Missouri (2014 Go! St. Louis Marathon)

When people talk about “the ups and downs” of something, they can often mean it literally.

Mau (center) and I (right), finishers of the 2010 St. Louis Half Marathon

Mau (center) and I (right), finishers of the 2010 St. Louis Half Marathon

Four years ago, I ran the Go! St. Louis Half Marathon.  My cousin Mau had been living in St. Louis for almost a decade, so I made it an excuse to visit him and brought Steph with me.  Much to my delight, Mau signed up and trained for the race.  I cannot understate enough how special it is for me when someone does that, especially if they weren’t a long distance runner in the first place.  It’s like asking someone to join a class, learn the material, and take a grueling test just for the hell of it.

Four years later, I was back at the starting line of the Go! St. Louis Family Fitness Weekend, this time sporting a bright orange marathon bib and an ambitious goal.  It won’t be until November that I’ll be able to run a fast marathon, so I set my phasers to Attack.

A few corrals back, Steve, Scott, Greg and Jim were waiting for their own start.  Jim was running his third marathon, while Scott and Greg were donning blue half marathon bibs.  Steve hadn’t registered for the race and intended to run seven miles before heading back to the hotel, skipping all aid stations and avoiding true banditry.  The harsh winds that had bellowed through the Midwest all week were gone, replaced by calm zephyrs from the east.

(left to right): Me, Greg, Steve, Jim, Scott

(left to right): Me, Greg, Steve, Jim, Scott

I joined the 3:25 pace group led by Jordan, whose wife had just recently qualified for Boston at a race called the Circular Logic Marathon.  As the name implies, she ran 26.2 laps around a 1-mile loop.  If her husband was anywhere near as dedicated, then we were in good hands.

The race starts in the middle of the city, by a cluster of compact parks, facing the famous Gateway Arch.  It heads south about three miles and into the Anheuser Busch Brewery before returning to the heart of the city.  With the exception of the brewery itself, these opening miles were the least scenic of the entire course.  Much of it was run on bridges surrounded by industrial complexes and highways.  It wouldn’t be until the 10k mark that we’d return to the city and start the long, undulating trek on Olive Street.

2014 Go! St. Louis Marathon Map (via Google Earth)

2014 Go! St. Louis Marathon Map (via Google Earth)

“I remember the hills being brutal,” I told Steve the day before.  We had arrived in St. Louis after a long drive from Chicago and were finding a parking spot at St. Louis University.  “But seeing them now, they don’t look so bad.  I wonder if my memory has altered them because I was such an inexperienced runner four years ago.”

For the time being, I was proving myself right.  From start to finish, the stretch on Olive is about 2.4 miles, none of which is flat.  I was either springing on my toes upward or stomping downward, the pace group usually nearby.  The organizers placed giant, inflatable arches with timing mats around halfway through Olive’s hills, meaning we were about to run up “Holy Hill,” a separately-timed section thrown in for the hell of it (pun squarely intended).  The loud, celestial knells of Christ Church Cathedral rang across Olive and there was even a priest throwing consecrated rice onto runners as they ran through the arch.

The journey on Olive was characteristic of the rest of the race.  Not only was it unceasingly hilly, but the top of each climb would reveal miles of unraveled course ahead, almost all of it composed of long, concrete waves.  It was as if St. Louis had been flat at some point in history, before a giant had clutched both ends of the city and pushed them towards each other.

The beginning of Holy Hill, via Google Streetview

The beginning of Holy Hill, via Google Streetview

Around mile 10, the course finally flattened out on Forest Park Avenue.  I turned onto the boulevard, anticipating the beautiful spring colors that welcomed me in 2010, but found only dead trees on the divider.  The harsh winter certainly hit everywhere.

Once the half marathoners were split from the course, our pace group became the only cluster of people for miles.  We were a tight pack with our own gravity.  Some runners were experienced and a bit too garrulous, others camouflaged themselves by never speaking a word.

The avenue became a highway, cutting through the corner of Forest Park, one of the largest urban parks in the country, which houses the St. Louis Zoo, the Science Center and various museums.  But we weren’t at the scenic area yet, instead quite literally running on a two-lane highway.  It felt a little surreal, if not dangerous, as if a speeding car could have turned the corner at any second and plowed through us.

Forest Park Highway, via Google Streetview

Forest Park Parkway, via Google Streetview

For the next four miles, we would trace a spaghetti path through the park, which was so large that it was difficult to think a large city was just a few miles away.  We crossed the halfway mark in 1:42 and I couldn’t help but smile.  Four years ago, I finished the half marathon in 1:46 and almost collapsed at the end.  But my smile was short-lived.  For though the pace group had been talking about dogs, last year’s Boston Marathon, and funny spectator signs, I was choosing to stay silent.  It was no longer easy to tackle each new hill with the same élan as before.

“So how do you do hill training in Chicago?” an Australian named Tim asked me as we left Forest Park and began a steady climb on Forsyth Boulevard.  It was almost as if he could hear the strain in my breathing and had picked out the dog among wolves.

“I don’t,” I replied between gasps.

But I should.  I’ve done a handful of hill repeats on the treadmill but honest to Haile I hate them.  I would rather run up a mountain or run the same hill 30 times than dial up a treadmill a few degrees.  I’ll do interval runs indoors, knock out mile repeats and pyramid drills happily.  But hills on a treadmill suck the enjoyment out of running.  And it was precisely that unwillingness to do what it takes that led to my eventual demise.

2014 Go! St. Louis Marathon Map (via Google Earth)

2014 Go! St. Louis Marathon Map (via Google Earth)

Forsyth Boulevard cuts straight through Washington University in St. Louis, where my cousin earned his undergraduate degree.  I had but a few seconds to soak it all in before we were past it.  Jordan and his pack had pulled ahead of me as I stopped for an aid station.  We reached downtown Clayton, the course’s western border.  At the turnaround, I had bridged the gap to the pace group to just a few seconds.

Until the next hill.  I couldn’t keep my legs turning fast enough to stay with them and I had to give up the chase.  The next two and a half miles were an eastward slog down Delmar Boulevard.  From the beginning of this portion, you can see for miles, and I could practically hear the course itself laughing at me.  It’s not exactly empowering to see the endless course before you when your body is screaming at you to quit.  At the very least, Delmar starts downhill as a tree-covered residential area before transforming into a small town.  I ran through this never-ending stretch almost perfunctorily, with most of my drive having been drained by the ups.

It was my calves.  I was breathing normally, my heart wasn’t exploding in my chest, and my quads (the usual suspects) were shoveling coal like champions.  But the constant change in slope had punished my calves, with each step attenuating them until my gait was reduced to a dodder.

St Louis Gateway ArchMiles are so much longer when you’re in the middle of falling apart.

I kept seeing the same people.  A young woman with a white Arkansas Grand Prix shirt would run faster than me, but stop and walk frequently.  Opting for a similar strategy, a tall gentleman with a yellow Marathon Maniacs singlet would cruise by me only to stop at every uphill and let me pass him.  We continued this dance of perpetual exchange as Forest Park Avenue became Market Street for the final stretch.  I looked ahead.

No, that doesn’t look right.

Unless my eyes were deceiving me, the finish banner was perched at the end of a hill, another damn hill.  While there was a definitive crowd of people running toward it, I didn’t see many running up its face.  Maybe there was a turn in between that I couldn’t see yet.  But as I approached the familiar din of the city, the hard truth became undeniable.  As if to remind us that no prize worth having is easy to earn, we would have one last hill to crest before finishing this race.

I managed to climb out of the depths of my ever-languishing pace, pumping my arms and pulling my legs up with enough brio to disguise the pain in my lower body.  Once at the top, with the blue finishing banner just up ahead, I let momentum carry me to the finish.  I must have looked confident and strong, but it was all theater.  I heard my name announced on the loudspeakers before crossing the timing mats of my twenty-first marathon in 3:31:53.

2014 Go St Louis Marathon MedalPerhaps it was overconfidence that killed my chances at a PR.  I thought that experience alone would allow me to conquer the course, that time on my feet over the years would somehow translate to a better performance.  But that, as George R. R. Martin might say, is a mummer’s farce.  St. Louis isn’t flat and my unwillingness to specifically train for that challenge effectively shattered my armor.  But with the colorful medal and ribbon resting on my chest and my fifth fastest marathon time in the books, I couldn’t be too hard on myself.

Plus, this race marked the beginning of a future goal.  When I began my quest to run all fifty states, I was focused intently on half marathons.  The full distance was far too demanding, appearing only now and then in my schedule like a church spire in a small town.  But in the last two years, as I’ve become more comfortable with the challenge, more able to handle the pain, I’ve opted for the full distance instead.  Eventually, I will want to re-visit all the states that I’ve colored in half marathon green and welcome them to the marathon club.

Missouri wasn’t the first state to achieve that special red color on my map (that honor belongs to Florida, and later Wisconsin), but it is the first that I’ve done exclusively for this purpose.  Because let’s face it, there is always a bigger challenge, a tougher goal or simply another new experience on the horizon.  Hills may disguise the path, offering us a potential end to the anguish.  But those of us who lace up for the long run know that the top of a climb isn’t a rest stop, and even finish lines don’t mean we should stop running.

Onwards.

Marathon_Map 046 (MO)

Miami Marathon, In Memoriam

The thunder of the crowd roared just ahead, thousands of spectators and runners alike screaming in unison for one person and for everyone.  Each step squeezed out a tiny splash of sweat and rain as if I had strapped sponges to my feet.  The sound of the sloppy metronome kept time as the blue finishing banner crept ever closer.  I had twenty-six miles behind me and in just a few seconds I would notch my twentieth marathon and one hundredth race.  I had struggled to get to this point.  The dark morning was warmer than it had any right to be in January, the air was thick and felt completely alien.

For the last month, Chicago, like most of the country, had found itself in an arctic love affair, icing its denizens on a daily basis and keeping even its most dedicated athletes indoors.   With only a precious few pauses in the petrifying chill, I was limited to only three outdoor runs all month, all of which left me with pink, frozen fingers.  But right at the border between Georgia and Florida, blues and purples suddenly erupted in orange, as if the southernmost state were in a protective bubble.  The weekend before the race, the difference in temperature between my training ground and Miami’s race course was literally one hundred degrees.  I knew before even arriving in the Sunshine State that I would face a steep challenge.  Training had not gone superbly for the 2014 Miami Marathon but that didn’t stop me from starting.

2010 Miami Half Marathon, left to right: Tía Ale, Paula, Tío Daniel, Andy, Nati

2010 Miami Half Marathon, left to right: Tía Ale, Paula, Tío Daniel, Andy, Nati

But as I pushed onward, past the cruise ships on the MacArthur Causeway, through the cool breeze on Ocean Drive, while hopping over island communities on the Venetian, under the resplendent towers in downtown Miami, through the morning parties in Coconut Grove and into the last-minute rain, I was thinking of something else.  I wasn’t thinking of my breathing, nor was I focused on my legs.  I could have been taking in the sights, the sounds and even the smells that surround the flood of runners every year.  In a city with so much to occupy the outward senses, I found myself taking an inward stroll.

Late last summer, my uncle was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), a malignant and very aggressive brain tumor.  As is the case with anyone diagnosed with the disease, the prognosis was grim.  Few people survive with the tumor for longer than a year, there is no known treatment for it and very little known about how it forms.  Although it tends to be more prevalent in Caucasian males over 50, it often feels like an unlucky roll of the dice.  Two months later, on the morning of November 25, tío Daniel passed away in his bedroom, surrounded by his loved ones.

2014 Miami Marathon, left to right: me, Jim, Steve,  Greg, Scott

2014 Miami Marathon, left to right: me, Jim, Steve, Greg, Scott

I wasn’t particularly close to him.  He had a quiet demeanor that was often overshadowed by my louder, more gregarious uncles.  I knew him more by his interests than the deep-rooted convictions that make a person who they are.  He loved to mountain bike, travel to exotic places, try and cook amazing meals.  He was a precise and effective businessman, a devoted father and loving husband.  My aunt has always been my second mother and I regard their children as my third, fourth and fifth siblings, so while I never shared an intimate connection with him, I truly felt like I lost something profound that day.

So as I crossed the finish line, I completed my tribute run.  In early December I joined the American Brain Tumor Association’s Team Breakthrough and with the help of co-workers, friends and family, we raised over $2,000 for the organization in tío Daniel’s memory.  These funds will go toward patient care and research towards a better understanding of this fatal, yet poorly understood disease.

I walked under the banner with my hands digging into my waist, breathing less air with every heave.  I was no longer thinking of my uncle but instead of my aunt and cousins.  I was overcome with emotion at the simple thought of having to refer to your father in past tense, at acknowledging that life has changed forever.  But while they have certainly lived through terribly painful days, I know that my family will continue to push onward happily in his memory.  If there’s a silver lining to the untimely passing of a loved one, it’s the blunt reminder to enjoy and spend time with the people that surround you.

In loving memory of Daniel Robert Bonilla, 1958 - 2013

In loving memory of Daniel Robert Bonilla, 1958 – 2013

The day before, I drove out to North Palm Beach with my father-in-law and his brothers to visit their aunt.  Though she was hard of hearing and used a walker to move herself around the apartment, her mind and wits were still as sharp as a sword.  Amid the updates and funny recollections, she urged us, as a sage matriarch in her twilight years, to do what made us happy, to fulfill our grand to-do lists and enjoy our time while we still had it.

Because the end of that time is uncertain.

I want to offer my sincerest and heartfelt thanks to everyone who helped me with my fundraising, to those who sent kind condolences, to friends who called and family members who have stuck by me as long as we’ve known each other.  Your unconditional support has truly humbled me and I am honored to have you in my life.

Thank you for reading.

-Dan

2014 Miami Marathon (First Half) Rendering (via Google Earth)

2014 Miami Marathon (First Half) Rendering (via Google Earth)

1. The starting line of the race at 6:15 AM.  The national anthem was played in a sultry jazz style by Ed Calle and almost all announcements were in English and Spanish.

1. The starting line of the race at 6:15 AM. The national anthem was played in a sultry jazz style by Ed Calle and almost all announcements were in English and Spanish.

2. Enormous cruise ships keep watch over runners as they run over the MacArthur Causeway, a bridge that starts with the race's longest and highest climb.

2. Enormous cruise ships keep watch over runners as they run over the MacArthur Causeway, a bridge that starts with the race’s longest and highest climb.

3. Just past the 5K mark and one more slight incline, runners enter the south side of Miami Beach.  The run is rising quickly ahead and we're all eager to put it behind us.

3. Just past the 5K mark and one more slight incline, runners enter the south side of Miami Beach. The run is rising quickly ahead and we’re all eager to put it behind us.

4. The northward stretch on Ocean Drive single-handedly embodies Miami and the reason this race is so popular.  Classic hotels and restaurants face the open sea, with many spectators out, making noise.

4. The northward stretch on Ocean Drive single-handedly embodies Miami and the reason this race is so popular. Classic hotels and restaurants face the open sea, with many spectators out, making noise.

5. Returning to the mainland via the Venetian Causeway is equally gorgeous, with some parts of the race being so narrow, you feel surrounded by the ocean.

5. Returning to the mainland via the Venetian Causeway is equally gorgeous, with some parts of the race being so narrow, you feel surrounded by the ocean.

6. The last "check point" before reaching the main land, runners have run about ten miles at this point.

6. The last “check point” before reaching the main land, runners have run about ten miles at this point.

7. Three times I've made the left turn, ready to be done.  Today I would follow the path unknown, away from the city and the roar of the crowd.

7. Three times I’ve made the left turn, ready to be done. Today I would follow the path unknown, away from the city and the roar of the crowd.

2014 Miami Marathon (the second half) Rendering (via Google Earth)

2014 Miami Marathon (the second half) Rendering (via Google Earth)

8. Although the marathon course would be far less crowded, both with runners and spectators, the sights were no less beautiful.

8. Although the marathon course would be far less crowded, both with runners and spectators, the sights were no less beautiful.

9. Just past Coconut Grove and the 30k mark, the sun is out in full force as we pass Bayside Park, on our way back to the city.

9. Just past Coconut Grove and the 30k mark, the sun is out in full force as we pass Bayside Park, on our way back to the city.

10. Clouds and rain made a much-welcomed appearance as we tackled the needlepoint out-and-back on the Rickenbacker Causeway.  I rarely race in rain, but this brief shower certainly helped me out on this section, which most runners describe as the worst part of the race.

10. Clouds and rain made a much-welcomed appearance as we tackled the needlepoint out-and-back on the Rickenbacker Causeway. I rarely race in rain, but this brief shower certainly helped me out on this section, which most runners describe as the worst part of the race.

11. The aid station just past mile 24, with my grandmother's condo building in the background.  Never in a race have I been so close to a bed, yet still so far ...

11. The aid station just past mile 24, with my grandmother’s condo building in the background. Never in a race have I been so close to a bed, yet still so far …

12. After a straight line down Brickell Avenue, the last mile is in the heart of downtown Miami.  Feeling tethered to the finish line, I somehow managed to pick up the pace.

12. After a straight line down Brickell Avenue, the last mile is in the heart of downtown Miami. Feeling tethered to the finish line, I somehow managed to pick up the pace.

13. The finish line of my 100th race, where just seconds after finishing, I found myself dizzy and almost losing my balance.

13. The finish line of my 100th race, where just seconds after finishing, I found myself dizzy and almost losing my balance.

14. Proud finishers.

14. Proud finishers.

miami-marathon-13-medal

End of Year Recap (2013)

If 2012 was the year of speed, where I lit up the race circuit with as many PRs as I could, then 2013 was the year of distance.  Despite a few new personal bests, what highlighted the year were my adventures past the 26.2-mile threshold and the brutal weekends that I had to put in to visit the great unknown with as few detours as possible into agony and self-hatred.  It all started with a suggestion from my running hetero-lifemate Otter, which I first thought was in jest.

A 50-miler?  Was a hallucinogen somehow warping a “K” into the word “miles”?  Had Otter lost his mind?  How the hell were we going to do that?  The ultramarathon had the same veil of mystery that the marathon had for me four years ago, so that prickly feeling in my stomach had returned.  Almost because of that trepidation, I decided to go for it.  It reminded me of what it was like to view the mountain and commit to climbing it.  The challenge itself and the overwhelming, almost dizzying heights is what drew me to add my name to the Ice Age Trail 50k and the North Country Run 50-miler.  To paraphrase the overused but still effective words of George Mallory, we do these things because they are there, because we can do them.

… or at least try.

Recap_2013

But first, let’s do the usual numbers dance.  Although I spilled paint all over the map last year by filling in twelve states, I wasn’t as irresponsible with my body and budget this time around.  In the last twelve months, I filled in seven new states, four of which I had never visited ever for any reason.  I completed the west coast with Washington and Oregon, dotted the west with Utah, added Kansas and Louisiana to the map, completed the South with North Carolina and added some Northeast real estate by running in Pennsylvania.  Illinois also ceased to be the only state in which I’ve run both a half and a full marathon, now in the esteemed company of Florida and Wisconsin.

Race Stats

Half Marathons Run: 4*
Fastest: 1:31:13 (NC Half Marathon)
Slowest: 3:06:42 (Cerros de Escazú 21k)

*This tally includes one trail 25k, which, because of a poorly marked course, ended up being just over 14 miles.

Marathons Run: 6**
Fastest: 3:23:12 (Rock ‘N Roll New Orleans Marathon) PR
Slowest: 3:56:41 (Leavenworth Oktoberfest Marathon)

**If you include ultras, this number is 7.  If you’re feeling merciful and add the DNF from the North Country Run, where I technically ran more than a marathon, it’s 8.

Number of fellow runners: 101,000+
Largest race: 33,219 runners (Shamrock Shuffle)
Smallest race: 142 runners (Lakeside Festival 5k)

Mileage Stats

Miles Run: 1,626 (new record, previously held by 2012: 1,366)
Average Pace: 8:21
Race Miles Run: 296.9
Average Race Pace: 9:24

And the newest stat, which I find intriguing, is how many miles I ran on the treadmill this year.  That total is 272, which is worth noting because the total amount of treadmill miles I logged in the four years between 2009 and 2012 was 304.  So in this year alone, I almost doubled my lifetime miles on the machine.  Does this mean I’m becoming a bit picky with the weather?  Or perhaps I’m being more strategic with my workouts.  Regardless, I had to point out my nascent love affair with the hamster wheel.

0324_nc-half-marathon 07Although the numbers speak for themselves, I’d be remiss if I didn’t gush about the impact the year has had on me.  The signature event for 2013 was the North Country Run 50-miler.  I changed the way I ran, focusing very intently on going long and recovering more quickly.  I spent my entire summer pushing my weekly mileage totals, routinely breaking distance records.  Prior to this year, I had never run more than 142 miles in a month.  In March I ran 178, a record which was decimated in July, where I logged 223.5 miles.  I was up early on almost every Saturday and Sunday, running back-to-back long runs not limited to the reliably sunny and humid Chicago 0414_cerrosdeescazu 11lakefront path.  My travels took me to Ocean City, New Jersey, where a 5 AM run on the boardwalk was the only way to avoid the 100-degree scorchers.  I visited Miami and took my ultra-training to the Rickenbacker Causeway, where I would be lacquered in a thick layer of sweat just two miles in.  I ran 15 miles along the San Francisco coastline and on the Golden Gate Bridge just three hours after landing in the Bay Area at 2 AM … and then I ran 20 miles the next morning while my friends nursed hangovers at the hotel.

My entire running schedule was built around it, with every 0420_1_garminmarathon 62other race handpicked to serve a purpose.  I learned to eat while on the run at the Garmin Marathon, battled the trail elements at the Paleozoic 25k and Cerros de Escazú 21k.  I happily logged miles at the Walt Disney World Marathon and then test-ran my ultra preparedness at the Ice Age Trail 50k, my first venture past 26.2 miles.  Every race run in the first eight months of the year had some component that I was either testing or validating.

In other words, I was dead serious about this race.

0511_iceage50k 04But then, for lack of more eloquent phrasing, shit happened.  Two weeks before the race, I was hit by an unexpected pain in my left knee.  Despite employing every preventative measure I could think of, by mile 14 of the year’s headline race I was hurting.  Every system was firing on all cylinders, rallying with me in hopes of obviating the hot pain shooting from my knee, but it wasn’t enough.  Just shy of 40 miles, I decided it would be dangerous to continue.

The decision hurt at the time.  I’m the kind of person that likes to make his commitments public because I don’t 0824_northcountryrun 12like letting people down (who does, right?).  So the inevitable series of explanations that followed kept my shoulders closer to the ground than I like.  But six weeks later, my decision to call it quits bore fruit.  In my first ever trip to the Pacific Northwest, I ran two marathons back to back and both under four hours.  As if to prove that everything was still fine, I ran just shy of my PR in Philadelphia just a month later.

So really, there was a lot to learn this year.  I was faced with the unfortunate reality that life doesn’t always unfurl as intended.  But the pain I suffered in my left knee was leavenworth-marathon-05insignificant compared to actual hardship.  Although it is easy to feel like the world has betrayed us whenever race plans go awry, we have to step back and realize what a privileged complaint that is.  If this is what’s making us upset and monopolizing our grievances against the universe, then we need to pause and take a deep breath.  There are other races out there, and not all of them involve running.

About a month ago, my uncle passed away from complications stemming from a malignant brain tumor.  His wife, my aunt, is my godmother and his children grew portland-marathon-group-pictureup with me.  Although he and I didn’t have a uniquely close relationship, his sudden departure was agonizing.  He was in Miami with us when his oldest daughter and I ran the half marathon in 2010 and 2011.  So I felt that it would be fitting to dedicate my 20th marathon to him.  While I haven’t yet finalized my resolutions for next year, it will start with my first ever charity marathon.  As of this writing, I’ve already reached my fundraising goal.

2014 will be about many things.  It will be about remembrance, vindication and fortitude.  It will be about improving what is working, fixing what is holding us back moab-trail-half-marathon-groupand changing focus on what matters.  At this time last year, I didn’t think I could possibly top 2012’s excitement and thrill.  But somehow, I managed to do it.  Even though I wasn’t completely successful, I felt more alive this year as I scurried up wooded trails, scorched over flat pavement and clambered up sandstone cliffs.  Perhaps facing defeat gave each finish line an extra jolt of satisfaction.  I always assumed that I would finish every race no matter what, but that hubris was put to the test in August and I’ve taken the harsh lesson to heart.

And so, with a thick mix of emotions, I bid farewell to 2013.  As the pictures on the side suggest, it was an excellent year for my feet and my heart and I look forward to every starting line 2014 will offer me.  From old friends to new companions, there was no shortage of good company as I tackled the year’s challenges.  There aren’t many people who use running as a means to stay in touch, but I’m glad and honored to be one of them.

Onwards.

State 36: Pennsylvania (2013 Philadelphia Marathon)

09-PHILADELPHIA

Although almost 30,000 runners and several times as many spectators were flooding the streets of Philadelphia, it was a strangely quiet morning.  The organizers had chosen to not play any music until the start of the race out of respect to the citizens of the City of Brotherly Love, which I thought was a nice gesture.  The lack of deep bass thuds had a calming effect on me as I looked for the gear check trucks.  I was shivering a little in the low 50s temperatures that had woken up the city.  All around me fidgety runners prepared for the 20th anniversary of the Philadelphia Marathon, shaking sleepy legs and breathing into cupped hands.

Philadelphia, Old and New

Philadelphia, Old and New

For the first time in many races, I was nervous.  I was out to race today, something I hadn’t done since February.  Every marathon I’ve done since then had either been a training run, a trail ultra, or part of a weekend double.  Not only was this my first chance to run aggressively in a long time, but it was my last chance for the year.  I wasn’t signed up for any future target marathons and didn’t even have plans for the next potential PR, so this was it.  I performed my feverish runner duties by relating all of this (and perhaps too much more) to Bruce, the 1:40 pacer for the half marathon.  There was no one leading a 3:20 group, so I opted to join Bruce’s troupe until the halfway mark, where I would hold on for as long as possible.

At 7:03, our corral was given the green light and we shot down Benjamin Franklin Parkway towards the city.  All around us were flags from many countries hanging from streetlights, as if welcoming the world to one of the country’s most historical cities.  In the center of it was Philadelphia City Hall, the world’s tallest masonry building, pointing skyward among its more modern steel brethren.  Held up by white granite and brick, it stood out despite many surrounding buildings surpassing it in height, an awesome structure that must have mesmerized Philadelphians at the turn of the 20th century.

Right from the start, I could feel the pace.  The first miles of my marathons are usually tackled at an easy speed – especially the fast ones – but today I was out for something more.  There are several websites that let you predict your potential finishing time for various distances according to your current PRs, McMillan Running and Runner’s World to name two.  For too long my projected times had sneered at me, taunting me with what I believed were impossibly fast times.  My 5K PR of 19:07 suggests that I can run a marathon around 3:03, which is absurd.  Even my half marathon PR of 1:30:47 translates roughly to a 3:10.  I have my excuses for falling short of these lofty goals: I’m built for shorter distances; my tall body needs more calories; I don’t do enough fast long runs, etc.  Almost all of these are some variety of “I can’t.”  But on the streets of Philadelphia I was going to try.

I have to admit, it was strange trying to prove myself wrong and a meaningless algorithm right.

philadelphia-marathon-start-corralBut I was acutely aware of how fast I was running.  I normally don’t feel like I’m working until the second half, but here I was pushing from the very beginning, which wasn’t the best sign.  But I was going to do this, recklessly if necessary.  I had told a friend earlier that week that, crazy as it undoubtedly sounds, I would rather hit a hard wall at mile 17 and drag myself to the finish, heaving and sobbing but knowing I tried, than play it safe with the usual formula and PR by a minute.  Even over g-chat, I knew she had raised an eyebrow.

Through the heart of the city I continued, staying on Bruce like his shadow.  We ran through the Philadelphia Convention Center, where the expo had been held for the previous two days.  I saw my favorite sign of the race around here – a picture of Yoda, typically calm and serene with the tag “If a smart pace you run, a fast time you will achieve.”  We passed Chinatown and then the National Constitution Center, which had the emblematic “We the People” script emblazoned in huge letters on its walls.  Barely two miles in, we reached the shores of the Delaware River, New Jersey clearly visible on the other side.  Bruce’s group was an amorphous, fast-moving glob of humanity; racers would join for a few strides, ask a few questions and get swept away in the free-flowing torrent.

City Hall

City Hall

We reached 5k in 23:44, right at target pace.  As we turned back into the city, we passed Washington Square Park and then made a left turn towards the core of downtown on Chestnut Street, but not before passing the Liberty Bell Center.  Be it the large crowds, the electric city atmosphere or as a strategic move to bank time, Bruce picked up the pace.  By now, I was comfortable with the cadence, matching the stride of everyone around me as if on parade.  We passed City Hall once again with the 10k marker not long after.

Right as we left the city we were treated to the boisterous calls of University of Pennsylvania’s fraternity row, where many a hoodie-clad brother were manning beer stations and handing out comically red Solo cups to eager runners.  Had this been much later in the race, I might have indulged.  But at this point, I was focusing on the hills.  The reliable flatness of the first seven miles was over and my pace was seeing its own peaks and valleys.  Bruce kept reminding us that we had plenty of time to work with, so we could take the uphills at a more conservative pace.  During this section, I was alternating between feeling light-footed and sluggishly ponderous.  The pace we were running was a little ambiguous – fast enough to feel it, but not fast enough to worry.  So naturally I would alternate between confidence and concern.

Around mile 10, we made it to Fairmount Park, mostly past the ups and downs.  Many trees were shedding the last of their red canopy, reluctant to face winter.  I was still running with Bruce, but the 1:40 group had dwindled considerably.  Every time I looked around, I saw people who hadn’t started with us.  They were likely random runners who happened to be there and weren’t consciously following the ballooned pacer sign.  Right at the twelfth mile, Bruce suddenly picked up the pace, which made me suspect that he had taken it a little too easy over the last fifteen minutes.  Another 23:42 5k split and we had reached the 20k mark, close enough to the finish line to hear the muffled echo of the announcer’s voice reverberating off buildings.

philadelphia-marathon-downtown-google-earth-map

Even after completing several marathons, it’s never easy to hear the race announcer’s enthusiasm, knowing you’re only halfway there.  Despite high energy levels and the assurance of knowing that I’ve delayed complete exhaustion for many miles, it still sucks to hear him congratulate runners as they finish.  I can see them stop running and it makes every step a little more difficult.  It’s like starving in a restaurant for hours and watching the waiter bring an entire tray of sizzling steaks to the table next to you (and they were waiting for half as long).

To make matters worse, the second half of the race course wasn’t very thrilling.  I’ve seen it in many other races – the half marathon gets the vast majority of the sights, leaving the marathoners to face a formulaic out-and-back for the roughest miles.  I understand, it saves money and manpower, but 6.5-miles out and a mirror-image trek back sometimes feels like we’re being punished for wanting to run farther.  To be completely selfish, what if we reversed the course and let marathoners finish in the city?  And we can ignore how much costlier it would be to shut down those roads for longer in the day.

Pushing the finish line behind us with every breath, marathoners spent the vast majority of their dedicated portion on Kelly Road alongside the Schuylkill River.  Small crowds appeared every now and then but for most of it, we runners were our only company.  Though monotonous, the course was actually quite beautiful.  But I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted because by mile 16, it was getting harder to keep the negative thoughts away.  I was feeling the pace and it felt fast.  At this point in my fast marathons is when I normally start to push the pace, accelerating almost magically and laugh haughtily when I sneak a glance at my watch.  But today it felt like a chore just to keep it up.

As if to cement those dark thoughts in my head, the course briefly shot over the river via the Falls Bridge, after which we would run downhill for about a third of a mile, turn around, and run back up.  It sapped a lot of energy and willpower from me and marked the beginning of my slowdown.  Once done with this dastardly detour, we were back on Kelly Road on the original path away from the finish line.  Although I passed 30k still on pace, the last 5k split was the first to breach 24 minutes.  As we approached the town of Manayunk, I saw a runner ahead who had collapsed.  Spectators had moved him on the sidewalk, hoisting his legs in the air, his face oddly peaceful.  I saw an older man cross the street on the phone with an emergency responder.

I hope he’s okay, I thought.

Manayunk Main Street (Google Streetview)

Manayunk Main Street (Google Streetview)

The crowds were out in full force in Manayunk.  We ran appropriately down Main Street towards the turnaround.  Aid station volunteers and spectators blended together into one energizing display of support and affection.  Having reached the farthest point from the finish line, I made the hairpin turn and began the journey toward the finish.  The roar of the town’s denizens was invigorating, but not enough to distract me from fatigue.  The road was mincing the bottom of my feet and my gaze began to droop slightly.  Just after leaving the town, as the crowd support returned to thin levels, I took a walk break.  I stepped to the middle of the road to avoid an ambulance bounding towards me, almost brushing shoulders with marathoners running in the opposite direction.

I walked, hands resting on my hips, taking stock of what had happened.

That first half was too aggressive, I admitted to myself.  I couldn’t reasonably expect to go from running 1:44s in the first half to 1:39 and keep it strong.  I recently wrote about how foolish it is for the world to expect a two-hour marathon to happen soon given current performances, and here I was, thinking I was capable of a similar quantum leap in performance.  Why was I special enough to break free of the shackles of statistical analysis?  What made me think I could just defy the odds?

logan-square-fountainBut although the intensity had gotten to me earlier than expected, I found that I wasn’t too upset.  At least I had tried.  And I soon realized that I was still running around an 8:10 pace, which was significantly far from the usual 9 to 10-minute bonk speed I can muster after reaching the point of exhaustion.  So onwards I ran at whatever speed felt doable.  I couldn’t say the same for the runners around me, who hadn’t collectively decide on their own pace.  Some passed me, skipping nimbly over the pavement while others slumped by the wayside in worse shape than me.  There was nothing else to do but keep going.

And then something strange happened.  Around mile 23, I assessed my current situation.  The bottoms of my feet were numb, but they weren’t keeping me from running.  Make no mistake about it, they hurt.  But it wasn’t like a spike in your quad, where it leeches your motivation and self-worth or a seizing hamstring that stops you cold in your tracks and makes you reevaluate your life decisions.  My breathing was controlled, I wasn’t short of air; my leg muscles were working, all systems reporting.  Really, there was nothing going completely wrong.

So I decided to do something.  Something beautiful and pathetic in its simplicity.

I decided to run faster.

Conveniently located near the finish line.

Conveniently located near the finish line.

And I did.  Over the last three miles, I picked it up, bit by bit, passing runners and inching closer to the finish line.  At this point in the race, even a tiny incline would stop me in my tracks, but I pushed on, even with mile 25 being mostly an ascent.  I became the passer, leaving tired runners behind me.  I know in my bones that I couldn’t have sped up like this in Manayunk; I did not have it in me to push the pace.  But at that twenty-third mile, it just felt like the correct (and obvious) thing to do and my body responded.  Part of me thinks it was the pull of the finish line, but I’ve never smelled sweet victory three miles out.  The two marathons I ran six weeks earlier, which put some seriously acidic pain in my legs, might also serve to explain this sudden surge.  Perhaps I hadn’t digested the five GUs I had put into my system until that very moment.

But something happened.  Perhaps it was the body finally accepting that it was made for running, that it was finally capable of handling the continued beating, even after hours of it.  Was this the moment of transcendence?  Had I finally become the master of my pain, one with my suffering?  Or was it something more banal?  Had I simply conditioned my legs to tolerate the strain of a hard run?  Had I been overestimating the energy-syphoning effects of a bonk all this time?

The Final Stretch (Google Earth)

The Final Stretch (Google Earth)

Although I never found the definitive answer, it didn’t matter because I was smiling for the rest of the race.  My pace charts may have won again, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy myself or post a competitive time.

I kept speeding up as I passed the twenty-fifth mile, returning to the boom of the finish line.  The marathon had an excellent final stretch, which was run on wide and open streets, past the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the green Eakins Oval.  It felt like the entire city had opened up to me, like I was entering an arena with philadelphia-marathon-medalresplendent, blue columns made of glass and steel.  I eventually crossed the 8-minute threshold, and as I heard the announcer around the corner I somehow managed to speed up to a 6:45 for the final dash.  Although my performance was a positive split, I will never complain about finishing in 3:25:28, my third fastest marathon to date.

Hours later, as I scarfed down a Philly cheesesteak sandwich like a combine, I thought about how this race fit into my experience as a runner.  It wasn’t a game changer but it certainly put my abilities in perspective.  There was once a time when I considered an 8:40 marathon pace to be ambitious, but today I stayed below that, even on empty.  It was an encouraging indicator that, given time, dedication and discipline, we are capable of remarkable change, even if it’s not immediately apparent on the surface.

In a way, it was very similar to the first two days of the weekend.  Before I toed the line in Philadelphia, I drove to the historic, Appalachian town of Lancaster to visit Brandon, a fellow Wildcat and fraternity brother.  Although we were both very involved in the development of our chapter and both served as president at some point in our undergraduate careers, we didn’t become friends.  Our social circles certainly intertwined but our personalities and vision for the chapter didn’t always line up.  But in the years since graduation, something happened that made us reconnect.  Before I had ever run my first 10k, Brandon was already a two-time marathoner and an Ironman, so that probably had something to do with it.

Left to right: Brandon, me, Kevin (November 14, 2003)

Left to right: Brandon, me, Kevin (November 14, 2003)

I visited his and his wife Ashley’s lovely home in Lititz, just outside of Lancaster.  I got to meet Jackson, their adorable 12-week baby (who I think looks a lot like Jack-Jack from The Incredibles and not just because he’s a baby) and play with their vivacious golden retriever.  It really was like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting.  In fact, if I were able to send this post back in time to myself in the year 2003, I doubt I would react with anything but incredulity.  I’m running how many marathons?  What is this touch-screen computer that I have in my pocket?  Brandon is married?  To a really nice girl?  And is responsible for the welfare of a CHILD?

Left to right: Ashley, Lady, Brandon, me (November 16, 2013)

Left to right: Ashley, Lady, Brandon, me (November 16, 2013)

My reverie was broken by the cooks at Steve’s Prince of Steaks barking out an order through the onion steam.  I glanced at my watch and realized it was time to go, lest I miss my flight.  I stood up from the chair and hissed a few painful breaths as my legs cracked through their concrete casing.  I had completed my 19th marathon, 36th state, spent a fun weekend with friends and learned a few lessons along the way.  The 3:20 threshold continues to beckon me, with the Boston Qualifier even further down that arduous road.  Although I haven’t planned it yet, I need a target race for next year, one where I crash through every wall and get closer to that prize.  I’ll run more hills, throw in more intervals and push the pace on my long runs.  Bit by bit, I’ll make it happen.  I’ll face those vexing time charts and chip away at the rock on my shoulders, with every run facing the almost sisyphean task of hoping to stay strong over 26.2 miles.

Onwards.

Marathon_Map 045 (PA)

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