April 22, 2013 29 Comments
I stayed true to my rules for racing by arriving at Garmin Headquarters, the start of the 2013 Garmin Marathon in the Land of Oz around 5:15 AM, almost two hours before it was to begin. I sat in my Hyundai Sonata, listening to the local rock station blare the same chunky macho riffs over and over but with different band names. It’s been a long time since I dipped my toes into modern rock, and now it’s all become the same chugging blasts of 80s throwback distortion under an angry alpha male drawl. The selections they played by Seether, Stone Sour and even Nickelback all sounded exactly the same. The only song they played that I actually enjoyed was “Hats Off to the Bull” by Chevelle. But I had no other options because I forgot to bring CDs or a USB cable.
So I reclined in my seat and let the outside chill slowly seep into the car. The goose bumps I quickly developed made me question my choice of clothing. I made the mistake of only seeing the daytime Hi of 60 and not the overnight Lo of 30, which was a total rookie mistake. The race would be cold from start to finish, but I hadn’t dressed for it. I looked out my window and thought I saw a Walgreen’s across the highway where I could buy a $5 sweater. But when I got out and started walking toward it I realized it was an auto body shop. Was it possible to see mirages in the cold?
I dashed to the Packet Pickup tent and retrieved my bib and t-shirt, hoping that it would be a long-sleeve technical shirt that would serve as an additional layer. I was chagrined to learn it was a regular cotton shirt. I guess I was stuck with what I had.
I would have done the packet pickup boogie the night before like a normal person but my flight from Chicago to Kansas City was delayed. I not only missed whatever Expo had been prepared for this race, but a chance to see famed ultrarunner Scott Jurek along with US marathoner and 2:22 Boston finisher Desiree Davila and 50K American record holder Josh Cox. It wasn’t surprising to learn that Garmin sponsors top athletes, but I didn’t expect them to be at this small, rural race. None of that mattered because I ended up driving straight from the airport to the home of my gracious hosts, Jimena and Chris.
Jimena was one of the first people from my grade that I met when I moved to Costa Rica in 1997. I was invited to a get-together near the school where six or seven of my future classmates were hanging out. From what I remember, the event was put together exclusively because they knew there was a new kid in school and he shouldn’t go into the first day knowing absolutely no one. While Jime and I didn’t become close friends, like many people in our grade level, we saw each other often at parties, in between classes or simply because Costa Rica is a tiny country and you’re bound to interact with everyone in unexpected ways. For example, her cousin Anita is one of my closest friends and her dad is my dentist. But we didn’t spend much time together one-on-one – in fact, I’ve seen her dad more in the last ten years, though our conversations are mostly a one-way exchange of indecipherable vowel sounds.
So it was just a little unexpected when, after running the Georgia Half Marathon two years ago, I received a comment from her telling me she’d be happy to help with Kansas or Missouri when the time came. It was a surprise in that I never know who reads these stories and usually assume my audience is mostly internet lunatics with a pinch of family and a hint of local friends. But I soon realized that the kind offer was the very embodiment of the unconditional generosity that ticos are known for. I didn’t forget her invitation, so when I signed up for my first Kansas race, I reached out to her. When I arrived Friday night, I was first greeted by Leo, a charming, sandy brown Pug with perfectly spherical eyes that seemed to sit balanced on top of his button nose. I also met her husband Chris, a local Kansas boy who over the years has developed an impressive command of Spanish and all things Costa Rica. We spent the night catching up over Jime’s delicious arroz con pollo, gabbing endlessly with a fun blend of English and Spanish, neither language completely taking over. The warm dinner and warmer welcome allowed for an easy night’s sleep.
The next morning, as the temperature in the Sonata dropped, that warmth was quickly replaced by chills. Soon the parking lot was full of cars, runners buzzing back and forth between tents and portapotties, hands shoved in their pockets and shoulders hunched. I spotted a few in shorts and t-shirts not looking as regretful as me, which perked my spirits. The sun was rising quickly. With very few hills to cast long shadows, it wouldn’t be long before the entire state was bathed in gold. Just a few minutes shy of the start, I put myself together and left the car.
It was soon clear that this would be a relatively small race. In most cases, you have to strain your eyes to find the flags being carried by the different pacers among the sea of people. But just ten minutes prior to the start, it almost looked like pacers were the only people running the race. It took me just a few steps to hear a familiar voice, a loud, boisterous howl that I last saw in October in Iowa. There she was, with her trademark giraffe ears and banshee call, Abby the pacer.
I went up to her and re-introduced myself, thanking her for pacing me the first 8 miles of the IMT Des Moines Marathon.
“However, I’m not running with your group today,” I told her. “I’m going to take it easy with the 3:50 guys.”
“That’s alright,” she said with an electric smile. “You’ll probably still hear me!”
After asking her how her “shithead dogs” were, I walked past her pace group and toward the next one, spearheaded by Adam and Margo. I would be running with this group and not with Abby or an even faster group because of the Ice Age 50k in three weeks. Several months ago, I decided that instead of doing a ritualistic 20-miler before tapering for my first ever ultra, I would instead run a marathon as a training run. Rather than try and PR or go for an aggressive run where I could risk injury or overuse, I would run as if at home, knocking out the necessary miles. That’s why I was here, in Olathe, Kansas: to run 26.2 miles at a sustainable pace and take it easy.
Though I had chosen a pace that was suitably easy for me, I had brought with me a Camelbak and filled it with oat bars, energy waffles and a water bottle filled with an electrolyte solution called ZYM. In recent long training runs, I’ve stayed away from using GUs and Gatorade, replacing those with CLIF bars and ZYM. The latter is a local Chicago version of the popular Nuun electrolyte drink, which cuts out the sugar and calories, leaving that job to solid foods. Looking ahead to my first attempt at the 50-mile distance, I decided it would be good to start training my stomach to eat real foods mid-run and not rely on synthetic gels, which can nauseate me as early as mile 15. How would I be able to run over thrice that distance without wanting to throw up?
So I was also here to see if I could run a marathon with a pack stuffed with real food and a sugar-free electrolyte without throwing up or bonking miserably. I hadn’t ever tried this combination before, so anything was possible, including miserable failure.
But it wasn’t long before my challenges were put in perspective. This was one of the first marathons held since the Boston Marathon bombing last Monday, still fresh in the minds of both runners and organizers. Many of the runners, myself included, had printed out Runners United to Remember bibs and had pinned them to our backs. Others had taken markers to shirts and written words of support, encouragement and condolences for those affected. Before the national anthem, we participated in a moment of silence, where four yellow balloons were released seconds apart, the names of each death fading, but never forgotten, into the morning blue.
We were off at 7 am sharp. In that first mile I noticed several aches and pains that tried to portend a ruinous finish for me, all of them casualties from last Sunday’s trail race, which had turned my leg muscles into cake batter. The backbreaking downhill had only taken my left foot’s middle toenail prisoner and today it felt like the size (and likely color) of a plum, nudging the bottom of my shoe with every step. My quads were also not totally fresh and each step sent a tiny pinch of stress into them.
I hoped those wouldn’t come back to haunt me.
It wasn’t long before I was surprised by how hilly Olathe was. In my mind, Kansas has always materialized as a broad swath of burnt orange, a panorama of endless horizon, nothing breaking the monotony besides a distant tornado or a rickety windmill. Garmin must have chosen the only place in the entire state with enough rolling hills to satisfy 14 miles of marathon course because there were very few flat stretches of road. Adam the Pacer was using the SMART pacing method, which involves starting slower than your target pace and gradually accelerating. However, we were rarely ever running a constant pace because of the reliable ups and downs we had to conquer. They weren’t steep or anything, but come on, this was Kansas.
The course during these first 14 miles, though hilly, was actually pretty boring. We were either running on suburban roads alongside residential subdivisions or, during one short stretch, actual sidewalks barely two people wide. That said, aid stations were well-manned and volunteers were cheery and helpful, though I didn’t take any of their wares. I soon learned how awkward it was to un-sling my Camelbak, open the back zipper, and unwrap a CLIF bar with gloves without littering, all without breaking stride. But hey, we were all having fun.
“I don’t have time for these f*cks,” said an ornery driver at an intersection, his path blocked by runners.
“Sorry to inconvenience you,” the woman running next to me said. “Read the news.”
Ok, so not everyone was having fun. I guess long-distance events that block roads aren’t a regular thing in Olathe. But onwards we went, following flag-bearer Adam and his unofficial co-pacer Marla. Margo, as it turned out, was nursing an injury so she would end up joining us much later at mile 17. Marla, on the other hand, was a deceptively intense breed of runner. In a few sessions of eavesdropping, I learned that she had run over 100 marathons and had actually won a race in 1995. Strange how gods can blend so easily among mortals.
Adam’s marathon count, which hovered somewhere in the 80s, was equally impressive. When he wasn’t taking a pit stop in the bushes, he was steadfastly monitoring our pace, adjusting it as necessary. He wasn’t as talkative as some other pacers I’ve run with, so I took it upon myself to get to know him a little more.
“So are you from Kansas City?” I asked.
“No, from Wichita.”
“Isn’t that where Westboro is from?”
“No!” he said, with a laugh that suggested he’s been asked that before. “They’re from Topeka. Marla’s from there.”
“Oh yeah,” Marla said with a slight groan. “I don’t understand those people.”
And just like that, I had exhausted all the things I associate with Kansas: the Wizard of Oz and Westboro Baptist Church. Neither Adam nor Marla seemed happy to have the latter be part of Kansas’ reputation in the country, but they talked about them like the sad reality that they are.
We crossed the halfway mark in 1:56:22, slightly slower than the 1:55 necessary for a 3:50 finish. There was no timing mat for the half split, so I had to remember it for the rest of the run. For the next mile or so, I felt like Dory from Finding Nemo when she remembers the address in Sydney.
1:56:22, that’s my half time. What’s my half time? 1:56:22. Just so happens my time for the half was 1:56:22. Why do you keep asking? But I don’t mind telling you, it was 1:56:22. What, you didn’t catch that? It’s one hour, fifty-six minutes, twenty-two seconds. Well, if you MUST KNOW, it was …
… even as I write this, I can feel my mind slipping from my grasp.
Once past mile 14, the last of the major hills were behind us and we entered the Indian Creek Bike Trail. The rest of the race would be mostly run on this path, which was one long spaghetti noodle that wound in between neighborhoods, under streets and over small wooden bridges. It also wasn’t perfectly flat, but its dips and bumps were shorter and smaller than the first half’s gradual inclines. The fastest runners started coming back on our left, meaning we too would be seeing this trail again. Shortly after that, Margo joined Adam as a 3:50 pacer, increasing our group to … three. Since the halfway mark, Adam’s flock had dwindled to just me – even Marla had gone off on her own. Occasionally we would pick up someone for a mile or two but afterward they’d either take off or slow down.
“I’m on a pretty good sub-4 streak here,” I told them. “So if you see me fading, do what you can to motivate me.”
I kept reminding myself of one inexorable fact: marathons are hard. It doesn’t matter how many you do, it’s not easy to just knock one out, even if it’s not intended as a PR effort. Calories are calories and the right food can defy you on the wrong day. I had eaten two CLIF bars by now and was ready to tear into my first race-day Stinger Waffle, amounting to a total of almost 700 calories. I had never done that before. So the possibility of losing all energy and drifting to the back of the pack was very real. Every marathon I had ever run was completed with a thick layer of GU lining my stomach. Why wouldn’t my body rebel?
But onwards we continued. I was uncharacteristically garrulous for the next few miles, asking Adam enough questions to try his patience. Much to his relief, the aid station around mile 18 distracted me. I’m sure it was written somewhere on the official marathon site but I didn’t know just how much the marathon would embrace the Oz theme. All along the course there were signs with references to L. Frank Baum’s iconic characters (“Follow the yellow brick road!”, “X Miles to the Emerald City!”, “Run Wicked Fast!”) and many witches and Dorothies in racing flats. But this aid station in particular was like an Oz reunion festival, with every other person in some sort of costume, telling us to have heart, have courage and run smart.
As we neared the turnaround, I was surprised to find Jime, Chris and Leo at an aid station with a fancy SLR camera. By the time I realized it and thought of cool poses, it was too late. The candid runner shots had been taken. No bother, I could look intense and focused on the way back. But instead I was caught blowing a snot-rocket. Par for the course – race pictures aren’t meant to be glamorous.
“So Dan,” Margo asked, around mile 20. “Are you going to stick around with us?”
My plan was to stay with the group until the fearsome mile 20. But as we passed it, I decided it was too early to go off on my own. I ended up waiting until two miles later to make my move and take off, unfettered by concerns of injury. I had made it this far feeling not just good, but great. I had completely forgotten about my toe and my quads. Even my neck, which earlier was getting a little irritated by my pack straps rubbing against it, seemed to have shut down all its nerve endings. I felt confident, capable, but more importantly, I felt powerful. I didn’t feel like I was moving forward because of specially made cytoplasm but with actual food that I eat on a regular basis, and I didn’t prepare for this race by taking it easy in the weeks before.
And here I was, picking up speed, on my way to the finish. What was left of the course was slightly uphill the entire way, but undiscernibly so. A few miles later, I was running past the empty parking lots of Olathe South High Middle School, the Finish Line just ahead. I kicked a little harder to finish my 15th marathon and 32nd state in 3:46:18. With my second half run in 1:49:56, it was my second biggest negative split (6:26).
Immediately after finishing, I went to get my finisher’s medal, which was a red, geometric heart with the Tin Man inside. A helpful volunteer draped a Mylar blanket on my shoulders before I could tell them I wouldn’t need one. The last few miles had turned my body into a furnace and I still had on my hat and gloves. I tied it to a chair and went to the beer tent for a can of Shock Top. Jime soon found me and told me Scott Jurek was nearby, having recently given a talk. I turned around and sure enough, there he was near the announcer’s stage, just hanging out. I ran to the car and pulled out my copy of Born to Run (Otter would later ask me, “did you know beforehand that he’d be there, or do you just carry [that book] with you wherever you go?”).
Ok, be cool, I thought. He’s just an ultra god and an insane specimen of a person. But, you know, be cool.
“HI SCOTT I’M DAN!”
I lost all composure and practically yelled this straight into his face. I was worried that my next sentence would be something along the lines of “YOU’RE SO BOOK CAN YOU SIGN MY COOL?” but his relaxed personality, Midwest approachability and let’s face it, million-dollar smile made it much easier to stop being a dork ass and introduce myself properly. I last saw him at a Fleet Feet in Chicago during his book tour with Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run. I quickly mentioned that and then got to talking about ultras and last year’s Leadville Trail 100, where he ran as Tony Krupicka’s pacer. After adding his signature to McDougall’s, I left him to greater fans.
The rest of the day was spent with Jime and Chris showing me the sights around Kansas City. We ate lunch at Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue. It was neither in Oklahoma or a restaurant, but instead a tiny kitchen in the corner of a Shamrock gas station. While that may not sound like your typical restaurant, the line of people that spilled outside and into the parking lot certainly gave it credibility. As if to completely pound my doubts to dust, inside was a framed list written by Anthony Bourdain of the Top 13 Places to Eat Before You Die, and this seemingly rundown, nondescript relic was a proud member (as a side note, Chicago’s Hot Doug’s also made that list). It left me wondering, why is it that so many amazing barbecue places are in gas stations?
With Kansas’ (and therefore the world’s) best barbecue sliding down my system, it was time for a nap. Later that night we would visit the Flying Saucer for some local Kansas City brews and then the Foundry for dinner and … more local brews. Along the way, my munificent hosts drove me to see Union Station, the new Opera House, the Kansas City Power and Light District and the Plaza, an upscale urban area whose architecture was inspired by the Spanish city of Seville. And just like that, this quick whirlwind weekend had swept through my boring, black and white preconceived ideas of Kansas and turned them into bright Technicolor.
… at least, for the 1% of the state that I got to know.
The next morning I bid adieu to Jime, Chris and Leo, and returned to the Windy City with another memento and several fond stories. And now, as I write this, it’s taper time. The next numbered bib I pin to my shorts will be for my first 50 kilometer foot race in the Kettle Moraine State Forest of cheesy ol’ Wisconsin.
Meet me on the trail – it’s goin’ down.