Missouri (2014 Go! St. Louis Marathon)

When people talk about “the ups and downs” of something, they can often mean it literally.

Mau (center) and I (right), finishers of the 2010 St. Louis Half Marathon

Mau (center) and I (right), finishers of the 2010 St. Louis Half Marathon

Four years ago, I ran the Go! St. Louis Half Marathon.  My cousin Mau had been living in St. Louis for almost a decade, so I made it an excuse to visit him and brought Steph with me.  Much to my delight, Mau signed up and trained for the race.  I cannot understate enough how special it is for me when someone does that, especially if they weren’t a long distance runner in the first place.  It’s like asking someone to join a class, learn the material, and take a grueling test just for the hell of it.

Four years later, I was back at the starting line of the Go! St. Louis Family Fitness Weekend, this time sporting a bright orange marathon bib and an ambitious goal.  It won’t be until November that I’ll be able to run a fast marathon, so I set my phasers to Attack.

A few corrals back, Steve, Scott, Greg and Jim were waiting for their own start.  Jim was running his third marathon, while Scott and Greg were donning blue half marathon bibs.  Steve hadn’t registered for the race and intended to run seven miles before heading back to the hotel, skipping all aid stations and avoiding true banditry.  The harsh winds that had bellowed through the Midwest all week were gone, replaced by calm zephyrs from the east.

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

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

I joined the 3:25 pace group led by Jordan, whose wife had just recently qualified for Boston at a race called the Circular Logic Marathon.  As the name implies, she ran 26.2 laps around a 1-mile loop.  If her husband was anywhere near as dedicated, then we were in good hands.

The race starts in the middle of the city, by a cluster of compact parks, facing the famous Gateway Arch.  It heads south about three miles and into the Anheuser Busch Brewery before returning to the heart of the city.  With the exception of the brewery itself, these opening miles were the least scenic of the entire course.  Much of it was run on bridges surrounded by industrial complexes and highways.  It wouldn’t be until the 10k mark that we’d return to the city and start the long, undulating trek on Olive Street.

2014 Go! St. Louis Marathon Map (via Google Earth)

2014 Go! St. Louis Marathon Map (via Google Earth)

“I remember the hills being brutal,” I told Steve the day before.  We had arrived in St. Louis after a long drive from Chicago and were finding a parking spot at St. Louis University.  “But seeing them now, they don’t look so bad.  I wonder if my memory has altered them because I was such an inexperienced runner four years ago.”

For the time being, I was proving myself right.  From start to finish, the stretch on Olive is about 2.4 miles, none of which is flat.  I was either springing on my toes upward or stomping downward, the pace group usually nearby.  The organizers placed giant, inflatable arches with timing mats around halfway through Olive’s hills, meaning we were about to run up “Holy Hill,” a separately-timed section thrown in for the hell of it (pun squarely intended).  The loud, celestial knells of Christ Church Cathedral rang across Olive and there was even a priest throwing consecrated rice onto runners as they ran through the arch.

The journey on Olive was characteristic of the rest of the race.  Not only was it unceasingly hilly, but the top of each climb would reveal miles of unraveled course ahead, almost all of it composed of long, concrete waves.  It was as if St. Louis had been flat at some point in history, before a giant had clutched both ends of the city and pushed them towards each other.

The beginning of Holy Hill, via Google Streetview

The beginning of Holy Hill, via Google Streetview

Around mile 10, the course finally flattened out on Forest Park Avenue.  I turned onto the boulevard, anticipating the beautiful spring colors that welcomed me in 2010, but found only dead trees on the divider.  The harsh winter certainly hit everywhere.

Once the half marathoners were split from the course, our pace group became the only cluster of people for miles.  We were a tight pack with our own gravity.  Some runners were experienced and a bit too garrulous, others camouflaged themselves by never speaking a word.

The avenue became a highway, cutting through the corner of Forest Park, one of the largest urban parks in the country, which houses the St. Louis Zoo, the Science Center and various museums.  But we weren’t at the scenic area yet, instead quite literally running on a two-lane highway.  It felt a little surreal, if not dangerous, as if a speeding car could have turned the corner at any second and plowed through us.

Forest Park Highway, via Google Streetview

Forest Park Parkway, via Google Streetview

For the next four miles, we would trace a spaghetti path through the park, which was so large that it was difficult to think a large city was just a few miles away.  We crossed the halfway mark in 1:42 and I couldn’t help but smile.  Four years ago, I finished the half marathon in 1:46 and almost collapsed at the end.  But my smile was short-lived.  For though the pace group had been talking about dogs, last year’s Boston Marathon, and funny spectator signs, I was choosing to stay silent.  It was no longer easy to tackle each new hill with the same élan as before.

“So how do you do hill training in Chicago?” an Australian named Tim asked me as we left Forest Park and began a steady climb on Forsyth Boulevard.  It was almost as if he could hear the strain in my breathing and had picked out the dog among wolves.

“I don’t,” I replied between gasps.

But I should.  I’ve done a handful of hill repeats on the treadmill but honest to Haile I hate them.  I would rather run up a mountain or run the same hill 30 times than dial up a treadmill a few degrees.  I’ll do interval runs indoors, knock out mile repeats and pyramid drills happily.  But hills on a treadmill suck the enjoyment out of running.  And it was precisely that unwillingness to do what it takes that led to my eventual demise.

2014 Go! St. Louis Marathon Map (via Google Earth)

2014 Go! St. Louis Marathon Map (via Google Earth)

Forsyth Boulevard cuts straight through Washington University in St. Louis, where my cousin earned his undergraduate degree.  I had but a few seconds to soak it all in before we were past it.  Jordan and his pack had pulled ahead of me as I stopped for an aid station.  We reached downtown Clayton, the course’s western border.  At the turnaround, I had bridged the gap to the pace group to just a few seconds.

Until the next hill.  I couldn’t keep my legs turning fast enough to stay with them and I had to give up the chase.  The next two and a half miles were an eastward slog down Delmar Boulevard.  From the beginning of this portion, you can see for miles, and I could practically hear the course itself laughing at me.  It’s not exactly empowering to see the endless course before you when your body is screaming at you to quit.  At the very least, Delmar starts downhill as a tree-covered residential area before transforming into a small town.  I ran through this never-ending stretch almost perfunctorily, with most of my drive having been drained by the ups.

It was my calves.  I was breathing normally, my heart wasn’t exploding in my chest, and my quads (the usual suspects) were shoveling coal like champions.  But the constant change in slope had punished my calves, with each step attenuating them until my gait was reduced to a dodder.

St Louis Gateway ArchMiles are so much longer when you’re in the middle of falling apart.

I kept seeing the same people.  A young woman with a white Arkansas Grand Prix shirt would run faster than me, but stop and walk frequently.  Opting for a similar strategy, a tall gentleman with a yellow Marathon Maniacs singlet would cruise by me only to stop at every uphill and let me pass him.  We continued this dance of perpetual exchange as Forest Park Avenue became Market Street for the final stretch.  I looked ahead.

No, that doesn’t look right.

Unless my eyes were deceiving me, the finish banner was perched at the end of a hill, another damn hill.  While there was a definitive crowd of people running toward it, I didn’t see many running up its face.  Maybe there was a turn in between that I couldn’t see yet.  But as I approached the familiar din of the city, the hard truth became undeniable.  As if to remind us that no prize worth having is easy to earn, we would have one last hill to crest before finishing this race.

I managed to climb out of the depths of my ever-languishing pace, pumping my arms and pulling my legs up with enough brio to disguise the pain in my lower body.  Once at the top, with the blue finishing banner just up ahead, I let momentum carry me to the finish.  I must have looked confident and strong, but it was all theater.  I heard my name announced on the loudspeakers before crossing the timing mats of my twenty-first marathon in 3:31:53.

2014 Go St Louis Marathon MedalPerhaps it was overconfidence that killed my chances at a PR.  I thought that experience alone would allow me to conquer the course, that time on my feet over the years would somehow translate to a better performance.  But that, as George R. R. Martin might say, is a mummer’s farce.  St. Louis isn’t flat and my unwillingness to specifically train for that challenge effectively shattered my armor.  But with the colorful medal and ribbon resting on my chest and my fifth fastest marathon time in the books, I couldn’t be too hard on myself.

Plus, this race marked the beginning of a future goal.  When I began my quest to run all fifty states, I was focused intently on half marathons.  The full distance was far too demanding, appearing only now and then in my schedule like a church spire in a small town.  But in the last two years, as I’ve become more comfortable with the challenge, more able to handle the pain, I’ve opted for the full distance instead.  Eventually, I will want to re-visit all the states that I’ve colored in half marathon green and welcome them to the marathon club.

Missouri wasn’t the first state to achieve that special red color on my map (that honor belongs to Florida, and later Wisconsin), but it is the first that I’ve done exclusively for this purpose.  Because let’s face it, there is always a bigger challenge, a tougher goal or simply another new experience on the horizon.  Hills may disguise the path, offering us a potential end to the anguish.  But those of us who lace up for the long run know that the top of a climb isn’t a rest stop, and even finish lines don’t mean we should stop running.

Onwards.

Marathon_Map 046 (MO)

Miami Marathon, In Memoriam

The thunder of the crowd roared just ahead, thousands of spectators and runners alike screaming in unison for one person and for everyone.  Each step squeezed out a tiny splash of sweat and rain as if I had strapped sponges to my feet.  The sound of the sloppy metronome kept time as the blue finishing banner crept ever closer.  I had twenty-six miles behind me and in just a few seconds I would notch my twentieth marathon and one hundredth race.  I had struggled to get to this point.  The dark morning was warmer than it had any right to be in January, the air was thick and felt completely alien.

For the last month, Chicago, like most of the country, had found itself in an arctic love affair, icing its denizens on a daily basis and keeping even its most dedicated athletes indoors.   With only a precious few pauses in the petrifying chill, I was limited to only three outdoor runs all month, all of which left me with pink, frozen fingers.  But right at the border between Georgia and Florida, blues and purples suddenly erupted in orange, as if the southernmost state were in a protective bubble.  The weekend before the race, the difference in temperature between my training ground and Miami’s race course was literally one hundred degrees.  I knew before even arriving in the Sunshine State that I would face a steep challenge.  Training had not gone superbly for the 2014 Miami Marathon but that didn’t stop me from starting.

2010 Miami Half Marathon, left to right: Tía Ale, Paula, Tío Daniel, Andy, Nati

2010 Miami Half Marathon, left to right: Tía Ale, Paula, Tío Daniel, Andy, Nati

But as I pushed onward, past the cruise ships on the MacArthur Causeway, through the cool breeze on Ocean Drive, while hopping over island communities on the Venetian, under the resplendent towers in downtown Miami, through the morning parties in Coconut Grove and into the last-minute rain, I was thinking of something else.  I wasn’t thinking of my breathing, nor was I focused on my legs.  I could have been taking in the sights, the sounds and even the smells that surround the flood of runners every year.  In a city with so much to occupy the outward senses, I found myself taking an inward stroll.

Late last summer, my uncle was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), a malignant and very aggressive brain tumor.  As is the case with anyone diagnosed with the disease, the prognosis was grim.  Few people survive with the tumor for longer than a year, there is no known treatment for it and very little known about how it forms.  Although it tends to be more prevalent in Caucasian males over 50, it often feels like an unlucky roll of the dice.  Two months later, on the morning of November 25, tío Daniel passed away in his bedroom, surrounded by his loved ones.

2014 Miami Marathon, left to right: me, Jim, Steve,  Greg, Scott

2014 Miami Marathon, left to right: me, Jim, Steve, Greg, Scott

I wasn’t particularly close to him.  He had a quiet demeanor that was often overshadowed by my louder, more gregarious uncles.  I knew him more by his interests than the deep-rooted convictions that make a person who they are.  He loved to mountain bike, travel to exotic places, try and cook amazing meals.  He was a precise and effective businessman, a devoted father and loving husband.  My aunt has always been my second mother and I regard their children as my third, fourth and fifth siblings, so while I never shared an intimate connection with him, I truly felt like I lost something profound that day.

So as I crossed the finish line, I completed my tribute run.  In early December I joined the American Brain Tumor Association’s Team Breakthrough and with the help of co-workers, friends and family, we raised over $2,000 for the organization in tío Daniel’s memory.  These funds will go toward patient care and research towards a better understanding of this fatal, yet poorly understood disease.

I walked under the banner with my hands digging into my waist, breathing less air with every heave.  I was no longer thinking of my uncle but instead of my aunt and cousins.  I was overcome with emotion at the simple thought of having to refer to your father in past tense, at acknowledging that life has changed forever.  But while they have certainly lived through terribly painful days, I know that my family will continue to push onward happily in his memory.  If there’s a silver lining to the untimely passing of a loved one, it’s the blunt reminder to enjoy and spend time with the people that surround you.

In loving memory of Daniel Robert Bonilla, 1958 - 2013

In loving memory of Daniel Robert Bonilla, 1958 – 2013

The day before, I drove out to North Palm Beach with my father-in-law and his brothers to visit their aunt.  Though she was hard of hearing and used a walker to move herself around the apartment, her mind and wits were still as sharp as a sword.  Amid the updates and funny recollections, she urged us, as a sage matriarch in her twilight years, to do what made us happy, to fulfill our grand to-do lists and enjoy our time while we still had it.

Because the end of that time is uncertain.

I want to offer my sincerest and heartfelt thanks to everyone who helped me with my fundraising, to those who sent kind condolences, to friends who called and family members who have stuck by me as long as we’ve known each other.  Your unconditional support has truly humbled me and I am honored to have you in my life.

Thank you for reading.

-Dan

2014 Miami Marathon (First Half) Rendering (via Google Earth)

2014 Miami Marathon (First Half) Rendering (via Google Earth)

1. The starting line of the race at 6:15 AM.  The national anthem was played in a sultry jazz style by Ed Calle and almost all announcements were in English and Spanish.

1. The starting line of the race at 6:15 AM. The national anthem was played in a sultry jazz style by Ed Calle and almost all announcements were in English and Spanish.

2. Enormous cruise ships keep watch over runners as they run over the MacArthur Causeway, a bridge that starts with the race's longest and highest climb.

2. Enormous cruise ships keep watch over runners as they run over the MacArthur Causeway, a bridge that starts with the race’s longest and highest climb.

3. Just past the 5K mark and one more slight incline, runners enter the south side of Miami Beach.  The run is rising quickly ahead and we're all eager to put it behind us.

3. Just past the 5K mark and one more slight incline, runners enter the south side of Miami Beach. The run is rising quickly ahead and we’re all eager to put it behind us.

4. The northward stretch on Ocean Drive single-handedly embodies Miami and the reason this race is so popular.  Classic hotels and restaurants face the open sea, with many spectators out, making noise.

4. The northward stretch on Ocean Drive single-handedly embodies Miami and the reason this race is so popular. Classic hotels and restaurants face the open sea, with many spectators out, making noise.

5. Returning to the mainland via the Venetian Causeway is equally gorgeous, with some parts of the race being so narrow, you feel surrounded by the ocean.

5. Returning to the mainland via the Venetian Causeway is equally gorgeous, with some parts of the race being so narrow, you feel surrounded by the ocean.

6. The last "check point" before reaching the main land, runners have run about ten miles at this point.

6. The last “check point” before reaching the main land, runners have run about ten miles at this point.

7. Three times I've made the left turn, ready to be done.  Today I would follow the path unknown, away from the city and the roar of the crowd.

7. Three times I’ve made the left turn, ready to be done. Today I would follow the path unknown, away from the city and the roar of the crowd.

2014 Miami Marathon (the second half) Rendering (via Google Earth)

2014 Miami Marathon (the second half) Rendering (via Google Earth)

8. Although the marathon course would be far less crowded, both with runners and spectators, the sights were no less beautiful.

8. Although the marathon course would be far less crowded, both with runners and spectators, the sights were no less beautiful.

9. Just past Coconut Grove and the 30k mark, the sun is out in full force as we pass Bayside Park, on our way back to the city.

9. Just past Coconut Grove and the 30k mark, the sun is out in full force as we pass Bayside Park, on our way back to the city.

10. Clouds and rain made a much-welcomed appearance as we tackled the needlepoint out-and-back on the Rickenbacker Causeway.  I rarely race in rain, but this brief shower certainly helped me out on this section, which most runners describe as the worst part of the race.

10. Clouds and rain made a much-welcomed appearance as we tackled the needlepoint out-and-back on the Rickenbacker Causeway. I rarely race in rain, but this brief shower certainly helped me out on this section, which most runners describe as the worst part of the race.

11. The aid station just past mile 24, with my grandmother's condo building in the background.  Never in a race have I been so close to a bed, yet still so far ...

11. The aid station just past mile 24, with my grandmother’s condo building in the background. Never in a race have I been so close to a bed, yet still so far …

12. After a straight line down Brickell Avenue, the last mile is in the heart of downtown Miami.  Feeling tethered to the finish line, I somehow managed to pick up the pace.

12. After a straight line down Brickell Avenue, the last mile is in the heart of downtown Miami. Feeling tethered to the finish line, I somehow managed to pick up the pace.

13. The finish line of my 100th race, where just seconds after finishing, I found myself dizzy and almost losing my balance.

13. The finish line of my 100th race, where just seconds after finishing, I found myself dizzy and almost losing my balance.

14. Proud finishers.

14. Proud finishers.

miami-marathon-13-medal

State 36: Pennsylvania (2013 Philadelphia Marathon)

09-PHILADELPHIA

Although almost 30,000 runners and several times as many spectators were flooding the streets of Philadelphia, it was a strangely quiet morning.  The organizers had chosen to not play any music until the start of the race out of respect to the citizens of the City of Brotherly Love, which I thought was a nice gesture.  The lack of deep bass thuds had a calming effect on me as I looked for the gear check trucks.  I was shivering a little in the low 50s temperatures that had woken up the city.  All around me fidgety runners prepared for the 20th anniversary of the Philadelphia Marathon, shaking sleepy legs and breathing into cupped hands.

Philadelphia, Old and New

Philadelphia, Old and New

For the first time in many races, I was nervous.  I was out to race today, something I hadn’t done since February.  Every marathon I’ve done since then had either been a training run, a trail ultra, or part of a weekend double.  Not only was this my first chance to run aggressively in a long time, but it was my last chance for the year.  I wasn’t signed up for any future target marathons and didn’t even have plans for the next potential PR, so this was it.  I performed my feverish runner duties by relating all of this (and perhaps too much more) to Bruce, the 1:40 pacer for the half marathon.  There was no one leading a 3:20 group, so I opted to join Bruce’s troupe until the halfway mark, where I would hold on for as long as possible.

At 7:03, our corral was given the green light and we shot down Benjamin Franklin Parkway towards the city.  All around us were flags from many countries hanging from streetlights, as if welcoming the world to one of the country’s most historical cities.  In the center of it was Philadelphia City Hall, the world’s tallest masonry building, pointing skyward among its more modern steel brethren.  Held up by white granite and brick, it stood out despite many surrounding buildings surpassing it in height, an awesome structure that must have mesmerized Philadelphians at the turn of the 20th century.

Right from the start, I could feel the pace.  The first miles of my marathons are usually tackled at an easy speed – especially the fast ones – but today I was out for something more.  There are several websites that let you predict your potential finishing time for various distances according to your current PRs, McMillan Running and Runner’s World to name two.  For too long my projected times had sneered at me, taunting me with what I believed were impossibly fast times.  My 5K PR of 19:07 suggests that I can run a marathon around 3:03, which is absurd.  Even my half marathon PR of 1:30:47 translates roughly to a 3:10.  I have my excuses for falling short of these lofty goals: I’m built for shorter distances; my tall body needs more calories; I don’t do enough fast long runs, etc.  Almost all of these are some variety of “I can’t.”  But on the streets of Philadelphia I was going to try.

I have to admit, it was strange trying to prove myself wrong and a meaningless algorithm right.

philadelphia-marathon-start-corralBut I was acutely aware of how fast I was running.  I normally don’t feel like I’m working until the second half, but here I was pushing from the very beginning, which wasn’t the best sign.  But I was going to do this, recklessly if necessary.  I had told a friend earlier that week that, crazy as it undoubtedly sounds, I would rather hit a hard wall at mile 17 and drag myself to the finish, heaving and sobbing but knowing I tried, than play it safe with the usual formula and PR by a minute.  Even over g-chat, I knew she had raised an eyebrow.

Through the heart of the city I continued, staying on Bruce like his shadow.  We ran through the Philadelphia Convention Center, where the expo had been held for the previous two days.  I saw my favorite sign of the race around here – a picture of Yoda, typically calm and serene with the tag “If a smart pace you run, a fast time you will achieve.”  We passed Chinatown and then the National Constitution Center, which had the emblematic “We the People” script emblazoned in huge letters on its walls.  Barely two miles in, we reached the shores of the Delaware River, New Jersey clearly visible on the other side.  Bruce’s group was an amorphous, fast-moving glob of humanity; racers would join for a few strides, ask a few questions and get swept away in the free-flowing torrent.

City Hall

City Hall

We reached 5k in 23:44, right at target pace.  As we turned back into the city, we passed Washington Square Park and then made a left turn towards the core of downtown on Chestnut Street, but not before passing the Liberty Bell Center.  Be it the large crowds, the electric city atmosphere or as a strategic move to bank time, Bruce picked up the pace.  By now, I was comfortable with the cadence, matching the stride of everyone around me as if on parade.  We passed City Hall once again with the 10k marker not long after.

Right as we left the city we were treated to the boisterous calls of University of Pennsylvania’s fraternity row, where many a hoodie-clad brother were manning beer stations and handing out comically red Solo cups to eager runners.  Had this been much later in the race, I might have indulged.  But at this point, I was focusing on the hills.  The reliable flatness of the first seven miles was over and my pace was seeing its own peaks and valleys.  Bruce kept reminding us that we had plenty of time to work with, so we could take the uphills at a more conservative pace.  During this section, I was alternating between feeling light-footed and sluggishly ponderous.  The pace we were running was a little ambiguous – fast enough to feel it, but not fast enough to worry.  So naturally I would alternate between confidence and concern.

Around mile 10, we made it to Fairmount Park, mostly past the ups and downs.  Many trees were shedding the last of their red canopy, reluctant to face winter.  I was still running with Bruce, but the 1:40 group had dwindled considerably.  Every time I looked around, I saw people who hadn’t started with us.  They were likely random runners who happened to be there and weren’t consciously following the ballooned pacer sign.  Right at the twelfth mile, Bruce suddenly picked up the pace, which made me suspect that he had taken it a little too easy over the last fifteen minutes.  Another 23:42 5k split and we had reached the 20k mark, close enough to the finish line to hear the muffled echo of the announcer’s voice reverberating off buildings.

philadelphia-marathon-downtown-google-earth-map

Even after completing several marathons, it’s never easy to hear the race announcer’s enthusiasm, knowing you’re only halfway there.  Despite high energy levels and the assurance of knowing that I’ve delayed complete exhaustion for many miles, it still sucks to hear him congratulate runners as they finish.  I can see them stop running and it makes every step a little more difficult.  It’s like starving in a restaurant for hours and watching the waiter bring an entire tray of sizzling steaks to the table next to you (and they were waiting for half as long).

To make matters worse, the second half of the race course wasn’t very thrilling.  I’ve seen it in many other races – the half marathon gets the vast majority of the sights, leaving the marathoners to face a formulaic out-and-back for the roughest miles.  I understand, it saves money and manpower, but 6.5-miles out and a mirror-image trek back sometimes feels like we’re being punished for wanting to run farther.  To be completely selfish, what if we reversed the course and let marathoners finish in the city?  And we can ignore how much costlier it would be to shut down those roads for longer in the day.

Pushing the finish line behind us with every breath, marathoners spent the vast majority of their dedicated portion on Kelly Road alongside the Schuylkill River.  Small crowds appeared every now and then but for most of it, we runners were our only company.  Though monotonous, the course was actually quite beautiful.  But I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted because by mile 16, it was getting harder to keep the negative thoughts away.  I was feeling the pace and it felt fast.  At this point in my fast marathons is when I normally start to push the pace, accelerating almost magically and laugh haughtily when I sneak a glance at my watch.  But today it felt like a chore just to keep it up.

As if to cement those dark thoughts in my head, the course briefly shot over the river via the Falls Bridge, after which we would run downhill for about a third of a mile, turn around, and run back up.  It sapped a lot of energy and willpower from me and marked the beginning of my slowdown.  Once done with this dastardly detour, we were back on Kelly Road on the original path away from the finish line.  Although I passed 30k still on pace, the last 5k split was the first to breach 24 minutes.  As we approached the town of Manayunk, I saw a runner ahead who had collapsed.  Spectators had moved him on the sidewalk, hoisting his legs in the air, his face oddly peaceful.  I saw an older man cross the street on the phone with an emergency responder.

I hope he’s okay, I thought.

Manayunk Main Street (Google Streetview)

Manayunk Main Street (Google Streetview)

The crowds were out in full force in Manayunk.  We ran appropriately down Main Street towards the turnaround.  Aid station volunteers and spectators blended together into one energizing display of support and affection.  Having reached the farthest point from the finish line, I made the hairpin turn and began the journey toward the finish.  The roar of the town’s denizens was invigorating, but not enough to distract me from fatigue.  The road was mincing the bottom of my feet and my gaze began to droop slightly.  Just after leaving the town, as the crowd support returned to thin levels, I took a walk break.  I stepped to the middle of the road to avoid an ambulance bounding towards me, almost brushing shoulders with marathoners running in the opposite direction.

I walked, hands resting on my hips, taking stock of what had happened.

That first half was too aggressive, I admitted to myself.  I couldn’t reasonably expect to go from running 1:44s in the first half to 1:39 and keep it strong.  I recently wrote about how foolish it is for the world to expect a two-hour marathon to happen soon given current performances, and here I was, thinking I was capable of a similar quantum leap in performance.  Why was I special enough to break free of the shackles of statistical analysis?  What made me think I could just defy the odds?

logan-square-fountainBut although the intensity had gotten to me earlier than expected, I found that I wasn’t too upset.  At least I had tried.  And I soon realized that I was still running around an 8:10 pace, which was significantly far from the usual 9 to 10-minute bonk speed I can muster after reaching the point of exhaustion.  So onwards I ran at whatever speed felt doable.  I couldn’t say the same for the runners around me, who hadn’t collectively decide on their own pace.  Some passed me, skipping nimbly over the pavement while others slumped by the wayside in worse shape than me.  There was nothing else to do but keep going.

And then something strange happened.  Around mile 23, I assessed my current situation.  The bottoms of my feet were numb, but they weren’t keeping me from running.  Make no mistake about it, they hurt.  But it wasn’t like a spike in your quad, where it leeches your motivation and self-worth or a seizing hamstring that stops you cold in your tracks and makes you reevaluate your life decisions.  My breathing was controlled, I wasn’t short of air; my leg muscles were working, all systems reporting.  Really, there was nothing going completely wrong.

So I decided to do something.  Something beautiful and pathetic in its simplicity.

I decided to run faster.

Conveniently located near the finish line.

Conveniently located near the finish line.

And I did.  Over the last three miles, I picked it up, bit by bit, passing runners and inching closer to the finish line.  At this point in the race, even a tiny incline would stop me in my tracks, but I pushed on, even with mile 25 being mostly an ascent.  I became the passer, leaving tired runners behind me.  I know in my bones that I couldn’t have sped up like this in Manayunk; I did not have it in me to push the pace.  But at that twenty-third mile, it just felt like the correct (and obvious) thing to do and my body responded.  Part of me thinks it was the pull of the finish line, but I’ve never smelled sweet victory three miles out.  The two marathons I ran six weeks earlier, which put some seriously acidic pain in my legs, might also serve to explain this sudden surge.  Perhaps I hadn’t digested the five GUs I had put into my system until that very moment.

But something happened.  Perhaps it was the body finally accepting that it was made for running, that it was finally capable of handling the continued beating, even after hours of it.  Was this the moment of transcendence?  Had I finally become the master of my pain, one with my suffering?  Or was it something more banal?  Had I simply conditioned my legs to tolerate the strain of a hard run?  Had I been overestimating the energy-syphoning effects of a bonk all this time?

The Final Stretch (Google Earth)

The Final Stretch (Google Earth)

Although I never found the definitive answer, it didn’t matter because I was smiling for the rest of the race.  My pace charts may have won again, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy myself or post a competitive time.

I kept speeding up as I passed the twenty-fifth mile, returning to the boom of the finish line.  The marathon had an excellent final stretch, which was run on wide and open streets, past the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the green Eakins Oval.  It felt like the entire city had opened up to me, like I was entering an arena with philadelphia-marathon-medalresplendent, blue columns made of glass and steel.  I eventually crossed the 8-minute threshold, and as I heard the announcer around the corner I somehow managed to speed up to a 6:45 for the final dash.  Although my performance was a positive split, I will never complain about finishing in 3:25:28, my third fastest marathon to date.

Hours later, as I scarfed down a Philly cheesesteak sandwich like a combine, I thought about how this race fit into my experience as a runner.  It wasn’t a game changer but it certainly put my abilities in perspective.  There was once a time when I considered an 8:40 marathon pace to be ambitious, but today I stayed below that, even on empty.  It was an encouraging indicator that, given time, dedication and discipline, we are capable of remarkable change, even if it’s not immediately apparent on the surface.

In a way, it was very similar to the first two days of the weekend.  Before I toed the line in Philadelphia, I drove to the historic, Appalachian town of Lancaster to visit Brandon, a fellow Wildcat and fraternity brother.  Although we were both very involved in the development of our chapter and both served as president at some point in our undergraduate careers, we didn’t become friends.  Our social circles certainly intertwined but our personalities and vision for the chapter didn’t always line up.  But in the years since graduation, something happened that made us reconnect.  Before I had ever run my first 10k, Brandon was already a two-time marathoner and an Ironman, so that probably had something to do with it.

Left to right: Brandon, me, Kevin (November 14, 2003)

Left to right: Brandon, me, Kevin (November 14, 2003)

I visited his and his wife Ashley’s lovely home in Lititz, just outside of Lancaster.  I got to meet Jackson, their adorable 12-week baby (who I think looks a lot like Jack-Jack from The Incredibles and not just because he’s a baby) and play with their vivacious golden retriever.  It really was like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting.  In fact, if I were able to send this post back in time to myself in the year 2003, I doubt I would react with anything but incredulity.  I’m running how many marathons?  What is this touch-screen computer that I have in my pocket?  Brandon is married?  To a really nice girl?  And is responsible for the welfare of a CHILD?

Left to right: Ashley, Lady, Brandon, me (November 16, 2013)

Left to right: Ashley, Lady, Brandon, me (November 16, 2013)

My reverie was broken by the cooks at Steve’s Prince of Steaks barking out an order through the onion steam.  I glanced at my watch and realized it was time to go, lest I miss my flight.  I stood up from the chair and hissed a few painful breaths as my legs cracked through their concrete casing.  I had completed my 19th marathon, 36th state, spent a fun weekend with friends and learned a few lessons along the way.  The 3:20 threshold continues to beckon me, with the Boston Qualifier even further down that arduous road.  Although I haven’t planned it yet, I need a target race for next year, one where I crash through every wall and get closer to that prize.  I’ll run more hills, throw in more intervals and push the pace on my long runs.  Bit by bit, I’ll make it happen.  I’ll face those vexing time charts and chip away at the rock on my shoulders, with every run facing the almost sisyphean task of hoping to stay strong over 26.2 miles.

Onwards.

Marathon_Map 045 (PA)

State 34: Oregon (2013 Portland Marathon)

Most marathons don’t allow their runners to get much sleep the night before.  The typical race starts between 6 and 8 in the morning, which has us eating our ritualistic pre-race meals between 4 and 6.  If we want to give ourselves some time to wake up before eating, then we’re setting our alarm clocks between 3 and 5.  If you’re anything like me, then you can’t go to sleep before 11 PM anyway, which sometimes means just four hours of shuteye before the big day kicks off.

But when you run a marathon the day before, then your body completely shuts down by 9 o’clock.

Because of this, I woke up on Sunday, October 6 feeling blissfully refreshed, as if I had slept for days on a bed made of unicorn hairs.  But the minute I moved, I could feel the rust creaking off my joints in little red tufts.  The five-hour drive from the Leavenworth Marathon to Portland the day before had done my post-race recovery efforts no favors and I felt like a machine that hadn’t been used in decades.  But it was too late to do anything about it, so like clockwork, Otter and I got into race mode, eating the exact same breakfast as the day before.

Portland Marathon Course Map (Google Earth)

Portland Marathon Course Map (Google Earth)

The day began in a sort of haze.  Yesterday we were admiring the beauty of the mountains all around us, taking in each white peak adoringly, excited to run, happy to be alive.  But as we prepared for the 2013 Portland Marathon, we were reticent, focused and very stiff.  We parked in a garage downtown and walked to the start line, barely stopping to take any pictures.  Even in our corral we hadn’t even run in place yet just to see how it would feel.  We were resigned to run but didn’t want to do any more than necessary.  It was all business.

After a very emotionally stirring national anthem sung by the running crowd of thousands without music, Boston Marathon champion and American running legend Bill Rodgers sent us on our way.

Ouch. Ouch. Ouch-ouch-ouch …

It felt as if a demented doctor had replaced my right Achilles tendon with a shorter one overnight.  Every time I pushed off my right foot, I felt a strain on it.  I briefly considered changing my stride but opted to just tolerate the ache for the time being.  Otter vocalized his own discomfort by laughing and simply acknowledging the crazy thing we were doing for what it was: lunacy.  We stuck together for the first 5k, which started out flat, ushering us out of the city through Chinatown, but later climbed consistently for a good two miles.

Fortunately, we didn’t focus too much on the hills because that first 5k was flush with entertainment.  In the span of twenty minutes, we saw a female-led rock band suspended on a crane, a children’s handbell ensemble, a bluegrass band, a solo Celtic harpist, a dreadlocked acoustic guitarist, a Peruvian flute band, more than one drumline and a group playing marimbas on a pedestrian overpass.  And those are just the acts I remember.  The sheer variety and number of performers was staggering.

Start and Finish Area (Google Earth)

Start and Finish Area (Google Earth)

“I’m going to kill this downhill,” I told Otter as we reached a turnaround just before 5K.  He gave me his blessing and I sped around it at what felt like a 45-degree angle.  I looked at my watch and saw that I was running at a 6:52 pace, as if releasing the pent-up moderation from yesterday’s 10-mile downhill.  It would have been so easy to kick down that portion unrestrained, but I had kept myself in check.  Today I was hungry and I gave into that primal urge to fly, soon overtaking the large 3:55 pace group.

The course flattened quickly and I returned to a stable pace.  My lungs were fine, my breathing was controlled and relaxed, but my legs were still very acidic.  Ignoring the aches was proving difficult, but I had no choice.  Either I push through it and continue my sub-4 streak or groan my way through an unpleasant race.  About a mile later, every single person around me uttered a loud, collective groan.  I was so focused on my body, dialed into every electric response that I didn’t notice that the path ahead was getting cut off by a train.

It wasn’t a hallucination.  The striped signals were down, red lights were flashing and volunteers had brought in a large, orange mesh fence to stop the torrent of people coming at them.  While many runners looked indignant, scoffing loudly and craning their necks to the sky, I couldn’t help but laugh.  It was just a passenger train, so it only slowed us down by a minute, tops.  Had this been a freight train, I would have joined the outrage.  Once it was past the intersection (and literally not a second later), everyone scrambled under the gate and tried to catch up with their non-train selves.

I foresee a future tagline: Train to Beat the Train

I foresee a future tagline: Train to Beat the Train (Google Earth)

The next part of the race was the worst.  We were on a paved road that ran between an industrial park and a train yard.  Soon the four lanes bottlenecked into what felt like two.  Aid stations became somewhat claustrophobic, there were few bands to speak of, and we had nothing pretty to look at except for distant hills experiencing the advent of fall.  My legs weren’t doing any better and by this point the race was starting to feel like a controlled bonk.  But there was a bizarre silver lining to this: had this been any other race, I’d feel nervous or downright awful at how much I was struggling so early.  But this time, I knew why I was tired.  I could point to the reason so really, my expectations were lining up.

Exactly how I derived some sense of optimism from that, I still don’t know.

At some point between seeing the 3:25 and 3:30 pace groups on their way back, I saw Mike.  I found his blog almost exactly a year ago, drawn to his keen eye for detail, elevated diction, and the reverent way in which he described his Chicago Marathon experience.  Since then, we’ve been regular readers of each other’s racing exploits.  We exchanged a quick hello before continuing on our ways.  I reached the end of this awful gray out-and-back and turned straight into the sun.  I took my sunglasses, which had fogged up by the first mile, and wiped them with my shirt.  I put them on to find that I had just distributed sweat in thick, opaque streaks.  While it was better than my other option, blindness, my sight was limited to just bobbing silhouettes ahead of me.

I somehow saw Otter to my left, running towards the turnaround.  He told me he was thinking it would be a 4:30 – 4:45 race for him.  I joked that we had just passed mile 35 and he chuckled, but later admitted to me that it took him a few seconds to understand what I meant.  I guess I wasn’t the only one slightly out of sorts.

The marathon split from the half around mile 11.  In almost every single case where there’s a half marathon option, the vast majority of spots are dedicated to it, leaving the marathoners to run a lonely second half.  In Portland, the exact opposite happened.  In fact, when the half marathoners abandoned us, I barely noticed a difference.

It looks boring on Google Earth, it's even worse in reality.

It looks boring on Google Earth, it’s even worse in reality. (Google Earth)

I couldn’t wait to leave the trainyard, so I was willing to forgive the gently rolling hills we ran from miles 11 through 14.  We eventually returned to the Willamette River, where the course flattened out.  I saw a large green suspension bridge on the horizon as I passed 25k.  In the last eight miles, I had somehow gotten stronger; as if I needed the last 15 miles to truly warm up.  Running wasn’t getting any easier, but I was no longer feeling tiny sears of pain with every step.  We had been told that the first miles would be the worst, but I never thought it would take this many.  I actually managed to smile during this section, wondering if this race would pan out like Bruce Willis’ character in Unbreakable or the incredibly convenient material “unobtainium” from The Core (not Avatar), both of which got stronger with additional pressure.  With this newfound vigor, I picked up the pace just a little.

Mile 11, picture courtesy of Katie

Mile 11, picture courtesy of Katie

But my hopes of invincibility were dashed when I realized that we would be crossing the river on that giant suspension bridge.  The road dodged left and immediately sloped upward, a group of marines stationed at the bottom to provide the necessary motivation.  During that long climb, I could have taken a walk break to enjoy a wall of trees in varying shades of fiery reds and burnt oranges.  But instead, I kept my head down and heaved upward.

Don’t bonk until 30k, I was telling myself.  You can bonk at 30k if you want, but get there first.

I had to change gears midway up the hill, breathing more per turnover to keep from exhausting myself.  It was tempting to walk, especially as I saw every other runner around me stop to recover.  It might have been smart to stop and walk, but I refused.  I kept running until I reached the top of the hill and made a sharp right onto the St. Johns Bridge.  I was breathing through my teeth as I reached the top of its barely perceptible arch, letting the downhill carry me past many runners.  Somewhere on the bridge, I realized that my Achilles was no longer hurting.  I really was getting stronger.

The St. Johns Bridge (Google Earth)

The St. Johns Bridge (Google Earth)

But over the next four miles that strength would once again be tested.  We were running through neighborhoods overlooking the Willamette River, the city of Portland far away on the opposite shore.  Had I taken the time to examine the race’s altitude chart, I would have known that a gradual uphill would throttle my legs over the next four miles.  I passed 30k feeling relatively fine, but every time I looked ahead, after every turn, I wasn’t rewarded with the end of this climb.  Like the St. John’s Bridge, the slope was barely there – just enough to make you feel a little weaker with every mile, as if with each step the race was slowly leeching its runners.

Get to 35k, I thought.  Once you get to 35k, you can bonk.

The lead-up to the St. Johns Bridge (Google Streetview)

The lead-up to the St. Johns Bridge (Google Streetview)

I had started to sweat a lot more.  All morning it had been foggy and cool, with a frosty breeze sliding under my shoulders.  The chill kept me from abandoning my long-sleeved shirt.  But the sun had been lording over us for almost two hours now and the uphill had started to sponge all the energy out of me (and I thought the Pacific Northwest was supposed to be perennially cloudy).  I would have tossed the shirt, but it was from a race I ran in 2009 and sentimental attachment kept me from shedding it.

The crowds were out now, with signs bobbing on sidewalks and strangers supporting indiscriminately.

“You guys look great!” a woman said to my left.  “You look like you’ve done this before!”
“I have.  Yesterday.”

She and several people around her laughed at me, but I don’t know if they quite understood what I meant.  They most likely disregarded my comment as the raving madness that consumes you in the throes of a long-distance race.  Onwards and upwards I continued until I reached the top of the climb right at 35k.  The Willamette River beckoned me at the end of a delightfully long downhill, the weight of the earth and the 48 miles in my legs all but shoving me downward.  Aided by this pull, I reached the 3:45 pace group.  I tried to lock myself in with their pace only to watch them slowly pull away.

Get to 40k.  You can bonk at 40k.  You can bonk at … bonk at … bonk …

Runners approaching the finish line

Runners approaching the finish line

And then it happened.  The sack of bricks that hovers over every runner, held in place by a thread that thins with every mile until it is just a tiny filament, finally became too heavy.  I reached mile 23 and stopped running.  My head slumped and my hands slid to my waist as I reached complete exhaustion.  The time bomb had gone off, my legs were flooded with cement and the long march began.  For the next two miles, I would run to the nearest mile marker, and then take a walking break.  I kept up a sluggish pace until mile 24, where a circular onramp guided us across the Broadway Bridge and back into the heart of the city.  While I felt like I was running uphill, I’m sure that I could have walked faster.  I was a sad sight.

Once back in the city, there was little to do but just keep moving forward.  Unless a sinkhole were to eat me up, I was all but guaranteed to finish under four hours.  I had no other time goals, so there was no real point in speeding up.  But I didn’t want this weekend to end with a crawl.  I took one last sip of Ultima sports drink at an aid station that couldn’t have been more than four blocks away from the finish – placed to help runners around mile 1 – and took off.  Before the final turn, I heard someone call out my name and turned to see Mike and his wife Katie beyond the barricades with a camera.

I look delirious.

I look delirious.  Picture courtesy of Katie.

After one last turn onto 3rd Avenue, I made it to the finish line in 3:48 and change.  There was no glorious moment of triumph, no tears of relief or even a primal scream to the heavens.  I simply turned off my watch and basked in the satisfaction of a challenge completed.  My sense of accomplishment, and to a significant degree, my pride had both been hurt by my withdrawal from the North Country Run last month.  As often as I told myself that I had done the right thing, it still stung to put so much effort into something and not see it through to the end.  Reaching the finish line in Portland and running 52.4 miles in two days was not only a return to form, but a vindication of my decision to call it quits in Michigan’s forests.  It wasn’t until I held that medal, which wouldn’t look out of place on a decorated soldier’s uniform, that everything was finally okay.

The finishers chute looked more like a smuggler’s bazaar than the usual smorgasbord of carb-heavy foods.  Friendly volunteers were handing out the expected bananas and oranges, but past them I was given two velvet pouches, one with a coin and the other with a pendant-sized replica of the medal.  I kept walking and was offered a rose by another cheerful volunteer, symbolizing Portland’s nickname, the City of Roses.  Finally, just when I thought I had seen everything, another volunteer offered me a potted tree.  I was half expecting someone to offer me a live chicken at the next table.

This is so Portland, the recurring sentiment played out in my head.

2013-portland-marathon-medal-front2013-portland-marathon-medal-back

The 2013 Portland Marathon Medal, front and back

I left the race and hobbled to the 26.3-mile post-race party, where I sipped on a local IPA and met the man behind Blisters, Cramps & Heaves and his wife / race crew / photographer Katie, who impressively managed to get some excellent pictures of me despite having never met me before.  That night Otter and I dined with them at the Deschutes Brewery Public House, where we exchanged war stories, talked about future running plans and waxed glycogenic on the things that only diehard runners care about.  I realized then that I have two pretty solid streaks going: running marathons in under four hours and meeting amazingly friendly and down-to-earth people afterward.  You know who you are.

Left to right: Otter, me, Mike

Left to right: Otter, me, Mike.  Picture courtesy of Katie.

Once sufficiently full of food and local brews, Otter and I walked what felt like twenty blocks uphill to meet up with Will, a friend of mine from middle school, at Pope House Bourbon Lounge.  It was a dimly lit bar in what looked like an old Victorian house (again, so Portland) but we enjoyed ourselves because their craft beers were $3.75 each and Will is good people.

And so ended our double-marathon experience.  If we’re being completely honest, I don’t think I will do something like this again.  Sure, you have to take anything I say with a grain of salt, because “never again” is a popular saying in the sport that usually precedes “maybe someday” which is just shy of “where’s my credit card?”  But I truly didn’t enjoy the Portland Marathon as much as I would have had it been the only race of the weekend.  I was too focused on pain maintenance, on keeping a reliable stride to minimize discomfort, on second-guessing every tiny pain as a harbinger of bonk-provoking doom to look around and absorb the city’s autumnal glow or the beautiful music being played by its urban minstrels.

Will is moving to Denver soon, after 3 years of being a Portlander.  Portlandan?  Portlangolier?

Will is moving to Denver soon, after 3 years of being a Portlander. Portlandan? Portlangolier?

But what an experience it was nevertheless.  These two races were so different in every measurable way that it was easy to forget they happened just a day apart.  The first was remote, wooded and lost in an ice-carved canyon, the second in the middle of a raucous city.  One started silently in between mountains, the other with a former marathon legend under steel skyscrapers.  Leavenworth allowed me to run smoothly, evenly and enjoy the sinewy elegance of conversation on the run; Portland skewered and shamed me by pushing my body to the brink of collapse.  Washington showed me of how far I’ve come as an athlete as I ran comfortably at a pace I could only dream about four years ago and reminded me that running long distances can be fun and not a lonely, isolated experience.  But Oregon reintroduced me to the gut-busting wall and over the same distance proved to me once again that running is hard, that not all pain is significant, and that suffering is optional when you’re inching ever closer to your goal.

Marathon_Map 043 (OR)

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