State 13: Michigan (2011 Traverse City State Bank Bayshore Marathon)

Despite my ever-growing collection of half marathon times and medals, my marathon experience remains limited.  I’ve only run two, both of them in Chicago.  My first was in 2009, after a perfectly mild summer that allowed for easy training.  The race itself was very cold, which I enjoyed.  I ran conservatively, lost all energy around mile 23 and though I was aiming for under 4 hours, I didn’t groan at my final time of 4:03:21.  In 2010, I upped the ante, training harder, faster and longer.  I went into the race with high hopes, my confidence practically leaking out of my ears.  But to my chagrin, temperatures spiked that weekend.  I started fast, lost all energy around mile 18, got cramps in both legs and ended up dragging myself across the finish line in 4:05:22.  It was slower than the year before, but I couldn’t call it a failure, especially when others’ times had suffered by more than just a scant two minutes.

But I still felt robbed.  I had put in the time and long runs necessary to dominate that marathon, but I came up short.

Otto-Pilot

Over two years before I attempted my first 26.2-mile run, everyone’s favorite anthropomorphic marine mammal ran the 2007 Traverse City State Bank Bayshore Marathon.  He also did not train for it and loathed the experience.  However, Otter still returned the next year in better shape, but still without having gone through what we would consider the typical hoops of marathon training.  Although he improved his time by almost an hour, he finished and thought, Never again, screw this.

Then, sometime over the last two years, something went off in his head.  I can’t accurately pinpoint when it happened, but he began to feel that sudden impulse, that nagging desire to race and collect bibs.  Maybe it was a motivation to improve his fitness; maybe racing was the carrot (or burger) at the end of a stick, keeping him focused.  Maybe it was that unmatched feeling of accomplishment when you cross the finish line, regardless of the distance.  But after I finished the Chicago Marathon in 2010, he told me he was going back to Traverse City for a third run.  And just like that, so was I.

The Grand Traverse Bay, with its many different colors

We drove out to northern Michigan on Friday morning, putting our Hyundai rental car on Otto-pilot and reaching the coastal town in five hours.  After some slight hiccups with hotel accommodations, which Otter details in his own recap, we settled in one of the seventy thousand motels the city had to offer.  Packet Pickup was at the Traverse City Central High School gym, where we met up with Otter’s college friend Luke and his wife Jamie.  Together with Jamie’s dad, we drove a few miles out of the city to eat dinner at Boone’s Long Lake Inn Restaurant, where we sat outside and breathed the crisp, Michigan air.

This is what the majority of the run looked like, but with fog, clouds and a few spectators here and there.

Race morning was chilly, but dry.  We had been tracking the forecast all week, paying particular attention to the indecisive showers that were looking to enter the area.  The night before, most websites were giving it a 50% chance of rain.  By the time we reached the starting line at Northwestern Michigan College, it had started to come down, though not badly.  Fortunately, it went away as runners took off towards the shore, leaving us with a cool mist and cloudy skies.

The race heads directly east, reaching Birchwood Avenue, a residential street right on the coast.  Birchwood eventually becomes East Shore Road, which merges into Center Road, then changes to Bluff Road North.  Basically, the course overlooked the Grand Traverse Bay the entire time, due north, showcasing picturesque houses and lots of trees the entire way.  It went 13.1 miles, turned around, and came back on the exact same path to the finish line at the college’s track.  I’m usually more descriptive of race courses, but there’s literally nothing else to say about it.  It was pretty, scenic and drenched in morning dew.

Scenic and pretty, but very unchanging.

I suppose this race was a test for me.  So far, the majority of my large races have all been in big cities, with plenty of distractions to take my focus off the distance.  Not this one.  It begged the question: do I actually enjoy running for its own sake?  Or am I just a victim of the bells and whistles that organizers ring around you, “tricking” you into paying to run?

I ran the first half at a controlled and restrained pace, reaching the half marathon mark in 1:52:10.  This was a bit slower than the first half of my 2010 Chicago time, but the breezy temperatures in the 50’s were keeping me stable and my energy stores were high.  But that’s the thing with the marathon distance – until you have run a handful of them, you have no idea how your body will behave in between miles 16 and 26.  There’s too much to consider – your overall fitness, taper plan, monthlong nutrition, hydration strategy and scores of other elements come together to either make or break your run.  Every time I would fantasize about getting a fast time, I would pull myself back down to reality and repeat the mantra: respect the distance.

But I was feeling too good at mile 15.  So I decided to take a bold risk and speed up.

The split-second moment where Otter PR'd

And it paid off.  This was the race where everything clicked.  Between miles 16 and 26, only two people passed me.  I kept accelerating, watching my overall pace on my Garmin decrease with every mile marker, every turn revealing more and more enervated runners who were on their way to hitting that dreaded wall.  At mile 23, there were more walkers than runners, with their hands resting dejectedly on their hips, muttering their own mantras to themselves to try and keep going.  But I kept my pace up, all fear of bonking having dissipated like the morning rain.  Mile 25 approached and my legs began to turn to lead, but I powered through.  It wasn’t until the 0.2-mile finale that several runners mustered up the energy to sprint towards the finish.  But I didn’t have to.  The clock read 3:40:59.  I had obliterated my marathon personal best by over 22 minutes and nothing, except maybe getting raptured at the last minute, could take that away.

I wasn’t the only one to PR, with Otter finishing in 4:34:54, lowering his marathon benchmark by about ten minutes.  With these accomplishments beating our chests in the shape of an impressively heavy medal, we left the post-race area and sought out a suitable burger joint.  After downing the North Peak Brewing Company’s signature burger and two of their craft ales, we went to Buffalo Wild Wings to watch FC Barcelona defeat Manchester United in the Champions League final.  That night we stuffed ourselves with Mexican food, completely undoing the day’s athletic feats.  If we were close to breaking even on caloric consumption, that dinner sealed the deal … and probably put us over the top.  By a lot.

To be honest, I’m not sure what I learned during the Bayshore Marathon.  My substantial PR has clouded my ability to derive any meaningful lessons from the experience, namely, did I enjoy running this distance, so far from a big city or gimmicky location?  Did I only “love” the run because every runner that I passed was a stroke to my ego?  Had I run a 4:10 instead, would I still have enjoyed the consistent, almost repetitive route?  Maybe.  Tucson was as monotonous as it can get, but I still loved that race (though, in all fairness, I ran an impossibly fast time there too, so once again, my judgment is unreliable).  It would sadden me a little to learn that I wouldn’t run or train without a finish line to reach.

But one thing is certain – Traverse City is a beautiful destination and I’m glad it was the site for my Michigan race.  I’m still not sure how Otter ended up there in 2007 and why he decided to return the next year.  But I’m glad he built up just enough crazy to get out for a threepeat.  And now, with this marathon under my belt, it’s time for summer.

State 12: Ohio (2011 Cincinnati Flying Pig Half Marathon)

The Cincinnati Flying Pig Half Marathon was a mystery to us.  It’s nationally known, fields a huge number of racers and garners national attention in the running world.  But why?  It doesn’t offer huge cash prizes for winners, so the finishing times aren’t even close to world or national records.  Cincinnati isn’t an enormous, sprawling metropolis with unique manmade or natural landmarks and the race is only in its seventh year so it hasn’t had that much time to cultivate a large following.  So why is it, like such others as Grandma’s Marathon and Big Sur, one of those “name” races that everyone seems to know?  Is it the cute, porcine theme?  Or has the medal become a collector’s item?

Several months ago, as I was putting together my tentative race schedule for 2011, I made plans to answer these questions.  I had originally planned on making it part of an epic weekend consisting of two half marathons, one on Saturday, one on Sunday.  But a coworker with a 2:57 marathon PR advised me against it, telling me it would kill my legs.  So I tempered my manic running plan and kept just the pig race.  Around mid-January, before catching a free screening of Jason Statham’s “The Mechanic,” I was talking to our friend Mike about the race.  I had apparently forgotten that he grew up in Cincinnati because he immediately invited me to stay at his house for the weekend.  As the months counted down, two of my close friends, Laura and Otter, got equally excited about the famed race and laced up.  And just like that, a fun weekend getaway had materialized.

The trip began Saturday morning at 8:00 AM.  The four of us drove out from Chicago and made it to Cincinnati by around 2:00 PM for a pasta lunch.  Contrary to what this picture indicates, it was a very lively and jocular car ride, largely populated by crude jokes that incorrigibly stung Laura’s delicate, feminine sensibilities.

Otter, Mike, Laura — these pictures were taken within 1 minute of each other and yes, I’m a phenomenal driver

After navigating the serpentine Flying Pig Expo at the Duke Energy Center, we were ready to make our way to Mike’s house to settle down for the day.  We got settled in our respective rooms, met his mother and younger sister, a few of his hometown friends and were later treated to a very generous and delicious dinner.  Between the fruit salad, garlic bread, noodles and Angel food cake, we had stuffed ourselves with carbohydrates like someone packing for a month-long vacation with just a bookbag.  By 10:30 PM (also known as the pathetically early 9:30 PM Central Time), we were in bed, crossing our fingers that the next day’s forecast proved wrong.

The thing is, my racing history has been blessed with completely rain-free weather.  It snowed during the 2009 Wacky 5k and Shamrock Shuffle and it drizzled for less than a minute during that year’s CARA Lakefront 10-miler, but with only those exceptions, I have never raced in true, wet precipitation.  If you think about it, with the majority of races happening in spring and late summer, you’d expect at least some of those to have taken place during a thunderstorm, or at least some early showers.  But you’d be wrong, because I have never, ever raced in rain …

… until Cincinnati.  We had been tracking the weather all day and, despite a picture-perfect Saturday, clouds and lightning had rolled into the area by 5:00 AM the next day, striking the horizon with baleful flashes of light.  After parking by the Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Cincinnati Bengals, we walked two minutes to the start line keeping a watchful eye above.  It was shocking how simple getting to the start was – no traffic, no mile-long marches to gear check.  Everything was neatly and tightly arranged around the stadium.  However, by this point, we had also started feeling tiny rain drops.  By 6:30 AM it was legitimately raining.

The night before, I had declared at the dinner table that, unless the weather was awful, I was going to try and attempt a PR.  I felt like my training had been going well, I had no nagging injuries, so why not?  Though the rain was out as predicted, it wasn’t heavy enough to dampen my resolve.  With the sound of the cannon, I was off with that nervous excitement that always accompanies the first mile of any race.  The course starts just south of Paul Brown stadium and hugs the Great American Ball Park, where the Reds play.  Rather than continue into downtown Cincinnati, the course veers right over the Ohio River, into Kentucky.  The next two rainy miles would be run along the Newport and Covington neighborhoods on the tip of northern Kentucky before ushering runners over the CW Bailey Bridge, back into Ohio.  I don’t remember that much of these miles because I ran them with wet, foggy sunglasses.

By mile 4, the rain had diminished considerably, but umbrellas and spectators hiding under every awning were still a regular sight.  It was at this point, as the race dashed westward on West Third Street, that I saw a trio of musicians, none older than seventeen, huddled inside the jut of a building, as if in a very narrow alley, playing music for the runners.  At that moment, they were playing Stone Temple Pilots’ “Interstate Love Song,” an anthemic tune which would ring in my ears for many more miles to come.  To those kids, who probably weren’t even alive when the album Purple came out, I salute you.

At this point, I was committing to my goal: I was running at a 7:17 pace, racking up some fast miles as a cushion for the big hill to come.  The fifth mile of the race cut in a straight line through the heart of downtown Cincinnati on East Seventh Street.  Eager spectators with signs and noisemakers filled both sides of the street, buildings rising from the sidewalks, keeping runners focused on the hilly terrain just outside the city.  Once past Seventh and Main, the rising lump of earth known as Eden Park was impossible to ignore.  Fortunately, we didn’t scale the hill directly, but instead turned left and took a less pronounced route.  It was at this point that the race’s urban character turned into a very picturesque run through tree-lined roads and scenic views of the city and river.

Prior to running, we had all psyched ourselves out about this part of the race, so the hills themselves weren’t as murderous when we actually ran them.  By mile 8, we had reached the zenith of the course and only a few more dips and climbs separated us from the much-anticipated 3-mile downhill.  Before that could happen though, we ran through the quaint streets of Walnut Hills toward the awe-inspiring St. Francis de Sales Church.  A mile later, I would be zipping downhill on Gilbert Avenue, trying to stay on my toes, as if in a permanent state of falling forwards.  I had kept a 7:34 pace until now, just three seconds shy of my 7:31 Disneyland pace, and with only downhill miles left, I was confident that a new record was not only possible, but very likely.

Three 7-minute miles later, I was at the final stretch on East Pete Rose Way, the Finish Swine and a new personal best in sight.  Seeing the yellow clock under the pink finishing banner, counting up the seconds, water squishing in my shoes with every step, I increased my turnover, kicking at a 5:50 pace over the blue mats and stopping the clock at 1:37:24.  I threw a proud fist in the air and collected my copper brown medal, an airborne pig and the city skyline decorating both sides.

With my post-race goodies tucked into my race bag, I returned to the finish line to behold the results of the Laura-Otter race (pre-race coverage and statistics can be read here).  Otter had been seeded in Pig Pen B, while Laura was starting a bit later in C, so there would be no real-time competition, instead relying on mid-race stats and chip times to tease out exactly what happened.  You can read Otter’s sensational take on the race, but this is the short of it:

Laura ran the first 6.8 miles of the race at a 9:07 pace for a variety of reasons.  She may have started off at a slower pace to conserve energy for the hills between miles 6 and 8.  At one point, she said she wasn’t feeling great, so she stopped for a bathroom break, which would definitely have slowed her down.  However, she picked it up considerably in the remaining 6.3 miles with an 8:13 pace, finishing in 1:54:06, a PR by almost a minute.  Otter ran the first 6.8 miles at a faster 8:39 pace, but didn’t speed up with the same gusto as Laura, due to discomfort in his calves on the downhills and an actual beer stop.  With the remaining 6.3 miles run at an 8:41, he finished in 1:53:49, a mere seventeen seconds ahead of Laura, but enough to secure a victory and ending their much-hyped rivalry.

So what was the allure of this race?  Why did so many people register and run what is becoming one of the most famous races in the country?  The three of us decided that it was a combination of elements: a varied and scenic course, lots of very enthusiastic crowd support and yes, the pig theme.  The icing on the cake was a generous finishing chute, with everything from fruit to granola bars, yogurt, chips and chocolate milk.

The new Weinberger / Miller residence

Having all three of us finished with proud times, we spent the rest of the day soiling the benefits of burning 1,500+ calories before 9 AM.  We ate a combination of plates at Skyline Chili, each one highlighting their eponymous product.  Laura ate a chili bowl, Mike scarfed down spaghetti with chili, and Otter and I chowed down on some chili cheese dogs, joking that they were the pigs that couldn’t fly fast enough.  After that, we went to go visit Mike’s new house, into which he will move on May 17 with his girlfriend Miriam.  The two of them have lived in Chicago for several years now and will shortly take the next step in their lives together, but this time with a back yard and a basement.  Following this poignant visit, we went to Graeter’s for some cookie dough and black raspberry ice cream.

Around 1:30 PM, having stayed in Cincinnati for just under 24 hours, we made the drive back to Chicago and on the way, because we hadn’t quite punished our bodies enough, stopped at Wendy’s.
My spring training comes to a head in four weeks at the 2011 Traverse City State Bank Bayshore Marathon, which I will be running with Otter.  After that, it’s summer and rest time.  Until then …
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