Monday, October 12, 2009

The Steamtown Marathon; Ranked as one of the Fastest Marathons in the Northeast

The Steamtown Marathon; Ranked as one of the Fastest Marathons in the Northeast

After months of training, I ran my first marathon this past weekend in north eastern PA. The Steamtown Marathon began in Forest City and ended in Scranton. It boasted of a 955' net elevation drop, which makes it a perfect starter marathon.

I have to say that I could not have been happier with the race. It was reasonably priced and well planned. In the weeks and months prior to the race I received regular updates and tips from the race organizers. It was obvious that they were putting a lot of time and thought into this.

Arriving in Scranton with my friends on the morning of the race (we were coming from our hotel in nearby Wilkes Barre), we easily boarded buses which took us to Forest City. We ended our bus trip at the local high school and were greeted by enthusiastic students and other well wishers who made us feel at home. There were enough portable toilets to use and on the inside of the school people could leave their belongings in a marked plastic bag that would be transported to the end of the race. I had no need for this service this time, but it was nice to know that it was available.

At the start of the race there were pace groups that could be joined. I, optimistically, got into the 9 minute per mile pace group with my friends. The race was started on time with a cannon blast. They had Civil War reenactors there to set off the cannon. Despite the fact that we were well above the Mason-Dixon line, for some reason the reenactors were Confederate. It didn't bother me. I think it is a shame that both sides could not have lost in that war (The governments of both sides were so oppressive that neither one was worth killing over to save.)

As you would expect, the traffic was very heavy at the start of the race. They gave us all RFID chips to put on our shoes and our individual times would start once we passed over a rubber mat. There was also a mat somewhere past the middle of the course (perhaps to make sure that no one cheated) and there was the final mat at the end to get an accurate time.

Forest City was a nice little town. It seemed to have a lot of churches. I noticed two Catholic churches, within yards of each other. According to Wikipedia, they once had five Catholic Churches, which was due to the fact that they had different ethnic groups (Polish, Irish, Lithuanian, Slovakian, and Slovenian) and apparently the idea of saving money by worshiping together was out of the question. I then noticed a tobacco shop and then within yards of that, another tobacco shop. I guess the various Slavs don't like to buy tobacco from the same store either.

All the people in the little towns were very friendly. We didn't run though a town where there weren't people out to greet us. Many stood on the side, waved, offered encouraging words, and otherwise wished us well. Some of the small towns brought out their local brass bands to play music for us as we ran by. When you are doing a long race like this, these little gestures help out a great deal. It helps to keep you going.

There was also a good team spirit among the athletes, despite the fact that running is a very individualistic sport. Early on my little water bottle on my running belt fell out. The girl behind me quickly said something and a guy behind me very quickly picked it up and handed it to me as I passed. Also, everyone seemed happy to engage in conversation as we ran. When we hit the 6 mile mark, I dryly remarked, 'Great, just 20.2 miles to go.' 'Thanks, I needed that,' a woman just as dryly replied. I ran into a runner who had graduated from my high school. I didn't know him, but he was wearing a shirt from there. Also, I talked to a runner from a local running group, the 'Annapolis Striders' around mile 19 or so and we talked about different races.

Regarding the race itself, yes there were plenty of downhills, but that just made the flat areas and the uphills feel all the worse. There were also two big uphills near the end. I felt very good in the first ten miles and even after the half mark, I remember thinking 'only a half marathon to go.' It wasn't until somewhere between miles 17 and 20 that I started to feel bad. This is normally when most runners hit the wall. I don't think I really hit it, but I was certainly getting near it, and held off a bit. I stopped a bit more for quick walk breaks and drank more water. There were many water breaks along the way and that was certainly appreciated. Because they were a sponsor, the water was served in Royal Crown cups. Each time I stopped, I could hear Homer Simpson saying, “We can't even pay our bills, and they're drinking Royal Crown Cola!”

My legs were killing me and I felt very worn down past mile 22 or so, but managed to keep going. I found it helpful to break the race down into little parts. First, I tried to think of it as just 4 10ks and change. After the half, I tried to think of it as just a half marathon. After mile 20, then it was just a 10k. After mile 23, then it was just a little bit over a 5k.

Despite all of the pain, I was happy that I did it. I was even happy during it that I was doing it. I remember near the end passing through a neighborhood where everyone watching and cheering was drinking beer. At least one guy was smoking a cigar. But not for a second did I wish to change places with any of them. It is hard to explain, but I felt perfectly at peace with where I was and would not have traded it for anything. I even felt bad for those on the sidelines. They would not know what it was like to run the race. At a certain point, maybe I was delirious, I started to feel like I was part of the thousand year journey through heaven that was part of Plato's Republic and thinking about the end brought to mind this passage from the Republic, “and that those which arrived from time to time appeared to have come as it were from a long journey and gladly departed to the meadow and encamped there as at a festival, and acquaintances greeted one another . . .”

Running this distance certainly requires a lot of training. My longest run had been 22 miles before this. Most days I was just running 10ks. A positive attitude is also critical. The villagers and townspeople along the way certainly helped a great deal. I don't know if I could have finished it without them.

In the end, my time (according to the RFID chip, not the clock) was 4:51:39, with an average pace of 11:10 per mile. That was a little slower than I would have hoped, but not by much. After the race, I was oddly not very hungry. I had some food, but actually ate less than normal. I could only drink two bottles of beer. I spent the rest of the day at the hotel room alone; my running friends having made the decision to leave that day. Lying in the bed, I thought about what lessons could be drawn from a long distance race like this. I think this event speaks well of the ability of humans to organize together on a voluntary basis. I don't believe that the marathon is organized by any government and it relies on sponsors and runners to fund it. Local voluntary community groups, such as the Scouts and Lions helped out with water breaks the like. Most of the police stopping traffic were Fire Police and I suspect that most of them were volunteers. People in the communities seemed more than happy to have us and there were no problems with traffic or anything else. As noted above, all of the runners were friendly and helpful. No one cared about your politics, religion, race, etc. We all helped and encouraged each other. Most of us were running for ourselves. Some were running for others also. But we were considerate of each other and appreciated each other, not because we were forced to, but because we wanted to. Without a government or other forms of force or coercion, we all worked together to achieve something important, for ourselves and everyone else who took part. It was a great experience.

Life would be easier if it were all a marathon.

1 comment:

TheBigYin said...

Congrats on running the race and making it to the finishing line. And I enjoyed that little bit of American life you put into this piece. Us Brits only get to see the wilder excesses of your country.

Once again, well done.