Diary of a Half-Marathon

I slowly awaken to the short, stabbing tones coming from my alarm clock.  After a few  typical moments of disorientation, I abruptly sit up in bed, suddenly very awake.  It’s just after  5:30 a.m. on a Sunday.  But it’s the day of my first half-marathon.  I’m kind of surprised at how excited I feel.  I go bounding out of bed, to the kitchen and the coffee maker.  I think twice about coffee, given I’m about to embark on a couple of hours of running.  I decide on a small glass of juice instead.  I change into my “kit,” eat some fruit, and I’m on my way.

Almost downtown, and so many people!  All are walking toward the starting area.  The  starting area is nuts–about 15,000 people are here for either the half-marathon or the marathon.  Everyone is smiling with a bounce in their step.  So this is what these  long runs are like.  Full of happy people looking forward to a challenge.  I weave my way through the crowd to what I think is an appropriate spot in the starting area.  I can’t see the starting line, but I’m sure it’s up there somewhere.

It’s 7:00 a.m., the gun sounds, and we’re off.  Well, sort of.  Given the mass of people, I’m  not going anywhere just yet.  After a minute or so, we start walking forward.  Everyone still seems so excited.  Then we start jogging!  And then we stop.  False alarm, of sorts.  Now we’re just starting any stopping … almost like being in morning commuter traffic.  Finally we’re off.

The first mile or so of a crowded race is always a bit dicey.  So many people packed  together, some wanted to run quickly out of the blocks, some taking their time.  My first mile split wasn’t very good–over 9:00, I think–but considering the crowd and navigation issues, I’m not upset about it.  I start finding nice, open pockets to stretch the legs out and go, which is good.  As we run down toward the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, I’m feeling good.  After getting a couple of miles under foot, my pace is picking up and the legs feel strong.  I’m still surprised at how excited I am about this.

The walkers start to get annoying.  While I have nothing against people electing to walk, I wonder why so many felt they should start near the front.  The thing about walkers is that they walk in packs; rarely is there just one person walking.  And they tend to walk side-by-side so they can talk, which makes them harder to pass.   Fortunately, after passing the two-mile mark I  seem to have left them behind.

As we loop around and head back downtown, we hit the 5-mile mark.  I’m now running farther than ever before in a race.  Feeling a little tired, but think I’ll be okay.  As we get downtown, there are more people packing the sides of the street to watch the runners.  It’s a great pick-me-up.  I find myself lengthening my stride a bit and picking up the pace, not because I feel good but because I want the crowd to think I do this all the time.   There’s a couple of guys snapping official race photos.  I hope I don’t look too fat.

Later, I’m over 8 miles into this thing, and we’re running by St. Louis University.  It’s  interesting … I’ve driven these streets hundreds of times, and I’ve never really thought about the hills.  St. Louis downtown streets don’t have steep hills, but rather long, gradual, punishing inclines.  My legs are starting to send me “just what are you trying to prove” messages.  Then I’m past St. Louis University, running down Forest Park Parkway.  Jesus, what the hell am I doing in the Central West End?  And I’ve still got over 4 miles to go?  Are they sure the distances are right?

Someone goes flying past me, and I wonder how anyone still has that much energy at this  stage of the race.  Then I notice their race number with “Relay” written above.  The full  marathon has a relay division, where a team runs the marathon and each team member only runs a few miles of the race.  Hence the speed and energy level at this stage when those like me are clearly starting to suffer.  Relay participant or not, I really don’t need to see anyone sprinting at this point.  As this guy gets farther and farther away, I decide the “Relay Division” should be renamed the “Asshole Division.”

Now the course has turned around for the half-marathoners, which the marathoners continue on toward Clayton.  I have a fleeting pang of sympathy for the full marathon people.  Clayton hills are pretty harsh.  But the ever-growing pain in my legs pulls me back into full self-absorption.  My quads are on fire and my calves … I’m not sure how to describe my calves.  Remember that scene in “Alien” where that gross little alien pops out of the dude’s chest?  That’s kind of how each of my calves feel.

I’m over 10 miles into the race when I become conscious of the pain on the bottom of my right foot.  Apparently someone managed to slip a cheese grater into my shoe, because I feel like there’s no skin left.  I knew I should have bought new shoes.  Stupid!  I could try to hop on my left leg for a while, but I think it might fall off out of spite.  I keep going.  Ever more slowly.

I’ve passed the 11-mile marker and am almost up the latest hill.  The hill is not  particularly steep, but it might as well be Mount Kiliman-fucking-jaro.  Christ, this  sucks.  There’s an old guy near the top of the hill.  He looks like Santa Claus.  He’s cheering us on, and saying we’re almost up this hill and it’s the last one.  If my right foot wasn’t on fire and my calves weren’t about to explode, it would be nicer to hear.  But I take some measure of relief.

I can see the 12-mile marker.  All I want to do it walk for a while.  Actually, that’s not true.  I want to fall down and not move for a few days.  All of a sudden … what the hell?  Last hill my ass!  Why am I running uphill again?!?  If it didn’t involve running more  distance–which I clearly don’t have the strength to do–I might just turn around and find that fat, white-haired prick who said the previous hill was the last one.  I starting to feel  like I might pass out or puke.  Maybe both.  Not sure in what order.

At some point I have this vague notion that I’ve crossed the finish line.  I can’t feel my legs and my vision is so blurry I can’t see where I’m going.  After a moment I realize my eyes are okay; the kaleidoscope view I’m getting is from the moisture on my sunglasses, though I’m not sure if the source is sweat or tears.  I’m trying to get to the recovery area where there is food and water.  I’ve never wanted a glass of water so badly in my life.  I’m bumping into a lot of people and things.

I finally get through the recovery line, and have gathered food and bottled water.  There’s  one more booth.  And it’s for beer.  I take an 8-ounce cup of beer, feeling quite certain it will get me drunk given my level of fatigue and dehydration.

Once back to my car, I fall into it and somehow manage to get home.  I park in front of my house, turn the car off, open the door, and realize I can’t move my legs.  My legs are so stiff.  Rigor mortis stiff.  Al Gore 2000 election-persona stiff.  I almost have to pick them up with my hands to move them forward to walk.  I think if I do nothing but stretch for  the next three days I might be able to walk by mid-week.

I collapse on the couch.  My early morning enthusiasm has been replaced by just being thankful I’m still alive.  Amazingly, my last thought before passing out is about signing up for a full marathon in the fall.


One Night In Carson’s

Carson’s is not ambitious enough to be a dive.  It just lets itself go slowly downhill a little more each day, making the deterioration hardly noticeable.  Still, the weekend karaoke packs people in.  Some come to sing, most come to watch the spectacle.  My group was more watchers than singers, but the numbers could vary with the intoxication levels.

Before I could sit down, the couple at the next table took note of my height and asked if  I’d turn the ceiling fan speed down a notch.  The fans in Carson’s do no more than push the cigarette smoke down upon you.  As I climbed a chair to reach the fan and my head neared the ceiling, I had a sensation of what it must be like to swim underwater in an underground cavern and find a small pocket of air between water and rock where breathing is possible.  The lower speed was of little help.  Fearing that all the smoke  might fuse my contacts to by eyeballs, I attempted to make myself cry.

At the next table over was a black man who I guessed was in late 20’s.  He was sitting alone, eating dinner, and drinking nothing but water.  He also wasn’t paying attention to anything around him, but was concentrating on his plate, only occasionally looking up at the stage.  There was a gym bag at his feet.  Before I spent much time trying to guess his story–I’d find out soon enough–my attention was drawn to a woman  standing behind him.

She was facing the stage, wearing a short jacket and even shorter skirt, dancing around to  the current karaoke performer, a guy who was just destroying a classic rock song.  Her very red hair was styled a bit like the oompa loompas from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  At first I thought her legs were completely covered in tattoos.  I squinted, trying to focus through the smoke, and realized that I was not seeing tattoos, but loud and lurid tights.

Something seemed odd about her, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  I was just  about to let it go when she turned toward me.  Make that when he turned toward me.  Even though the haze there was no mistaking that this was a 50-something guy in a wig and make up to go with the mini-skirt and tights.  My surprise was interrupted when the current song mercifully ended, the DJ called up the next performer, and the lonely looking black guy jumped to the stage.

He crouched down, dug into his gym bag, and pulled out sunglasses, a sequined jacket and one glove.  So this is where we were headed.  As the music started he began thrusting his hips to the beat of the music and twirling around in a King of Pop impersonation that was barely competent.  Then he began to sing, and the god-awful voice that came from him made me long for an encore by the previous performer.  I’m not sure it was a sound heard in the natural world, though it was a little like a cat being squeezed way too tightly.  The song that had begun abruptly switched to another song, and I realized this was a medley.  A long, horribly sung, painful medley.  The man on the stage continued to squeak and spin and grab his crotch in what was quickly becoming the most horrific Michael Jackson impersonation imaginable.

I was so perplexed by what I was seeing and hearing that I barely noticed the waitress lifting her too-tight halter top to show some guys at another table her pierced nipples.  Sensing my disorientation, a couple of Carson’s regulars at my table explained the Michael Jackson wanna-but-would-never-be to me.  He comes to Carson’s just to perform, and is known to hit other bars on their karaoke nights, too.  I tried to process this information while hearing his high-pitched howl.  So this guy actually worked the  local karaoke circuit to do … this?  In public?  Sober?  As the song in the medley changed  again, the man crouched quickly and urgently dug into his bag.  As “Thriller” started to play, suddenly he sprung up and twirled toward  the crowd with his head covered by a zombie-like Halloween mask.  I could only stare, mouth agape.

As I sat there, bewildered, a short, rotund man in a baseball cap approached our table.  I  recognized him from the few other times I’d been inside Carson’s and thought he might be the owner or manager.  He began talking to one of the people at our table, the bottle of liquor and plastic cups he was carrying clearly conveying his intention to offer shots.  His lower lip was completely covered by the biggest band-aid I’d ever seen.  It extended down across most of his chin.  The thought of this guy working behind the bar or in the kitchen with a gaping wound lurking beneath that band-aid bothered me.  I declined the shot.

A break from all this strangeness seemed in order.  I finished my beer, grabbed another and got up to head toward a back door leading to a small patio.  While making my way through the crowd, I looked at the stage and saw one of the biggest people I’ve ever seen hoisting himself up the step.  I didn’t know clothes came in such sizes.  Fitting with the oddities of the night, the voice that emerged from that mass of flesh was an incredibly sweet-sounding alto singing a somewhat sappy love song.

After a few minutes of breathing smokeless air outside, I ducked into the men’s room.  While finishing my business at the urinal, the door to the stall burst open.  The guy in the next urinal over exclaimed “What the hell was that?” as the man in the red wig and mini-skirt whisked out of the men’s room and straight to the stage.  He followed up the enormous  singer’s honey-dripped voice with vocals that were pure gravel.

Watching this man in the 80’s style, low-rent Madonna clothing choke out a truck-stop song, I realized I was at the proverbial fork in the road.  One can only fight so much weirdness.  It was time to either run screaming from the place or embrace it.  When the man with lord knows what under that enormous band-aid came back offering another round of shots, I gladly accepted.