To Feel Like an Elite (13.1 Marathon Chicago)

No matter how fast I get, I will always be in the middle of the pack. I might approach the upper echelons of finishers in shorter races and crack the top 1% in a few half marathons, but for all the intervals and long runs, I’m simply not willing to make the kind of changes necessary to put myself in winning shape. It would require tripling my weekly mileage, culling all remotely unhealthful foods from my diet and potentially losing the enjoyment in the process. For those reasons, I am content with being a face in the crowd, competing against himself, at his own pace.

But at the 2014 13.1 Marathon Chicago, for a variety of reasons, I felt like an elite.

Elites Don’t Pay to Race

It all started with the organization reaching out to me with an invitation to run. I superciliously imagined the bigwigs huddled around a computer, typing out a search query with their index fingers, “Who is an awesome runner great guy decent writer wants to run top search results only” and having my blog explode off the screen in a smoky, crimson blast. Their eyes would water while the war-hardened general in the back of the room slowly removed his aviator sunglasses and, with a voice aged by strife and scotch, remarked that they had found their guy.

Or I was simply one of many local Chicago bloggers found by a team of interns.

Regardless, I was now signed up for the second half marathon I ever ran. It was exactly five years ago to the day, June 7, 2009, and I remember my stomach being electric with nerves. Would I be able to beat my only half marathon time of 1:49:34? Could I overcome the sun and humidity to start a chain reaction of PRs? Though it wasn’t easy, I managed to improve that mark to 1:47:58 before enjoying the post-race spread of beers and pizza.

Could 2014 bring back that magic?

Elites Get Special Transportation

The 13.1 Marathon Chicago takes place in Chicago’s south lakefront, starting and finishing at the South Shore Cultural Center (also known as the end of the lake front path, where I log 99% of all my training miles). To get there, the organizers had arranged for a host of buses to take runners from the heart of Chicago to the South Side. One cluster of buses had gathered at Millennium Park, about twenty minutes from my condo. With a veritable fleet of yellow school buses at their disposal, there was no need to deal with a rental car, traffic or bloated public transportation.

Elites Get the Red Carpet

Mama showing her credentials

Mama showing her credentials

In addition to being invited to run, the organization had also set up a VIP tent next to the finish line. My mom was in town from Costa Rica, so I pulled the classic “either you let my Very Special Guest inside your Very Important Person bunker, or we don’t have a deal” gambit. Without batting an eye, the organizers at 13.1 Marathon graciously acquiesced. Of all the races to be offered such generous perks, I was ecstatic that it was the one that took place while my mom was in town. After all, if she has to hear all about these crazy races, at least she can enjoy the spectatorship beyond simply watching people run.

Her review of the VIP tent was nothing but glowing. Since I had rudely awakened her at 4:15 in the morning and dragged her out on an empty stomach to watch people cross an arbitrary line on the pavement, her morning could have gone better. But while in the tent, she had some coffee, fruit and even a fresh omelet. With much help from the chefs and volunteers, I was happy to be able to pamper her.

Elites Get the Top Seed

before-the-raceOne thing I remember very fondly about the inaugural 13.1 Marathon in 2009 is that they had a very deep corral system. The majority of the race is run on Chicago’s lake front path, which is open to the public and can sometimes be very narrow if congested. Therefore the race prudently implemented from its first year a start system that included corrals A through N (it might have gone farther, but I don’t remember seeing O or P), each with a few hundred runners to ease overcrowding on the course.

I had targeted this race as my next PR attempt, so I was awarded a spot in the A Corral. The crowd of runners spilled behind us like the queue of a popular amusement park ride, wrapping around the Cultural Center’s entrance, flanked by terra cotta columns and gardens. Between the half marathon and the 5k, we numbered almost 5,000.

I was unsure of how the day’s race would go. I hadn’t done many speed runs lately except for a 5k the Saturday before where I fell 20 seconds shy of my PR. Despite the announcer raving about the gorgeous weather, I could have asked that it be about ten degrees cooler. And my half marathon PR had turned two years old in April, with few opportunities in the next six months for another shot. As things were, I wasn’t guaranteeing myself anything.

But with all that said, let’s delve into what really makes elite athletes elite:

Elites Are Fast

2014 13.1 Marathon Chicago Google Earth Rendering

2014 13.1 Marathon Chicago Google Earth Rendering

I’d like to say that I tore out of the gates like California Chrome, but the narrow chute kept us from pushing the pace. Once out of the Cultural Center grounds, we began running north toward Jackson Park, where the famous 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition was held. Today, very little of that grandiose event remains except for the Museum of Science and Industry and a small-scale replica of the gilded Statue of the Republic. It is a public park with plenty of running paths, ponds and harbors, whose ample greenery made so that much of the early miles were run in the shade.

The Chicago South Shore Cultural Center, where the race begins and ends

The Chicago South Shore Cultural Center, where the race begins and ends

I deliberately held back the energy in that first mile, hoping to warm up to a faster pace later on. Miles 2 – 4 were run inside Jackson Park between sidewalks and dirt paths. The crowd had already thinned considerably, with large empty patches between runners. This made for an easy chase game and I loved how easy it felt. In fact, I was trying to avoid sneaking glances at my watch because I couldn’t believe what it was telling me.

In an ideal world, the entire race would somehow take place in Jackson Park. Its perfect combination of paths and trees made for a beautiful run that at no point suggests you are in a bustling city. However, the race does eventually spill out to the popular lake front path, where it soars north for three miles before turning back toward the finish line. The sun was out in full force, rising over Lake Michigan to my right, not a single cloud daring to obscure it.

These paths were familiar to me. They are my long run courses, my Sunday morning ritual grounds. While I enjoyed the familiarity, there was a downside to knowing exactly where I was and how far I had left to run. I tried to not let unnecessary thoughts creep into my head – I’m usually dead tired when I reach this point – and focused instead on maintaining my relentless pace. The mental jukebox was cycling through power metal songs to keep my feet turning quickly. I kept picking new runners to pass, wondering how far away the 1:30 pace group was.

Finishing in 2009, my second half marathon ever.

Finishing in 2009, my second half marathon ever.

I realized at the turnaround that I had been running with a slight tailwind the entire time. While the breeze was welcome refreshment, it was enough to require a stronger push. Onwards I kicked.  Aid stations came and went and I was pulling unusual moves – skipping some stations completely, not walking at any of them, and dousing water on my head instead of drinking it.

I was hungry for this time. In recent years, my shift towards marathons has made me a little more complacent with my performance. With such a long distance, I’ve been a little more forgiving of under-performing. But as I snarled toward the finish line, I became reacquainted with that powerful animal instinct that seemed to consume me in those halcyon running years when almost every half marathon was a chance to push the engine to its bolt-busting limits.

Perhaps this really is my favorite distance, I thought. I miss this, a lot.

I ran back through the same paths, chasing the 1:30 pace group. Only on one occasion did I have to squeeze in between the runners coming toward me and a few early-morning walkers on the path. Cyclists were not terribly happy to have to defer so much path space to a large footrace, and more than one vocalized their discontent. A runner ahead of me, clad in a white bandana and green shorts, didn’t handle it so well. “On your left!” a cyclist barked and passed him. The runner then spat an expletive to his back and vigorously picked up the pace. There was no way he could have caught the cyclist, but he still shot out ahead of me with an ax to grind.

iPhone shutter speed made so that my mom captured my shadow about to finish.

iPhone shutter speed made so that my mom captured my shadow about to finish.

I kept my pace, conceding a few seconds per miles as the race continued. The sun was still out and the pace was starting to hurt. I felt less like a train moving powerfully and smoothly and more like I was dragging a rickshaw cart. Even so, I passed the runner with the white bandana and surged forward. A few miles from the finish, as we ran practically on the beach, the adrenaline that had been pumping through my chest and stomach suddenly felt a little thick, as if it were about to rise up and shoot out of my mouth. Time slowed and I was overcome with fear, annoyance and resignation. Was it finally going to happen? After so many races, was this the one where I’d literally leave it all out on the field?

But the moment passed. My stomach regained itself and I kept pounding the pavement towards the end. There was just one more road to navigate before the sharp turn into the finisher’s chute. A shirtless runner passed me, the only one besides the angry runner with the white bandana to do so since the first mile marker. He was cruising confidently so I didn’t give chase. But just then, as I ran under the red, shingled gate of the South Shore Cultural Center, White Bandana passed me. Not wanting to concede another place, I picked it up and for the third time in the race, left him behind me.

photo 5I looked at my watch and realized that the long-elusive goal was almost mine. The course reached the beach and I made the final turn, my eyes darting immediately to the digital clock above the finish line. I began celebrating, my arms springing into the air as I crossed the timing mats in 1:29:42, my first time ever under one hour and thirty minutes, my scream rising above the music and the announcer.

Once back in the VIP tent, I enjoyed a few celebratory beverages with my mom while sweat unceremoniously dripped off my shorts and soaked into the grass. My elation was not lost on her. Though she may not have understood every detail I rattled out about my performance, she knew I had done something special. I ran at a pace that would normally reduce me to a sputtered lurch by the fourth mile, yet somehow today it had felt easy for ten of them. Had I been holding back all these months? Was I capable of much faster? What if the weather had been ten degrees cooler and the course boasted fewer turns?

But I knew I wouldn’t have another shot at a speedy half marathon for a while, so I simply enjoyed my new accomplishment. This PR had not only broken through a psychological barrier, but renewed my interest in the half marathon and stoked the fires of confidence. There’s something about breaking new ground that can jolt you into dreaming the impossible.

Just how far into the 1:20s can I go now?

2014-131-marathon-chicago-medals

I want to thank the organizers of the 13.1 Marathon Chicago for inviting me to run their race, treating me like an elite athlete in the process. In addition to being a top-notch event, it was a day steeped in nostalgia and a chance to demonstrate how far I’ve come as a runner.

And now, it’s time to slow down.

State 38: Maryland (2014 Maryland Half Marathon)

I was tired at the start of this race. It wasn’t because I had done anything strenuous the day before, nor was it from lack of sleep or the marathon I ran last weekend. I was yawning at the start of the 2014 Maryland Half Marathon because I was simply running this race to cross off another state, and for little else. The real reason for flying from Chicago to the Northeast was to run the Delaware Marathon the next day, but in the interest of frugality, I had chosen to add this race to save on travel expenses.

Start / Finish Area

Start / Finish Area

As I stood waiting for the minutes to count down to the start, I wondered with a slight grimace if my parsimony was cutting out some of my enjoyment of the sport. Some of my favorite activities are special precisely because they happen infrequently. I have a three-month window for skiing and Chicago’s merciless winters don’t allow for beer garden gatherings with friends for much of the year. Since I typically run between 16 and 24 races every year, few of them have the special haze that comes with months of daydreaming. I think of groups like the Marathon Maniacs, who run one or two marathons every weekend for the entire year and wonder how they can enjoy races if they’re a staple of the everyday, like eating or brushing your teeth.

So instead of writing about my performance at a milquetoast half marathon, I have decided to focus on three key lessons I learned during this 13.1 stretch of Maryland neighborhoods.

* * *

And we're off!

And we’re off!

Don’t Get Cocky

As you become more comfortable with the marathon distance, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that its shorter brethren is a walk in the park. I liken it to running eight miles during training – since it’s much shorter than a typical long run, you go into the run thinking it will be a quick, effortless jaunt. But if you start with that attitude, you’ll soon find yourself bored or worse, tired and humiliated.

Long stretches of gently rolling hills

Long stretches of gently rolling hills

Sadly, I was going into this race with this kind of thinking.  I wasn’t running for a time or the thrill of a race, nor was I expecting Mother Nature to put up a fight.  But it was a warm morning, the air was thick, and the course ahead was stubbornly hilly. I stepped over the start mats with a slow, slumped stride, as if running were punishment for not doing the dishes. There was nothing particularly special about this race that grabbed my attention months ago. It was simply on the Saturday before the Delaware Marathon. Convenience alone got me to sign up for it.

I soon realized, after dragging myself through that first mile, that if I wanted to successfully navigate the hills, heat and humidity, I’d have to overcome my own attitude. That process began by recognizing the challenge that lay ahead and to never assume that any given race is in the bag. Hubris is dangerous because it sets up unnecessarily high expectations, and the looming threat of an injury is increased by perfunctory form.

Each Run Should Have a Purpose

Whether you’re running three miles on a weeknight or a half marathon, you should have a purpose every time you lace up. Many people might disagree with me here – how often does a 4-miler really have its own unique mission? I’d like to say, hopefully every time. There exists a debate on “junk miles,” or miles that you run conservatively to rack up a bigger weekly total, and I’m on this side of striking them from your training program. Running miles simply to rack up mileage isn’t as effective as targeted miles. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of perspective. Four miles at marathon pace can either be four junk miles for the hell of it, or four miles to recover from the previous day’s hill repeats.

Lots of old residential neighborhoods

Lots of old residential neighborhoods

When each run has a purpose, it makes training much easier. So you could say there was a hypocritical conflict of interest when I decided to sign up for this event in the first place. By squeezing in a half marathon before a marathon, I was basically creating junk miles that would tire me out for the next day’s run, going completely against this ethos.

And then it hit me: these aren’t junk miles at all. I actually need to start the Delaware Marathon on tired legs. After this 39.3-mile weekend, my next big race is the Bighorn Trail 50k, where I’ll face the debilitating effects of mountains and altitude. The best thing I could do for my legs at this moment was to run long while tired. Suddenly, this impromptu, hilly half marathon was not a footnote but a bullet point.

Even in a Training Run You Can Still Challenge Yourself

And lots of new residential neighborhoods.  All in all, mostly neighborhoods.

And lots of new residential neighborhoods. All in all, mostly neighborhoods.

But that didn’t mean that it was suddenly time to run with zeal like a lissome gazelle. Had I decided to tackle this race at the threshold of my abilities, I would put myself at risk of dehydration and injury, neither of which would help me get through the next day. So instead, I mapped out a plan. I would keep a relaxed pace until mile 9, and then crank up the speed to a tempo until the finish. This not only made the race fun, it made the finish much more worthwhile.

Last year I ran the Garmin Marathon as a training run leading up to my first 50k and the finish line was all but celebratory. It felt like I had walked through an aid station and simply decided to stop running. I finished the race, but didn’t give myself a moment to feel pride

Last ditch effort

Last ditch effort

because by playing it safe the entire way, I had somehow cheated myself out of a meaningful experience. By actually kicking through those last four miles, I made the race itself count for something other than a conscious attempt at tiring out my legs.

It became a fun experience, a chance to run with new people in a new place.

It’s strange to have to re-learn such fundamental lessons. Racing is why I got into this sport so you would think that it would be at the forefront of my runner’s psyche. I thought this 50 States project would keep me excited about running, but it seems like I let myself forget that the true purpose of the sport is, quite simply, to run. The race is the carrot, and dipping race times are the stick. But both of them come together to push me out the door five times a week and quickly course air through my lungs and blood.

* * *

Fun weekend with Laura and the Fam

Fun weekend with Laura and the Fam

I crossed the finish line just over 1:41 and went to meet up with my college friend Laura and her mom. Not only were they generously hosting me for the weekend, but Laura had signed up for the Delaware Half Marathon the next morning, so the two of us had very important pre-race rituals to perform, including but not limited to two hours of bottomless mimosas and three miles of exploring Washington DC’s Museum Campus.  It would be our fourth half marathon together and we each had our own hopes and doubts about them.  She had PR’d at all three of her half marathons (but the most recent one happened almost exactly three years ago), and I was aiming for a respectable performance on tired legs.

The next day would prove interesting.

Are there any unexpected lessons you’ve learned during a race?  Perhaps some old, obvious ones that you had forgotten over the years?  Have you ever run a race “just for the hell of it” and ended up unexpectedly enjoying it?

Marathon_Map 048 (MD)

Dear ESPN,

Dan:

Spot-on reflections on the state of the sport and how the popular sports network has not caught on.

Originally posted on Blisters, Cramps & Heaves:

It’s a global sport; this isn’t a little sport anymore.
– Bill Rodgers at the Boston Marathon, 21 April 2014
Meb & Shalane

(source: boston.com)

John Skipper
President, ESPN Inc. and Co-Chairman, Disney Media Networks
Bristol, CT 06010

Dear Mr. Skipper,

Did you see THAT?

Did you step out of your thrice-daily NFL draft meetings in time to catch the Boston Marathon on Monday?  Did you see one of our country’s all-time great marathoners, Meb Keflezighi, not only keep the race close near the end but actually win it, the first time an American has captured Boston since 1983?  And did you see him show more heart in 2 hours, 8 minutes and 37 seconds than my rudder-less Dallas Cowboys team has shown in the past 15 seasons combined?

Did you happen to catch Shalane Flanagan’s act on the women’s side?  The rhythmic bouncing of her blonde ponytail gracefully leading the…

View original 1,957 more words

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

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