Gold Rush: 2015 Lost Dutchman Marathon

Legend tells of a rich gold mine, hidden deep in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona.  Supposedly discovered by Jacob Waltz in the mid-1800s, it is rumored to be full of Apache gold and many people have gone in search of the famous mine, but none have found it.  Several of these explorers, including treasure hunter Adolph Ruth, have paid the ultimate price for their curiosity.  What everyone soon learns is that the tale and location of the mine itself have changed so much over the years, that it’s almost a myth that people tell around campfires.

0215_lostdutchman 07It was around these campfires in the shadow of mountains and cacti that I found myself on a cool Sunday morning.  The organizers of the Lost Dutchman Marathon had arranged various starter logs in a grid with blankets on either side and runners were huddled around each one, keeping warm and exchanging stories of their own lost mines.  I sat with Nolan, a friend from middle school, and three people we had just met around the crackling flames.  There was Carl, a scraggly ultra runner in a button-up shirt whose running resume included 100ks and 100-milers but oddly only one marathon; Angela, a svelte blonde who had run a 50k the day before and was training for the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run; and Laura, who was wrapped a Mylar blanket and ready to run her 107th marathon.  I later learned that she holds the record as the youngest woman to run a marathon in all 50 states and is the youngest member of the 100 Marathon Club. 

In such esteemed company, my own running exploits were amateur at best.

Mile 0 - On the Peralta trail, ready to go

Mile 0 – On the Peralta trail, ready to go

Neither Nolan nor I had time goals, so we decided to attack the race conservatively.  I had only finished one long run since November and he was equally unprepared.  In fact, he had only started training for the marathon three weeks prior.  But that didn’t quell our enthusiasm, so we ran the first 10k of the race at a comfortable, conversational pace, even agreeing on the specific pace we wanted.

(left to right): me, Nolan, competing for biggest goon

(left to right): me, Nolan, competing for biggest goon

The race started just a few feet away from the campfires and wound through the Peralta Trail, a meandering crushed dirt and stone path about two lanes wide.  For six miles, our feet felt the raw crunch of loose dirt, the path beneath us lined with cacti and gorgeous views of the red Superstition Mountains.  Unfortunately, so early in the race, we were experiencing its most scenic views.  Once we left the serpentine Peralta Trail, we alternated between running on the shoulder of Highway 60 or through various neighborhoods. 

While I’ve always been partial to desert races and the Santa Fe architectural style, this part of the race wasn’t very special.  I told Nolan more than once that if none of these neighborhoods existed, or if the paved asphalt were replaced with an unkempt dirt path, this race would be almost magical.  It didn’t help that for much of this section, we were relegated to running in single file because the cones separating us from traffic were practically leaning off the road.  Passing runners meant either invading a lane with open vehicular traffic or going off-road and kicking up scree.

Mile 2 - The cactus gates beckon

Mile 2 – The cactus gates beckon

We continued the race with even splits, reeling in runners and slowly passing them.  I was wearing a tech shirt with the Superman logo emblazoned on it, which meant a reliable series of “Go Superman!” at every aid station.  I made a few quips about how my paper cup of lemon-lime Gatorade looked like kryptonite, much to the amusement of the old ladies who handed it to me.  Around halfway, we were met with several uphills, which he climbed with exuberance while I quietly groaned.  He lives and trains in Atlanta, so he was far more used to elevation change than this Chicago resident.

Mile 7 - Back to paved roads

Mile 7 – Back to paved roads

“Thank god for these clouds,” he said, more than once.  Though it was a bit warmer than southern Arizona typically gets in February, a vast blanket of clouds had covered the sun for most of the morning.  That meant we were barely sweating, ticking off the miles at a manageable pace.  However, we were fast approaching the 16th mile, that dreaded marker that heralded the farthest we had run in preparation for this race.

We held on but the early signs of fatigue were plain.  Sometime around mile 18, Nolan said he was starting to get in the weeds.  Undeterred, I kept the pace, pulling him with me.  We weren’t shoulder to shoulder anymore, but I could hear him behind me, listening to either an NPR podcast or crude hip-hop.  But shortly after, as we ran through a terra cotta subdivision in the race’s only out-and-back section, I stopped hearing the plod of his footsteps behind me.  I took a quick picture break and he caught up, just in time for a downhill.

“After this downhill, we’ll be back on target pace,” I yelled over my shoulder.
“It’s all you man, just go ahead,” he replied.

Mile 15 - There's gold in these hills

Mile 15 – There’s gold in these hills

And so I did.  Aided by the slight downhill, I turned on the afterburners.  I left marathoners behind me as my breathing picked up and I chased the burnt orange horizon.  I knew I was relying far too much on muscle memory, but things were going better than expected and it felt great to pump my arms.  But with so few people running the marathon, I soon found myself with no one to chase.  And then at mile 22, the clouds were banished and the sun came out to lick the landscape.

Just like that, I couldn’t keep up the pace.  The sun weighed on me, like an iron pushing down on my back, and I began to lose steam.  Aid stations became walking breaks and I began to pour water down my back to keep cool.  The long stretches of road felt interminable, with each new block looking exactly like the one before, as if I were running in circles.  I wasn’t alone in my slowdown, as nobody was passing me.  In fact, no one was even around, ahead or behind.  It was just me, the road, and the sun.

Mile 19 - Blocky, Santa Fe houses in the background

Mile 19 – Running through neighborhoods

I reached mile 24 to behold a cartoonish gateway made to look like a brick wall.  It was supposed to symbolize runners breaking through that demoralizing moment in most long-distance races where you lose all energy and everything hurts.  Honestly, I think it was a little late, as I had been sputtering for a good two miles by then.  And so late in the race, this quirky monument was more of a taunt than a motivator.  But if it seemed like all hope of finishing strong had died like the embers of a campfire, it was rekindled just eight minutes later.

Right at mile 25, I stopped at an aid station for my last swig of Gatorade.  During this break, two marathoners passed me.  One was a tall gentleman in a neon yellow RunLab singlet, the other a young brunette in a turquoise Ragnar t-shirt.  They seemed to be running the same pace, but I didn’t know if they were running together.  But the mere fact that they had been the only people to pass me lit a fire under my feet and I gave chase.

Mile 24 - The "wall"

Mile 24 – The “wall”

There was one tiny hill left to crest before we cut off the main road and toward the Rodeo Grounds where the finish line awaited us.  I kept RunLab and Ragnar in my sights, the three of us passing other marathoners and walkers.  The sun continued to burn us and the open desert provided no relief.  But we continued, my pace only slightly faster than theirs as I brought them closer and closer.  The next burst of speed was imminent until I heard a familiar voice from the side of the road.

“Vamos ticos!”

Ha, I thought.  That guy looks a lot like uncle Jim.  Wait, what the hell, that is Jim.  And Scott.  Huh?

“What in the hell?” I yelled with a smile as I high-fived them.  “What are you guys doing here?”
“We ran the half,” Jim said.  “Stephanie told us you were here this morning.”
“Nope!” I said, continuing to the finish, “You can’t be real, I must be hallucinating!”

Finish - Nolan (right) crosses the timing mats with Carl (left)

Finish – Nolan (right) crosses the timing mats with the dapper Carl (left)

My first thought, which is perhaps a bit narcissistic, was that they were here to surprise me.  But it turns out it was just a crazy coincidence, made possible because we had all kept mum about our race schedules.  The half marathon was an out-and-back with a different start than the marathon, so there was no way to have seen them earlier.  I would have dwelled a little more on the likelihood, but I had prey to catch.

We turned into the Rodeo Grounds and saw the finishing banner in the distance.  Crowds had lined up against the barricades, like the dusty citizens of a small western town, ready to watch a duel at high noon.  By now I was within striking distance of RunLab and Ragnar.  All of our paces had picked up and we were aggressively running through the finishing chute.  I approached and squeezed between them, our shoulders just inches apart.

“Finish strong!” RunLab said to his friend.  “Don’t let this guy pass you!”

2015 Lost Dutchman Marathon Finisher's Medal

2015 Lost Dutchman Marathon Finisher’s Medal

Bad move, RunLab.  If you wanted “this guy” to run faster, that’s exactly what you had to say.  As Ragnar visibly picked up the pace to try and match mine, I let loose and stormed toward the finish line.  I rarely have a final kick in marathons, but this duel had given me a reason to surge.  Nobody passes me in the second half of a race, nobody.  Crossing the finishing mats in 3:41, I hobbled over to the metal barricades where I met up with Jim and Scott.  They each had great race experiences, with Scott notching a new PR and Jim finishing his first big race since recovering from two significant injuries last year.  It’s been a long, slow recovery for him, so the smile he boasted all day was much deserved.

Ten minutes later, Nolan crossed the finish line shoulder to shoulder with Carl.  He looked beat.  A thin layer of salt had dried on his face and his glazed eyes were fixated downward.  I knew that expression, so I avoided giving him a congratulatory slap on the back or inundating him with questions.  After walking it off and finding a patch of grass in the shade, he was back to his pre-race self.

I really appreciate that Nolan has now joined me in four out of fifty states.  I just wish I hadn’t dragged him to three unremarkable cities.  In 2012 we went to Birmingham and later Tulsa, and this weekend we spent time in a climate that reminded him all too much of a time in his life that he’d rather forget.  However, despite that, we had a great time chasing Jacob Waltz’s lost mine, reminiscing about really old times, and discussing the shadiness of local Atlanta dealings while playing a round of mini-golf.

(left to right) Scott, Jim, me, Nolan

(left to right) Scott, Jim, me, Nolan

Turns out all the fast people were in their 20s and 30s.  Surprise FIRST PLACE in M30-34!

Turns out all the fast people were in their 20s and 40s. Surprise FIRST PLACE in M30-34!

As for Jim and Scott, it was decided that we should keep closer tabs on our race schedules, though they’ve already kindly abstained from joining me in my next potential state, the sexy and alluring North Dakota.  Much further down the road though, it seems like they have a date with Berlin.  With any luck – and plenty of peer pressure – we may see Scott make the transition to 26.2 miles.  He’s been getting too comfortable with the half, which spells doom for any intentions of avoiding the full beast.

With Arizona now shaded in red, I’ve reached a new milestone: 25 marathon states.  And just like that, I’m halfway done with an undertaking I never thought possible.  Even when I came up with the project of running a half in all 50 states, when I was already logging hundreds of miles with relish, I wouldn’t have dreamed of pursuing a 50-states marathon quest.  But here I am, halfway there.  And the best part is, despite those painful miles where everything aches and you can feel your vitality escape with each hot breath, I’m still loving it.

Onwards!

Marathon_Map 055 (AZ)

Giving Up: 2014 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon

I give up, really, I do.  At this point, I can do nothing else but admit outright that I don’t know what I’m doing.  After five years and twenty-seven marathons, countless different training plans and goals, I finally learned that the sport is too varied and unpredictable to truly harness.  Some people, like super-human Michael Wardian or the indefatigable Chuck Engle have managed to tame the marathon, the latter of whom has run up to 25 a year averaging under 3 hours each.

But I am not Chuck Engle.

2014 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2014 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon Google Earth Rendering

I’m sorry, this might sound a little melodramatic, so let’s back up and explain things.  Four weeks ago, I tried to run two marathons in one weekend.  Though I ran the first one in 3:37, I had to drop to the half marathon for Sunday’s race because of an intense pain in my right knee.  I spent the rest of the month nursing that injury, keeping the pain at bay while still logging enough miles to stay fit.  However, I couldn’t run more than 12 miles a week without taunting fate.  I had signed up for the 2014 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon earlier in the year in hopes of attacking my 20-month old marathon PR.  But as the month went on with not a single long run, my expectations gradually fell.

I stood in the middle of downtown Indianapolis, thrilled to be huddled with several thousand other runners.  Icy winds were slicing through the city, channeled by buildings and making their way into my clothes.  I shuffled my feet while blowing warm air into my gloves and checking my watch.  I had not layered up so much for a marathon since my first run in 2009.  A few crowded blocks away was Ryan, who ran his first half marathon in Shiprock, New Mexico, looking to improve his time on a flatter, less arid course.

Mile 1 - 4 and 25 - 26.2 took place in the city

Mile 1 – 4 and 25 – 26.2 took place in the city

The first five miles wind in and out of Indianapolis, under bridges and several tunnels.  We were given wide, four-lane roads for those opening miles, giving runners plenty of room to find their pace.  From the very start, I was hyper aware of every last sensation pulsing through my legs.  For the first four miles, as we ran around the obelisk at Monument Circle, past University Park and the Middle Eastern stylings of the Murat Shrine center, everything felt fine.  I paid attention to every meaningless sensation to see if it was the advent of pain, but as long as we were in the city, I felt strong.

Until I wasn’t.  That tiny, yet familiar tingle of discomfort emerged just past mile 4.  It wasn’t a sharp pain or a dull grinding, but a deep tickle, like tennis elbow.  I kept running hoping that it would just be an echo, but it lingered.  My heart sank and I shook my head.  I didn’t think it would happen so early in the race.  Four miles in and my right knee had begun to fail me?  How would the remaining twenty-two miles feel?

By 10k we were out of the city and running through leaf-draped neighborhoods.  I had warmed up quickly, but the wind was still in my face and I had decided to keep my hat and gloves.  My leg was tingling with each step, but the pain was manageable and for several random stretches, nonexistent.  I alternated between surprised confidence and renewed panic as the discomfort would return.  Up ahead the half marathoners split from the crowd and I seriously considered making that left turn.  I could run a half marathon and call it a day with no one calling me out.  But this was my last race of the year and dropping to half the distance was how my last race ended.  I didn’t want this to become a pattern, regardless of how it might benefit my legs.  So I stayed with the marathon crowd running next to Fall Creek, further into the city neighborhoods.

The Indianapolis World War Memorial on the right

The Indianapolis World War Memorial on the right

As I reached mile 10, I noticed a shift.  The pain had moved like a worm from my knee to my hip.  I had never felt this before.  Countless times I’ve read about runners having hip injuries and I’ve never understood what it meant until now.  Every push from my leg revealed a tightness on my right side, as if my groin were made of dry plaster, but I was happy to have my mind off my knee.  It was a masterwork in mental legerdemain, willing myself to focus on my hip to avoid facing a rebellious knee.

We continued running through beautiful neighborhoods with small pockets of spectators cheering at every corner.  Just past halfway, we ran deeper into Indianapolis’ residential tapestry, briefly next to the White River.  I was starting to feel small knots in my left calf, and a few miles later, I felt my right patella begin to falter.  It took one walk break during an aid station to learn that I had to keep moving.  Forward motion was, for now, the only thing keeping my body from buckling, and even the shortest respite would flood my legs with lead and pain.

The only significant hill in the entire course was run southbound on Meridian Street around 25k.  I scaled it easily and continued running with the flow of traffic.  The wind was ripping sunburnt leaves from trees, adding a new, dry coat to the packed, paste-like layer of brown on the pavement.  We ran through Butler University’s campus, along the Crest Hill Cemetery and past the Indianapolis Museum of Art before taking a highway ramp downward to a thin path.  By this point, I had either loosened up completely or my body was drunk on adrenaline because the only pains coursing through me were coming from the bottoms of my feet.

I had kept a couple within my sights for several miles.  He was wearing a black sleeveless t-shirt and she was in a hot pink singlet.  It took me another mile to reel them in, where I tucked myself behind them to block some of the wind.  We were running east on Burdsal Parkway, just past 35k and under an orange canopy, when I heard her tell him to go on ahead.  I pursued him as he accelerated, dropping his friend.  The sun had been out for about an hour and a nearly cloudless sky watched over us.  I was barely sweating, running easily in freezing temperatures but I could still feel the sting of the headwind pushing on me.

"The End" Burger at Bru Burger Bar

“The End” Burger at Bru Burger Bar

I began a conversation with Mr. Sleeveless through quick breaths.  It was his fourth marathon and he was feeling excellent.  I told him that if by mile 22 he felt great, then he was in good shape to earn a shiny new personal best.  He just had to keep his focus and make it happen.  He decided to use me as a pacer and locked his pace with mine.  A mile later, we passed Ivy Tech Community College, whose classic, Greek architecture could have been one of the many monuments that graced this marathon’s course.

I didn’t realize it until a sharp right turn onto Meridian Street, but I was completely focused.  Aside from the brief chat with Sleeveless, I was running with tunnel vision, blinders on both sides of my head, staring squarely ahead, watching the course and nothing else.  Because after that turn I saw the skyline rising above a blue backdrop, as if from nowhere.  Had I turned my head at any point in the last mile I might have seen it earlier, but I was laser-focused on the next three steps.  With the city up ahead, I could smell the finish line, hidden somewhere among the buildings.  That’s when I reached mile 24 and glanced at my watch.

“Oh, shit,” I said aloud.  My eyes widened, I felt an emptiness in my stomach and I surged ahead.

I left Sleeveless behind.  Several reflective storefront windows confirmed that I was running alone, using a helpful tailwind to pass slower runners.  The time for keeping it together was over.  Just two miles removed from the finish line, it was time to empty the reserves.  I stomped on the pavement, breathing through my teeth, feeling each step grind my feet to mush.  I pumped my arms and kept going, skipping the last two aid stations and passing mile 25.  I glanced at my watch again.

Oh come on

The course veered right and a volunteer with a megaphone belted that we had two turns left.  I did not let up, keeping my legs moving faster than ever, pushing air out of my lungs, my fists practically punching my chest.  The faint echo of the finish line grew louder with every person I pushed behind me.  With just a half mile to go, I couldn’t help but smile.  As long as I kept moving like this, I felt great.  I knew that just past the finish line, I would be consumed by pain, wincing at even the slightest movement.  But for now, as I scorched the path like a shark, rushing ahead in constant movement, obeying that base instinct to just – keep – moving, loving every second of it, I felt amazing.

Ryan and I, finishers at Bru Burger Bar

Ryan and I, finishers at Bru Burger Bar

At the risk of sounding supercilious, I couldn’t help but feel that this was my Sammy Wanjiru moment.  He set the marathon world on fire in the summer of 2008 by winning the warm, humid Olympic Marathon in Beijing in absolutely fearless fashion.  He held the half marathon world record and by October of 2009 had won the London and Chicago Marathons.  Back in Kenya, his newfound fame and fortune had plagued him with problems.  Famously profligate, he squandered a lot of money on gifts for friends and enormous bar tabs.  This prodigal lifestyle took its toll on his training, and when he arrived in Chicago on October 2010 to defend his title, few experts put their money on him.

But what happened on that warm Chicago morning would go down as one of the greatest duels in the modern marathon.  Wanjiru traded leads with his Ethiopian rival, Tsegaye Kebede (who took bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Marathon) all the way to the Roosevelt Street bridge.  His final surge came just a minute before crossing the finish line and defending his title.  No one would have predicted a great performance from him, but somehow, through magic or a ravenous hunger for it, he made it happen.

The parallel is not airtight for many reasons (including his untimely and mysterious death) but part of me could hear Toni Reavis’ avuncular voice chortling about my surprising performance with shock and awe.

Because despite running a maximum of 12 miles a week since October 5; despite having a persistent IT band injury in my right knee that no amount of stretching could exorcise; despite starting this race with my confidence at record low levels and my head elsewhere, I reached the finish line of the 2014 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon intact, having miraculously and imprudently pulled out of my ass a 3:22:14 personal best.

2014 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon Medal, the first of a 4-year series that come together to make a large frame.

2014 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon Medal, the first of a 4-year series that come together to make a large frame.

And because of all this, I have given up on understanding what puts together a solid marathon training plan.  I’ve done the traditional 20-miler three weeks before, sometimes adding or removing a week.  I’ve skipped out on 20 in favor of a faster 16-miler, I’ve increased my mileage, favored speed over distance, opted for distance over speed — you name it.  But the fact remains that my newly minted PR happened after a persistent injury, and four weeks of spinning classes with absolutely minimal running.  I just don’t get it.  All signs pointed to disaster, yet I made it happen.  From now on, I guess I’ll just run and leave the thinking to sports scientists.

But I was right about the finish line.  Three steps after crossing the timing mats, my legs became encased in concrete and each joint felt swollen to twice its normal size.  My knees, hips, feet, and even my Achilles tendons were aching.  But as you might imagine, I was far away, stuck between pride and confusion, elation and wonder.  I limped all the way to the hotel, where I showered and changed at a sloth’s pace before going to Bru Burger Bar with Ryan, who was enjoying equal success, having earned himself a 1:54 half marathon PR.

As I bit into a juicy burger fittingly named “The End,” I reflected fondly on the race and the season.  The goal was always to come to Indianapolis to bring down my personal best.  I had spent months visualizing it.  But that morning, I was certain that I was doomed.  I’m still not sure how it happened (or the more tantalizing concern of how much faster I could have run if I had been completely healthy) but it did.  Maybe my legs were the right amount of fresh and rested after an entire year of nonstop training.  Or perhaps my desire for redemption stopped the pain signals from reaching my brain.  Either way, that’s one minute closer to Boston.

Not a bad way to end the season, I thought.  We paid the tab and I winced back to the car as every single part of my legs screamed in pain.  Not bad at all.

Marathon_Map 054 (IN)

State 41: New Hampshire (2014 New Hampshire Marathon)

Autumn in New England, best place and time for a pretty run

Autumn in New England, best place and time for a pretty run

A side-effect and direct consequence of marathon-related selective memory is that you forget how painful and arduous some undertakings are and decide to try them again. One of those is the tricky double-marathon. Last year to the weekend, Otter and I went to the Pacific Northwest to run the Leavenworth and Portland marathons on consecutive days. Though the endeavor did a number on Otter’s knee, I left the region with two new marathon states and a hipster co-op’s worth of confidence.   It wasn’t all perfect, as I didn’t enjoy the otherwise beautiful and impeccably executed Portland Marathon as much as I could have because my brain was too focused on how much my legs were hurting.

Erin ran the point-to-point half marathon on little training like a champ

Erin ran the point-to-point half marathon on little training like a champ

But for some reason (runner’s amnesia), I decided to do it again. In the interim, my West Coast running pal Mike ran two marathons in one weekend and finished each in under 3:45. So, obviously, being the brutish male that I am, I found myself wanting to improve that impressive mark by running both of my marathons in under 3 hours and 40 minutes. And so it was that I found myself in Bristol with my high-school friend Javier and his family for the 22nd running of the New Hampshire Marathon.  I was huddled with Larry Macon and a few hundred runners listening to the Newfound Memorial Middle School band get ready to play the national anthem.  The bassist kept compulsively breaking into the opening notes of “Seven Nation Army” but would repeatedly get hushed down by the conductor.

“This kid just really wants to play that song,” I said to the runner next to me.  “It wants to explode out of him.”
“Teach, I can do it!” he replied, imitating the feverish bassist, “I can rock this bitch, Teach, just gimme a chance!”

It was a foggy, chilly morning

It was a foggy, chilly morning

The famous foliage of New England had started and most trees were shedding their orange leaves and pine straw, preparing for winter. The entire race would be run surrounded by this beautiful change. While the trees were transitioning between forest greens and bright oranges, my feet would soon be in the process of changing from uphill to downhill. It wasn’t long before I realized that I hadn’t done the proper due diligence for this race. Not only did it start with a very long, gradual uphill, but from there it rarely flattened out.  Many of these descents would be pretty steep.

So what does a smart, reasonable person do? He or she would evaluate these new environmental conditions and adjust their time expectations accordingly. Perhaps 3:40 would be a little ambitious given the constant elevation change and the fact that their training grounds afford no hills for practice. It is entirely acceptable to simply dial it back, given that no one below the podium cares about finishing times.

Up, up and away

Up, up and away

But I am not that person. I set out to run under 3:40, come hell or high water. Even worse, I told people about those goals. You can’t just back down after you’ve proclaimed it to the world.

I started with an easy, slow pace and ramped my way up to my target speed.  The course traced a path around central New Hampshire’s Newfound Lake, with many hills lumped along the way. There was a near constant fog hovering above us for the entire race, often descending to the pavement as a light shower. I realize that I boast having never run in rain, and while this race may have proven that long-standing claim untrue, it was quite refreshing and rarely ever felt like a meaningful weather event.  Water wasn’t dripping off me and my shoes hadn’t yet begun to squish against the road.

For virtually the entire race, we ran on the left side of a two-lane road, open to traffic.  The chilly, damp air was being moved briskly by a breeze and as the sun hid from view all day, I was all but ensured to stay chilly for the entire race.  Leaves would rain down from above, along with tine pine needles and the occasional acorn. Boats were moored on the shore by beautiful lake houses, every bit of ground covered in damp leaves. The race claims to be “the most beautiful marathon in New England” and I believed the hype.  Between the tranquil, fog-draped lake and the rich tapestry of autumnal colors, it was indeed the picture of pulchritude.

No more dedicated shoulder, runners are on the edge of the road

No more dedicated shoulder, runners are on the edge of the road

About halfway through my left knee began to feel slightly out of place. I instantly panicked and slowed to a walk. It happened on a downhill, and each stomp moved the knee ever so sightly out of alignment. Dark thoughts raced through my mind and I muttered a soft curse into the autumn air. But once on flat terrain, it seemed to recover and I continued the rest of the race without any serious problems. But the specter of an injury lurked in the back of my mind. After all, many tiny little issues have a way of coming back after the running is over.

Mercifully, the biggest climbs were all in the first half of the race. I would dedicate the majority of my energy in the latter half to maintaining an even pace and keeping my feet even on the ground. When you’re running on roads that bank upwards on hills, you’re essentially running on the sides of your feet, lop-sided. This isn’t much of an issue if it’s temporary, but it happened for most of the race and I was worried about how it would affect my knees.

Approaching halfway, the road has narrowed

Approaching halfway, the road has narrowed

Aid stations came and went, staffed by two volunteers each. I might have guessed that about 800 people were running the marathon, so there wasn’t much need for large, industrial aid stations. But despite the slow trickle of runners, each volunteer was nothing but assiduous in making sure we were hydrated.  There were several aid stations through which I walked, but even my slower pace didn’t dampen the volunteers’ dedicated energy.  They would walk right up to me with two cups and hold them right at my chest level, as if offering me the elixir of life.

As the race drew to a close, I couldn’t help but wonder how my legs were going to wake up the next day. I wasn’t tired, but the near constant mix of ups and downs had pummeled my quads more than any 20-miler in recent memory. It wasn’t too late to slow down and give them a rest, but my troglodyte mind had been made up days ago; I was here to run a certain time and no amount of sound logic would get me to stop. I had built up a lot of momentum scaling these hills and I wasn’t about to let that meaningless 3:40 threshold pass me.

Miles 20-22 were right on the shores of Newfound Lake

Miles 20-22 were right on the shores of Newfound Lake

Three hours and thirty-eight minutes later, I was crossing the finish mats at Newfound Memorial Middle School. I happily downed a bottle of water, some orange wedges and a few cups of Gatorade before heading to the school locker rooms for a much needed shower. It took a long time to change out of my running clothes, rinse them and put on new ones. Though I strode confidently over the finish line in a time that would have been a PR two years ago, I was aching. The adrenaline had receded from my muscles and without my body’s mechanical, forward chug, I found myself hurting.

Mile 25 runs along the Newfound River

Mile 25 runs along the Newfound River

And this time, the pain was coming from that hitherto impervious joint, that steely bastion of endurance that had almost never complained in all my years of running: my right knee.  The usual culprit was always my left side.  For some strange reason, which a detailed gait analysis might disinter, most of my running pains emerge on the left.  Historically, it’s my left metatarsals that get aggravated; my left knee was to blame for my first ever DNF; even my left elbow was struck with bursitis three years ago.  But my right side had always kept it together until the afternoon after the New Hampshire Marathon.

You wouldn’t have guessed it on my face. I left the locker to find Javier and his family, actively disguising my clumsy limp, trying to look confident for the next day’s event. I did mention that I had overdone it, but said it with such sangfroid you’d think I was talking about putting too much barbecue sauce on a McRib. I had no idea how tomorrow would unfold, but knew without a doubt that I wasn’t going to laugh through it. After almost seven months of near invincibility, something had gone wrong, and I had yet another 26.2 miles to face down the next day.

Marathon_Map 052 (NH)

Paces High (2014 Air Force Marathon)

We walked between floodlights and domed hangars under the night sky, following the crowd to the start line. My wife Steph was running her first (and likely only) half marathon along with her sister, mom and uncle. An hour before they were due to start, I would begin the marathon with my father-in-law Steve as his pacer.  This race was particularly significant for Steve, because not only was he in the Air Force for six years, it would be his first marathon since 2008.  Both of these reasons imbued him with omnipotent Dad Power, which meant he made t-shirts and signed up the entire family for the event.

left to right: Steve, Janine, Jan, Steph, me

left to right: Steve, Janine, Jan, Steph, me (with head wings!)

I was a little nervous. It wasn’t the marathon distance that intimidated me, but the task of being Steve’s pacer. Before I had even run two miles in my life, he had already earned several marathon and triathlon finishes. I went to watch him run the 2006 and 2007 Chicago Marathons, years known respectively for being very cold and dangerously hot, and felt completely humbled (and intimidated) by what I had just witnessed. Today, I hoped that I would be able to guide him through the race without feeling impertinent – after all, this was the guy who taught me how to run six years ago.

Mile 0: The Start

Mile 0: The Start

By 7:30 in the morning, as darkness gave way to a pristine morning at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, it was time to start. The race began with the unexpected, full-bodied boom of a cannon, instantly sending my heart crawling up my throat. We started our watches, shook off the nerves and took off with one helluva roar.

The race website, literature and even satellite maps gave me the impression that we were going to run purely within the base. If you close your eyes and imagine a typical airport, I’m certain that your mental image will not include trees or shade. And for a large part of this race, that’s how we ran, climbing high into the sun. The first 5k had most of the hills, rolling over the Air Force Institute of Technology’s campus and by the Wright Brothers Memorial.  We cruised past the Wright State University Nutter Center, where we had picked up our race materials the day before, and then the course ushered us to the McClerron Memorial Skyway for longer than I would have wanted.  Eventually we reached the Wright-Patterson Golf Course at 10k and happily welcomed the cover of trees.

Mile 5: McClerron Memorial Skyway

Mile 5: McClerron Memorial Skyway

This was a delightful change of scenery. Though most of the surrounding area for the entire race was green, the actual trees themselves were always too far away to provide any shade. But we felt instantly cooler once the course narrowed on the golf course. Steve and I had started walking a minute for every ten minutes of running, though still keeping an even pace.

For the next 10k we would run through Fairborn, a small town just northeast of the base. We wouldn’t see this many spectators until the finish line, but our attention was focused elsewhere. It seemed like this part of town was looking forward to Halloween like a kid going to sleep at 3 PM on Christmas Eve. Every other store was displaying spooky wares and one family had erected a professional-grade ghost ship on their front yard. There was even a house with a “ghoul train” on its lawn and a two-story tall Grim Reaper fastened to its façade. It was easy to forget that we’re still five weeks away from All Hallows’ Eve, but they all made for excellent distractions as we crossed mile 10.

Mile 7: The course narrows a bit by the golf course

Mile 7: The course narrows a bit by the golf course

As we made our way out of Fairborn, I kept noticing that Steve was steadily pulling away from me. I didn’t want to temper his enthusiasm too much, but we were out here to run a smart pace. “Let’s reel it in a bit,” I would say, keep the wings level and true, and he’d dial it back. Once again, I felt a tiny twinge of impertinence because I felt like I was putting a stopper on the pent-up energy he had stored over the years, waiting to burst out.

Once out of Fairborn, it was time to run around the perimeter of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. As you might imagine, it’s an enormous sprawl of land with few trees to provide any shade. As we wrapped around the base, Steve began talking to a fellow Team Red White & Blue member. He soon learned that his new friend was stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base, where Steve spent six years as a missile security officer. They talked for about a mile about who did what, what happened when, what is and what isn’t. Making quick friends has always been one of his core competencies and had we not reached an aid station, I don’t know when the conversation would have stopped. Part of me wanted to pull him away and get him to re-focus on the race.  But that would have been cold; he was having so much fun.

After all, we had just run a half marathon just shy of his all-time PR and had plenty of energy to keep up an animated conversation. This wasn’t always the case.

Mile 10: Fairborn decked out in Halloween decorations

Mile 10: Fairborn decked out in Halloween decorations

Sometime in late 2008, Steve’s body rebelled against him. The well of energy that had always provided him with enough kick to participate in long-distance races, work a difficult and challenging job and be the best family man this side of Hobbiton had suddenly and inexplicably run dry. By 2009, he was walking half marathons because he couldn’t quite pick up the pace. In 2010, when my own running exploits were gaining traction, he had to drop out just shy of the second mile of the Indy 500 Festival Mini-Marathon because he didn’t have it in him.

Mile 12: Alien-themed aid station provides Steve a Close Encounter of the Thirst Kind

Mile 12: Alien-themed aid station provides Steve a Close Encounter of the Thirst Kind

He got blood work done, changed his diet, got tested for allergies and saw doctors of every ilk, but the mystery went unsolved. He gained weight and felt increasingly imprisoned by this inescapable lassitude, sometimes spending dark days in the basement alone with his thoughts. Oddly, this decline coincided with a surge in running by those around him. By then I was literally running wild with the sport and not long after, his brother men, Greg and Jim learned to fly, becoming marathoners themselves. His brothers-in-law Scott and Dan soon followed while Steve could only watch from the sidelines.

I remember asking him once if he would prefer that I keep my running stories to myself, because I began feeling a little obnoxious talking about my most recent PRs.  It felt like happily feasting in front of someone who hadn’t eaten in days. He said no.  Not only did he take pride in knowing he had set me on the running path, but these stories were exactly the kind of motivation he needed.

Mile 17: Wide open, sunny stretches were frequent

Mile 17: Wide open, sunny stretches were frequent.  Under warmer conditions, this race could have been much tougher.

During this time, he became an avid scuba diver, dedicating himself to the activity and joining several charities aimed at helping veterans assimilate back into civilian life through scuba missions. His passion for the underwater world mirrored his diehard pursuit of endurance sports, but part of him was always itching to get fully back into the running game. You could hear it in his voice when he’d give tips or lend gear, that telltale enthusiasm that lets you know he hadn’t forgotten anything.

But he managed to turn things around. With help from his family (most notably his wife Jan), he changed his diet, refused to stay down and began to slowly climb out of the basement. Whatever was ailing him was never truly discovered or even named, but that didn’t stop him from putting in the time and sweat.

His training went into overdrive during an emotional trip to New Jersey in the summer of 2013.

It was a warm, muggy day on the eastern coast. I wore shorts and a salmon colored Polo, hoping it would unite the conflicting goals of staying cool and looking somewhat respectable. But the heat of Leonardo was oppressive and after walking for a minute dragging scuba gear through the sand, I could feel the sweat dripping down my arms. My in-laws were gathered along the beach, unsure if the occasion warranted a dose of their natural charisma or a helping of sober reflection. Because all of them, uncles, cousins and those who cleverly used marriage to sneak in, were there to remember and pay tribute to the family matriarch, who had passed away the previous summer.

Mile 19: A shaded service road comes to the rescue.

Mile 19: A shaded service road comes to the rescue.

While most of the family stayed on the sand, Steve and his brothers walked into the frigid waters of Sandy Hook Bay to bring Gram back to the shores of her childhood home. They released her ashes into the icy waters and left a stone with her name engraved on it, a memento for the remarkable woman who raised the wonderful, supportive family that so eagerly embraced me. Speeches were given and more than one fond memory recalled before a ponderous, and rare, moment of silence. Not long after, there was a lunch at a nearby restaurant, where it seemed like all sorrow and solemnity had been washed away by the zany extended family that we seldom get to see. It was easy to think at the time that Gram would have wanted it this way.

Mile 25.6: Beast mode

Mile 25.6: Beast mode

“I told myself while I was in the water,” Steve said, around mile 23, “I gotta turn this around.”

By that point, he had already started the comeback.   He had been training regularly and had run the Hoover Dam Half Marathon with us, preparing for Moab and later Miami. It was then that he dropped the megaton hammer on us by revealing that he had signed up for Ironman Cozumel. There it was, the massive 140.6-mile carrot that would dangle before him, the bright beacon on the horizon pushing him to train harder than ever.

The Air Force Marathon was part of that plan, and there we were, cruising past 40k.

Mile 26: Cleared for landing

Mile 26: Cleared for landing

“I look to you guys, to my brothers and you, and it inspires me.” In the moment, I could do little else but keep running, though I felt moved by what he said. The guy who was stationed at an Air Force base near Great Falls, Montana during most of his 20s, raised a five-star family and was staring down an Ironman with determination and grit, was somehow inspired by me. I thought his cables might have gotten crossed in the last 10k, but then I remembered what he told me five years ago. Every time he heard about race stories, from me or anyone else close to him, he got a little closer to his homecoming.  “Without you guys running together,” he said, pausing.  “I don’t know.”

“Alright, there’s mile 25,” I said as we approached the entrance to the base. “Time to give it all you got.”
“This is all I got.”

0920_airforcemarathon 40The final U-shaped stretch was lined with American flags followed by a fleet of intimidating military planes, all facing us as if ready to fly into the wild blue yonder. As we made that final turn, the chutes closed in on us, the finish line a bull’s eye just ahead. Enormous black and green wings passed above us like the arms of a slow-moving fan, with crowds cheering underneath. We passed a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter, then an AC-130, and finally a giant Boeing C-17 Globemaster before reaching the blue finish banner. There were 26 miles of running behind me, but so many more behind Steve. The last six years had been a frustrating series of races that ended too soon or stretched on for too long. But here he was, running what was quite possibly his fastest ever marathon.

“Hey,” I said, nudging him on the shoulder, “welcome back!”

Finishers!

Finishers!

We passed every plane and crossed the finish line, making our way through a large, white tent to meet up with the rest of the family. Everyone was smiling, if not a little achy, and ready to head back to the hotel for a shower. The rest of the weekend was spent eating, napping, watching movies and visiting the Museum of the US Air Force. Even if nobody had finished the race, or if we had all been carted off the course in a medical van, what mattered most was that we spent a fun weekend with family, learning about Steve’s time in Montana with the US Air Force.

But if I too live to be a grey-haired wonder, I hope to still be knocking out races like this.

Marathon_Map 051 (OH)

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