On Saturday, December 12, I ran the Festivus 50K for the second time. The race is an out and back, mostly on the Olentangy River bike path, starting at its northern extremity in Worthington, Ohio, through the streets of downtown Columbus, where there’s currently a lot of construction and opportunities for persons unfamiliar with the course to get lost, and back onto the bike path for a little piece before reaching the turnaround. The part from north of The Ohio Statue University is the best part of the course. South of OSU — yuck.
Near the end of the North Coast 24-hour race in Cleveland last October I resolved that I would not enter another ultramarathon until I lose twenty-five pounds. Festivus was the exception I had in mind all along because: it’s free, a no fee no tee event where you provide your own support and record and email your finishing time to the race director if you care to have it listed; it’s run on the bike path where I train three Saturdays out of four; in contrast to the previous two Sunday races, it was even scheduled for a Saturday, my usual long run day; I try to do a marathon or longer long run or walk once a month, and needed one for December. With January and February staring me in the face, I don’t know if the weather will permit me to get one in either month. So I did the race.
Last year I finished in last place by a whopping margin of three hours and seven minutes, partly because I walked the whole thing, as my last training run for Across the Years, where I walked for three days, and partly because I missed the turnaround point (the marker had been removed), so walked an extra mile or so. Otherwise I would have saved an hour to an hour and a half and been last by only an hour and a half.
Before every race I go through a period of thinking: “I don’t really have to do this. It’s gonna be long. It’s gonna be hard. I don’t have anything to prove to myself or anyone else. No one is forcing me to do this.”
The feeling is strongest when I get out of bed on race morning and check the weather. It’s early. It’s dark. I’m not a morning runner, though I’ve always been cranked and ready to go by the start of any race I’ve ever been in. There’s too much to think about, going umpteen times over my checklist. I hate taping and Bag Balming my feet, but know I’ll regret it if I compromise on any part of my proven routine. It’ll be cold out there. I’ll be alone all day long—but that’s never stopped me from doing a training run.
Happily, I’ve never DNSed any race. If I say I’ll be there, I will be. By the time I was dressed and ready to leave, I was anxious to get started.
I left the house at 7:45 to make the start time, set for 8:30. True to the forecast, there was nary a cloud in the sky, nor would there be all day long. The prediction was for a high of 35, which is warmer than it had been earlier in the week, and turned out to be an underestimate. More good news. I can handle that temperature.
I turned on the car radio, tuned permanently to WOSU, the NPR station at The Ohio State University, which broadcasts mostly classical music when it’s not airing the usual NPR news and information programs. Some music perfect for the day was on—a baroque trumpet concerto, the sound as sweet and bright as peppermint. Just as I was starting to get into it the sound cut off. Oops, I forgot—the radio in my 1994 Mercury Grand Marquis will play for two minutes or less, then cut off for the rest of the day. I don’t know why, though it seems to be temperature related. The only likely solution is to replace the radio, which I’m unwilling to do, even though there are several years of life left on the car.
Whoop! Suddenly the radio came back on, which usually doesn’t happen. By this time some other cheerful noise was playing. Being in a jovial mood, I began to whistle along. Oops, I forgot—the blower fan for the heater in my car doesn’t work, so when I whistled, I suddenly found myself fogging the windows with whistle steam. Dang! While trying to wipe off the windows with a rag so I could see, the radio cut out again. A guy can’t even manifest being in a good mood these days.
I arrived twenty minutes early and saw a dozen or so runners standing where the start would be. Aha! I thought—a crowd of early arrivers. Looks like there’ll be a pretty good number. I fumbled with my gear and my camera inside the car before getting out, realized upon stepping out of the car that I’d need to take off my gloves to work the camera, said nuts with that, tossed the camera in the trunk, turned around, and all the runners were gone. They turned out to be some running club assembling for their Saturday morning workout. I looked around and didn’t see anyone at first who might be doing Festivus. I did have the right date, time, and place, right? I did. Within a minute or two runners started crawling out of their cars, mingling and making preparations.
There were reportedly forty to forty-five runners at the start. Some said they wouldn’t be going the whole distance. After two years of living here, I still don’t know many runners in Columbus, but I did get to talk to a few people, including familiar ones.
Festivus is informal to the max. Race Director Dan Distelhorst hoped everyone looked at the route on the Web site, or at least just knew what it was, since he wasn’t planning on describing it. One woman, possibly from a team of four people who drove in from Cincinnati and finished together, asked: If you’ve never seen the course is it possible to get fouled up? I was too quick to speak up and said it couldn’t be easier. I hope she didn’t get lost, because there are in fact some tricks it would help to know about, particularly getting through all the construction downtown, and also a couple of places on the bike path itself that could be confusing.
True to the forecast, it turned out to be gorgeous, with an official high of 41, and no wind to speak of—for one who was adequately dressed. I talked to one runner before the race who was worried he might be overdressed. He was standing there in shorts and a sweatshirt, while I stood by in running underliners, long johns and tights on the bottom, long john shirt, a North Face technical shirt, a hoodless sweatshirt, and my Across the Years 1000-mile jacket on top, a beanie and full head cover, and a pair of running gloves covered by down filled gloves. On my back was my 100-ounce Camelbak Mule, filled only halfway, which turned out to be a mistake. The other runner voiced the maxim: “Dress for the end of the race, not the beginning!” Fine. In my case by the time I got back to my car with no heater it would be pitch dark, or close to it, and cold again, so I was prepared.
Finally we took off. The official weather report said the low temperature was sixteen degrees Saturday, though it didn’t seem quite that cold to me. But it was bright and windless, with prospects for a nice day. As we took off, I overheard one lady complain to another about being cold. The other replied: “It should get better in about twenty degrees.”
By one hundred feet from the start I was in last place. The other runners were out of sight by two hundred yards, and I never saw any of them again until I encountered them as they were returning, which began just north of OSU, nine or ten miles from the start, when I still had many miles to the turnaround. Unlike last year, this time at least I recognized most people coming back, or they recognized and acknowledge me, as friendly greetings were exchanged. I had the good fortune to be seen running rather than walking on most of those occasions.
People have asked me what I think about when I run long distances. The answer could fill an entire essay. One thing that occupied my mind on this day was what I’ve most recently been reading: a book that discusses social changes in the United States in 1800, the year Thomas Jefferson was elected President and the whole nature of the government changed, with consequences that remain down to today.
As I got near to OSU, I saw many geese and a few ducks—hundreds of them—all in the water, and every single one absolutely motionless. Usually they’re swimming around, at least slowly, bobbing for food, honking and quacking and doing all the goosely, duckly things that geese and ducks do. It was like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds.” They were just there. Some had their heads tucked in, apparently sleeping or maybe just trying to keep warm. I guess I would turn motionless pretty quickly myself if I were sitting naked in the middle of a body of water that was near freezing. I’m living my third cold season in Ohio; this was a strange, eerie but peaceful scene of a type I’ve never seen before.
I always take a good look whenever I pass by the Mausoleum—errr, make that the enormous OSU football stadium. It’s hard to imagine that venerable shrine ever being replaced. It’s been in operation for 87 years and is ideally located. Where would they put a new one? Putting an updated building on the same spot would probably be perfect, but where would they play during the years a new one was being rebuilt?
Living near The Ohio State University is one of the things I like best about living in Columbus; knowing it would be was one of the drawing points for me. I have no formal connection to the school whatever, only an emotional one. While growing up our family lived less than a mile from another Big Ten university football stadium, Northwestern’s Dyche Stadium. My father taught at Northwestern a number of years. Later I spent six years as a student at University of Illinois, and even though I left school as a sixties radical, I loved campus life. Even when I lived for seven months in Buffalo, I sensed a connection with SUNY, as one of my band’s musicians played in a new music ensemble there, and I even played two concerts there myself. In Phoenix, we had Arizona State University, where my wife got both a bachelors and masters degree, and my daughter got her RN/BSN. Despite this, the nature of the city is such that I never felt any special attachment to or special interest in that school the whole time I lived in Arizona.
I’ve digressed; but these tangents are among the things I reflected on during this particular long outing on the road.
I felt great the whole race. At the turnaround I felt invincible, as though I’d barely started. I wore no watch (another thing of mine that’s broken), so used the clock on my cell phone as a timer. When I checked my time at the turnaround, it said I’d done the outbound part in 4:17, just as the third runner was about to finish. I was sure I could finish in under nine hours, and maybe even grind out a negative split.
That didn’t quite happen, but this time out I avoided the usual death march. My first sign of tiring came around twenty miles, the traditional location of the “wall.” But I was well equipped with gels and the like, so I kept feeding myself, and my energy level revived. Unfortunately, I ran out of water, which didn’t help. Normally I don’t drink much (less than I should) in colder weather, and I just underestimated my needs, trying to cut back on weight carried.
Soon thereafter I stopped at the solar air compressor station in the wetlands just north of OSU, where bicyclists can get free air in their tires. I juggled some of my gear around, shed my full head cover and outer gloves, and stuffed them into my Camelbak, as it was the warmest part of the day and I was actually a bit too warm, which may have contributed to my slowing down. It got cooler later, but never uncomfortable since I worked hard to keep moving quickly as my decrepit body would allow.
When I got to the bridge that crosses the Olentangy River for the last time, which Google Maps tells me is 1.03 miles from the start/end, I started running without letup, and to my amazement, managed to run it all the way in. I rarely can do that. When I arrived there was just enough light left to see. I brought my headlamp, but obviously didn’t want to make a stop to dig it out and put it on for the short bit that I would need it. Last year I could have used it, as I walked well over an hour in the dark.
My finishing time was 9:06. My 50K PR is 5:49, three hours and seventeen minutes faster, but that was ten years ago, and that was then and this is now. Given that I finished an hour and fifteen minutes faster than last year, only in part due to the extra mile or so that I traveled last year, and ended feeling strong, I’m pleased with the result, and confident that the hard work I’ve been doing lately to get back into shape has started to pay off.