A Weekend Spent Crossing the Mississippi
The hail of bullets shredded the front tire of his motorcycle, sending him sliding into a pomegranate vendor. He staggered to his feet, looking around wildly for a sign of his would-be assassin. A flock of startled pigeons near the narrow entryway to a cobblestoned alley gave it away. He bounded to his feet and sprinted toward the alley. I shook my head, “You’re going out too hard. Pace yourself, or you won’t be able to finish. And relax your shoulders.” I was in a hotel room watching and offering advice to a Jason Bourne movie. For the last month I had been lecturing myself on the importance of a realistic early pace at the next morning’s Quad Cities Marathon. Matt Damon’s action hero was now an unwitting audience to my proselytizing.
Back in February I had decided to run a fall marathon, calculating that eight months was sufficient time to get into shape. There are lots of fall marathons in the midwest to choose from. The Chicago Marathon is a Chicagoan’s obvious choice. Huge crowds cheer for the runners, the course is lightening fast, and it doesn’t require spending the night away from home. It is also miserable if you are not seeded appropriately. I ran the race six years ago, before our children started arriving. I didn’t get a corral assignment commensurate with the shape I was in, so I spent the first two-thirds of the race zig-zagging through the crowd, like I was trying to elude an alligator. By the time I had a clear path, I was exhausted. That, incidentally, was my last marathon, so even if I had wanted to run Chicago this year, I’d still have the same seed time issue. But beyond that, I just wanted something a little more low-key. Six years of babies and toddlers have dulled my taste for the adrenaline of a colossal event like the Chicago Marathon. I was looking for a marathon wading pool before trying another double-back flip into the deep end.
The Quad Cities Marathon has a reputation for being well-organized, it is less than a three-hour drive from our house, and it’s early in the fall (technically, it was a late-summer race; autumn didn’t begin until 12 hours after the gun went off). I didn’t trust myself to keep my training regimen going strong into the later fall months. Better to just forgo another month or two of training, get in there, take my lumps, and collect an E for effort.
The Quad Cities straddle the Mississippi River, which marks the border between Illinois and Iowa. The river flows from east to west in this small section, meaning that in the Quad Cities, Iowa lies north of Illinois. The four cities are Rock Island and Moline in Illinois, and Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa. Combined they have a population of 380,000 people. It’s an old industrial center (John Deere was founded, and still operates, here) which seems to have bucked the rust-belt trend. On my drive into Moline the day before the race, it wasn’t exactly lively, but looked happy enough. I’ve attended events, running and otherwise, in small-town and rural locales which felt like last-ditch attempts to get tourist dollars before a final descent into oblivion. The marathon in the Quad Cities felt like a marathon that the community put on for its own diversion; it didn’t have that sense of desperation about it.
My first stop was the convention center in Moline. I didn’t expect much of an expo extravaganza at a race this size, and I was right. It was efficient though; I had my number and goodie-bag full of useless coupons in minutes. A couple vendors were selling running paraphernalia, but they looked mostly like excuses for members of the local running clubs to stand around and talk about their injuries. I did spot a kiosk set up by the local brewery, so I saddled up to their table. The woman working the stall was wearing a Bavaria-themed bar maid outfit and I asked her what was on tap. But they were only selling an energy drink that they also produced at the brewery. All that cleavage just to sell energy drinks? Oh, well.
By the time I had gotten around to making reservations for the race the host hotel at the start was sold out. Consequently, I was staying three miles away at a Holiday Inn in Rock Island. I had dinner at a pizza place around the corner from the hotel. The billboard on the sidewalk out front said, “Welcome, Marathoners!”. A quick analysis of the clientele made it clear that I was the only marathoner in attendance. That’s sweet, I thought, they put the billboard out there just for me, although they probably should have taken off that last ‘s’.
The pizza was excellent. So was the beer. I ordered a second pint to show my appreciation for the billboard. After dinner I walked to the renovated riverfront. The lights from the riverboat casino moored across the river in Iowa sparkled on the water. I spent a minute admiring the view before heading back to the hotel and Jason Bourne – my pre-race night out on the town now over.
I got up early the next morning and went for a stroll to loosen up. I had made it all of one block before I inadvertently made eye contact with a derelict across the street. I sighed and turned around. I know this script backwards and forwards, and Derry, we’ll call him, knew it too. He was immediately at my side telling me about the bad investments that had landed him in his current pickle. He was in the middle of the scene where he invites me out for a beer (at 5am on a Sunday? irrelevant) when we got back to the hotel entrance and I made my exit stage left.
I checked out of the hotel and drove back to Moline’s convention center. I walked around the start area. The event called the Quad Cities Marathon is actually a group of races all run at the same time. There is the eponymous marathon, as well as a half-marathon, a 5k, and the marathon relay (a team of 5 people who run segments of the marathon). In total, 8,000 people run that day. It was immediately clear that there weren’t going to be enough portable toilets for that many people. Like Clark Kent looking for a phone booth, I immediately began scanning the area for tall, bushy, shrubberies where the lines could be avoided close to start time.
My warm-up went fine, this time without hearing about anyone’s investment history. As the sky was turning pink I noted the weather conditions: cool, low humidity, no wind whatsoever. I saw my usual excuses for a slow time evaporating in front of me. I would have to think of something else.
10 minutes before the start I made my way to the starting line. The race director stood on a platform in front of the crowd. I didn’t hear his first couple announcements because I was distracted by his uncanny resemblance to the evil politician in last night’s Bourne movie. I regained my focus as he was introducing the singer of the national anthem, and then the pastor who would be leading the pre-race prayer. In a testament to the frugal and creative forces at work in America’s heartland, both of them were also participants in the marathon.
The race director then read out, in a tone that implied he didn’t believe it himself, the name of the guy who would be attempting to set a world record that morning by running the marathon backwards while juggling. The crowd applauded, hesitantly. The subtext seemed to be “Why would he want to do that? That’s not frugal at all.” The race director looked back at his notes, seeming to have trouble coming to grips with the announcement he had just made.
Finally, showtime. The race director began counting. Ten. Nine. Starting races with a countdown never goes smoothly, and this was no exception. The race director said “One!” with great anticipation in his voice. And then there was nothing but silence. So some people at the front started running. Two seconds later the director yelled “Go!” Five seconds after that, when my cohorts and I were well past the starting line, I heard the crack of a starter’s pistol. We were off.
The marathon course doesn’t waste any time getting to the good stuff. Less than a mile into the race we were heading up the on-ramp to I-74. Just in front of the final merge with the traffic on the interstate stood a course marshal directing us, “Runners to the right. Roadkill to the left.” We were running up and over a large bridge crossing the Mississippi. We had a view of the river that went on for miles. That section of road has two westbound lanes. The runners got the right lane and the expansive shoulder. The traffic going by in the left lane was not moving much faster than the runners. Though the drivers were certainly busy ogling the skimpy shorts, there was also lots of honking and cheering. It was quite a party there at the top of I-74.
We crossed into Davenport, Iowa. We were welcomed by a squad of adorable eight-year-old cheerleaders. The cheering by the runners for the cheerleaders threatened to drown out the cheerleaders’ cheering. This battle of enthusiasm was repeated a couple more times during the race with other groups, but the balance became more lopsided as the race went on and the runners began to see the importance of conserving energy. By the 20-mile mark, except for the panting, we were church mice.
Somewhere in Davenport I passed a runner with a pack of energy gel in his hand. In the 20 or 30 seconds between when I was close enough to see it and when I actually passed him I was really confused. The pack in his hand was made of a red and white foil, so it looked like he was carrying a pack of Marlboros. I wondered, is this some crazy new smoking-cessation program?
There were several musical performers along the course. The styles of music on offer were much more diverse than just the rock and hip-hop heard during a Chicago race. The first performers I passed were an acoustic Celtic group. At least I think they were Celtic; I couldn’t hear them very well, but the mandolin player had a green shamrock on his lapel.
In front of a church a woman was singing a song I was unfamiliar with, but had the refrain, “You are a sinner, yes, you are a sinner.” OK, yeah, I thought, but is it really necessary to bring that up right now? And what about the guy behind me with the cigarettes? Shouldn’t you be talking to him?
There were some rolling hills through Davenport. By mile 6 we were back to the Mississippi River running on a pancake-flat bike path. Except for the bridge back over the river at mile 10 the rest of the course was hill-free.
The four miles along the river were wonderful. It was a bike path, but there were no bikes, no one sneaking up behind me, barking, “On your left!”. Few spectators had chosen to station themselves in these miles. That lack of encouragement bothers some people, but it made for a very quiet and peaceful interlude in the race, especially once the half-marathoners split off somewhere around mile 8. One notable exception to the peace and quiet was the first rock band we passed: a group of what looked to be 7th-graders who were playing the theme song from Rocky III, “Eye of the Tiger”. They rivalled the eight-year-old cheerleaders for cuteness, but by this point in the race I knew enough not to cheer or clap.
We ran back over the Mississippi on a different bridge, but with an equally impressive view accompanied by another rousing round of whooping and honking drivers.
The bridge dropped us off in Rock Island. I ran past the pizza place from the night before, but the, or should I say, my, billboard was no longer there. The crowds were thicker in Rock Island, so if Derry was there cheering for me, I didn’t see him.
Toward the end of our tour in Rock Island we passed another rock band. They were a teenage heavy metal band, and they fit the stereotype perfectly; a little overweight, lots of acne, black t-shirts. And they were good. It’s not my favorite kind of music, but they were probably the best musicians I heard that day. They were tight, with not a bad note to be heard. I was also impressed that they were up and playing at 8:30 on a Sunday morning, usually not the most productive hour for teenage heavy metal musicians.
At the halfway point in the race we crossed over a bridge to the Rock Island Arsenal, a US Army weapons-manufacturing facility on an island from which the mainland town of Rock Island gets its name. The race spends seven miles looping around the island. It should have been another idyllic stretch along the river to rival the earlier miles on the bike path, but they ran us back into the half-marathoners. There were a lot of them. These halfers were four or five miles behind the marathoners at this point, so every marathoner suddenly found him or herself surrounded by runners going three minutes-per-mile slower. Reliving my Chicago Marathon experience, I had to slalom through the crowd.
One mile later the half split off again. I breathed a sigh of relief. OK, that wasn’t so bad, I thought, now I can focus on the race again.
In a marathon, the pretenders can last for a long time. It’s not until mile 16 that it’s probably safe to look around at the neighbors and say, OK, they’re for real. I started sizing up the people around me. I held a strategy session with myself, “See that guy up ahead in the blue shorts? He looks pretty strong. Focus on staying relaxed and reeling him in and…, oh for crying out loud.” My newfound focus died a violent death as they ran us back into the halfers.
This was a big deal. It takes effort to weave through a crowd going that much slower and I felt rude cutting in front of people. The halfers were all considerate and polite, some even cheered for the marathoners, but they have their own races to run and shouldn’t have to accommodate the faster marathoners. This whole mess was especially surprising because the rest of the race was so well put together. It felt like it had been organized by an experienced runner. There were plenty of well-staffed water stops; the course marshals were loud, clear and in great number; the course itself was fast and attractive. I was, and still am, perplexed as to how this hang-up slipped past the management.
At mile 20 for the marathoners, and mile 13 for the gadflies, we left the island and crossed a bridge back into Moline. The halfers took a right and finished. We took a left and headed into the wilderness. The last of the musical acts was at mile 21, a single acoustic guitarist. Kudos to him for choosing a spot where the only audience would be marathoners.
The crowds evaporated after mile 20, which is too bad because that is where the interesting stuff starts. Body parts begin behaving strangely and people perform all kinds of witchcraft to to get through those last miles. They try running sideways, or backwards (though usually not juggling at the same time), or doing windmills with their arms. It’s difficult to train for that point in the race; running more than 20 miles on a regular basis will lead to an injury for most runners. There are roundabout ways to prepare for those last six miles, but the key element to any method is blind optimism.
Miles 20 through 23 was a straight shot along the river. Then we turned around and ran three miles back along the other side of the road to the finish. The worst aspect of that out-and-back was watching the leaders heading into the finish while I still had six miles to go. At mile 23 that situation reversed and I got to enjoy seeing how badly some of my former “competitors” had tanked.
At mile 23 the organizers had set up a big cardboard “wall” with a large archway for the runners to “break” through. It was kind of cute, but the three miles to go loomed too large for me to find enjoyment in anything.
I was now checking my watch every thirty seconds to see how much further until the next mile mark. My daydreams of a strong, speedy finish, which had been interrupting my work for the past several months, gave way without a fight to “please, let this end”.
I was slowing down. I needed to find the finish before this turned into a complete collapse. I developed a charlie-horse in my left forearm, possibly from the effort of checking my watch so often. At the 26-mile mark a spectator, who must have been a high school cross-country coach at some point, was screaming at me to pick it up if I wanted to break three hours.
So I picked it up. For the last 385 yards I sped up from staggering to shuffling. Thanks to the mystery coach I finished with a 2 in front of my finishing time instead of a 3. I looked at the results later and saw an amusing quirk: starting with the winner, one person had been finishing every two or three minutes until 2:59 arrived; then eight of us arrived in a span of 45 seconds. Apparently we all wanted the cachet of breaking three hours, while putting forth the minimum amount of effort to get it.
The first person I ran into after I crossed the line was a photographer trying to corral me to the finisher’s photo op stage. I gasped “water”, and she immediately lost interest in me. “Over there, somewhere…”, she said, waving her arm in no particular direction.
The Quad Cities Marathon has a good spread of food at the finish line. I was able to gorge myself on all the salty, greasy food I never let my kids eat. Beyond the food, walking through the finishers’ area felt a little like I had stumbled into a cocktail party. The 5k runners had finished two-and-a-half hours ago and were socializing in orbit around the beer truck. I found some shade and collapsed.
I gave myself a few minutes to recover and headed back to the car. I would have liked to have stayed and commiserated with my cohorts (my marathoner cohorts, that is), but I had a long drive in front of me, so I folded myself into the car and left.
Looking at the highway mile markers and calculating the distance to get home, I had an almost overwhelming sense of deja vu; counting the miles to go was all I had been doing so far that day.
I wasn’t feeling well, so I pulled over at a rest stop. I got out of the car and almost couldn’t stand because my legs had tightened up so much. I wobbled across the parking lot to the rest rooms. When I returned to the car I crawled into the back seat and fell asleep. Just before I nodded off, I was wondering if anyone had called the police to report a drunken derelict passed out in the rest stop parking lot.
Eventually I made it home. I walked in the door and saw the kids. I approached my three-year-old and made a big production of putting my finisher’s medal around his neck. He looked at it, said “no”, handed it back and walked off. My expression must have given something away, because my four-year-old daughter walked over, took the medal from me, and said, “Here, Dad, I’ll wear it for you.”