Monday, March 28, 2011

Nugget #27

The following is a tale of running a marathon here in Buffalo just weeks after the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  The race turned out to be an amazing experience.

Fear Takes it on the Chin
By Bill Donnelly

I recently (October 24, 2004) ran the Casino Niagara Marathon, and it was basically the eighth time I have run this course.  I ran the first six Slylons from 1974 to 1979, and that was pretty much the same course.  Oh yeah, and I ran the 2001 edition of the race, and that was quite a story in itself. 
            The race was held on October 21, and I entered it a couple of months earlier. Unfortunately for the world, September 11 happened, and so much has changed in our country.  Two weeks before the marathon, the race director, Jim Ralston, had to change the course. The customs people did not want to deal with the problems of this international marathon, and the course had to be changed so that it would be run entirely in Canada, starting in Fort Erie and wind around to make up for lost miles.  Not an easy task two weeks before the race, which does offer big prize money, and gets some good racers and numbers.
            A week before the marathon, Jim Nowicki and Ralston decided they wanted to have a symbolic gesture, and would have a few runners start in Buffalo at the same time as those in Canada, they would run the original course and cross the Peace Bridge and join the other runners at the designated point where the courses came together.  A friend of mine thought I would be interested and signed me up.  I was happy to be there.
Crossing the border into Canada the day before the race was an experience.  Wouldn’t you know it, going over the Peace Bridge I got sent over to Canadian Customs to be checked out.  I knew I should not have been wearing my good-luck turban I always wear the day before a marathon.  Anyway, the Canadian Customs officials couldn’t figure out why I was flagged, except for my turban, long hair, and the skull earring I was wearing, so they sent me on my way after a light search of my suitcase.  Fortunately they did not reach down into it, or they would have found some embarrassing things, (I will not go into that).
            Once at the marathon check-in area, I got my race number and chip, and some of us searched out Jim Ralston to find out the details. He informed us that there would be only nine of us running from the US into Canada, and they had already processed us through immigration. All we had to do now was relax, (yeah right), eat a good pre-race dinner (I of course had two giant chocolate chip muffins and Gatorade), and show up for the start the next morning in Buffalo. Everything else was taken care of, or so we thought.
            I was actually able to get an excellent night’s sleep, in part due to a weather report that called for pleasant weather, 62 degrees, no rain, and little wind. My biggest worry was that four weeks prior to the marathon, I had a bad cold that turned into bronchitis, and I lost two weeks of training.  My main goal was to qualify for Boston, and I was hoping I could still do that.
            By the morning of the race, the “Buffalo Nine” were beginning to assemble at the corner of
Delaware Avenue
Huron Street
, the starting point for us. Jim Nowicki answered all questions and assured us that marshals would be on the other side of the Peace Bridge to guide us along the course. Two of Buffalo’s finest arrived on their motorcycles to run interference for us. I wanted to go out at a pace, and when I talked to the others, only one, Tom Appenheimer, had the same plan. We agreed to run together.
            Pleasant weather, 62 degrees, no rain, and little wind. Oh wait; this is BUFFALO, NY, AT THE END OF LAKE ERIE.  Ten minutes before the race was to start, a steady, cold rain began to fall almost sideways in the near hurricane-like winds.  Okay, so I exaggerate a bit, the winds were not quite reaching hurricane-like proportions.  We nine lined up, several pictures were taken, and we waited while Jim Nowicki listened on a cell phone to the starting line in Fort Erie. There were 1,200 marathoners over there, and it was announced to them what was happening in Buffalo, and apparently, we got a good amount of applause from them.  And then we were told to go, and off we headed into the rain, running north on
Delaware Avenue
            Let me tell you, this was a very strange, almost surreal experience. The nine split into three groups almost immediately, with Tom and me leading the way.  Running through the empty, rain and wind-swept streets of Buffalo with a motorcycle cop next to you, siren blaring, and almost no one out to cheer us on but a couple of people getting their Sunday newspaper.  It rained all the way to the Peace Bridge, four and a half miles, and at times it was very heavy rain.  Once we hit the bridge, the rain stopped for the remainder of the race, unfortunately, our shoes and socks were already soaked and would remain so.
            It was strange leading the marathon, but I knew this would change once we joined up with the other runners.  One problem for us was that there were no water stops. The rain kept us cool and moist, and then at the four mile point, just before turning onto the Peace Bridge, Jim was there handing out bottles of water.  Tom and I hit those two miles at the pace we wanted, and we headed towards the bridge with water in hand and sirens wailing.  A local television cameraman was filming us going onto the bridge, and the US Customs people and security guys were clapping and cheering us on.  It did send goose bumps popping up on me, and then we headed across the long, high bridge. At the highest point in the middle you pass the three flags, Old Glory, the United Nations, and the Maple Leaf, and that was quite a thrill also.  It was also the five mile mark, we were at the top of the only hill on the course, and now it was a long downhill to the Canadian Customs area.
            By now Tom had pulled away from me, and I followed him as he went by officials next to vehicles with flashers going, and we followed their directions around the Canadian Customs area, headed right and then right again, and found ourselves in a truck holding area, and no way to go. That stopped us cold, and as we stood around a couple of minutes wondering what to do now, thoughts of a premature end to my race flashed through my mind. I was just starting to climb a cement barrier to get to an area I thought I vaguely remembered passing on the old Skylon course when a truck pulled up with two Canadian Customs officials. They said to go to the next street and turn left, then right on the next street, and that would take us to the course which we would get on by turning left again.  On we went, and when we hit the course, race officials pointed us in the right direction.
            This marathon has many elements to it, including a walking marathon, relays, and an inline skating marathon, all of which started earlier in the morning, so we were joining some of these people too. We were looking for the six mile marker, as we should have seen it by now. After a bit we saw a mile marker ahead with the water station next to it, and I actually was hoping maybe it was for the seven mile mark.  When we got near it we could not believe our eyes, it was the nine mile marker and we had inadvertently taken quite a short cut. We looked at each other, and felt at a loss. Tom said pretty much all we can do is finish, realize our projected good times will not mean anything to us, but still use it to qualify for Boston, so on we went.
            Now, when we first entered the course, officials yelled that many participants were already ahead of us. However, all we were seeing were skaters and walkers.  At ten miles my watch read somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 minutes, and I realized that that was Kenyan time. My mind worked quickly. This was a big race with some good prize money, which drew good runners and some Kenyans. But also the prize money, $25,000 in all, was Canadian money, worth approximately $213.17 in US currency, so the best Kenyans do not show up. The winning time last year was , which was not 5 minute per mile Kenyan time as I was showing on my watch.  MY GOD, WE ARE WINNING THE RACE!  Then it hit me, my God, we are winning the race, and we do stand out like sore thumbs!  Now Tom was pulling away from me.      
At this point, Tom Somerville, who was one of the “Buffalo Nine”, had pulled away from his group and caught up to me. All he could say was, “Man, this is a weird position to be in.” He had followed us off the bridge and was in the same boat. He was also wearing a full-sized American flag wrapped around his shoulders, and he carried it the entire distance. He too pulled a bit in front of me, and as we hit the twelve mile mark, the fun began.
            First a police car with lights flashing passed slowly by, and then a pace car with race officials.  One leaned out of the window and with a smile asked if we were the Buffalo runners.  He then informed me the real leaders were about to pass me. First came the slight Kenyan, Jean-Paul Niyonsaba.  Directly ten yards back was El Mostafa Damaoui from Rabat, Morocco. This was certainly a new experience for me, watching the front runners as they glide effortlessly by me, it was quite exciting, AND I hadn’t been arrested for impersonating a front runner!
            Now, few people know this about me, but I can actually read the minds of other runners during a marathon. Usually it is very mundane stuff, but what these guys were thinking might interest the reader. Jean-Paul’s thoughts were: “AIYEE, how did this fat, gray-haired one get in front of me. He must be a stealth runner to have gotten such an early lead without me seeing him. AIYEE!”  El Mostafa, on the other hand, did not have such good thoughts about me: “By the hair of my neighbor’s wife’s beard, what is this thing I am passing? It runs like a three-legged dog, and a fat one at that! The cur has thrown my concentration off and now I can never stay with the Kenyan!”  I don’t know what they thought as they passed the two Toms ahead of me.
            Imagine that, I got about a three mile head-start on these guys, and they still caught me by twelve miles. I felt smooth going along at a 7:30 per mile clip, but these guys passed me like I was standing still, and now I didn’t feel so smooth.  One bright spot: almost right after being passed we hit the 20K mark (this is Canada) and my brother Tom was there to run in a young woman he had been training.  You should have seen the expression on his face with me running along in a strong fifth place. I simply yelled to him that I would have been doing better, but the Kenyan tripped me.
            From then on in it was downhill, as I kept being passed, and I could catch no one, not surprisingly.  A pack of five passed me next and their thoughts made little sense since it was a group.  All I heard was, “Cripes…he’s rather slow now…where’d that fat one come from...Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl, Duke, Duke…like a wounded three-legged dog…” And on and on. On I pushed, and soon a young, strong looking Mexican flew by, looked over his shoulder at me, and started to walk.  I never saw him again, and I cannot print what he thought.  Spicy, like their food.
In the last four miles, we faced quite a head wind. I wasn’t being passed by so many runners anymore until the last half-mile, when everyone was sprinting in, but I was not.  Still, I finished in and in 43rd place. Tom Appenheimer and Tom Somerville were waiting. Appenheimer finished in and searched out race director Jim Ralston and told him what had happened. Ralston’s comment was simply what can you do, just take the time. Somerville hit , but we were all disappointed and very sore anyway. We waited for the rest of the “Buffalo Nine”, and soon they were dragging in. Turns out the officials realized the mistake they had made with us and started to point the remainder of the Buffalo runners the other direction when they got to the parkway.  So there were some disappointment among the “Buffalo Nine”, but if truth be told, we were glad to have had the chance to represent those who refuse to let fear run their lives.
We did take the times for qualifying for Boston, since through no fault of ours we were led astray.  Oh yeah, the Kenyan won the marathon with a , followed by American Kyle Fraser in . El Mostafa Damaoui of Morocco dropped to third in 2:29:32.  Apparently the sight of me leading him for twelve miles was enough to throw him totally off his race.  It was a good day.

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