Saturday, May 16, 2009

Belgrade--the Race

Race morning came early with the insane clanging of the church bell right outside our room's open window.  It rang 33 times at 1:30 in the morning.  That's right--33 times.  As if sleep wasn't enough of a challenge with the bells going off, the local cadets were screaming and hooting below our window for what seemed to be much of the night.  They say that it doesn't matter if you get any sleep the night before the marathon.  It's two days before that counts.  I'm pretty sure it would be more appropriate to count the number of minutes of sleep I got two nights before the race.

I always take a shower race morning when running a marathon.  I'm not sure why, but I do. With the late start of this race (10:00 a.m.), most of the women on our floor wanted to shower too.  Problem was, by this time, only one shower was working.  We scrambled to get our showers and breakfast before being corralled to the busses and finally to the start.  Breakfast for me was probably the best meal I had all week: instant oatmeal, bread with the one pack of peanut butter I had scored from my hotel in D.C., a banana and my special energy tea.  Yum!

As expected, the temperatures were already in the upper 60s by the start of the race.  I worried about what the heat might do to me since I hadn't raced a hot marathon before.  I also had no idea what the course was going to bring.  The athletes were not invited to go on the course tour the day before.  I was particularly worried about overheating and passing out after our military coach reminded us, the women's team members, that there was no room for dropping out of this one.  We were short a team member and we all needed to finish in order to qualify for the team competition.  No pressure.

I didn't make the cut for the "elite" start.  So, I was stuck behind a line of Serbians holding hands to form a fence to separate the elites from the non-elites.  This was pretty funny because I could actually reach over and touch the elites they were so close to me.  I'm sure the human shield gave them some comfort.  With the gun, we were off for the 22nd running of the Belgrade Marathon.

The first 6 miles or so were pretty fast with a nice downhill start.  I banked some time in this section and got a chance to see how the competition was shaking out.  A Swedish military competitor went out like gangbusters and was quickly recycled within a couple of miles.  Then, a Spanish competitor zoomed past me.  I saw her again around the 10k mark and passed her. To my surprise, she tucked in behind me and just hung there.  She would hang there for another 14 or 15 miles, drafting off of my much larger frame.

The course took us along the Danube River though we didn't get to see it at all.  We were stuck on very wide roads with absolutely no shade.  The people on the sides of the road seemed surprised that runners were out.  It was as if they had no idea there was a marathon taking place.  I loved that people were yelling "bravo!  bravo!" as we ran by.  I heard lots of people yelling, "go USA" (pronounced oosah).  Children wanted to slap my hand as I ran past, and I took them up on it.  I did hear some jeers about George Bush along with oosah sucks, but most people were friendly.  I spotted only one wild dog along the course.

At around the 21 km mark (half way point) I saw our military coach, Joe, and he told me that I was the 3rd military and 5th woman overall.  Up to that point, I had no idea where I stood in the competition.  This lifted my spirits and made me think more about the Spaniard riding my butt getting the benefit of the draft.  

Temperatures were definitely heating up for the second half of the race on this super exposed course.  It would eventually rise to the mid 70s by the time I finished.  I was very disappointed to encounter hard plastic cups at the first water station where I took my first gu.  These cups can't be squeezed properly, and you end up with more water up your nose than in your mouth. I was very nervous that I wouldn't get enough fluids throughout the race as a result.  Thank goodness they had plastic water bottles for the "elite" runners every 5k or so.  I was able to grab one of these at each station and soak myself with half of it before trying to guzzle as much of the water as possible.  I also tried to throw a little behind me to see if I could scare off my tailgater.  No luck there.  I was probably cooling her off.  Spitting was my next trick and that didn't work either.

Aside from good mile markers up to the 10k point, there were few markers along the course to let us know where we were in the race.  I of course had my trusty GPS unit on my wrist to help out, but I was forgetting to lap it regularly.  There were a couple of times that I couldn't see the nearest runner in front of me and had no course markings or monitors to direct me where to go.  I had to guess which direction and luckily guessed correctly.

I think it was around km 32 or 33 that I finally lost my Spaniard.  Perhaps all the talk the day before about Phedippides and pain got to her.  I had no sense how far back she was.  I knew that I had some hills to contend with soon and I was really getting hot.  For the final 3-4 km you start a gradual and then more extreme climb into the city.  I once again saw Coach Joe.  He told me that the 4th place woman, a Kenyan, was struggling up ahead and slowing to about 7:30 pace on the hill.  He told me to go catch her.  I could see her, and she was flailing.  She was slowing and spinning her head around to look for other competitors.  I passed her decisively, but I felt like I was crawling up that hill too.  I would later find out that she had gone out with the lead pack and is probably a 2:35 marathoner.

I got to the top of that hill, turned a corner and there was a steeper hill.  No mile markers in sight. How much longer did I have to go up these crazy hills?  I was starting to feel really hot and then, brace yourself, my body broke down and I lost control of my bladder.  This has never happened to me in my life let alone a race before.  What the hell was going on?  I just sort of looked around to see if anyone noticed and realized that I was soaking wet from sweat and water anyway.  I just wanted to see that finish line.  I turned the next corner and there it was.

The crowd was cheering.  I was pumping my arms as they called my name and announced that I was finishing third in the military competition.  I couldn't believe it.  I was so happy to be done. I finished in 2:51:12.  I was pleased with this time given what I had endured.  I knew I could have run faster under better conditions, but I felt like I kicked some butt anyway.  To my surprise, my Spanish competitor came in only 20 seconds behind me.

As soon as I crossed the finish line, I was greeted by 2 women and a man.  They congratulated me, handed me a banana and a bottle of water and said they were from doping control.  They would be needing a sample of my urine.  I laughed and really wanted to tell them to wring out my shorts.  I asked how much time they had.  It took 2 hours and they did not leave my side the entire time.

First, I was whisked off to a small room within a nearby hotel.  I was told to sit down and fill out some paperwork.  I was soaking wet and was not allowed to get my sweats bag to get dry clothes.  They asked for my identification and I told them I didn't normally carry it with me during a race.  I didn't even have it in my bag.  They said I would need someone to verify I was who I said I was.  Suddenly, a large Serbian rushed into the room and started talking about uniforms.  He then looked at me and asked where my service dress uniform was for the awards ceremony.  I explained that it was back in the dorm and my key to the dorm room was in my sweats bag and my sweats bag was somewhere on a bus.  He looked at me with displeasure and stormed out.

We were forced to leave the pee pee room to go to the finish line area where the awards ceremony was to take place.  I still had not seen anyone from my team and didn't have my sweats bag.  Finally, I saw Lt Col Peterson, our Chief of Mission.  I asked him to find my sweats bag so I could get something dry and somewhat presentable to wear for the awards ceremony. I was also looking for more water, trying to replenish my stocks for the ensuing test.  I was not allowed to get water from anyone outside the inner doping control circle.  After about 15 minutes of wrangling, I got a bottle of water.  I finally got my sweats bag minutes before the awards ceremony and was allowed to change.  The first place winner had her uniform with her (she knew she was going to win, I guess).   

The awards ceremony was quick and actually kind of fun. I was surprised by the size of the trophy that I received and mostly worried about how I would lug it around Italy the following week.  In celebration of my accomplishment (of successfully carrying it around Italy), I pulled that damn trophy out in every hotel room I stayed in and displayed it proudly.

I finally was sent back to the pee pee room for my test.  Lt Col Peterson accompanied me to vouch for me, and later for my pee.  After sitting around for yet another 30 minutes (only to find out they were waiting for me to tell them I was ready) I got to go up to the processing room.  I won't bore you with the procedure, but it was quite a production.  Lt Col Peterson verified that in fact the yellow fluid in the bottle before him was my pee, and we were allowed to leave.

I was taken to the busses that were still waiting on a runner that had become ill after the race.  It was now 3 hours post race and I was starting to get hungry--a feeling I was used to by then.  We got back to the barracks, showered, changed into our service dress uniforms and were rushed off to the closing ceremonies.  I was dizzy and had a headache a mile wide from lack of food and water at this point.

At the closing ceremonies, the US women's team was presented with the first place trophy in the team competition.  We rocked the race!  We beat the Spanish team by a long shot.  My two teammates were disappointed with their individual performances, but their times were critical to the team win.  Perhaps the most inspiring moment of the entire experience was standing in front of this group with our trophy in hand and having the US National Anthem play as a result of our achievement.  I was verklempt.

Finally, we were allowed to eat at the reception--appetizers of, you guessed it, meat and cheese. Like a sea lion at the Ballard Locks I stood at the door to the kitchen and ambushed the servers carrying their fresh trays of food as they entered the reception hall.  
We then filled our trophy with beer and drank from our spoils.  It took about 4 sips of beer to get me hammered.
We started talking about going to dinner at about 8 p.m.  We didn't eat dinner until 11 p.m.  I have no idea why this happened every single night, but it did.  We did eat at a great restaurant and I finally felt full.  We were back to our barracks and in bed by 1 a.m. with an alarm set for 4:30 a.m.  to catch our early flights.  What a day it had been.  I was ready for a vacation!               

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