Paces High (2014 Air Force Marathon)

We walked between floodlights and domed hangars under the night sky, following the crowd to the start line. My wife Steph was running her first (and likely only) half marathon along with her sister, mom and uncle. An hour before they were due to start, I would begin the marathon with my father-in-law Steve as his pacer.  This race was particularly significant for Steve, because not only was he in the Air Force for six years, it would be his first marathon since 2008.  Both of these reasons imbued him with omnipotent Dad Power, which meant he made t-shirts and signed up the entire family for the event.

left to right: Steve, Janine, Jan, Steph, me

left to right: Steve, Janine, Jan, Steph, me (with head wings!)

I was a little nervous. It wasn’t the marathon distance that intimidated me, but the task of being Steve’s pacer. Before I had even run two miles in my life, he had already earned several marathon and triathlon finishes. I went to watch him run the 2006 and 2007 Chicago Marathons, years known respectively for being very cold and dangerously hot, and felt completely humbled (and intimidated) by what I had just witnessed. Today, I hoped that I would be able to guide him through the race without feeling impertinent – after all, this was the guy who taught me how to run six years ago.

Mile 0: The Start

Mile 0: The Start

By 7:30 in the morning, as darkness gave way to a pristine morning at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, it was time to start. The race began with the unexpected, full-bodied boom of a cannon, instantly sending my heart crawling up my throat. We started our watches, shook off the nerves and took off with one helluva roar.

The race website, literature and even satellite maps gave me the impression that we were going to run purely within the base. If you close your eyes and imagine a typical airport, I’m certain that your mental image will not include trees or shade. And for a large part of this race, that’s how we ran, climbing high into the sun. The first 5k had most of the hills, rolling over the Air Force Institute of Technology’s campus and by the Wright Brothers Memorial.  We cruised past the Wright State University Nutter Center, where we had picked up our race materials the day before, and then the course ushered us to the McClerron Memorial Skyway for longer than I would have wanted.  Eventually we reached the Wright-Patterson Golf Course at 10k and happily welcomed the cover of trees.

Mile 5: McClerron Memorial Skyway

Mile 5: McClerron Memorial Skyway

This was a delightful change of scenery. Though most of the surrounding area for the entire race was green, the actual trees themselves were always too far away to provide any shade. But we felt instantly cooler once the course narrowed on the golf course. Steve and I had started walking a minute for every ten minutes of running, though still keeping an even pace.

For the next 10k we would run through Fairborn, a small town just northeast of the base. We wouldn’t see this many spectators until the finish line, but our attention was focused elsewhere. It seemed like this part of town was looking forward to Halloween like a kid going to sleep at 3 PM on Christmas Eve. Every other store was displaying spooky wares and one family had erected a professional-grade ghost ship on their front yard. There was even a house with a “ghoul train” on its lawn and a two-story tall Grim Reaper fastened to its façade. It was easy to forget that we’re still five weeks away from All Hallows’ Eve, but they all made for excellent distractions as we crossed mile 10.

Mile 7: The course narrows a bit by the golf course

Mile 7: The course narrows a bit by the golf course

As we made our way out of Fairborn, I kept noticing that Steve was steadily pulling away from me. I didn’t want to temper his enthusiasm too much, but we were out here to run a smart pace. “Let’s reel it in a bit,” I would say, keep the wings level and true, and he’d dial it back. Once again, I felt a tiny twinge of impertinence because I felt like I was putting a stopper on the pent-up energy he had stored over the years, waiting to burst out.

Once out of Fairborn, it was time to run around the perimeter of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. As you might imagine, it’s an enormous sprawl of land with few trees to provide any shade. As we wrapped around the base, Steve began talking to a fellow Team Red White & Blue member. He soon learned that his new friend was stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base, where Steve spent six years as a missile security officer. They talked for about a mile about who did what, what happened when, what is and what isn’t. Making quick friends has always been one of his core competencies and had we not reached an aid station, I don’t know when the conversation would have stopped. Part of me wanted to pull him away and get him to re-focus on the race.  But that would have been cold; he was having so much fun.

After all, we had just run a half marathon just shy of his all-time PR and had plenty of energy to keep up an animated conversation. This wasn’t always the case.

Mile 10: Fairborn decked out in Halloween decorations

Mile 10: Fairborn decked out in Halloween decorations

Sometime in late 2008, Steve’s body rebelled against him. The well of energy that had always provided him with enough kick to participate in long-distance races, work a difficult and challenging job and be the best family man this side of Hobbiton had suddenly and inexplicably run dry. By 2009, he was walking half marathons because he couldn’t quite pick up the pace. In 2010, when my own running exploits were gaining traction, he had to drop out just shy of the second mile of the Indy 500 Festival Mini-Marathon because he didn’t have it in him.

Mile 12: Alien-themed aid station provides Steve a Close Encounter of the Thirst Kind

Mile 12: Alien-themed aid station provides Steve a Close Encounter of the Thirst Kind

He got blood work done, changed his diet, got tested for allergies and saw doctors of every ilk, but the mystery went unsolved. He gained weight and felt increasingly imprisoned by this inescapable lassitude, sometimes spending dark days in the basement alone with his thoughts. Oddly, this decline coincided with a surge in running by those around him. By then I was literally running wild with the sport and not long after, his brother men, Greg and Jim learned to fly, becoming marathoners themselves. His brothers-in-law Scott and Dan soon followed while Steve could only watch from the sidelines.

I remember asking him once if he would prefer that I keep my running stories to myself, because I began feeling a little obnoxious talking about my most recent PRs.  It felt like happily feasting in front of someone who hadn’t eaten in days. He said no.  Not only did he take pride in knowing he had set me on the running path, but these stories were exactly the kind of motivation he needed.

Mile 17: Wide open, sunny stretches were frequent

Mile 17: Wide open, sunny stretches were frequent.  Under warmer conditions, this race could have been much tougher.

During this time, he became an avid scuba diver, dedicating himself to the activity and joining several charities aimed at helping veterans assimilate back into civilian life through scuba missions. His passion for the underwater world mirrored his diehard pursuit of endurance sports, but part of him was always itching to get fully back into the running game. You could hear it in his voice when he’d give tips or lend gear, that telltale enthusiasm that lets you know he hadn’t forgotten anything.

But he managed to turn things around. With help from his family (most notably his wife Jan), he changed his diet, refused to stay down and began to slowly climb out of the basement. Whatever was ailing him was never truly discovered or even named, but that didn’t stop him from putting in the time and sweat.

His training went into overdrive during an emotional trip to New Jersey in the summer of 2013.

It was a warm, muggy day on the eastern coast. I wore shorts and a salmon colored Polo, hoping it would unite the conflicting goals of staying cool and looking somewhat respectable. But the heat of Leonardo was oppressive and after walking for a minute dragging scuba gear through the sand, I could feel the sweat dripping down my arms. My in-laws were gathered along the beach, unsure if the occasion warranted a dose of their natural charisma or a helping of sober reflection. Because all of them, uncles, cousins and those who cleverly used marriage to sneak in, were there to remember and pay tribute to the family matriarch, who had passed away the previous summer.

Mile 19: A shaded service road comes to the rescue.

Mile 19: A shaded service road comes to the rescue.

While most of the family stayed on the sand, Steve and his brothers walked into the frigid waters of Sandy Hook Bay to bring Gram back to the shores of her childhood home. They released her ashes into the icy waters and left a stone with her name engraved on it, a memento for the remarkable woman who raised the wonderful, supportive family that so eagerly embraced me. Speeches were given and more than one fond memory recalled before a ponderous, and rare, moment of silence. Not long after, there was a lunch at a nearby restaurant, where it seemed like all sorrow and solemnity had been washed away by the zany extended family that we seldom get to see. It was easy to think at the time that Gram would have wanted it this way.

Mile 25.6: Beast mode

Mile 25.6: Beast mode

“I told myself while I was in the water,” Steve said, around mile 23, “I gotta turn this around.”

By that point, he had already started the comeback.   He had been training regularly and had run the Hoover Dam Half Marathon with us, preparing for Moab and later Miami. It was then that he dropped the megaton hammer on us by revealing that he had signed up for Ironman Cozumel. There it was, the massive 140.6-mile carrot that would dangle before him, the bright beacon on the horizon pushing him to train harder than ever.

The Air Force Marathon was part of that plan, and there we were, cruising past 40k.

Mile 26: Cleared for landing

Mile 26: Cleared for landing

“I look to you guys, to my brothers and you, and it inspires me.” In the moment, I could do little else but keep running, though I felt moved by what he said. The guy who was stationed at an Air Force base near Great Falls, Montana during most of his 20s, raised a five-star family and was staring down an Ironman with determination and grit, was somehow inspired by me. I thought his cables might have gotten crossed in the last 10k, but then I remembered what he told me five years ago. Every time he heard about race stories, from me or anyone else close to him, he got a little closer to his homecoming.  “Without you guys running together,” he said, pausing.  “I don’t know.”

“Alright, there’s mile 25,” I said as we approached the entrance to the base. “Time to give it all you got.”
“This is all I got.”

0920_airforcemarathon 40The final U-shaped stretch was lined with American flags followed by a fleet of intimidating military planes, all facing us as if ready to fly into the wild blue yonder. As we made that final turn, the chutes closed in on us, the finish line a bull’s eye just ahead. Enormous black and green wings passed above us like the arms of a slow-moving fan, with crowds cheering underneath. We passed a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter, then an AC-130, and finally a giant Boeing C-17 Globemaster before reaching the blue finish banner. There were 26 miles of running behind me, but so many more behind Steve. The last six years had been a frustrating series of races that ended too soon or stretched on for too long. But here he was, running what was quite possibly his fastest ever marathon.

“Hey,” I said, nudging him on the shoulder, “welcome back!”

Finishers!

Finishers!

We passed every plane and crossed the finish line, making our way through a large, white tent to meet up with the rest of the family. Everyone was smiling, if not a little achy, and ready to head back to the hotel for a shower. The rest of the weekend was spent eating, napping, watching movies and visiting the Museum of the US Air Force. Even if nobody had finished the race, or if we had all been carted off the course in a medical van, what mattered most was that we spent a fun weekend with family, learning about Steve’s time in Montana with the US Air Force.

But if I too live to be a grey-haired wonder, I hope to still be knocking out races like this.

Marathon_Map 051 (OH)

Coach Dan (2014 Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon)

It was a beautiful morning in Chicago, whose moniker as the Windy City was not living up to the hype. A breeze would float by on occasion and move the slightly muggy air, making its way past over 20,000 runners waiting to start the 2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon. Temperatures were in the mid 60s, sitting comfortably with almost every other day of this beautifully mild summer, encouraging each runner to earn a fast time.

0720_rockrollhalfmarathon 01For almost three months, I had been the official coach for the Jackson Chance Foundation’s Rock and Roll Chicago Half Marathon Charity Team. I led weekly training runs, offered helpful running tips and generally made myself available for the group as it logs the necessary miles to conquer Chicago’s largest half marathon. Along the way, runners raised funds to help families with infants in the neonatal intensive care unit, providing them with parking, train and subway passes, which can help alleviate the financial burden of staying in the hospital.  For more information, please check out their official site, Facebook and Twitter.  For donations, click here.

Before the start of the race, I sat under our tent, meeting new runners and the organizers of the charity. In the middle of the gathering, I glanced away from our tent and past the trees that line Columbus drive to see a spritely young woman with platinum blond hair scorch down the sidewalk, her knees practically touching her chin with every powerful stride.

“Holy hell,” I said, my head trailing her as if hypnotized. “That’s Shalane Flanagan!”
“Who?” asked a nearby volunteer.
“Shalane Flanagan,” I repeated, knowing full well that I’d have to explain. “The top female American marathoner? Finished first American in Boston the last two years? 2:22 PR? Really, nobody?”

It’s moments like this that make you realize that running is still a niche sport. Nevermind that the marathon is currently booming; that it’s impossible to get into the world’s largest races, or that American Meb Keflezighi outright won the most recent and emotionally charged Boston Marathon – if the average person can’t recognize or even know the name of the country’s top superstar, then the sport still has plenty of room to grow.

2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon Google Earth Rendering (First Half)

2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon Google Earth Rendering (First Half)

A few more strides later, Shalane was back in the VIP tent, preparing for the longest race she’s run since this year’s Boston Marathon. I made my way to the start line, which was shockingly un-policed and unregulated. The actual entrances to each Corral weren’t readily visible, so runners were squeezing in between barricades with no one to stop them. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it wasn’t the chaos it could have been. Four years ago, when I ran this race, volunteers were extremely strict about runners staying in their assigned corrals. I’m guessing that many years’ worth of frustrated finishers’ surveys led to a more lax policy.

Minutes before the start, I recognized someone. Athlinks had listed him as one of my top rivals, and my friend Brian used to run with him as part of a Saturday morning bRUNch club. He had just squeezed through the fence and was wearing a neon green running cap and a red singlet, completely unaware of my approach.

“Excuse me, are you Ji?” I asked.
“Yeah, hi,” he replied, shaking my hand.
“I’m Dan, I’m friends with Brian.” He nodded with a smile, but before he could say anything, I chimed in: “You’re my nemesis.”
“Is that right?” he asked, laughing.
“Yeah. You’ve beaten me at every Shamrock Shuffle, even when I’ve trained like an idiot.”
“I think I remember Brian mentioning you now,” he said as if recognizing me from a crime alert or a police lineup.
“Every. Single. Year.”

I’m not sure if you can be someone’s nemesis if they never knew you existed in the first place. I admit that it’s a little strange to compare your times to someone you’ve never met, but it seemed like we were both improving at the same pace and he was always slightly faster. But now he knows who I am and I will be prepared for the 2015 Shamrock Shuffle.  In all likelihood, so will he, and by just that much more.  It’s on.

The race started on time, unleashing a torrent of runners onto Columbus Drive, the same starting line as a handful of races, the most prominent of which is the Chicago Marathon itself. The city’s towering skyscrapers formed a wall ahead of us, and we’d be running right underneath them. I like to knock on the Rock & Roll race series – and I have in several posts for more than one reason – but for this race, I need to reevaluate my stance. When I started running five years ago, there were only two half marathons in Chicago. Today that number is closer to fifteen. But only one (so far) goes through the streets of downtown Chicago, cuts directly through the Loop, runs on Michigan Avenue and finishes on Columbus Drive.

2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon Google Earth Rendering

Most half marathons in Chicago take place in Lincoln Park or the Lakefront Path, both of which are free, public areas that never close. Their paths are also about four shoulder widths wide, which can pose a challenge for large events, especially if runners have to share the course with cyclists, walkers and runners not affiliated with the race. So to run on closed city streets four lanes wide for the first seven miles was a treat. I didn’t mind that there weren’t many spectators in the Loop, or that we didn’t hear the distorted crunch of the first band until well past mile six. Say what you will about these races being expensive, as I ran, I could see where a lot of that fat payment went.

Runners left the bustle of the city and turned south onto Michigan Avenue, a 2.5-mile straight shot down to Dunbar Park, where we’d turn east toward the lake. The organizers had mercifully avoided Mount Roosevelt, the tiny hill that Chicago Marathon runners have to scale before finishing, which meant that the course had thus far been almost completely flat. I was running comfortably at a 7-minute pace, pulling runners ahead of me and slowly passing them. It wasn’t a warm day, but the air was thicker than it was during my last half marathon in Chicago.

Onwards I continued through the urban jungle, keeping a steady pace with the runners around me. There had been only one band so far, which I found odd. If you’re going to call yourselves the Rock & Roll series, then you have an obligation to your runners to deliver on your title. By mile 10, I had passed only about four musical outfits, and I remembered that even the music at the Expo leaned closer to Top 20 than true rock. Perhaps there are strict laws in downtown Chicago that prevent bands from setting up a stage, or local noise ordinances discouraging the organizers from peppering the course with loud rock bands. I was just about to give up on the musical element of this race when the organizers turned it all around.

2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon Google Earth Rendering (Second Half)

2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon Google Earth Rendering (Second Half)

By mile 10, we were at the lakefront path, winding in and out of my familiar training grounds. The tree-lined path provided plenty of shade and for the first time the narrow course felt just a little congested. I was also starting to fade. Though I was still keeping a fast pace, I could no longer do it elegantly. Runners that had shared the course with me for the last five miles were starting to pull ahead and my legs were starting to drag. Up ahead, I could hear loudspeakers blaring Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” with his wails threatening to short out the sound system.

Right as I passed these speakers, the song changed to Metallica’s “Sad But True.”

Aw hell yeah.

The sign behind me says "No Stopping, No Standing, No Parking, ANYTIME" -- a new personal mantra, perhaps?

The sign behind me says “No Stopping, No Standing, No Parking, ANYTIME” — a new personal mantra, perhaps?

I began playing the intro, flicking invisible drum sticks in the air, hopping off the toms, smashing the snare and sneering at the sky as if I were Lars Ulrich. The explosive opening riff kicked in and I sped up, keeping beat by hitting phantom high-hats, pumping my fist in the air with every “HEY” and gasping out the lyrics. The song and my cadence became one and I surged back to top form, leaving runners behind to watch me run and drum as if possessed. Just like that, running was suddenly easy, and I was cruising. Metallica were leading me over the sun-soaked path like a muscular Pied Piper.

The song stayed with me for a good half mile thanks to an act of brilliance. The organizers had set up speakers all along the lakefront path, spaced about five hundred feet from each other, all playing the same song at a thundering volume. It was such a simple idea, yet in this case it was flawlessly executed. Think about it – most people run with their own music already playing through snug headphones, so for the rest of us, any band on a course will only get about forty seconds of our attention. The most they can hope for is that the fleeting verse they played for us will become an earworm a few strides down the road.

So why not stretch out that music-driven exhilaration by stringing together a group of speakers and playing the same song for a meaningful distance? For me, it was like magic. My upper body was tingling with each drum break and I felt light as papyrus. I was reacquainted with the powerful effects of music and why so many people would rather forget their shoes instead of their MP3 player before heading out for a run.  Of course, it could have gone completely wrong. The DJ could have chosen to play Neon Trees or Imagine Dragons or Fun (ugh), and I would have been obligated to bash the speakers in with a nailbat. But from their dark, sepulchral lairs, the metal gods looked up to me and judged me worthy of power. In that half-mile, the entire Rock & Roll series was vindicated.

You know it’s sad, but true.

This is what the McCormick Tunnel feels like.  It kills me in every race in which it is featured.

This is what the McCormick Tunnel feels like. It kills me in every race in which it is featured.

Unfortunately, Metallica didn’t last for 21 more minutes. The song ended and was quickly replaced by a boppy, techno offering, which meant that the extra jolt of energy vanished from my bloodstream and I buckled cold turkey. To make matters worse, up ahead was the McCormick Center’s West Tunnel, also known as the Soul-Sucking Maw of Hell. There were psychedelic lights installed on the inside to add some much-needed zazz to this particular section, but it wasn’t enough to keep the energy up. Once out of the tunnel, I dragged myself under the crotch of the ubiquitous Rock & Roll inflatable guitar hero before reaching mile 12.

The last mile was a straight line on Lake Shore Drive, followed by the final stretch on Columbus. The second I spotted the finish line, I picked it up, squeezing every last bit of energy out of my legs. I proudly wore a red “COACH” bib pinned above my normal racing number, and I felt a duty to finish strong.  Coaches need to practice what they preach, so I rummaged through my racing arsenal for that secret, extra gear and began kicking.  I inched closer to a flat 7-minute pace, passing fatigued runners and 5K walkers eager to finish the race. The finishers chute was packed with spectators – finally – making each kick feel easier. With the city open before me, I crossed the finish line in 1:32:33, about 23 minutes behind Shalane Flanagan, and made my way back to the charity tent.

Excellent hardware.  See below for the real-life image.

Excellent hardware. See below for the real-life image.

Though the Rock & Roll Marathon series are an easy target, I have to say that I had very few gripes about this event.  I even tried to forget that I lived in Chicago, to wonder what I would think if the city were brand new to me. I’m confident that I would have loved the race all the same. It began in the heart of a beautiful, architecturally rich city, escorting runners past the Marina and Sears Towers, the Chicago Theater, over the river, under the CTA tracks, alongside Grant Park, through the South Loop and into the Lakefront Path. The last 3 miles gave us a pristine view of the skyline as it crept ever closer, with blue skies reflecting off towers of steel, stone and glass. In terms of showcasing Chicago, this race is second to the city’s October marathon.

All of this leads me to one last observation. The southernmost point of this course was about a quarter of a mile away from the northernmost point of the 13.1 Marathon, usually held in the first week of June. If someone could combine the two courses, there would be another marathon in Chicago. With the only 26.2-mile race in town soon to be a luxury for the super lucky or the fabulously wealthy, it’d be nice to have another option.

Chicago's Cloud Gate (more affectionately known as the Bean), the inspiration for this year's medal

Chicago’s Cloud Gate (more affectionately known as the Bean), the inspiration for this year’s medal

I want to thank the Jackson Chance Foundation for giving me the opportunity to use my love of the sport to help others achieve their goals and contribute to a very special cause (an extra special shout-out to Missy, who recommended me in the first place and practically one-woman-show’d the day’s events). It dawned on me during the weekly Tuesday evening runs that I wasn’t just another runner – somewhere between my first 5K and today, I’ve learned enough to be able to help others in making it to the start line. I loved the experience and hope to keep the privilege should the Foundation sign up for next year’s race.

jackson-chance-rock-roll-half-marathon-chicago

Onwards!

To Feel Like an Elite (13.1 Marathon Chicago)

No matter how fast I get, I will always be in the middle of the pack. I might approach the upper echelons of finishers in shorter races and crack the top 1% in a few half marathons, but for all the intervals and long runs, I’m simply not willing to make the kind of changes necessary to put myself in winning shape. It would require tripling my weekly mileage, culling all remotely unhealthful foods from my diet and potentially losing the enjoyment in the process. For those reasons, I am content with being a face in the crowd, competing against himself, at his own pace.

But at the 2014 13.1 Marathon Chicago, for a variety of reasons, I felt like an elite.

Elites Don’t Pay to Race

It all started with the organization reaching out to me with an invitation to run. I superciliously imagined the bigwigs huddled around a computer, typing out a search query with their index fingers, “Who is an awesome runner great guy decent writer wants to run top search results only” and having my blog explode off the screen in a smoky, crimson blast. Their eyes would water while the war-hardened general in the back of the room slowly removed his aviator sunglasses and, with a voice aged by strife and scotch, remarked that they had found their guy.

Or I was simply one of many local Chicago bloggers found by a team of interns.

Regardless, I was now signed up for the second half marathon I ever ran. It was exactly five years ago to the day, June 7, 2009, and I remember my stomach being electric with nerves. Would I be able to beat my only half marathon time of 1:49:34? Could I overcome the sun and humidity to start a chain reaction of PRs? Though it wasn’t easy, I managed to improve that mark to 1:47:58 before enjoying the post-race spread of beers and pizza.

Could 2014 bring back that magic?

Elites Get Special Transportation

The 13.1 Marathon Chicago takes place in Chicago’s south lakefront, starting and finishing at the South Shore Cultural Center (also known as the end of the lake front path, where I log 99% of all my training miles). To get there, the organizers had arranged for a host of buses to take runners from the heart of Chicago to the South Side. One cluster of buses had gathered at Millennium Park, about twenty minutes from my condo. With a veritable fleet of yellow school buses at their disposal, there was no need to deal with a rental car, traffic or bloated public transportation.

Elites Get the Red Carpet

Mama showing her credentials

Mama showing her credentials

In addition to being invited to run, the organization had also set up a VIP tent next to the finish line. My mom was in town from Costa Rica, so I pulled the classic “either you let my Very Special Guest inside your Very Important Person bunker, or we don’t have a deal” gambit. Without batting an eye, the organizers at 13.1 Marathon graciously acquiesced. Of all the races to be offered such generous perks, I was ecstatic that it was the one that took place while my mom was in town. After all, if she has to hear all about these crazy races, at least she can enjoy the spectatorship beyond simply watching people run.

Her review of the VIP tent was nothing but glowing. Since I had rudely awakened her at 4:15 in the morning and dragged her out on an empty stomach to watch people cross an arbitrary line on the pavement, her morning could have gone better. But while in the tent, she had some coffee, fruit and even a fresh omelet. With much help from the chefs and volunteers, I was happy to be able to pamper her.

Elites Get the Top Seed

before-the-raceOne thing I remember very fondly about the inaugural 13.1 Marathon in 2009 is that they had a very deep corral system. The majority of the race is run on Chicago’s lake front path, which is open to the public and can sometimes be very narrow if congested. Therefore the race prudently implemented from its first year a start system that included corrals A through N (it might have gone farther, but I don’t remember seeing O or P), each with a few hundred runners to ease overcrowding on the course.

I had targeted this race as my next PR attempt, so I was awarded a spot in the A Corral. The crowd of runners spilled behind us like the queue of a popular amusement park ride, wrapping around the Cultural Center’s entrance, flanked by terra cotta columns and gardens. Between the half marathon and the 5k, we numbered almost 5,000.

I was unsure of how the day’s race would go. I hadn’t done many speed runs lately except for a 5k the Saturday before where I fell 20 seconds shy of my PR. Despite the announcer raving about the gorgeous weather, I could have asked that it be about ten degrees cooler. And my half marathon PR had turned two years old in April, with few opportunities in the next six months for another shot. As things were, I wasn’t guaranteeing myself anything.

But with all that said, let’s delve into what really makes elite athletes elite:

Elites Are Fast

2014 13.1 Marathon Chicago Google Earth Rendering

2014 13.1 Marathon Chicago Google Earth Rendering

I’d like to say that I tore out of the gates like California Chrome, but the narrow chute kept us from pushing the pace. Once out of the Cultural Center grounds, we began running north toward Jackson Park, where the famous 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition was held. Today, very little of that grandiose event remains except for the Museum of Science and Industry and a small-scale replica of the gilded Statue of the Republic. It is a public park with plenty of running paths, ponds and harbors, whose ample greenery made so that much of the early miles were run in the shade.

The Chicago South Shore Cultural Center, where the race begins and ends

The Chicago South Shore Cultural Center, where the race begins and ends

I deliberately held back the energy in that first mile, hoping to warm up to a faster pace later on. Miles 2 – 4 were run inside Jackson Park between sidewalks and dirt paths. The crowd had already thinned considerably, with large empty patches between runners. This made for an easy chase game and I loved how easy it felt. In fact, I was trying to avoid sneaking glances at my watch because I couldn’t believe what it was telling me.

In an ideal world, the entire race would somehow take place in Jackson Park. Its perfect combination of paths and trees made for a beautiful run that at no point suggests you are in a bustling city. However, the race does eventually spill out to the popular lake front path, where it soars north for three miles before turning back toward the finish line. The sun was out in full force, rising over Lake Michigan to my right, not a single cloud daring to obscure it.

These paths were familiar to me. They are my long run courses, my Sunday morning ritual grounds. While I enjoyed the familiarity, there was a downside to knowing exactly where I was and how far I had left to run. I tried to not let unnecessary thoughts creep into my head – I’m usually dead tired when I reach this point – and focused instead on maintaining my relentless pace. The mental jukebox was cycling through power metal songs to keep my feet turning quickly. I kept picking new runners to pass, wondering how far away the 1:30 pace group was.

Finishing in 2009, my second half marathon ever.

Finishing in 2009, my second half marathon ever.

I realized at the turnaround that I had been running with a slight tailwind the entire time. While the breeze was welcome refreshment, it was enough to require a stronger push. Onwards I kicked.  Aid stations came and went and I was pulling unusual moves – skipping some stations completely, not walking at any of them, and dousing water on my head instead of drinking it.

I was hungry for this time. In recent years, my shift towards marathons has made me a little more complacent with my performance. With such a long distance, I’ve been a little more forgiving of under-performing. But as I snarled toward the finish line, I became reacquainted with that powerful animal instinct that seemed to consume me in those halcyon running years when almost every half marathon was a chance to push the engine to its bolt-busting limits.

Perhaps this really is my favorite distance, I thought. I miss this, a lot.

I ran back through the same paths, chasing the 1:30 pace group. Only on one occasion did I have to squeeze in between the runners coming toward me and a few early-morning walkers on the path. Cyclists were not terribly happy to have to defer so much path space to a large footrace, and more than one vocalized their discontent. A runner ahead of me, clad in a white bandana and green shorts, didn’t handle it so well. “On your left!” a cyclist barked and passed him. The runner then spat an expletive to his back and vigorously picked up the pace. There was no way he could have caught the cyclist, but he still shot out ahead of me with an ax to grind.

iPhone shutter speed made so that my mom captured my shadow about to finish.

iPhone shutter speed made so that my mom captured my shadow about to finish.

I kept my pace, conceding a few seconds per mile as the race continued. The sun was still out and the pace was starting to hurt. I felt less like a train moving powerfully and smoothly and more like I was dragging a rickshaw cart. Even so, I passed the runner with the white bandana and surged forward. A few miles from the finish, as we ran practically on the beach, the adrenaline that had been pumping through my chest and stomach suddenly felt a little thick, as if it were about to rise up and shoot out of my mouth. Time slowed and I was overcome with fear, annoyance and resignation. Was it finally going to happen? After so many races, was this the one where I’d literally leave it all out on the field?

But the moment passed. My stomach regained itself and I kept pounding the pavement towards the end. There was just one more road to navigate before the sharp turn into the finisher’s chute. A shirtless runner passed me, the only one besides the angry runner with the white bandana to do so since the first mile marker. He was cruising confidently so I didn’t give chase. But just then, as I ran under the red, shingled gate of the South Shore Cultural Center, White Bandana passed me. Not wanting to concede another place, I picked it up and for the third time in the race, left him behind me.

photo 5I looked at my watch and realized that the long-elusive goal was almost mine. The course reached the beach and I made the final turn, my eyes darting immediately to the digital clock above the finish line. I began celebrating, my arms springing into the air as I crossed the timing mats in 1:29:42, my first time ever under one hour and thirty minutes, my scream rising above the music and the announcer.

Once back in the VIP tent, I enjoyed a few celebratory beverages with my mom while sweat unceremoniously dripped off my shorts and soaked into the grass. My elation was not lost on her. Though she may not have understood every detail I rattled out about my performance, she knew I had done something special. I ran at a pace that would normally reduce me to a sputtered lurch by the fourth mile, yet somehow today it had felt easy for ten of them. Had I been holding back all these months? Was I capable of much faster? What if the weather had been ten degrees cooler and the course boasted fewer turns?

But I knew I wouldn’t have another shot at a speedy half marathon for a while, so I simply enjoyed my new accomplishment. This PR had not only broken through a psychological barrier, but renewed my interest in the half marathon and stoked the fires of confidence. There’s something about breaking new ground that can jolt you into dreaming the impossible.

Just how far into the 1:20s can I go now?

2014-131-marathon-chicago-medals

I want to thank the organizers of the 13.1 Marathon Chicago for inviting me to run their race, treating me like an elite athlete in the process. In addition to being a top-notch event, it was a day steeped in nostalgia and a chance to demonstrate how far I’ve come as a runner.

And now, it’s time to slow down.

State 39: Delaware (2014 Delaware Running Festival Marathon)

I was happy to be shivering.

Three years since her PR at Flying Pig -- CAN SHE DO IT?

Three years since her PR at Flying Pig — CAN SHE DO IT?

Laura and I walked from the Wilmington Westin to the starting line of the 2014 Delaware Running Festival Marathon, a short trip around the Christina River and toward Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park. The day before, I was flicking away sweat in the first mile of the Maryland Half Marathon and promptly spent the rest of the day assiduously drinking water. Had my legs not carted me across 13.1 relatively fast miles the day before, the cool breeze sliding through the thin fabric of my running outfit would have imbued me with tremendous confidence.

An hour later, I was on the road, chugging along at a relaxed pace. The opening miles weren’t terribly scenic and included a few long sections through the parking lot of the Westin, far from any shade or greens. But my biggest enemy in this race wouldn’t be the scenery as my mind had already begun to defy me.  At some point in tough races, a tiny voice starts to rise above the breathing and plodding of feet.  It usually surfaces around mile 22, but today its dastardly voice broke through the noise at the first mile marker.  It said:

This is going to suck at mile 14.

2014 Delaware Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2014 Delaware Marathon Google Earth Rendering

You see, the Delaware Marathon is a two-looped course. Laura was running only one loop, where every single turn would reveal new territory to conquer, with the very last revelation being the finish line. I would have to repeat all of it, which meant that I couldn’t help but constantly wonder how I would feel the next time I saw this mile marker. While stronger minds might be able to shield themselves from thinking of the second round, I wasn’t faring too well in ignoring the mile markers 14-25 peppered across the course.

Just before 5k, on the Riverfront

Just before 5k and 25k, on the Riverfront

To palliate my fears, the course quickly became very beautiful.  By the second mile we were running on the wet, wooden planks of the riverfront. They felt like rubber, springing softly below my feet, absorbing the impact. We followed the river to the starting line and then cut through the city of Wilmington, where we would abandon flat terrain for the rest of the loop. Despite being in the city proper, there weren’t many spectators.  We soon entered Brandywine Park, where under the peaceful canopy of trees, the temperature felt like it dropped ten degrees.

That tranquil pause in the chugging of legs and arms was interrupted when we crossed a cobblestone bridge and turned onto South Park Drive, where a mile-long hill made heart rates soar. Relay runners were happily flowing downhill and just up ahead was a friendly spectator with a Captain America shield that said “Press For Power.” Somewhere in the middle of the hill, I heard it again.

This is going to suck at mile 20.

Miles 3 and 16, by the Riverfront

Miles 3 and 16, by the Riverfront

At the top, I saw Laura’s parents. Over the last two days, they had hosted me at their home in Silver Spring and drove up to Wilmington to watch us run. From the moment you meet them you know they’re going to be a hoot. Not only is her mom a fun, charming woman, but you can almost hear the synapses in her mind firing a million times a second. In the scant 36 hours I had known her, I had answered a thousand earnest questions. Her dad, a person of much fewer words, is just as affable and welcoming (and surprised me by knowing more about Costa Rica’s economy and trade relations than I was ready to discuss). I smiled as I passed them.  Her mom was cheering so emphatically, she was practically squawking.

The next five miles were run through the neighborhoods of Highlands, Bancroft Parkway, Wawaset Park and Hilltop, with almost every single step having a tiny slope. I was by this point completely drenched in sweat and making sure to stop at every aid station. I kept looking for a mantra despite the mounting doubt in my head, like searching for a gummy bear in an anthill. And despite plentiful shade, it had become a warm day.

Miles 6 and 19, South Park Drive

Miles 6 and 19, South Park Drive, “the hill” everyone talks about

“Looking good, Larry,” I said as I passed an older runner. He was wearing a yellow shirt with a blue singlet on top that said “1,300 Marathons Larry,” power walking, slightly hunched under an orange cap and pumping his arms. It was Larry Macon, one of the most prolific marathoners in the world, who currently owns an un-ratified world record for most marathons run in a year (255), and continues to put all of our running accomplishments to shame.

Two downhill miles later, I was back in the city, with one hill left until the “finish” line. As I ran toward the crowds, I couldn’t help but think that I’d be happy to call it a day. I was already tired, had left a trail of sweat beads on the pavement since the start and would not have bet on a strong finish. I thought, if today were supposed to be just a half marathon, I would be proud of this time.  But instead, I reached the split and turned away from the roar at Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park and back onto the familiar road from earlier that morning.

Those first hundred steps were the worst.

Miles 9 and 22, through Wilmington neighborhoods

Miles 8 and 21, through Wilmington neighborhoods

I tried not to, but the inevitable rapid-fire slide show of the next 13.1 miles flashed in my head. Every turn and landmark, but most menacingly, every hill burst in a matter of seconds alongside shrill, staccato horns, like a flashback to a war. That might be inappropriately hyperbolic, but it really was demoralizing. The first half wasn’t the sweet and easy jog that I was expecting, to the point that my mind was ready to check out.

I know myself and how I function. With this sweat rate at this point in the race, I can all but guarantee a disastrous second half. Why did I think I could comfortably keep this pace for this long? Why can’t I ever just run the race I’m supposed to run and not push it? And think of the sunburn I’m going to get …

There is much to be said about the power of the mind over the body. There is certainly no shortage of inspirational running bumper stickers that tout how a variable percentage – but usually more than half – of the effort is mental. I’ve never really known whether this is just a fun platitude to believe in or if it holds its weight in a lab. But let this post serve as anecdotal evidence of the exact opposite situation. The mind certainly can affect the body in numerous, wondrous ways. But on May 11, 2014 in Wilmington, Delaware, I ran my twenty-third marathon and watched in disbelief as my body overcame my weak, jellied mind.

Miles 9 and 22 in Hilltop, far from the cover of trees

Miles 9 and 22 in Hilltop, far from the cover of trees

My legs, heart and lungs were not paying attention to the quailing voice in my head. They continued onward, ticking off the miles. Though I wasn’t running that much faster, the distance between mile markers seemed shorter. It was as if my body had effectively shut off my brain and its powers of perception, allowing me to simply execute forward locomotion. I had become a machine, steaming past runners and spectators with a steely gaze. There were no more distractions, no more moments of quiet introspection or sightseeing. I had taken pictures in the first half of the race, but for that second loop, my camera was firmly clutched in my left hand, not to see any more daylight until I was done. The part of me that would have enjoyed that had been silenced.

South Park Drive would have one more go at shattering my momentum. During this climb I ran the slowest 5k of the race and it was looking likely that my body was going to join my quivering mind. But every moment of despair was followed by a surge of easy speed. I cruised through the dew-drenched neighborhoods and over the sun-burnt roads of Hilltop, passing everyone I saw ahead of me. Under normal circumstances, I would have covered those miles fraught with concern over the inevitable bonk, but today I had stuffed that poltroon perspective in a paper cup and tossed it at an aid station many miles ago.

Miles 12 and 25, through the city, and the final climb of the race

Miles 12 and 25, through the city, and the final climb of the race

Instead, I ran from 35k to 40k in my fastest split of the race, aided by a long downhill and the pull of the finish line. Once back in the city there was just one hill left to scale before the irresistible finish line. Still on auto-pilot, I was powerless to object.  It was only until I crossed the finish line in just under 3:38 and heard the announcer say my name that I felt normal, human again. It’s a good thing this metamorphosis happened when it did because right as I got my finisher’s medal, I felt someone jab me.

“Hey, you might not remember me,” he said to the back of my head. I turned around and instantly recognized him. “Andy the Pacer!” I yelled before he could get another word out. We had met over two years ago in Little Rock, where he paced (and entertained with frequent trivia) the 3:45 group, with whom I ran for twelve miles in completely new clothes and shoes before taking off to earn an unexpected PR. For that reason, I will always hold a special place in my running books for him.

0511_1_delawaremarathon 230511_1_delawaremarathon 27

Laura continued her PR streak with a 1:52 finish, going 4 for 4 and confirming that I am her lucky half marathon rabbit’s foot. After the race we made our way to a Mother’s Day barbecue hosted by her extended family in a nearby neighborhood, where I became happily acquainted with northeastern hospitality and half of the charming genes that led to her incredibly affable and lovable personality. A few hours later, I was back on the road towards Baltimore, ready to fly home smiling.

2014-delaware-marathon-elevation-chart

I have faced time and time again the difficult truth that strength and confidence in long distance running, much like the elevation chart above, exist in a wave form. There are months where nagging pains and tiny setbacks make intense training feel like a chore. But there are also spans of time when everything feels easy, effortless and that the body’s limits can easily bend to your will. At the end of the Delaware Marathon, I felt strong, powerful, and incredibly optimistic about the rest of the year’s challenges. The last few months have had their aches and pains, but as I finished my 39.3 mile weekend averaging an 8:07 pace with almost 3,000 feet of vertical change, I felt incredible.

Now I just have to make sure, as my mom advises, to not overdo it. Because running two and a half marathons in ten days is certainly not that.

Marathon_Map 049 (DE)

 

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