Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Marathon pt. 2

With the guitars all packed and stored in Earlysville, it was time for phase two of a seemingly endless day. Toys helped me load my bike into the van, I made one final check on my race bag, then we said goodbye to the Gizard clan (they’d promised Tashi a couple days at a Renaissance Fair for all the help she’d given to Tristan) and rolled out of the Virginia hills for Washington D.C.

It took about twenty minutes to get out of Charlottesville mall hell and then we had a good hour of semi-open road until we came upon the mall hell of the western D.C. Burbs. The van had been overheating ever since the Bambi incident took out the secondary cooling system, so the requisite traffic snarl coming into the city was less than welcoming.

Thank god Toys was there to navigate because it’s a big ol’ clusterf*ck getting into the city and another one trying to figure out where to go once you've found the mall. You also had to hand it to the race committee to put the expo in one of the easiest places to find in D.C. - the Walter E. Washington Conventin Center just a block away from the NPR offices. Every big marathon has an expo attached to it with sponsor booths and great deals on training gear as well as what used to be a decent SWAG collection. But marathoning is discretionary spending (dare we call it ‘entertainment’) so the ugly economy had done a number on the free stuff. In Portland it was embarrassing to see how little (read: nothing) we were able to give the runners. In D.C., aside from a couple of vitamins and some training tape (not rolls, just a few free strips) there really wasn’t anything worth keeping either.

One nice thing was that since we showed up so late, there were plenty of free race t-shirts just taking up space. Whatever they couldn’t give away, had to be packed up. We waltzed out of the convention center with three nice long sleeve tees, one for me, one for Toys and one for our host in D.C.

Our host was a long time friend of the family with whom I have regular email rants during the NFL season. Although he and his wife are both good friends of my brothers, the two of us had never actually met. But once we found the house, we quickly fell into a conversation as if we’d been hanging out forever. They even went back to the grocery store for beers, which I really shouldn’t have been drinking. But seeing as I had pre-race jitters, the two Carlsburgs I tossed back did nothing more than put me to sleep at a reasonable hour.

The wakeup call, however, was NOT at a reasonable hour. Race time was 8:00 and seeing as we had cruddy directions to the handicapped lot and didn’t know where we were or where we were going, a 6:00 a.m. wakeup was cutting it close. Luckily traffic into the city was non-existent and aside from one quick 180 degree turn to put us back on course, we made it to the start area with about 20 minutes to spare. Parking was going to be tough, so Toys dumped me out of the van, made sure I was solid in my rig then shoved me off in the general direction of the start.

As opposed to the rush of the Portland start, this time I had a mile to slowly warm up and even five minutes on the starting line to stretch my shoulders and shake out my neck. I was in the front row, but directly behind me was an army of hand cycles. Out in Oregon where the population is less than the D.C. metro area, I’m lucky if I can get seven riders to take the start of the marathon. But in East Coast D.C. with a huge military population and plenty of Gulf/Iraqi/Afghan war vets, there were more than 50 wheelers toeing the line.

This was not the ‘Washington D.C. Marathon’, but the ‘Marine Corps Marathon’. Whereas you might not want the Marine Corps to run a rock festival or a spring break party; running a marathon is right up their alley. It was hyper-organized, the roads were clean, and the course was well-marked.

But as it turns out I was just about two weeks away from being able to really tackle the course. When the gun blew off I flew off the line and grabbed a spot among the leaders. Right off the bat the course hit a quarter-mile climb that caught me out of breath. Had I flown out directly from Corvallis where I was in mighty hill shape, I would have really attacked. But being almost three weeks away from serious hill training, I felt the tug on my lungs and arms and fell into a reasonable pace – watching the race leaders pull away from me.

Of course, I’d looked at the race profile several times, but sometimes lines on a graph don’t relate to actual road conditions. My training runs in Corvallis were much more challenging than these hills, but under race condition and my loss of competition climbing form, I didn’t have it in me to keep up. For the first three miles of the race I found myself out of breath and losing ground. I knew I immediately lost half a dozen places, but when the 7th, 8th and 9th riders passed me before the Key Bridge at mile four, I knew I was in trouble.

The bridge flattened the course a bit and I managed to get into a nice rhythm going into the wealthy (and hilly!) neighborhoods of western Georgetown. Three more riders took me on these hills and I was getting really pissed off. With the same conditioning I had just a month earlier I was a top five rider. But now I was struggling back in 11th place.

Finally, at mile eight, the course smoothed out and even went on a slight downhill. I found a nice heavy gear and plucked off two riders as I circled the golf course in East Potomac Park. A young rider, doing the course in a new sleek aerodynamic ride (his head was only a few inches off the ground and he was in near-prone position) took me as we crossed the Kutz Bridge and circled the back of the Lincoln Memorial.

Then the race, the whole event, turned surreal. When I first looked at the course a decade earlier I dreamed what it would be like racing up and down the mall with crowds screaming as I passed by our country’s greatest monuments. But the reality was so much cooler. As is common in wheelchair events, we’re on the course much earlier than the runners. The bands are usually just plugging in and tuning up as we pass them. When it came to racing down Constitution Avenue not only was the street closed and wiped of the daily grind of the city, the air was completely silent. I was flying as fast as I could down one of the most famous streets on the planet and the only sound I could hear was the wind I created.

I whizzed by the Washington monument and saluted the White House without even a pigeon in my way. Occasionally there was a spectator cheering me on, but it was just a little Doppler blip on an otherwise unblemished soundscape. I passed by all the buildings of the Smithsonian without a single murmur from the non-existent entry line. Eventually I found myself flying past the Capitol of the United States of Freaking America, the windiest building on the planet – without a sound to be heard. I looked west down the Mall, which was standing room only just a few months earlier at the inauguration, and saw empty fields of grass; not a single decibel shaking my ear bones.

I saw an interview with Tom Hanks and Ron Howard talking about how cool it was to film the DaVinci Code in the Louvre with nobody in the building but themselves. I’ll match this experience with anything they’ve got. They may have parallel experiences; none better.

As I flew down Independence Avenue, I realized that I only had six miles left to put some hurt into this race. While I was tripping out along the mall I occasionally looked down at my speedometer and made sure I stayed ahead of my training pace. The course was a trip, but it makes for a much better story with a good result at the end. (and let’s not even think of the Portland flat!)

To my surprise, not only had I kept up a spicy pace on the flat; I’d made up for the junk I turned in on the hills. I was actually in line for a PR (personal record) which would more than make my day. As the course left the mall it jumped over the I 395 bridge across the Potomac towards the Pentagon. At this point I was feeling the hurt, but the thought of the PR gave me a burst of adrenalin to haul me to the finish.

The last few miles of the race go through Crystal City on the southwest side of town. It’s a series of hurky-jerky turns that took the punch out of my stride. By the time I got rolling again, a fierce northerly wind jabbed me in the chest and, even though I was on a clear flat, slowed me down under my training pace.

I saw my PR go away and then the Marine Corps dealt its nastiest trick of all. Just a quarter mile before the finish at the Iwo Jima memorial, they took me up a ridiculously steep chunk of terrain that slowed me down to 5 mph – the slowest I’d gone all day. At this point the crowd is furious in its zeal, and they pushed me beyond what I ever could have mustered in a training run. I finished four minutes over the PR, but considering my conditioning, the top ten finish (10th!) in one hour and fifty four minutes was a fantastic ending to the story.

Unless, of course you count the 200 pints I had watching the Packers beat Cleveland after the race – that was monumental too.

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