The Little Rock Marathon

By | March 27, 2014

When a Race’s Logo Foreshadows its Own Cancellation

The orange goo oozed down the windows, casting the cabin in an eerie Halloween glow. I had never been on a plane while it was being de-iced before. It was an airplane that was supposed to be on its way to Little Rock, Arkansas, where the next day I would be running in the city’s eponymous marathon. Today, I had to get to Little Rock’s convention center in time to pick up my race number. When scheduling the flight I had allotted a couple extra hours for contingencies, so there was no need to panic just yet, but delays at O’Hare during the winter have a tendency to become sentient, and start fighting for their own survival. We needed to get going.

We lost an hour-and-a-half, but the de-icing process finally finished and we pulled away from the gate. During the flight I had no choice but to listen to the two women across the aisle from me. They were both 50-staters: a subspecies of marathoner whose goal is to run a marathon in each of the 50 states. To the casual observer it would have appeared that the two women were having a conversation, but they were not. One would make a statement about a race she had run, or a race she was going to run, or a training run she had done in preparation for either of those races. The second woman would say “Oh, that’s just like the time I…” and then proceed to narrate something from her running life with no similarities whatsoever to the story of the first. I gathered that it was a contest and the first to run out of pointless non-sequiturs, loses.

Their match went on for some time. Finally, one of them brought up the time she hurt her knee the week before a race, but did it anyway, on crutches. That had enough nuts in it to stun the other into silence. Game over.

Epic

Little Rock airport is quiet and small. In fact, it’s too quiet and small – there were no cabs there. The injustice, I cried silently, that my flight made it in time, just to be done in by no cab. A few minutes of anxiety passed slowly before it occurred to me to check the departure side of the airport for a taxi dropping someone off. A minute later I was on my way to the convention center and made it to the race expo in plenty of time.

Later that night I unloaded my goodie bag and took a look at the official t-shirt. The race had come up with “Epic” as a tagline; it had been all over the promotional materials, always with the “i” printed as a lightning bolt. I calculated a high probability that “Epic” would feature somewhere on the race t-shirt. And I was right. In big print on the back it said ‘I put the “E” in Epic’. What the hell does that mean? That the “i” was again printed as a lightning bolt didn’t clarify anything.

Race Morning

The weather when I arrived on Saturday had been beautiful for running – 60 and cloudy. Alas, everyone knew that a winter storm was headed our way. When I woke up early on Sunday the temperature was in the upper 40s and scheduled to drop a couple of degrees each hour. Because of a particularly cold winter in Chicago, for the last ten weeks I had not had to make any decisions on what to wear for a run: every day I simply wore everything. I couldn’t remember what 40 degrees felt like. I went for a short jog. It was breezy, but still felt warm enough for just a short-sleeved shirt during the race. It had not started raining yet.

I walked to the starting area, five blocks away, in much less time than I had allotted. The River Market, a heated indoor food court next to the start, was open, so I bivouacked there for a few minutes. Looking around at the various cuisines on offer, I was impressed enough at their global breadth to overlook the fact that several items were misspelled (quesidias, anyone? bocklava?)

I was still in knots about what to wear. I looked around at the other participants for clues. I finally decided to put on my windbreaker vest over my shirt, calculating that if it didn’t rain and I got warm, I could take it off, but if it did rain and I wasn’t wearing it, I’d be going back to the airport in an ambulance.

I headed for the starting line. It was noticeably cooler than when I had left the hotel. Five minutes before the gun went off, the rain started. I was vindicated.

I lined up in corral A with 200 other runners. Like almost every second-tier marathon these days, there was an accompanying half-marathon. We were all mixed together, so there was no point in sizing anyone up at the starting line.

The guy standing next to me had shaved the word “Epic” into his hair, complete with the lightning bolt. Then I noticed that he had also shaved, in a much smaller font, but still clearly, “Little Rock Marathon 2014”. Suddenly, completing a marathon on crutches didn’t seem quite as crazy as it had the day before.

There was an elite corral in front of us who started at 8:00. We got going one minute later. I was now running in the cold, wind, and rain through Little Rock, Arkansas. This is what I’ve been looking forward to for the past several months? Well, onward.

Just before my group was set loose the announcer had mentioned that the next corrals would be released every eight minutes. As I was heading off down Clinton Boulevard it occurred to me that at nine corrals, the last runners were going to be standing there, in the rain, for an hour before they would get moving. I felt for them, but mostly I was thinking, and not for the last time that day, I’m just glad it’s not me.

The Early Miles

One mile into the race the course crosses the Arkansas River into North Little Rock, a suburb so non-descript I struggle to recall anything about it at all; I vaguely remember passing a liquor store.

At five miles we crossed the bridge back into Little Rock, passing the throngs of later-corral participants headed in the other direction. I got a good look at the number of runners wearing superhero costumes. Every marathon has some people who dress up in capes and leotards, but Little Rock had more than its fair share. My hunch is that it must be a tradition of sorts, but an unspoken one, as none of the race promotional materials mentioned anything about it. For a couple of the early miles I ran next to someone dressed as Batman. Every spectator we passed cheered for him and he responded every time with, “Thank you, Citizen”, eliciting even more cheers. I was invisible.

Little Rock is the capital of Arkansas and has a population of 200,000.  From the race course it looks more attractive and feels more vibrant than a town of that size should. Little Rock’s public transit system includes a trolley route. We crossed the tracks several times as the course wound through the downtown streets and environs for the next seven miles. One memorable half-mile stretch down Capitol Avenue had an uninterrupted view of the buxom Arkansas capitol building posing on the top of a hill.

The halfway point was directly in front of the capitol. It had been raining on and off since the start and my vest had saved me, though my hands were really cold. Back at mile 2 someone in my pack had decided he didn’t need his gloves and asked if anyone wanted them. Neither I nor anyone else took him up on the offer, and he threw them to the curb. Passing in front of the capitol I was full of regret for not taking the gloves. Or so I thought. I was soon to learn that I was nowhere close to full – it was just a drop in the bucket of regret that was headed my way.

The Wilderness

In any marathon, the miles between 13 and 20 are difficult because enough time has passed for the excitement of “I’m running a marathon!” to have evaporated, but the race is nowhere near far enough along to start thinking about the finish. In Little Rock, this is where the hills begin. I knew there would be some ups and downs, and the first half of the race has some small rollers that led me to think: these aren’t so bad – people really blow stuff up way out of proportion. I paid for my hubris. Starting at mile 14 we climbed a three-mile-long monster, the curving road making it impossible to see where it ended. At each bend I thought, OK, maybe this is the top. Nope. OK, maybe this next one. Nope.

Mile 7 was the last time I had either passed, or been passed, by another marathoner. But at mile 10 I ran by my first walker. By mile 14 I was passing scores of them. They had been allowed to start two hours before the runners on the condition that they not finish faster than six hours, or else face a lifetime banishment from the Little Rock Marathon (with echos of “this will go on your permanent record”).

Several times upon running past a group of walkers I heard the following comedy routine: Someone says to me “Lookin’ strong!”; another walker giggles and says “Thanks for noticing”; and they both start laughing. After a couple rounds of this I began to feel cheated if I passed anyone and didn’t hear another rendition.

The altitude that we gained in those three uphill miles we lost in just one very steep downhill mile. It would have been uncomfortable under any circumstances, but the cold tendons in my ankles and knees made that 18th mile spectacularly painful. The one saving grace was that the agony of my legs took my mind off the state of my hands, which by then were going numb.

The Beginning of the End

At mile 18 we returned to the Arkansas River where we had a flat two-and-a-half miles out, and then back. I must have passed the walkers on six-hour pace just before the river because they vanished as I made my left turn onto Riverfront Drive. I now had a big, wide, empty road in front of me. But wait, what’s that? I could just make out my first fading elite. After so much time alone it was a surprising pick-me-up to see another runner. He turned out to be fading so badly that I went by him almost as fast as I had the walkers. Still, it was something.

The level ground of the riverfront was a relief, so I picked up the pace. At least I think I did. I was unable to verify if I really did start going faster – since mile 16 my fingers had been too cold to press the split button my watch. At mile 20 I tried to scratch an itch on my face. There was no sensation in my fingers of the scratching. To the rest of me, it felt like someone had taken a cadaver out of the freezer and was poking me in the face with its hand.

The Color Purple

At mile 23 we pulled away from the river and the hills started again. This was a blow. I had thought the course was flat the rest of the way in. I had held it together during that uphill 8 miles ago; this time I didn’t have a lot of fight left, gravity had me on the ropes.

But the hills weren’t my biggest problem. I was beginning to see shades of purple on my hands. For the first time I began to wonder if I would have to get them amputated after the race. This will be difficult to explain to my wife, I thought.

We could hear the finish before we could see it. At the 26-mile mark the halfers came in from the right, though we stayed separated. I glanced over. Most of them were smiling. Why were they so happy?

I crossed the finish line, but had no sense of relief or accomplishment because my wrists hurt so much (my hands had lost all feeling several miles earlier). Looking at a finish photo later, I appear to be wearing two burgundy-colored gloves. I asked the woman handing out mylar blankets to just wrap my hands. She did so enthusiastically, probably excited to do something different after standing in the cold rain for the last hour. The mylar worked ridiculously well – within five minutes I was entertaining the idea that maybe I would get to keep my hands.

The Little Rock Marathon prides itself on having the biggest finisher medals around. At 8 inches in diameter and almost 3 pounds, they probably do. This is not necessarily a positive. A volunteer hung one of these hubcaps around my neck and I almost capsized.

I grabbed my gear and walked back to hotel as fast as I could, which was incredibly slowly. My hands weren’t getting any worse, but the rest of me was cooling off rapidly. When I finally arrived, someone in the lobby said to me, “So, I heard it was pretty chilly out there.” I was unable to answer because my teeth were chattering so badly.

Back in my room my fingers were so stiff it took me ten minutes to undo my shoelaces. In the middle of it I momentarily considered going back to the lobby to ask the concierge for help.

The Aftermath

Waiting in hotel lobby for the van to the airport, the weather had gotten much worse. By then it was in the mid-30s and raining hard. Meanwhile, I was hearing snippets of conversations that included “didn’t get to finish” and “had to turn back”. I misunderstood. I thought, that’s too bad, but it’s guaranteed to happen in a marathon if you go out too fast.

I shared the van to the airport with another male marathoner and a female flight attendant. The marathoner kept trying to chat up the flight attendant, telling her about his race and his training. She was not interested, but like any good marathoner, he didn’t quit. Even under perfect conditions I don’t think he had much chance, but it certainly didn’t help his cause that he hadn’t taken a shower since he had finished. Finally, in a last desperate maneuver, he pulled his finisher’s medal out of his bag. Fondling it in his lap he said, “Just look how big it is!”. Her reaction was so cold my hands started going numb again.

Sitting in the airport, I could see that the weather had deteriorated even more. There were sheets of rain coming down, punctuated by an occasional bolt of lightning. I felt a small wave of relief: if that lightning had come through earlier, they probably would have cancelled the race.

Other marathoners were arriving in the airport. I could tell they were marathoners because they were still wearing their enormous finisher medals. They looked ridiculous. They reminded me of the hip-hop artists from the 1980s who had clocks hanging from around their necks.

I was overhearing lots of animated conversations from the marathoners and it was becoming clear that something had gone awry. Working a little harder to eavesdrop, I pieced together a rough version of what had happened. It turns out, there had been lightning in the area, starting around 11:30. As I had premonisced after the fact, the organizers responded by cancelling the event. Once the word got out, everyone interpreted it differently. Some runners were told to cut straight to the finish. Others were told to stop entirely (“OK, and then do what?” – “We don’t know, you just can’t run anymore”). One large group was sent to a Wal-mart half-a-mile away, where they waited an hour for a bus to take them the three miles back to downtown, where they had to walk another half-mile to get to the finish line.

The news reports I saw once I got home verified that the race had been cancelled. Race management later clarified, saying the race had only been “re-routed”, a transparent attempt to not be liable for a refund of the entry fees. The local news outlet, KARK 4 News, did a nice job of pairing the re-routed statement with a picture of an aid station volunteer holding up an official “Event Cancelled” sign.

I understand management’s position; they don’t want to deal with a runner incinerated by lightning. But I kept thinking about what it would have cost me if I had had a race pulled out from under me halfway through. There are the flights, the hotel, the cabs and eating out; the entry fee that the race organizers were trying to protect would actually be a small percentage of the total amount of money wasted. There is the training and then the tapering for this one race, which is not easily transferred to a different race a week or two later. And then there is my biggest non-refundable expense: leaving my wife with all three kids for a weekend – I do not get a do-over on that one.

I thought of those things that the re-routed runners had just lost, and then, despite myself, I felt a wave of warm, comforting relief that, at least it didn’t happen to me. Of course, I felt bad that all I could focus on was my own good fortune, so it’s probably fair to say that because of the race’s cancellation, I suffered a little too. Perhaps I should call my survivor’s guilt an injury, and use it the next time I’m trying to one-up a 50-stater.

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