State 40: Wyoming (2014 Bighorn Trail 50k)

Otter, Jay and I waited for the start of the race under a cloudless sky. The mountains of Wyoming stretched out infinitely ahead of us, with little indication as to where exactly the Bighorn Wild and Scenic Trail Run 50k would take us. Marla would be here an hour later to tackle the race’s 30k. A steep ascent over a red dirt trail loomed ominously ahead of us. After asking a few friendly strangers, we learned that we’d be tackling that wall before anything else.  As I looked past the giant hill and the unknown challenges to come, I had still not shaken the insouciant confidence that would eventually doom me during this race.

(left to right): Otter, Marla, Jay, me

(left to right): Otter, Marla, Jay, me

“I don’t think I’m properly nervous for this,” I had told Otter two weeks prior. “Yeah, it’s a trail race; I’ll just take it easy. I’ll be fine. Very little trepidation, which is worrying me.”

“I reckon you’ll be fine,” he said reassuringly, but the enigmatic “haha” he issued beforehand wasn’t so comforting. I would later learn that he was appropriately aware of the punishment to come and had prepared with much more diligence. He had run the Kettle Moraine 50k two weeks prior to haze himself into trail shape and had fastidiously studied the Bighorn course maps like a sailor attempting to navigate the Straits of Magellan. As race day approached, he asked me more than once if I was ready to run the hardest race of my life.

I should have listened to him much earlier.

2014 Bighorn Wild & Scenic Trail 50k Google Earth Rendering of the First 14 miles

2014 Bighorn Wild & Scenic Trail 50k Google Earth Rendering of the First 14 miles

For though the first four miles were beautiful testaments to the natural high of trail running, I very quickly found myself in the depths of perdition. I could write pages about the distant snow-capped mountains holding onto the last patches of a brutal winter, or the white and purple wildflowers seasoned throughout sylvan clearings. But those moments of beauty and transcendence were like the sweet cherry on top of a cake made of lead and dirt.

Mile 0

Mile 0

By the fifth mile we had stopped climbing and there were no more easy rolling hills. Instead, the path all but disappeared into a precipitous drop, the steepest I had ever run. It was like shimmying down a black diamond ski slope but with loose dirt and rocks to slow you down. I watched as experienced trail runners marched downward confidently while I took each step carefully, knowing very well that lost balance would lead to a treacherous fall. I hammered my legs on the slope like a typewriter, stomping down with little ease, speed or grace. It wasn’t long before my quads began to ache.

Five miles in, I thought, and already my quads are shot. This race is going to suck.

That last sentence I may have said out loud. The woods responded quietly, indifferently.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Despite ramping up my mileage considerably in April and May, which included running almost 40 race miles in one weekend, I had done absolutely no hill workouts beyond whatever hills happened to crop up during races. I had done no strength training, hadn’t done any stairs or even completed a mile on a bike. It was a case of pure hubris, of a haughty runner who prematurely thought he had perfected endurance and become master of his body.

What an idiot.

Mile 3 - Delightful, flat terrain

Mile 3 – Delightful, flat terrain

The first real aid station welcomed me at mile 8 with the smell of crackling bacon. Though appetizing, I took the time to stop running and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a few ruffled potato chips instead. Runners that had passed me long ago were still there, mingling and enjoying the camaraderie and breathtaking scenery all around us. I capitalized on my quads no longer hurting by quickly refilling my pack with water and continuing the race.

The next six miles were a gradual uphill. I looked up at the road ahead and very high above, I saw the reflective glints of several vans and cars. It was the next aid station, the start of the race, and the end of our 20k loop. I wished I hadn’t seen it because it looked so impossibly far away. Have you ever walked toward a distant beacon, and been completely aware as you walk that it is not getting perceptibly closer? I liken it to walking in a city toward a skyscraper. If you look at it for even five minutes, it doesn’t seem to get any nearer.

That’s how I felt for about an hour.

Mile 11 - If you click and zoom in, you can see the reflection off the vans.

Mile 11 – If you click and zoom in, you can see the reflection off the vans.

I kept climbing, alternating an efficient shuffle with power hiking, pushing dirt behind me to the tune of labored breathing, but every time I’d look up, the camp was still a day’s hike away. Six miles is an eternity when the end is always in sight. There was a silver lining in all of this though. By this point I had noticed that running slightly uphill was not painful at all but surprisingly easy because it didn’t require that I slam my quads down. Perhaps I’d be able to put that downhill battering behind me.

Mile 16-17 - The climb continues

Mile 16-17 – The climb continues

Finally at the aid station, after a lot of hiking, I took a little break. I downed some grapes, a cup of chicken broth and another handful of chips. The climb wasn’t over, there would be another mile of it, but at least I had reached somewhere. The rest of the race would be a point-to-point winding path ending in Dayton, Wyoming, where we had parked our car about five hours prior. The next six miles were beautiful and easy. I locked in step with a female runner ahead of me and scampered over dirt, flowers and the occasional stream. I was tired but the downhill pains weren’t too bad, allowing me to cover much distance with few grimaces.

And then it all went to hell at Horse Creek Ridge.

Perhaps I should have learned that those early aid stations were there not intended to just replenish your energy stores, but also to prepare you for an incoming gauntlet of pain. Just past that third aid station, where I filled up on fruits, I reached a creek. I walked shakily over the makeshift log bridge, steadying myself with a thin rope. A thin dirt trail snaked over the thick grass ahead. I could see several runners ahead hiking the path, which cut to the right, behind a group of trees and out of sight.

Mile 19 - This was right before the Haul.  I couldn't take the camera out for the actual climb because it was too steep.

Mile 19 – This was right before the Haul. I couldn’t take the camera out for the actual climb because it was too steep.

Those trees, I would soon discover, were hiding a mountain. A short, but almost vertical mountain that the organizers call “the Haul.” No one ahead of me was running or even power-hiking this section. Everyone was pulling themselves upward, with their arms either resting on their hips or pushing off their legs. I don’t think my heels ever touched the dirt during this climb. A desire to rest taught me a harsh lesson: don’t stop. A break in the rhythm sent a flood of pain into my legs. I would have stiffened up completely and possibly fallen backward had I not snapped myself back into upward motion.

Heave, gasp, heave, gasp.

Once at the top of Horse Creek Ridge, something changed. The climb had sapped every last bit of strength I had, conspiring with the thin air at 8,000 feet to rob me of all remaining vitality. Every step from that point was painful, every single one. To make matters worse, the Tongue River Canyon opened up below me, interminably downhill. And there were 12 miles left to run. All downhill.

It wasn’t the race that changed – it was still the same brutal, unfeeling and uncaring event that I had found and decided to run. It continued to deny me any respite from the ever-growing acid in my quads or burning in my lungs. The mountains wouldn’t rearrange themselves and the path had no intention to suddenly pave itself to make way for someone who didn’t treat the distance with the proper respect. But even with this harsh lesson learned, and with every positive mantra I could muster at the time, I couldn’t help but slump.

Mile 20 - It would be all downhill from here.  Painfully, agonizingly downhill.

Mile 20 – It would be all downhill from here. Painfully, agonizingly downhill.

A runner’s quiver is full of motivational tools and positive thoughts. You have to overcome the bodily pain and ignore the struggle to get to the finish. I’d like to say that I overcame the challenges and stomped through the brick walls separating me from the finish. But that’d be a lie. In the moment, as it happened, I was not enjoying myself and really, desperately, wanted this race to end. Had there been a drop station, I am afraid to say that I would have seriously considered it.

The Tongue River Canyon was a gorgeous expanse of greens, lavenders, and yellows. Wild grass exploded out of the ground in enormous tufts, trees covered the exposed layers of rock in distant mountains like ancient mildew. It was truly a magnificent part of the country, the perfect place to embody the very reason why trail running is fun and in some cases, spiritual. But in the moment, as it happened, no part of me was enjoying it.

I winced with every step I took. If my quads weren’t searing in pain, then my toes were being bludgeoned against the front of my shoe. I did this for about four miles, stopping only to let faster runners zip by me. This was eternity, captured in an agonizing, yet beautiful stretch of slowed time. Each individual step did nothing to bring the mountains closer, but somehow, because each one had to lead me somewhere, I made progress. I was eventually thrilled to hear the heavenly sound of the Tongue River roaring through the canyon. I had reached the bottom.

Mile 23-24 -- In the middle of Tongue River Canyon

Mile 23-24 — In the middle of Tongue River Canyon

Replying to the young volunteer who offered to refill my water bottle and pack was a struggle. Whenever I spoke, I could hear my voice echoed in my head, as if a fishbowl were surrounding it, which threw off my balance and concentration. I tried to equalize my ears by cracking my jaw around but that didn’t help. Instead, I ate a handful of grapes, clipped my pack around my chest, strapped the bottle to my hand, and kept shuffling onwards with the worst of the race behind me. What lay ahead was a slow, defeated march.

Now almost completely flat, the course had spilled out of its single-track, rocky confines and onto a wide, two-lane dirt road. Cars and locals on bikes would show up on occasion, but I had no leftover energy to say hi or even look at them. The sun, a fixture of the day, had hidden behind large storm clouds, allowing for longer bursts of running (though my definition of “running” during these last five miles left a lot to be desired). Normally in a long race, I laugh at the idea of being just four miles away from the finish line. On that soon-to-be-rainy Saturday, though, that felt like another exercise in forever.

Mile 25 - Alongside the Tongue River, lots of uneven terrain

Mile 25 – Alongside the Tongue River, lots of uneven terrain

The race was no longer divided into sections of ups and downs, but instead a single stretch of road that went on and on. Aside from one aid station and the advent of storm clouds, there was little I noticed. On occasion, runners would pass me, some of them on their way to a fifty-mile finish. One runner strode by me with a pacer, and another pulled ahead with trekking poles. I felt pathetic by comparison. These guys were most likely finishing Bighorn’s 100-mile race, which had started the day before, and here I was, sputtering like a lemon after running under a third of that distance.

I crossed a bridge and made it to the tiny city of Dayton. Under normal circumstances, Dayton is a city that you’ll miss if you blink and barely registers on a map unless you’re viewing it with a microscope. But as my feet hit pavement, it became a bastion of civilization, the Emerald City, Roland’s Dark Tower and Mount Doom all in one. I had never been so happy for a race to be over, and I could practically smell the finish line over the scent of my own disgusting state.

I entered Scott Bicentennial Park, a recreational area next to the river with a baseball diamond, playgrounds and picnic tables. There were crowds gathered, cheering for each new haggard face. I heard Marla yelling my name but from both exhaustion and perhaps shame, I couldn’t turn my head to look for her. I simply threw a brittle index finger in the air and kept running, possibly signaling the number of minutes I could tolerate before collapsing. I saw Jay directly ahead of me in his green rain jacket, having finished almost two hours prior. He made an arching motion with his thumb, pointing to the finish line.

Mile 27 - No more climbing or descending, just flat road.

Mile 27 – No more climbing or descending, just flat road.

I could have finished this race happy. I could tell you that I found a deep well of wisdom in that last mile and siphoned out a reason to smile. But I did neither of those things. I dragged myself under the finishing banner and had just enough self-awareness left to turn off my Garmin, which read just under seven and a half hours. I could have forced a smile then, but my ego was too bruised. Over the years I’ve tried to cultivate an image of a runner with perseverance and strength, an image of someone constantly facing huge challenges with a cool confidence. Every time someone calls me crazy for the amount I run, I soak it in as a deserved compliment.

But fifty kilometers over the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming had taken that sturdy effigy and dragged it through the dirt. All the years I had spent becoming a competitive runner seemed to mean absolutely nothing anymore. I didn’t feel good having completed this run in what I considered a disgraceful way. It wasn’t the result itself that stung me, but the fact that I came face to face with a lesson I didn’t think I’d have to re-learn:

Train.

It’s such a stupid thing to have to tell someone, let alone someone like me who has done these things before. The mountains don’t care about your road half marathon PR, or what your most recent 5K time was. The thin air beyond 8,000 feet won’t cut you any slack if you don’t change your training routine to face it. Rocky soil and uneven dirt paths won’t catch you if every mile you log is on a perfectly groomed city path.

Mile 29 -- Why won't this end?

Mile 29 — Why won’t this end?

And I knew these things. I knew all of them. But I had the arrogance to think that I had reached an echelon of fitness where I was somehow exempt from all of them. Though I was lucky to leave this race without injury, I paid dearly for that attitude and couldn’t quite feel proud. Looking later at a map, the distance we had covered looked absolutely dizzying from above. How could I have taken such a blasé approach to it? Was it symptomatic of runners’ general overconfidence towards health? Was I not cut out for ultra distances?

I struggled with these questions as I lay on the cool grass, trying to fix the hollowness I felt in my head. Experience and training were everything.  Jay had run a 50k PR and didn’t seem the least bit shattered by the experience, while Marla, who had moved to Colorado just three months ago, had run the 30k distance, saying it was the toughest race of her life. Otter crossed the finish line not long after me, looking like a kid busting through the gates at a theme park. He was talking like an auctioneer, rattling off his race experience to all of us at an electrifying pace. Though his body was certainly pretty beat, his attitude could have probably turned around and done the whole thing again.

Finishers!  And I look like a madman!

Finishers! And I look like a madman!

Now that I’ve had time to recover from the experience, a deranged part of me is looking forward to the next intense, body-mangling experience. As I writhed in pain on the damp Dayton grass, I swore I would never run another ultra, ever again. But that promise was tainted by a poor performance, begot by being a pompous idiot. It didn’t have to be this way. It will be different next time.  Next time, I won’t be an idiot.  Next time, my plan will be smart and simple, summarized by one word that means both the steady improvement of the body through stress, and a sturdy, robust machine seemingly impossible to stop.

Train.

Forty states down – the final stretch has begun!

Marathon_Map 050 (WY)

State 39: Delaware (2014 Delaware Running Festival Marathon)

I was happy to be shivering.

Three years since her PR at Flying Pig -- CAN SHE DO IT?

Three years since her PR at Flying Pig — CAN SHE DO IT?

Laura and I walked from the Wilmington Westin to the starting line of the 2014 Delaware Running Festival Marathon, a short trip around the Christina River and toward Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park. The day before, I was flicking away sweat in the first mile of the Maryland Half Marathon and promptly spent the rest of the day assiduously drinking water. Had my legs not carted me across 13.1 relatively fast miles the day before, the cool breeze sliding through the thin fabric of my running outfit would have imbued me with tremendous confidence.

An hour later, I was on the road, chugging along at a relaxed pace. The opening miles weren’t terribly scenic and included a few long sections through the parking lot of the Westin, far from any shade or greens. But my biggest enemy in this race wouldn’t be the scenery as my mind had already begun to defy me.  At some point in tough races, a tiny voice starts to rise above the breathing and plodding of feet.  It usually surfaces around mile 22, but today its dastardly voice broke through the noise at the first mile marker.  It said:

This is going to suck at mile 14.

2014 Delaware Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2014 Delaware Marathon Google Earth Rendering

You see, the Delaware Marathon is a two-looped course. Laura was running only one loop, where every single turn would reveal new territory to conquer, with the very last revelation being the finish line. I would have to repeat all of it, which meant that I couldn’t help but constantly wonder how I would feel the next time I saw this mile marker. While stronger minds might be able to shield themselves from thinking of the second round, I wasn’t faring too well in ignoring the mile markers 14-25 peppered across the course.

Just before 5k, on the Riverfront

Just before 5k and 25k, on the Riverfront

To palliate my fears, the course quickly became very beautiful.  By the second mile we were running on the wet, wooden planks of the riverfront. They felt like rubber, springing softly below my feet, absorbing the impact. We followed the river to the starting line and then cut through the city of Wilmington, where we would abandon flat terrain for the rest of the loop. Despite being in the city proper, there weren’t many spectators.  We soon entered Brandywine Park, where under the peaceful canopy of trees, the temperature felt like it dropped ten degrees.

That tranquil pause in the chugging of legs and arms was interrupted when we crossed a cobblestone bridge and turned onto South Park Drive, where a mile-long hill made heart rates soar. Relay runners were happily flowing downhill and just up ahead was a friendly spectator with a Captain America shield that said “Press For Power.” Somewhere in the middle of the hill, I heard it again.

This is going to suck at mile 20.

Miles 3 and 16, by the Riverfront

Miles 3 and 16, by the Riverfront

At the top, I saw Laura’s parents. Over the last two days, they had hosted me at their home in Silver Spring and drove up to Wilmington to watch us run. From the moment you meet them you know they’re going to be a hoot. Not only is her mom a fun, charming woman, but you can almost hear the synapses in her mind firing a million times a second. In the scant 36 hours I had known her, I had answered a thousand earnest questions. Her dad, a person of much fewer words, is just as affable and welcoming (and surprised me by knowing more about Costa Rica’s economy and trade relations than I was ready to discuss). I smiled as I passed them.  Her mom was cheering so emphatically, she was practically squawking.

The next five miles were run through the neighborhoods of Highlands, Bancroft Parkway, Wawaset Park and Hilltop, with almost every single step having a tiny slope. I was by this point completely drenched in sweat and making sure to stop at every aid station. I kept looking for a mantra despite the mounting doubt in my head, like searching for a gummy bear in an anthill. And despite plentiful shade, it had become a warm day.

Miles 6 and 19, South Park Drive

Miles 6 and 19, South Park Drive, “the hill” everyone talks about

“Looking good, Larry,” I said as I passed an older runner. He was wearing a yellow shirt with a blue singlet on top that said “1,300 Marathons Larry,” power walking, slightly hunched under an orange cap and pumping his arms. It was Larry Macon, one of the most prolific marathoners in the world, who currently owns an un-ratified world record for most marathons run in a year (255), and continues to put all of our running accomplishments to shame.

Two downhill miles later, I was back in the city, with one hill left until the “finish” line. As I ran toward the crowds, I couldn’t help but think that I’d be happy to call it a day. I was already tired, had left a trail of sweat beads on the pavement since the start and would not have bet on a strong finish. I thought, if today were supposed to be just a half marathon, I would be proud of this time.  But instead, I reached the split and turned away from the roar at Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park and back onto the familiar road from earlier that morning.

Those first hundred steps were the worst.

Miles 9 and 22, through Wilmington neighborhoods

Miles 8 and 21, through Wilmington neighborhoods

I tried not to, but the inevitable rapid-fire slide show of the next 13.1 miles flashed in my head. Every turn and landmark, but most menacingly, every hill burst in a matter of seconds alongside shrill, staccato horns, like a flashback to a war. That might be inappropriately hyperbolic, but it really was demoralizing. The first half wasn’t the sweet and easy jog that I was expecting, to the point that my mind was ready to check out.

I know myself and how I function. With this sweat rate at this point in the race, I can all but guarantee a disastrous second half. Why did I think I could comfortably keep this pace for this long? Why can’t I ever just run the race I’m supposed to run and not push it? And think of the sunburn I’m going to get …

There is much to be said about the power of the mind over the body. There is certainly no shortage of inspirational running bumper stickers that tout how a variable percentage – but usually more than half – of the effort is mental. I’ve never really known whether this is just a fun platitude to believe in or if it holds its weight in a lab. But let this post serve as anecdotal evidence of the exact opposite situation. The mind certainly can affect the body in numerous, wondrous ways. But on May 11, 2014 in Wilmington, Delaware, I ran my twenty-third marathon and watched in disbelief as my body overcame my weak, jellied mind.

Miles 9 and 22 in Hilltop, far from the cover of trees

Miles 9 and 22 in Hilltop, far from the cover of trees

My legs, heart and lungs were not paying attention to the quailing voice in my head. They continued onward, ticking off the miles. Though I wasn’t running that much faster, the distance between mile markers seemed shorter. It was as if my body had effectively shut off my brain and its powers of perception, allowing me to simply execute forward locomotion. I had become a machine, steaming past runners and spectators with a steely gaze. There were no more distractions, no more moments of quiet introspection or sightseeing. I had taken pictures in the first half of the race, but for that second loop, my camera was firmly clutched in my left hand, not to see any more daylight until I was done. The part of me that would have enjoyed that had been silenced.

South Park Drive would have one more go at shattering my momentum. During this climb I ran the slowest 5k of the race and it was looking likely that my body was going to join my quivering mind. But every moment of despair was followed by a surge of easy speed. I cruised through the dew-drenched neighborhoods and over the sun-burnt roads of Hilltop, passing everyone I saw ahead of me. Under normal circumstances, I would have covered those miles fraught with concern over the inevitable bonk, but today I had stuffed that poltroon perspective in a paper cup and tossed it at an aid station many miles ago.

Miles 12 and 25, through the city, and the final climb of the race

Miles 12 and 25, through the city, and the final climb of the race

Instead, I ran from 35k to 40k in my fastest split of the race, aided by a long downhill and the pull of the finish line. Once back in the city there was just one hill left to scale before the irresistible finish line. Still on auto-pilot, I was powerless to object.  It was only until I crossed the finish line in just under 3:38 and heard the announcer say my name that I felt normal, human again. It’s a good thing this metamorphosis happened when it did because right as I got my finisher’s medal, I felt someone jab me.

“Hey, you might not remember me,” he said to the back of my head. I turned around and instantly recognized him. “Andy the Pacer!” I yelled before he could get another word out. We had met over two years ago in Little Rock, where he paced (and entertained with frequent trivia) the 3:45 group, with whom I ran for twelve miles in completely new clothes and shoes before taking off to earn an unexpected PR. For that reason, I will always hold a special place in my running books for him.

0511_1_delawaremarathon 230511_1_delawaremarathon 27

Laura continued her PR streak with a 1:52 finish, going 4 for 4 and confirming that I am her lucky half marathon rabbit’s foot. After the race we made our way to a Mother’s Day barbecue hosted by her extended family in a nearby neighborhood, where I became happily acquainted with northeastern hospitality and half of the charming genes that led to her incredibly affable and lovable personality. A few hours later, I was back on the road towards Baltimore, ready to fly home smiling.

2014-delaware-marathon-elevation-chart

I have faced time and time again the difficult truth that strength and confidence in long distance running, much like the elevation chart above, exist in a wave form. There are months where nagging pains and tiny setbacks make intense training feel like a chore. But there are also spans of time when everything feels easy, effortless and that the body’s limits can easily bend to your will. At the end of the Delaware Marathon, I felt strong, powerful, and incredibly optimistic about the rest of the year’s challenges. The last few months have had their aches and pains, but as I finished my 39.3 mile weekend averaging an 8:07 pace with almost 3,000 feet of vertical change, I felt incredible.

Now I just have to make sure, as my mom advises, to not overdo it. Because running two and a half marathons in ten days is certainly not that.

Marathon_Map 049 (DE)

 

State 37: New Mexico (2014 Shiprock Marathon)

“It’s really masochistic if you think about it,” I told my friend Ryan as we sat in the finisher’s tent, downing bottles of water and chocolate milk. “They load you up in a bus, haul you thirteen or twenty-six miles into the middle of the desert, drop you off and say, ‘Alright, you’re completely on your own now. Run.’”

0503_shiprockmarathon 04

In any big city race, there’s a “loop” of sorts that we’re expected to traverse, which gives us the illusion that we’re sightseeing but with an elevated heart rate. Or we can trick ourselves into thinking we’re participating in an extreme scavenger hunt. But when you’re driving the very course you’re expected to run, it can feel a little defeating. It’s so remarkably easy to sit on a school bus for about thirty minutes. But knowing that returning on your own two feet will leave you ragged and gasping for air can feel like a kick in the gut.

If we’re expected to run over five miles, then why did god invent cars?

2014 Shiprock Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2014 Shiprock Marathon Google Earth Rendering

Flag Song

Flag Song

But there I was, just a rattlesnake strike away from the Arizonan border, staring straight into the sun as it rose above the 2014 Shiprock Marathon. A crowd of two or three hundred other runners were shuffling excitedly for the race, every one of them grateful for the lack of sandstorms that had besieged New Mexico all week. A cloudless sky had welcomed us, along with a slight breeze from the northeast that got me well acquainted with the bone dry air of the high desert.

The non-profit NavajoYES organized the race, now in its thirty-first year. Instead of the national anthem, we were treated to a flag song, performed by a local drum group. Six men huddled around a large rawhide drum and began chanting to a tribal rhythm, their voices echoing harmoniously. The announcer rattled off a list of states near and far to a few hoots and hollers from the crowd, far from the louder calls he received when he began listing the different Native American tribes participating.

I started the race with a Canadian teacher and Marathon Maniac named Marc, whom I met on the flight to Albuquerque the day before. Affectionately known as “Mr. T” by his students, he was on the final stretch of his 50-states marathon quest, which will end in June with Grandma’s. The first two miles were a gentle uphill, which we ran modestly, as if paying respect to the distance before sparring with it. I could feel the thinness of the air in my nostrils, a familiar sensation from my trips to Colorado. I was unsure how the race would play out at this point, but I was increasingly thinking it would be a slow day.

The start is a gentle, yet consistent uphill.

The start is a gentle, yet consistent uphill.

Once past the starting line, the race was quiet.  The only sounds came from labored breathing, feet upon the pavement and occasional chit-chat.  In that opening mile, an older runner plugged a nostril and sneezed out a thin mist, as if evaporation were irresistible in the high desert even to snot.

The first five kilometers were mostly uphill, culminating at 6,103 feet, the race’s highest point. I still felt completely dry, having used these opening miles to warm up and get acquainted with the air. But once at the top, it was time to scream downhill, with no time to issue apologies to everyone who got fleeting glimpses of my soles.

The road pulled me downward, each foot behaving on its own, spinning relentlessly at a pace I reserve for much shorter races. One by one I sped past runners, wondering if I would see them later, heaving by the roadside, cursing my naïve exuberance. But I couldn’t help it. I was feeling powerful and confident. I had not forgotten that the marathon has taught me time and time again one of its harshest lessons: reel it in at the beginning and save that boiling energy for the end.

Most of the race looked like this.

Most of the race looked like this.

But with downhills, all bets are off. I can’t help but banish the worrisome auditors that run pace calculations in my ear every two minutes. That voice that tells me to take it easy and play it safe becomes too faint over the roaring flood of adrenaline.  I am all but forced to embrace the runner’s id, the childlike freedom to run forever, unencumbered by the silly notion of conservation.

In times like these, I just want to fly.

During this flight, I could see for miles. The road shot out ahead of us, thinning until it became a gossamer thread that spilled over the horizon. There was nothing to distract us from forward movement, which given the endless desert ahead, seemed like a joke.  It sometimes felt like running on a giant treadmill and we weren’t going anywhere. Nothing changed except the people around me.

But I loved every second of it. This was an exercise in running, pure and simple. If you didn’t like the activity itself, free from the polished sheen of flashy races, this wasn’t your event. There were no changes in scenery to draw your attention away from the punishing distance, no turns to hide the many miles to come, and no monuments to admire as we crossed them off … with one very impressive exception.

I love this picture.

I love this picture.

The race itself is named after a giant rock formation that juts out of northwest New Mexico like a castle. Where many mountains in the area are either rounded out or completely flat, Shiprock rises like a cluster of sharp spires. Its silhouette against the morning sun gives it the appearance of a villainous lair built thousands of years ago by a civilization forgotten by time. Given how haunting it looks, standing alone in the middle of a flat expanse, it didn’t surprise me to learn that it holds a very special place in the customs and folklore of the Navajo.

For most of the race, Shiprock kept gaze over us. No matter how many miles we would run, it was always off in the distance, permanent, unfeeling.

I reached the halfway mark, where about fifteen minutes earlier, the half marathoners had begun their own journey to the finish line. Ryan was part of that pack, running his first ever half marathon. I was hoping that he would enjoy it, especially since this race would challenge him in many unique ways that he couldn’t anticipate during training.

I kept hammering out the miles, invigorated by every downhill. It wasn’t long before I felt like I was running alone. With every mile marker, the trappings of the organized race disappeared, leaving the runner bare to run, pure and simple. I started noticing that uphills were somehow capitulating to my momentum. I was breathing easily, my teeth weren’t clenching and I had no curses to spit into the air. As I approached the back of the half marathoners, my heat-seeking straight line path became a bit more serpentine and it felt, once again, like a race.

If you zoom in, you can see the half marathon crowd about a mile ahead

If you zoom in, you can see the half marathon crowd about a mile ahead

Now with a crowd of people, I kept the relentless progress through the unchanging world. The desert remained ahead, infinitely revealing, with no end in sight. Every few miles I would sneak a glance at my watch and realize how close I was to running a PR pace.

What is happening? I asked myself. How is this pace possible? Is the downhill enough to overcome the thin air? Is 5,500 feet even considered altitude? How is it not even warm yet?

And yet, despite the confident pace and joyous stroll through the ancient plains, not all was well. Right at mile 19, I felt an awkward shift in my right foot, as if all the skin on the outside had separated from my flesh. I hadn’t developed a serious blister in a long time, but I felt that streak end in one chilling step. Downhill running is a double-edged sword, and after wielding it with gusto for two-thirds of the race, I was beginning to notice the cuts on my skin.

Ryan 10/13 of the way through his debut half marathon

Ryan 10/13 of the way through his debut half marathon

A mile later, we made the first turn of the entire race. The dedicated two-lane road we had been navigating for the last 20 miles stopped when it reached 491. We would run north for the last six miles, heading toward the town of Shiprock. Up ahead I spotted a runner with a bright, neon tech shirt and a white hat. I caught up to him and confirmed that it was Ryan, looking strong and smiling.

But I couldn’t say the same for myself.

The altitude and hard effort had taken their toll and my body had started to rebel. Miles 22 through 24 were almost completely flat, which meant that I had to run harder to keep the same pace. Right on cue, my calves began to falter, and every step sent a buzzing current into my legs as if the road were suddenly electrified. Each one was closer to delivering an unwanted and untimely cramp, so I had to stop and walk, the ghost of my PR floating toward the finish line.

Airborne during the final dash to the finish

Airborne during the final dash to the finish

The rest of the race was the familiar pattern of grunt and breathe. I would run as fast as I could to the next aid station, drink and douse myself in water, and continue to the next one. It was finally starting to feel warm and the cold water absorbing in my tech shirt was heavenly. Though it was no longer muscular and dominant, the engine was still working and I kept a strong pace through those last miles.

We returned to Shiprock High School, where the buses had boarded four hours earlier. We left the road and entered a dry, dirt field, just a zig and a zag away from the cheers of the finish line. It was the first crowd of spectators we had seen all day and they were generous with their support. I passed under the timing sensors and stopped my watch at 3 hours, 28 minutes, having finished my twenty-second marathon in the sacred grounds of the Navajo.

Never would have guessed that time, I thought, clenching a proud fist.

Ryan finished just a few minutes behind me, ending his first half marathon just shy of two hours. When I first saw him, he mentioned something like “every part of me wants to die right now,” but his smile betrayed the morbid sentiment. Most people aim for a local, flat race to test out their mettle. But circumstances made it so he would face the distance at altitude, on a downhill course in the middle of the desert with skin-flaking dry air.

(left to right) Ryan's sinuses acting up, Tom, me, Shiprock

(left to right) Ryan’s sinuses acting up, Tom, me, Shiprock … and this picture makes it painfully apparent how short my shorts are.

All things considered, it was a great day for both of us.

That is, until we spent the remainder of the day trying to get out of the bottlenecked parking lot. The organizers may have done a great job with everything else, but if you’re thinking of running the Shiprock Marathon in 2015, make sure they’ve addressed the post-race parking exodus, because it felt like being in the music video for “Everybody Hurts” but with legs on the verge of seizure.

Once back in Albuquerque, we got together with Amy and Aaron of Lavender Parking Running Fame at Il Vicino Brewing Company.   We shared dinner and a few drinks with them and our college friend Tom, who graciously hosted us for the weekend, before moving to La Cumbre Brewing Company. Much to my delight they had also brought Giuseppe, their snow-white Westie, who often makes cameos in her race stories.  During the course of the evening, I learned that they had hired the same photographer who worked my wedding, and that Aaron’s parents live two houses down from Tom.

But more importantly, I learned that there’s something special about running bloggers. Whatever chemical reaction that causes people to run and write about it also produces the most welcoming and caring people. It’s an infinitely complicated route that has led me to this sport, but if I continue meeting such wonderful people, then I will gladly tread that same path for many years to come.

(left to right): Aaron, Ryan, me, Tom, Amy

(left to right): Aaron, Ryan, me, Tom, Amy

As midnight approached, the day had already caught up to us. We had gotten up at 4 AM, throttled our legs, dehydrated ourselves and sat in a car blaring 90’s hits for three hours. We said our goodbyes and drove back to Tom’s where we all fell instantly asleep.  At the moment, I am doing whatever it takes to make sure this massive blister heals before the 39.3 race miles I’ve committed to running this weekend. If the hot and humid forecast holds up, then I’m staring down another intense challenge.

Maybe we are masochists.

Marathon_Map 047 (NM)

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)

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