Thursday, May 28, 2009

It keeps you running...

Neither Mike nor I got much sleep the night before the Dead Sea half marathon; too worried about missing the wake up call and still reeling from the day's stress. It was a relief to get up and head quietly downstairs in the morning. However, arriving down in the lobby spot on time at 5:15 am, was there a driver to take me to the race bus pick-up? No, there was not.

The staff were torn between staring at my spandex clad white legs (though they tried not to---I was feeling a little naked there for a while) and making sure I wasn't upset there wasn't a driver. Neither of the two men spoke much English, but even so the security guard tried to distract and amuse me by proudly pointing out who each of the royals were in photographs displayed on the lobby. The reception guy made phone calls, gesturing and speaking loudly while watching me out of the corner of his eye to make sure his performance was observed.

I tried to be as enthusiastic as I could about the royal family, but the minutes were ticking by. The buses, according to the information packet, left at "6:15 sharp" and I wasn't entirely assured that the driver would find it as easy to find as I had been told. 30 minutes passed. I was trying to somehow communicate how important is was to be on time without being unplesant.

Eventually they couldn't help themselves and asked about my legs. Was I going to a swimming competition? You must run too much, the one said, your legs, they are...he drifted off into silence, staring, then embarassed, jerked his eyes away, fumbled with paperwork, then as a man grasping a lifeline, seized the phone and renewed his loud yelling into it, though whether he actually dialed first is questionable.

The phrase too much tends to mean "a lot" rather than "too much" as we would use it, by the way, so his comment was open to interpretation. Do with it as you will.

Half an hour became 45 minutes. It was nearly six and I was jumping out of my skin. Finally the driver arrived: a taxi. Apparently they don't have their own driver after all. I nearly left my gear and change of clothes behind in my haste to get into the car; the security guard dashed after me and pushed it into my arms. Zoom, we were off.

There wasn't actually a meter in the taxi, so I hoped the driver wouldn't ask for more money than I had. He'd fallen asleep, he unapologetically explained. I think I was supposed to yell at him at this point, but I didn't and he grinned widely at me. He drove in the classic Amman style, straddling two lanes, the divider line square down the center of the car. But he drove the correct direction, and we found the place, following the blinking blue lights of police cars doing crowd control. I overpaid him and dashed out of the car. Undoubtedly the sucker of the year, but if it made his day, fine with me. I was happy to finally, finally reach the elusive bus pick-up point.

Crowd control was indeed necessary, but not all that looked as though the entire youth population of Amman, perhaps Jordan, had turned out for the race. There were rows and rows of buses, and no one, not the officials, nor the runners, seemed to know what to do or where to go.

I wasn't wearing a watch and didn't even want to know if 6:15 had come and gone. I pushed and cajolled my way through the crowd, taking care not to get burned by the cigarettes waved about carelessly to punctuate a point.

I felt buried in Arabic. Despite the babble of raised voices, no English words were spoken within my sphere of hearing, and I was getting desperate, feeling stupid and inept. What in heck was I thinking, running a half marathon in a strange country? I hate crowds anyway, being jostled and stomped on, claustrophobic. My some miracle I pushed my way to a man in a safety vest standing in front of a sign that said, oh, thank you, thank you, there is a God, "21K".

He wouldn't let me past with my bag, and pointed me back to the baggage trucks. I scurried around the perimeter, handed the bag to someone who gave it a casual fling onto the top of the pile and shoved my way back to the man with the sign. He allowed me past to where, oh glory, there was a 21K bus.

Another handler at the door. "Half marathon, 21K!" I gasped at him, showing my yellow race number on my chest.

"There is only room for one more." he said, glowering at me.

"I'm your woman!" I assured him brazenly, giving him my very best crazy American grin. Just one, yes just one, well OK then. He moved aside and I got on. In the very back was one spot if some shifting was encouraged and I plopped down. Next to me was another runner, she wearing an Arizona Wildcats shirt. I nearly cried with happiness. An American!

Our goal: the Dead Sea shore, lowest point on earth.
Fortunately for her, she turned out to be not only outgoing but cheerful and chatty and the perfect new running buddy. Jessica is indeed from Arizona, living abroad in Jordan for a year to study Arabic. I was suitably impressed. A single woman, living in Amman. Wow.

I interviewed her thoroughly, both before and during the race as the miles went by. What was it like to be alone in Amman? How was she treated? Did she usually wear a ring? (Yes.) Did she train outside? (No. She was pretty sure one could get arrested for that as a woman.) And so forth. Here is her blog, with her take on the half marathon and some commentary on the VanCleave clan as well:

The port-a-potties, the major attraction for us as we waited to run, had no toilet paper, nor did they flush, nor were there sprayers. This made hygene...difficult. However, I read another person's report that the ones at the marathon start were locked shut, so apparently I should have been grateful for what we had. About an hour after the race was scheduled to start they set us off to run. Our side of the road was closed down so we wouldn't get smashed into roadkill, and there was lots of machine gun carrying (of course) police presence along the course.

Herding camp along the road.
The first part of the race was a steady downhill towards the Dead Sea, then turning at the Baptism Site and along the coast to the finishline. I was looking forward to the distance: half marathon has been my favorite race since I started doing them a year ago. This was to be my fourth. Jessica and I were well matched in pace. She'd done all her training on a treadmill, an idea that gave me the shivers. That's devotion, and not for me. Though, I suppose if I had to choose between that, not running, and jail, well...

We chatted and sweated and pounded the pavement. I completely enjoyed her company. Our race times were being called out as we passed critical points, but unfortuately for me, in Arabic. However, Jessica who did understand the Arabic said the times made absolutely no sense to her; apparently I didn't miss anything. The herding camps along the road, the gawkers, the mosques and tents and low buildings made for good scenery.

Views and a fine companion to run with to the lowest point on earth, but something was very wrong; my hips hurt all the way down to my feet with every stride, and I was getting tired out much faster than I expected. Perhaps it was sitting in a car driving around the country for seven days, or the stress of the night before, or the sinus infection I'd been fighting for 10 days, no matter what it was, this was turning out to be awful.

At 16 kilometers I stumbled to a walk and waved Jessica on..."I'll catch up," I gasped. Fat chance of that. I had taken advantage of the water stations, and even eaten a banana proffered by a race volunteer but nothing wanted to work. I gave myself 30 seconds and started running again, and this time, after only a little ways, my legs simply stopped.

I didn't stop them, they gave up and refused to go more than a slow, jelly-legged quivering walk. I simply didn't have anything to make them go. I was gritting my teeth and trying to speed up and suddenly running was the most difficult thing in the world. It was worse than awful, it was betrayal. My legs were traitors.
I threatened with a firing squad, but they knew I was bluffing.

We were starting to get into the throngs of 10K walkers, teenagers who were out for a good time with their friends away from their parents. Now, while I completely understand their desire to have the silly crazy fun of youth, support it even, I do wish they hadn't walking shoulder to shoulder in gangs, throwing empty water bottles all around the course which made footing hazardous, and spitting water at one another. It only took a couple of times of getting caught in the crossfire to make even a forgiving soul like myself think bad, bad thoughts.
Though the last kilometers had been described as flat, they lied. Lots of lumpy hills. I did get to run through a checkpoint and not even have to give the Humvee with its machine gun turret a second glance. I'd turned up my walkman all the way to 11 and the best songs, head down, get this damned race done already.

Finally, finally, I ran across the finish line in 2:00:04, which was, surprisingly, an OK time overall (6th in my age group of 30-39 year old women and the 24th of 162 women) but my God, did I hurt.

I figure it was the downhill that contributed to the OK time and at least some of the pain. I clenched my jaws and wandered around, trying to find Mike and the kids. I did manage to smile for a friend's camera. Note that my jacket is tied backwards around my waist and I'm too shell shocked to notice.

My muscles were stiffening and congealing, and I was wet with mostly sweat, probably some ptooey water mixed in there somewhere. There was one heck of a party going on...singing, dancing...the Jordanians know how to get down, but all I wanted to do was go home.

I found Jessica among the multitudes and arranged to get together for dinner in the evening, congratulating her on kicking my butt. Always important to be a good sport, and she earned it.
After sifting through many piles, I found and dug my bag out at baggage claim, met up with Bethy and Thomas and Mike, and after putting my medal over Bethy's neck, grabbed an ice-cold shower in the overcrowded little bathroom. I also got to have an interesting conversation with a Swedish runner in her 60s as we waited (and waited and waited) in line for the potties about the impressive gashing of her thickly bandaged chin and badly skinned-up hands.

I traded sympathy and tourist information about Dubai for the story. Apparently she'd caught a toe on one of the metal strips embedded in the concrete that the Jordanian authorities use to signal "slow down" to drivers. For her it had meant face first slowing down, smack into the street.
I'd done some hopping over those things myself, and could easily see how she'd gotten caught. She was a tough gal for one so soft spoken and thin, and had wanted to run the rest of the race before allowing them stitch her up. She was bleeding too badly, though, so had to content herself with finishing post-doctoring.

On the way back to the car, I saw my friend Sara and her husband Tom, both of whom you may remember as being on my Wadi Bih relay team. He'd wisely run the 10K and she'd just finished running her first ultramarathon. No matter how tired I was, I had to at least check in with her. She looked pretty good for a woman who'd just run 50 kilometers. "How was it?" I asked. "Oh, it was good," she replied, almost nonchalantly. I made several we are not worthy comments and bows in her direction and followed after the kids and Mike.

What I didn't know was...she'd WON. Her first Ultra, and she took it by storm. I wish I'd known, but apparently she didn't really believe it until hours later.

Later that afternoon, tired, vaguely disappointed, thinking about the race, I went down to the front desk of the hotel for something.

"You are happy today!" exclaimed the concierge. "You are smiling!"

"Really?" I asked.

"Oh, yes." He beamed.

I ran this morning, I told him.

1 comment:

Will & Cheyenne said...

I am SO PROUD of you! I can't believe all the crazy stories you go through though!