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February 27, 2006

The Napa Chronicles, Volume 3

In the spring of 2005, I was ready to take on the Napa Valley Marathon once again.

After my horrific race there in 2001 and its demoralizing aftermath, I stayed away from the scene of my undoing for a while. I ran the Los Angeles Marathon two years in a row (Napa and LA are frequently on the same day), and took almost one full year off from marathons altogether after our third child was born.

But I had never forgotten my original intent to break three hours at Napa, and by 2005 I was finally ready to give it another shot. I was determined to succeed. To quote the Blues Brothers, I was on a mission from God.

The intervening years had a sort of up and down randomness to them: I had the best marathon of my career in 2003 at Big Sur, but a handful of slower-then-predicted times at other races that left me bewildered as to what I should have done differently. I also began dabbling in ultrarunning, mountain running, and triathlon, sometimes turning my focus to these events just a couple of months before the event.

Basically, I had no idea what to expect at Napa. But things started coming together in January and February, and I was able to train pretty consistently leading up to the race.

Everything went according to plan until race week came along.

Starting on Tuesday of race week, my ambitions as a runner and my obligations as a family guy set off on a collision course. That’s the day my father called to tell me he would be in town, and wanted to get together for a visit.

I love my father. We don’t have any major dysfunctional issues (at least none that we ever talk about – but maybe that’s its own issue). And I don’t get to see him that often – maybe once or twice a year. I would have loved to spend time with him, but…

“Ummm…I have a race that weekend,” I told him, “but I could see you Sunday night when I get home.”

So I basically penciled my wife in to host him for a day and a half while I was out of town at a race. Which might have worked out OK, until the family started getting sick.

My wife had been under the weather earlier in the week, and wasn’t quite up to full speed. My son soon joined in the act, spiking a high fever with swolen glands so severe he had difficulty breathing at night. He stayed home from school for two days. Even our computer was ill – it crashed on Friday, and needed to be taken in for repairs over the weekend.

On Friday night, while my wife contemplated taking our son to the ER, I had to make a decision…and elected to go to the race anyway. Like I said, I was determined. Mission from God.

(As a side note to anyone who has ever read this blog and thought something along the lines of “What a neat father he is!” or “What a good family man”: just know that I can make boneheaded, self-serving decisions with the best of ‘em. File that away for future reference.)

Race day arrived, and I felt in reasonably good shape, and felt like I definitely had a sub-three hour race in me. Through the first half of the race, I was still feeling confident and staying right on pace.

Miles 15-21 were difficult, but not enough to hint at any impending disaster lurking ahead. I hit mile 23 right on pace, needing only to run sub-7-minute miles to come in under 3 hours.

Then in the space of the next mile, everything unraveled. I don’t know if it was my guilty conscience boiling over, the running gods deciding I was unworthy of success, or perhaps my wife and son were sticking pins in a voodoo doll of me at home, but I went into rapid multi-system shutdown like I hadn’t experienced in many years.

Remember in The Blues Brothers, when the Bluesmobile finally breaks down after racing through the night 106 miles to Chicago on a full tank of gas, evading about 500 state trooper cars to get to City Hall? That’s what my body felt like in mile 24 of the marathon.

My stomach cramped up. My feet were blistering. My quads screamed in pain. My body felt like lead. I was completely out of breath. It was runner’s karma working against me to the extreme. And like Earl Hickey, for the last 5K I wasn't a marathoner, and I wasn't on a mission from God - I was just karma's bitch.

I lost four minutes over the last three miles, and finished the race in 3:03. Needless to say, I wasn’t happy. The worst part was, I didn’t really have a reason – I just ran out of ability before I ran out of road.

I pondered and sulked in the car for the whole drive back, then had to face the music at home. My wife was upset, and justifiably questioned where my priorities between running and family were divided. She actually was easier on me than I deserved.

My son was slowly recovering, but just the sight of him made me feel guilty about being away on one of his (and my wife's) most difficult nights.

I spent some time with my Dad - who was brave enough to visit a houseful of sick people – but it wasn’t nearly as much as I would have liked before he flew back home.

Looking back, the whole weekend was a mistake. Of course I never should have gone to the race, and I still don’t have a good justification for why I did. Yet here we are a full year later, and I’m signed up again - for a race which has managed to kick me in the teeth three times in three different ways - and I'm not nearly as healthy or fit as I was last year. I swear, sometimes I don’t know why I do these things.

But now it’s marathon week. It’s time to stop dwelling on past failures, and think about the potential that lies ahead. It’s time to think positive, build confidence, and put my game face on.

It’s time to make a new chapter in this story for 2006.


robtherunner 2/27/06, 2:34 PM  

Will the Napa Chronicles have a happy ending in Volume 4? I hope so.

On a side note: I have had a couple races that ended up being my best races because I had no expectations and just went out and had fun.

stronger 2/27/06, 3:01 PM  

looking forward to you kicking its butt the 4th time around. This time remind yourself why you're a runner.

backofpack 2/27/06, 4:30 PM  

As a wife and Mom, I totally agree with your wife. As a runner I totally agree with your choice to race. It is a terribly hard call to miss a race that you have focused on and trained for (and paid for!). Sheesh! Talk about between a rock and a hard place.

I'm with Rob, looking forward to part 4.

olga 2/27/06, 4:46 PM  

This is like an entertaining book, and hello, a whole week before the next chapter??!! Can we peak and see ahead of time?
Best of luck to you, but then again, it is only a race...sheesh, why is it always easier to give advice than to accept one?

BuckeyeRunner 3/1/06, 4:23 AM  

A perfect example of our never-ending search to find balance between training and family. A tough call. Hopefully this year will be the year you complete your "mission from God." I'll be thinking of you during my race this weekend! Good luck!!

Kim 3/1/06, 8:54 AM  

I don't want to jinx it so I won't say anything along the lines of how great I know you'll do...but you are well prepared...go have a fun day and take in the amazing Napa Valley!

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