The Meb Mob: 2015 Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon

The morning of July 19, 2015 was very sticky. Intense thunderstorms had ravaged Chicago a few days prior in brief, but powerful bursts, with temperatures rising and dropping like the needle of a Richter scale. So as I walked to the Team Chance Charity Tent, I knew instantly that I would run the day’s half marathon at a conservative pace, perhaps throwing in a tempo mile or two. With the humidity reaching an uncomfortable level and sweat oozing out of my pores by just walking, it was a no-brainer. But as I neared the speakers of the starting line, I heard something that would change the day’s plan.

“And today we have US Olympic Silver Medalist and 2014 Boston Marathon Champion Meb Keflezighi pacing the 1:30 half marathon group.”

Well, shit.

How many times do you get a chance to run with the gods of the sport? Last year I caught a quick glimpse of the elfin Shalane Flanagan as she stomped through a few pre-race strides near our orange charity tent, but I didn’t get to run with her. She was blazing the trail 20 minutes ahead of me, ultimately winning the women’s race. This year, the organizers brought a professional speed demon and national hero not to compete, but to participate with the throngs of competitive amateur runners like me. There was no way I could pass up the opportunity.

Of course, that didn’t mean that Meb’s 1:30 pace sign waved away the moisture in the air or lowered the mercury, which had reached 80 before any of us had heard the starter’s siren. It was by far one of the warmest starts to a half marathon in recent memory, destined to be a race where it feels like your skin is melting into your shoes. A few minutes before the start, a group of volunteers escorted Meb into my corral, just a few people ahead of me. I knew he wouldn’t be tall, but it was still surprising to see just how short most elite marathoners are. As soon as he arrived, the corral buzzed with energy and he instantly began chatting with the fawning runners around him.

2015 Chicago Rock n Roll Weekend Chicago, Il     July 18-19, 2015 Photo: Victah Sailer@PhotoRun Victah1111@aol.com 631-291-3409 www.photorun.NET

That’s me in the very back with the red sleeveless shirt
Photo credit: Victah Sailer@PhotoRun, Victah1111@aol.com, 631-291-3409, http://www.photorun.NET

I decided early that there was no way I could run the entire race with him. My half marathon PR is 1:29:42, so to run just one second per mile slower would require near perfect conditions. So for the first four city-lined miles, which cut through River North, State Street, and both the Theater and Financial districts, I stayed within three people of the indefatigable Meb Keflezighi, winner of the 2009 New York City and 2014 Boston Marathons, 2004 Olympic Silver Medalist, and all-around nice guy. He was as gregarious as I expected, talking to multiple runners at any given time, sometimes in Spanish, but always with an optimistic, cheery tone. Having defied the odds by staying strong and remarkably consistent well into his late 30s and now early 40s, he’s already a running legend.

There was a veritable peloton surrounding Meb, which I called the “Meb Mob,” with runners weaving in and out of the core to try and get a quick chat with the Eritrean-born athlete. As we reached mile 4, he was in the middle of regaling a nearby runner with stories of last year’s Boston Marathon. I decided then that I couldn’t continue this pace much longer without suffering an early bonk. So after four memorable miles, I decided to slam the brakes.

2015 Chicago Rock n Roll Weekend Chicago, Il     July 18-19, 2015 Photo: Victah Sailer@PhotoRun Victah1111@aol.com 631-291-3409 www.photorun.NET

Again, me in the back in the red.
Photo credit: Victah Sailer@PhotoRun, Victah1111@aol.com, 631-291-3409, http://www.photorun.NET

The Meb Mob pulled ahead and I reduced my speed to my original goal of 8-minute miles. I was already drenched in sweat and more fatigued than I hope to be so early in a half marathon, so now it was time to simply endure. Almost immediately, every runner behind me zipped by as they continued their strong surge to finish in the 1:30s.

The next three miles took place within the city of Chicago, which featured more skyscrapers than spectators or bands. I don’t care much for on-course entertainment or distractions, but the sparse crowds and musical acts seemed to clash with the Rock ‘n Roll brand of event production. This was supposed to be a raucous party with fans and electric guitars competing for screams. In fact, the Expo the day before featured a soundtrack more akin to a rave than a rock concert, and the headlining act for the post-race party was Andy Grammer. I realize that rock songs in the Billboard Hot 100 are like parents at a prom, but it’s still disappointing to hear an EDM-remix of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” strung out across a half mile stretch of speakers where last year I heard Metallica’s “Sad But True.”

The first six miles of the course were unchanged from last year.

The first six miles of the course were unchanged from last year.

I kept my pace through the next three miles, which run down South Michigan Avenue, away from the city. There would be no more crowds until the end of the race, save for volunteers at aid stations and a few gimmicky entertainment spots. I could hear squishing sounds all around me as we continued hammering the pavement on waterlogged shoes. The sun was out, rising before us as we headed east towards Lake Michigan. The next aid station seemed a bit threadbare, which spelled doom for slower runners. Without a volunteer to hand me a cup, I ran to the table and picked one up only to taste Gatorade in its purest, least diluted state. Though I clenched my cheeks and puckered for about a minute, it must have helped because I wasn’t feeling as gassed as I was when I left the city. In fact, I began to notice that I was no longer being passed. My consistent 8-minute pace was now the speed of the drained, flagging runners who had gone out too fast in the first half.

Just before we reached Lake Michigan, the course turned left, back toward the city. This is where I was treated to a good four minutes of Whitney Houston, which I only appreciated for the lyric “I wanna feel the heat” because the damp, warm air had slithered into my clothes. What little shade there was would soon be compensated by the McCormick Center service tunnel, which was bedecked in psychedelic colors, strobe lights and thundering speakers. It made that energy-pulling void a little more bearable, especially since it heralds the final 1.5 mile dash to the finish. Once out and under the race’s iconic inflatable guitar player’s crotch, we visited the last aid station before jumping on Columbus Drive.

It was a beautiful day for existing. Not as ideal for running 13.1 miles.

It was a beautiful day for existing. Not as ideal for running 13.1 miles.

The finish line beckoned, almost 0.7 miles down a straight line. All around the banner were trees, and behind them the city’s imposing skyscrapers erupting out of the ground. It was challenging to know when to start kicking here because everything ahead felt like a mirage and so much farther than expected. But I had covered the last mile at a tempo pace, so I felt comfortable in my new speed. I looked at my watch and saw I was close to finishing under 1:40, so I turned on the afterburners and pulled ahead of everyone I could see. The crowds got thicker, lining the seven-lane Columbus Drive until it was a deafening roar of cheers. I pushed all the way to the finish, leaving behind me a trail of salt and sweat, stopping the clock of my third Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon at 1:39:12.

It took me about forty minutes to cool down. I drank cold water, filled a damp towel with ice and rested it on my head, stood still in a southbound breeze – nothing was effective at halting the mutinous sweat from escaping every pore. I sat in the shade and let my heart rate lower, dabbed water on my ears and rubbed a cold sponge on my forehead. Eventually, but very slowly, I began to feel fine.

Team Chance

Team Chance

But though I might have been uncomfortable during the race and a little afterward, I made it out okay. For some people, this isn’t always the case. In the McCormick Tunnel, I saw a group of medical officials huddling around a runner who was lying on the dark pavement, looking shell-shocked and distant. But even he would still turn out alright. Some families don’t have this guarantee. This year, I was honored to be invited back as the running coach for the Jackson Chance Foundation, who once again assembled a lively and supportive charity team for the race. The foundation raises funds for families in the neonatal intensive care unit so they can afford the parking and public transit necessary to spend more time in the hospital with their critically ill infant. It’s an incredibly noble and generous initiative that provides real, direct and tangible help to those enduring incredibly painful situations.

For more information on the charity or to donate, please visit www.jacksonchance.org.

Post Race: Media Maratón Correcaminos 2015 (Costa Rica)

Most people – Americans mostly – have a hard time fathoming that addresses don’t exist in Costa Rica.

It’s true. The traditional concept of addresses that most people understand and learn at a very young age – a unit number, building name, street name, city and zip code – does not exist there. This singular realization drops more jaws and raises infinitely more eyebrows than the awe-inspiring fact that the country has 5% of the world’s biodiversity in spite of having only 0.03% of the surface. Or that the country abolished its army in 1949. Or that over a quarter of its land is protected national parks and sanctuaries.

Those astounding figures seem to pale against the incredulous notion that if you want to mail something by post, you have to literally write out long-form descriptors of where the letter is going. In other words, instead of writing “123 Main Street” on an envelope, you would pen “400 meters west of the Santo Domingo Supermarket, House with Green Fence.” On the surface, this sounds insane (and some news outlets have written hilarious articles on the topic). But think about it: before the awesome power of GPS was breathed into our phones, the average address wouldn’t really get you anywhere unless you already had a detailed understanding of an area.

Without the omniscient power of Google Maps, “5170 Forest Avenue, Eugene, OR 97405” wouldn’t mean anything to you. Sure, it’s a place in Oregon, but without a map or an atlas, you’ll have some trouble finding it. But remember what it was like when your parents had to drive you to your friend’s house for the first time? The conversation they had, where they mapped out where each road was and shared common knowledge of major landmarks, is exactly what the addresses are still like in Costa Rica. So, in a way, an address is just a code that you have to decipher. Costa Ricans just choose to write out the answer and if you want to know where anything is, just ask the post office.

So, it is with reverence for my native country’s silly quirk that I will describe the 2015 Media Maratón Correcaminos experience.

From la Plaza de Deportes in Tres Ríos, 6.4 km west, towards Curridabat.

Km 0: Over three thousand runners line up in Tres Ríos

Zero-k: Over three thousand runners line up in Tres Ríos

Although the race begins at 6 am, it’s already very bright in Cartago. The sun typically rises even before 5 am in the Central Valley’s damp and chilly morning, which means the cool air won’t last for much longer. Though the temperature is perfect for me, I can see most everyone else in thin jackets and tights, some even shivering as the humid chill slithers into the eager crowd’s bright orange race shirts. I can’t help but smirk – many of these runners don’t know true cold.

A few minutes after 6, the race hasn’t started yet, which prompts many runners to begin whistling and taunting the organizers. In the US, runners merely glance at their watches with the occasional eyeroll or scoff. Here, it was a party, replete with yells of “demole!” I fondly remember this part of the race from the last time I ran it three years ago because it is a humorous showcase of the Costa Rican culture of pura vida. Not longer after, we are released into the curved roads of Tres Ríos, beginning our 21-kilometer journey to the heart of San José.

5k: The first four miles feature a lot of elevation loss

5k: The first four miles feature a lot of elevation loss

The first four miles are all downhill. There are a few spectators out, lining the chipped sidewalks, but for the most part it’s a sleepy morning punctuated by the bright orange rush of runners. I scream through those opening miles at a 10k pace, lunging past dogs barking in small front yards, knowing that it’s going to get much tougher in a half hour. We will head west for almost the entire race, which means the brisk winds at our back won’t provide much of a cooling effect. My shirt clings to my chest; I can already tell it’s going to be a sweaty day.

6.5k: Curri is in the distance, with most of the downhill behind me

6.5k: Curri is in the distance, with most of the downhill behind me

I pass the first aid station during a particularly steep descent and grab a boli. Instead of water cups, races in Costa Rica tend to have sealed plastic bags full of water about the size of a small baton. Although they’re not the most environmentally friendly feature of the race, they are convenient for runners who want to hydrate, but not at that particular point. It takes some getting used to – especially since you are very likely to spill most of it into your nose the first time you try to bite into one.

From POPS Curridabat, 1 km south until you reach Multi Plaza del Este and Zapote

0705_correcaminos 07Curridabat is a neighborhood of San José that I used to cross often to see friends. It was also briefly where I would go to the dentist, so I have deep feelings about the area that stir my subconscious in occasionally unpleasant ways. But today, it is the site of the first flat stretch of running, along with the first climb. The sun has just burnt through the morning cloud cover and I can feel it singeing my neck. I’m already dripping sweat with every step and with the wind as an escort, I don’t feel any of it evaporating.

Once at the top, runners turn south and descend towards the least scenic part of the race. Most of the next three miles cut through urban commercial strips and highways, which are complete eyesores when compared to the majestic cerros de Escazú squeezing out of the Earth in the distance. The course makes up for these grey tones with another three miles of a nearly constant downhill grade. Thick clouds crawl over the mountains to the northeast and I immediately feel strong again.

After you pass la Clínica Santa Rita, go through la Asamblea Legislativa and around el Parque Nacional to reach Avenida Primera.

14k: Running through la Asamblea Legislativa in the heart of San José

14k: Running through la Asamblea Legislativa in the heart of San José

My confidence is tested as the course slowly bends upward. We are in the heart of San José, staring at a gradual uphill that passes many cultural landmarks. Were this not the most grueling part of the race, I would stop to enjoy the palm trees lining the plaza of the historic Asamblea Legislativa or the Museo Nacional. Everyone around me, despite having far more experience with the heat, altitude and humidity, is also gassed. I keep yo-yoing with many runners around me as I stop to take pictures. A group of percussionists plays at the edge of the Parque Nacional and their punchy, tribal rhythms drive me forward.

15k: Paseo Colón points a straight line toward La Sabana and the finish line

15k: Paseo Colón points a straight line toward La Sabana and the finish line

Once on Avenida Primera, it’s almost a straight line toward la Sabana, where the race ends. The road is not only ever so imperceptibly downhill, but it is as uneven as lumpy mashed potatoes. Each step is a surprise and I find myself raising my sunglasses to keep a very close eye on the asphalt to avoid rolling an ankle. Block after block of concrete buildings pass as if on a conveyor belt until we reach el Hospital Nacional de Niños in the historic Paseo Colón. I reach the four lane road, which during December is an explosion of festive lights, and feel the pull of the finish line.

Upon reaching the end of Paseo Colón, go once around La Sabana metropolitan park.

17k: Runners round La Sabana, with el Museo de Arte being the first landmark.

17k: Runners round La Sabana, with el Museo de Arte being the first landmark.

La Sabana is like San José’s Central Park, a large, sylvan park in the middle of a bustling city. I am greeted by the Museo de Arte Costarricense, a Spanish-style landmark that used to be the country’s main airport. The 2.5-mile perimeter features a gym, a track, pools, a lagoon, various running paths, baseball diamonds and soccer pitches. Inaugurated in 2011 and located in the northwest corner is el Estadio Nacional, which looks like a combination of clamshell and Stegosaurus. As I round the stadium around 19.3 kilometers, I face east for the first time in the race and feel the wind push against me like a river. Everyone around me hits a wall as we try and wade through the current. With just over a kilometer left, crowds emerge on the street and the edge of the park becomes a party. Once back at el Museo de Arte, I follow the runners ahead of me into the park itself.

Deliver medal to exhausted runner with Bib 188.

20k: Not even el Estadio Nacional could hold the winds back

20k: Not even el Estadio Nacional could hold the winds back

The final stretch is tricky because the road is a sort of cobblestone path, which makes sprinting a risky feat. I unleash my last energy stores and skip toward the finish line almost on my toes, stopping the clock at 1:34:37. I look like I opted for a detour into La Sabana’s lagoon, my feet squishing in my shoes with every step. But in spite of the humidity and altitude, I managed a significant improvement from three years ago. Just a few strides away from the finish line, I wolf down my post-race gallo pinto and fruit before walking back to the finish line to see my friends finish. José improves his PR at his second half marathon by a few minutes and Gabriel reaches the finish line of the longest footrace he’s ever completed. If I keep converting my friends to the sport, I’ll soon have a real following.

21.1k: La meta!

21.1k: La meta!

In recent years, Costa Rica has made some real efforts at instituting a system of addresses. The concern is real: in emergencies, it’s much easier to say three quick words (“123 Main Street”) than guide an ambulance or a squad car to your exact location. The untold amounts of undelivered parcels also add up to lost business, missed opportunities and an overall lack of efficiency. However, if you ask the average tico/a, you’ll find that they’re perfectly happy with how they get around, even if it means referring to landmarks or businesses that no longer exist.

You might laugh at the notion of saying “By the old higuerón tree” but it’s not too far from referring to the Willis Tower as the Sears Tower or saying “Comiskey Park” when today it’s US Cellular Field. In both cases, you’re finding common cultural and historical ground to map out a city, tapping into your brain’s ability to translate a 2D concept into the real world, which is increasingly becoming a rare talent as more people rely on smart phones.

(left to right): Me, José, Gabriel

(left to right): Me, José, Gabriel

Directions in Costa Rica are a charming vestige of the past, much like record players and encyclopedias. They remind us of a time when places had a greater sense of community and gathering. Music was localized, as record players didn’t exist in cars or phones. Encyclopedias and libraries weren’t crammed into every digital machine and required travel and intent. An address was a journey, a sort of mini-puzzle that involved active listening, perception and awareness. Reaching your destination felt rewarding because navigating a byzantine grid of unnamed streets could actually challenge you.

So it’s nice to know some echoes of bygone times still exist, often resistant to change. They may not be very helpful or logical in today’s fast-paced society, but they provide opportunities to see the world around us, engage with people and remember a time when we couldn’t know every answer with a casual swipe of a finger.

These days, if something isn’t on Google Maps, it’s almost as if it doesn’t exist. But if you ask around and want to explore, you’ll soon find your way.

Heat Down, Speed Up: 2015 Lifetime Miami Half Marathon

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

20,000+ strong at the starting line

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

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

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

left to right: José, me

left to right: José, me

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

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

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

Mile 5: Ocean Drive

Mile 5: Ocean Drive

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

Mile 8: Golf courses and palm trees

Mile 8: Golf courses and palm trees

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

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

Mile 10: Venetian Causeway

Mile 10: Venetian Causeway

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

Mile 11: Toll Booth

Mile 11: Toll Booth

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

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

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

Mile 11.5: Cheer Zone

Mile 11.5: Cheer Zone

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

Mile 13.1: Finish Line

Mile 13.1: Finish Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State 42: Maine (2014 Maine “Half” Marathon)

I awoke on Sunday with a serious, credible issue in my right knee. My IT band was extremely tight and would complain loudly every time I raised it off the ground. It could bear weight, but the minute I sprung forward, it tingled with pain. The hilly and challenging New Hampshire Marathon had pulled something out of alignment and I had hoped against hope that a good night’s rest would somehow nudge all the pieces back to their original positions.

It hadn’t, and I was due to run another marathon in just two hours.

This marked the first time I saw the sun all weekend

This marked the first time I saw the sun all weekend

My friend Javier dropped me off at the start line about an hour before the race was to begin. I made use of that time by walking in circles, hoping to somehow shake off the pain, as if it were a pesky bug that had gotten caught in my leg hairs. As more runners arrived, I felt like I was doing something right. Lifting my leg so that my knee was almost touching my chest, I felt better. I even dashed for a hundred feet and the discomfort felt manageable.  Perhaps I would be able to survive this marathon after all.

It took just one tenth of a mile to crush my optimism like a mallet to an egg.

If I felt any sort of relief, it was gone by the time the smoke from the cannon had faded from the starting line. With hundreds of runners zipping by me, I stopped to walk just a minute into the race. The pain in my right knee was unbearable, sending acidic stings with every step, each one worse than the previous. In that moment, I knew that 26.1 more miles of this would be impossible, if not absolutely excruciating. In my hand I clenched my phone, which I had sealed in a ziploc bag, and every slow, stumbling step I took, I gripped it harder. It was my way out, my lifeline. I could use it to call Javier and this whole thing would be over. I had that power to drop out.  I just worried that I didn’t have the maturity.

Mile 4, by the sea

Mile 4, by the sea

I sent him a text message instead.  “This is not working out.”  It was like mental insurance, an early warning sign of things to come.  But I stopped just shy of using it to call for a rescue.

That first agonizing mile was slow.  Every time I broke into a run, pain would singe into my knee and I would be forced back to a walk.  In that time, the one thing I managed to do very quickly was burn through the five stages of grief.

Denial

This can’t be happening. This is my thing, running is MY thing, and I’ve proven to be pretty good at it. There’s no way that this pain is really such a big deal. I just need to keep running on it so it loosens up my knee.  After that, everything will just click. All pains eventually go away, so it’s just a matter of ignoring this little hiccup, steel yourself, use mind over matter, and pretend it doesn’t exist. Just keep going.

Anger

Ow, ow, ow, this is bullshit and not working. I absolutely killed my training for this without a single issue. There’s no reason why my knee should be hurting this much. It hasn’t ever been this bad. In fact, my right knee has NEVER hurt, so why start now? I didn’t even push myself yesterday and suddenly it’s punking out like it’s never experienced a race before? Unbelievable. Ow, ow, ow …

Bargaining

You know, if I switch my gait to my old, maligned heel-strike, then I can actually pick it up a little. Maybe I can stay with this run/walk business until the end. Can I hobble the full distance?  But then we’d miss our hotel check-out and Javier and his family would end up waiting far too long for me. I wouldn’t be able to shower either – is that such a bad thing though? Is it too much to ask a family of four to wait for five hours and then endure the mephitic odor of an unwashed runner in the car for another two? 

Depression

This sucks. This really sucks. I came all the way here and now I might have to bail. There’s a reason that many runners re-brand DNS from “Did Not Start” to “Did Nothing Stupid” and I’m about to discover just what Stupid is. Man, each step hurts; this is the worst. People are going to give me that smirk and tell me SEE? They KNEW running was bad for your knees, and the proof was in my pudding-like pace. I wish people would stop staring at me.  I know, I’m walking at the first mile, thanks for your concern, but please move along.  And on top of all that, I now have to come back to Maine eventually to re-do this state.

Acceptance

… or do I? This slower pace and awkward stride is actually working pretty well. In fact, check it out, I’m at mile 4. I can probably keep this up for another 9 miles, cut my losses, run a half marathon instead and stay on track for all fifty states. It wasn’t my original plan, but if I stop running and go home now, I’ll be very upset at myself. Am I alright with doing “just” a half marathon?  Yeah … yeah I’m okay with that.

(left to right at Sebago): Diego, me, Javier, Erin

(left to right at Sebago): Diego, me, Javier, Erin

I would love to say that a smile burst from my visage from that moment onward and I waltzed happily for the next nine miles. Instead, I was locked in a grimace, a vestigial emotion leftover from the Anger phase. Denial was quickly overcome – there was no getting past the obvious pain. I bargained with my goals and ultimately accepted that I would rather not crawl for five hours, kill my enjoyment of the event and ruin everyone’s plans. But anger would stick around for several thousand strides.

It wouldn’t be until mile 10 that I began to run fast again. I wasn’t in the clear, as my IT band was still pretty tight. But it was no longer feeling like it was getting squeezed. I even sped up to a 6:47 pace toward the end and only then did I let myself smile. Maybe I hadn’t really accepted what I was doing until this point, as if the last two hours had only existed to get my mind off what felt like cheating or giving up.

Lobster Roll at Sebago Brewpub

Lobster Roll at Sebago Brewpub

It took me a while to get over it. I thought of people like Steve, Danielle and Otter, who have gone on to finish long races with terrible, probably worse pains, crossing the timing mats often smiling and with absolutely no regrets. It made me wonder if they know something I don’t, or if their worldview is somehow more mature than mine. Maybe they’re just better actors.  A childish part of me believes that accomplishments are only worthy or important if someone else thinks they’re impressive. I know that’s not true, but I can’t help but think on it from time to time.

I wish I had been able to fully enjoy the friendly volunteers, the flanks of cheerful spectators who assured me that I was “looking good” and encouraged me by name to “keep it up.” I’m sure they had seen my scowl because I had never gotten that much dedicated attention before. It would have been nice to enjoy the picturesque neighborhoods that came alive to witness the stream of people flowing through them. I would have taken more time to breathe in the beautiful seaside vistas and wispy cirrus clouds vanishing into the horizon.  Because the race really was quite scenic and very well organized.

The Maine Marathon gives out enough swag to fill a Doomsday Prepper bunker

The Maine Marathon gives out enough swag to fill a Doomsday Prepper bunker.  And yes, that IS a can of baked beans.

But I did finish smiling. Oddly enough, part of me did have fun at this race, even if the majority of it was spent wincing and facing the possibility of dropping out. If the physical act of running weren’t fun by itself, then I wouldn’t have come all the way here in the first place. Though they were emotionally charged and far from graceful, the miles I ran in Portland were still miles run. And of course, beyond the race itself, there was plenty to enjoy. When I wasn’t running, I was spending a fun weekend with a good friend and his family, happily noshing on local seafood during a gorgeous time of year.

It’s a strange thing, dropping to half the distance.  As the day went on, I quickly forgot about the race, almost as if it had happened weeks ago.  Despite how much those early miles hurt, they didn’t seem to register in my mind.  Maybe my subconscious is already quite aware that I will come back to Maine for the distance I originally wanted to run.  But that comeback will have to wait, and for now, I’m happy with my memories of the Pine Tree State.  Though I will certainly look back on this trip as “the time I dropped to the half,” I will also remember Maine for many other reasons.  There was the lobster, the chance to reconnect with friends and the realization that these events can bring out more than just the strength in your legs and the sweat from your pores.

Onwards.

Marathon_Map 053 (ME)

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