Thursday, July 3, 2008











RUNNING WITH THE DEVIL
HALF-MARATHON


A Race Report in Thirteen Point One Segments

One—Temptation
I am looking for races around the country. I’ve decided to do a distance race in each of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Distance, for me, means half-marathon or longer. I have checked off Arizona, California, DC, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Ohio, and Virginia. I am currently in a group training for a marathon in the fall; I plan to do Texas in November, and normally we don’t do too many races while training. But surely I can sneak in a couple of half-marathons between now and then.
Perusing a marathon website for races in June, I come across an unusual listing. “Running with the Devil”—a race just outside Las Vegas, Nevada, a week after the Summer Solstice. The host hotel rates are extremely decent. I like the unabashedly evil slant of the organizers, who say they go out of their way to ensure hideous conditions. I like the fat Calico cat logo, very cute. There’s a choice of 5 races: 5K, 10K, half-marathon, full marathon, 50-miler. I check out the results from 2007, and they give me pause. My guardian angel tugs on my sleeve: “JeeZus H, will you look at the finish times? Look how many dropped! Be reasonable and by-pass this one... you hate the heat... remember Kona?” But the Devil in my heart whispers, “Come On.... you can do it... don’t be wimpy.... and hey, look at the small field... this could be your chance to brag about an Award. And look, there is a prize for best satanic costume.”

Hell yeah! I allow the silver-tongued fiend to lead me astray and I register, coughing up 70 bucks to Calico Racing (“the Cat’s meow in sports”). I pretend nonchalance as I sign a form discharging everybody including the Governor of Nevada of any liabilities that I might incur such as illness or death or encounters with the Devil.
Later I will perhaps wonder at how eagerly I sought the privilege of this infernal suffering.

Two—My Training Heats up
The Calico Racing website, like a preacher at the pulpit, gives ample warnings of the evils lurking in this race. Of all the awful things that can screw up a race, I know that the worst is probably excessive heat. But hey! June in the D.C. area is usually damn hot and humid, and I should be acclimated by June 28. In fact, think I pridefully, we probably out-do these Nevada folks because they may have the heat but we beat them hands down with our high humidity! That nice dry heat will seem EASY to run in!
Friday, June 6. I am SO lucky! Unseasonably hot weather is hitting the DC area. Temps in the upper eighties, humidity up there too! Everybody is whining; I grin. I wait for the temps to reach their highest, and then I run from home, up Tuckerman Lane; it’s a steady though low-grade uphill; cement sidewalk, lots of car exhaust, not too much shade, what’s not to like? I run too fast; I feel kind of sick but it’s just my first “hot” run, and it’s just 3 miles.
Sunday, June 8. The Three H’s of summer in DC: Hot, Hazy, Humid. Perfect for training for Hell. Our training group bravely tackles the 12-mile LSD (long slow distance) run as the temps climb to 95 degrees. Some have to walk a bit. But I run through it and I feel okay. Looking good for Nevada!
Tuesday, June 10. Yes! More of the same! Ninety-two degrees and 76% humidity: heat index, 118, according to my chart. Excellent training for Nevada. I do my projected 5 miles and catch my reflection in a car mirror. My cheeks are fuchsia. The water in my bottle is hot enough to brew tea. I pant like a German shepherd. But I haven’t thrown up or stopped.
Friday, June 13. Code Orange day again (for ozone and heat, not terrorism). I do a 6.5-miler and really break a sweat there, but I don’t feel incapacitated.
This Devil thing should be a piece of cake.


Three—Pride Goeth before the Fall
Uh-oh. Unseasonably cool weather lays siege to the Nation’s Capital, and my plan for acclimatization goes to hell in a handbasket. A web page discussing the challenges of running in heat says that 2 weeks is the MINIMUM amount of time needed to acclimate. Argh! It better get hot again soon! This nice weather is poking major holes in my strategy.
Time to concentrate on the costume. The song “Devil with a Blue Dress” is knocking at the right side of my brain. Serendipitously, I find a book on Tee-shirt morphing and create a $2 Blue Dress costume with nothing but a long blue tee-shirt, scissors, my alphabet stencil, and a wide marker. I cut the top off, make ribbons with it to make shoulder straps, and cut the bottom of the shirt into a flapper-like fringe. I poke a hole right above the butt and insert a tail, home-made out of self-adhesive red felt. I draw an alligator on a white painter’s cap that I bought at a crafts store for one dollar. I stencil BLUE DRESS on the dress; on the hat, I stencil ALLIGATOR HAT, and I stick red felt horns on top. I hope most of the runners are not too young to have heard Mitch and the Detroit Pistons croon out their “Fee fee fy fy fo fo fum, looking mighty fine, here she comes, Devil with a Blue Dress, Blue Dress on, she’s a Devil with a blue dress on...” I plan to wear this on top of my shorts and shirt and remove the costume just before I start the race if it really does feel too hot, or else at the first aid station.





Four—Too Late To Turn Back Now
Thursday, June 26—Hell and damnation! The beautiful weather has continued unabated as I make my way to the airport. On my westward journey, my apprehension builds as I read the last “letter to registered athletes” that Joyce, the race director, has e-mailed us. I have not had enough training in the heat. Plus, there is a 3-hour difference between DC and Boulder City. The half-marathon begins at noon on Saturday, just to make sure we don’t miss any opportunities for sunstroke! I will have to adjust my schedule and not get up too early, or else by the time the race starts I’ll be ready for dinner! Must stay up late tonight and Friday and sleep in as late as I can.

Five—Checking out the Course
Friday, June 27—I wake up at 3 a.m. (6 a.m., EDT) and can’t get back to sleep. So I bide my time, watch the stars dim and the sky brighten from my hotel room, which is vast and has a nice big window affording great views, by the way, even from the “non-scenic,” non-Lake-Mead-view, cheaper-rate side. The host hotel is the Hacienda, which is also a casino. At four o’clock in the morning there are already—or still—people downstairs playing at the slot machines. Later I sightsee, I check out Boulder City, pick up some food, my sports drink, some salt packets, and then I go to the lake. At Boulder Beach there are palm trees and a vast expanse of sand. Could be Florida, if you ignore the mountains in the background. Oh yes, it is hot, but as they say, it IS dry, so you feel enveloped and cocooned as opposed to having your lungs sucked out by the humidity. There is a steady breeze, however, and that might be a bit of a challenge tomorrow, I think after spending all of three minutes outside the car.
I get back in and drive the course. Folks, it is breathtaking. Rolling hills, rocky crests, mountains across the lake that seem to glow from inside in various shades of chocolate and russet, barely any vegetation except some parched sagebrush, some hardy weeds, and a few creosote bushes. A lunar landscape, were it not for Lake Mead shining like a turquoise gem under flawless azure skies. It is a haven of solitude and meditative spirituality. I rehearse the course mentally, imagine myself trotting along, rejoicing at the many downhills, worrying a bit about the corresponding uphills, since this is an out-and-back course. The elevation profile from the website looked daunting, but the reality of the course is not so bad.
Especially when riding in an air-conditioned car while sipping an iced drink.

Six—Packet Pick-up
This is where, if I were so inclined, I would size up the competition. But I’m not in this running thing for winning (or else I would have quit long ago). I am on the AARP side of fifty, I am short, I am slow, I’ve had a couple of stress fractures, I’m not going to push it. I am in it for the health benefits and for the fun factor and because I am curious to see how I will do under these conditions. Also, I am very curious to see what sort of creature is the Fifty-Miler. Those are the people that really freak me out. Under the best of conditions, I would probably die at mile 38. Under these vile conditions, I might as well lie down by the side of the road at mile one and wait for the birds of prey and coyotes. But these folks look cheerful, even excited at their self-imposed upcoming execution. One nice young man tells me he will probably do it in 8 or 9 hours. Good golly miss Molly!

A special treat awaits my curiosity, since the Western States 100-mile run, which was supposed to take place the same day as the Devil, has been cancelled due to the fires in California, and some of the runners who registered for that race will be doing the Devil instead. So I see some people who are presumably twice as crazy as the 50-milers. Welcome one and all! I pick up a very cute red tank top with the word DEVIL lovingly calligraphied in sparkly black on the front, and off I go to the Alaskan King Crab buffet feast. To keep myself awake as late as possible, I play the slot machines and win $19.50. An omen for success tomorrow? It’s still pretty early, but I go back to my room to just lie down and read a bit and immediately fall asleep.

Seven—Race Day—Morning
Three oh eight a.m. Saturday morning, and I am wide awake. Obviously my plan to sleep late has evaporated, and what with nerves and all, there is no way I will snooze now. I put on my horns and go down to the race start to see the sun come up and watch the 50-milers start. Apparently those who start at 6 a.m. call themselves the “wimps” (because they enjoy, what? maybe one hour of bracing temperatures under 80 degrees?), and those who start at 8 a.m. are the real troopers. Such fine distinctions make no sense to me since the heat of the inferno is bound to catch them at some point, one and all, and I marvel at their guts! Dressed in white like Arabian sheiks with white cloth flapping about their ears, they cheerfully set off in the glowing red morning.
At 6:15 the 5K runners start; at 6:30 the 10K runners start; I hardly have time to adjust my camera and get noisemakers from my car when the 5K winner arrives 17 minutes and dust after his start time; the runners trickle in and report that the first quarter-mile of the race is a challenge in itself, a short but steep uphill that took them by surprise. I make note of that and decide I should walk that part so as not to exhaust myself. And now maybe I should go get some rest and a little breakfast before dressing for the run. It’s getting hotter every minute. In fact, it’s really, really hot already. Hotter than hell.
I’m scared to death and fitfully excited at the same time. Napping is out of the question.

Eight—Race Day—Countdown and Report of Rascals
We have been instructed to report to the Start line one hour before the race; so at 11 I arrive. I talk to a few other runners. One woman says she did it last year and it was pure hell with temps of 118! But she is back! and hoping for a better time this year, with our relatively cooler temperature.
I learn that some pieces of human trash have actually STOLEN an entire aid station somewhere beyond mile 11; this happened in the wee hours of the morning. May these evil souls walk forever toward an aid station that never materializes, may they desiccate under an implacable sun for all eternity, and may their yellow livers be plucked out by turkey buzzards and their intestines be chewed up by coyotes.
Well, it’s finally the noon hour and Joyce gives us last-minute instructions (I think “have fun” may have been in there); the photographer takes a few group pics, and off we go up that first hill.

Nine—First Two Miles
The 5K runners were correct about that first little uphill. By the time I’ve done that first quarter-mile, I am already sweating like crazy; and I’m among the few people that rarely sweat; my sweat mechanism kicked in only after 4 years of running, well into my forties, and it only happens when I run in very hot weather.
In all the excitement I forget to take in a bit of salt, which I was told is the only way I will survive this. A volunteer picks up my Blue Dress and Alligator Hat at the top of this hellish hill. By the time I’ve adjusted my Lawrence of Arabia headdress and taken a few swigs of sports drink, I see that everyone has all but disappeared far ahead. I jog at what seems a snail’s pace, trying to rejoin the rearguard. At mile one my watch says 11:28; not bad, but too fast for my carefully planned strategy. Why are all those people going so fast already? Unconsciously I kick the pace up a bit and pass a couple of people; at mile 2, I get a pace reading of 10:27—way too fast for me for the first few miles, which I wanted to do at 12 minutes per mile. A few minutes later I realize I am completely wiped out and start walking. The thought enters my pea brain that I won’t be able to finish. More than 10 miles to go, and all I want is a cool place to lie down in! The sun is like a blowtorch. My sunglasses slide down my nose. I have to pull down my cap as close as possible to screen out the incredible glaring brightness out there. Broiling wafts rising from the pits of hell beneath me keep pulling my bandanna flaps up, the better to fry my ears. I gobble a couple of sport beans and take a few more swigs of my (now boiling hot) sports drink. Yuck. I was babbling on yesterday about the meditative solitude of the magnificent mountains, right? Forget it; all that stuff was idiotic bunk. This place is ridiculous. People who run out here are insane. This road is black and blinding at the same time, and I’ll never get to the end of it. I am alone out here. Glancing behind, I don’t even see the people I passed. Did they turn back? Are people dropping out already? The EMS vans whiz by several times. Are they carrying corpses? Omigod. The first aid station is at mile 3.1. I’ll just call it a day there and drop out. Who needs another dumb medal?

Ten—The Aid Station
By hook, by crook, by golly I somehow make it to the first aid station (cleverly situated at the top of a hill after a turn). This outpost is peopled with Angels who give out ice, pretzels, gummy bears, orange slices, T-bone steaks. The first thing I want is shade and something cold. An Angel fills my cap with ice and I stick it back on my head for instant brain cooling. I usually hate cold stuff on me, but baby, bring this one on! I get a “chill towel,” which is a kick-ass new product made of terrycloth injected somehow with natural ingredients such as menthol, aloe vera, and something citrusy. You dip it in cold water and the darn thing becomes an instant portable cooling mechanism. When the towel gets warmer, you shake it out a bit and it becomes cool again. It has a loop at one of the corners so that you can secure it around your neck. Pretty darn cool.
As my eyes adjust to the relative darkness under the canopy, I become aware that someone is hurting more than me. Ouch! One of the resident Devils has played a trick on a young woman and pulled her leg, making her stumble onto the melted asphalt and slicing her knee open on red-hot rocks. Her wound bleeds spectacularly down her leg. She’s getting bandaged and instead of asking for a stretcher seems intent on continuing. My wimpiness becomes evident to me by contrast. A gentleman runner is helping her out. By the time I’m done crunching on some pretzels and getting ice in my bottle, in my shorts, in my bra, in my cap, in my ears, the stout-hearted pair is preparing to go forward and I join them, endlessly grateful for their company. Juliet and Jess. Thank you my friends.

Eleven—The Three Musketeers (or Stooges?)
We are all three hurting and dazed, but somehow the companionship lessens the evil tremendously. We talk, we walk. We attempt jogging a bit on the downhills. Julie’s knee bleeds more profusely when she runs, and Jess is cramping. I’m feeling a little light-headed and am concentrating on staying within the line (always a problem for me to stay within the lines) lest one of the many enormous hurtling vehicles, most of them towing aircraft carriers, pulverize me. The road goes on and on forever. I am still conscious of the magnificence of the landscape, but now I see the subtext of cruelty upon which it feeds. For much of the course, we can see the amazing blue of Lake Mead, cool, glittering, and unreachable, but Julie’s experience prevents a tourist-y frame of mind. Make sure you know where your foot is going to land next. Survival comes first.


Did I mention that there is a Devil posing as a photographer on this course? He pops up everywhere, jumping out of his fossil-fueled chariot, and records our miserable moments on this patch of earth. He is having a great time, laughing, joking. We pretend, as soon as we see his evil equipment, that we are having a blast out here. So if you see pics of three cheerful companions maniacally smiling, don’t be fooled. All veneer.
We make it to aid station number 2, a mile or so before the turnaround. Julie gets bandaged up again. Now there are plenty of people crossing our path, the people who are on their way back; we’re not sure which are 50-milers (who started at 6 or 8 a.m.), which are full marathoners (who started at 10), and which are half-marathoners (who started when the friggin’ sun was at his friggin’ zenith!). Everyone looks beat but determined. The turnaround is at the top of a hill. An Angel is there with a clipboard, taking our bib numbers and jotting down our time, and he tells us we are doing awesome. We’ve been on the road for 1 hour and 40 minutes. Normally I’d be at mile 10 at this point, not 6.55.


Twelve—Vomit with a Benefit
We have stopped entertaining hopes that we might jog a bit on the way back. We do the Desert Crawl now. The heat is at its worst. Every two minutes or so a big blast of infernal heat slaps the back of my legs like a whip. Another unsupervised devil having fun with a flamethrower. I’m pretty sure the sunscreen that I generously smeared my entire body with this morning has now run off, evaporated, sublimated, or otherwise said sayonara and that my legs are just hot dogs on the grill of Hades. But I’m still feeling okay overall. We are still able to chat almost coherently.

Until we reach the last aid station. All of a sudden I feel that I have to sit or I will pass out. The Angels have chairs under the canopy, and I don’t even ask permission to collapse onto one of them.
Something bad is happening. The Devils are eating me up from inside. I feel a buzzing tingling in my limbs and especially my hands, which feel paralyzed and shaky at the same time. I am barely able to hold the cup of whatever an Angel is giving me, I swallow a little something, and then half a minute later gag-gag-gag, up comes just a little bit of liquid enhanced with the last few Fruit Punch sport beans that I ingested (a lovely pink, and you should know that some of the proceeds of the sale of these sport beans go toward the fight against breast cancer, so this puke in the desert is benefiting someone, somewhere, in an infinitesimal way).
Juliet and Jess are encouraging me to get back up and continue, only 3 more miles, only 3 more miles. But folks, spewing takes priority over anything else. I have lost my electrolytes and I’m not leaving until I get them back. I assure Juliet and Jess I'll be okay and that they must move on. Tears are shed, chill towels are waved, the trio separates at the same place where it had formed. After the upchucking I feel so much better, really. A little cola and an electrolyte pill and lots of ice and many minutes later, I feel strong enough to stand, to breathe, perchance to walk. Damn you Devil, I do want that medal!

Thirteen—The End Is in Sight
I take off, a little shaky still, but two minutes down the road I start jogging again. I see Jess and Julie in the distance. If I hurry I might catch up. Seeing them is like being pulled by a magnet, but I'm not feeling too strong right now, and so it’s on again, off again, jogging and walking until that last uphill before the finish, where I start feeling a little dizzy again and definitely settle into slow mode. I hear a runner behind me and move over to let him pass. But he stops to walk with me and asks me how I’m doing. He asks about my right arm, which I’ve wrapped with the blessed chill towel because the sun is beating down on it so hard. He tells me he won’t pass me; this close to the finish, it’s poor etiquette. I wouldn’t mind if he did. He’s a full marathoner and has been on the road nearly 6 hours; you’d think he would want to just get it done NOW. But that’s the fantastic thing about distance runners: they are incredible, wonderful people with an unsurpassed sense of solidarity. He reminds me, when we are finally within sight of the finish, that it’s all downhill now and that tradition expects that we should run it, and he won’t go in front of me, so there I go, again saved by yet another Angel. Thank you Mike!

Thirteen Point One—And the Last Shall Be the First
So I’ve made it in 3 hours, 54 minutes, and 50 seconds. Normally a sub-four is what I would want for a FULL marathon distance; but the hellish conditions of this run make this ill-conditioned Marylander proud of finishing, even though I am Dead Last in this particular race (a first for me!). But it turns out I have won my Division, first woman aged 50 to 59, by sheer virtue of Being the Entire Division. The irony is not lost on me, and when I brag about the award I’ll have to temper it with an admission of my overall standing.
There is a really neat spread of victuals for the finishers, and it’s in the SHADE. An assortment of runners are sitting or lying, eating, drinking, cooling off, reveling in that subdued manner in the “I’m done” moment. As soon as my pulse slows a bit, I grab some nourishment. Oh my God! A cookie never tasted so good! Thank you thank you thank you all you Angel volunteers and Joyce, mastermind of the operations.
I take off my cap, my life-saving bandanna, my sunglasses. I dip my best friend forever chill towel in the ice water cooler and towel off the grime and bask in the joy of being done. Well done.

Temperature on June 28, 2008: 112 degrees Fahrenheit; Humidity: 8%. Overall gambling winnings at the Hacienda and at Paris, Las Vegas: $40.50.

3 comments:

chexone said...

Cactus, welcome back to purgatory. That's a hell of a story.

Kristi Jacobson said...

mesmerizing photos!

but seriously, this may have gone a smidge beyond QUIRKY! :)

george said...

any more racing updates planned?