Running (and Coaching!) for the Jackson Chance Foundation

A little over a month ago, a friend of mine reached out to me with an interesting proposition. One of her co-workers had put together a charity and wanted to support it by organizing a group to run the Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon & 5k on July 20. They wanted someone to coach the group by providing training programs, running tips and leading group runs during the spring and summer. She suggested me and I accepted the offer with Chris Traeger-like levels of unbridled enthusiasm.

Created in 2013, the Jackson Chance Foundation raises funds to help families with critically ill infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). In the direst of cases, infants will have prolonged stays in the NICU, each month of which can cost a family up to $1,100 in transportation. The Jackson Chance Foundation aims to alleviate the logistical financial burden of this trying experience by providing complimentary transportation, such as parking, CTA passes or Metra vouchers to families for every day their baby is in the NICU.  The organization has been featured in the Chicago Tribune, the Sun-Times and in various local news pieces.

The foundation is named after baby Jackson, whose short life was spent almost entirely in the NICU. He was born ten weeks early with Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia (BPD), a lung condition that can affect premature newborns. Tragically, after ten unfathomably difficult months, baby Jackson passed away. Reading about his short, yet surprisingly happy life was heartbreaking and added a tearful purpose to my commitment.

jackson_chance_rock_roll_charityMy first thought was how specific the cause was. Then I realized that it’s a perfect example of the many unknown financial challenges that come with such a difficult life event. It’s no secret that medical costs can be staggeringly high, and that the insurance industry is going through enormous change, the outcome of which is still uncertain. So it’s nice to be able to help out with such a direct and tangible contribution, one that might mean a family can spend more time looking over their baby.

The Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon & 5k will start in Grant Park at 6:30 AM on July 20 and is one of only two half marathons in Chicago to run through the heart of the city. By joining the Jackson Chance Foundation, runners will be offered discounted registration, a dedicated tent before and after the race, fundraising prize opportunities and one to two weekly runs with yours truly.

To register to run with the Jackson Chance Foundation, please click here and follow the instructions on the right.

For more information, please visit the following pages:

Official Site

Facebook

Twitter

The Second Race (Chicago 13.1 Marathon Giveaway)

Disclosure: I was contacted by the marketing arm of the Michelob Ultra Chicago 13.1 Marathon with an invitation to run the race and promote it via Dan’s Marathon.  I ran this race in 2009, when Chicago went from having two half marathons to four, and remember it quite fondly.  I accepted their generous offer and will be giving away one free registration at the end of this post.

131chicagoRecently, a friend told me they were thinking of running a half marathon and asked if I thought they should.  I said Yes, and will always say Yes, especially if it’s a distance they’ve never run before.  I can’t imagine ever discouraging anyone from challenging themselves to achieve what their body has evolved to do with such grace and economy.  Of course do it, and do it with dedication, purpose and alacrity.

Because everyone knows that the first race of any distance is special.  It marks the maiden journey into the unknown and brings with it a swarm of nerves.  Many a runner has reached the starting line with frenzied hands and a jittery body, darting looks left and right, letting out exasperated sighs in anticipation of answering the important questions.

Did I train enough for this?  How fast should I start?  Are my time goals reasonable?  Did I eat enough this morning?  Is this weather too cold or just perfect? 

It’s a collection of emotions that I remember very fondly of all my first races, but most notably my first half and full marathons.  There was no way to guarantee that I’d return to the starting line strong or a broken shell of a once confident runner.  But these nerves and even doubts are part of the magic.  In fact, I’m very easily drawn to posts titled “My First Marathon” because of that vicarious desire to re-live those restive moments of near panic as the 26.2-mile journey unfolds ahead of a debutant.

Running the 2009 Chicago 13.1 Marathon

Running the 2009 Chicago 13.1 Marathon

Of course, once you cross the finish line, you know you’ve done it.  The mystery is solved, questions answered and challenge achieved.  Most likely you won’t even think of anything because your thoughts are being drowned out by music and your own barbaric screams.  But though training may have felt like forever, the moment of triumph is fleeting.  The race is over, you did it, and you don’t get another first chance.

So now we make room for the second race, which I find equally important and just as momentous.

The first race gets all the glitz and glory.  The medal earned a larger space on our mantles, the story likely racked up a greater word count and certainly attracted more accolades from our peers at the inevitable post-race bar party.  The second race isn’t regaled with the same attention and fondness and is often simplified to our desire to “do it again.”

However, I think there’s much more to it.  The second race is the one where most of us have already vanquished our demons of uncertainty.  We know how to show up to the start line healthy, fit and hungry for a fast time because we’ve done it already.  A few tweaks may have happened along the way and our average run time may have changed slightly, and there’s very little doubt anymore that we’ll finish.  But there is a chance that we’ll come up short.  Our previous best might kick harder.  It might not be our day.  That’s the chance we take when we come back.

The second time around, it’s no longer about achievement, it’s about competition.

First broken PR.

First broken PR.

Competition is what fueled me in that second race.  I learned that my body could run 13.1 miles during my first half marathon, but this time I was there to see how fast I could do it.  Because the second race is the first I ran against myself.  Though there may have been thousands of other racers out there, I only cared about my performance and I was intimately dialed into my efforts.

There’s something remarkable and subtle about besting one’s self.  We run with the rabbit of our first run scuttling nearby, an undeniable testament to what we can do.  But this is the second race, and it’s no longer about what we did but how much faster we can do it.  We are not playing it safe, staying behind our delicate lactate threshold, but instead pushing the envelope.  Running faster and harder may push us past our abilities but we won’t know until the race is over.  It’s almost as if we long for those daunting feelings of unpredictable outcomes that might not haunt us the second time.  If we can’t get our fix of uncertainty one way, we’ll find it elsewhere by raising the stakes.

Therein rests the true appeal and significance of the second race.  It not only gives us a chance to test ourselves against what we’ve already achieved, but the way in which we attack that challenge may say a lot about who we are as athletes and people.  Do we take the measured, conservative approach and simply add a few seconds to our pace per mile?  Or do we bet it all and hope to delay a premature collapse?

Do we rest our hopes on small, incremental change, or audacious, explosive progress?

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

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

Much like my running exploits, the 13.1 Marathon series was new in 2009.  I was very much a naïf in running shoes at the time, completely unaware of proper form and unlikely to name any famous marathoners, but I was acutely tuned into one number: 1:49:34.  My fastest and only half marathon time – the original PR.  Weather conditions were near perfect and I held nothing back.

The course started at the South Shore Cultural Center on the shores of Lake Michigan.  Chicago’s iconic skyline kept watch on the horizon behind a thick canopy of green.  The course would be flat, very fast and quite scenic.

2009 13.1 Marathon Chicago Medal

2009 13.1 Marathon Chicago Medal

I put up quite a fight through Jackson Park, around the Museum of Science and Industry, and back on the lake path, improving my mark to 1:47:58.  But I struggled at the end.  Passion and drive were just barely enough to overcome my lack of experience, which I learned as I staggered through the finisher’s chute.  A friendly volunteer asked me a few questions about my experience as I strove to break out of the haze of fatigue.  I might have answered her questions far too quickly for her hand because Gatorade and rest were calling my name like sirens.

I would have to train for ten more months to beat that time.

Thirty-four half marathons later, I still remember that race very vividly.  It was the first time I had triumphed over my own achievement, left the rabbit in the dust and felt the rush of tangible improvement.  Since then, I have seen my personal bests improve by as little as six seconds to as much as four minutes.  Personal bests aren’t guaranteed – they require a mix of intense training and optimal conditions – but I’ve never felt more ravenous for a challenge than on that second race.

On June 7, I will return to the Chicago 13.1 Marathon to once again attack my PR, which now stands at 1:30:47.  I will be giving away complimentary registration courtesy of the 13.1 Marathon series to a random commenter, to be announced on March 31, 2014.  To participate:

1. Comment below with thoughts on your most memorable second attempt at a race of any distance and why it was meaningful to you.
2. Include your email or website so I know how to contact you.
3. You may comment more than once as long as it furthers the discussion.
4. If you want to comment but wouldn’t be able to make the race if you win, please let me know.

I(dan)tity Crisis

On running blogs and why I read what I read.

The act of writing, while simple and ecumenical, can be incredibly complicated.  If the task of properly conveying emotions and events isn’t difficult enough, we have to find our unique voice through trial and error, an often circular act that usually feels like playing darts with a chalkboard.  The internet only complicates things.  Bloggers by definition jot down very intimate thoughts with the explicit intent of someone else, sometimes many people, reading them.  So much can change when you write assuming an audience.  Some writers keep their most private thoughts at arm’s length from their digital audience, exaggerate their personalities to suit an overall narrative, or casually prevaricate about key story details to do the same.

The other day I was reading one of Jen’s posts, in which she discovered a forum that discussed running blogs and what turn readers away.  More to the point, it was a forum found on a website bluntly called Get Off My Internets.  I’m not one to get caught up in popularity contests, but reading about what inspires “the internet” to click away caught my attention.  Inevitably, it got me thinking about my own corner of webspace and how it fits in the barnyard of collective taste.

There is certainly no shortage of running blogs out there, which is great.  If there weren’t, I wouldn’t have any insightful sources of local races and I’d have met fewer amazing people in my travels.  But with so many runners writing about the sport, what makes me stand out?  It was a potentially dangerous question, one that could lead to an identity crisis, or worse, writer’s block.  But it was still worth examining, and the first place to start would be to ask myself, what do I look for in a running blog?

The first, and quite possibly most important element, is personality.  Despite being a runner and reading exclusively running blogs, when I read a race story, I’m not that interested in splits or time goals.  I understand in many instances, that’s the main focus of a recap.  After all, it’s a fitting and simple way to structure a richer, more complex story.  A lot of us wouldn’t race this often if we weren’t at least partially consumed by PRs and 5k splits, so avoiding these numbers would be near impossible.  But personality is what can tether all the data into a fitting portrait of a person.  If by the end of one post I feel like I’ve learned something about the writer outside of their finishing time, then we’ve achieved a little symbiosis.

Personality is, I will admit, a very vague term, but it can come out in a multitude of ways.  Some bloggers are insatiably enthusiastic about life, others like to add a snarky edge to their already off-color commentary, and a select few infuse a transcendental spirituality to what is otherwise a purely physical activity.  On a smaller scale, an injection of personality can come in the form of a detailed memory, a funny locution or a telling description.  Reading that you crossed the finish line is interesting, but connecting the experience to an earlier struggle or your favorite childhood book makes the feat compelling.

But a winning personality alone won’t do it for me.  After all, these are running blogs, and my attention tends to gravitate toward interesting racing stories.  Although I read a good amount of blogs, I’m very choosy both in my own writing and on which posts I read.  Put simply, I like reading about races.  From the snarling celerity of a 5k to the slow burn anguish of the marathon and beyond, every distance has its own unique story and my interest in reading anything else stems from that root.  I’ll shamefully admit that I tend to skip over multi-part stories and get straight to the starting line because that’s really what interests me.  I will gladly read about your sightseeing tour of a new city if you can manage to keep it within the frame of a footrace.  Yes, I realize that bloggers are more than just runners and that the infinitely colorful mosaic of their lives can’t always be enjoyed by covering a pre-set distance.  But so much can be told and learned through this narrow lens.

So that still leaves me with the original question: where do I stand among the droves of runners who write?  I’ve always been very particular with my output, be it posts, songs or even tweets.  Although many bloggers are much more prolific and post high-quality missives on a weekly or even semi-daily basis, I like to post infrequently.  I think part of me fears that I’ll bore people if they get too much of me.  Or I compare it to a magazine subscription: I’m much more likely to read an issue from cover to cover if I only receive one a month than if they stack up every week.  My hope is that when I do post, it doesn’t get lost in people’s feeds because it’s not a daily occurrence.

As for content, I’d like to think that I’m someone who is careful and precise about his writing.  Running, though primordial and primitive, has the remarkable capacity for so many variations of nuanced expression, and I want to be one writer of many who seizes the opportunity to tell a familiar story in a creative way.  It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn I majored in English, so perhaps I feel encouraged (or even pressured) toward using language beyond the usual, reliable methods and descriptions.  Some might call my writing over-thesaurus’d, which sounds like a terrific dinosaur name, and I wouldn’t blame them.

But I think there’s something special about describing a course as having “honeyed, autumnal hues” than “nice fall colors.”  Not everyone does it, so that can be my thing.  It won’t generate millions of hits or make me an internet star, but at least I enjoy it and can think of a few readers who get a kick out of it.  And if I can use a GRE word or two in the process, then that’s just a small bonus.  Or a myrmicine perquisite.

I’ll excuse myself.

What do you look for in a running blog?  Are there certain hallmarks shared by most blogs in your news feeds?  Is there one thing that can get you to completely X out of a post?  How badly did you roll your eyes at that last full paragraph?

Miami Marathon, In Memoriam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In loving memory of Daniel Robert Bonilla, 1958 - 2013

In loving memory of Daniel Robert Bonilla, 1958 – 2013

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

Because the end of that time is uncertain.

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

Thank you for reading.

-Dan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14. Proud finishers.

14. Proud finishers.

miami-marathon-13-medal

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