I would like to say that I woke up when the alarm went off at 5:15, but the fact is I was already awake. I eluded the sweet arms of Morpheus most of the night. It is always that way for me the night before a marathon. It doesn't matter how confident or calm I am about the race, my body stages a pre-emptivie rebellion. I contract night sweats, typically soaking through 2 or 3 t-shirts before the night is through. Luckily, there is a reserve of adrenaline that helps get me through the next day.
(Morning of the marathon, ready to tackle the day...)
I made coffee and slammed down some oatmeal and bagels with peanut butter. In 30 minutes we were out the door, headed for the starting line. Though raining the day before, we were greeted by a clear blue sky and temperatures hovering in the mid to upper 50s.
When you turn the corner and see thousands of runners from all walks of life warming up and stretching, it begins to hit home. All of the miserable training runs in sub freezing weather, all of the sore muscles and strains, all of the time you put in, comes down to this one morning. And everyone else around you is thinking the same thing. As the minutes tick down to the gun, the energy swells to a euphoric level and you can't wait to get started. It is a pre-celebration of sorts, an acknowledgement of the work you did to get here and the anticipation of making it pay off.
There was a big party atmosphere at the New Orleans Marathon. In between inspiring pep talks from the emcee, loudspeakers blared upbeat music as we collectively went through our preparation rituals. The national anthem was performed Jimi Hendrix style by a local guitar slinger; this was the Rock-n-Roll Marathon afterall.
It took awhile, but the gun finally sounded and 15,000 runners began making their way along Charles St. and into the Garden District. We eventually circled back and ran along Decatur Street through the Quarter. Somewhere around mile 9 or 10, we veered left onto Esplanade and headed out to City Park. Those first 10 miles were by far the most enjoyable of the day, running by the majestic and quirky architecture that is New Orleans. Mardi Gras beads hung in clumps from the trees overhead like neon Spanish moss, a constant reminder that the party never ends here. Rock and roll bands, Dixieland brass jazz combos, cheerleaders, and costumed revelers cheered us on every mile and I found myself abandoning the iPod to more actively enjoy my surroundings.
A good portion of the rest of the race was spent out alongside Lake Pontchartrain. We faced a pretty good head wind going out, but benefitted to some degree when we turned and headed for home. I was well on the way to my best finish ever in a marathon when I suffered a setback. At mile 24, I suddenly felt faint and tingly. There was no question that I had to stop. So I walked for about 3 or 4 minutes, gradually picking up the pace until I was jogging again. By then I had lost the opportunity to beat my personal record. Fortunately, perspective allows you the grace to be happy to be finishing at all! I savored crossing the finish line and gladly accepted the finisher's medal.
After a long bus ride back to the starting line, Wes and I had a killer lunch at a pizza joint near the hotel. After you've expended thousands of calories, it's a different kind of hunger that hits you. It's ravenous and all consuming: "I am empty...I must be filled!" I love the license that running 26.2 miles gives you to eat anything and everything in sight. After a shower and icing my ankles down, I took Wes to the airport. Once back at the hotel, I set out to check off one other goal from my list.
New Orleans is famous for its mixed drinks. There is even a museum dedicated to the cocktail! One of the more mysterious and sometimes controversial drinks is called the Sazerac. Weeks ago, as I prepared for my trip to New Orleans, I read up on the history of this infamous concoction. After reading many reviews, I decided upon the proper bar--and bartender--to introduce me to this fine tradition. Luckily, the Bar Uncommon is nestled around the corner from my hotel. Just off the lobby in the Renaissance Hotel, it is small and unassuming. However, it has a reputation of serving up one of the best Sazeracs in New Orleans. The soft spoken bartender there walked me through the process of making a Sazerac, explaining every step as he went along. I may be off a little on some of the measurements, but this is as I remember it: First a glass is chilled with ice water. Another glass takes a dash of Peychaud's Bitters and 2 oz of simple syrup. Add 4 oz of rye whiskey. Add ice to the whiskey mixture and stir. Empty out the glass of ice water and coat the bottom and sides with a small amount of absinthe. Dump out the absinthe. Strain the iced whiskey mixture into the absinthe coated glass. Finally, shave off a section of lemon peel and squeeze a few drops of oil from the rind into the glass. The result is wonderful yet hard to describe. The simple syrup takes the edge off the whiskey and the lemon makes it a refreshing drink. Be careful though, it will sneak up on you. I can see the pitfalls if a Sazerac were not constructed properly.
After a long stroll around the Quarter, I got a call from Wes. He was stuck at the airport with no flights out. I picked him up and we hit an IHOP for a late dinner. He scheduled a taxi to pick him up at 4:30 in the morning and we eventually hit the hay around midnight.
The next morning was spent getting gifts in the Quarter for the wife and kid and soaking up the atmosphere for a last time. I had some amazing cafe au lait with chicory and the mandatory accompanying beignets at a little breakfast spot on Royal called Cafe Beignet. I saw some fellow runners (you can always peg marathoners by their funny walk the day after) and we chatted about our race experiences.
As I drove home, heading north through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee, I felt extremely fortunate for the experience I left behind in New Orleans. There was satisfaction in getting a 4th marathon under my belt, spending some time with an old friend, and enjoying a taste of the vibrant and engaging culture of America's most European city. There was also knowledge that at the end of the drive, I would finally find elusive Morpheus in the welcoming confines of my own bed.