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.

Indiana (2012 OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon)

I originally crossed Indiana off my 50-states list two years ago with this very race.  It was cold and windy that morning and the clothes I had brought would have had me shivering the entire way.  Fortunately, I was there with Steph’s parents and uncles, who in the last few years have made running the OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon a tradition.  The Snyders (my future family-in-law) have also developed a habit of bringing a new person every year, and in 2010 my name was drawn.  I ran the perfectly flat course to a successful PR of 1:40, a time that would last the entire summer.

Last Thanksgiving, Steve (my future father-in-law) asked if I wanted to run the Mini again.  Though lately I’ve been eschewing states that I have already completed in favor of new ones, I felt determined to train fast to achieve a new PR.  The Mini-Marathon offers the rare chance to run on the track of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which is designed to be as flat as possible.  It had been a long time since I had run a fast, flat half marathon, so I signed up a few days later with thoughts of running a 1:35.

That was then.  Since signing up, I ran 1:34 in Alabama, 1:33 in Tennessee and 1:30 in Kentucky.  So my big PR race was now facing intense competition.  Last weekend’s race at the other Mini took place in picture perfect conditions, allowing everyone to abandon all restraint and earn crazy fast times.  This weekend Indianapolis was beset by heat and humidity, which prompted the organizers to send one of those intimidating capital letter emails about the weather.  It was no surprise to me as I had been checking the weather since the previous weekend a bit crestfallen.

The start of the 5K at 7:00 AM, view from my hotel room

But I shook off the pessimism and decided to enjoy the race.  I drove out Friday afternoon with Steph’s uncle Jim and made it just in time for the pre-race pasta gorge at Buca di Beppo.  After dinner I went out in search of my pre-race foods.  Before almost every single race that I run, I have a bottle of Naked Juice Blue Machine and a banana.  However, at 8 PM I was finding that all grocery and convenience stores in downtown Indianapolis were closed.  So while the Snyders were keeping their traditions going, it was looking like I’d have to break at least one of mine.  I had also abstained from having a beer at dinner, which lately has become my new PR guarantee.  Superstition is amusing, isn’t it?  On a real, tangible note, my digestion had not been agreeing with me at all since Thursday and that had been slowly chipping away at my confidence.

As a side note, I have always been impressed and entertained by the candor with which athlete bloggers nonchalantly detail their bowel movements (especially girls).  It’s as if they forget that the internet is open to everyone and anyone, so they splatter their writing indiscriminately and with a strange satisfaction.  I will break the trend and spare you the details.  The important part to know is that I was worried I hadn’t retained any carbohydrates over the last two days.

Runners on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, picture courtesy of Charity Bets

At 7:30 the next morning I was at the starting line.  It was 64 degrees, which is nice, though not ideal.  The real culprit was the humidity, which was perched comfortably at 97%.  Much like last weekend though, potential storms decided to avoid the city, much to everyone’s delight.  The race began on time, sending a flood of 35,000 people on their way to finishing the country’s largest half marathon.  It begins going west on West Washington Street, rounding the White River Gardens, where the night before Rise Against had played a raucous show, their booming punk anthems reverberating off our windows well into the night.

I felt slow those first two miles.  My legs didn’t feel fresh or relaxed.  It’s never too early to be unsure of how the race will end up, but I wasn’t even at the 5K mark and I was feeling a little dispirited.  It wasn’t all bad though.  It definitely wasn’t that hot and a gentle breeze was keeping the humidity from being too oppressive.  It was the first race ever that I decided to go shirtless, and that was definitely helping.

By mile 3, I started to speed up slightly, aided by the endless parade of bands lining the course.  Most races will feature entertainment every mile or so, but the Mini puts them all to shame.  Not even the Rock ‘n Roll race series can hold a candle to the sheer amount of musical acts that set up their gear on the sidelines of this race.  Right as the echoes of one band would fade, you’d start hearing the next one’s distorted speakers.  I want to say that a third of the bands were comprised of kids who were born after 1996.  We passed a band called Infamous, which was a quartet of black-clad kids playing death metal (it’s awesome to finally hear someone shout a raspy, deathlike “Let’s go runners!”); another grade-school band playing Green Day’s “Brain Stew” (a song that definitely came out before the band was born); a solo musician with an acoustic guitar; neighbors with speakers on their front lawn; a girl band blaring “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” and more kids playing “Seven Nation Army.”  But the real boost of speed came from one band around mile 5 that was playing “Don’t Stop Believing.”  I happened to pass them right at “and it goes on and on and on.”  Those kids weren’t even an idea in the back of their parents’ minds when that song came out.  Probably because their parents were still in high school.

It takes about six miles to reach the Speedway.  I spent those miles in the low 7’s, keeping a consistent pace and feeling surprisingly comfortable.  I was sweating a lot, make no mistake, but my form wasn’t suffering and I was keeping my head up.  Once inside, runners are treated to two and a half miles of soft asphalt, recordings of classic races, several groups of cheerleaders and a chance to run a huge loop in an impressively huge venue.  It was around mile 7 that I had my “don’t care” moment.  Will I be able to keep this pace?  Don’t care.  Will I find myself dehydrated and cramped?  Don’t care.  Will I regret going too fast, knowing the likelihood of a poor performance?

Don’t care.

So I started running in the high 6s.  My legs were a bit heavy, but I was turning them over, hoping I could keep it going for another six miles.  Once out of the glorious Speedway, it was time to focus.  The last three miles go by so quickly because you feel distracted by the enormity of the structure.  But now we were back on major roads, running straight into the sun.  It was getting harder to keep the pace but it was helpful to pass people.  By this point, I knew it wasn’t going to be a PR race.  I’d have to run murderous splits to catch up to my Louisville time from the previous weekend … but maybe I’d be able to finish in the top 500.  The race offers a bonus medal to the first 500 finishers and in past years, that meant running at least a 1:29.  With the humidity and cautionary emails, it was possible that the field had slowed down enough for me to sneak in.

I kept my pace up, passing runners in large groups.  In a race this big, the field doesn’t thin out, so every mile meant passing a lot of people.  I remember thinking that I wanted this to be like a video game.  I wanted to know who racer #500 was, designated by having a pixelated red triangle bouncing over his or her head.  I kept imagining that the next person ahead of me was #500, so I would reel them in and pass them.  Rinse, sweat, heave, repeat.

At mile 12, runners cross the river on West New York Street, the last straight shot to the finish line.  I ran on the right side of the road and took advantage of the shade.  I remembered how easy it felt in Louisville to run that last mile at breakneck pace.  Not so much today.  I was hurting.  There was no physical pain, but my efficient and collected stride had deteriorated to the gait of Woody the Cowboy from Toy Story.  I could hear the echoes of the big yellow finish line up ahead but couldn’t muster an additional sprint surge.  Didn’t matter.  I covered the last 0.1 miles in forty seconds and finished in 1:32:19, my second fastest non-downhill time.

I let out an ogre-like sigh of relief and stopped my clock, walking right into a wall of volunteers holding medals.  I took mine and looked at it thinking, not bad.  It was monochromatic, but had nice details and was certainly better than 2010’s medal.  Then I noticed, written on the top right corner, “500 Club.”  In unison with the woman next to me, we both exclaimed “No way!”  High five, complete stranger.

I would later check to see I finished 470th.  That means that I secured my admittance into the exclusive 500 Club around the beginning of mile 12.  It was there that I must have passed the runner with the blinking red triangle, thereby becoming (briefly) the 500th runner, everyone behind me now the Man with the Golden Gun.  Given that medals are a big reason for doing these races, earning a bonus souvenir made my ears perk.  I did not set a PR, but by no means was I complaining.  Despite not doing all the nitpicky routine things that I do before every race, I had dominated the course and secured a fast time in tough conditions.  Superstition be damned!

I negotiated my way through the finishing chute towards the hotel.  After a quick shower, I returned to the post-race party to meet up with Francesca, a college friend who has run the Mini for the last five years with remarkably consistent times.  You would guess that I was extremely nervous talking to her because I was sweating like an idiot.  As charming as she is, it was the intense humidity.  Despite my heart rate being back at normal levels, there was no comfort standing in the sun.  And there were still thousands of runners left to finish.

And yet, despite the rising temperatures, the trip was a complete success for all.  Steve marked the beginning of a comeback to endurance sports, finishing just behind his brother Greg, who earned his fourth Mini medal along with his wife Mindy.  Lastly, Steve’s wife Jan paced his brother Jim to finish his first half marathon ever.  He was this year’s Mini inductee, which begged the question of who would play that role next year.  Everyone’s looking at you, Steph.  It will be you sooner or later, you might as well get it over with.

Left to right: me, Jim, Jan, Steve, Greg, Mindy

State 4: Indiana (2010 OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon)

I was a little nervous going into this race. Not because it was the first weekend I would spend with Steph’s parents without Steph, but because it was the first time I do two half marathons in seven days. With Wisconsin under my belt, I went into the OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon (more commonly known as “the Mini”) with cautious apprehension.

It was fitting that I go with the Snyders to Indy for this race. Not only did they tell me about it, but they’ve been running it for four years, with a new runner each time. But more importantly, it was Steve, Steph’s dad, who got me into running over two years ago. It was he who signed me up for the Shamrock Shuffle and when your girlfriend’s dad signs you up for something, you have to do it. Luckily, I loved it. That alone was enough of a motivator to tag along and run the famous race – it wasn’t entirely necessary to tempt me with the fact that it’s the largest half marathon in the United States or that you get to run an entire loop around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But it helps.

After a fun four-hour drive, we arrived at the Indianapolis Marriott, ready for the ceremonial meal at Buca di Beppo. The last time I had been to Buca with the Snyders, Steph’s dad made the mistake of making all orders “large” – for anyone familiar with Buca, a large order feeds 5 people. Needless to say, I took home enough baked rigatoni to fill a small bathtub. This time we brought very little back with us, though I wish I had eaten myself into a coma because the fireworks from the nearby Indians stadium went off at midnight and kept me awake.

The next morning, we woke up to see the trees on Washington Street being pushed down by strong, harsh winds. Temperatures in the low 40’s were keeping crowds indoors and corrals empty. I followed suit by staying in the hotel room until they made announcements that the corrals were soon closing. I had been assigned to Corral B (which I thought was too ambitious), and as such was tucked away by the start line. I hunched next to a stone sign for the Eiteljorg Museum and let the wind cut over my head. Once in the Corral, my leg muscles began to twitch furiously in hopes of keeping warm but to no avail. Fortunately, the race started on time, unleashing the floodgates of over 30,000 runners attempting to cover the 13.1-mile distance of the country’s largest half marathon.

The course begins on Washington, hugging the Indianapolis Zoo, where a few volunteers were dressed as meerkats. Steve later told me that an elephant had at one point made his way to the edge of his habitat to play spectator to the event. From there, it runs down Michigan Street through residential neighborhoods lined with bands. Lots … and lots of bands. Some were playing the requisite upbeat country songs with the signature twang, while others were bedecked in black, thrashing away at equally lugubrious songs. Around mile 4, I caught the tail end of “Enter Sandman”, which was appreciated. I saw tap dancers, an old guy on his front porch with a huge speaker connected to a laptop, and even a troupe of elderly women in pleaded skirts dancing YMCA right before the entrance to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Ah, the Speedway. We had to run through some unattractive neighborhoods and industrial parks to get there, but once in the racetrack, I couldn’t help but marvel at the enormity of it. I guess I was expecting it to be fun at first but then get boring. It didn’t. Not once inside the 2.5-mile loop did I want to leave the stadium. Cheerleaders in costume lined the Brickyard, neon signs waving left and right – even though there were no crowds in the stands the atmosphere was electric. It was with this energy that I decided to pick up my pace and try to kill it.

I ran my next two miles at 7:54 to round out a 10 mile PR. The last 5k of the race was a straightaway on 10th Street, followed by the final stretch on New York. The remainder of the course wasn’t as loud or entertaining as the first half, but there were still fair amounts of musical acts and boisterous water stations (of which, by the way, there were seventeen). The morning headwinds having oddly vanished and the field far from thinning, I kicked down New York, the finish line in sight. I sprinted past the bleachers of supportive spectators to finish in 1:40:32, a new personal best.

Fran, Me

Earlier in the year, I did some Facebook investigating (read: stalking) to see if any Wildcats were in Indianapolis and if so, find out if they were running the Mini. As it turns out, my Indianapolis network has a population of one: Francesca Jarosz, and yes, she was running the Mini. From now on, I’ll assume that 1:1 statistic of every future half marathon I run (so look out, Boston). After the race, I met up with Ms. Jarosz to say hi and briefly catch up.

May was shaping up to be the most intensive month of the year.  Two half marathons down in the first eight days and only three weeks to go until Boston’s Run to Remember.

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