Running (and Coaching!) for the Jackson Chance Foundation

A little over a month ago, a friend of mine reached out to me with an interesting proposition. One of her co-workers had put together a charity and wanted to support it by organizing a group to run the Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon & 5k on July 20. They wanted someone to coach the group by providing training programs, running tips and leading group runs during the spring and summer. She suggested me and I accepted the offer with Chris Traeger-like levels of unbridled enthusiasm.

Created in 2013, the Jackson Chance Foundation raises funds to help families with critically ill infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). In the direst of cases, infants will have prolonged stays in the NICU, each month of which can cost a family up to $1,100 in transportation. The Jackson Chance Foundation aims to alleviate the logistical financial burden of this trying experience by providing complimentary transportation, such as parking, CTA passes or Metra vouchers to families for every day their baby is in the NICU.  The organization has been featured in the Chicago Tribune, the Sun-Times and in various local news pieces.

The foundation is named after baby Jackson, whose short life was spent almost entirely in the NICU. He was born ten weeks early with Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia (BPD), a lung condition that can affect premature newborns. Tragically, after ten unfathomably difficult months, baby Jackson passed away. Reading about his short, yet surprisingly happy life was heartbreaking and added a tearful purpose to my commitment.

jackson_chance_rock_roll_charityMy first thought was how specific the cause was. Then I realized that it’s a perfect example of the many unknown financial challenges that come with such a difficult life event. It’s no secret that medical costs can be staggeringly high, and that the insurance industry is going through enormous change, the outcome of which is still uncertain. So it’s nice to be able to help out with such a direct and tangible contribution, one that might mean a family can spend more time looking over their baby.

The Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon & 5k will start in Grant Park at 6:30 AM on July 20 and is one of only two half marathons in Chicago to run through the heart of the city. By joining the Jackson Chance Foundation, runners will be offered discounted registration, a dedicated tent before and after the race, fundraising prize opportunities and one to two weekly runs with yours truly.

To register to run with the Jackson Chance Foundation, please click here and follow the instructions on the right.

For more information, please visit the following pages:

Official Site



State 35: Utah (2013 Moab Trail Half Marathon)

I harnessed the GoPro camera to my head, careful to not elbow the dense crowd of runners around me.  It was fastened to an elastic band that squeezed my head in three directions, but it felt oddly comfortable.  The sun had almost crested the colossal mounds of red to our right, slowly warming us from the near-freezing temperatures of the desert morning.  The 2013 Moab Trail Marathon and Half Marathon was just minutes from starting and the race announcer was making sure we understood what we were about to do.  This wouldn’t be your average trail run, where your biggest concern is avoiding tree roots and the occasional whipcrack of branches on your face.  Today we would have to contend with cacti, crypto (a living bacteria that serves as desert topsoil), loose rocks and slippery terrain that could spell certain doom if not navigated properly.

I privately thought that we had bitten off more than we could chew.

In the waves behind me were Steve (my father-in-law), his brothers Greg and Jim, and his brother-in-law Dan.  Almost immediately after we all finished the Hoover Dam Marathon last December, the brothers began ruminating over which would be the next trip.  In one of the many emails, Moab was mentioned.  I knew of several races in the area, but one in particular stood out.  Having read Mike’s detailed and flattering account of the Moab Trail Half Marathon, I was intrigued and threw it in the ring.  Within days, flights were bought and race registrations paid.  As the weekend crept ever closer, excitement levels reached feverish levels.  I soon learned that Moab had a Mecca-like quality for Steve and Greg, over the years adopting an otherworldly character that always brought a fond smile to their faces.  In their biking days of yore, they would visit the red desert canyon and lay claim to every trail they could find, seeing breathtaking natural monuments along the way.

If you ever visit Moab, you MUST stay at the Red Cliffs Lodge

If you ever visit Moab, you MUST stay at the Red Cliffs Lodge

This long weekend was therefore not just another out of state race, but a poignant family trip down memory lane.

With race director Danelle Ballengee’s blessing, the crowd of bouncing runners was sent on its way (for Danelle’s riveting back story of survival and triumph, please read Mike’s Moab story).  I made sure to click Record and followed the human flood ahead of me.  The first four miles were all uphill, interrupted only by brief dips and rocky camel humps.  During this ascent, we would run over almost every possible kind of terrain.  We started on asphalt, which quickly became loose sand, a surface that sapped the speed from every footstep.  That soon disappeared, giving way to packed dirt with loose rocks, which grew to boulders and later entire mountains.  I took a moment to look up from the trail to behold the towering walls of red surrounding me.  This race, more than any other I’ve run so far, was the cruelest culprit of the central conflict of trail running — there is so much beautiful scenery to ingest, but you have to keep your eyes on the ground or you risk snapping down like a mousetrap.  We hadn’t run two miles before a gentleman ahead of me fell face first into a pile of rocks the size of human heads.  Although he immediately got up and shoo’ed away any help, I’m sure he took a rough hit to more than just his pride.

The Start / Finish Area

The Start / Finish Area

But like a kid trying to do his homework with the TV on, I couldn’t help but look up from time to time.  The mesmerizing towers of rugged sandstone seemed to close in on us, each formation more impressive than the previous.  The race followed the regular pattern of shock and awe from the previous day’s sightseeing tours.  We had hiked to the almost mystical Delicate Arch, absorbed the dizzying vastness of Dead Horse Point and drove through the cartoonishly smooth biking playgrounds of the Slickrock Sand Flats.  Steve and Greg had escorted us through each stretch of crimson landscape with the same zeal as an older brother showing his siblings Star Wars for the first time.  Each new sun-burnt carving was a wonder to behold, never once blending in with its surroundings.

That’s how this race felt.  Every single section, every part was completely unique and had its own story to tell.


Four miles later, I could feel the top of the climb, the end of the race’s opening act.  I did my best to avoid walking, but there were several steep escarpments where everyone ahead of me had stopped to power hike the smooth mounds of red and white.  The peak was at the top of a gradual incline of jagged rock and the sun was just beyond it.  Slender, alien silhouettes ambled ahead of me towards the light and I followed in short, dusty steps.  Even with my sunglasses, I was almost blind.  But once over the other side, it was like entering another world.  The light changed, everything came into focus, and just like that, I was flying.

moab-trail-half-marathon-mile-8I could feel the crunch of sand and rock with each step as my feet skipped over the surface.  Although it was so easy to give in to gravity, I would meet a long, gruesome end were I to accidentally slip and fall to my left.  So I kept a respectable distance behind the runner ahead of me and let my eyes dart to and fro on the path ahead, evaluating where to (not) step.  Like a stream finding the fast-flowing river, we soon spilled from the rocky cliffs and onto an orange dirt path, hugged by miles of desert, distant mounds of jutting turmeric acting like walls of an enormous arena.  The last four miles had consisted of a slow, sustainable running pace with brief periods of hiking and a few four-legged scrambles, so the suddenly flat, soft trail easily broke the chains.

I hit Record on my unicorn camera and let reckless impulse consume me.  One by one, I passed runners, often running along the edge of the trail like a skater on a half-pipe.  My Garmin’s wrist strap had broken the day before, so it was bouncing in my back pocket, my pace a complete mystery.  But in the middle of flight, I didn’t care.  I had laser targeted the red skyscrapers on the horizon and was closing in on them like a hawk, every step effortlessly pushing off the packed dirt, every rock providing a spring to the next, nothing in my-


“What the,” I said and pulled the harness off my head, my skin practically stuck to it.  “Are you serious?”
“Battery dead?” a nearby runner asked, mid-stride.
“No, full memory card.”
“Ah, that’s a shame.”
“Yeah,” I said, clumsily strapping it back on my head like a mascot caught out of costume.  “I could probably make some space on it, but I doubt my father-in-law would appreciate it if I delete his Scuba diving videos.”
“That’d be a terrible idea.”
“Oh well,” I said.  “At least I got the hard part on video.”

The runner laughed and continued with his run.  He didn’t say anything else though.  In retrospect, I suspect that he had run this race before because, as I would learn just a few miles later, I had not quite reached the hard part of the race.


I reached the first of two aid stations at the end of the flat stretch, where I drank some HEED energy drink and ate an orange slice with a sugar cookie before continuing on the path, which was no longer a discrete trail.  For much of the next three miles, we would be on the shoulders of red bluffs just a head turn away from awe-inspiring canyons (also known as a giant, potential graves).  Running was happening in short bursts, whenever possible.  Loose rocks, curious shrubs and a general sense of self-preservation kept me from attacking these cliffs.  The slower pace gave me a chance to absorb the enormous gap created by ancient water, an expanse so large it almost rivaled Dead Horse Point.  I continued leaping over rocks and sliding under natural overhangs, wondering how the brothers were reacting to this race so far.  After all, I was the one who suggested it.

I could imagine Greg admiring the view in his congenial Midwestern voice that hints at his goofy personality; Dan would stop and appreciate the monuments with pithy, no-nonsense remarks while stroking his goatee; and Jim would take a hundred pictures with his phone and remark at each new vista with gushy adulation in his slow, mellow intonation.  Meanwhile, Steve would yell “Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!” like a wild man, pick out the most efficient way possible to tackle the challenge ahead and continue enjoying the trip he put together with the bros in his life.

moab-trail-half-marathon-mile-10But I did hope they were being careful.  The orange ribbons that marked the trail weren’t as easy to find anymore.  There was no one ahead of me to follow so my eyes were working overtime to find the next marker and keep me from tripping on rocks.  For several stretches, it felt like I wasn’t following ribbons as much as unearthing them.  During one slight downhill, I began to pick up speed but couldn’t lose focus for a second.  As I fell methodically down the stepped rocks, I felt like a cyborg targeting every possible object and evaluating its relevance, four, five times a second.

I was enjoying this so much, I couldn’t help but smile.  It didn’t take long for the downhill jaunt to become a dance, with short, rhythmic steps clicking against the sand before a semi-graceful leap over a rock.  I was living every step, focused so intently on form that it felt like I was holding my breath the entire time.  I wouldn’t have noticed if the spires in the distance had uprooted themselves and done Tai Chi.

But soon all running would come to a grinding halt.  The shoulder of the mountain was narrowing with every step until it was scarcely more than a thin ledge with clumps of red dandruff.  The only things separating me from tumbling down the side into a canyon popping with vegetation was an arm’s length of space and a poor decision.  I was also holding a hand above my head to keep the camera from scraping a red ceiling.  Two days earlier, we had hiked to see Delicate Arch, which included a slow walk next to a similarly sharp drop-off, during which Greg had mentioned his fear of heights.  I could only hope he would keep it together during this leg of the race.

Miles 10 - 12

Miles 10 – 12

I began descending, quickly.  Not only were the ribbons leading me down into the canyon, but runners were catching up with me – probably the ones I passed during the flat, dirt road – and I didn’t want to be the bottleneck.  I saw a spotter up ahead, who ushered me towards a pit between two large boulders.  Rather than crabwalk down the edge, I decided to jump.  I landed with a full crouch, my knees almost touching my ears.  After picking myself up and slapping the dust off my gloves on my legs, I slid down until I could turn around and see the line of people waiting to shimmy down the rock face, wishing my camera had some space left to capture the vertiginous descent.

I reached the bottom of the canyon, the next aid station just a few minutes away.  The trail was thicker here, so I ran with my hands outstretched, pushing away the plants and reeds that had joined the cavalcade of obstacles.  As I approached the station, I noticed with great confidence that I was still feeling strong and not drained by the air at 5,000 feet like I had expected.  I downed another cup of HEED and left the station through a thin layer of trees that separated the canyon from the main road.  We had driven here the day before and knew what was to come: a long, dry climb.

Miles 10 - 12 (Google Earth)

Miles 10 – 12 (Google Earth)

So up I went.  I started with a slow jog, pushing the gravel behind me in short steps.  I passed a few walkers along the way, who would later pass me as I took my own break.  A quick asphalt switchback pulled us quickly up the slope and for the first time in the race, I could feel my quads start to burn.  The top of the climb was in sight, so I let myself take one last walk break before topping the hill and turning on the afterburners.  Though the road was full of small rocks that could still be felt through the soles of my trail shoes, I wouldn’t have noticed.  The downhill had the perfect slant – not too weak to just be a false flat, and just shy of a quad-melting grade.  I came up to an older runner who looked to be in his 60s.

“This is more like it!” I yelled as I passed him.
“That’s the way to do it!” he said with a fist in the air.  “Save it all for the end!”

The sinister stream

The sinister stream

But the downhill, like every single act of this race, was short lived.  A small sign dug into the side of the road showed a little black arrow pointing left, into a shallow canyon.  As if to avoid temptation, the organizers had stationed a few friendly volunteers next to the sign to make sure everyone stopped their exuberant prance and made the proper left turn.  The road became slickrock so my run became a jog; the slickrock began dropping into the canyon in steps, so my jog became a cautious scoot.  Once flattened, I got back to running, eager for the finish line.  But there was one obstacle left to face.

This last barrier to glory would come in the shape of an ice-cold stream, winding in and out of the canyon, surrounded by mud-drenched rocks.  The organizers had warned us that the local beavers had been busy, so we should plan on getting our feet wet.  There was a volunteer at the first crossing, who wasted no words by telling us that we simply had to get in.  There was no way to avoid it.  It was too wide to jump and no rocks were breaching its surface to act as stepping stones.  So in I went.

Jim on the final scramble to the finish line

Jim on the final scramble to the finish line

Those first steps were awful.  Though it was only shin-deep, the cold sensation shot up my legs and through my spine, causing me to stiffen completely.  I lumbered across that stream with my arms moving around me as if I were shaped like a sphere, all grace and confidence draining into the icy water.  But to my delight, it only took me about five or six steps to reach the other side.  Once on land, I knew it was vital that I run to bring my feet back to life.  We were deep in the canyon and there was very little sunlight reaching us, so running alone would warm them up.  I was trying to actively hug the ground with my toes with every step, leaving the cold sensation on the damp grass.  So far, it was working.

That wasn’t so bad, I thought.  Now time to … get back in?

All elation of being almost finished was dashed when I looked ahead and saw runners crossing back to the other side of the stream.  If we had to ford this thing more than once, then it was possible that we’d have to cross it a third, fourth, maybe even a fifth time.  I was right on all three counts.  Just as my feet would warm up, I would once again drown them in an icy bath like a cruel interrogator.  But at least the crossings were quick, requiring only two or three fully underwater steps.

But even that small luxury was stripped from me as we found ourselves wading in the middle of the stream, parallel to the bank, those damned orange ribbons hanging from the branches above us.

This is getting silly, Steve would think.
Oh boy, Greg might say aloud.
This is sooooo cooooool, Jim would chime in.
Dan, meanwhile, would scoff out an expletive and soldier onward.

I was happy to see this Arch in Moab, even if it didn't take millions of years to form

I was happy to see this Arch in Moab, even if it didn’t take millions of years to form

This pattern continued for a few more crossings until we were finally out of the water and onto the road.  I was thrilled to be back on dry land, even if we had yet another climb ahead of us.  It felt like I had an ice pack squeezed between the tops of my feet and my shoes, but it was quickly melting with each step.  At the top of the climb, I could hear the muffled sounds of the race announcer and a red arch, slightly obscured by a row of porta-potties.  The adventure was almost over, so it was time to empty the tank.  My legs had shuffled through cliffs, slid over loose rocks, climbed up dirt roads and now battled with glacial waters, but I managed to kick uphill, pulling the finish line closer.  The end was near …

… until it wasn’t.  What I thought was the entrance to the parking lot looked more like a complete turnaround, back into the canyon.  My suspicions were confirmed by the cheery volunteers pointing downward into the realm of the cold creek.  I told the friendly woman who rerouted me that what she was doing was downright cruel.  She assured me that there was just a quarter-mile left, which was friendly volunteer-speak for “a vast expanse of unfathomable distance separates you from success.”

Jim finishing the 2013 Moab Trail Half Marathon, just 3 weeks after the Chicago Marathon

Jim finishing the 2013 Moab Trail Half Marathon, just 3 weeks after the Chicago Marathon

Just as I had thought, we’d be crossing the dreaded stream again.  There were a few rocks poking their heads out of the surface a little downhill, so I tip-toed over them and into a wall of reeds and dirt.  I regretted that decision because I ended up covering my shoes in muddy runoff just to avoid getting them wet.  Once back on the trail, it was business as usual – a thin, serpentine path interrupted by enormous boulders with ribbons leading the way.  Jim would later joke that he imagined the race director tying each one in a deliberately treacherous location while snickering sadistically.

The shrubbery was thicker and taller here, making me feel for the first time that I was in a forest.  I reached the stream again to find a black pipe connecting the embankments, just a few inches above the water.  My first thought was that we were going to tightrope across it.  And why the hell not?  We had done most everything else in this race except zip-lining as Steve would later point out.  But a volunteer showed me otherwise.  She pointed to the muddy water next to the pipe and told me there was a cinderblock there.  I looked down and saw nothing.  But after exploring the water with my foot, I felt the solid structure underneath.  Like magic, the rest of the water became translucent and I could see the remaining stepping stones.


(left to right): Dan, Greg, Steve finishing the 2013 Moab Trail Half Marathon

I walked over the water like a basilisk and ran over smooth dirt toward the finishing area.  Up ahead were about forty people ceremoniously standing above a giant rock, looking down at runners and cheering.  One of them yelled, “She’s gaining on him, watch her go!” so I gave everyone a show and picked up the pace.  I ran up and slid past the rock to behold a short, but very steep chute covered in orange sand.  I could tell it had suffered the fanatical footsteps of many runners already, giving me neither traction nor elegance.  But once at the top, it was just a quick left turn to dash across the finish line in 2:19:22.

national-championshipAfter changing into dry shoes and socks, I made my way back to the top of that last climb to see the rest of the boys finish.  Jim soon came scrambling up the mountain, proving that he had enough endurance to finish this tough race just three weeks removed from his second marathon.  Not long after, Greg and Dan emerged together, matching each other stride for effortless stride under the finisher’s banner.  Shortly after them, Steve climbed through the arch, conquering the trails of Moab for the first time on foot and cementing the five of us as finishers in the most intense adventure race any of us had ever experienced.

We spent the rest of the day gabbing about the race like girls after a One Direction concert.  While everyone enjoyed the event in their own way, there were signature moments that couldn’t go unnoticed.  Cresting the top of the first four miles, the fast dash through the open fields, the perilous descent, the long hill, the treacherous creek, the false finish line and that last crawl through the inflatable arch.  It was clear that everyone loved the race.  I can already hear us talking about it when we return in ten years for the next grand adventure with brand new faces.  And return we no doubt will.

(left to right): Me, Greg, Dan, Jim, Steve

(left to right): Me, Greg, Dan, Jim, Steve.  Where’s my matching team shirt, you ask?  Covered in sweat and crumpled in a plastic bag, where it should be in the interest of public safety and comfort.

Because there was something unique about the landscape in Moab, something difficult to describe that separated the red desert spires from any other natural formation.  Each stepped mountain was not just an impressive sight worthy of a telephoto lens, it was a painting of the enormity of the planet’s geological history.  I’ve been to the Alps, biked the Rockies and walked around volcanic craters in Costa Rica.  But I seem to imagine the creation of a mountain like a child – three or four earthquakes and suddenly, there are mountains where once a plain existed.  But the slowly eroding red top hats and stone scepters in southeast Utah give you a true sense of just how long it took something like Dead Horse to reach its current state.  Similarly, it makes me realize that we’re just a blip on earth’s radar, and that millions of years after we’re gone – assuming we don’t decimate the entire planet – Delicate Arch will still be there, moving a bright circle across the desert, a silent caretaker with a thinning cane.

But until that happens, I will enjoy that short blip in the company of great people as we visit amazing places.

Marathon_Map 044 (UT)

Bonus: Costa Rica (2013 Cerros de Escazú 21k)

(foreground) Pa, Ma, Me, (background) Challenge

(foreground) Pa, Ma, Me, (background) Challenge

In the last two months I’ve been putting in some time on the trails to prepare for the two ultramarathons I intend to finish this summer.  Once a week I leave the hard pavement of Chicago’s lake front path for the more secluded dirt paths of the Palos Forest Reserve in hopes of strengthening my legs in ways that repetitive road running can’t.  But though it’s genuinely trail running that I’ve been doing, I haven’t exactly made it a difficult experience.  Sure, there is more elevation and some rocks and roots to dodge, but the trails I’ve chosen haven’t been very technical.  It’s partly my fault because I haven’t really sought out other options.  Despite this, my limited experience with trails has helped me become a stronger runner, not just in how much punishment my legs can take, but in how much confidence I have that I can finish these daunting races.

So when I found myself in Costa Rica for a close friend’s wedding, I decided to try and hit up the local trail running circuit and bolster my trail résumé with an international event.  I found one called Cerros de Escazú which had 21km (half marathon) and 10k race options.  I signed up for the half and convinced Chori, another friend of mine from high school, to sign up for the 10k.

Packet Pickup / Race Start in San Antonio de Escazú

Packet Pickup / Race Start in San Antonio de Escazú

It soon became clear that we had signed up for a famously difficult race.  That was apparent in the race title, which means “Mountains of Escazú.”  San José, the capital of Costa Rica, was built in the middle of a valley and while some of the surrounding mountains appear to rise gradually from the ground, those that overlook Escazú rise dramatically and tower over the city.  I knew all of this when I signed up but assumed that the race would take place around the base of the mountain.  I was expecting a few climbs, soft mountain dirt and at least a little technical hopscotch.

I was very, very mistaken.

0414_cerrosdeescazu 08Everyone else, family and friends alike, seemed to be aware of just how awful it was going to be.  My sister cautioned me that it had pretty much everything I couldn’t simulate in the last 6 months: elevation, mountains and the tropical climate.  There had also been an unusual heat wave going through San José and it wasn’t going to stop for a small race of just a few hundred people.  Family members who lived in Escazú gave me concerned looks just when I told them where it started.  But as I ate a delicious pasta meal with everyone the night before, I talked about the next day’s challenge with enough sangfroid to calm a 90-pound linebacker.  Because if we’re being honest, I get a definite rush of excitement and pride when people tell me what I’m about to do is nuts.  I knew the race would be tough – that’s why I picked it over a flat 10k happening a few miles away.  But I also knew I would finish it, come what may.

Of course, it wouldn’t be easy.

I was at the starting area in San Antonio de Escazú with my parents about an hour before the start of the race.  While Escazú has for a long time been the more posh area of San José, with designer stores and plenty of US restaurant franchises, the town plaza in San Antonio was nothing like that.  Packet pickup was in front of the local church on a soccer pitch, which was surrounded by a wall that had been carved with images of carretas, campesinos and bueyes, hallmarks of the small country’s rich cultural heritage.  Locals gathered around small pulperías, música charanga echoed out of restaurants, the clamor of the city (bulla) far below.

Chori and I at the start

Chori and I at the start

With my bib pinned to my shorts and a Camelbak slung over my shoulders, it was almost time to go.  My uncle Randy had showed up at the starting line with his two adorable daughters and quickly mapped out what the course was like.  The event’s Facebook page had a rudimentary diagram of the route but I didn’t delve too much into it.  But Randy found out, probably from a seasoned veteran, and quickly pointed to a nearby peak.

“That’s where you’re going now, and then you go to that one,” he said, pointing from one peak to the next with a sinister grin.  I, on the other hand, had more of a nervous smile as I stared at the rising earth before me.

“I’m putting this on airplane mode so you don’t waste the battery,” Randy said as he stuffed a phone in the Camelbak.  “Take a picture at the point where you lose all energy (fundirse) so the geo-tracking can mark it.”

I knew he was only half joking.  You couldn’t stare up at the cerros without a lot of concern.  The night before I had predicted a three-hour finish, taking into account the trail, the altitude and potential heat.  But I hadn’t counted on the race course going, to put it scientifically, balls to the wall.  The organizers weren’t kidding around – we were going straight up and for a long time.  Chori had read somewhere that it was the toughest race in the country after Chirripó, which would be the North American equivalent of Mt. McKinley.

Me embarqué, I thought.  Definitely more than I could confidently chew.

0414_cerrosdeescazu 13

The race started surprisingly on time.  A bright orange arch had been inflated over the street and a crowd had gathered underneath.  The announcer fired off a few last-minute warnings and directives before sounding the horn.  The first few strides were on asphalt as we left the main city center.  Randy was at the start and took a video of the field.  Less than two minutes into the race, we were going uphill.  Not just gradually uphill, but straight up, feel your shoes on your toes uphill.  I told Chori I’d run with him until the 10k turnaround so up we went together, the sun beating down on our backs, sweat already dripping onto the black road below.

Laugh at how much taller I am than everyone else:

“Falta muuuucho!” a revelrous runner yelled from behind us.  At the time, I couldn’t tell if what he said was a question (“Is there a lot left?”) or a statement (“There’s a lot left!”).  It was the worst time to hear such a comment because the race was already difficult, with absolutely nothing behind us and all of it still to come.  To add to the challenge, we had started at 4,000 feet, the air already feeling slightly thinner than Chicago’s sea-level oxygen.  We were plodding upwards on our toes to the tune of a 14-minute mile, many runners already walking.  Some were even walking as fast as I was running.  For those first two miles I contemplated taking a walk break but soon learned that doing so, for an ineffable reason that I’m sure has a simple physiological explanation, was more fatiguing than running.

Still climbing, Chori on the left in the blue shirt

Still climbing, Chori on the left in the blue shirt

I eventually had to take a break, so I walked to the side of the road and took a few pictures.  My shirt was almost completely soaked in sweat by then.  We had passed an aid station where volunteers had tins full of bolis, plastic water pouches whose corners you bite to open.  Every race I’ve done in Costa Rica has them and last year’s Miami Half Marathon implemented them to much acclaim from its Latin American contingent.  They’re useful because they’re much easier to carry without spillage than cups and much easier for the volunteers to transport.

The road soon turned to dry dirt and rocks, but the slope stayed the same.  Every new turn meant another climb, another dashed hope that we had somehow miraculously made it to the top.  My visor was soaked, dripping with every footfall, sweat sliding off my elbows with every thrust of my arms.  Although the heat was tolerable, there were many stretches where we couldn’t hide from the sun.  I was using my calves like they had never been used before and my forefoot was getting far too comfortable with being the only part touching the ground.

Por dicha he estado practicando en esa cuesta por mi choza,” Chori said as he strode onward.  Despite being a lifelong athlete, he too was struggling to avoid the dreaded uphill walk.

Finally flattens out, but the rest of the climb looms ahead.

Finally flattens out, but the rest of the climb looms ahead.

Around mile 3, at long last, it seemed like we had found a brief respite.  The course flattened out and even dipped downward a bit.  We had reached the top of a ridge connecting the different peaks and on both sides were majestic views of Costa Rica.  To my right were endless mountains draped in jungle, to my left the entirety of San José.  This is what it was like to look left and right:

0414_cerrosdeescazu 250414_cerrosdeescazu 17

After taking a few pictures, I noticed that the 10k “escape” route was ahead, so I waited for Chori and said goodbye.  He turned downhill and I continued onward into a single-track trail that was barely wide enough for one person.  I was alternating between looking up and down because while I was trying to avoid roots and rocks, I had to also be mindful of branches.  I was the tallest person at the race so I’d be facing more obstacles than anyone else.

Just before the 10k "escape"

Just before the 10k “escape”

0414_cerrosdeescazu 24I was keeping a constant 14-minute pace, wondering whether I’d be able to maintain it as we continued climbing.  It wasn’t long before I’d get my answer.  Around mile 4, the path reached the edge of a dropoff, with nothing but barbed wire stopping a potential fall.  Though everyone slowed down at this vertiginous section, all runners became walkers upon reaching a canyon-like hiking trail carved straight into the mountain as if by a giant axe.  The ground was a damp, orange dirt, with ground leaves adding to the instability.  My hands were given the unusual task of doing something during a race as I had to hoist myself up numerous times with tree trunks and exposed roots.  I could go no faster than the person directly ahead of me, whose shoes were at my eye level.

Up and up we continued, the jungle getting thicker, the air thinner and my heartbeat pounding in my head.  We weren’t moving fast at all, but even if we wanted to speed up, there was no room to pass.

“Di qué, yo pensé que esto era una carrera?!” the runner in front of me said, prompting a few laughs from those ahead of him.  Not long after, he would yell “Falta muuuucho!” and I realized it was the same person from the first mile.  He didn’t sound or look tired, but like everyone else, kept a slow pace as he marched with the rest of us like ants up the trail.  It was around this point that I started getting worried about missing my flight.  I had to be at the airport in three hours.  Would I have enough time to finish, go home and shower?  Miles were now taking upwards of twenty minutes to complete and I still had more than halfway to go.  If I could just make it to the top …

Google Earth Rendering of the Top of the Cerros de Escazú 21k

Google Earth Rendering of the Top of the Cerros de Escazú 21k.  Toward the top, the jungle really was as thick as it looks.

Sí, efectivamente falta muuuuucho.

Sí, efectivamente falta muuuuucho.

The top of the climb did eventually arrive, but I do not remember it.  I suppose I was expecting a simple, rounded peak, over which I’d run with my arms thrown above me and eventually descend.  But instead, the trail simply stopped climbing and soon I was leaning back, pounding the dirt with my quads, using my hands to swing around trees and stop myself from going too fast.  It was here that I saw how much experience these runners had with downhill running.  For though we were hiking in single file uphill at the same pace, I very quickly lost those ahead of me as the ground dropped.

And somehow, I wasn’t going fast.  I could hear the rapid fire of my feet hitting the dirt, the split second of panic while airborne, quickly searching for the next rock to avoid without going off trail.  The world was passing by me one obstacle at a time, but my pace was still registering in the twenties.  It took me a few minutes to realize the steepness of the slope was responsible for my slow pace.  I couldn’t run consistently downhill, opting instead for a series of short bursts as I’d face each individual obstacle.  I was using my arms more than I had ever used them during a race, pushing branches out of the way, bracing my fall against trunks and slapping mosquitoes off my skin.  The dirt path quickly became another dirt half pipe, which had me running from wall to wall as if on a swing.  It was fun at times, but I was a little concerned.  I was already feeling a pinch in my quads with every step and I didn’t dare imagine what shade of purple my toenails were adopting.

The start of the downhill

The start of the downhill

The thick jungle soon changed into what looked like pines, the dry dirt below almost from another climate.  There was no longer a discrete path to take, but a general wooded area with large rocks and lumps of earth making a smooth descent almost impossible.  The trees in this section looked like their lowest branches had been sawed off, leaving four inch spikes right where my hands would have gone to stop a fall or during a break.  It definitely felt like I was in a video game and I was facing continuously more difficult levels.

Soon after, the course became considerably less precipitous.  But this convenience was countered by the large rocks that made up its surface.  I couldn’t run or even walk without considering every single step I was taking.  I would miss the flat side of a rock and accidentally dig a sharp point into the ball of my foot, a quick stab of pain preceding a loud curse.  More than one false step caused my ankles to roll inward slightly.  I was very relieved when the path once again became soft dirt, only to see it start climbing again.  I clipped a root and fell three large, booming steps forward before catching myself.  On the downhill, my left foot slipped from beneath me on a patch of loose dirt and I threw my hands behind me to stay upright.  Besides those quick incidents, I stayed upright for the remainder of the race.

0414_cerrosdeescazu 28Down and down I continued, each step increasing the acid building up in my quads and the ache in my foot.  We had spilled out of the jungle and into what looked like empty lots covered in overgrown grass.  After sliding down a few slopes, we made it back to black asphalt.  The road felt tough on my feet after 10 or so miles of dirt, grass and mud.  Though downhill, I couldn’t go much faster than a 9-minute pace.  Locals were out, walking on the street, most likely on their way to Sunday mass.  I passed several dogs who barely noticed I was there.  I kept rotating my visor to protect me from wherever the sun was, the only movement I made for the next three miles besides move my feet and bite into water pouches.

I took my phone out and called my parents, telling them I was probably about thirty minutes away from the finish line and that I would love some sort of electrolyte drink at the finish.  Ten minutes later I ran into a volunteer who told me to turn left, up a tiny hill, “y de ahí, seiscientos metros.”

0414_cerrosdeescazu 29Great, I thought.  Six hundred meters and then what?

But as I came to the top of that tiny bump, I saw the orange finish arch in the distance.  I called my parents again and told them I was wrong, that I was about to finish.  Suddenly I was capable of actually running again, as if the last three hours had done nothing to my system.  Block by block, intersection by intersection, I approached the finish line, the announcer’s voice becoming louder than my breathing.  Just a block away, I heard her call my name, telling the crowd I was from Chicago and that I was about to finish as an ambassador to the event.

Three hours and seven minutes had passed since I had started the toughest race of my life.  My dad was just beyond the finish line with a bag full of different flavors of Gatorade.  I took one and finished it in about five ambrosial gulps.  It was a mistake to go into this race without a salty beverage, but in no time I was back to feeling normal.  Two hours later, I would be at the airport, waiting for my flight back to the United States, my third Costa Rican race and a kitchen sink weekend under my belt.

Google Earth Rendering of the Cerros de Escazú 21k

Google Earth Rendering of the Cerros de Escazú 21k

Pa helps out at the finish, the mountains sneering in the background

Pa helps out at the finish, the mountains sneering in the background

Though the race was a bit shy of a half marathon, it made up for the shortage with its 7,700 feet of altitude change.  And yes, I had fun.  I wouldn’t do this kind of event regularly, I might not even do it again if I were to find myself in Costa Rica on this same weekend next year.  But I’m very glad I did it.  If the one-of-a-kind scenic views of the Central Valley weren’t alone worth the climb, then surely the primal romp through the jungle sealed the deal.  This race pushed me outside of my comfort zone, slapped me in the face, pushed me in the dirt and asked me who was in charge.  Despite that rude awakening, I managed to reach the finish line in one piece.

As I write this, my legs are extremely sore.  This wouldn’t be an issue were it not for the Garmin Marathon this Saturday and the recent Boston Marathon incident still very fresh in my mind.  It will be interesting running one of the first possible marathons after such a tragedy with tired legs and a still troubled mind.  But as runners, we must keep running forward.  Here goes nothing …

State 31: North Carolina (2013 NC Half Marathon)


There were four of us sitting in the Toyota, staring up at the bright lights of the Charlotte Motor Speedway.  We had parked with the rest of the early birds, in a grassy parking lot just outside the entrance.  It was 6 in the morning, plenty of time before the NC Half Marathon would start.  But we were huddled next to the vents, watching as rain shot by the enormous lights like a swarm of moths.  I was in the passenger seat, keeping a close eye on nearby puddles to see if the splashes were getting larger and more frequent.  In the backseat was Marla, who was aiming for a strong PR at her second ever 13.1, and Lindsey, future marathoner with the same plan.  Driving the car was Ashley, who was going to toe the line for the first time.  Otter and his friends Alexis and Chris hadn’t arrived yet.

0323_1_speedway 04“This is totally my fault,” Ashley would say as we looked through the distorted windshield, rain sliding in silver streaks like mercury.

Though I had insisted with brimming confidence that I had never raced in rain and that I would bring them all my good fortune, the wet drive to the speedway from Ashley’s house hadn’t made believers out of my friends.  For the time being, it looked like her bad luck with weather would overpower my pluvial control.

The Facebook group for this race had been full of weather-related comments all week, with several posts worrying about apparel and others simply pining for last year’s pristine conditions.  In fact, I had originally planned on running this race last year.  The organizers had sent an email blast for a shiny new half marathon in North Carolina with a shiny new medal.  It was not only large and colorful, but had moving parts and LED lights.  Honestly, I wouldn’t have been able to resist were it not for flights to Charlotte being oddly expensive.  So I tabled the idea for this year.

The deferral ended up working out because what would have normally been the typical solo excursion became a weekend of seven runners and many familiar faces.  I ended up flying into Greenville and driving up to Charlotte Friday night.  I arrived at Ashley’s house just after 11 PM assuming I’d have to sneak in to avoid waking everyone up.  I was proven wrong as I entered the front door to find the entire family in the living room in the middle of a lively conversation.  In just a few minutes I had added another entry to the long list of my friends with absolutely excellent families.

(left to right) Otter, Ashley, Lindsey, Marla, me

(left to right) Otter, Ashley, Lindsey, Marla, me

We spent Saturday alternating between watching NCAA games and updating the weather forecast.  Ashley and Otter would frequently drop their steely gaze from the TV screens at the bar to check their phones and blurt out the chance of rain, which never dropped below 70%.  Though their respective alma maters won their games, the odds of running the next day’s race in dry conditions didn’t improve.  I continued to insist that I was their wild card, their X factor, their ace in the hole – but I was flying in the face of an almost certain likelihood that my long-standing streak was coming to a harsh, sopping end.  As we kept warm in the car Sunday morning, Mother Nature was making it quite clear that I had no godly powers.

Several pop songs later we had all just accepted our watery fates and moved on to other race preparations.  Marla was going back and forth between running in just shorts or going for pants, Ashley was rigging up her phone through her rain jacket with the use of plastic poop bags she had found in the car and Lindsey was … well, Lindsey was asleep.  It would be a few minutes before any of us would notice that the rain had died down to just a few drops on the windshield.  Perhaps Asgard would shine down on me again …

With thirty minutes to go, we left for the garage in the middle of the speedway, where packet pickup was held the day before.  Hundreds of runners were packing the maintenance shack with twin lines of men and women spilling out of the bathrooms.  We checked our bags and stayed inside until they made the official announcement for everyone to make their way to the track.

A Sampling of Speedways in Long Distance Races

A Sampling of Speedways in Long Distance Races

Followers of this blog will know that I’ve done several races that include an actual racecar track.  But though these other events may flaunt them front and center, the racetracks are usually only 1-3 miles of the full race distance.  Even the nation’s largest half marathon only has you running on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for about 2.5 miles.  Not this race.  The NC Half Marathon not only starts and finishes inside the oval, it stays within the racing compound the entire time.  Knowing this, I walked to the start and lined up with a hunger for speed.  I hadn’t run a half marathon since August and didn’t have any others in my registration queue.  In fact, this was the first time since February of 2009 that I wouldn’t have another half marathon in the near or distant future.  My beloved distance had stopped being a challenge and was now a speed test.

And a speed test this would be, not just for me.  Marla had expressed that she’d be disappointed if she didn’t PR.  I had told Otter that if he finished over 1:45, I’d be greatly disappointed in him.  In turn, he said I would bring great shame to myself if I finished over 1:30.  So this was not going to be your average fun run.  I decided to wear my green Kentucky Derby miniMarathon t-shirt as a constant reminder of my purpose that morning.  I was there to beat my 1:30:47 half marathon PR, set last April in Louisville, and if I ever looked down in fatigue, I would see that shirt and stay focused.

There were no corrals, but signs with pace ranges.  Given that I was out to PR, I stood in the area designated as “7:01 – 6:00.”  I wasn’t joined by many others.  I looked behind me and saw a crowd 1,200 people deep but I could count the people ahead of me with two hands.  “Crazy Train” played on the speakers before the longest and cheesiest rendition of the national anthem I have ever heard.  Finally, at 7:30 sharp, with the rain having completely stopped, we were ready to start.  Organizers had brought an actual racecar to start ahead of the lead pack, whose tires squealed to life with the starting horn.  It fishtailed and sped out ahead of the runners, leaving us to breathe in about sixty feet’s worth of exhaust and burnt rubber.

It was a fun addition, but I could have done without the brief pulmonary discomfort.

The full race course.  Click for slightly higher definition.

The full race course. Click for slightly higher definition.

The race started with one big lap around the speedway.  I held a 7-minute pace for this first mile, the handful of faster runners very quickly thinning out the field and disappearing into the asphalt horizon.  After that first loop, we left the racetrack and went inside the oval, in pit crew territory and around the garage where minutes earlier we were keeping warm.  It was here that I got a taste of just how many turns this race would have.  But despite the constant tilting, I was cruising through the course, gaining ground on a few competitors.  It’s amazing how simply having other people around you can make a fast pace feel easy.

Just before the third mile, we left the speedway and head for the outside lots.  This was where I was faced with an unexpected obstacle, yet one that had been in plain sight since the day before.


Walking into the bright lights and heavy rain

Walking into the bright lights and heavy rain

“This elevation chart must be way off,” we had said many times in the days leading up to the event.  “They’re speedways, so they’re flat.  This diagram was probably made with a faulty Garmin or something.”


While the speedway itself is definitely a paragon of flatness, the surrounding area was not.  In fact, when we weren’t on a speedway, we were either going slightly up or slightly down.  I had not counted on this when I made the effort of holding a 7-minute pace, or when I declared that I was going to try and PR, or when I told Otter he’d better run under 1:45 or face a public stoning.  But it was too early in the race for self doubt, so I continued to hammer onwards.  The next two miles would wrap around the speedway, reaching the highest point in the race: a pedestrian tunnel that arched over Concord Parkway’s six lanes of traffic.  By any reasonable person’s standards, this wasn’t a tough climb.  But I was racing a flat course ghost and couldn’t afford to slow down.  A fast wind was rushing through the links at the top of the tunnel and I watched as my pace slowed on my watch.

The downhill after this was a bit perilous.  Not only was it a steep slope to descend, but the ground was very wet.  I had collected a runner with a Universal Sole shirt along the way and he was right in my blind spot, drafting behind me.  I didn’t think too much about it and kept my pace.  Usually when this happens, we get separated at aid stations where I stop to walk.  But somehow we had kept together, stride for stride.  Around mile 5.5 we ran around the dirt track and faced a pretty nasty downhill.  We passed an aid station that had three empty tables and one poor girl filling as many cups as she could while still offering them to passing runners.  There weren’t many runners at my pace, so she was able to hold down the fort for the moment.

Mile 11.5 (Alexis on the right)

Mile 11.5 (Alexis on the right)

“I hope she gets some help soon,” I told Universal Sole.  “She’s about to get overrun.”

We kept on at just under 7 minutes per mile leading into the Dragway.  This was my favorite part of the course.  Universal Sole was still in my blind spot, matching each stride as we entered the seemingly interminable road, a brisk wind pushing against us.  It was so far it was difficult to see the turnaround, like those cartoon drawings of roads on the horizon.  On our left, the pace car passed us with two fleet-footed runners leading the pack.  I looked ahead and saw very few runners behind them, but always in groups.

“You look like you’re out for an easy stroll,” Universal said to me in quick gasps.
“Nope,” I replied in similar distress.  “I’m definitely feeling this.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not in your age group.”

I laughed at that last comment, but it also got me thinking.  Was I really competing for an age group award?  While I had placed third for males 25 through 29 at the Oak Barrel half last year, that had come as a surprise.  But this guy seemed to think that I was not only competing for it, but that I could actually do it.  There didn’t seem to be that many runners ahead of me, but surely those that I had seen were my age.  We finally reached the turnaround at mile 7, where we ran back to the entrance but with the wind at our backs.  I could see wave after wave of runners approaching, each larger than the one before it.  I eventually saw Otter, who was running with the 1:45 pace group.

“Hey Dan, how’s it goin’ brother?” he enthusiastically asked across the concrete divider, clearly interrupting whatever mid-run conversation he was having with the pacer.

I raised my fist in response.  I couldn’t help but think that Otter being glib meant he wasn’t running fast enough.  I would later learn that he assumed my non-verbal response meant that I was hurting.  He was partially correct.  While I finished mile 8 with a flat 7-minute mile, I was starting to worry that I wouldn’t be able to keep it up, painfully aware that we’d have a considerable uphill to conquer to make it back to the speedway.

The final stretch (Chris in the back)

The final stretch (Chris in the back)

I dropped Universal Sole at end of dragway, leaving him to find a new pacer.  Up ahead was a tall and surprisingly muscular runner who was wearing a white singlet with “USA” on the front.  I caught up to him before turning left into a parking lot and up, up, up we went towards another pedestrian tunnel.  Each time the road sloped higher, I felt myself leaning forward more.  Eventually, I felt like I was running on my toes, the road so close I felt like I could scratch it.  I wanted to slow down but I hadn’t built a buffer in the last 8 miles to let me “coast” to a new personal best.  Once at the top, with the highway beneath us, I was beat, exhausted and in no shape to keep it up.

The rain-soaked finish

The rain-soaked finish

After another steep downhill, we were back on the service roads surrounding the speedway, retracing our steps.  I passed mile 9 in 7:14, my slowest split yet.  At the top of a perfectly shaped hill, I looked down and saw that one of the safety pins on my bib loincloth had slipped out of the fabric of my shorts.  I stopped to fix it, and in doing so, let the runner with the white USA singlet pass me.  I picked it back up and kept him in my sights as we scaled hill after hill.  It wouldn’t be long before reaching what I call the “half” wall.  It’s like the symbolic wall that most marathoners hit around mile 22 except it doesn’t hit you in the legs, but in your lungs.

I crossed mile 10 in 7:11, my arms swinging wildly and my breathing loud enough to hear inside the stadium.  I groaned as I faced an ugly reality check: I would have to run 6:40 or faster for the rest of the race to finish under 1:30.  I was struggling to hold just over 7 and no amount of effusive optimism was going to help.  To add to my ever mounting list of hurdles, we were now entering the pit area of the speedway, whose multiple turns were acting like speed bumps.  USA Singlet had passed a pair of young runners in bright, neon colors and I followed suit.  I heard them curse as the three of us turned a corner into a fierce headwind.  A few steps later we’d see that the 11th mile marker had toppled.

It felt like an eternity but I was back on the oval, ready for another loop and then the finish line.  I crossed mile 12 in 7:08 and reached USA Singlet right as it began to rain.  We made the first turn, heading north, and faced the dreaded wind square in the chest.  I cursed loud enough for him to hear, but I don’t remember if he responded.  Harnessing what power I had left, I kicked the asphalt and ran in a straight line, through puddles and over slick paint, doing everything possible to avoid looking at my watch.  My next competitor was so far ahead I could barely see him.  With the stands empty, I felt like I was running completely alone.

0324_nc-half-marathon 05As I rounded the second turn, I saw the finish line ahead.  My watch already read 1:30 but I couldn’t make out the seconds, as if I were in a dream.  I turned my head and saw that USA Singlet was considerably far behind.  Though I couldn’t quite sprint, I let the tailwind push me forward to a 6:20 pace for the final stretch.  The announcer called me by name and I ran over the timing mats in 1:31:13, 26 seconds shy of my personal best.

It was now raining significantly.  I hobbled through the chute, taking only my medal before heading to the garage.  As I entered, the volunteers clapped and cheered like they had at Disney, which made me feel like a pretty special guy.  I smiled and threw two bashful thumbs up before getting a cookie.  I changed into dry clothes as fast as I could and went back to the finish line with an umbrella.  Despite the hustle, I missed Otter’s finishing sprint and ensuing PR.  However, I did manage to accidentally catch a subpar shot of his friend Chris on his way to the finish line.  The rain was coming down pretty hard and I was starting to get cold so I made my way back inside.  I stopped on the way to take another course shot and saw Alexis.  I bellowed some words of encouragement but her stare suggested she was in no mood for a pick-me-up.

(left to right): Me, Chris, Ashley, Lindsey, Otter, Alexis, Marla

(left to right): Me, Chris, Ashley, Lindsey, Otter, Alexis, Marla

About an hour later, we were gathered by the gear check, exchanging stories and waiting for the rest of the gang to finish.  Lindsey earned herself a PR with 1:54:17, Alexis fumed about her race experience with equal parts glee and hate, Chris lamented not catching up to Otter because of an unexpected bathroom trip.  In the middle of one of these talks, I saw Marla erupt from the crowd with an urgent look on her face.  I thought she was either going to tell us there was a fire outside or the British were coming.  Instead, she threw down news of a stellar 13-minute personal best.  So now it was just a matter of seeing whether Ashley had survived.

0324_nc-half-marathon 08Not only did she survive, but she beat her secret time goal of 2:30.  While we waited for her to emerge from the crowd, Otter checked the age-group awards.  As it turns out, something must have happened to all the truly fast half marathoners out there.  The superhumans who can churn out 1:10s or 1:20s must have developed an allergy to rain because their absence allowed me to win second in my age group and thirteenth overall.  In a field of 1,244 runners, I was flabbergasted.  So we stuck around for the awards ceremony and yours truly left the race with a bonus medal and a big, goofy grin.

After a round of showers, we took the party to Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar.  It was a funloving bunch that included all the runners plus Ashley’s parents, her brother and our good friend (and my pledge son) Nick, who made the drive up from Greenville to see us.  I had a few Kashmir IPAs and the “Mama Ricotta Burger” which included house-made mozzarella, pesto, vine-ripened tomatoes, pepperoncini and extra virgin olive oil.  Though I didn’t run my fastest half marathon that day, I’m pretty sure I set a personal best by eating that burger in four bites.

Double the LED

Double the LED

And so it was that on an excellent weekend spent with friends and family, I once again proved that I have cosmic powers, having kept the rains at bay until the very last mile, right when a nice refreshing douse was what I needed to finish strong.  I don’t have any more half marathons on the calendar, which hasn’t happened since the day before I signed up for my very first one over four years ago.  But I’ll be back to the distance once I’m done with these other insane undertakings.  With my luck, those too will be free of pesky rain.  I’ve managed to keep a pretty impressive streak going, so should you want to race in dry conditions, check out my calendar for the year and run with me.

That is, if you can keep up.

Marathon_Map 039 (NC)


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