Thursday, December 22, 2011

Stoneman Marathon, December 17, 2011
University of Sao Paulo
I work for a company based in Brazil and they had me in Sao Paulo for most of the fall. I had scoured the international race websites and found a few races, but either the timing was wrong or the city was wrong. I could see traveling to Rio for a weekend, but I seriously doubted that I would make it to some 7:00 start after partying there. The Brazilians have been very accommodating. I speak no Portuguese and while Spanish is close to Portuguese, my Spanish is pretty bad too. Sure, I could fake my way getting a steak (or a beer), but anything complicated, even on the web, is a pretty tall order.

So I was running out of time, I had been in Brazil for two three-week sessions and no race. The final week I was at work on Tuesday and one of the local IT guys, Fernando, was going over some materials with the group. I noticed Fernando was wearing a Garmin as we reviewed data. During a break, I asked him about local running events. He assured me that there were events every weekend in Sao Paulo. We sat down and he pulled up ( Brazilian style!) and we started looking at races. We ran out of time, so I kept looking after work. After digging through the websites , I finally found a full marathon, on December 17, my last Saturday in Brazil!! Oh bummer, it is already closed! Well, I had nothing to lose, so I typed out a very simple email asking the RD for a chance to run and copied it into Google Translate. I sent the email in both in English and Portuguese, fully confident that I would never hear anything.

Wednesday morning at work, I kept fighting the temptation to check my personal email. Even if the RD had seen my email, the odds were low that he already responded. So when I finally gave in at mid-morning, I was shocked to see that the RD had responded and in English! He was happy to let me join. I was in!

Back home, I am always looking at races and events and trying to find good races to run. I usually sign up way early for the races I really want to do and I usually am a little picky, I like to run my kind of race. Seems fair, entry fees being what they are. I don’t choose loop races at home. Going ‘round and ‘round in circles does not appeal to me. I like to think I am getting somewhere, I guess. From a race director stand point, loops are ideal. You can keep an eye on your runners, you can set up one or two awesomely stocked aid stations, no one can be in trouble out in the middle of no where…I completely understand. But, I also know, as a runner, some times you have to dig deep to push to the finish. However, if you could quit and just drop on a middle loop, it would be very easy to do. I also know some great runners who run loop courses and run them very well. So maybe there is more than meets the eye.

So, the Stoneman Marathon is a charity race. I found out later, the proceeds had helped more than 5000 needy kids. Very impressive! The course utilizes a long, narrow, man-made lake at the University of Sao Paulo that is set up for crew practice. Each loop is 4.6 k and you need nine laps to get the 42.2 k marathon distance. The race director had set up the race for a variety of distances to draw the largest group of runners. 5.4k, 10k, 14.6k, 19.2k, 23.8k, 28.4k 33k, 42.2k. When I signed up, the RD said there were a few in the marathon. Later it turned out three signed up and two finished.

So, I brought Diana and Christina to Brazil with me on my second venture in Brazil. It was a sacrifice, but we looked at it like a once-in-a-lifetime chance for Diana and Christina to see Brazil and take in the sights. I let Diana know about getting in the race and I was a little concerned that she would not approve of using up valuable sight-seeing time. Instead, I got a text back that she had found gels and a handheld! She knew I liked to have those for long races and had found them at a local store…talk about a great crew!

When we showed up for the race, the race director made a point of finding me and explaining everything in English. He wanted to make sure I
understood. He explained that the start would be 800 meters down the trail so that the distances worked out with the 4.6 k loop. I would need to run nine loops to complete the marathon, but if I dropped back to a shorter distance, that was ok. Would I please head that way now? It was the beginning of a day where I would absolutely be treated like a king. I started down the path with about 200 other folks. So all the runners are all standing in loose groups, most are chatting away. I have no idea what anyone is saying. I am sure it is the same the same nervous energy that comes out of all of us before the start. The Race Director rides up on his bike and presses the air horn that is in his hand! We are off! A large group on a narrow path is always a slow start. I ran at a comfortable pace and found myself weaving in and out of the groups of runners.

It is tempting to think we are unique and the events we attend are one-of-a-kind. As I walked to the start line, I was reminded how similar we all. Two guys came across each other and started chatting in Portuguese, like old pals, who ran into each other unexpectedly. One asked the other how far he was running today, the reply: “Ses” (six k). The old pal: “Sol Ses??!” (…only six??!!) …and then they broke in the same old give and take that we all enjoy at races back in the US. I flashed on a conversation I had once with Richard Schick.

Richard: “Cremers, how far you running today?”
Me: “I am in for the half (marathon)”
Richard: “Half? Why are you wimping out?”

Same stuff…different country, different language, different hemisphere…runners are the same everywhere.

As I round the turn toward the what would be the eventual finish line, Diana and Christina are there cheering me. The next section contained a glade of trees, nice and shady, then the boathouse which was bustling with activity even in the early morning. Past the boathouse there was a tree, off by itself, right by our path. As I passed the tree, I could hear a bird scolding and dive bombing me. It is Spring South of the equator and all the birds are nesting. It was hard to believe the bird would dive bomb every runner on every lap, but I am pretty sure that is what happened.

Past the nesting tree there was a pretty open area and we made the turn on the short side of the lake. The second aid station was there, just fluids, but it would turn out to be expertly ran.
The long back straight-a-way was the really test. Most of the day, this would be running into the
sun. There were few trees and an ugly concrete wall. On the other side of the wall was a very busy highway. A long, lonely run. One of the sponsors had placed an aid station with only their drink (an Acai drink) about 1/3 of the way down. One of their marketing whizzes had hired two women to hand out the refreshment. Brazil has more than its share of beautiful women and these two ladies were picked special to draw attention. They would stand there, all day, bored out of their minds to hand out their special drink. Aside from that, there were no distractions…wall, water, sun, for the back stretch of the lake.

I carried my handheld and wore a fanny pack full of the gels Diana had bought (same brand as back home with a nutrition sticker in Portuguese stuck on the back). I decided to follow my standard strategy, drink all I wanted, each a gel every even lap. Normally, I would have an electrolyte tablet every other gel, but they were all back home…I was going to have to wing it on that side. If I saw any real food that looked desirable, I would eat it. The aid station at the far end of the loop was manned by runners. They knew just what to do when I wanted to fill my handheld. Every lap, they made sure I was taken care of.

As I came down the last of the long back stretch, I would hear Christina screaming “Go Daddy Go!” from across the narrow lake. She would jump and yell each lap and help keep me on track. After I rounded the corner to the front side of Diana would be there with her camera d Christina would give me a high five. Strong motivation!

The first few laps went by went by pretty fast. About the sixth lap, I had a terrible thought. What if I was the last runner and all these people were stuck out here in the sun because of me? Maybe I should drop out and let them go home? Was it wrong to make these people wait another hour and a half so that I could brag about a race? What if Diana was sitting at the other end of the lake just looking at the time saying “C’mon, c’mon, this is getting old!” I really wanted to finish the entire race, but what if I was just being proud and stupid? As I finished the back straight away, Christina cheered and Diana took pictures and gave me an awesome smile. The RD asked me how I felt and was I ok? I said I was. Then, the coolest thing happened. The runners who had finished and hung around, were clustered around and started saying “Go John Go!” “Run Strong!” Wow! The crowd was pushing me along! Very cool. Very, very motivating. And so it went on, I kept moving forward, The bird kept buzzing my head, the guys at the aid station kept me hydrated, high fives from Christina and cheering folks. Awesome.

The seventh lap is when the sun really started to make its presence known. I would drizzle water on my head and my neck. I was drinking a lot more water. At some point, Diana got me a sports drink to replenish electrolytes. Laps seven and eight my pace was falling off considerably. As I started lap nine, I was hot and ready to be done. A guy that I did not know came up on
a bike. His name turned out to be Michael and his English was very good. “How are you doing?” “Do you need some water?” “I will ride along with you.” Michael rode along for my last lap. Richard Schick always had told me how having someone to chat with made the miles go by so much faster. He was (is still) right and Michael was going to help me on my last lap. We talked about why I was in Sao Paulo and all the normal running chit chat. It worked perfectly. Michael was going to get me home. We passed the two guys at the far aid station and the three of them had a healthy exchange in Portuguese. We passed the girls with the Acai juice. We passed the other last runner on the course, an older guy who was running the 33k. And suddenly, I can hear Christina cheering and calling for me. As we made the final turn, Michael left me to finish and get cheered to the finish. The last few folks were lining the road and cheering. “Go John Go!” “Finish Strong!” “Great Race!” I finished! I rolled in across the mat and then The RD was there, handing me my finisher's award, and Diana and Christina came up, cheering. I was done, I had run my first overseas race and I kept it under four hours. Official results say 3:55:30, my new South of the Equator PR.

After I finished, Michael and the RD asked me how I was. Diana brought me some cold water.
I saw a nurse looking at me intently, from a distance. There was a little food and Christina introduced me to the kids who she had played with during the day. I got a chance to work the kinks out of my legs. People came up and congratulated me on finishing. The guys from the far end aid station shook my hand. What a great day! What a great race! Maybe, just maybe...I might have to think harder about running loops in the future...