The Weather Gods sometimes like to torture us runners, and nowhere is this more evident than in Oklahoma City. I’ve been reading about the experiences of several friends at this past weekend’s Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon and the cold, windy, stormy weather conditions, and it brings back memories of my own challenge there in 2009. In fact, OKC 2009 holds top ranking as the Worst Marathon Ever for me–in particular because of the wind.
Oklahoma is where I was born. My parents are from a little town in the southeastern corner called Broken Bow, but I was born in the next town over because it wasn’t big enough to have its own hospital. I was brought home on a cold, icy night in early March, so maybe bad weather just naturally goes along with Big Moments in my life. It certainly seemed to follow me on my first two marathons.
The fact that I live in north Texas means accepting that the weather can be dramatic at times, if not downright dangerous. There’s nothing to break the wind out here on the prairie, and summers mean blazing hot temps and high humidity. Sometimes the wind can seem unrelenting, and can blow for days and days on end. I tend to do most of my running along the perimeter of White Rock Lake in the center of Dallas, which means there is usually a headwind side and a tailwind side. People who run with me know that running into a strong headwind is my least favorite thing to do–especially in the winter–and may cause me to grow quite grumpy (which, as those who run with me know, is a huge understatement).
Rewind to December 2008, my first marathon. Training for the White Rock Marathon went well, and even though it was my first, I went into the marathon thinking I might be able to pull off a finish time just under four hours. On race morning, however, the Weather Gods decided to give us a very warm, humid day, with winds gusting to 30 mph. This, coupled with the usual rookie mistake of going out too fast, spelled disaster for me. A large part of the course is along White Rock Lake (hence the name of the race), and at mile 13 we headed straight into the wind. It was like pushing against a brick wall. At mile 16 I was so beaten down I could not have told you my name, and by mile 19, at the start of the hills, I was toast. I finished in 4:16:22, humbled by the wind and happy to be finished. My more experienced marathoner friends felt bad that the weather had been so tough for my first marathon, but I shrugged my shoulders and started thinking about the next one. I wanted more, and I knew I could do better.
I decided to try a spring marathon. The 2009 spring training season was extremely cold and windy. It seemed as if every week the weather would be nice and mild until Saturday morning, when we would wake up at an insanely early hour only to be met with cold, extremely windy weather. At least it was good training, we told ourselves, and we knew we would be ready for anything in Oklahoma City.
The weather that April in OKC was almost identical to White Rock’s, with even stronger winds gusting to 45 mph and the temps in the low 70’s at the start. The entire spring training had been cold and we weren’t acclimated to the heat and humidity yet. Those of us who had run White Rock in December felt jinxed. Looking out the hotel window that morning at the flag waving wildly in the wind, I felt disheartened and strongly annoyed. I couldn’t believe it was going to be a repeat performance of marathon #1.
I decided to make the best of it and soldier through. The first half of the race wasn’t too bad with the wind at our backs, but the high humidity seemed to sap the energy out of my legs. When I reached the lake just after the halfway point and made a sharp left, it was like coming to a standstill. My legs were moving but I wasn’t going anywhere! I must have had quite a scowl on my face because a volunteer ran over to me at one point and asked if I was okay, and if I was “going to make it.” I looked at him as if he were crazy and yelled out, “Of course I’m going to make it!” and took off. It was just what I needed to get me around the lake.
There is a long stretch of gradual incline before the finish line at OKC that was like a death march that day. The wind was full-on in our faces, pushing us back, and it never stopped. I remember gusts so strong that I would lose my footing, and the wind blowing dirt from a construction site against my legs felt like needles against my skin. The worst part was that almost everyone was walking at this point, which is my own personal achilles heel. It’s always tough for me to put the blinders on and ignore those walking around me, especially the last few miles of a marathon. My brain starts screaming why are you running, they’re not! and I start debating the merits of walking vs. running. On this day my mind won, and I finally broke down and cried. I didn’t want to walk, but I did.
One of the best things about OKC is the long finish chute, and I felt like I had earned the screams of onlookers as I crossed the finish line. I had not enjoyed my second marathon, and wondered if I would ever try another one. My friends assured me there would be good marathons in my future (they were right), but my first two seemed a steep price to pay for the privilege of a good race.
There’s no getting around it: marathons are tough. But that’s why we run them. Good weather or bad, calm skies or strong winds, we take a deep breath and get the job done. So congratulations to all those who battled the elements and won in Oklahoma City this past weekend, and here’s to the good stories that will come out of the struggle.
It seems this is the year to have a great marathon. Last year was the opposite. At least that was the case for me and my friends. I ran my first marathon last December in Dallas. I trained for 23 weeks, even pacing a group with the local running club, and I was more than prepared to have a good race. Perhaps I was overconfident, but I was truly hoping to come in under four hours and qualify for Boston right off the bat. That, however, was not the case. All the hours of training meant nothing against the weather. On race morning, we got hit with a temperature of 64 degrees at the start, 80% humidity, and winds from the south at 30 mph. At the 13 mile mark, once you came around White Rock Lake, the wind hit you full force in the face and was unrelenting. At mile 19 I was toast—and that’s where the hills begin. It’s also where I began walking. Up to that point I had managed to keep an 8:45 pace, but I had nothing left at mile 19. I finished in 4:16, which is respectable for a first marathon, especially considering how much I walked the last 7 miles, but I knew I could’ve done better and was disappointed in myself.
My second marathon in April of this year was even worse. After my experience at White Rock, I had no real desire to run another marathon. I was committed, however, to pacing another group to get them ready for the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. My heart was just not in it. Race day was even worse than White Rock, with a starting temperature of 72 degrees, humidity at 78%, and wind gusts up to 45 mph. We were all completely disheartened walking to the start line. I actually walked a little at mile 10, and considered calling Michael to come get me. When we got to the lake just after the halfway point, and turned south, the wind hit us full force, and it was like running in a wind tunnel. I decided at that point that this was a race to just finish, and nothing more. The last few miles were up a long, gradual incline, directly into those 45 mph winds, and up to 90% of the runners were walking. It was a horrible experience. I cried at mile 23, and I cried at the finish line.
I seriously considered never running another marathon. What was the point, I thought, if it’s not even fun? The mere mention of OKC still makes me shake my head. I knew there had to be a good marathon experience out there for me, so my friends and I entered the lottery for the St. George Marathon. At least if the weather was bad I would still get to run through my favorite part of the country. There is no place in America that I feel more at peace than in the desert. Also, I wasn’t so focused on my finishing time as I was on having an enjoyable marathon experience. I knew I needed to have fun in this marathon.
What a difference the weather can make. The temperature at the start was 39 degrees with no wind, and I finished in 3:56:39. I finally had my Boston qualifier. Other friends have done even better in their marathons. Number one reason why: the weather. You can train diligently and do everything right, but come race day you are at the mercy of the weather every time.
But was it really the weather that made all the difference, or was it my attitude? I’m not sure. I know that I run better in cold, wind-free temperatures, but I’m starting to think that maybe deciding to enjoy the marathon, regardless of my performance, was what really made the difference. Perhaps battling the elements only makes us stronger as runners, but at some point you have to be willing to let go of your dreams of the “perfect” marathon and accept things as they are.
As difficult as those last three miles in St. George were, I can honestly say that I enjoyed everything about that race. I cannot say the same about White Rock or OKC, and I think it’s mainly because of the mental states I brought to the races. I was equally well-trained for all three races, but making the mental decision to have fun and enjoy myself, while still staying focused on finishing strong, made all the difference.