February 17, 2015 20 Comments
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.
It 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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!”
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.
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.