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Disclosure: I received a free entry to the Buffalo Marathon because I am a BibRave Pro. Learn more about becoming a BibRave Pro, and check out BibRave.com to review find and write race reviews. It’s a great way to help race directors see what is working and what needs improvement, and to help other runners find out what a race is really like.

I had a PLAN. (Then I had another plan.)

Leading up to the Buffalo Marathon, I had BIG plans. The universe pointed and laughed.

Buffalo Theatre District
Buffalo Theatre District

When I first heard that the BibRave Pro Team members would have the opportunity to run Buffalo, I figured I would run the half marathon. The half marathon is my “safe” spot, a distance I have done many times (like 80), and knew I could finish at around 3:00 even if the conditions are less than perfect, faster if I pushed myself. Then we had our first team call with race director Greg Weber. After enough jokes that the rest of the BibRave Pros were convinced I was going to get a pony, I was positive that I was going to run the full. I had a full already on calendar (Dopey Challenge) and plenty of time to train. Game. On.

I didn’t exactly run the marathon I’d planned at Disney World, in part due to my inability to plan ahead (read: failure to submit proof of time so I got placed in the last corral). Sure, I got to take plenty of pictures and I finished, but the “balloon ladies” got MUCH closer than I’d planned on. Whatever, I was tired, and by then I had signed up to run the Sedona Marathon for the BibRave Pro Team.

As you may have read–or can go read now–the Sedona Marathon didn’t go as planned either. (Something about how I live at about 10′ above sea level.) I took a little time off to rest my poor lungs, made a training plan on the ASICS running website, and endeavoured to plow forward. If I just followed that plan, I could break 6:00 (my goal, since the finish line deconstruction happened then). Onward!

This time, the universe cackled.

The Universe? Had a different plan.

After Sedona, every long run left with me really sore hips. Both sides. Work took me to places where running was a questionable idea. Eventually I was back to running, mostly well, just with somewhat sore hips after long runs, and I thought that a flat course might be reasonably do-able. After running Revel Mt. Charleston I developed a crazy knot in the spot at my glute-hamstring tie-in. (Turns out I needed my chiropractor to reset my pelvis; it had canted such that my left hip–the one that was trying to kill me–was pressed forward and higher than the right one. Trust me, it was super muy no bueno, and I was kicking myself for not finding a way to get to the chiropractor earlier.) Not much running happened. I looked into dropping down to the half–the glute-hamstring tie-in was quite painful still–but I’d missed the deadline and actually not been injured until a few days afterwards.

Team RWB raises the flags at the starting line
Team RWB raises the flags at the starting line

The Race had a plan!

Then the pre-race emails started coming: Buffalo was expecting a heat wave. Since I’m a delicate little flower who comes from two long lines of pasty white people from very northern climes, this did not bode well for me. I packed more than one option–Mother Nature is fickle and loves to see runners arrived over/under dressed. I packed my Orange Mud single barrel hydraquiver so I could carry Nuun on the course (for a supplement to the race-provided hydration options), as well as an extra Buff (to dunk in water to assist with cooling by evaporation).

Heat so nice, they warned us twice
Heat so nice, they warned us twice

One of the pre-race emails was “Racing When It’s Warm/Hot” by Steve Gonser from runsmartonline. (Steve also gave the course preview, including course-specific tips on heat, during the pasta party.) On the 27th, all participants received an email with details on what the Buffalo Marathon heat plan included, again with tips specific to running in the heat. The heat plan included:

  • Contact with the weather service monitoring the predicted temperature pre-race
  • 6000 pounds of ice distributed throughout the course (in two formats: bags of ice intended for runners to take away in cups, and tubs of ice and water with washcloths to take away for cooling/evaporation)
  • Additional fluids distributed on the course, including an aid station every mile after the half marathon split
  • Mobile water delivery, including both trucks with bottled water and bicycle course monitors carrying bottled water.
  • Putting water supply trucks on standby to insure aid stations do not run out of water (because we’ve all been to a race where that happened, right?)
  • Adding gel and bananas to more locations on the course
  • Nurses at 7 aid stations
  • Cooling vans (air conditioned vans/buses for runners to take a little break and cool down, or sag out, if necessary)
  • Buffalo Fire Department opened some fire hydrants along the course, added more than the originally planned number of EMS stationed around the course, and added misters at the finish line
  • Rural Metro (the ambulance service) added more ambulance stations
  • Pre-race, Buffalo Marathon used the media to ask residents and businesses on the course turn on their sprinklers (so runners could use them to cool off)
  • The Buffalo Convention Center lowered the temperature inside the building to provide a post-race cooling zone.

Since running the 5k had given me a taste of what the heat was going to be like on the back half of the course, I was a little bit worried, but between the Buffalo Marathon’s preparations and my own experience with heat, hydration, and electrolyte balance, I crossed my fingers. Yes, I was injured and had a great “excuse” to drop out at any time, but I’m a little stubborn and didn’t want a DNF. (Besides, the medals were awesome.) Recommendations for runners, applicable to any hot race, included:

• Slow down. (Listen to your body, run conservatively.)
• Start the race well-hydrated. (Drink before the race, take fluids early and often during the race).
• Consider carrying a bottle. (Option to toss it at an aid station if it turns out you don’t need it.)
• Wear a hat. (Keeps sun off face/head; soak in water and add ice beneath at aid stations to cool.)
• Sunblock. (Sunburn taxes your body’s resources.)
• Chill out pre-race. (Stay horizontal and soak up the AC.)
• Know the warning signs. As the email said, “Heat exhaustion can be dangerous. If you feel dizzy, lightheaded or disoriented, stop running. Ask for help from a race volunteer who will help you to a medical tent.” (This communication included a link to signs of heat-related illness, which you may recalls I once wrote about on this blog.)
• Carry salt packets and/or drink Gatorade. (Sweat depletes electrolytes.)
• Stay positive. Visualize success.

As a side note, what constitutes a “heat wave” for running purposes depends on the location of the run and the typical experience of a high percentage of the pool of runners. Several races in the Northeastern states were black-flagged or cancelled pre-race due to the heat. These are tough decisions made by race directors in consultation with local EMS, water, and other authorities. What is normal for one location may be a potential disaster for another. I was really disappointed after the weekend to see runners talking smack about the choices some races made. Sure, maybe YOU are used to running in 90+ degree temperatures in full sun, maybe that wouldn’t be cause to shut down a race in Atlanta, or Houston, or Phoenix, but it’s not normal for most of the rest of the country.

Any idea how this flat runner thing got started?
Any idea how this flat runner thing got started?

A woman, The Universe, The Race, and the plan.

On race morning I suited up and headed out to the starting line. There were exactly zero people complaining that the race started at 6:30 a.m., and I was actually wishing we started an hour earlier since there was no pre-race chill. First we covered some of the same road as the 5k, which was partially shaded by trees and dotted with old brick buildings. The next section was through a gorgeous neighborhood with a lush green boulevard/park in the center of the street. There were a ton of families out, some with their sprinklers on and turned towards the streets. It was only mile 3ish at that point, but the sprinklers felt good. Despite the abundance of cute dogs, I knew I was going to slow down substantially on the back half of the course so I didn’t stop. I stuck as strictly as possible to 1-1 run-walk intervals and tried to cover as much ground as possible.

Running through one of the beautiful Buffalo neighborhoods in the first half of the half
Running through one of the beautiful Buffalo neighborhoods in the first half of the half

The course headed back through the downtown area, and then west through another residential area. I think it was around mile 6 or 7  when I was offered my first cup of ice, which I split 50-50 between my mouth and my sports bra. Just before we headed down to Lake Erie we passed by what I assume was a condo association or planned community, where they had recently laid down cedar shavings/bark on the landscaping. It was exceptionally stinky, and I could feel the heat and wet coming off of the adjacent lawns.

Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park
Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park

Running along Lake Erie let me see the Buffalo waterfront from a different perspective than canalside (at least until we ran up to that point). As we ran through the marina area, various landscaping sprinklers had been adjusted to mist up and out away from the lawns and onto the runners. At this point I was still feeling pretty good and pacing a 6:00ish marathon.

This ones not a bison, but a Buffalove!
This ones not a bison, but a Buffalove!

After passing through canalside, I got to say hi to Mr. Horton again on my way to the hockey arena. Dad had gotten up and taking the trolley down to that area to say hello as I ran through. By that point I had passed mile 11, it was past 8:00ish so the sun was up and shining, and the next stretch had no shade. A small section of the pavement was a bit torn up, so I proceeded carefully around that block, past The Buffalo News, and back over to say hi to Dad again before aiming for central downtown once more.

The real Tim Horton. Thanks for the coffee and donuts!

The mile 13 marker was mentally challenging. The vast majority of the people around me turned to take the half marathon finish, and I could hear all the cheering and crowds as I ran through. Crowds of folks with finisher medals were heading back to their hotels as I ran around the back side of the Convention Center and headed up to Linwood Avenue. I started to encounter the soft-re-opening of the course, and at one point was the only runner in my sight for at least three blocks. I could feel my pace starting to slow and while mentally I was pushing to keep the run intervals as fast as possible I was trying to balance that with the desire to not burn out before mile 16. I stopped briefly at every aid station to drink something, grab ice, splash water on my body, and refill my Nuun (the tube fits neatly into the slim pockets on the back of the Orange Mud).

I plodded onward along the Forest Lawn Cemetery boundary, and kinda wished the race ran through it. (I love cemeteries. They are some amazing green spaces and hold a crazy amount of history.) As I turned into Delaware park I stopped to pet the first dog of the day before tackling the loop around the golf course. About a half mile in, I saw a few other runners. Aha! Future road kill! I was going to pass someone!

Wherein one of us abandons the plan.

I pulled up alongside this runner and determined she was in the marathon. (There were some extraneous walkers/runners in the park as well.) She seemed overheated, so I gave her the rest of my ice, and then some tips on where to put it/how to use it (since thirst was not the issue). I pulled ahead a little bit for a short time, and then hit the back side of the park where there was a mini-aid station with bottled water and snacks where she caught up with me again. We started away from the aid station together. I’m going to call this runner “Vanessa” (that is not her name). She asked if she could “try to keep up” with me and as soon as I learned this was her very first marathon and she was by herself, any plan I had for my finish time evaporated. I thought about my Marathon Maniac angel Dexter, who pushed me through the last lap of the New Year’s Double Marathon in the cold and wet, and there was pretty much no choice but to pay it forward.

As we wound through the neighborhood behind the park, Vanessa and I got to know each other. This was her first marathon and she had trained for it, but heat wasn’t her jam either. She had finished multiple other races, including some half marathons. Vanessa raised two fine kids as a mostly single mom after growing her self-esteem and booting her now-ex-husband. (I know they are fine kids because Vanessa bragged on them a little, but also because she was a great human and so she must have pretty fine kids too.) Neighbors left sprinklers out for us to run through, and one guy was outside of his house with a table of oranges and other snacks, as well as a hose to spray us down. We grabbed ice at every opportunity. I poked Vanessa to carry a bottle and sip from it every now and then even though she didn’t “feel thirsty.”

Buffalo is filled with interesting details
Buffalo is filled with interesting details

After we exited the park, there was a tricky stretch towards Buffalo State College and down to mile 22. Every half mile or so, I’d convince Vanessa to take a “run break” (which is like a “walk break” but running). While she had definitely put in the miles and stuck to her training plan MUCH more faithfully than I had, there were many things she didn’t know about running that I had learned as much by trial-and-error as by exercising my extremely nerdy streak. Vanessa encouraged me to keep yapping to distract her from the pain–if you’ve made it as far as mile 20, you know what we were feeling there. When I ran out of running topics, I told her all about my cat. (Yes, I’m THAT runner.)

By this point the trucks had come to sweep the course, take down the aid stations, and re-open the roads to traffic. Multiple vehicles–including an ambulance–slow-followed us and called out to make sure we were okay, ask if we needed more water, and make sure we understood we were being officially moved to the sidewalks. It was pretty awesome course support, since at that point the race organization was 100% within rights to sweep us to a DNF. Vanessa was starting to dog it a little bit and I as my own dogs were barking (the sprinklers felt great on my body, but had soaked my shoes and socks) and hatching blisters. I promised her that she was crossing that finish line if I had to drag, pull, or push her over it. Vanessa steeled her nerves and dug deep, and we pressed forward.

Wherein the three of us hatch a New Plan.

Down Bidwell, onto Richmond, we started to pass some outdoor parties (it was, after all, Memorial Day weekend). Each time we passed a party people would clap and say encouraging things, and I’d bust out with “FIRST TIME MARATHONER! KICKING BUTT!!” and point to Vanessa. While she got a little shy whenever I did that, she also got a little more confident in her forward strides, so I hammed it up big time. Our running breaks got shorter but more frequent.

By this point there were zero directional signs left (though there were some cups of water left on tables at what was left of the aid station, and we had plenty of fluids with us). I whipped out my iPhone, low on battery from streaming Rock My Run tunes but still alive, to check the course. A few more blocks, and then to North. I may have lied slightly about how much course was left to go…and I didn’t stop at the Humane Society picnic in the park even though it was chock full o’ cute doggies. Around this point we came across another runner. Her name was not Jennifer. Vanessa and I introduced ourselves and the three of us continued to inch towards the finish line.

Jennifer was also running her first marathon. Unlike Vanessa, she hadn’t run a full training plan. As Jennifer explained it, the whole thing was her boyfriend’s idea. He read about the Buffalo Marathon, decided to do it, and enlisted Jennifer to help. (Note: said boyfriend was NOWHERE to be seen until after we crossed the finish line!) The way she tells it, they went out and ran 15 miles and that felt pretty good, so they showed up at the starting line. The three of us brainstormed what Jennifer should ask the boyfriend to do as payback and continued to take run-breaks.

Brick construction, showing evidence of past additions and deletions
Brick construction, showing evidence of past additions and deletions

Around mile 25.5ish, Vanessa’s triathlete friends appeared on a corner. Vanessa hadn’t wanted to “ruin” any of their races, and encouraged them to go forth and kill it, which I suspect they all did because they were wearing medals. They offered to carry all of her gear, handed her a cold water bottle, and otherwise did all the good things.

I knew we were close, and I started to push the trio faster and closer to that finish line. Jennifer started to wonder if there would even BE a finish line, as official course time was 6 hours and we were well into the seventh hour. She was honestly a little worried that there wouldn’t be anyone there to give her a medal. Since I knew how much Greg Weber, the Race Director, was invested in making this race a runner’s race, I promised both Jennifer and Vanessa that if we got to the end and there were no medals, I would personally call up Greg and ask to get them medals.

We hit Niagara Square and the 26 mile point. I was hot and disgustingly sweaty and tired, but I was so incredibly proud of how hard Vanessa was pushing herself to finish, and the dedication Jennifer had to persevere even though the boyfriend was MIA.  We navigated around the roundabout (Niagara “Square” isn’t very square) and turned on to Court Street. I knew there was just one more turn to go.

Just before we came to Franklin Street I yelled to Jennifer and Vanessa that there was just half a block left to go, and they’d better run the instant we turned that corner. As the three of us turned on to Franklin I dropped back and yelled, “Go! Go! You’ve got this! Run! Finish strong!” and chased them to the finish line. Or rather where the finish line used to be. The last portion of the barricades were still up, though the finish line itself had been disassembled for about an hour.

Eyes on this prize!
Eyes on this prize!

Volunteers were waiting with medals and bottled water. Jennifer’s boyfriend appeared and I laughed a little inside as I thought about our semi-delirious race-brain suggestions for how she should exact her revenge. Vanessa’s friends were waiting for her, cheering up a storm and patting her on the back. Due to some minor glitch in the tracking program, Dad wasn’t at the finish line yet, but John (my Runner of a Certain Age co-host) was headed in my direction. I turned around in time to see Vanessa burst into tears, and I was so happy for her that I had to choke back a few myself. She ran over to give me a big hug. “Thank you,” cry hug cry, “thank you SO much!” Aw shucks. I didn’t even do half as good a job as Dexter did when he pushed me to that finish line. “YOU did it,” I whispered, “it was ALL. YOU.” I gave her a big squeeze, hoping that through a hug she could feel how proud I was that she kept on going and finished what she started.

(Almost) The End.

Vanessa’s friends spirited her away, and I’m really hoping Jennifer was chewing out her boyfriend for his incredibly stupid idea. Dad, who had sensibly only run the 5k (I say that because one, he wasn’t trained up to run even a half, and two, his wife Ellen would have killed me if I’d let him join me for the marathon, which thankfully was sold out when he went to register) was running down the street to meet up with me.

I chugged water. I hugged Dad, who is my hero, always. I admired the beautiful Buffalo Marathon finisher medal. Note that at that point, the finisher party was still raging on inside the Convention Center (which I know because I watched video of the final finishers an hour or so behind us), but I looked around and saw nothing outside, and just wanted to hang out with my Dad.  It wasn’t until I saw the videos several hours later that I was like, wait, I missed the party?

I earned this one. Is it ironic that it is long-sleeved?
I earned this one. Is it ironic that it is long-sleeved?

(The final night and day in #Buffalove Part 3. Also, free coffee.)