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Sarah's Saga

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I posted the following on the RWOL Marathons Forum a couple of weeks after the 2005 MCM. The forum had been in an uproar the previous week concerning a number of charity runners who cut the course short in order to beat the 14th Street bridge closing and reach the finish line.


A Contrast To The 2005 MCM Charade.


After a week of this forum being dominated by the controversy concerning the unfortunate episode that occurred at this year's MCM, I thought some forumites might be interested in a more upbeat story of the quest of a RWOL forumite a few years ago to avoid that d*mned 14th Street Bridge cutoff time and the sweep bus....without cheating. It’s a story of how to do it right. And it doesn’t involve charity fund raising.


If a long, nostalgic running story from the past doesn’t interest you, then I suggest that you click on to someplace else because this is a saga! ;-)


1997 MCM.


It was the occasion of the very first RWOL FE.  The forums were much, much smaller then. The most popular forums were Masters, Beginners and Competitive (today’s High Performance).....there was no Marathons Forum. RWOL forumites were counted in the dozens, not the thousands. The total number of posts on any entire forum....even multiple forums....in a week was less than that of each day’s daily thread on this Marathons Forum! Everyone got to know everyone else very well, although no one had met anyone else face to face....until the 1997 MCM.


In the spring of 1997, two guys on the Masters Forum, MrBob and Dave the Brave, decided to simply meet for dinner the night before the 1997 MCM in October. Over the next few months, another 22 forumites crashed their party and expanded it to a 3-day weekend with a pizza/pasta party Friday night; an easy 2-3 mile run Saturday morning; a private Pentagon tour Saturday afternoon hosted by one of our group who worked there; hooking up with John Bingham’s Penguin pasta dinner Saturday night; a photo op at the race site's Carillon Sunday morning; oh, yeah, a little 26.2-mile race squeezed in there ;-); and a post-race party at a hotel where most of us spent the weekend together in Roslyn, VA just a half mile from the race s start/finish. We called the group teamrunnersworld.com. Amby Burfoot, editor of RW, arranged for a special singlet for the group, which we purchased at RW’s cost.


One of our teamrunnersworld.com group was an English woman named Sarah. She had been a couch potato for most of her life before starting to run about a year or so earlier to lose weight. She got caught up in the excitement on the forums of the MCM gathering, and decided to join us.....not a light decision for her since, in addition to it being her first marathon, it was her first trip outside of England and her first time to fly.....and she did it to spend a few days with a bunch of crazy “strangers”.


Sarah was well aware of the 14th Street Bridge cutoff, which was 5-hours (2 PM) at that time....we had discussed it extensively on the forums. She trained hard all summer and fall to “know” that she could manage to beat the cutoff. She had run 22 miles in training in a few minutes under 5 hours. Still, she was very nervous about making it simply because the venue was so different than her usual training environment. She was very concerned about failing and embarrassing herself.


I had run 13 marathons....none slower than 3:55. But I had run all of my marathons 8-15 years earlier and I was just a few months into my second running life after 6 years of little running. However, I knew that I was in 4:15 or better condition. I had set no MCM time goal for myself. I planned to just run it as a training run since my goal marathon for the year was Philly four weeks later. In fact, when pressed by fellow forumites for a goal, I simply said that I planned to run with the slowest member of our group. At the Friday night pizza party, MrBob, who knew that he wasn’t trained to go all the way and planned to drop out at the Key Bridge 7-miles into the race, suggested that I run with Sarah to help her get to the 14th Street Bridge before the cutoff. I agreed.


Bottom line....we didn’t make it. The race was delayed for 20 minutes because a spectator suffered a heart attack a few minutes before the scheduled race start....he subsequently died at the hospital....and the only clear road available for emergency vehicles to use was the one that the race was to start on. We learned later that MCM officials tried unsuccessfully to get the DC Transit Authority to extend the 14th Street Bridge cutoff by 20 minutes to compensate for the delayed start. However, professional football and soccer games were being held in DC that afternoon and they had to open the bridge as scheduled to handle the traffic. Thus, the 5-hour cutoff was reduced to 4 hours 40 minutes. Of course, none of the participants knew that until after the race was over....or until they reached the bridge between 4:40 and 5:00 after the start.


Sarah and I reached the bridge in 4:45. Thus, we missed the cutoff by 5 minutes and had to board the sweep bus. She was devastated. At our post race party, another forumite in our group, an Englishman named Mikey who lives in Canada and had helped Sarah to train for the race via email, presented her with his finishers medal. He made it clear that it was just a loan until she earned one of her own.


Sarah is a homemaker and part time journalist. To help pay for her trip to the 1997 MCM, she had an advance arrangement with the British edition of RW to write an essay of her internet-based  adventure ....remember, such a thing was quite unusual just eight years ago. Her essay was published as a “Women's Running” feature in the February, 1998 edition of the magazine. Anyone interested in her essay can find it at http://mysite.verizon.net/jim2wr/id102.html.


In her essay, Sarah said that, having failed at MCM, she planned to try again to finish her first marathon in London the following spring.....but that she also had  unfinished business in DC. She did complete the 1998 London Marathon. However, she also told us on the forums that she could not afford to return to MCM in 1998....we were already starting to organize another mega-FE....but would try to make it in 1999.


Meanwhile, without her knowledge, her many friends on the RWOL forums had been conducting a fund raising campaign via email during the winter of 1998 to bring her back to the 1998 MCM to complete her “unfinished business”. We pooled enough to pay for her airfare and a weekend at the Hyatt hotel in Roslyn, VA near the race site, with enough left over for her to do some shopping at the expo for running stuff that is terribly expensive in England.


We also had contacted the MCM race director, Marine Col. Paul Puckett, and explained to him what had happened and what we were doing. He offered two things....complimentary entry for Sarah to the 1998 MCM and women’s bib number 2!!! (Bib number 1 is reserved for the winner of the previous year’s race.)


That is unheard of! Low bib numbers are usually assigned to elite and other invited runners....certainly not to someone who has to work hard just to beat the bridge cutoff! He even arranged for his deputy race director (a Lt. Col. who’s name escapes me), who was scheduled to make a trip to England, to meet with Sarah in London and present the complimentary entry to her, which would officially make her an “invited runner”. Sarah knew nothing of any of this at that point. So, I told her before Col. Puckett’s assistant made the trip to England to make sure that she could actually come. She was overjoyed!


1998 MCM.


Our FE group, now known as the Bridgestormers at Sarah's suggestion, grew to more than 30 forumites from 24 the previous year. Everyone on the RWOL forums was anxious to see Sarah finish the race she had started a year earlier.


As an invited runner, Sarah got priority treatment at packet pickup. Lines were long....except for the 1-100 bib number line, which had no one in it. When she walked up to the young marine at the desk and asked for bib # 2, he said, “Oh, you're the one!” She got her packet in about 12 seconds. Then we went to my pickup line and spent 20 minutes in it. :-(


I ran with Sarah again. And it's a good thing that someone was with her, as you will see.


We didn’t make it....again! It was a hot day....in the 70s. Sarah had not run in temps warmer than the 50s all year....England had experienced an exceptionally cool summer. Plus, she had missed a lot of training due to nagging hip and ITB problems and had caught a cold upon arriving in the USA a few days earlier.


Halfway through the race, we were on time to beat the bridge cutoff, but she was beginning to work much harder than she should at that point and we were slowing rapidly. I told one of our Bridgestormers who was spectating at the 15-mile point that I was concerned that she was on the verge of hyperthermia. A mile later my fear was confirmed.


There was a water station and Marine field hospital alongside the path on the Mall approaching the Lincoln Memorial at mile 16. After passing through the water station, Sarah, who was running behind me, called out my name. I turned and caught her as she was going down. A passing runner went back to the water station for help. A couple of marines from the water station helped me get her to the field hospital. She spent the next half hour, most of which she doesn’t remember although she never completely passed out and continued to talk to the doctor and me, on a cot in the field hospital with an IV in her arm. Then, we got on the sweep bus....again.


Sarah was disappointed, but not devastated as she had been last year. The difference was that in 1997 an unfortunate race timing glitch denied her an opportunity to finish when she could have under the race and weather conditions that we had. OTOH, in 1998 she gave it all she had and just came up short due to the weather, which no one can control. She was mostly concerned for all those who had helped her to return for a second try. She was worried that they might feel let down. She resolved immediately to come back in 1999 and get it done!


Sarah is an excellent fiddler....she played for the Bridgestormers at all three of our annual pre-race Friday night pizza parties, as well as for a couple of the Penguin's Saturday night pasta dinners. (She also played for my wife and me in our home when she spent a couple of days with us before the 1998 MCM and explained/demonstrated more to me about folk music in a couple of hours than most people will appreciate in a lifetime!) Back in England during the winter of 1999, she organized a folk music trio and played gigs in the spring and summer throughout the Yorkshire area in England, where she lives, to earn the funds she needed to come back in 1999 for a third attempt at MCM.


1999 MCM.


For obvious reasons, we kept the name “Bridgestormers”. Our FE Bridgestormers group numbered 32 forumite participants and 48 cheerleaders (friends, family members and nonparticipating forumites) this year.


Incidentally, in both 1998 and 1999 I conducted a Bridgestormer singlet/T-shirt design contest on these forums during the spring/summer leading up to the event. The entries were judged by Amby Burfoot and his staff....the person who submitted the winning design received a free Bridgestormer T-shirt. I then had singlets/T-shirts made and Amby arranged for RW to pick up half the cost for both participants and cheerleaders. Also, in both 1998 and 1999 we repeated the same 3-day weekend routine that we had established in 1997.


To make a story that is already much too long a bit shorter and get to the punch line....yes, on this third attempt Sarah and I beat the 14th Street Bridge cutoff (which was 5 hours 15 minutes....or 2:15 PM....that year). We reached the bridge with 25 minutes to spare and finished the race.


We walked most of the way across the bridge and just savored the moment. We also walked a lot of the last few miles from the bridge to the finish because time didn’t matter at that point, but enjoying the euphoria of the moment did. But we ran up the Iwo Jima Memorial hill at the finish and “sprinted” across the finish line hand-in-hand. We had spent 2 years, 6 hours, 18 minutes and 48 seconds and run/walked a total of 63 miles to reach the finish line. But we did get there....and without cutting the course or starting early! Semper Fi!!!


At our post-race party back at the hotel, Sarah returned Mikey’s 1997 finisher’s medal that he had  loaned  to her two years earlier....as she proudly wore her own 1999 finisher’s medal that she had truly earned!