198.2 miles runs in 2016 races
Race: Crystal Serenity Marathon
Place: Willemstad, Curaçao
Miles from home: 2255
Weather: 80s-90s; sunny; humid
The best-laid plans…
When asked by Crystal Cruise to run the first official-measured and sanctioned marathon on a cruise ship, I had a number of concerns. Knowing Crystal is a premiere top-shelf cruise line I wanted to make sure what “official” and “marathon” meant to them. With marathons springing up around the nation (and the world) at an alarming rate, I did not want this to be just roughly 26.2 miles around the luxurious deck. If so, well, we had already done that in 2014 when I sailed with them from Chile to Tahiti. When I learned they were getting their boat’s running deck measured and sanctioned by USATF, I knew they meant business. So I said, let's do it!
As part of my trip on Crystal would also include being a guest lecturer, we had to find the day which would work best for all involved. Personally, as I wanted to control as much of the run as possible, I was hoping to get the marathon accomplished as soon as we left port. In addition, I thought it would be best to get it done before I visited the islands of Grand Cayman and Jamaica. That way no weird issues with food would happen that might potentially fell the effort. Plus, I would be as close to running the marathon as possible to when I left home, eliminating all of the other concerns the usual traveling marathoner has to do deal with. Unfortunately for me, it worked better with the schedule to have me running the marathon the day after the visit to the islands.
As the day I thought would be ideal passed with the calmest of seas possible, I thought perhaps this would continue throughout. However, after leaving Ocho Rios, Jamaica and beginning our trip at sea, the weather turned almost immediately. The evening before my marathon the wind picked up. The waves got choppy. To quote George Constanza “the sea was angry that day, my friends.” I got barely a wink of sleep as the rocking of the boat, which I am sure was turning many green and would have normally lulled me to sleep, kept me up hoping it would finally subside.
When I woke to start prep for the race, I turned on the ship’s TV to get the info on the outside weather. I already knew it was going to be warm. We were in the Caribbean. So the 80+ degrees was not surprising. The 49 knot winds, however, were. Egads.
I dressed and went down to the deck where the two members who were certifying the course for USATF, Phil and Paula, were waiting. In addition, Scott, another marathoner who works for Crystal who I met in Miami many years ago and actually was the one who set this up, was looking a little forlorn. Phil and I met has a race he puts on in Santa Clarita some 8 years ago and it was nice to have them all here. The serene nature of all three however, belied what was ahead for me. Well, they are all British after all, so good luck getting much emotion out of them either way.
The said it was a “mite bit windy” and perhaps I should give it a test run. As I turned and ran into the wind, I could tell this would make for a tough day. Then I hit the bow of the boat.
At 6’1’’ and 180 lbs, I was stood straight up and nearly stopped in my tracks. My sunglasses blew off my face and the air was knocked out of me. I powered through and the wind carried me to the stern of the ship where the previous biggest obstacle lay. (I will get to that in a minute.) I finished the lap and to test it out again did another. It got even worse. I told the three that if I had to, I could do it. It might be dangerous and it would definitely be slow, but I would. However, if I had my druthers, I would like to try again the next day. This seemed to be the answer they were expecting and it was 100% accepted. Within seconds I was back to my stateroom and trying to figure out what to do with myself. I had planned my meals and my resting and my tapering to run on this day. Now what to do? It is one thing to change a lecture or a speech or even a smaller distance race. But to change the day of a marathon? That is something else entirely.
As the morning and afternoon rocked by with the winds barely abating, I knew I made the right choice. I just had to weather this wind and hope that the next day would be better. You see, the next day was the last chance we had to use Phil and Paula’s services as they had to disembark in Curacao to head home. So it was do or die. Hopefully the former.
More than just postponing the marathon it was postponing my routine. I had taken two days off before the marathon, as is my norm. This extra day off, however, immediately made me feel lethargic. In addition, there were zero signs of the winds slowing all day long. As I went to bed, the boat was still be tossed side to side as the hull cut through 50 knot winds. I went to bed hoping against hope.
When 5 a.m. rolled around I turned on the ship’s TV to confirm what I already knew: nothing had changed. I met the mates on the deck of the ship and could see they agreed. The said to go back to bed and hopefully, when we got into harbor in 90 minutes, things would be better. It felt like I had no sooner laid my head on the pillow than my phone rang. Scott told me it was go time. I could see if that it was a little before 7 am and the sun was fully shining. Exactly what I had tried to battle against using my knowledge from running on the previous ship. With a lit deck, I could run at any time of the day or night. But now it was warm and sunny. This might be a long day.
I quickly got ready and headed down to the 7th deck promenade. By 7:20, less than half an hour after I had woken up, I was underway. What a way to try and run 26.2 miles.
The course was simple if not easy. I would run about half the length of the ship to start. Then from that halfway point, each loop would begin. Piece of cake, right? Just do this 89 times and garner a Guinness world record.
For the first six miles, things went relatively smoothly. I knew that I was not going to go nearly as fast as I had hoped with the starting temperature being 84 degrees – more or less the temperature they stop, or "black flag" most marathons. The only bad thing in the beginning, and it was bad, was the smoke.
No, the ship was not on fire. Rather, you see, the crew members and deck hands of Crystal Cruise enjoy their breaks in the foremost front of the ship, away from virtually everyone else. They are also often from countries of the old Eastern Bloc of other far flung places. Unfailingly polite, very nice to be around and a pleasure to talk to, they have also not apparently gotten the memo about the whole cigarettes cause cancer thing. So, every time I made it to the front of the ship, I got to inhale smoke. Yes this was outdoors. Yes, this was in a vastly open space. But, and I have known this my entire life – I have the wimpiest lungs possible. Out of the factory mine we hardly made of hearty stock. I know even the slightest provocation means they are not happy. So, while I was clicking away loops, I was also dreading going to the front of the ship every single time. This does not help the mental state at all.
Nevertheless, I had run, almost like a metronome, 2:12 laps every single lap for the first 6 miles (it look 3.39 laps to make a mile, FYI.) As we approached 9 am, the time I had originally planned on finishing, there were more guests out and about exercising. Many had gotten up at the crack of dawn both days to cheer me on from their staterooms and had seemed as disappointed as I about the wind. Thy had also been very kind to allow me to have the deck virtually to myself during times when many of them would go for a stroll. However, many assumed I started at six in the morning so here, three hours later, they thought I would be done. As such, I spent a great deal of the next six miles being very mindful of other guests and making sure not to inadvertently take out a septuagenarian. Many took pictures of me as I passed by or did a selfie when I looped behind them. At this juncture I still had energy to make silly faces. I hope they enjoyed it!
Suddenly, a storm came in and began to drench the passengers, myself and the deck. I began to curse inwardly as a slick wooden deck was the last thing I needed. Moreover, I knew what would come after the Caribbean rainstorm would pass. A stifling humidity. In addition, the rain wasn't even remotely cooling. Rather, all it did was increase potential for chafing, make me shoes soaked, add puddles to the deck and make me a whiny little runner. One positive of this torrential downpour was that it drove everyone else inside. The deck was mine to run freely. Hoping the storm would last maybe 40 minutes and keep the sun at bay, I was disappointed when it barely last 10. Then the humidity came.
As the ship was positioned, I spent half of the loop running in the sun and the other half in the shade. The problem with the shade was that is an absolute dead zone. No air moved. It felt stagnant. I recalled this oddity from my previous run on the cruise ship when I was befuddled how one could be out in the air yet still feel closed in. There were also little further oddities to deal with. For example, I am unsure if there are certain air conditioning vents or ducts that are part of a normal operation of a boat, but I often felt like I could taste or smell pockets of air which differed from the rest. Normally, this means nothing on a run as you pass by. But the whole 89 laps things.
More importantly, I could tell that the rain, the multiple turns, and perhaps just bad luck, had caused med to have a cut on my right Achilles tendon. Knowing that there was no way I could finish with this worsening, I told Shannon, my best friend and guest on this cruise, to go to the stateroom, grab some new socks and my pair of Karhu triathlon shoes which have a very low cut. A few laps later I was sitting on a bench changing socks and shoes. You know, as you usually do in the middle of a race.
Regardless of the heat, and my laps creeping closer and closer to three minutes per, as I approached 20 miles it still looked like I would keep my marathon time under 3:30. Far from ideal but not the most horrible of times, all things considered. I had ran most of the miles without a shirt as I had been drenched in sweat since about five steps in. Given how self-conscious I am about running with a shirt off, Shannon told me she knew how hot I must have been. Here I take two seconds to say that without my best friend handing me towels, forcing me to pull ice cold water over my head to cool my core, and knowing exactly what beverage I needed exactly when I needed it, I might not have even made it to 20 miles intact. A runner is only as good as his crew and I have the best out there.
With 20 laps to go, or just a shade under 6 miles, I thought I had a fullproof plan. Unfortunately, fools often outwits those plans. Nevertheless, I thought if I could just do four sets of 5 loops, taking a one minute break after each set to sit on a bench, douse myself in ice water and move on, it would keep me still in a decent time. One set of loops went fine. However, halfway through the next set, I had to stop and sit. Then virtually every loop had me stopping on the homestretch as I came out of the shadow of the ship and into the intense magnifying heat of the sun on the starboard side. It baked me. It cooked me. It simply sapped my will to move forward. My loops were now taking four minutes to complete as I even had to walk on the shaded side as well.
Finally, with five loops to go, I had had enough. At the bow of the boat, I tried to use the shadow of the boat to propel me into what I hoped would just be 12-15 minutes of running to close out the day. Cramps in my leg from dehydration had other plans. Shooting from my ankle to my calf to my quad, the pain was so sharp and intense that it made me woozy. I couldn’t keep a level head unless I made my body level. So down on the deck I went. Almost immediately, crew members were on me asking me if I was alright. I tried to assure them all it was not a head wound or overall woosiness causing me to lay down but just a leg cramp. But soon more members were called. Then a EMT. Then the ship doctor and all of my people involved with this race. I kept assuring them I was fine but soon they were taking my blood pressure and pulse and everything else. I told them I just had 3.5 miles to go and…is that a wheelchair?! No, no, no, no. I am not getting in that. Nor am I taking any IV fluids. I didn’t push through this hell to be stopped short in the last mile. With some help from others, I was pulled to my feet. I swallowed my pride after lying on the ground for over ten minutes and realized finishing was all that mattered. Any “good” time had long since passed.
I sauntered the last three loops with the ship doctor, himself a marathoner (and also seemingly wanting to let me know constantly that he too had runs lots of marathons) and Shannon who keep an ice cold towel on my neck. One loop turned into two and then finally I was on the last loop. I knew there were people waiting so when I turned onto the home stretch, I tried a feeble attempt at running to break the finish line tape. So, 4:27:14 after I started, I had another new milestone in my pocket. (Official time being verified.)
Was it the time I wanted? Obviously not. But in my first marathon as a Master’s runner, and my 153rd slowest out of 158 total marathons, I had set out to do what I was asked to do. A huge round of thanks goes out to Crystal Cruise and Scott Douglass for putting this all together. To both Phil and Paula for measuring the course and making it official as well as timing it as well. To Shannon I definitely extend my most heartlfelt thanks because even as the weather got stifling (over 90 degrees when I finished) I knew I was in good hands with her nearby.
As I spoke on the cruise ship as well (this was a working vacation for me, not even counting the 89 and change laps round the ship) this event was a great example of showing how often things can go awry even when you plan as hard as you can. I jokingly told the audience that my intention was to run very slow so that Crystal will have me on again when they go through colder, more northern waters, and I can easily break the record. As it stands, on a ship full of people who have done many things right in their life and often don’t need much motivation, I was told I became a new source of it. I laid to waste many of these “But I can’t run because…” excuses and opened their eyes to maybe trying something new. But following through will be up to them. We can be motivated all we wanted but unless we alone take the first step to doing whatever it is we want to do, nothing else matters.
As this year comes to an end, here’s hoping in 2017 you take that first step toward what you have wanted for a very long time.
Then take another.
Cruise ship decks can be a challenge. I loved the fan club that developed on the stern of the ship as I ran lap after lap for training.
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