May 12, 2015 34 Comments
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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
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.
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.