Go Far, Go Fast: 2015 Fargo Marathon (State #43)

You’ve got this dude, I said aloud, while passing Fargo’s cheery crowd
The weather perfect, cold and dry, these early miles were speeding by
The course was flat, all hills forgot, they asked for speed and it was brought
The feat before, I rose to meet her; with race and thoughts in prose and meter

The day is yours, go for it Dan, you owe it to your training plan
Keep going strong until the coda, and scorch the field at North Dakota
As I began accelerating, my voice was loud and motivating
My twenty-ninth attempt at this, a short point two and twenty-six.

For the first time, I was participating in a race that started indoors. A time normally reserved for breathing warm air into cupped hands and feeling my hamstrings shiver, I was comfortably strolling around the climate-controlled Fargodome. The facility normally plays host to North Dakota State University football games and concerts but on May 9, it was the staging area for the 2015 Fargo Marathon.

(left to right): Joe, Ryan, me

(left to right): Joe, Ryan, me

It didn’t take me long to realize the clout this race has in the racing world. Aside from a movie by the Coen brothers, Fargo is mostly a forgettable city in a state with few claims to fame. However, the city’s titular race had gotten rave reviews from the running blogosphere and as I walked down the bleachers, I saw the legendary Deena Kastor talking cheerily with runners. She wasn’t the only celebrity I would run into. As I reached the floor, about to enter the starters chute, I was approached by an older gentleman.

“Excuse me,” he asked, “where’d you get that shirt?” He was referring to the bright RaceRaves shirt I had worn at my last fast race.
“I’m friends with the guy who started the site.”
“Mike?”
“That’s the one.”

He introduced himself as Wally, who met Mike (of RaceRaves and Blisters, Cramps & Heaves fame) at the 2013 Antarctica Marathon. Later in the race, I would also pass the indefatigable Larry Macon, who by now is probably on his 1,500th marathon. It seemed like this race regularly made many a diehard runner’s top 10 list, a quality which was not lost on the organizers, who quixotically sought to enlist Will Ferrell to run this year with an insistent #FerrellRunFargo Twitter campaign. The fact that his most recent marathon was the 2003 Boston Marathon hasn’t stopped many other organizations from trying to lure him to their events.

But the comic’s non-participation shouldn’t be interpreted as a smudge on this race’s reputation. With a marathon field of about 1,500 people, this wasn’t a small operation. Aid stations were spaced well, run by friendly volunteers and I was surprised to find pace groups of all speeds. I approached the pacer in charge of running my most ambitious time goal. He had a square jaw and a buzzcut, and was introducing himself to the eager runners around him. I told him my plan: to start behind and catch up to him. In the interim, I would join a slower group.

The interior of the Fargodome, 40 minutes before the start

The interior of the Fargodome, 40 minutes before the start

After hearing the national anthem of Canada (another first), the Star Spangled Banner and an overly long invocation, it was time to leave the Fargodome. The chill hit us all at once and I was instantly thankful for the disposable jacket I had bought earlier that morning. After about three miles of single-family residences, I reached an aid station and dropped it along with the pace group. It was time to catch the faster packs ahead. My thoughts raced in iambic tetrameter:

The pace was hot, but I felt fine, the groups ahead were all but mine
Not force nor haste would I deny, my confidence at all time highs
I tapered well, felt fresh and rested, ‘twas time to take this plan and test it,
I logged the miles, fast, slow and plenty, all thanks to wondrous 80/20

I had spent the last three months working with the 80/20 training philosophy. It basically states that you should only run about 20% of your training miles at a moderate to high intensity level. This meant that the vast majority of my monthly mileage was run at a sustainable, conversational level. The idea is that most runners run most of their miles in a danger zone — too fast to be slow, too slow to be fast — and therefore risk burnout or injury. Additionally, it means they show up to the starting line tired. The biggest challenge of this program for me was mental. With so many runs finished at a low intensity, it was challenging to simply believe that I was improving. I did so little of it at that breakneck, gutbusting pace that it was easy for my workouts and overall strategy to feel lazy. But then when it was time to run fast, I suddenly could. Almost like magic.

The course was flat, as advertised. But Fargo is very residential and it wasn’t long before every stretch of road began to blend together, as if I were living the same block over and over. Spectators, though rarely in dense clumps of supportive cheers, were always around, usually on their own driveways. I had heard rave reviews about this race, likely inspired by the incredibly friendly welcome the residents of Fargo give to runners. But I wasn’t out to read every funny sign or high-five every child bundled up in winter coats. I was there to run fast.

2015 Fargo Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2015 Fargo Marathon Google Earth Rendering

I soon learned that the course suffered from a slight bipolar disorder. It would drag on, unwavering for miles like an arrow, and then suddenly become a windy, undulating noodle as it would snake through parks on bike paths. These changes allowed me to focus on something else besides running. I had passed two more pace groups and my target pack was about a minute ahead. I’ve never run well as part of a pack, so I opted instead to reel them in imperceptibly. They were the carrot that would pull me through the rest of the race. The stick would be the promise I made to my friends the night before: that I would take any two shots of their choosing if I failed to PR.

“Looking good, Larry!” I said as I passed the famous serial marathoner in his blue and yellow Marathon Maniacs shirt.
“Thanks!” he replied.
“Keep having fun!”
“Yeah!” he snarled, “That’s it!”

Once out of the parks, we ran around a quad in Moorhead State University after the first of four out-and-backs. The atmosphere was electric as hundreds of red-clad Dragons had come out to cheer in full force beneath a green and pink canopy. It was short-lived, but the short detour was buzzing with excitement and support. We continued through the blooming greens of Concordia College’s campus before entering Gooseberry Mound Park. After two hook-shaped out-and-backs, we were done with parks and back into the hypnotic sprawl of homes. My legs were slamming against the asphalt in shoes that had never gone past eight miles, so my toes were already pretty mangled. But my lungs were working, and I was staying strong, relying completely on feel and the urge to keep that fleet pack of runners within reach.

2015 Fargo Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2015 Fargo Marathon Google Earth Rendering

I had been trailing a gentleman with a red cap and a blue 100-Marathon North America singlet, who I will call Century. As I reeled in that pace group, I pulled up even with him.

“Guess we’re the tail now huh,” Century said.
“What do you mean?”
“Every pace group has a few people right behind, like the tail of a comet.”
“Sounds right.”

I didn’t meditate on the celestial metaphor at the time as I was too busy trying to catch the nucleus. In most races, the tail of the comet is reserved for the chase pack, for the runners who couldn’t keep up and were slowly watching their hopes and dreams recede into the horizon. I soon learned that, like me, Century was unwilling to stay in the tail, so we teamed up to meet the group once and for all.

Two hours gone, with Cen’try nigh, we galloped hard and caught the guy
With Buzzcut hair and bright blue sign, whose numbers I would soon make mine,
We patiently fulfilled the chore, the tail had reached the icy core
To stay or pass, I’d have to choose, what else but time had I to lose?

“It took me eighteen miles,” I said between heaves to Buzzcut as I pulled up alongside him, “but I finally caught you.”
“Well done!” he said. “We’re at pace, maybe a little faster. Glad to have you with us!” I briefly looked around to see who this “us” was, as he was down to one other person, having shed the pack in the last five miles.

fargo-marathon-google-earth-rendering-3

I could have stayed with him but I felt emboldened by my performance. I had run faster than him to catch up, so I felt compelled to keep going and pull away. There were still seven miles left, so it was too early for unchecked confidence. But adrenaline was at the helm and barking orders, so I kept pushing. I even had the gall to smile around mile 21.

Two miles later, that smile had faded. I stopped at an aid station to hydrate only to see Buzzcut and Century blow past me. I was unsure if they surged because they were behind pace or if I was flagging. In the middle of another nondescript stretch of residential road, I looked at my watch for the first time and saw that I was slipping. I was starting to lose my invincibility. At this point in the race, I am either just a few miles from imminent triumph or in the middle of an ugly collapse. Today, it was a little bit of both.

My legs were leaden, losing power, and just like that my thoughts turned sour;
The speed I had stopped climbing higher, perhaps I missed a 20-miler
I blamed the flight of yesterday, for crushing me in on’rous ways,
Or was it tape’ring far too long, that made a dream of running strong?

Lone marathoner in the chute

Lone marathoner in the chute

I kept Buzzcut and Century in my sights. I could have kicked and caught them but I knew I would dig my own grave in the process. So I kept my new pace as we ran through Fargo’s historic district, passing the art deco theater whose large, green sign was the inspiration for this year’s medal. It was also a welcome change from the infinite corridor of homes. I was less thankful for the dwindling energy, which was forcing me to watch my rabbits pull farther away. Another mile later, I was struggling to keep my head up, but I refused to relent. There was one last out-and-back to conquer through North Dakota State University. A few familiar runners had caught up to me, each one tossing a fistful of coal into the engine, breathing new life into my stride. I saw Buzzcut and Century running the back portion on the opposite side of the street. Though I was feeling the pull of the finish line, there was no chance of catching them.

I reached mile 25 and engaged the afterburners, picking it up for the compulsory strong finish. I approached the Fargodome only to find that I had to run partially around it before finishing. I pulled up alongside the half marathon walkers and pumped my arms, fighting for every second gained. Just beyond the barricades and spectators, I could hear the muffled echo of the finish line announcer. Every part of me was tense and begging for reprieve, from my shoulders to my toes. But as I was funneled into the arena entrance and heard the announcer loudly congratulate Buzzcut on his pacing duties, I surged.

I stomped the ground, my legs a hammer; lunging for the finish banner
Miles behind me, long and plenty, conquered thanks to 80/20
Arms aloft, the goal achieved, my time in Fargo took the lead
My legs and lungs survived the test, with 3:16 my per’snal best

Finishers!

Finishers!

I gave Century a proud fist-bump when I encountered him just past the finish line. With a large tower-shaped medal resting on my chest, I quickly found my friends Ryan and Joe (“No shots for me today, boys!”), who had finished the half marathon an hour earlier. It was Ryan’s third half, after running Shiprock and Indianapolis with me last year. However, it was Joe’s debut at the distance, which he crushed to the tune of 2:04. He hosted me three years ago when I ran Grandma’s. This time, he played the roles of host and participant because, in his words, Ryan and I are terrible influences. With the race behind us, it was time to drive back to Minneapolis for some burgers at Blue Door and beers at Nye’s.

The 2015 medal is modeled after the vertical sign of the historic Fargo Theater

The 2015 medal is modeled after the vertical sign of the historic Fargo Theater

As you might imagine, I was pretty proud of myself. In fact, I was elated, but for reasons far beyond the thrill of having a brand new personal best. This was another quantum leap in training. My last two marathon PRs had improved my times by tiny margins between one and two minutes. This time, not only had I knocked six minutes off my best, but I had done it with a training program that I had found counterintuitive and even lazy. It was as if I had a huge test, and I only studied once a week in short, frenzied bursts instead of spending long hours at the library. But if the last two months of race performances have been any indication, maybe this oddball strategy is working for me.

The road to a Boston Qualifying time won’t be easy. The bridge between my current abilities and a 3:04 is twice my improvement from this race. It’s still an intimidating chasm that I’m facing, the preparation for which will likely dominate my summer. But Fargo has shown that I’m faster than I think, that I might be doing something right, and that a BQ might someday be a reality. It has slightly bridged that impassable gap, created a ledge on that insurmountable peak. In other words:

I once felt Boston out of reach; that yearly ritual runners preach,
Made for the fleeter-footed type, was not for me, my legs weren’t right,
But now I have a different view, conducive to a fast BQ
Though now I rest, Berlin is near, my task ahead made now quite clear.

Marathon_Map 056 (ND)

Gold Rush: 2015 Lost Dutchman Marathon

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

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

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

Mile 0 - On the Peralta trail, ready to go

Mile 0 – On the Peralta trail, ready to go

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

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

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

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

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

Mile 2 - The cactus gates beckon

Mile 2 – The cactus gates beckon

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

Mile 7 - Back to paved roads

Mile 7 – Back to paved roads

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

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

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

Mile 15 - There's gold in these hills

Mile 15 – There’s gold in these hills

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

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

Mile 19 - Blocky, Santa Fe houses in the background

Mile 19 – Running through neighborhoods

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

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

Mile 24 - The "wall"

Mile 24 – The “wall”

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

“Vamos ticos!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 Lost Dutchman Marathon Finisher's Medal

2015 Lost Dutchman Marathon Finisher’s Medal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onwards!

Marathon_Map 055 (AZ)

Giving Up: 2014 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon

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

But I am not Chuck Engle.

2014 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2014 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon Google Earth Rendering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Indianapolis World War Memorial on the right

The Indianapolis World War Memorial on the right

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

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

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

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

"The End" Burger at Bru Burger Bar

“The End” Burger at Bru Burger Bar

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

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

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

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

Oh come on

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

Ryan and I, finishers at Bru Burger Bar

Ryan and I, finishers at Bru Burger Bar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marathon_Map 054 (IN)

State 42: Maine (2014 Maine “Half” Marathon)

I awoke on Sunday with a serious, credible issue in my right knee. My IT band was extremely tight and would complain loudly every time I raised it off the ground. It could bear weight, but the minute I sprung forward, it tingled with pain. The hilly and challenging New Hampshire Marathon had pulled something out of alignment and I had hoped against hope that a good night’s rest would somehow nudge all the pieces back to their original positions.

It hadn’t, and I was due to run another marathon in just two hours.

This marked the first time I saw the sun all weekend

This marked the first time I saw the sun all weekend

My friend Javier dropped me off at the start line about an hour before the race was to begin. I made use of that time by walking in circles, hoping to somehow shake off the pain, as if it were a pesky bug that had gotten caught in my leg hairs. As more runners arrived, I felt like I was doing something right. Lifting my leg so that my knee was almost touching my chest, I felt better. I even dashed for a hundred feet and the discomfort felt manageable.  Perhaps I would be able to survive this marathon after all.

It took just one tenth of a mile to crush my optimism like a mallet to an egg.

If I felt any sort of relief, it was gone by the time the smoke from the cannon had faded from the starting line. With hundreds of runners zipping by me, I stopped to walk just a minute into the race. The pain in my right knee was unbearable, sending acidic stings with every step, each one worse than the previous. In that moment, I knew that 26.1 more miles of this would be impossible, if not absolutely excruciating. In my hand I clenched my phone, which I had sealed in a ziploc bag, and every slow, stumbling step I took, I gripped it harder. It was my way out, my lifeline. I could use it to call Javier and this whole thing would be over. I had that power to drop out.  I just worried that I didn’t have the maturity.

Mile 4, by the sea

Mile 4, by the sea

I sent him a text message instead.  “This is not working out.”  It was like mental insurance, an early warning sign of things to come.  But I stopped just shy of using it to call for a rescue.

That first agonizing mile was slow.  Every time I broke into a run, pain would singe into my knee and I would be forced back to a walk.  In that time, the one thing I managed to do very quickly was burn through the five stages of grief.

Denial

This can’t be happening. This is my thing, running is MY thing, and I’ve proven to be pretty good at it. There’s no way that this pain is really such a big deal. I just need to keep running on it so it loosens up my knee.  After that, everything will just click. All pains eventually go away, so it’s just a matter of ignoring this little hiccup, steel yourself, use mind over matter, and pretend it doesn’t exist. Just keep going.

Anger

Ow, ow, ow, this is bullshit and not working. I absolutely killed my training for this without a single issue. There’s no reason why my knee should be hurting this much. It hasn’t ever been this bad. In fact, my right knee has NEVER hurt, so why start now? I didn’t even push myself yesterday and suddenly it’s punking out like it’s never experienced a race before? Unbelievable. Ow, ow, ow …

Bargaining

You know, if I switch my gait to my old, maligned heel-strike, then I can actually pick it up a little. Maybe I can stay with this run/walk business until the end. Can I hobble the full distance?  But then we’d miss our hotel check-out and Javier and his family would end up waiting far too long for me. I wouldn’t be able to shower either – is that such a bad thing though? Is it too much to ask a family of four to wait for five hours and then endure the mephitic odor of an unwashed runner in the car for another two? 

Depression

This sucks. This really sucks. I came all the way here and now I might have to bail. There’s a reason that many runners re-brand DNS from “Did Not Start” to “Did Nothing Stupid” and I’m about to discover just what Stupid is. Man, each step hurts; this is the worst. People are going to give me that smirk and tell me SEE? They KNEW running was bad for your knees, and the proof was in my pudding-like pace. I wish people would stop staring at me.  I know, I’m walking at the first mile, thanks for your concern, but please move along.  And on top of all that, I now have to come back to Maine eventually to re-do this state.

Acceptance

… or do I? This slower pace and awkward stride is actually working pretty well. In fact, check it out, I’m at mile 4. I can probably keep this up for another 9 miles, cut my losses, run a half marathon instead and stay on track for all fifty states. It wasn’t my original plan, but if I stop running and go home now, I’ll be very upset at myself. Am I alright with doing “just” a half marathon?  Yeah … yeah I’m okay with that.

(left to right at Sebago): Diego, me, Javier, Erin

(left to right at Sebago): Diego, me, Javier, Erin

I would love to say that a smile burst from my visage from that moment onward and I waltzed happily for the next nine miles. Instead, I was locked in a grimace, a vestigial emotion leftover from the Anger phase. Denial was quickly overcome – there was no getting past the obvious pain. I bargained with my goals and ultimately accepted that I would rather not crawl for five hours, kill my enjoyment of the event and ruin everyone’s plans. But anger would stick around for several thousand strides.

It wouldn’t be until mile 10 that I began to run fast again. I wasn’t in the clear, as my IT band was still pretty tight. But it was no longer feeling like it was getting squeezed. I even sped up to a 6:47 pace toward the end and only then did I let myself smile. Maybe I hadn’t really accepted what I was doing until this point, as if the last two hours had only existed to get my mind off what felt like cheating or giving up.

Lobster Roll at Sebago Brewpub

Lobster Roll at Sebago Brewpub

It took me a while to get over it. I thought of people like Steve, Danielle and Otter, who have gone on to finish long races with terrible, probably worse pains, crossing the timing mats often smiling and with absolutely no regrets. It made me wonder if they know something I don’t, or if their worldview is somehow more mature than mine. Maybe they’re just better actors.  A childish part of me believes that accomplishments are only worthy or important if someone else thinks they’re impressive. I know that’s not true, but I can’t help but think on it from time to time.

I wish I had been able to fully enjoy the friendly volunteers, the flanks of cheerful spectators who assured me that I was “looking good” and encouraged me by name to “keep it up.” I’m sure they had seen my scowl because I had never gotten that much dedicated attention before. It would have been nice to enjoy the picturesque neighborhoods that came alive to witness the stream of people flowing through them. I would have taken more time to breathe in the beautiful seaside vistas and wispy cirrus clouds vanishing into the horizon.  Because the race really was quite scenic and very well organized.

The Maine Marathon gives out enough swag to fill a Doomsday Prepper bunker

The Maine Marathon gives out enough swag to fill a Doomsday Prepper bunker.  And yes, that IS a can of baked beans.

But I did finish smiling. Oddly enough, part of me did have fun at this race, even if the majority of it was spent wincing and facing the possibility of dropping out. If the physical act of running weren’t fun by itself, then I wouldn’t have come all the way here in the first place. Though they were emotionally charged and far from graceful, the miles I ran in Portland were still miles run. And of course, beyond the race itself, there was plenty to enjoy. When I wasn’t running, I was spending a fun weekend with a good friend and his family, happily noshing on local seafood during a gorgeous time of year.

It’s a strange thing, dropping to half the distance.  As the day went on, I quickly forgot about the race, almost as if it had happened weeks ago.  Despite how much those early miles hurt, they didn’t seem to register in my mind.  Maybe my subconscious is already quite aware that I will come back to Maine for the distance I originally wanted to run.  But that comeback will have to wait, and for now, I’m happy with my memories of the Pine Tree State.  Though I will certainly look back on this trip as “the time I dropped to the half,” I will also remember Maine for many other reasons.  There was the lobster, the chance to reconnect with friends and the realization that these events can bring out more than just the strength in your legs and the sweat from your pores.

Onwards.

Marathon_Map 053 (ME)

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