The Meb Mob: 2015 Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon

The morning of July 19, 2015 was very sticky. Intense thunderstorms had ravaged Chicago a few days prior in brief, but powerful bursts, with temperatures rising and dropping like the needle of a Richter scale. So as I walked to the Team Chance Charity Tent, I knew instantly that I would run the day’s half marathon at a conservative pace, perhaps throwing in a tempo mile or two. With the humidity reaching an uncomfortable level and sweat oozing out of my pores by just walking, it was a no-brainer. But as I neared the speakers of the starting line, I heard something that would change the day’s plan.

“And today we have US Olympic Silver Medalist and 2014 Boston Marathon Champion Meb Keflezighi pacing the 1:30 half marathon group.”

Well, shit.

How many times do you get a chance to run with the gods of the sport? Last year I caught a quick glimpse of the elfin Shalane Flanagan as she stomped through a few pre-race strides near our orange charity tent, but I didn’t get to run with her. She was blazing the trail 20 minutes ahead of me, ultimately winning the women’s race. This year, the organizers brought a professional speed demon and national hero not to compete, but to participate with the throngs of competitive amateur runners like me. There was no way I could pass up the opportunity.

Of course, that didn’t mean that Meb’s 1:30 pace sign waved away the moisture in the air or lowered the mercury, which had reached 80 before any of us had heard the starter’s siren. It was by far one of the warmest starts to a half marathon in recent memory, destined to be a race where it feels like your skin is melting into your shoes. A few minutes before the start, a group of volunteers escorted Meb into my corral, just a few people ahead of me. I knew he wouldn’t be tall, but it was still surprising to see just how short most elite marathoners are. As soon as he arrived, the corral buzzed with energy and he instantly began chatting with the fawning runners around him.

2015 Chicago Rock n Roll Weekend Chicago, Il     July 18-19, 2015 Photo: Victah Sailer@PhotoRun Victah1111@aol.com 631-291-3409 www.photorun.NET

That’s me in the very back with the red sleeveless shirt
Photo credit: Victah Sailer@PhotoRun, Victah1111@aol.com, 631-291-3409, http://www.photorun.NET

I decided early that there was no way I could run the entire race with him. My half marathon PR is 1:29:42, so to run just one second per mile slower would require near perfect conditions. So for the first four city-lined miles, which cut through River North, State Street, and both the Theater and Financial districts, I stayed within three people of the indefatigable Meb Keflezighi, winner of the 2009 New York City and 2014 Boston Marathons, 2004 Olympic Silver Medalist, and all-around nice guy. He was as gregarious as I expected, talking to multiple runners at any given time, sometimes in Spanish, but always with an optimistic, cheery tone. Having defied the odds by staying strong and remarkably consistent well into his late 30s and now early 40s, he’s already a running legend.

There was a veritable peloton surrounding Meb, which I called the “Meb Mob,” with runners weaving in and out of the core to try and get a quick chat with the Eritrean-born athlete. As we reached mile 4, he was in the middle of regaling a nearby runner with stories of last year’s Boston Marathon. I decided then that I couldn’t continue this pace much longer without suffering an early bonk. So after four memorable miles, I decided to slam the brakes.

2015 Chicago Rock n Roll Weekend Chicago, Il     July 18-19, 2015 Photo: Victah Sailer@PhotoRun Victah1111@aol.com 631-291-3409 www.photorun.NET

Again, me in the back in the red.
Photo credit: Victah Sailer@PhotoRun, Victah1111@aol.com, 631-291-3409, http://www.photorun.NET

The Meb Mob pulled ahead and I reduced my speed to my original goal of 8-minute miles. I was already drenched in sweat and more fatigued than I hope to be so early in a half marathon, so now it was time to simply endure. Almost immediately, every runner behind me zipped by as they continued their strong surge to finish in the 1:30s.

The next three miles took place within the city of Chicago, which featured more skyscrapers than spectators or bands. I don’t care much for on-course entertainment or distractions, but the sparse crowds and musical acts seemed to clash with the Rock ‘n Roll brand of event production. This was supposed to be a raucous party with fans and electric guitars competing for screams. In fact, the Expo the day before featured a soundtrack more akin to a rave than a rock concert, and the headlining act for the post-race party was Andy Grammer. I realize that rock songs in the Billboard Hot 100 are like parents at a prom, but it’s still disappointing to hear an EDM-remix of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” strung out across a half mile stretch of speakers where last year I heard Metallica’s “Sad But True.”

The first six miles of the course were unchanged from last year.

The first six miles of the course were unchanged from last year.

I kept my pace through the next three miles, which run down South Michigan Avenue, away from the city. There would be no more crowds until the end of the race, save for volunteers at aid stations and a few gimmicky entertainment spots. I could hear squishing sounds all around me as we continued hammering the pavement on waterlogged shoes. The sun was out, rising before us as we headed east towards Lake Michigan. The next aid station seemed a bit threadbare, which spelled doom for slower runners. Without a volunteer to hand me a cup, I ran to the table and picked one up only to taste Gatorade in its purest, least diluted state. Though I clenched my cheeks and puckered for about a minute, it must have helped because I wasn’t feeling as gassed as I was when I left the city. In fact, I began to notice that I was no longer being passed. My consistent 8-minute pace was now the speed of the drained, flagging runners who had gone out too fast in the first half.

Just before we reached Lake Michigan, the course turned left, back toward the city. This is where I was treated to a good four minutes of Whitney Houston, which I only appreciated for the lyric “I wanna feel the heat” because the damp, warm air had slithered into my clothes. What little shade there was would soon be compensated by the McCormick Center service tunnel, which was bedecked in psychedelic colors, strobe lights and thundering speakers. It made that energy-pulling void a little more bearable, especially since it heralds the final 1.5 mile dash to the finish. Once out and under the race’s iconic inflatable guitar player’s crotch, we visited the last aid station before jumping on Columbus Drive.

It was a beautiful day for existing. Not as ideal for running 13.1 miles.

It was a beautiful day for existing. Not as ideal for running 13.1 miles.

The finish line beckoned, almost 0.7 miles down a straight line. All around the banner were trees, and behind them the city’s imposing skyscrapers erupting out of the ground. It was challenging to know when to start kicking here because everything ahead felt like a mirage and so much farther than expected. But I had covered the last mile at a tempo pace, so I felt comfortable in my new speed. I looked at my watch and saw I was close to finishing under 1:40, so I turned on the afterburners and pulled ahead of everyone I could see. The crowds got thicker, lining the seven-lane Columbus Drive until it was a deafening roar of cheers. I pushed all the way to the finish, leaving behind me a trail of salt and sweat, stopping the clock of my third Rock ‘n Roll Chicago Half Marathon at 1:39:12.

It took me about forty minutes to cool down. I drank cold water, filled a damp towel with ice and rested it on my head, stood still in a southbound breeze – nothing was effective at halting the mutinous sweat from escaping every pore. I sat in the shade and let my heart rate lower, dabbed water on my ears and rubbed a cold sponge on my forehead. Eventually, but very slowly, I began to feel fine.

Team Chance

Team Chance

But though I might have been uncomfortable during the race and a little afterward, I made it out okay. For some people, this isn’t always the case. In the McCormick Tunnel, I saw a group of medical officials huddling around a runner who was lying on the dark pavement, looking shell-shocked and distant. But even he would still turn out alright. Some families don’t have this guarantee. This year, I was honored to be invited back as the running coach for the Jackson Chance Foundation, who once again assembled a lively and supportive charity team for the race. The foundation raises funds for families in the neonatal intensive care unit so they can afford the parking and public transit necessary to spend more time in the hospital with their critically ill infant. It’s an incredibly noble and generous initiative that provides real, direct and tangible help to those enduring incredibly painful situations.

For more information on the charity or to donate, please visit www.jacksonchance.org.

Post Race: Media Maratón Correcaminos 2015 (Costa Rica)

Most people – Americans mostly – have a hard time fathoming that addresses don’t exist in Costa Rica.

It’s true. The traditional concept of addresses that most people understand and learn at a very young age – a unit number, building name, street name, city and zip code – does not exist there. This singular realization drops more jaws and raises infinitely more eyebrows than the awe-inspiring fact that the country has 5% of the world’s biodiversity in spite of having only 0.03% of the surface. Or that the country abolished its army in 1949. Or that over a quarter of its land is protected national parks and sanctuaries.

Those astounding figures seem to pale against the incredulous notion that if you want to mail something by post, you have to literally write out long-form descriptors of where the letter is going. In other words, instead of writing “123 Main Street” on an envelope, you would pen “400 meters west of the Santo Domingo Supermarket, House with Green Fence.” On the surface, this sounds insane (and some news outlets have written hilarious articles on the topic). But think about it: before the awesome power of GPS was breathed into our phones, the average address wouldn’t really get you anywhere unless you already had a detailed understanding of an area.

Without the omniscient power of Google Maps, “5170 Forest Avenue, Eugene, OR 97405” wouldn’t mean anything to you. Sure, it’s a place in Oregon, but without a map or an atlas, you’ll have some trouble finding it. But remember what it was like when your parents had to drive you to your friend’s house for the first time? The conversation they had, where they mapped out where each road was and shared common knowledge of major landmarks, is exactly what the addresses are still like in Costa Rica. So, in a way, an address is just a code that you have to decipher. Costa Ricans just choose to write out the answer and if you want to know where anything is, just ask the post office.

So, it is with reverence for my native country’s silly quirk that I will describe the 2015 Media Maratón Correcaminos experience.

From la Plaza de Deportes in Tres Ríos, 6.4 km west, towards Curridabat.

Km 0: Over three thousand runners line up in Tres Ríos

Zero-k: Over three thousand runners line up in Tres Ríos

Although the race begins at 6 am, it’s already very bright in Cartago. The sun typically rises even before 5 am in the Central Valley’s damp and chilly morning, which means the cool air won’t last for much longer. Though the temperature is perfect for me, I can see most everyone else in thin jackets and tights, some even shivering as the humid chill slithers into the eager crowd’s bright orange race shirts. I can’t help but smirk – many of these runners don’t know true cold.

A few minutes after 6, the race hasn’t started yet, which prompts many runners to begin whistling and taunting the organizers. In the US, runners merely glance at their watches with the occasional eyeroll or scoff. Here, it was a party, replete with yells of “demole!” I fondly remember this part of the race from the last time I ran it three years ago because it is a humorous showcase of the Costa Rican culture of pura vida. Not longer after, we are released into the curved roads of Tres Ríos, beginning our 21-kilometer journey to the heart of San José.

5k: The first four miles feature a lot of elevation loss

5k: The first four miles feature a lot of elevation loss

The first four miles are all downhill. There are a few spectators out, lining the chipped sidewalks, but for the most part it’s a sleepy morning punctuated by the bright orange rush of runners. I scream through those opening miles at a 10k pace, lunging past dogs barking in small front yards, knowing that it’s going to get much tougher in a half hour. We will head west for almost the entire race, which means the brisk winds at our back won’t provide much of a cooling effect. My shirt clings to my chest; I can already tell it’s going to be a sweaty day.

6.5k: Curri is in the distance, with most of the downhill behind me

6.5k: Curri is in the distance, with most of the downhill behind me

I pass the first aid station during a particularly steep descent and grab a boli. Instead of water cups, races in Costa Rica tend to have sealed plastic bags full of water about the size of a small baton. Although they’re not the most environmentally friendly feature of the race, they are convenient for runners who want to hydrate, but not at that particular point. It takes some getting used to – especially since you are very likely to spill most of it into your nose the first time you try to bite into one.

From POPS Curridabat, 1 km south until you reach Multi Plaza del Este and Zapote

0705_correcaminos 07Curridabat is a neighborhood of San José that I used to cross often to see friends. It was also briefly where I would go to the dentist, so I have deep feelings about the area that stir my subconscious in occasionally unpleasant ways. But today, it is the site of the first flat stretch of running, along with the first climb. The sun has just burnt through the morning cloud cover and I can feel it singeing my neck. I’m already dripping sweat with every step and with the wind as an escort, I don’t feel any of it evaporating.

Once at the top, runners turn south and descend towards the least scenic part of the race. Most of the next three miles cut through urban commercial strips and highways, which are complete eyesores when compared to the majestic cerros de Escazú squeezing out of the Earth in the distance. The course makes up for these grey tones with another three miles of a nearly constant downhill grade. Thick clouds crawl over the mountains to the northeast and I immediately feel strong again.

After you pass la Clínica Santa Rita, go through la Asamblea Legislativa and around el Parque Nacional to reach Avenida Primera.

14k: Running through la Asamblea Legislativa in the heart of San José

14k: Running through la Asamblea Legislativa in the heart of San José

My confidence is tested as the course slowly bends upward. We are in the heart of San José, staring at a gradual uphill that passes many cultural landmarks. Were this not the most grueling part of the race, I would stop to enjoy the palm trees lining the plaza of the historic Asamblea Legislativa or the Museo Nacional. Everyone around me, despite having far more experience with the heat, altitude and humidity, is also gassed. I keep yo-yoing with many runners around me as I stop to take pictures. A group of percussionists plays at the edge of the Parque Nacional and their punchy, tribal rhythms drive me forward.

15k: Paseo Colón points a straight line toward La Sabana and the finish line

15k: Paseo Colón points a straight line toward La Sabana and the finish line

Once on Avenida Primera, it’s almost a straight line toward la Sabana, where the race ends. The road is not only ever so imperceptibly downhill, but it is as uneven as lumpy mashed potatoes. Each step is a surprise and I find myself raising my sunglasses to keep a very close eye on the asphalt to avoid rolling an ankle. Block after block of concrete buildings pass as if on a conveyor belt until we reach el Hospital Nacional de Niños in the historic Paseo Colón. I reach the four lane road, which during December is an explosion of festive lights, and feel the pull of the finish line.

Upon reaching the end of Paseo Colón, go once around La Sabana metropolitan park.

17k: Runners round La Sabana, with el Museo de Arte being the first landmark.

17k: Runners round La Sabana, with el Museo de Arte being the first landmark.

La Sabana is like San José’s Central Park, a large, sylvan park in the middle of a bustling city. I am greeted by the Museo de Arte Costarricense, a Spanish-style landmark that used to be the country’s main airport. The 2.5-mile perimeter features a gym, a track, pools, a lagoon, various running paths, baseball diamonds and soccer pitches. Inaugurated in 2011 and located in the northwest corner is el Estadio Nacional, which looks like a combination of clamshell and Stegosaurus. As I round the stadium around 19.3 kilometers, I face east for the first time in the race and feel the wind push against me like a river. Everyone around me hits a wall as we try and wade through the current. With just over a kilometer left, crowds emerge on the street and the edge of the park becomes a party. Once back at el Museo de Arte, I follow the runners ahead of me into the park itself.

Deliver medal to exhausted runner with Bib 188.

20k: Not even el Estadio Nacional could hold the winds back

20k: Not even el Estadio Nacional could hold the winds back

The final stretch is tricky because the road is a sort of cobblestone path, which makes sprinting a risky feat. I unleash my last energy stores and skip toward the finish line almost on my toes, stopping the clock at 1:34:37. I look like I opted for a detour into La Sabana’s lagoon, my feet squishing in my shoes with every step. But in spite of the humidity and altitude, I managed a significant improvement from three years ago. Just a few strides away from the finish line, I wolf down my post-race gallo pinto and fruit before walking back to the finish line to see my friends finish. José improves his PR at his second half marathon by a few minutes and Gabriel reaches the finish line of the longest footrace he’s ever completed. If I keep converting my friends to the sport, I’ll soon have a real following.

21.1k: La meta!

21.1k: La meta!

In recent years, Costa Rica has made some real efforts at instituting a system of addresses. The concern is real: in emergencies, it’s much easier to say three quick words (“123 Main Street”) than guide an ambulance or a squad car to your exact location. The untold amounts of undelivered parcels also add up to lost business, missed opportunities and an overall lack of efficiency. However, if you ask the average tico/a, you’ll find that they’re perfectly happy with how they get around, even if it means referring to landmarks or businesses that no longer exist.

You might laugh at the notion of saying “By the old higuerón tree” but it’s not too far from referring to the Willis Tower as the Sears Tower or saying “Comiskey Park” when today it’s US Cellular Field. In both cases, you’re finding common cultural and historical ground to map out a city, tapping into your brain’s ability to translate a 2D concept into the real world, which is increasingly becoming a rare talent as more people rely on smart phones.

(left to right): Me, José, Gabriel

(left to right): Me, José, Gabriel

Directions in Costa Rica are a charming vestige of the past, much like record players and encyclopedias. They remind us of a time when places had a greater sense of community and gathering. Music was localized, as record players didn’t exist in cars or phones. Encyclopedias and libraries weren’t crammed into every digital machine and required travel and intent. An address was a journey, a sort of mini-puzzle that involved active listening, perception and awareness. Reaching your destination felt rewarding because navigating a byzantine grid of unnamed streets could actually challenge you.

So it’s nice to know some echoes of bygone times still exist, often resistant to change. They may not be very helpful or logical in today’s fast-paced society, but they provide opportunities to see the world around us, engage with people and remember a time when we couldn’t know every answer with a casual swipe of a finger.

These days, if something isn’t on Google Maps, it’s almost as if it doesn’t exist. But if you ask around and want to explore, you’ll soon find your way.

Heavenly Gaits: Running as a Religion

“Without constant renewal, what he had experienced at the monastery would vanish. Otherwise, for the rest of his life, he would awake in the morning with the same tendencies, the same desires, the same sins that he conquered only the day before. Only a return each day to the monastery would save him. Running, I told the reporter, is just such a monastery – a retreat, a place to commune with God and yourself, a place for psychological and spiritual renewal.” – George Sheehan, running author and guru

I try to keep this blog very focused. It is almost exclusively about running and rarely do I use it as a vessel to ruminate on life’s big questions, or to sort through personal issues. Unless those big questions arise during a footrace, I don’t let political leanings or any deep-held convictions enter this space in any direct, unequivocal way. I’ve often nudged certain viewpoints into posts with harmless disguises, but never with a provocative intent. If anything, I expose my worldview with more gusto in comments I leave on other blogs.

And yet, if all you know about me is what you’ve read here, you probably know a lot about what makes me tick. I like to run, I’m kind of fast, I love to use races as a stand-in for visiting friends and family and I often combine a big race with a chance to try the local cuisine. But what do I think of the social safety net? Do I have a stance on gun control? On federalism, foreign wars, the public school system or the Vatican? For the most part, I’ve stayed away from opening any floodgates because I know it can turn some people off. In many cases, big picture topics don’t really fit in a space largely reserved for describing the marathon experience. Plus, I want my running stories to speak for themselves. And yet I know this kind of thematic quarantine is unrealistic – sooner or later, you’ll get to really know someone. I’ve simply decided to avoid that here.

And then one day, toward the end of a long run, I followed an interesting thought. It led me through a thorny reverie and I came out the other side confused, frustrated, but intrigued. I took these lingering feelings and, over the last month, wrote and fastidiously re-wrote this post. We’re still talking about running, as I always will on this space, but with a new approach. To encourage a thoughtful discussion on the topic, we first have to journey back to my childhood.

Genesis

You see, I’m not exactly what you’d call a religious person. Not surprisingly, this is largely due to my upbringing. My father was always very critical of organized religion and my mother never had much of an opinion on the topic. Although her side of the family was equally ambivalent, his was a fascinating combination of conflicting views. My grandfather, who we called Lelo, was a Freemason who would sit with his arms crossed at mass and grumble, while my grandmother Lela was very pious and likely sat toward the front. As a child, whenever we would visit our native Costa Rica, I would spend most of my time at their house, as Lela was practically my best friend. I fondly recall playing piano in her living room while she would bring me strawberry milk in brightly colored, wide-lipped tin glasses.

Left to right: Lela, me, Lelo, my sister Adri (circa 1986)

Left to right: Lela, me, Lelo, my sister Adri (circa 1986)

Thanks to her, I learned to read at a very young age, which made me very quick with a book in kindergarten. Every weekend, we would visit the cathedral in Alajuela and take a stroll through the park that served as its front yard. She would let me pick one tiliche (Costa Rican for “doohickey” or “plaything”) from one of the many merchants during these visits and I would spend the weekend playing with it. Every night we would pray together and I soon learned to recite Our Fathers and Hail Marys in Spanish. She was a very loving and kind woman, even as she slowly succumbed to breast cancer when I was just seven. I learned a lot from Lela, but despite her piety and the nightly blessings, I never bought into Catholicism. I was more interested in the cathedral’s cupola than the guy nailed to the cross beneath it.

Growing up, my family would go to church only for weddings and funerals. During these visits, I would be fascinated by the opulent and imposing architecture of cathedrals and churches, but I never achieved any spiritual resonance. I attended Sunday school very briefly, but I suspect that was just because my mom wanted me to spend less time in the basement playing video games. Around the same time, a friend invited me to an all-night lock-in at a Go-Kart and Video Game emporium in Atlanta, where you could drive all night and all the arcade games were free. I practically salivated at the invitation and could scarcely believe it. I was soon dismayed upon learning that we had to first listen to a series of sermons at his local church, sing popular songs with a religious spin (i.e., “Walk Like a Christian”) and discuss catechism in small groups before a single engine could be revved. But I put up with all of it for the chance to play Mortal Kombat and Daytona USA for hours without coughing up any hard-earned quarters.

It wasn’t until much later in life that I suspected that the whole thing was a deliberately orchestrated parable for the Christian experience.

As a teen, I had always described myself as “spiritual, non-religious,” as I had felt my fair share of sublime inspiration through the muses of art, laughter and loved ones. But even in college, where the vicissitudes of higher education, boundless freedom to explore and the incredible distance from home encourage many young people to soul search, I only went to mass once, and it was literally to “coincidentally” bump into a girl. Much to my delight, we ended up getting lunch together afterward. I didn’t believe that this fortuitous date was thanks to divine, cosmic influence but I was still far from hard-line atheism. My journal entries at the time, written during years fraught with anxiety about girls and finding a job, routinely invoke a higher power, usually in a supplicant, pleading tone. Whenever a friend would call himself an atheist, I would dismiss it as a juvenile act of teenage rebellion, similar to getting a nose piercing or a tattoo of your favorite band. Even to me, the word “atheist” had a certain sting to it. I didn’t subscribe to this religion or that one, but part of me bought into the idea of a supreme being. I blame this on movies, books, and joining a fraternity established in Virginia.

Call it cultural osmosis but the idea of God was too entrenched in the world around me to ignore.

Exodus

But then after graduation, out in the real world, I had a change of heart. Once out of the nurturing bubble of college, I began immersing myself in current events and didn’t like what I found. World affairs were being framed as a cosmic battle between religious forces; the Intelligent Design curriculum was weaseling its way into school classrooms; Islamic fundamentalists were stoking the fires of long-standing, internecine conflicts in the Middle East; the Vatican was being plagued with unspeakable scandals involving priests and minors; Scientology was reaching new heights of exposure and ignominy; and congressmen were citing Biblical scripture to justify legislation that would threaten women’s access to health services. On and on the list went. I voraciously read books on the topic, from confrontational atheists Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins to religious scholars Bart Ehrman, Reza Aslan and Noah Feldman, ultimately coming to the conclusion that we have one life to live, governed by chaos, and little else. In the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, I decided that it was an error “to think of any afterlife or any reincarnation we are bound for as more extraordinary than finding ourselves here in the first place.”

Religion had never played a large role in my life, so I decided to take the next step and make it official by identifying as an atheist.

Seriously, this game was fun. Incredibly difficult, but fun.

Seriously, this game was fun. Incredibly difficult, but fun.

It wasn’t a life-altering epiphany but more a concrete establishment of lingering thoughts. As a child, I became obsessed with Battle of Olympus, a side-scrolling adventure game for the original Nintendo where the player parleys with the gods and fights monsters. It led me to a book by Bernard Evslin on the Greek myths, which I loved so much I finished it in just a few hours. I suspected that, at some point in time, these stories might have been canonical and revered as the true origins of the universe. I didn’t know anything at the time about Allah, Yahweh, Baal, Vishnu or Odin but I was fully immersed in the trials of Zeus, Poseidon and Hades. So I asked my dad, what would happen to average Christians if they met Zeus upon dying? He answered stoically, I don’t know, but that’s a possibility.

So at a young age, I felt that the idea of a supreme being, just by virtue of having such a diverse array of options, was unlikely but not impossible. But once out of college, I began abandoning the idea completely and embracing the staggering privilege of being alive, as a human, in this day and age. I shed all belief in spirits, souls, the afterlife, even ghosts. I wasn’t faced with a traumatic event or made painfully aware of the bleakness of the world, as many critics of atheism attest. I simply decided that none of it made any sense to me. The world was real, physical, and our lives were the sum of an infinite weave of choices and random events. While some might think this is a cold view, I found it profoundly liberating and empowering. I was in control of my life, my attitudes and actions.

At almost exactly the same time, I began running.

It started with just a few runs a week, as if I were getting to know the congregation. But once I fully baptized myself in the sport, I had created a regimented structure that would govern many parts of my life. Even today, running has a huge say in how I devise my weekly, yearly, and even lifetime schedule (I’ve often told people that my lifelong goal is to be able to run ten miles at the drop of a hat, regardless of age). So once again, I found myself asking questions: did my rise in running happen as a consequence of abandoning the last vestige of faith? Had I replaced one with the other? And if so, how is the running culture similar to a religion?

The Gospel of Running

In the fall of 2011, I was at the ING New York City Marathon expo with my friend Baxter. As we navigated the many booths of exotic races and unusual goods, I was surprised to hear almost every language imaginable. The field was extraordinarily foreign, made apparent by the myriad colorful flags draped over svelte bodies. It was Baxter’s first experience at a marathon expo, which he very accurately compared to a stroll through Diagon Alley, the fictional commercial street in Harry Potter lore. As much as I laughed at the comparison, it was the first real indication that I was part of a peculiar community with its own customs, gatherings and language. He must have felt like a foreigner walking through a bazaar or attending the ritualistic mass of a cult.

A few years later, I made a list of similarities. There was certainly no shortage of people likening marathon runners to members of a cult, so I decided to ask myself the obvious question: are there enough similarities to call running a religion? Ken Chitwood, PhD and religious scholar, says that “in many ways, running is a new form of religious asceticism complete with its own ascetic disciplines, literature, fellowship, shrines, meditative practices and proselytizing prophets and priests.”

In the list below, I’ve taken a similar approach to the sport and gone a little beyond Chitwood’s scope to determine just how closely I could connect the two spheres of life.

Dean Karnazes at the 2011 Chicago Marathon Expo

Dean Karnazes at the 2011 Chicago Marathon Expo

Disciples. A few booths away, surrounded by acolytes, I found the famous ultramarathoner and fitness advocate Dean Karnazes, whose fierce advocacy for fitness rivals his impressive feats of ultra-athleticism. He, along with expo staples Scott Jurek and Ryan Hall, are three of the sport’s many disciples, spreading the Gospel of Running from race to race (with Hall doing double duty by spreading the original Gospel in the process). There are many ultrarunners who point to super-athletes like Karnazes, Jurek and Pam Reed as having “converted” them to the sport.

Gods. But in addition to spreading the word, these figures and many others also represent the god-like core of running’s idols. We buy their books, eat their recipes, follow their programs, and cheer for them at competitions. Since we constantly squabble over who is supreme – some say it’s Gebrselassie, others vouch for Zátopek – perhaps it’s safe to say running is polytheistic. It also hurts tremendously when doping allegations surface and we learn that their superhuman status might have been unfairly achieved.

madison-outlineClothing. Much like Mormons have sacred temple garments and weekly churchgoers don their Sunday best, runners also drape themselves in curious garb when practicing. We eschew cotton in favor of moisture-wicking fabrics, we prefer our shorts to live up to their name, our forearms and calves are hugged by tight, brightly colored sleeves, and we equip ourselves with a variety of devices from heart rate monitors to GPS watches, fuel belts, and performance earbuds. Some trail runners shed almost all clothing save for shoes and shorts, the most notable of which is Tony Krupicka, who bears a slight resemblance to Christianity’s Jesus.

Rituals. Among the countless rituals runners perform (stretching, eating specific pre-run foods, post-run burgers), one towers above the rest. We spend our weekends, in the words of top American marathoner Shalane Flanagan, at the Church of Sunday Long Run. This grueling weekly task is an indispensable arrow in the runner’s quiver and is rarely skipped. We adhere to it with the strictest discipline, as if forgoing it would invoke the ire of our lactic threshold. It also forms the inner sanctum of our entire weekend plan, likely determining if we go out the night before and whether we’ll have enough energy for the rest of the day. Many people join running groups and meet the same friendly faces every Sunday, congregating in large, happy groups in parks and neighborhoods worldwide.

Medals and Beer, earned at the finish line

Medals and Beer, sacraments earned at the finish line

Sacrament. Every weekend, thousands of runners around the world receive blessing in the form of a finisher’s medal. In an act of transubstantiation, the trinket of metal, plastic, glass, clay or wood becomes more than just the sum of its materials the moment it is given to us. In those long seconds between heaves, the sweat-soaked award becomes an inseparable part of us as it swings below our chins and delicately bumps our frantic hearts. We wear it for the rest of the day like a rosary and some of us erect a monument in our homes so that all may see our dedication.

Prayer. The Islamic practice of salat requires that Muslims pray five times a day in the direction of Mecca. Christians routinely say grace before meals or at their bedside as a way to commune with god and keep in his good graces. If we frame the sport as a religion, then running itself is the act of praying. Anyone going through taper madness will testify that not running feels tantamount to apostasy, so many of us try to log miles as often as possible to stay close to the sport we love. Runners in the throes of their most intense weeks might start in the morning, rack up some miles during their lunch break, and end the day with an evening shake-off run. God is usually described as perfect, and by praying we get closer to him. With every run, we strive to achieve prime fitness, that elusive, “perfect” version of ourselves that will escort us to a new PR.

Scott Jurek, vegan and ultrarunner extraordinaire.

Scott Jurek, vegan and ultrarunner extraordinaire.

Diet. The Jewish laws of Kashrut govern what its adherents should not eat. Many Hindus do not eat beef out of respect for cows. Catholics are encouraged to avoid meat on Fridays and fast during the high holidays of Holy Week. Many runners, meanwhile, eat or snack ritualistically a set number of times per day and routinely lambast certain foods that everyone should avoid, such as anything deep fried or fat-free. A small sub-culture of runners also preaches the Gospel of veganism, some even finishing 100-mile races on a strict, fruitarian diet. In fact, it isn’t entirely off base to say that runners are more abstemious than serious followers of religious dogma.

Pilgrimage. Every year, many Costa Ricans walk to the Basílica de los Ángeles in Cartago to honor and give thanks to a black statue of the Virgin Mary in what is known as la romería (the pilgrimage). This happens all over the world, from Spain to Mexico and Mecca. Far beyond the obvious parallel of runners crossing long distances on foot, many choose to earn their place in the sport’s most prominent and prestigious pilgrimage: that of qualifying for and ultimately racing the Boston Marathon. Like a pilgrim kissing a sacred statue, many runners reach the blue and yellow finish line on Boylston Street with equal fervor, earning a runner’s high than no other race can impart.

Many argue that trail running allows a closer communion with nature than standard road racing.

Many argue that trail running allows a much closer communion with nature than standard road racing.

Movements. Like most major faiths, running as an activity, sport and hobby exists in many different forms. Beyond the separation of road and track, there are trail runners who seldom touch asphalt, road runners that keep their fleet feet on flat pavement, weekend warriors who participate in non-chip timed fun runs, Hashers, Mud Runners, Obstacle Racers and Tough Mudders. All of these running incarnations come with their own creeds, temples and adherents, each no less effusive about the sport than the rest. Though no group openly disparages the others, it is not uncommon to hear trailheads bemoan the harshness of asphalt, or roadrunners vent their frustrations at seeing their times plunge in dense woods.

Up until now, I’ve stuck largely to comparisons that outline the daily habits or customs of runners and how they stack up as a religion. It has been what I consider a playful list, one that wouldn’t be out of place in Buzzfeed or Mashable. However, there are key characteristics that elevate the conversation and they deal with the personal and controversial elements that unearth the convictions beneath each topic.

The Flock

2012-0304 little-rock-marathonRunners are often vilified or at least chastised because they tend to speak at length about their sport. So it makes sense that when two runners bump into each other, they gab endlessly about their shoes, the most recent race they ran and favorite drills until everyone around them has moved to another table. As a community, we are a rich, international tapestry of athletes from all walks of life with millions of telling origin stories. We find common ground and become instant friends just by name dropping a unique race and even welcome strangers into our homes exclusively because they know the hardship of running 26.2 miles.

But this community can become an echo chamber. If anyone says running is bad for your knees, we rally against them with a collective scoff. Every time someone gives us that concerned look as we ice our joints on the couch for the third time in a month, we shrug it off and assure them it’s nothing to worry about. Whenever a scientist publishes a study suggesting that running marathons may be damaging to our hearts, we brandish our foam rollers and march as a garrison, declaring that the research methods and samples must be flawed. By surrounding ourselves with like-minded followers, we inoculate ourselves against criticism, especially since exercise is rarely frowned upon.

Religion has a similar stickiness. When people are surrounded by others of the same faith, they are less likely to question their beliefs. Unlike movies, music or even political leanings, religion has been imbued with a sacred aura that often prevents people from engaging in debate because belief and faith become so doggedly connected to one’s sense of self. Furthermore, opponents of organized religion worry that the many worldwide charities run by religious groups shield the overall movement from criticism or outright condemnation. But when that faith structure informs and even dictates its adherents’ thoughts on public policy, education, other religions and the world at large, the results aren’t always great. This can lead to otherwise friendly people harboring hateful opinions about topics like gay marriage, the building of a mosque, evolution or premarital sex.

For many of us, running is a fixed part of our personality. We stick to it through injury and illness, and go to great lengths to avoid DNFs or DNSs. We all remember how deep the explosions felt at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. It felt as if our entire community and culture had been irreparably wounded. So if anything negative comes to light about it, we take it very personally. For us, the sport goes beyond hobby or a means to achieve good fitness; it informs others about our best qualities and values.

But if science were to unequivocally prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that running is deleterious to our health, how many of us would immediately stop?

Suffering

If we run hard enough, there will come a time in any race of any distance, where we will be in pain. Our bodies scream at us to stop but training and determination keep us going, pushing through the anguish, closer to the finish. In longer races, even walking feels like a slow march to the grave as every ounce of energy has escaped our pores and been absorbed by the grass. For many of us, suffering is a crucial component of the sport. It’s the measurement of effort, improvement, and in less tangible ways, the indication that we’re living life on the fringes of our abilities. When our bodies begin to fail us, many of us can’t just stop. It’s not an option we’ve agreed to. So we continue bludgeoning our toes and squeezing the air out of our lungs until we reach the finish line’s sweet, merciful release.

Why do we do this?

Why do we do this?

The superficial comparison should be apparent: the race represents our lives and heaven is the open bar with our friends just past the finish line. But what I want to tease out is a little more unnerving: that of reward through suffering. This is pervasive in many religions and it doesn’t just apply to the most fundamental or ascetic groups. Christians are encouraged to confess their sins, to unload the mounting transgressions they’ve accumulated and carry with them. Even those who live kind, generous lives aren’t exempt as many interpretations of the Bible state that all Christians since the fall of Adam are born sinful. We are told that prior to the original sin, the world was a bountiful, perfect paradise, contrary to the one we inhabit today. The Gospel according to Matthew contains the famous phrase, “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth,” which is an effective, yet insidious way of placating the indigent masses of the first century into happily bearing their burdens until their recompense in the afterlife.

As I’ve stated, the concept of salvation through suffering is key to the running experience. We trust that our pain is leading somewhere. Dean Karnazes agrees. “People think I’m crazy to put myself through such torture,” he says, “though I would argue otherwise. Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness. Dostoyevsky had it right: ‘Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.’ Never are my senses more engaged than when the pain sets in. There is a magic in misery. Just ask any runner.” This sounds very similar to Patheos‘ description of Islam as a faith that teaches “the endurance of suffering with hope and faith.”

A post-race shower, or in this case, Otter dipping his legs into a nearby stream, can be a form of baptism.

A post-race shower, or in this case, Otter dipping his legs into a nearby stream, can be a form of baptism.

No race that I’ve ever run has had a moving finish line, so we know that each step is one closer to deliverance. But spectators perched near the end of any long-distance who have witnessed the assembly line of grimaces should wonder why anyone puts themselves through this. Surely there must be better ways to find gratification and higher meaning in the world than by willing subjugation to a series of trials meant to break you down.

Chitwood posits that “to run is to overcome suffering for the sake of the prize. Thus, for many, to run is to flee from death itself.” Like most of what we do, running is a means to stave off that final breath, or at least fend off the preventable diseases that can accelerate the process. But the opposite interpretation suggests something more thought-provoking yet macabre: perhaps endurance athletes push themselves to the breaking point precisely because they want to reach that liminal gap between life and death and catch a fleeting glimpse of the ineffable. Maybe in order to live, we have to straddle that dangerous line by approaching or even taunting death.

Faith

Whenever you have a direct, honest discussion about religion with anyone, you eventually, to borrow a running term, hit a wall. That fortified obstacle is either made of faith or doubt, two materials heavier than cast iron and deeper than bedrock. Although there is much common ground to be found between atheists and believers in the grand scheme of things, inevitably there is a moment where the two strands of thought diverge and progress becomes slow. That moment involves faith, or complete belief in something, sometimes against odds or evidence. The reason most conversations stop has to do with the equally ponderous tasks of convincing a believer to abandon faith and imploring a skeptic to embrace belief.

Faith and the echo chamber of our peers march in stride, as our loyal support group rallies behind us to bolster our beliefs and drown out the voices of dissent. This makes it easy to willingly accept the evidence or lack thereof for something, shielding us from the outside to preserve our feelings. The reason most conversations about religion ultimately break down, either between religious groups or with non-believers, is because the entire concept is built upon faith and belief, neither of which can be proven. What is it about the Bible, a book written by hundreds of people over as many years, that makes it the infallible word of God? Who is to say that Allah is the “true” god if Horus and Ra have been around far longer? Despite the questionable authorship and chronology, many people simply believe.

My first marathon, where so much was unknown

My first marathon, where so much was unknown

But runners aren’t immune to the willing avoidance of reason. In fact, we encounter it in every race we run. Our bodies are built with feedback mechanisms that inform us when our systems are failing. When our legs are flooded with lactic acid or our lungs feel like they’re been crushed, our brains implore us to stop. But we’ve learned to block out those signals, push through and even embrace the pain. The mantras we repeat convince us that this crucible will all be worth it when we’re sipping a craft beer at the finish line.

We’re told to have faith in our training, to simply believe that tapering will lead to stronger legs and a better performance. In most races past mile 20, we are seldom certain of how our legs will hold up. At that point, especially for first-timers, it (almost) becomes a pure exercise in faith. We don’t ever see our legs getting stronger or more energy efficient, but if all goes well, we are sometimes treated to performances that exceed our wildest expectations, often feeling like magic. Of course, this magic has been studied. Science has shown that endurance training leads to an increase in mitochondria in our muscle cells, which bolsters the body’s efficiency in consuming oxygen and improves performance.

But for a host of other reasons (weather, a poor dinner choice, last-minute illness), it doesn’t always work out. And when it all goes to hell and we end up crawling to the finish line with our hearts pounding in our hollow heads, our entire view of running having crushed us, how many of us abandon the sport?

Very few of us. In fact, we do the opposite and find ways to turn even the most grueling and ego-bruising experience into a lesson. Like anyone faced with a tragedy in their lives, rather than gaze skywards with rage, we say that running works in mysterious ways, and set our sights on the next race. We never condemn the sport itself as being irrational and rarely entertain the sacrilegious idea that humans shouldn’t be running long distances.

Mea culpa, we mutter, respect the distance, we offer, and return to our daily acts of penitence.

Why?

To be human is to be social, to gather in groups and have shared experiences. “The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other, but to be with each other,” agrees Christopher McDougall, author of the bestselling book Born to Run. We all want to be part of a group, to have a support network. We find this in friends and family, co-workers and the buzzing masses of people that peregrinate alongside us through busy city streets.

Masses at

Masses at “mass”

Although I don’t go to church on Sundays, I understand why the weekly ritual attracts untold masses. For many it is a safe place of quiet contemplation; a gathering of like-minded people who want to improve their lives by enjoying each other’s company and paying tribute to a supreme being. For others, it’s a place to seek answers. Life is full of turmoil and chaos beyond our understanding, and the beautiful verses and parables of sacred texts might offer consolation during difficult times.

But running, unlike a communal trip to a church or even the local pub, offers us a very unusual personal connection. We spend most of our days in climate-controlled environments, sitting or moving slowly. Polished and well-dressed, we project an ideal and confident version of ourselves. But at mile 24, everyone regardless of talent or speed looks like death. We’re stripped down to our barest elements: flesh, sweat and sometimes blood. Running – or any sport for that matter – elevates our routine so we’re part of something greater. It’s a celebration of the human body and the marvelous feats it can accomplish. It makes us feel like we’re truly living. As we stand at the starting line, we can feel the current of nervous energy flowing through each jittery participant. Hours later, as we approach the finish line, stripped of elegance and poise, we know every step we took to get there was all ours, earned through initiative, dedication and perseverance.

In many ways, the tribute we pay is to ourselves.

And when it’s over, we do it all again. We ask how we could have improved, what kind of drills we should incorporate into the next training cycle, and whether we’d be comfortable running even farther. Seen this way, running has a lot in common with reincarnation. A quick search of running blogs will return many examples of runners who have, in a way, become “reborn.” The reasons for their transformations vary from a desire to lose weight, overcome illness or abandon a sedentary lifestyle. Over time, they literally become different people with new bodies, schedules, and outlooks. In times of stress or great anguish, many people and organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous turn to a higher power for guidance and structure. Running it seems can also provide a similar outlet for self-improvement. There are even several popular running groups that hedge their bets by combining the two.

On that note, I’d be remiss to not mention that, independently of religious affiliation, many people experience this elevation of routine as a spiritual transformation, or as George Sheehan calls it, a “psychological and spiritual renewal.” Though I’ve encountered similar transcendental moments, I frame the experience in biological terms. Once past our limits and into the great unknowns of achievement, our brains aren’t being fed the necessary ingredients for proper cogitation. The clamp on our chest and the ever-mounting burn in our legs combine to blur the world around us and expose our deepest, most base instincts and feelings. This mental state can make us feel like we’ve broken through a barrier, perhaps to a divine plane. For Rachel Toor, author and professor, the experience is profoundly spiritual. She believes “trail running is as close to church-going as I can get. Because you do not stand still to behold the sublime, but move through it, limbs hailing and exulting all there is in the world and whatever lies beyond.”

At mile 25, pain is part of the experience.

At mile 25, pain is part of the experience. For some, it is the experience.

The internet has even coined an official running religion called Runnism, which advocates “inner peace, a sense of belonging, fulfillment and a deeper meaning in life.” In a nutshell, they’ve encapsulated the deeper parallels between a life dedicated to the pursuit of fulfillment through running and one based on apocryphal books written two thousand years ago. The results are similar, so why not worship running?

It is very likely that all of these parallels can apply across all sports. Anyone with enough dedication to something will invite such comparisons; I just happen to be a runner. But unlike religions, who compete to provide the answers to life’s great questions, we don’t say that running is inherently better than basketball or that it will provide more happiness. We don’t wage war against CrossFit or disallow swimmers from participating in weekend 5ks. Though our core mythology involves the legendary death of Pheidippides, our sport doesn’t have a bloody history of armed conflict. Our flock, though a bit unhinged, is inclusive of all people regardless of origin, abilities or personality. It keeps us moving, inspires us and can offer a path to fulfillment if we desire one.

In the middle of the desert, with miles to run, it wasn't difficult to

In the middle of the desert, with miles to run, it wasn’t difficult to “rise above” the race into a meditative state.

New studies, including a very recent publication in Nature, suggest that the ability to run allowed our species to split from our ancestral simian cousins, paving the winding path to the beings we are today. If we’re searching for whatever created us, we might not have to look too far past our ability to walk upright and cover great distances. If bipedal locomotion is such a staple of what it literally means to be human, then don’t we owe it to ourselves to be active and make the most of our bodies?

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding this truly breathtaking, but it’s worth repeating. The most sacred texts of the world’s largest religions describe the origins of our species and universe in grandiose, often colorful ways. But if you want a concrete, tangible answer for why we are the way we are, you might hear echoes of it with each fluid stride.

So you can see why I was confused and a little frustrated at the end of my contemplative long run. I had based a lot of my worldview on a holistic rejection of organized religion because of what I considered pernicious and atavistic qualities that had no purpose in my life. As I began connecting the dots, it seemed that I might have instead found a different outlet for whatever human impulse drives people to join a church, if such an inclination exists. But rather than follow a religion, which for most people is a decision almost entirely dictated by their parents, I chose to become a runner.

I will never claim that running is immune to criticism, nor do I believe it is the purest expression of the human experience. But then again, neither is anything else, not even art, sex or religion. That’s up to each of us to determine. Early in life, I was given an intimate look into the religious experience. As I grew older, it failed to persuade me so I subconsciously found an alternate source of personal fulfillment. Rather than work for a rewarding afterlife, running makes me feel great now and potentially in my twilight years. But it is not my reason for being, nor does it promise me anything for my efforts. It is only one way of many to enjoy the privilege of being a human for the brief, yet wondrous flicker of time we have.

I can’t say with any real certainty that deities don’t watch over us in realms beyond our imaginations. But in the absence of that knowledge, surrounded by the few truths I do know about myself and what fills me with gratification, I happily follow the path of the runner.

Special thanks to Mike for reading this article in its earliest form and for providing insight and editorial guidance.

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)

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