The 2002 Country Music Marathon

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The following narrative is dedicated to my Father-in-law, a marathoner and the only person who complained that my e-mail account of the Mississippi race was too short.  The text was extracted and adapted for a general audience from a 28 April 2002 letter to my sister, Mary Westhoff, currently serving as a missionary in the California Long Beach mission. 

Yesterday I ran the Country Music Marathon in Nashville, Tennessee-about six hours from Pine Bluff, AR if you can avoid getting a speeding ticket. It was my second marathon, the first being the Mississippi Marathon back in January (I had intended to run the "Mid-South" Marathon last fall but was unable to because it was the same weekend my Mom came in from Germany for Grandpa Dunnington's 100th Birthday Party).

In any event, I'd been planning on this race for months, and training for months. Now, as many of you know I am a "chemical surety" doc and I cannot by regulation be off post when chemical weapons sampling operations are underway. This is a significant cramp in our lifestyle and a major reason we are looking forward to getting out of here-whenever we plan a vacation I have to ask my boss at Fort Sill, Oklahoma if he can send a doc out to take my place for the time I am gone; as often as not he tells me no, sorry, he doesn't have anyone to spare. So anyway, I found out a few weeks ago that there was going to be an operation the day of the Marathon. Why this particular operation had to happen on the weekend is a national security issue and if I told you, government agents would have to track you down and kill you, so let's move on with our story shall we? The news was a major bummer-between registration and hotel (both non-refundable) I'd put about $300 into this race; not to mention the fact that I'd been training for months with a group of five other guys from the Arsenal (for three of them it would be their first marathon) and that Rachel has set up an elaborate church-wide Westhoff-child weekend-long-child-watching-co-op (babysitting) allowing us to have a much needed weekend getaway from the kids.

So with only a small glimmer of hope I call my boss and explain the situation: sorry for the short notice but I just found out about this weekend operation, blah, blah, blah. To my surprise he says yes, he doesn't know who he'll send but he'll find somebody. Great! Then this Tuesday, almost two weeks later, he calls me in the morning and tells me sorry but the plans to "backfill" me have fallen through and he doesn't have anyone after all. Hmmm. I pause, creating a deliberately awkward silence. I restate what I've invested in the weekend already and ask him very politely couldn't he try just a little bit harder. He says: well, he'll get back to me.

I get off the phone and go into crisis management mode. Having been let down by Fort Sill before I realize that it is time to take things into my own hands. If they can't find a willing doc from the hospital there then perhaps I can convince someone from somewhere else in the Army fly in for two days-it is after all, an all expenses paid vacation to Pine Bluff, the garden spot of (okay, the armpit of) Arkansas. So I get on the phone and call every chemical surety contact I have made in the last two years. It's take-no-prisoners: my first call is the Army Material Command (or AMC, the Arsenal's "Major Command," run by a four-star General) Surgeon's office in Maryland. He's out but I leave the details with his secretary: he had mentioned before that I could call if I needed help. Then I call the Soldier and Biological Chemical Command Surgeon, he happens to be in a meeting with the AMC surgeon (they are both full-bird Colonel's, but I'm not shy), they won't say for sure they can't personally backfill me, but they'll call me back. Then I call a Colonel I know at the Office of the Surgeon General (the "Occupational Medicine Consultant to the Surgeon General"), he can't do it but he promises he'll make some calls and gives me a name of some Colonel at the United States Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine (USACHPPM, pronounced "use-a-chip-em"), I call him; I call the Preventative Medicine Chief (another full-bird) at the Regional Medical Command in San Antonio. I'm sure all these titles don't mean anything to non-military folk but let me just say that I went pretty much straight to the top from the perspective of a lowly Captain. Chemical surety medicine is a pretty small world and there are not a lot of docs out there in the Army that know much about it or would qualify as backfill, I even sent an e-mail to all of the other chemical weapons arsenals asking their docs if they could cover for me. No luck, no one was available, I got a lot of "if it were any other weekend…" They did all genuinely feel bad for me though and did what they could to scour the Army for any potential backfill. I started getting e-mail from friends, "hey, I heard-bummer about the marathon, wish I could help, if it were any other weekend…" and an urgent all-points-e-mail-bulletin from USACHPPM: "urgent backfill needed this weekend at Pine Bluff Arsenal." But alas, to no avail.

By Wednesday morning I had given up hope, I started thinking maybe I could send Ray to Nashville with one of her friends, then at least she could have a little vacation and use the hotel (it was booked through, hence it's non-refundablility). Then I got another call from Fort Sill. Good news, Dr. Lovins is temporary duty (TDY) in Maryland at a course (the "Toxic Chemical Training Course" or TCTC) and can fly into Little Rock Friday afternoon afterwards. Not-good news, that won't work. I have to be in Nashville before the pre-race expo closes at 6pm in order to run-due to heightened security they won't let you pick up your number on race day. But wait, I happen to know the guy who runs the TCTC, maybe I can pull this out. So I call Maryland and talk to the course director, a guy I'd worked with on a couple of occasions. He listens to my tale of woe and agrees to give Dr. Lovins his test on Thursday evening, effectively ending the course half a day early and allowing him to fly out Friday morning. His flight will land in Little Rock at 9:55, he should be able to make it to Pine Bluff by 10:30, it will take me six hours to get to Nashville, I should be able to make it. But what a pain in the ruckside!

From Tuesday morning when I first got word that my backfill had fallen through until Friday afternoon when I realize that we were close enough to Nashville to make it, I was worried that it wasn't going to happen.  But happen it did.

Now that you've heard the story-behind-the-story, on with the story. The Mississippi marathon was a small race (185 people when I ran it) on a perfectly flat "out-and-back" course that runs through the country. The Nashville marathon this year had 4,000 marathoners and 7,000 ½ marathoners (all running from the same starting line to the same starting gun) and is a twisty-turny course through the very hilly streets of Nashville. Needless to say it was a very different experience. I am learning that a marathon is divided into three distinct phases, "fun," followed by "work," which is followed by "pain." There is no-doubt a metaphor for life here which I will tease out at some future date and use in a sacrament meeting talk.

Fun (miles 0-13). If you are a non-runner you probably do not think of running 13 miles as fun, but believe me this was a blast. At the start it was nothing but runners as far forward as you could see and as far back as you could see. Everyone was so jazzed, there was a news helicopter flying overhead getting film footage of the throng. I ran most of this distance with (Captain) Scott MacLeod (bib 4219 in the above photo), he is the commander of the infantry company that was sent to the arsenal post-September 11 and was one of the guys I'd been training with. We had a blast, I was waving at the spectators, blowing kisses, yelling "THANK YOU PEOPLE OF NASHVILLE, HOME OF COUNTRY MUSIC!!!" and things like that. Just being there was such a rush I was able to step out of my normally introverted shell and "give a little back" to the good people of music city. Scott threatened to leave me when I pointed to him and yelled at the crowd "AIRBORNE INFANTRY RIGHT HERE, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, LET'S GIVE IT UP FOR THE AIRBORNE INFANTRY!!!" We did get a pretty good applause. It was quite a rush. It really was fun.

Work (miles 13-18). I lost Scott somewhere in the crowd behind me around mile 12 or so. I continued to enjoy the moment for a couple of miles more, but without all of the faux bravado. The spectators and volunteers were great and I thought about how you could get hooked on doing this just to see the mass benevolence, thousands of God's children out celebrating and helping each other. But that brotherhood-of-man-goodwill-buzz began to die at mile 13 or so when my legs began to remind me that I was exerting myself. I still tried to interact with the crowds when I could, thanking people who handed me water, thanking the cops who were blocking the roads, giving "five" to the little kids who would stick their hands out along the course, but I found myself more and more introspective-concentrating on conserving energy. At that point, I was getting a workout, but it was nothing I hadn't felt before on countless training runs. In fact, it was going well. Besides looking at the clocks posted at every mile marker, one way to gauge how fast you were going was to look for the "pacers." These were experienced runners with cards pinned to their back with times like "4:00," meaning "stay with me if you intend to finish in four hours." I had passed the 4:00 pacers a ways back and I was even starting to catch a couple of the 3:45 pacers, so I was feeling good, ahead of schedule. It was work, but it was paying off.

Pain (18-26.2). My longest training run for this marathon was 23 miles, and I felt like I was in pretty good shape-all of my long runs had been on-pace for a sub-4 hour finish. There was however, one glaring deficiency in my preparation-there are no hills to speak of anywhere in Southeast Arkansas. There are many hills in Nashville. In fact, I think the only hillier city I have ever seen is San Francisco. The hills didn't bother me too much in the "fun" and "work" phases, but by about mile 18 I began to experience a new emotion: anger. Hill after hill, after hill, after hill. At each new hill, I began thinking "what IDIOT designed this course?!" (with it's corollary "what IDIOT decided to RUN this course?!"). I was appreciating like I hadn't before that flat, boring, straight, REASONABLE course down in Mississippi. There were hints that others around me were going through the same thing. An older gentleman with a large (for a runner) belly pulled up beside me around mile 20 and expressed his disgust. An experienced marathoner, he confessed that this was not going to be his best performance. He shared my opinion of the hills and told me that Runner's World magazine had rated the Country Music Marathon the third hardest course in the U.S. (a fact which I want to believe but have yet to independently confirm). Around 21.5 a woman yelled encouragingly from the crowd at us "only five more miles!" to which he responded with a heartfelt "SHUT THE HELL UP!" (There were in fact, only about 4.7 miles to go, there's a difference you know). The "pain" phase is, of course, characterized by pain, particularly in the quadriceps, but also by alternating feelings of panic and the overwhelming desire to stop running. To keep going you play mind games, mental diversions-"I only need to make it to the next water stop…just up this hill…just around that corner…that sign says five miles left but I passed it so really it's like four and some change…" Rounding to whole numbers is okay for spectators, but for those in the "pain," phase, it can be a devastating blow to the critical mental machinery of self-deception necessary to endure.

I ran 4:09 in Mississippi and I had had the informal goal of running Nashville in under four hours. At around 23 miles the 4:00 pacers had caught up with me. Terror. Like Gandalf with the Balrog, I could not let them pass-that would be sure defeat, but keeping them at bay would require that I run…yes…faster. Of course, I had realized much earlier in the race that a sub-four on this course would be ambitious for me; Nashville was so much hillier than Mississippi-even a 4:09 would have been an accomplishment. But I didn't want to go back home and have to explain how "even though I didn't run sub-four it was still a victory;" it would just sound like a lame excuse. No, I had to stay ahead of the 4:00 crowd. From mile 23 I focused on staying on pace, not letting them pass me. I could hear their leader mocking me, shouting encouraging things at his minions like "stay strong you guys…great job... the hard running is behind you." Yeah, right.

When a big marathon starts there are so many people that it may take you several minutes to actually get up to the starting line. With so many people it is also difficult to keep track of who is who when they cross the finish line. Technology has helped this little problem: before the race they gave each of us a little piece of plastic with a microchip inside. We fastened the chip to our shoelace and at the starting and finish line (as well as at the 10K, half-way and 20 mile marks) we would run over these electronic sensors that detected your chip and automatically logged your time. Now, the race officially starts when the gun goes off, and the clocks all read from the time the gun went off. The time the clock reads when you cross the finish line-that is your "gun time." The time it actually took you to run from the starting line to the finish line, however, is your "chip time." In my case there were about two and a half minutes between when the race started and when I actually crossed the starting line. With about a mile left to run I realized that I had done it-my chip time would be under four, as long as I didn't start walking (which was no small task at that point). But my gun time was in jeopardy, and I wanted to be able to say that I had run a sub-four without having to explain the difference between a "gun time" and a "chip time" (that, I realized, also would sound like a lame excuse). So I started to pick it up. I was close enough to hear the announcer on the loud speaker. A little faster…the faster I run, the sooner it's over, the sooner the pain will end. I can make out the announcer, I can hear he's urging people in, encouraging them to beat the four hour mark, but I'm still 0.2 miles from the finish line. Somehow I start an all-out-chariots-of-fire sprint. I start passing people like they're standing still…it was awesome. I'm telling you, I wasn't running just fast for a guy who's just run 26 miles, I was running fast period. There were maybe a hundred yards left as I entered the final lane-the crowd starts cheering like crazy because I come flying by as the announcer is saying "come on, this guy wants it, he wants a sub-four!" I can't even feel my legs, it's just a dead sprint as I watch the clock at the finish line clicking off the seconds…I cross the finish line at 3:59:59. Literally, without a second to spare I am the LAST person across with a gun time under four hours (my chip time was 3:57:28), 836th out of 4000.

It was over, but my legs seemed to hurt now more than they did during the sprint; someone came up to me and put a mylar blanket over my shoulders. I couldn't talk; it wasn't that I was winded, I could breath just fine--it was deeper than that, I was completely…spent. A big older guy came up and started walking beside me. I could tell right away that I must look bad because he starts talking to me in that paternal tone of voice that I use when I'm talking to patients with questionable mental status. "Are you okay buddy?" I still can't talk, I feel like I'm going to start crying. "I'm alright, I just sprinted in, I'm okay." "Sure" he says "…hey, I'm just going to walk with you for a bit, okay?" I was amused that I was to the point of such exhaustion that I couldn't even bring myself to prove I wasn't mental. "Okay," I said. We walked for what must have been two minutes. He kept talking to me, sure that I would drop any second. I was glad to have someone to tell me where to go so I wouldn't have to spend any energy thinking-"here, he's going to give you your medal," I bend over so a kid can put it over my head. I look down at it, disappointed that in putting it around my neck they got salt (from my skin) all over the ribbon (note: exausted but somehow still anal). "Lets go over here now and you can get something to drink," someone puts a bottle of cold water into my hand. "Thank you" I said, and I really meant it. I hear Rachel calling to me from the other side of the crowd-control barrier. It's good to see her, she looks really happy, like on our wedding day. She says that she saw me come in and she's been yelling at me trying to get my attention for a while. Josh and his wife are with her (Josh is the fastest of the six of us and has been finished for almost half an hour, he's the one without his number on in the pictures), I'm the second one in. In order to get to where they are I have to continue into a huge assembly-line maze. Each step is painful and I'm thinking "why are they making me walk so far?" I just want to get out of here. A woman tells me to go over there and give them my chip. I told her "you can have it as long as I don't have to bend over and take it off," she laughs and tells me they'll take it off for me. Chipless, I proceed into a veritable grocery isle of free bananas, bagels, muffins, juices, gels, and assorted other goodies. After the Mississippi I was famished and immediately began scarfing down Gatorade and pizza. Not here. Knowing I am probably 4000 calories in the hole for the day, I pick up a bagel and some mini-muffins but a bit of a muffin is all I can stand without throwing up. So there I am, caught in this big maze, shivering under this mylar blanket trying to hold onto a bagel and some muffins which I can't stand the thought of eating. 

I felt like Steve Martin in that scene in The Jerk where he's completely dejected and walking around with his pants down holding a chair and a T.V. remote. Alone for the first time since the finish, I feel this wave of uncontrolled emotion come over me and I start crying…bawling like a 10-year-old schoolgirl. Finally I find the exit of this maze and they want to take my picture. Great, I think, I can't wait to see how this turns out. Ray meets me at the exit and I do a little more crying on her shoulder. It's over…so why do my legs still hurt so much. We went over to a grassy spot, near where Ray had been yelling to me from and I laid down on the grass to stop my legs from hurting. I laid there for fully an hour waiting for the rest of our crew to come in. Rachel wrapped my legs in a second blanket and even rubbed my feet. She is really a great wife. Another one of the race crew saw me and came over "are you okay?" "Yeah," I said "my legs don't hurt as bad when I'm lying down." "Are you sure, I can go get a medic…" I smiled and thanked her kindly.

Man, what a great time! Somehow it was the hardest physical thing I've ever done, and yet there's something about it that makes you want to do it again. Maybe the Seattle marathon this December?  How soon we forget... 

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This page contains a single entry by John published on May 6, 2002 3:09 PM.

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