State 25: Montana (2012 Madison Half Marathon)

I woke up at 1:15 in the morning in Rich and Shari’s guest bedroom, my clothes from the weekend strewn throughout the room, mixed with random electronics and a few granola bars.  Rich and Shari were a nice couple that I had met on couchsurfing.org and they were nice enough to host me for my very first half marathon double.  The first race of the weekend was the inaugural Idaho Falls Half Marathon, which I had run the day before.  As I tiptoed my way out of their house and into my Nissan Sentra rental, I couldn’t ignore my quads, which were definitely aching from the steep downhill of the race’s first five miles.  There was nothing I could do about that now, so I set phasers to Google Maps and started the 150-minute drive north to Ennis, Montana for the fifth annual Madison Half Marathon.

Clover Meadows

As you can imagine, the entire drive was pitch black, especially after leaving the main road and entering Montana.  I’ve always had this idea of the Big Sky State in my head as a huge mountainous expanse teeming with wildlife and civilization all but abandoned.  Right as I entered the state, I saw two large, sculpted figures on the shoulder of the road, and as they turned and my headlights caught their eyes, I realized they were elk.  I slammed the breaks in both surprise and awe, slowing down just enough to see them leap into the darkness.  An hour later, I entered the ghost town of Ennis, a town that seemed to encompass just five square blocks.  So far, stereotypes confirmed.

The Madison Marathon, called such because it takes place in Madison County, bills itself as the “highest road marathon in the country [possibly the world].”  There are definitely higher road half marathons (such as Mt. Evans), but for the full distance, all higher races are trail runs.  Given the elevation profile, it’s not the kind of race I normally run.  But for some reason, I was overcome by some intense, gung-ho spirit of adventure in the spring and I convinced myself that running this would be a good idea.  It was as if my runner’s id had taken over my planning, with my ego and superego choosing which credit card to use for registration.  Tacking on an additional half marathon the day before was just a garnish for this unusually ambitious palette.  When I planned out the preliminary logistics, I assumed that the race would start and end in Ennis, and that I’d be able to drive to the start and hop in my car shortly after finishing.

Wrong on all three counts.

Gear Check (awesome)

I learned shortly before leaving Chicago that this race requires a lot of logistical handling.  First, runners should arrive in Ennis by 5 AM to board the shuttles.  The field of roughly 200 runners is then transported over ninety very shaky minutes to Clover Meadows campground, where both races finish.  It’s a circular clearing of land with many tents hugging the tree line (one of which was the official gear check) and Montana’s smooth peaks in the distance.  However, this isn’t the race start.  After letting runners go to the bathroom, organizers whisk the eager athletes back onto the shuttles for another 40-minute drive even farther into the bowels of the middle of nowhere.  Since I had gotten no real sleep (and as of this writing, have yet to experience a good night’s rest since four nights ago), I slept through both rides.  I’m sure I missed out on some pristine views, but trust me, I would get plenty of that soon.

Game face, with a huge helping of trepidation

After what felt like an eternity, we arrived at a large field, surrounded on all sides by rising mounds of grass with yellow and red flowers popping from the underbrush.  It was a beautiful place to start a race.  Too bad it got soiled by a perverse firing squad of male runners with an urgent need to urinate.  As if avoiding an invisible fence, upwards of thirty guys lined up in a perfectly straight line and peed on the grass.  Before anyone reflexively shouts out “Ew, boys,” I will let you know that the ladies were doing the exact same thing on the other half of the field, but with more foliage to protect them from wandering eyes.  I guess this is normal in small, mountain races.

For me though, it was all a bit unusual.  Not only was this completely different from any other race I’ve run (except, perhaps, the XTERRA Trail Run), but everyone around me seemed to carry themselves with a certain insouciance that I did not share.  I was very nervous and felt a little out of place.  My legs were tired, I had just as much experience with altitude races as I did with semiconductors and there was no apparent way to bail on the race should my body break down.  Had I, like George Oscar Bluth, made a huge mistake?  Maybe.  But I was doing my best to ignore all of that.  I made small talk with the people around me and thought I recognized a few faces from the previous day’s race.  There was a tall African American runner with a bright orange Syracuse shirt that I swore I had seen on Saturday but with a different Syracuse shirt.  I didn’t want to be accused of racial insensitivity by assuming it was him, so I didn’t ask.  Fortunately, he brought up the race with a nearby runner, and I jumped into the conversation, feeling quite validated.

Korsmoe gets us started. The hill behind him was a fiend.

On the back of a pickup truck, race organizer Sam Korsmoe belted out last-minute details in a carefree, almost sardonic tone.  It was a fitting start to this unusual race.  A few minutes later, the race had officially started and a few hundred athletes of dubious sanity were on the first climb of the day.

The first, and most demoralizing climb of the day.

Son of a bitch, I thought as I slowed to what nobody can reasonably call a running pace.  My feet were scrambling over each other like a clumsy duck, and within 0.1 miles, I was reduced to a walk.  I wasn’t comforted by the fact that everyone around me was also walking on the steep, dirt path.  I could only focus on feeling “broken” so pathetically early in a race.  I looked at my Garmin and saw that my pace was in the 14-minute range.  Fantastic, I thought.  Of all the paces I thought I’d register today, 14 was not one I wanted so soon.  This is going to suck.  Really, really badly.

Projected finishing time: 3 hours and change plus some time in the emergency room.

If you click to enlarge, you’ll notice just how long this downhill was.  Black Butte Mountain in the background.

Many frustrated strides later, I began to suspect that the day wouldn’t be all pain and torment.  In fact, I learned that the first mile is notoriously difficult while the second is much friendlier.  Since it’s all downhill, I was cruising down it and despite my aching quads, managed to log a 7:36 split.  So maybe I was too quick to judge this race.  Plus, I had started to note how much everyone else was walking, despite looking like total badasses.

Revised finishing time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

The endless ascent … that eventually ended.

But as you might have already guessed, these optimistic thoughts were short-lived.  The next three miles were easily the most difficult of the entire day.  With very little downhill reprieve, we climbed and climbed, winding our way from one outcropping to the next.  From the base of the climb, you could see the laughably long and serpentine path to the top.  I had compiled a batch of murmurs from eavesdropping and I concluded that the top of the climb at mile 5 was the highest point in the race, so that the remaining eight miles would be “downhill.”  It was an optimistic thought, for sure, but it didn’t make my legs any lighter.  I would look ahead to see several people walking, so I would run to pass them, only to have them rubber-band past me when my legs would start to fail me.  At several points during that climb, I couldn’t help but think, if I’m this tired and winded now at just three miles, how am I going to feel at mile 11?

Revised finishing time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

But all things, even painful, exhausting ones, come to an end.  I soon found myself standing next to Monument Ridge, where I happily took out my camera to immortalize the moment.  The longest continuous climb of the day was over.  After punishing my legs for so long on the uphill, the next stretch was refreshingly easy.  Even slight uphills weren’t a big deal and I found myself rising over them confidently.  Since my prime directive was no longer avoiding death, I decided to take in the breathtaking scenery.  Atop Monument Ridge, no cardinal direction was bereft of inspiration.  I wanted to take pictures of every single angle.  In retrospect, I wish I could have immersed myself more deeply in my surroundings.  But since we were running on dirt and loose gravel, I kept my sight mostly focused on the ground three feet ahead of me so as to avoid slipping on a rock or rolling an ankle.

Monument Ridge, with Black Butte Mountain in the background

By mile 6, I was in a groove and loving it.  I would stomp out the flat sections to the tune of 8:40 per mile, scorch the downhills under 7:30 and run/walk my way up the climbs at considerably slower speeds.  All of these strategies together averaged at about 9:40 overall.  I definitely felt like I could keep this up for the rest of the race.  Check this out, I thought.  I’m actually doing this and with a good amount of grace and strength.  I don’t know if it’s a reflection of my self-confidence, but this scenario did not play in my head that morning.

Revised finishing time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

There was a standalone cooler just past mile 6 with a cup tied to it.  The race organizers had urged runners to bring their own water because the course would have very limited support.  They also pointed out that these lone coolers could only have water because Gatorade would attract bears.  Bears.  I’d be lying if I said that this passing comment didn’t unnerve me a bit.  But once on the course and hammering out the miles, Pooh, Smokey and the Berenstains weren’t on my mind at all.  I also assumed, probably foolishly, that since you could see so much of the landscape ahead of you, a sneak attack just seemed unlikely.

“Aw, man,” I said as I turned the corner to behold this forthcoming climb (the diagonal one slicing across the hill)

Every turn revealed miles of new terrain, the curtain drawn to show the distant course draped over the green Gravelly Mountains like a dusty rope.  Miles 7 through 10 were, believe it or not, a blur.  They weren’t easy and had their fair share of climbs.  But I had gotten into a pace that I could hold for what felt like forever.  I was also approaching a mindset where all of my actions felt automatic.  There was something different about this race and it wasn’t just that large mountains had replaced buildings.  There was less emphasis on the act of racing and more on the simple and joyful exercise of running.  You could probably say the same thing about the dreadful XTERRA run from last July, but I was so miserably hot in that event that I would have spit at anyone who tried to moralize the experience or draw out something positive from it.  But here, I was very much in tune with my body and the world around me.  I was almost waiting for my brain to finally leak out that mysterious fluid that turns regular runners into the truly barbaric and humbling breed known as “ultra runners.”  I kept running, but that euphoric moment didn’t happen.

But I got one step closer to it.

My confidence was stoked by every person I passed, many of them looking like they could smoke me on any course.  But here I was, a city boy with negligible experience at altitude, keeping up and actually enjoying it.  I kept on looking at my pace and wondering, am I really going to finish this race faster than the XTERRA Trail Run?  I ran the numbers a few times and confirmed that yes, I was on pace to finish considerably faster.  I’m not sure why I used the South Carolina race as a benchmark, but it probably had to do with degree of difficulty and that I signed up for it knowing it would be a kick in the jaw.

Revised finishing time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

The last five miles of the race I spent passing and being passed by the same four runners.  I didn’t chat with any of them because I try to keep my running conversation to simple phrases like “I could get used to this!” or “Beautiful day!” and the oft used “Your girlfriend called and said you need to run faster.”  Speaking of, it really was a beautiful day.  At the start line, I overheard one runner complain that it was going to be hot.  I’ll concede that those running the full marathon were probably treated to warmer temperatures.  But I could write loving sonnets about the humidity or the complete lack thereof.  I could feel the sun beating down on me, but between breezes and sweating properly, I felt invincible.

Revised finishing time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

By mile 11, the course had much more tree cover.  By now I was shooting nervous glances into the woods, remembering the “BE BEAR AWARE” signs plunked throughout the course (though I wonder if there was ever a meeting where someone suggested changing them to “BE BEAR-Y AWARE”).  Fortunately, my race experience was not tainted (or improved?) by any ursine encounters.  Instead, I kept my head down and continued on my way towards the finish.  There would be one more pesky uphill to conquer before reaching Clover Meadows, but I had become an expert at tackling them by then.  By no means was I springing up the slope, but the attack had become a calculated series of moves.  I’d divide the climb into segments: short, walking sections followed by long, running stretches and then a brief moment of anticipation where you hope there’s a downhill on the other side.

Not long after this last climb, I saw a gathering of people in a circular field, which I later recognized as Clover Meadows.  I should have kept running uninterrupted to the finish, but it was a slight uphill to the banner, so I decided to walk for about six seconds before mobilizing all my efforts upward.

Actual finishing time: 2 hours, 8 minutes, 30 seconds.

Though I had spent months hyping up this race in my head, the finish was very quiet and serene.  Korsmoe was standing next to the banner, writing down bib numbers and corresponding finishing times.  A few runners who had already finished the half were applauding for incoming runners and on occasion, a dog would bark.  It was a race being run by and for people who like the physical act of covering distance and not so much for those who want a big, elaborate circus with streamers and celebrity appearances.  Don’t get me wrong, I love big races.  But I could just as easily get used to this style of racing.  I just wish I didn’t have to sit in what feels like a big, orange maraca for over two hours just to reach the starting line.

As a residual benefit of this race, my confidence looking ahead to the Leadville Trail 100 as a pacer for my friend Jay has burgeoned.  This race definitely served as proving grounds for whether I could handle running at altitude and I think I passed the test comfortably.  If I could finish a half marathon at 9,000 feet on tired legs, then I could probably run a segment of Leadville on fresh legs … right?

Halfway done!

State 24: Idaho (2012 Idaho Falls Half Marathon)

1. On Surfing Couches

I have gotten to the point in my journey to run at least a half marathon in all fifty states where there are no longer easy states to do, with the exception of Iowa.  I realized this many months ago, where I saw that I had knocked out the nearby Midwest states and, for the most part, any city that is connected to Chicago by cheap airfare.  I was very quickly running out of “convenient” races and had to start planning out my time off the beaten path.  In a moment of both genius and delirium, I decided that, to maximize my time and money, I’d try and double-up – two half marathons in two different states in one weekend.  It would be a half-and-half, if you will.

So I decided to sign up and plan a trip for the inaugural Idaho Falls Half Marathon and the next day run the Madison Montana Half Marathon.

Of course, running two half marathons in one weekend isn’t always advisable.  An ex-coworker with a 2:57 marathon PR once shied me away from it back when my plan was to run the Kentucky Derby Festival and the Cincinnati Flying Pig back to back.  Those were relatively flat and at sea level.  Fast forward over a year later and I’m ignoring his advice to run two races, one at 6,000 feet, the other at 9,000.  Sure, I knew it would be a challenge, but my sense of adventure got the best of me.

When it came time to find lodging, I thought back to my trip to Mississippi for the Tupelo Marathon last September.  I went by myself, got a hotel room, ran the race, and flew back.  As excited as I was that I had finished a notoriously difficult race, I felt like I didn’t really do anything with my free time there besides watch a bootleg copy of Game of Thrones.  So with this trip, I further humored my sense of adventure by looking for a willing host via couchsurfing.org.

For the unfamiliar, couchsurfing.org is a website where users can ask for “couches” on which they can crash for a few days, weeks or even months, from regular folks.  Similarly, they can also offer their own “couch” to the community for wayfarers and nomads to use.  I had heard of it a few years ago but didn’t think much of it until a fellow running blogger, Aurora, mentioned that she’s used it more than once to help cut the costs of her race budget.  So I signed up and looked around Idaho Falls for someone willing to let me stay at their place.  One quick search and I found Rich and Shari, a couple in their 60s, who had just recently signed up to the site themselves.  I sent them a message along with a link to my blog and they graciously accepted.

Shari, me; Background: Idaho Falls, the Latter-Day Saints Temple

For a few logistical and planning reasons, when I arrived at their house, no one was home.  I told Shari that I could easily entertain myself by driving around a new city, but she said it’d be okay with her if I went in through the garage.  Just like that.  Yes, complete stranger, you may enter our house.  That takes a metric ton of trust, I thought.  I guess my blog, which I hoped would serve as a deposit on my character and standing, worked very well.  So I made myself at home on a beanbag in the living room (not a couch, as one might expect from the site that made this possible) and napped for about three hours.  Did I mention that I had gone to a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises before my 6 AM flight?  Yeah, I needed that nap.

I spent the rest of the night getting to know my hosts.  Though I only said hi to Rich briefly, I spent plenty of time getting to know Shari.  Though originally from Denver, she has lived in Idaho Falls for over 30 years and doesn’t plan on leaving.  She is a music teacher, a devoted gardener and a doting host.  She and Rich are approaching their tenth anniversary, which was a bit of a surprise for me.  I tend to assume (like most people, perhaps) that your significant other in your 60s has been with you for all your life.  But although Rich, a windsurfer and builder with a grey and white beard, went to high school with Shari, they didn’t reconnect until ten years ago, allowing plenty of time for each to live completely separate lives.

They are quite the remarkable couple.  Not only are they building a house themselves in the nearby community of Woodfield, but they grow their own produce in a large garden and even make their own fuel.  I was treated to several bowls of fresh raspberries and many slices of homemade bread, much to my delight.  I also got a chance to meet lots of Shari’s family and in the process, earned my stay by helping one of her daughters move into a new house just a block away from the shores of the Snake River.  All of that happened after the half marathon Saturday morning.

Speaking of which …

2. Foothills and Windmills

I woke up at 4:30 and hopped in my rental (a Nissan Sentra again) and drove out to Tautphaus Park (pronounced taw-fuss), where a bus would take me to the start.  The race is a net downhill point to point, which starts off at the top of a mountainous area that I only know as “the foothills,” upon which were built many wind turbines.  The bus kept climbing and climbing, the slope not at all gradual, which prompted many runners to exchange nervous glances.  We all knew it would be downhill, but not so down.

By the time we reached the top, the sun was trying to muscle its way through the scattered clouds with darker clumps hovering menacingly over the city below.  It only took about four buses to get the entire field of runners to the start.   But even a small field of about 200 people will make huge lines when there are only three portapotties.  Fortunately, the organizers were nice enough to delay the start of the race by about fifteen minutes to make sure everyone had time to line up behind the start mat.

The Start Line, top of the world

Running downhill is tricky.  If it’s a slight downhill, then you’re free to run faster with less effort and in doing so, feel like a demigod.  However, if it’s a significant downward slope, then you either end up leaning back and putting some undue stress on your quads and back, or gunning it downhill with reckless abandon.  I did the latter just two weeks ago in Costa Rica.  At first, it’s delightful.  You’re taking huge strides, flying over the pavement as if the road were suddenly one long trampoline.  But then it flattens out and you come crashing down from your sugar high and get sad.  I decided to avoid this mistake by holding back as much as I could without feeling like I was lying down with my face to the sky.

It was a pretty continuous, steep descent

But even so, I was still cruising downhill at a 7:30 pace.  This was the first half marathon that I run where I told myself I wouldn’t go fast.  Sunday’s race in Montana would be tough enough on fresh legs and here I was doing a 13.1-mile “warm-up” run.  I wouldn’t screw it up by trying to get a good time and wrecking my legs in the process.  And yet, I might have done more damage to my legs had I tried to hold back and slow gravity’s relentless pull to an 8-minute pace.  That would come later, when the course would flatten out at mile 7.

But while the downhill lasted, I made sure to enjoy the scenery.  The turbines receded behind me, like sentinels guarding over the city.  It was very quiet; the only noises I could hear were feet hitting the pavement and water sloshing in my reservoir.  To my right, the sun was cresting over the foothills, casting a distant shadow of a sinewy runner over clumps of tall grass.  Race organizers implored that we stay on the roads because these fields were known to house rattlesnakes.  There would be about five miles of this scenic descent before the course would start flattening out.  There was only one climb, right at mile 3.  I remember feeling almost relieved to be able to finally lean forward a bit.  But that relief lasted very little and not because I didn’t like going uphill.  There was a little voice in the back of my head that said I’d be hating uphills in less than twenty-four hours.  We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

By mile 7, there were no more hills to speak of.  We were running on the sidewalks of Sunnyside Road, volunteers positioned at major intersections, holding cars at bay with large, orange flags.  I made sure to thank each one as I ran past them at a stable 8:25 pace.  Though it was slow by my standards, I could definitely feel the 5,000 feet of altitude.  From the first quarter mile, my tongue and throat felt dry, but my lungs were in good shape.  Now on flat terrain, I noticed that I couldn’t have accelerated to a 7:30 pace again if I wanted to.  Though I wasn’t completely tired or falling apart, it was a foreboding sign of the next day’s struggle (which, as of this writing, has not yet happened).

Just before the ninth mile, the course turned right onto Hitt Street for a half mile of commercial strip malls.  This was easily my least favorite part of the course, but it was a necessary evil to get back to Tautphaus Park and the finish line.  By mile 11 we were running through neighborhoods and on sidewalks with a thick tree canopy.  I kept my steady pace, slowly reeling in runners that had slowed down, passing them, and moving onwards.  I felt good.  It made me wonder if this was what most 50-state runners do – run the race for fun, and not to earn a competitive time.  As I plodded along at a sustainable, easy pace, I found myself asking if it was the kind of running I wanted to do.  I kept leaning towards no.  Unless there’s a good reason, I want every race to be one where I snarl my way to the finish.  Maybe I could pick it up in the last mile and finish hard … but I told myself to not go nuts.  Today there was a good reason to take it slow.

The Finish Line at Tautphaus Park

But this furtive thought had already snuck its way into my stride at mile 12.  I started moving a little faster, lifting my arms a little more to build momentum.  I’d show everyone I’m much faster than this!  But as quickly as it started, it ended.  Maybe my body had gotten used to the relaxed pace and subconsciously pulled me back into it.  Or, perhaps more likely, I was more tired than I was willing to admit.  So once back into the park, I ran a large loop around softball fields, through parking lots and into a small, almost single-track trail, before crossing the finish line in 1:47:22.  The post-race amenities included thick slices of Great Harvest bread, Kiwi Loco yogurt and mini Jimmy John’s sandwiches.  Twenty-four states done!

3. Meet, Greet & Eat

I took my finisher’s treats to the side of a grassy hill and ate away.  It would be the first time that I finish a race without the freedom to eat irresponsibly for the remainder of the day.  Instead, I had to reload for the next morning while at the same time nursing my legs.  They weren’t sore or tired, but I knew that the downhill would come back to haunt me.  As of this writing, I feel alright, but get a warm twinge in my quads when I go down stairs.  Is it too much to ask that the post-race atrophy wait another 24 hours?

After coming back to Shari and Rich’s house, I showered and napped.  When I woke up, we drove to meet one of Shari’s daughters, who was moving to Idaho Falls with a UHaul trailer.  Between twelve or so people, we emptied the truck in less than an hour and then ate lunch at a nearby park.  While there, I had this conversation almost verbatim:

“I’m sorry, what was your name?”
“Dan.”
“Oh, are you Tyler’s brother?”
“No, I’m … a total stranger.”
“Wait, you came with Shari, right?”
“Yes, I’m staying with her for the weekend, but besides that, I’m a completely random person.”

Rich and Shari’s house, under construction

Despite the unusual self-characterization, I made several friends that afternoon.  Later in the day, I’d also end up hauling a very heavy washing machine from a storage unit to the truck and then into the house, which earned me more popularity.  I figure, I’d be using my legs a lot this weekend, why not give my arms something to do?  I also made sure to eat as many fruits as possible, knowing I had to replenish and then restock.  I had a Clif bar in my pocket at all times and was never more than ten feet away from a bottle of water.

The garden, some crops of which I was lucky enough to sample

I ended the day by visiting Shari and Rich’s new house, the one that they are building completely by themselves.  The idea is so daunting that I can’t help but marvel at the sheer dedication and patience it must take.  I give myself a gold star and smirk for an hour if I can put together IKEA furniture or hang a picture and these people are building an entire house.  And if that weren’t impressive enough, they spend the entire winter in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula where they are building another house.  I guess that’s what you do when you’ve lived a fulfilling life and still have tons of energy to continue conquering the world.

So even if tomorrow’s race is a huge disaster, I can at least say that the weekend was a very memorable success.  I got to meet a wonderful couple while enjoying their generous hospitality in a completely new and beautiful state.  I told Shari that if I ever come back to Idaho for a full marathon, that I would stop and visit their new house to see where all the walls end up going.

But first, let’s get back to reality.  Once I finish writing this, I will start the drive to Ennis, Montana around 2 in the morning with a car full of heavy metal albums and a belly buzzing with nerves.

Wish me luck.

Bonus: Costa Rica (Media Maratón Correcaminos 2012)

1. Thunderstorms and Showers

Ah, vacation.

I ran my first Costa Rican half marathon over a year ago.  Given my experience with large races in the US and knowing how things generally are in Costa Rica (tranquilo, pura vida), I managed my expectations.  Although I finished without any problems, managed to get on my flight back to Chicago and had a pretty fun time, the race was, according to many other runners, a huge disaster. Since the event had been going on for fifteen years, I was pretty surprised at how chaotic the whole thing was.  Information was inconsistent and tough to find, the start time was unknown even five minutes before the gun was supposed to go off, aid stations ran out of water and the course wasn’t well-marked.  You’d think that this many iterations would be enough to sand down any rough edges.  I blame the running boom of the last six years for it.  Perhaps the organizers had gotten used to a few hundred runners and didn’t have the logistical know-how or manpower to put together an 8,000-person event.

So you’d think that I’d be a little apprehensive about running another race in San José.  But you’d be wrong.  I had heard from fellow runners that there was another large, albeit younger race called the Media Maratón Correcaminos, and that it was a much, much better event.  It was also happening the same weekend as my first trip to Costa Rica with the future in-laws, a fortuitous convergence that I insist was completely coincidental.  No, really, as impossible as it is to believe, I did not plan the trip around the race.  It just, magically happened that way (por pura guava).

(left to right): Steve, Janine, Jan, Steph, me, Mama, Nicky (nice purse, boy)

Later in the spring, I would start putting together my summer race schedule, and this half marathon in Costa Rica became the first of several races that would constitute my Summer Altitude Challenge.  At roughly 4,000 feet, it would be the first stepping stone towards much higher elevations.  But first, I had the chance to drive Steph’s sister and parents around Costa Rica for the first time.  Through both careful planning and a nice dose of luck, they got what I would consider a genuine Costa Rican experience.  They got to scuba dive with hundreds of tropical fish, behold the vast canyons of the Poás volcano, walk underneath and alongside the Paz Waterfalls and eat  a wide array of foods, which included ceviche, gallo pinto, granizados, pejibayes, patacones, cajetas, bizcochos, picadillo de chayote, and chicarrones.  But in addition to the sights and foods, they also got rolling blackouts, torrential downpour, cattle in the middle of the street and gridlock traffic in Barrio México.  You give and you take.

While Steph attended a bridal shower that my mom had punctiliously organized Saturday afternoon, I went to the Hotel Tryp Sabana with Steve for the Correcaminos Expo.  Though not very big (the whole thing was two small salons with a hallway uniting them), it was a very impressive operation.  Upon entering the expo, I was greeted by a friendly volunteer who told me where to go for everything.  Bibs and chips were picked up quickly, shirts were distributed easily and efficiently, and the vendors were eager to help.  I could tell that the people who were putting this thing together understood the race experience and wanted to deliver a top-notch event.  After nabbing a few freebies, we made our way back home, where we would end up being two of about four men in a room full of semi-inebriated women.

2. The Race

A point-to-point running tour of San José

The Start Line. You wouldn’t guess it were it not for the throngs of orange.

I was up at 4 and went to wake up my brother, Nicky.  It’s not the easiest thing to do, but he rallied himself up and kindly drove Steve and me to our respective starting lines.  Since I was running the half marathon, I would start all the way up un Tres Ríos, where it was cool and breezy.  Steve would start the 10k in Zapote, near el Colegio de Abogados.  I arrived an hour before the start and found about twenty people littered across an empty street.  The only sign that I was in the right place were the runners wearing the official, blinding orange race shirts.  It wasn’t until about thirty minutes before the event was to start that they finished installing the timing mats and inflated the start banner.  I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised when the event started on time – though that didn’t stop the field from whistling jokingly (chiflar) when 6:30 arrived.

Ready to run

The first mile was the most dangerous.  In most races, you have to deal with little personal space as you navigate your way forward and find your pace.  However, in this race you also had to deal with potholes and jagged sidewalks.  Once past the first mile, clocked at just under 8 minutes, the field was spread far enough that I no longer had to worry about rolling an ankle or drawing blood.  The next three miles were a delightful downhill through Pinares and eventually Curridabat, where I passed many runners, including one dressed up as el Chapulín Colorado.  I was paying close attention to my breathing at this point, noting how much the altitude was affecting my perceived exertion.  The downhill was throwing it all off, because I knocked out those miles at a sub-7:00 pace.  I knew that once the course would flatten out, I’d slow down considerably.  Would it have been smarter to reel it in earlier and deliberately slow myself down despite the inviting downward slope?  Maybe.  But running fast is too much fun to pass up.  Dele, dele!

The Finish Line in La Sabana, 9.1 miles away

As I slammed on the gas, I kept looking around me and seeing hundreds of runners with “Costa Rica” on their racing singlets, or “Ticos” emblazoned elsewhere on their running gear.  It’s pretty rare to see a Costa Rican anywhere outside of Costa Rica, so I subconsciously wanted to go up to everyone and represent (Vamos Ticos!) like I usually do at any other race when I see la tricolor.  Except here, pretty much everyone was Costa Rican.  It was a warm moment of communion when I figured that every other Costa Rican runner I’ve seen in a US race, be it Chicago, Miami or New York City, might be running today, here, with me.

The course flattened shortly after that and my pace slowed down to a more sustainable speed.  I passed the second aid station and grabbed a plastic water-filled pouch (boli) and a Gatorade.  Curridabat is much denser than Tres Ríos, so it wasn’t until this point that I realized that the city did not stop for the race.  Though there weren’t cars in the middle of the course, there were definitely people blaring on their horns (infelices), hoping to cross the stream of runners blocking their path.  I waved to them and smiled at their futility, which didn’t help the horn situation.  A few strides later, I reached the first uphill at the Mitsubishi dealership in Curri.  After running spritely fast for 4 miles, it was the first real test of the race.  Prior to this ascent, I felt like I was killing it on a flat course, hungry for a PR.  But at the top of this hill I was reminded that, downhill or not, this wouldn’t be an easy race.

Shortly afterward, the course leaves the main road and towards Zapote through dense neighborhoods on lumpy asphalt.  I remember passing where the KyS Microbrewery used to be, which brought back fond memories.  Once back on a main road, the race continues its downhill grade past Multi Plaza del Este and el Registro Público.  This stretch of race had very little shade, so it was the beginning of what I would call “the breakdown.”  Between miles 7.4 and 8.7 we’d be running mostly uphill, past la avenida central and el parque nacional.  That last part was the toughest and most humbling.  I could feel the lactic acid building up in my quads and calves as I ran up that cobblestone path, watching as more experienced runners climbed it with little complaint.  But once around the park, we got back to flat lands.  I remember thinking at this point that the 10k wasn’t as downhill as I had promised Steve.  Oops (mal rai, sorri mop).

Steve on his way to the finish line

My mile splits at this point were floundering in the 8s.  I wasn’t dying quite yet, but there would be no more fast splits.  We spent about a mile on la avenida primera, which was mostly downhill and the least scenic part of the race.  There were bars open with patrons inside and cars eager to cross each new intersection.  Fortunately, they weren’t running us over out of sheer courtesy as not every intersection was manned by volunteers.  It was also at this point that the 10k leaders shot past me at high speeds.  Shortly after, we zigzagged onto el Paseo Colón, the verdant greens of La Sabana in the distance.

There were many spectators lining the streets now, all shouting encouragingly.  Every time I would stop to drink water, I’d hear from spectators and runners alike, Dale, dale, ya casi!  I don’t know if it’s a bias, but I felt a lot more solidarity from everyone plodding around me than at other races.  These cries got much louder as I reached the large urban park with both sides of the road firing emphatic shouts of Pongale!

“That park,” Steve would later say to me at the end of the race, “was much bigger than I remembered.”

Finishers.

Very true.  In your head, you think, “Simple.  Just one loop around la Sabana and I’m home free.”  But its perimeter is about 2.2 miles at the end of a half marathon.  While it may be flat, my legs were beat.  I was at that point in the race where you struggle just to keep your head up.  As I passed el ICE, I heard someone yell Vamos Danny! and turned to see my cousin Mau curled under a tree.  Though I looked confident in the picture he took of me, I was actually feeling pathetic and quite done (hecho leña).  But there was just one more corner to turn before entering the park and its thick tree cover.  Once inside, it was impossible to keep the same pace amid the roar of crowds and the peripheral flash of green.  Walls of spectators lined the course leading into the finish line, making me forget for thirty seconds that I was exhausted.  I kicked forward and gazelle’d my way toward the blue banner at a 5:40 pace, crossing the finish line in 1:40:57 and heaving my way to refreshment.

3. Downhill Course, Uphill Future

I threw down some water and went back to the finish chute to see if I could spot my friends, some of whom had never run a 10k before.  One by one I yelled at them as they made that final turn into the park.  A few, like Chori, smirked and kept their regular pace, finishing effortlessly, almost insouciantly.  Others, like Gabriel (who was probably roasting alive in a Real Madrid jersey), kicked into overdrive and scorched across the finish line.  My shouts caught the attention of one of my high school classmates, Chepe, who was just a few people down the barricades.  He was the only person in my class who was taller than me, and at 6’7”, by a considerable amount.  Though he was there to see his girlfriend finish, he was gracious enough to stay and get a shot of Steve as he crossed the finish line.

Medalla Media Maratón Correcaminos 2012

I really liked this race.  It was the experience I was hoping to have with the disastrous Marathon Internacional and even pleased Steve, who has been running for much longer than me.  The Expo was fluid and easy to navigate, it started on time, each kilometer was marked with a visible sign, aid stations were staffed with eager volunteers and the post-race finish area was flush with ebullient (and sweaty) runners.  As a pleasing garnish, we were able to drive out of the event without encountering any traffic.  We spent the rest of the day at la finca in La Garita, where the Snyders got to meet every single person in my extended family.

All in all, both the trip and the race were complete successes.  I would change nothing about the vacation, except perhaps extending it by a month.  But bigger challenges await in that month, so I’m back to training, hoping that I can strengthen my legs enough for the altitude double in just under ten days.  Vamos!

Preview: Summer Altitude Challenge 2012

Over the last six months I’ve run several races, most of them fast, and all of them at or near sea level.  As a resident of Chicago, I don’t have many options when it comes to running at altitude or even up hills.  The entire city is as flat as flat gets, with only the tiniest slopes providing hill-like challenges.  Honestly, I’m alright with that.  I appreciate a nice flat, fast course.  Every time I finish a race with a fast time, it boosts my confidence and gives me a reason to continue training at high exertion levels.  Plus, it validates all of my training efforts in simple minutes and seconds.

Last year, I switched things up several times.  I started by running my first international half marathon in San José, Costa Rica.  It was near the end of their dry season, at 2 PM, and at around 3,800 feet.  It was challenging, among my slowest half marathons, but I loved it.  A month later, I ran a half in Fort Collins, Colorado, which topped out at almost 5,700 feet before descending to around 5,000.  It was a lot cooler in the Rockies than Costa Rica, so my time was marginally faster.  But the thin air and the hills got to me and by the second mile I was feeling gassed.

This year, I’m going to once again throw in some altitude races, but this time we’re reaching new heights.  Because I don’t have the opportunity to run or even exist at these altitudes, each new race will be a challenge.  Additionally, each race has a higher altitude profile than the one before it (the funny thing is, I didn’t plan all of these myself and they just happened to line up that way).

1.)    Four Thousand Feet

The first race is the Media Maratón Correcaminos in San José, Costa Rica.  Much earlier this year, my fiancée Stephanie and I decided to organize a trip with her parents to get to know my extended family and the country they call home.  We picked the dates to make the most of the Fourth of July holiday.  My racing compulsion kicked in eventually and I decided to check and see if there were any races there we could do, especially since Steve (my future father-in-law) was a big racer not too long ago and is looking to make a comeback.  Lo and behold, one of the country’s biggest races was happening that Sunday, July 8.  Once again, I did not pick the weekend because of the race; I promise you all it was the other way around.  No one believes me, but well, there it is.

The race is a point-to-point that begins in Tres Ríos and finishes in La Sabana.  This should be neat because there are very few true straight lines in San José (as any foreigner in the passenger seat will attest) so the course should prove very labyrinthine.  Steve will be running the 10k and will therefore be receiving a running tour of the capital.  It’s not much to look at until the end, but he said he’s doing it mostly for the shirt.

2.)    Six Thousand Feet

Two weeks later on Saturday, July 21, I will be toeing the line at the inaugural Idaho Falls Half Marathon.  This race is yet another point to point that starts at 6,000 feet and in six miles descends to around 4,800, where it remains flat until the end.  I will be looking to breathe in as much air as possible in the little time I will spend there before starting the race.  It will also most likely be the first race that I run with a hydration backpack, the reason for which is to avoid dehydration.

But that much is obvious.  Everyone wants to avoid dehydration, even those who aren’t runners.  So why the extra precaution?  Why not run every race with a Camelbak if that’s the concern?  Well, there’s a bigger reason.  A while ago, when I set off to run at least 13.1 miles in every state, I realized that I didn’t necessarily have to do it in 50 trips.  I could offset some of the costs by doubling-up once I developed enough of an endurance base.  I thought, maybe this year I’d be able to pull it off.

There’s a pretty useful, albeit slow-loading tool hosted by Running in the USA that shows back-to-back races within driving distance of each other.  After scanning some dates, I first found the Idaho Falls Half Marathon and a few hours away by car, the Madison Montana Marathon in the Gravelly Mountains.

3.)    Nine Thousand Feet

“Run Yourself Ragged” reads the top banner of this race’s website, followed by a proud “Highest Road Marathon in America!”  The race organizer of the Madison Marathon claims to have extensively researched this and has yet to find a road race higher elsewhere.  Many trail races breach 10,000 feet, but you’d be hard pressed to find a paved road race that high.  But for some reason, I was overcome with a sense of adventure, and it consumed me enough to commit to both races.  It’s only a little insane, name because I’ve never done any running higher than 6,000 feet.  But I convinced myself that the Idaho Falls race will somehow prepare me to run this one, despite the fact that I’ll have put 13.1 miles on my legs leading up to it.  I’ll just call it a warm-up run.

And that’s why I’m planning on running the Idaho race with a hydration pack.

The Montana race’s website, though, has a great way of getting you to forget the daunting altitude challenges.  In its gallery, it has many pictures of the course, which are undeniably breathtaking.  It’s very difficult to not get caught up in the majesty of Montana’s rugged mountain landscapes while flipping through each new shot.  If ever I doubted my decision, a few minutes perusing through these pictures would instantly re-energize me.  There’s a downside to this, in that there are definitely bears (BEARS!) in the area and they’ve been spotted more than once near the course.

But even after committing to both races, there were still moments of trepidation, where I would question whether I’d be able to finish Montana.  In fact, as I write this, I still believe there’s a chance that I’d have to walk the course.  What truly tipped the scales and made it happen was an unlikely email from a friend.

I first met Jay Zeschin in college when he pledged my fraternity.  I quickly learned that he was no ordinary guy.  Not only did his music tastes practically invent the word “esoteric,” but he turned out to be a wizard on skis .  Several years and ski trips later, he became an ultrarunner by finishing the Sageburner 50k in 2011, and a mere two months later, the Leadville Silver Rush 50-Mile Run.  When he told me he wanted to run the Leadville 100 Trail Run this summer, I told him he was certifiably insane.  When he asked me to be part of his pace and gear crew, I signed up.

I guess that makes me crazy too.

4.)    Nine Thousand (+) Feet

The Leadville Trail 100 is a beast of a race.  Held every year in Leadville, Colorado, it’s considered one of the toughest foot races out there.  As if running 100 miles nonstop weren’t enough of a challenge, the race’s lowest point is over 9,200 feet, with runners breaching 12,600 feet over Hope Pass twice.  The idea that someone would have the stones to commit to something so far beyond the realm of sanity is truly mind-boggling.  So when someone decides to do it and then asks you to be part of a privileged group of people, whose purpose is to keep them going, you throw everything down and give a resounding “Absolutely I will.”

And it’s not until after you’ve had your moment of pride that you realize, $#!& this is going to be tough.

I can only hope that my three races at progressively rising altitudes will help me out in pacing Mr. Zeschin through the ups and downs of Leadville.  I’m sure he’s bringing with him more seasoned ultrarunners, so I might get lucky and receive a less grueling part of the course.  I’m not banking on that, so I’ll definitely be doing lots of stair climbing and hill workouts in between now and then.  With this race, my summer race series and altitude challenge ends, making way for the fall, where I hope to return to sea level and courses as flat as ironing boards.

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