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)

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?

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