Go Far, Go Fast: 2015 Fargo Marathon (State #43)

You’ve got this dude, I said aloud, while passing Fargo’s cheery crowd
The weather perfect, cold and dry, these early miles were speeding by
The course was flat, all hills forgot, they asked for speed and it was brought
The feat before, I rose to meet her; with race and thoughts in prose and meter

The day is yours, go for it Dan, you owe it to your training plan
Keep going strong until the coda, and scorch the field at North Dakota
As I began accelerating, my voice was loud and motivating
My twenty-ninth attempt at this, a short point two and twenty-six.

For the first time, I was participating in a race that started indoors. A time normally reserved for breathing warm air into cupped hands and feeling my hamstrings shiver, I was comfortably strolling around the climate-controlled Fargodome. The facility normally plays host to North Dakota State University football games and concerts but on May 9, it was the staging area for the 2015 Fargo Marathon.

(left to right): Joe, Ryan, me

(left to right): Joe, Ryan, me

It didn’t take me long to realize the clout this race has in the racing world. Aside from a movie by the Coen brothers, Fargo is mostly a forgettable city in a state with few claims to fame. However, the city’s titular race had gotten rave reviews from the running blogosphere and as I walked down the bleachers, I saw the legendary Deena Kastor talking cheerily with runners. She wasn’t the only celebrity I would run into. As I reached the floor, about to enter the starters chute, I was approached by an older gentleman.

“Excuse me,” he asked, “where’d you get that shirt?” He was referring to the bright RaceRaves shirt I had worn at my last fast race.
“I’m friends with the guy who started the site.”
“Mike?”
“That’s the one.”

He introduced himself as Wally, who met Mike (of RaceRaves and Blisters, Cramps & Heaves fame) at the 2013 Antarctica Marathon. Later in the race, I would also pass the indefatigable Larry Macon, who by now is probably on his 1,500th marathon. It seemed like this race regularly made many a diehard runner’s top 10 list, a quality which was not lost on the organizers, who quixotically sought to enlist Will Ferrell to run this year with an insistent #FerrellRunFargo Twitter campaign. The fact that his most recent marathon was the 2003 Boston Marathon hasn’t stopped many other organizations from trying to lure him to their events.

But the comic’s non-participation shouldn’t be interpreted as a smudge on this race’s reputation. With a marathon field of about 1,500 people, this wasn’t a small operation. Aid stations were spaced well, run by friendly volunteers and I was surprised to find pace groups of all speeds. I approached the pacer in charge of running my most ambitious time goal. He had a square jaw and a buzzcut, and was introducing himself to the eager runners around him. I told him my plan: to start behind and catch up to him. In the interim, I would join a slower group.

The interior of the Fargodome, 40 minutes before the start

The interior of the Fargodome, 40 minutes before the start

After hearing the national anthem of Canada (another first), the Star Spangled Banner and an overly long invocation, it was time to leave the Fargodome. The chill hit us all at once and I was instantly thankful for the disposable jacket I had bought earlier that morning. After about three miles of single-family residences, I reached an aid station and dropped it along with the pace group. It was time to catch the faster packs ahead. My thoughts raced in iambic tetrameter:

The pace was hot, but I felt fine, the groups ahead were all but mine
Not force nor haste would I deny, my confidence at all time highs
I tapered well, felt fresh and rested, ‘twas time to take this plan and test it,
I logged the miles, fast, slow and plenty, all thanks to wondrous 80/20

I had spent the last three months working with the 80/20 training philosophy. It basically states that you should only run about 20% of your training miles at a moderate to high intensity level. This meant that the vast majority of my monthly mileage was run at a sustainable, conversational level. The idea is that most runners run most of their miles in a danger zone — too fast to be slow, too slow to be fast — and therefore risk burnout or injury. Additionally, it means they show up to the starting line tired. The biggest challenge of this program for me was mental. With so many runs finished at a low intensity, it was challenging to simply believe that I was improving. I did so little of it at that breakneck, gutbusting pace that it was easy for my workouts and overall strategy to feel lazy. But then when it was time to run fast, I suddenly could. Almost like magic.

The course was flat, as advertised. But Fargo is very residential and it wasn’t long before every stretch of road began to blend together, as if I were living the same block over and over. Spectators, though rarely in dense clumps of supportive cheers, were always around, usually on their own driveways. I had heard rave reviews about this race, likely inspired by the incredibly friendly welcome the residents of Fargo give to runners. But I wasn’t out to read every funny sign or high-five every child bundled up in winter coats. I was there to run fast.

2015 Fargo Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2015 Fargo Marathon Google Earth Rendering

I soon learned that the course suffered from a slight bipolar disorder. It would drag on, unwavering for miles like an arrow, and then suddenly become a windy, undulating noodle as it would snake through parks on bike paths. These changes allowed me to focus on something else besides running. I had passed two more pace groups and my target pack was about a minute ahead. I’ve never run well as part of a pack, so I opted instead to reel them in imperceptibly. They were the carrot that would pull me through the rest of the race. The stick would be the promise I made to my friends the night before: that I would take any two shots of their choosing if I failed to PR.

“Looking good, Larry!” I said as I passed the famous serial marathoner in his blue and yellow Marathon Maniacs shirt.
“Thanks!” he replied.
“Keep having fun!”
“Yeah!” he snarled, “That’s it!”

Once out of the parks, we ran around a quad in Moorhead State University after the first of four out-and-backs. The atmosphere was electric as hundreds of red-clad Dragons had come out to cheer in full force beneath a green and pink canopy. It was short-lived, but the short detour was buzzing with excitement and support. We continued through the blooming greens of Concordia College’s campus before entering Gooseberry Mound Park. After two hook-shaped out-and-backs, we were done with parks and back into the hypnotic sprawl of homes. My legs were slamming against the asphalt in shoes that had never gone past eight miles, so my toes were already pretty mangled. But my lungs were working, and I was staying strong, relying completely on feel and the urge to keep that fleet pack of runners within reach.

2015 Fargo Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2015 Fargo Marathon Google Earth Rendering

I had been trailing a gentleman with a red cap and a blue 100-Marathon North America singlet, who I will call Century. As I reeled in that pace group, I pulled up even with him.

“Guess we’re the tail now huh,” Century said.
“What do you mean?”
“Every pace group has a few people right behind, like the tail of a comet.”
“Sounds right.”

I didn’t meditate on the celestial metaphor at the time as I was too busy trying to catch the nucleus. In most races, the tail of the comet is reserved for the chase pack, for the runners who couldn’t keep up and were slowly watching their hopes and dreams recede into the horizon. I soon learned that, like me, Century was unwilling to stay in the tail, so we teamed up to meet the group once and for all.

Two hours gone, with Cen’try nigh, we galloped hard and caught the guy
With Buzzcut hair and bright blue sign, whose numbers I would soon make mine,
We patiently fulfilled the chore, the tail had reached the icy core
To stay or pass, I’d have to choose, what else but time had I to lose?

“It took me eighteen miles,” I said between heaves to Buzzcut as I pulled up alongside him, “but I finally caught you.”
“Well done!” he said. “We’re at pace, maybe a little faster. Glad to have you with us!” I briefly looked around to see who this “us” was, as he was down to one other person, having shed the pack in the last five miles.

fargo-marathon-google-earth-rendering-3

I could have stayed with him but I felt emboldened by my performance. I had run faster than him to catch up, so I felt compelled to keep going and pull away. There were still seven miles left, so it was too early for unchecked confidence. But adrenaline was at the helm and barking orders, so I kept pushing. I even had the gall to smile around mile 21.

Two miles later, that smile had faded. I stopped at an aid station to hydrate only to see Buzzcut and Century blow past me. I was unsure if they surged because they were behind pace or if I was flagging. In the middle of another nondescript stretch of residential road, I looked at my watch for the first time and saw that I was slipping. I was starting to lose my invincibility. At this point in the race, I am either just a few miles from imminent triumph or in the middle of an ugly collapse. Today, it was a little bit of both.

My legs were leaden, losing power, and just like that my thoughts turned sour;
The speed I had stopped climbing higher, perhaps I missed a 20-miler
I blamed the flight of yesterday, for crushing me in on’rous ways,
Or was it tape’ring far too long, that made a dream of running strong?

Lone marathoner in the chute

Lone marathoner in the chute

I kept Buzzcut and Century in my sights. I could have kicked and caught them but I knew I would dig my own grave in the process. So I kept my new pace as we ran through Fargo’s historic district, passing the art deco theater whose large, green sign was the inspiration for this year’s medal. It was also a welcome change from the infinite corridor of homes. I was less thankful for the dwindling energy, which was forcing me to watch my rabbits pull farther away. Another mile later, I was struggling to keep my head up, but I refused to relent. There was one last out-and-back to conquer through North Dakota State University. A few familiar runners had caught up to me, each one tossing a fistful of coal into the engine, breathing new life into my stride. I saw Buzzcut and Century running the back portion on the opposite side of the street. Though I was feeling the pull of the finish line, there was no chance of catching them.

I reached mile 25 and engaged the afterburners, picking it up for the compulsory strong finish. I approached the Fargodome only to find that I had to run partially around it before finishing. I pulled up alongside the half marathon walkers and pumped my arms, fighting for every second gained. Just beyond the barricades and spectators, I could hear the muffled echo of the finish line announcer. Every part of me was tense and begging for reprieve, from my shoulders to my toes. But as I was funneled into the arena entrance and heard the announcer loudly congratulate Buzzcut on his pacing duties, I surged.

I stomped the ground, my legs a hammer; lunging for the finish banner
Miles behind me, long and plenty, conquered thanks to 80/20
Arms aloft, the goal achieved, my time in Fargo took the lead
My legs and lungs survived the test, with 3:16 my per’snal best

Finishers!

Finishers!

I gave Century a proud fist-bump when I encountered him just past the finish line. With a large tower-shaped medal resting on my chest, I quickly found my friends Ryan and Joe (“No shots for me today, boys!”), who had finished the half marathon an hour earlier. It was Ryan’s third half, after running Shiprock and Indianapolis with me last year. However, it was Joe’s debut at the distance, which he crushed to the tune of 2:04. He hosted me three years ago when I ran Grandma’s. This time, he played the roles of host and participant because, in his words, Ryan and I are terrible influences. With the race behind us, it was time to drive back to Minneapolis for some burgers at Blue Door and beers at Nye’s.

The 2015 medal is modeled after the vertical sign of the historic Fargo Theater

The 2015 medal is modeled after the vertical sign of the historic Fargo Theater

As you might imagine, I was pretty proud of myself. In fact, I was elated, but for reasons far beyond the thrill of having a brand new personal best. This was another quantum leap in training. My last two marathon PRs had improved my times by tiny margins between one and two minutes. This time, not only had I knocked six minutes off my best, but I had done it with a training program that I had found counterintuitive and even lazy. It was as if I had a huge test, and I only studied once a week in short, frenzied bursts instead of spending long hours at the library. But if the last two months of race performances have been any indication, maybe this oddball strategy is working for me.

The road to a Boston Qualifying time won’t be easy. The bridge between my current abilities and a 3:04 is twice my improvement from this race. It’s still an intimidating chasm that I’m facing, the preparation for which will likely dominate my summer. But Fargo has shown that I’m faster than I think, that I might be doing something right, and that a BQ might someday be a reality. It has slightly bridged that impassable gap, created a ledge on that insurmountable peak. In other words:

I once felt Boston out of reach; that yearly ritual runners preach,
Made for the fleeter-footed type, was not for me, my legs weren’t right,
But now I have a different view, conducive to a fast BQ
Though now I rest, Berlin is near, my task ahead made now quite clear.

Marathon_Map 056 (ND)

The Silliness of the Long Distance Runner’s Log

A paen for a thousand little tabs

I wrote down my first ever training run on March 3, 2009. I had been running by then, but was committing the now unforgivable sin of not capturing every possible metric and incorporating it into an elephantine Excel spreadsheet. I had run a 5K and then an 8K successfully, but all the miles leading up to them were lost to memory. Back then running was new and primal – it simply meant putting on running shoes and wandering around the neighborhood or stomping on a treadmill at a brisk pace until I felt out of breath. The infamous pheidippides insectus had not yet bitten me, and I was not yet consumed by that perennial drive to run forever, a malady partially soothed by bibs, safety pins and paper cups.

That was six years ago. Since then, a lot has happened, and I won’t bore anyone with actual numbers. Those aren’t interesting. What fascinates me is far sillier.

I would guess that the vast majority of us, the diehard runners who also write about their experiences, must have a running log of sorts. We plan meticulously for races, train according to experience or with the advice of experts, and benchmark our own personal bests when looking ahead to the next challenge. I can imagine that it would be pretty difficult to do any of this without relying on historical data. Memory serves me well for many things, like my individual PRs, when I ran them and who was with me, but I can’t keep the minutiae of six years’ worth of training straight without forgetting algebra, the lyrics to “Semi-Charmed Life” or the box office grosses of every movie made in the 90s.

A snapshot of my 2009 Training Program

A snapshot of my 2009 Training Program

Yes, the running log is crucial. It is responsible for that frustrating, but regrettably true apothegm, Splits or it didn’t happen. I could be completely dressed and ready to go, but if my Garmin doesn’t turn on, then we’re starting in an hour. It’s also why I tend to stay away from fun runs. No chip time, no run time.

As paramount as my running log is, it is also constantly changing.  My program from 2009 was blocky and lacked finesse, but it provided a suitable foundation. The following year, I prettied it up and added weather conditions to each run, along with limited split information. By 2011, it began to really take shape, with every single split added and a template for future weeks standardized. Future years saw minor improvements. I began tracking the mileage accrued on each pair of shoes, incorporated monthly goals, and began highlighting my hard efforts to make sure I wouldn’t overdo it.

Although it may sound like I’m shackled to it, bound by its prescribed runs, I still love it. Maybe it’s a kind of spreadsheet Stockholm syndrome, but I can’t help but love how it has changed over the years. It’s a veritable representation of my development as a runner. My successes, mistakes and adventurous forays into unknown territory are all documented, color-coded and sorted. I shudder to think at what I would do if I lost it – which is why I have it saved pretty much everywhere – because I hold it in the same regard as my personal journal or my trove of pictures from college.

A screenshot of my 2010 Training Program

A screenshot of my 2010 Training Program

All of this, of course, is absolutely ridiculous.  Running is running, regardless of whether it’s inked anywhere.  But for many of us, we have to admit, there’s something special about watching those numbers add up.  And where those numbers go is different for each person.

I have the usual tabs that you would expect: this year’s training program; a list of all my races, past and future, sorted by distance; the same list but sorted by date; and a calendar with every race I might someday race, no matter how distant, expensive or backbreaking.

Then there are those that might sound useful, but not vital to carry out a successful training plan. These include a list of every half marathon I’ve ever run, broken down by each individual mile; a similar breakdown for the marathon but with 5k splits; monthly stats that include how many miles I ran on a treadmill; and a list of my PR progression across distances over the years.

I’m pretty sure your average running nerd will have several of the above tabs in their log, in some shape or fashion. But again, what really interest me are the silliest tabs. The ones that I look at and wonder, why would I ever need this?  Why would anyone? And yet, I still keep and add to them because there’s no reason not to.

For example, I have a tab for the 10-day forecast for the 2011 Chicago Marathon, with the updated numbers as the date approached; a tab for the most popular races in the United States and how many people ran them between 2011 and 2013; one for just the Shamrock Shuffle, a race I’ve run seven times, and its five mile splits; a list of people and the races I’ve run with them (with Otter commanding an indomitable lead); and a matrix of unrealistically fast marathon times and their corresponding halves, based on a variable negative split.

A screenshot of my 2015 Training Program

A screenshot of my 2015 Training Program

Sure, they might serve incredibly specific purposes and have likely become obsolete, but these are the tabs that make my log mine. It’s already mind-blowing that for every runner there is a singularly unique log that he or she has lovingly tailored to meet their own demands. But each one of those probably has a similar set of needless tabs that separates it from everyone else and therein lies the true personality of each runner.

It might be a bit harsh to say that the oddities are what truly make us stand out. There are so many other qualities worth admiring or at least observing – tenacity, discipline and resilience come to mind. But as people, we’re drawn to the odd, the uncanny, the strange and ridiculous, for better or worse. The runner in a Darth Vader costume will raise more eyebrows than those around him; the brave speedster who runs in a singlet in freezing temperatures will certainly earn many admirers; and the lunatic who runs hundreds of miles across a desert will draw our attention.

And so I will continue to jot down my times on the ol’ log, each effortless keystroke representing a mile run. As the miles become data, they will continue spreading to the numerous tabs that make up the perennial work-in-progress, telling a story as ridiculous as the sport they represent.

Do you have an absurd running log? Are you completely beholden to it or do you use it more as a guide? What is your “silliest” tab or the weirdest race metric that you track? Do you not have a log and rely completely on memory or feel? Are you a wizard?

Gold Rush: 2015 Lost Dutchman Marathon

Legend tells of a rich gold mine, hidden deep in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona.  Supposedly discovered by Jacob Waltz in the mid-1800s, it is rumored to be full of Apache gold and many people have gone in search of the famous mine, but none have found it.  Several of these explorers, including treasure hunter Adolph Ruth, have paid the ultimate price for their curiosity.  What everyone soon learns is that the tale and location of the mine itself have changed so much over the years, that it’s almost a myth that people tell around campfires.

0215_lostdutchman 07It was around these campfires in the shadow of mountains and cacti that I found myself on a cool Sunday morning.  The organizers of the Lost Dutchman Marathon had arranged various starter logs in a grid with blankets on either side and runners were huddled around each one, keeping warm and exchanging stories of their own lost mines.  I sat with Nolan, a friend from middle school, and three people we had just met around the crackling flames.  There was Carl, a scraggly ultra runner in a button-up shirt whose running resume included 100ks and 100-milers but oddly only one marathon; Angela, a svelte blonde who had run a 50k the day before and was training for the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run; and Laura, who was wrapped a Mylar blanket and ready to run her 107th marathon.  I later learned that she holds the record as the youngest woman to run a marathon in all 50 states and is the youngest member of the 100 Marathon Club. 

In such esteemed company, my own running exploits were amateur at best.

Mile 0 - On the Peralta trail, ready to go

Mile 0 – On the Peralta trail, ready to go

Neither Nolan nor I had time goals, so we decided to attack the race conservatively.  I had only finished one long run since November and he was equally unprepared.  In fact, he had only started training for the marathon three weeks prior.  But that didn’t quell our enthusiasm, so we ran the first 10k of the race at a comfortable, conversational pace, even agreeing on the specific pace we wanted.

(left to right): me, Nolan, competing for biggest goon

(left to right): me, Nolan, competing for biggest goon

The race started just a few feet away from the campfires and wound through the Peralta Trail, a meandering crushed dirt and stone path about two lanes wide.  For six miles, our feet felt the raw crunch of loose dirt, the path beneath us lined with cacti and gorgeous views of the red Superstition Mountains.  Unfortunately, so early in the race, we were experiencing its most scenic views.  Once we left the serpentine Peralta Trail, we alternated between running on the shoulder of Highway 60 or through various neighborhoods. 

While I’ve always been partial to desert races and the Santa Fe architectural style, this part of the race wasn’t very special.  I told Nolan more than once that if none of these neighborhoods existed, or if the paved asphalt were replaced with an unkempt dirt path, this race would be almost magical.  It didn’t help that for much of this section, we were relegated to running in single file because the cones separating us from traffic were practically leaning off the road.  Passing runners meant either invading a lane with open vehicular traffic or going off-road and kicking up scree.

Mile 2 - The cactus gates beckon

Mile 2 – The cactus gates beckon

We continued the race with even splits, reeling in runners and slowly passing them.  I was wearing a tech shirt with the Superman logo emblazoned on it, which meant a reliable series of “Go Superman!” at every aid station.  I made a few quips about how my paper cup of lemon-lime Gatorade looked like kryptonite, much to the amusement of the old ladies who handed it to me.  Around halfway, we were met with several uphills, which he climbed with exuberance while I quietly groaned.  He lives and trains in Atlanta, so he was far more used to elevation change than this Chicago resident.

Mile 7 - Back to paved roads

Mile 7 – Back to paved roads

“Thank god for these clouds,” he said, more than once.  Though it was a bit warmer than southern Arizona typically gets in February, a vast blanket of clouds had covered the sun for most of the morning.  That meant we were barely sweating, ticking off the miles at a manageable pace.  However, we were fast approaching the 16th mile, that dreaded marker that heralded the farthest we had run in preparation for this race.

We held on but the early signs of fatigue were plain.  Sometime around mile 18, Nolan said he was starting to get in the weeds.  Undeterred, I kept the pace, pulling him with me.  We weren’t shoulder to shoulder anymore, but I could hear him behind me, listening to either an NPR podcast or crude hip-hop.  But shortly after, as we ran through a terra cotta subdivision in the race’s only out-and-back section, I stopped hearing the plod of his footsteps behind me.  I took a quick picture break and he caught up, just in time for a downhill.

“After this downhill, we’ll be back on target pace,” I yelled over my shoulder.
“It’s all you man, just go ahead,” he replied.

Mile 15 - There's gold in these hills

Mile 15 – There’s gold in these hills

And so I did.  Aided by the slight downhill, I turned on the afterburners.  I left marathoners behind me as my breathing picked up and I chased the burnt orange horizon.  I knew I was relying far too much on muscle memory, but things were going better than expected and it felt great to pump my arms.  But with so few people running the marathon, I soon found myself with no one to chase.  And then at mile 22, the clouds were banished and the sun came out to lick the landscape.

Just like that, I couldn’t keep up the pace.  The sun weighed on me, like an iron pushing down on my back, and I began to lose steam.  Aid stations became walking breaks and I began to pour water down my back to keep cool.  The long stretches of road felt interminable, with each new block looking exactly like the one before, as if I were running in circles.  I wasn’t alone in my slowdown, as nobody was passing me.  In fact, no one was even around, ahead or behind.  It was just me, the road, and the sun.

Mile 19 - Blocky, Santa Fe houses in the background

Mile 19 – Running through neighborhoods

I reached mile 24 to behold a cartoonish gateway made to look like a brick wall.  It was supposed to symbolize runners breaking through that demoralizing moment in most long-distance races where you lose all energy and everything hurts.  Honestly, I think it was a little late, as I had been sputtering for a good two miles by then.  And so late in the race, this quirky monument was more of a taunt than a motivator.  But if it seemed like all hope of finishing strong had died like the embers of a campfire, it was rekindled just eight minutes later.

Right at mile 25, I stopped at an aid station for my last swig of Gatorade.  During this break, two marathoners passed me.  One was a tall gentleman in a neon yellow RunLab singlet, the other a young brunette in a turquoise Ragnar t-shirt.  They seemed to be running the same pace, but I didn’t know if they were running together.  But the mere fact that they had been the only people to pass me lit a fire under my feet and I gave chase.

Mile 24 - The "wall"

Mile 24 – The “wall”

There was one tiny hill left to crest before we cut off the main road and toward the Rodeo Grounds where the finish line awaited us.  I kept RunLab and Ragnar in my sights, the three of us passing other marathoners and walkers.  The sun continued to burn us and the open desert provided no relief.  But we continued, my pace only slightly faster than theirs as I brought them closer and closer.  The next burst of speed was imminent until I heard a familiar voice from the side of the road.

“Vamos ticos!”

Ha, I thought.  That guy looks a lot like uncle Jim.  Wait, what the hell, that is Jim.  And Scott.  Huh?

“What in the hell?” I yelled with a smile as I high-fived them.  “What are you guys doing here?”
“We ran the half,” Jim said.  “Stephanie told us you were here this morning.”
“Nope!” I said, continuing to the finish, “You can’t be real, I must be hallucinating!”

Finish - Nolan (right) crosses the timing mats with Carl (left)

Finish – Nolan (right) crosses the timing mats with the dapper Carl (left)

My first thought, which is perhaps a bit narcissistic, was that they were here to surprise me.  But it turns out it was just a crazy coincidence, made possible because we had all kept mum about our race schedules.  The half marathon was an out-and-back with a different start than the marathon, so there was no way to have seen them earlier.  I would have dwelled a little more on the likelihood, but I had prey to catch.

We turned into the Rodeo Grounds and saw the finishing banner in the distance.  Crowds had lined up against the barricades, like the dusty citizens of a small western town, ready to watch a duel at high noon.  By now I was within striking distance of RunLab and Ragnar.  All of our paces had picked up and we were aggressively running through the finishing chute.  I approached and squeezed between them, our shoulders just inches apart.

“Finish strong!” RunLab said to his friend.  “Don’t let this guy pass you!”

2015 Lost Dutchman Marathon Finisher's Medal

2015 Lost Dutchman Marathon Finisher’s Medal

Bad move, RunLab.  If you wanted “this guy” to run faster, that’s exactly what you had to say.  As Ragnar visibly picked up the pace to try and match mine, I let loose and stormed toward the finish line.  I rarely have a final kick in marathons, but this duel had given me a reason to surge.  Nobody passes me in the second half of a race, nobody.  Crossing the finishing mats in 3:41, I hobbled over to the metal barricades where I met up with Jim and Scott.  They each had great race experiences, with Scott notching a new PR and Jim finishing his first big race since recovering from two significant injuries last year.  It’s been a long, slow recovery for him, so the smile he boasted all day was much deserved.

Ten minutes later, Nolan crossed the finish line shoulder to shoulder with Carl.  He looked beat.  A thin layer of salt had dried on his face and his glazed eyes were fixated downward.  I knew that expression, so I avoided giving him a congratulatory slap on the back or inundating him with questions.  After walking it off and finding a patch of grass in the shade, he was back to his pre-race self.

I really appreciate that Nolan has now joined me in four out of fifty states.  I just wish I hadn’t dragged him to three unremarkable cities.  In 2012 we went to Birmingham and later Tulsa, and this weekend we spent time in a climate that reminded him all too much of a time in his life that he’d rather forget.  However, despite that, we had a great time chasing Jacob Waltz’s lost mine, reminiscing about really old times, and discussing the shadiness of local Atlanta dealings while playing a round of mini-golf.

(left to right) Scott, Jim, me, Nolan

(left to right) Scott, Jim, me, Nolan

Turns out all the fast people were in their 20s and 30s.  Surprise FIRST PLACE in M30-34!

Turns out all the fast people were in their 20s and 40s. Surprise FIRST PLACE in M30-34!

As for Jim and Scott, it was decided that we should keep closer tabs on our race schedules, though they’ve already kindly abstained from joining me in my next potential state, the sexy and alluring North Dakota.  Much further down the road though, it seems like they have a date with Berlin.  With any luck – and plenty of peer pressure – we may see Scott make the transition to 26.2 miles.  He’s been getting too comfortable with the half, which spells doom for any intentions of avoiding the full beast.

With Arizona now shaded in red, I’ve reached a new milestone: 25 marathon states.  And just like that, I’m halfway done with an undertaking I never thought possible.  Even when I came up with the project of running a half in all 50 states, when I was already logging hundreds of miles with relish, I wouldn’t have dreamed of pursuing a 50-states marathon quest.  But here I am, halfway there.  And the best part is, despite those painful miles where everything aches and you can feel your vitality escape with each hot breath, I’m still loving it.

Onwards!

Marathon_Map 055 (AZ)

Heat Down, Speed Up: 2015 Lifetime Miami Half Marathon

Vamos por el chifrijo! … Mae, dejastes tirado a tu compa! … Hay que ganarse los frijoles molidos!

20,000+ strong at the starting line

Mile 0: 20,000+ strong at the starting line

Every time I passed a Costa Rican runner, I’d blurt out some random tico chatter, usually about food.  At first, they’d respond and even ask me a question or two.  Towards the end, they’d simply smile and continue punching the air in front of them, battling the demons of pain and fatigue.

But though I was getting tired, demanding more of each lungful and feeling the harsh shock of pavement shoot through my legs and into my hips, I was giddy on the inside.  I hadn’t run farther than ten miles in the last three months and was far from peak condition.  Despite this deterioration, I was still committed to running the Miami Half Marathon for the fourth time, and there I was, cruising through the city at mile 12, feeling grateful that I wasn’t wincing with every forward leap.

left to right: José, me

left to right: José, me

If you’ve been following my running adventures for more than three years, then you’re probably tired of my Miami posts.  In fact, you probably didn’t even make it to this sentence without groaning, wondering why I can’t seem to avoid running this race year after year.  Miami is ostentatious, the traffic is often unbearable and the heat can be the worst if you don’t count Rick Scott, Marco Rubio or the state’s relentless push to disenfranchise minority voters.

But goddamn if the yearly Miami Marathon and Half Marathon isn’t one of my all-time favorite races.

There’s two levels to Miami’s allure.  The first is purely physical and will appeal to pretty much anyone.  The course, organization and production are all reflective of the city itself: beautiful, over the top, and infused with an indelible Latin flare that makes you want to dance.  There’s no denying the sound of thousands of jaws dropping as they crest the MacArthur Causeway to see purple cruise ships resting quietly on the ocean.  Fast forward a few miles and you’re zooming north on Ocean Drive past restaurants and classic hotels.  If you keep going, you’ll wind up returning to the mainland on the Venetian Causeway, where many bridges connect the thin islands that play host to some of the most gorgeous homes you’ll ever see.

Mile 5: Ocean Drive

Mile 5: Ocean Drive

Along the way, aid stations are packed with friendly volunteers, eager spectators and every single Latin American flag coloring your periphery.  Turquoise and terra cotta high-rise condos watch haughtily from the beachfront, reflecting the morning sun, and every manner of Spanish is heard from the sidewalk: vamos, vamos! … Dele, ya casi! … Eso campeones! …

Mile 8: Golf courses and palm trees

Mile 8: Golf courses and palm trees

But what really keeps me returning is that every year I’ve managed to use the race as a backdrop to strengthen my friendships.  I didn’t know my cousin was a diehard runner until she earned her first medal under urban palm trees.  The next year I visited a good college friend and met her husband, catching up on years of growing up.  Otter joined in 2012 and lived through a race experience better left unwritten, yet somehow fondly remembered.  Last year I ran an emotional race with my in-laws and raised money in memory of my uncle, taken too soon from us by brain cancer.

And this year I finally managed to run a half marathon with a friend from high school.  Though I’ve been lacing up for over six years now, it has mostly been interpreted as lunacy by my Costa Rican friends.  I’ve been totally fine with that, and have taken every single usted está enfermo as a compliment and point of pride.  But this year, my buddy José signed up for the half, either inspired by personal initiative or to silence the nagging voice of his good friend Solera, who had been pestering him for years to run the distance.  Back in high school, he was hands down the most athletic of my friends, having been a lifelong fútbol player.  Over the years, he had run several races from 5 to 10ks, including the backbreaking Cerros de Escazú trail run from 2013.  And though I had been joined by my friends Javier, Gabriel and Ricardo on the race circuit, they’d never run 13.1 miles.

Mile 10: Venetian Causeway

Mile 10: Venetian Causeway

“You’d better run under two hours,” I told José as we logged a short run along the Rickenbacker Causeway.  “I don’t want to hear that it was easy or that you finished relaxed.  Kill yourself out there.”

Mile 11: Toll Booth

Mile 11: Toll Booth

“No way, dude,” he chortled, knowing I was only half kidding.   “I’m going to take it easy and enjoy myself.”  He has a history of running races for fun, oblivious of his time, crossing the finish line happy and ready to eat.  But I decided to egg him on a bit and light the competitive fires that he harnesses when he works, plays fut or dukes it out on Smash Brothers.

“That’s actually smart,” I said, picking up the pace.  “You’ll definitely want to run another one if you have fun.  But honestly, if you wanted to, you could run under two hours easily.”

Two days later, I was standing by the American Airlines Arena, listening to the music booming off the speakers of the starting line, doing something I never thought I would do in Miami.  I was shivering.  The hordes of runners around me were joining the frenetic dance, especially the Latin Americans.  Truth be told, it was merely 53 degrees, a temperature also known as Running Perfection of Elysian Proportions, Climate Divine and Let’s Kill This Bitch.  But if you asked any of the thousands of Caribbean, Central and South Americans shaking in their corrals, for this party in the city, someone forgot to turn the heat on.

Mile 11.5: Cheer Zone

Mile 11.5: Cheer Zone

Normally I would have been ecstatic – 53 degrees, a flat half marathon and homemade meatballs in my stomach?  This course wouldn’t stand a chance.  But after last year’s injury (and this is the last time I will mention it, I swear), I slid far from my fighting condition.  So I figured, screw it, let’s do a fitness test.  Let’s run this thing without checking the Garmin.

Mile 13.1: Finish Line

Mile 13.1: Finish Line

As I reached the finish line, I picked up the pace, passing runners who began their sprint too early.  I crossed the familiar orange and blue finish line for the fifth time.  I stopped my Garmin and looked at it for the first time all day and saw 1:34:36, a Miami course record by almost six minutes.  Not too bad.

After grabbing my post-race goodies, I found a patch of sunlit grass by the charity tents.  I sat down and happily munched on a cookie while drinking a protein shake and waiting for José to finish.  Regardless of what his finishing time was, I really just wanted him to enjoy the experience.  I knew that nothing today would necessarily inspire him to embrace the sport like I have.  It’s been a long time since I came to terms with the rarity of my passion (though the blogging community does make me question whether we’re truly a rare bunch).  But if he at least had fun, maybe he could join me elsewhere and add himself to my select cadre of running friends.

0125_mediamiami 15I saw him emerge from the crowds, slightly dazed with a wan smile and his arms drooping at his side.  I went to congratulate him on his first half marathon and for killing expectations by running a 1:54 debut.  He was definitely tired, blistered and spent, but most importantly, he was happy.  We spent the next hour or so talking about the race, what he thought about it, funny or interesting moments that happened between start and finish.  He sounded like a kid after his first roller coaster, detailing every loop and corkscrew.  Perhaps I could convince him to run others, I thought.

“Dude, I realized that this is an excellent reason to travel and visit new places,” he said, with that curious timbre of someone realizing something meaningful and profound.  “But I don’t think I’ll ever run the full thing ever.”

I’ve heard that before.  Maybe I’ll see him join the ward sooner than I thought.

Qué bien que la paso con ustedes.  Nos vemos en Boston!

Qué bien que la paso con ustedes. Nos vemos en Boston!

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