Sunday, April 28, 2013

LA Marathon: From Walking Wounded to Winner

The weeks between the Sedona Marathon and Los AngelesMarathon should have been focused simply around an abbreviated training schedule but instead became a lesson in unintended consequences.

On a sunny Saturday morning I took my young cairn terrier Kelty with me for what should have been a short run through one my favorite hiking (and running) spots, Water Dog Park in Belmont. I try to take Kelty here about once a month as it provides tons of great smells for him,  challenging hills, interesting technical trails and sweeping views of the South Bay. Kelty’s been through basic obedience training and was very good at sticking by my side when walking off-leash in this park. We hit the park and took off at a run, six legs moving in stride, and then hit the switchbacks that take you up towards the back of the Hallmark Drive neighborhoods. Kelty fell a little behind but I looked back before taking each switchback to ensure he was making each turn. However, about half-way up he wasn’t behind me. I stopped and called him and heard him scurrying  and barking. I called him again but figured he had heard a rabbit or bird and was taking chase. However, when I reached the prior switchback he was not there, nor on the one below or anywhere on the trail below or above. I listened for him but now he had grown silent – not even the jingling of his collar could be heard. Uh oh.
I kept calling him, looking and listening for him and running up and down the trail in hopes of any sign of where he had gone. After twenty minutes with no sign, I began to panic. I called Reesa and she rushed down to the park to help me look. After twenty more minutes, we still hadn’t heard him. Not good. A few other walkers and runners went by and none had seen or heard a small dog either.
This was very worrisome as the woods and bushes in Water Dog Park get very thick the moment you get off the trail and if he had chased a rabbit far off trail the chances of finding him; and he finding his way back to me were slim. And a fact I tried to keep in the back of my mind was that Water Dog Park is also home to coyotes and mountain lions.

Kelty had disappeared just one switchback behind me and so I knew from where he must have disappeared into the bushes. Time was not on my side and so I decided I needed to go further off-road.  In my running shorts and technical tee, no gloves, no long sleeves and just a phone, I started stomping and pushing my way through the bushes where I surmised he most likely left the trail. I wished I had had a machete as working my way through the bushes was incredibly tough going. I went straight, or as straight ahead as I could, for five minutes calling Kelty then stopping and listening. No sound. So I pushed on. Looking back the bushes were as thick behind me as ahead. I could easily get lost in here, just as Kelty had. Five more minutes passed calling and listening and then there it was. The sound of jangling dog tags. I frantically tried to pinpoint the direction of the sound. I smashed bushes to the west, the sound waned. I switched to East, better but still faint. I pushed further south away from the trail, better still. I pushed even further south, lost my footing and went down in a heap snapping branches, snagging my shirt on thorns and scraping up my legs. But better, the jingle was right ahead. I grabbed a large branch and pulled it hard and behind was a small clearing and down on all fours looking back at me with a mix of worry and shame was Kelty. He knew he had done wrong.

I worked my way through the bushes the rest of the way to him and pulled him into my arms hugging him tightly while saying to myself for the millionth time that morning that I would never take him off leash again. After we both calmed down and greeted each other, I called Reesa to give her the good news and then turned around to see which way would be the easiest back to the trail. Uh oh. Which way was the trail? In every direction the bushes were thick. I was pretty sure I knew how to go North and that the trail would be found that way. After pushing through about 50 feet of bushes, I could find no trail. Was it left or right from here? I couldn’t see the clearing either direction and no one was on the trail this morning. And then someone was. A group of hikers went by and their sound pointed me out. I fought back the branches with one arm while cradling Kelty in the other protecting him from the snap back of each branch as we moved finally out to the clearing and back on the trail. Whew.
I took Kelty home, ensured he wasn’t hurt then took to the shower and to applying first aid to all my scrapes and cuts. There were a lot of them but I felt they were a small price to pay for getting Kelty back and I certainly deserved it for putting him at risk like that, I told myself.

The following day was back to normal and I went on a long training run in Pacifica. The following Monday I flew off to the east coast for work. As I sat in my seat on the five hour flight, I noticed a few of my cuts, especially on the backs of my legs were getting itchy and seemed to be oozing a bit. I didn’t think much of it until I got off the flight and the backs of my pant legs were completely soaked with it. I got to the hotel and took off my pants and found both my legs, from ankle to upper thigh were red, covered in welts and several were actively oozing clear yellowish liquid. What the heck? I felt fine the day before.

As the week wore on, it got progressively worse. More oozing, strong itching and growing redness were taking over my legs. Poison oak had struck me hard. I flew back home mid-week and immediately went to the doctor who said it was one of the worst cases she had ever seen and immediately prescribed antihistamines and a steroid cream. I got into a routine of nightly oatmeal baths and wore long underwear under all my clothes to keep my garments from rubbing the wounds and keep any ooze from ruining my suits. This went on for more than a month before getting significantly better. And of course I kept accidentally reinfecting myself which prolonged the affects.
Through all of this I had to find time to train and of course tolerate that training. Three weeks in, it was time for the requisite 20 miler before the marathon and it’s hard to find a course that isn’t near or through the woods. And as I had learned, once you have a bad poison oak attack you are overly sensitive to it for the rest of your life. So for the long run I covered every inch of my body and after it was over rubbed Tecnu all over my body. The run was okay, not too uncomfortable. It was sitting, walking and generally just going about everyday life that was worse.

A couple weeks prior to the LA Marathon, I was thoroughly frustrated with the weeks of poison oak attacks and was having a particularly bad day when, while exiting my car, I accidentally caught my thumb in the door as it closed. I jerked my thumb free and let out a primal scream of pain. It immediately turned dark purple filled with blood beneath the nail and swelled up to twice it’s normal size. The pain was worse than a bone break for sure. I immediately elevated it, doused it in cold water and reached for the iPad to research what to do. Oh boy, this was going to be another fun recovery.
So when it came time to travel to LA for the Marathon, here I was dousing my legs (and now my arms) in steroid cream, popping antihistamines and tenderly trying to make sure I didn’t bang my thumb. Heck of a way to prepare for a marathon.

Obviously I didn’t have any expectations for this marathon except to finish. We arrived at our hotel in Santa Monica around rush hour on Friday, which provided a quick reminder of why I don’t live in the LA area any more. We avoided the freeways of course but it still took over an hour to go twelve miles. When we arrived the Fairmont Hotel was a great oasis. Our room overlooked the pool and ocean but you couldn’t tell because the fog had rolled in. We rested in the room and planned for a nice day visiting family and friends, picking up my race bib downtown and shopping for a spell on the Third Street Promenade. Saturday evening we met up with our fellow LA Marathoner friends at a killer Mexican tapas restaurant in Santa Monica, Mercado. They served the freshest, most inventive dishes I had ever had in the Mexican genre. Everyone went crazy for the roasted cactus and the incredible desserts.

The following morning, I took the bus from Santa Monica (the finish line for the race) to Dodger Stadium where I again met up with my fellow racers. Yan, whom I had met through TNT in the Bay Area had moved to Brentwood so was the local in our group. Kent grew up in Brentwood and so was using the trip to see family, while the rest of us were looking forward to the tour. Having lived in LA while in graduate school at USC, I knew the town pretty well and knew the course would hit all the hot spots. After leaving Dodger Stadium, it wound South to downtown, past Olvera Street with its little Mexico City feel, and through various neighborhoods on its way to Hollywood. We got a taste of both Hollywood Blvd and Sunset Blvd and a short jaunt down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Through the first 16 miles Kent and I ran together and had a great time. We were reminiscing about things we had done in LA while living here, noticing what had changed and being surprised by a few things you don’t see when you are driving around trying to stay focused on traffic. Once of the things I will always love most about LA was very apparent during this race  - the oh-so friendly people. We said hi to many other runners and tons of spectators. Everyone was so supportive, encouraging and helpful along the way.

At one point I jokingly asked those running around us, “So how long is a marathon anyways?” and got several helpful replies as well as more than a few chuckles.

I was feeling fantastic throughout the race. It had been cool at the start and mostly overcast throughout which made for perfect conditions. Around mile 17 we headed into the grounds of the West LA Veterans Hospital which is home to one of the oldest, still standing buildings in LA. I hadn’t visited this huge park-like location before and was checking everything out and before we had left, noticed Kent was no longer with me. After seeing his family and pausing briefly for a hug and photos, we lost sight of each other as he, I later found out, had started to feel the effects of the distance and pace we were sharing.

In Brentwood I was surrounded by other runners holding a similar pace, so I stuck with them as we entered the 20s. I still felt great which is unusual for me this late in a marathon, and when we passed the 25 mile marker, I knew today was going to be a great day. My nutrition plan was working perfectly, I had the right gear, the right shoes and definitely the right mindset. I felt good enough in fact that I decided to pick it up for the last mile. Rarely do I have the energy and stamina for this but LA was different. So did a woman near me apparently as we jockeyed for the lead back and forth over the final mile and straight up the finishing shoot. I crossed the line at 3:39. It was a hard finishing sprint and I felt its effects as I cooled down in the finishers area. But the overwhelming feeling I had – all day in fact – was joy. This was a great race. And the poison oak and smashed thumb barely even registered in my mind.

After stretching and cheering on other racers I met up with the rest of our group at a classic Irish Pub in Santa Monica wear we toasted a fantastic course, great day and the sense of accomplishment with, what else, Guinness.  Man, I love running.

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