sheep among a pack of wolves.  The rest of us had all showed up wearing garbage bags to stay dry.

After about the 3-mile mark, I looked over at my friend – icicles had formed on her collar.  Yes the wet, temperature and combination of wind had created icicles!  After the race I learned it was so cold that there were many runners suffering from hypothermia.  The race medical team pulled several runners to check them.  One runner was so hypothermic when asked his name he could not remember.

I am not sure why, but it did stand out!
As we kept moving the cold was forgotten, sort of.  Just as I passed the halfway mark, something unexpected happened.  It was like I had suddenly injured my ITB. (This is a common muscle that gets injured in runners, the Iliotbial Band that runs from your hip to the outside of your knee).  I tried to keep running, but could not.  I slowed to a horrific trot-walk and kept going.   As I kept going, it kept getting worse, so I started to walk with the hopes I would be able to run after a brief walk.  That unfortunately did not happen. 

Later, the barriers were collected and the roads opened to traffic.  Around mile-18 or so I needed a bathroom break.  There were none left on the course so I walked into a restaurant.  It was pretty empty except for one family that looked like they were having lunch after church.  I wish I had a camera because the horrified look on their face when they saw me was priceless.  Crazy-garbage-bag-wearing-girl was probably an understatement of what they thought.  I half expected them to shelter their children from me.

I was so glad to see Memorial Park when I finally got there.  This is about mile 20 (30km or so).  There was no one.  The park where all runners in Houston congregate had never looked so empty.  The van picking up injured runners came back for the last time to ask if I wanted to get in.  They had asked a few times, but that was the last time they would ask.  I said no.  They asked, “Are you sure”.  Of course I wasn’t, but I did not get in.

I think it was shortly after that I started to get a little crazy.  I was wet, cold and alone. I just wanted it to be over.  But yet, I did not want to quit.  I knew I would never forgive myself. I cannot recall if I had this conversation with myself out loud or in my head.  I had a turning point after that.  When I thought of quitting and what I would loose, I realized that more than anything, I wanted THE bumper sticker. 

In Houston, it is not uncommon for finishers to put the finishers bumper sticker on their cars.  I had always noticed these and was so impressed with those who had one.  I wanted one and needed to earn it.  I picked up my walking pace a bit.  I don’t know if it was delirium or cheeriness, but shortly after I started to sing Christmas carols to myself.  As I read that sentence back, I am sure it was out of delirium.  It only seemed fitting since it was freezing outside.  I think I sang Let it Snow

On the way there was one lady who was driving up and down Memorial Drive in her big black Mercedes with the window down cheering one walker I saw ahead of me.  That was nuts, I thought.  But who was I to judge the definition of that word at that point in time… or anytime thereafter.

When I got to the corner of Memorial and Shepard, there were two guys standing there with a thermos of hot chocolate.  They asked if I wanted some.  They were so sweet.  I did not take any.  In training they teach you not to try anything new on race day as it could have a bad result - as if I wasn’t having one already.

The highlight of this time was when I was walking along the Buffalo Bayou.  There was what I assume was a homeless man who I passed while walking.  As I walked next to him, he looked at me like I was nuts.  I was not sure what to say, so I said Hello.  He looked at me suspiciously and moved his bottle of Jack Daniels to his other hand that was further away from me.

When I finally made it into downtown I knew that I would finish.  I was in pain, but yet too cold to feel anything.  Much to my surprise there were still two people at the finish line handing out certificates and medals.  I was in shock that I made it.  My final time was 7:15 – yes, that is 7 hours and 15 minutes.  

There was no one to celebrate my insanity and surrealism.   I didn’t stay too long as I just wanted to get to my car and get warm.   I called my roommate and my parents to let them know I was still alive and on my way home.  As I drove home, I was so grateful for those few crazy people who stayed to support the few of us that were left.

Years later as I watch these runners in Dubai, I wonder if they have experienced the same insanity and loneliness.   While maybe not exactly the same, everyone goes through a tremendous transformation during that 40 kilometers.  I was so proud of all of them.  I didn’t know any of them – only one of my son’s teachers who I did not know was running.   There was only 3 kilometers left, I was sure at that point they would all finish.

The guy in the rhino suit
Shortly after the man in the rhino costume passed and it was nearing noon, I pulled myself away from the course.  I had only that day to prepare for son’s birthday party.  There were still a few runners coming, but I knew they would make it as they were so close.

As my son and I left to go pick up supplies for his birthday party, at the intersection where I sat earlier, I saw someone who was still running.  It was almost 1:30pm.  He was not even walking well, but still going.  I empathized with his pain, but was so proud that he kept going. 

What shocked me more were the two guys who were part of the race staff standing at the road markers.  After the future finisher asked them for directions to the finish line, they shook their heads and looked at each other like he was crazy as they smoked their cigarettes.  At that moment I wanted to jump out of my car in a road-rage like fashion and pull them by their ears to the finish line to request better support for next year.

It is not important that others understand why someone runs a marathon.  There are many motivations – often it is a charity, to raise awareness of something, in remembrance of someone, to celebrate a milestone or simply because you want to test yourself like you have never been tested before.  The reason is always personal, and it does not matter.  It is your reason. 

T. S. Elliot once said, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go”.   Be sure that guy I saw at the traffic light asking for directions to the finish line has gone further in one day than most people will go in a lifetime.  And he did it gracefully while two men blew smoke in his face and laughed. 


Sew Pretty Dresses said...

nYou go girl finishing the marathon! I have only ran 1 half and fully trained for a second half only to dehydrate days before the race and not be able to run. I am in awe how anyone goes past 13.1 miles as I was DYING at that point! I ran it fast though(for me that is). So interesting to hear about the Dubai race.

suresh said...

Hey, nice site you have here! Keep up the excellent work!

Training Courses Dubai

Pam said...

Thanks for the compliment Suresh! Sorry I am just now responding - work was a little hectic before the holidays, so I was not posting as I would prefer.

Jenny - I love the half distance.. shortly there after things begin to cross the insanity threshold, but I loved it at the time...