Marathoners, Get an EKG

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and do not have the credentials to provide medical treatment or advice.  This post is only my personal opinion based on my own experiences with medical tests and running.  It is not meant to be used as a guide for your own health decisions.  If you think you need an EKG or a similar procedure, please consult your personal care provider.

Getting into marathon shape is not easy, regardless of your weight, height or athletic history. Even once you make it to the finish line, you feel like your muscles are full of battery acid, ready to eat through your skin. You limp for days and wonder how you’ll ever manage to take another airborne step again. But one thing is certain: you’re likely to be in pretty good shape.

The buildup of mileage, the rush of oxygen and tearing up of muscle over the last four to six months have made you stronger. Your legs can carry you forward for hours, your resting heart beat has dropped a few beats per minute, and your body has become more energy efficient. There’s always one sign at every marathon emblazoned with some variation of the oft-quoted (but statistically unreliable) factoid that only 0.1% of the population has finished a marathon. We take that to heart, pun intended, because despite the noise and talk, we really are a minority.

The problem is that after many years of this, long-distance runners can fall into the trap of thinking they’re invincible. While the country (and increasingly the world) experiences public health and obesity crises, we stand somewhat apart, logging weekly miles and trying to eat right. Our reasons are diverse. We might have started training to lose weight, to challenge ourselves, or to carve out daily time to clear our minds. Whatever the cause, running between five and ten miles in one sitting is rarely a big deal to us.

But every so often the specter of doom rears its ugly head. I’m not talking about injuries – those happen to all of us and often enough that we know how to deal with most of them. I’m referring to the sobering fact that every so often, we are flooded with emails from friends and relatives all reminding us that someone died mid-race.

Long distance running is a unique sport. Few other sports allow thousands of amateur athletes to compete alongside the cream of the crop. Few other sports allow spectators to witness such incredible variance in performance over such a long period of time. We watch professional athletes on TV perform amazing feats, as they drop to the ground, heaving and sweating, but we never think they’re in any real danger. They are, after all, professionals. But that moment of security last a few minutes in a marathon as the elites and top 1% zip by. After that, it’s the throng of every-people, who run for fun or a sense of accomplishment.

The farther down the course you traverse, the more ragged everyone looks. The enthusiastic smiles of the first 10k become contorted in rictus grimaces, ebullient cheers are now hissed through gnashed teeth. As you watch people struggle to stay strong over such an unforgiving distance, it’s only natural to wonder whether the sport is good for them. And every so often, it seems like that question is given a dark answer.

First, the good news is that the numbers are on our side. If marathon running were truly bad for us, then we’d be seeing a lot more deaths. A recent Forbes article pins the likelihood of death from a marathon at 0.5 to 2 deaths for every 100,000 participants. While that is absolutely no comfort to the friends and family of the rare death, it does put the activity in perspective. For example, you are more likely to die while swimming, biking, playing football or even playing tennis and far more likely if you drive a car. Even with the boom that the sport is experiencing, deaths are very rare. A study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine showed that despite the increase in participants from 2000 to 2009, the low incidence remains the same.

But the fact that they still happen sends a shiver down our spines, regardless of our PR ambitions. This year alone there have been deaths at the New York City Half Marathon, the London Marathon, the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach and the Rock ‘n Roll Raleigh Half Marathon.  The fact that three of those examples were half marathons shows that the phenomenon is not limited to runners journeying 26.2 miles.

So why is it that some runners never cross the finish line? Dr. Peter McCullough from Dallas’ Baylor University Medical Center says that whenever a young, relatively fit person collapses mid-race, it’s most likely due to hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy (HCM). This is a condition where the heart muscle or myocardium is thickened and thus restricts blood flow. The biggest issue with this condition is that it is asymptomatic, or difficult to detect until you’re having a cardiac episode.

But there is a way to detect if you have any abnormalities in the heart, including HCM, and that’s by getting screened. This is done via electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), a device that measures the electrical activity of the heart. I went through the procedure in early May and it was completely painless. In addition to the EKG, I also underwent an ultrasound and a stress test, where I walked on an inclined treadmill with several electrodes attached to my chest. Every two minutes or so, the speed and incline increased until I was sweating bullets. During the ultrasound, I could see my heart expanding and contracting and each individual valve flapping effortlessly.

Most of the screening was, to be completely honest, a fun ego stroke. The majority of the patients that walk into the doctor’s practice were there because they had a problem and not for some peace of mind. Since HCM is a largely unfelt heart condition, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t that one unfortunate runner among the masses. After all, the most common fatalities occur in men in their 30s, albeit those with pre-existing, undiagnosed heart abnormalities.

It would seem somewhat reasonable to suggest then, that you too should get screened. If you are a serial marathoner, an ultrarunner or someone who routinely logs over 30 miles a week in the sport, it wouldn’t be unwise to take a look at your heart, especially if you experience any sort of chest pain or pressure during a run or if you have a family history of HCM.  Some might even say that routine checkups should be compulsory.  However, the American Heart Association has oddly not recommended mass screening. Their reasons have to do with resource allocation and logistics – there are simply many more health issues to tackle that take more lives and there are far too many active, athletic people in the United States to warrant that many EKGs (it’s also suggested that it would cut into cardiologists’ profit margins if widespread EKGs achieved economies of scale).

“The cardiac community is divided on this,” says Dr. McCullough. “But I fall in the camp where I think that everyone involved in serious athletics should have a echocardiogram, just like every woman who gets pregnant has two or three ultrasounds.”  Source

I agree completely. If you have the incentive (you are a serial marathoner or an ultrarunner) and the opportunity (you have decent health insurance), then by all means, get screened and run calm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon Google Earth Rendering

2014 Rock & Roll Chicago Half Marathon Google Earth Rendering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aw hell yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

You know it’s sad, but true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onwards!

State 40: Wyoming (2014 Bighorn Trail 50k)

Otter, Jay and I waited for the start of the race under a cloudless sky. The mountains of Wyoming stretched out infinitely ahead of us, with little indication as to where exactly the Bighorn Wild and Scenic Trail Run 50k would take us. Marla would be here an hour later to tackle the race’s 30k. A steep ascent over a red dirt trail loomed ominously ahead of us. After asking a few friendly strangers, we learned that we’d be tackling that wall before anything else.  As I looked past the giant hill and the unknown challenges to come, I had still not shaken the insouciant confidence that would eventually doom me during this race.

(left to right): Otter, Marla, Jay, me

(left to right): Otter, Marla, Jay, me

“I don’t think I’m properly nervous for this,” I had told Otter two weeks prior. “Yeah, it’s a trail race; I’ll just take it easy. I’ll be fine. Very little trepidation, which is worrying me.”

“I reckon you’ll be fine,” he said reassuringly, but the enigmatic “haha” he issued beforehand wasn’t so comforting. I would later learn that he was appropriately aware of the punishment to come and had prepared with much more diligence. He had run the Kettle Moraine 50k two weeks prior to haze himself into trail shape and had fastidiously studied the Bighorn course maps like a sailor attempting to navigate the Straits of Magellan. As race day approached, he asked me more than once if I was ready to run the hardest race of my life.

I should have listened to him much earlier.

2014 Bighorn Wild & Scenic Trail 50k Google Earth Rendering of the First 14 miles

2014 Bighorn Wild & Scenic Trail 50k Google Earth Rendering of the First 14 miles

For though the first four miles were beautiful testaments to the natural high of trail running, I very quickly found myself in the depths of perdition. I could write pages about the distant snow-capped mountains holding onto the last patches of a brutal winter, or the white and purple wildflowers seasoned throughout sylvan clearings. But those moments of beauty and transcendence were like the sweet cherry on top of a cake made of lead and dirt.

Mile 0

Mile 0

By the fifth mile we had stopped climbing and there were no more easy rolling hills. Instead, the path all but disappeared into a precipitous drop, the steepest I had ever run. It was like shimmying down a black diamond ski slope but with loose dirt and rocks to slow you down. I watched as experienced trail runners marched downward confidently while I took each step carefully, knowing very well that lost balance would lead to a treacherous fall. I hammered my legs on the slope like a typewriter, stomping down with little ease, speed or grace. It wasn’t long before my quads began to ache.

Five miles in, I thought, and already my quads are shot. This race is going to suck.

That last sentence I may have said out loud. The woods responded quietly, indifferently.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Despite ramping up my mileage considerably in April and May, which included running almost 40 race miles in one weekend, I had done absolutely no hill workouts beyond whatever hills happened to crop up during races. I had done no strength training, hadn’t done any stairs or even completed a mile on a bike. It was a case of pure hubris, of a haughty runner who prematurely thought he had perfected endurance and become master of his body.

What an idiot.

Mile 3 - Delightful, flat terrain

Mile 3 – Delightful, flat terrain

The first real aid station welcomed me at mile 8 with the smell of crackling bacon. Though appetizing, I took the time to stop running and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a few ruffled potato chips instead. Runners that had passed me long ago were still there, mingling and enjoying the camaraderie and breathtaking scenery all around us. I capitalized on my quads no longer hurting by quickly refilling my pack with water and continuing the race.

The next six miles were a gradual uphill. I looked up at the road ahead and very high above, I saw the reflective glints of several vans and cars. It was the next aid station, the start of the race, and the end of our 20k loop. I wished I hadn’t seen it because it looked so impossibly far away. Have you ever walked toward a distant beacon, and been completely aware as you walk that it is not getting perceptibly closer? I liken it to walking in a city toward a skyscraper. If you look at it for even five minutes, it doesn’t seem to get any nearer.

That’s how I felt for about an hour.

Mile 11 - If you click and zoom in, you can see the reflection off the vans.

Mile 11 – If you click and zoom in, you can see the reflection off the vans.

I kept climbing, alternating an efficient shuffle with power hiking, pushing dirt behind me to the tune of labored breathing, but every time I’d look up, the camp was still a day’s hike away. Six miles is an eternity when the end is always in sight. There was a silver lining in all of this though. By this point I had noticed that running slightly uphill was not painful at all but surprisingly easy because it didn’t require that I slam my quads down. Perhaps I’d be able to put that downhill battering behind me.

Mile 16-17 - The climb continues

Mile 16-17 – The climb continues

Finally at the aid station, after a lot of hiking, I took a little break. I downed some grapes, a cup of chicken broth and another handful of chips. The climb wasn’t over, there would be another mile of it, but at least I had reached somewhere. The rest of the race would be a point-to-point winding path ending in Dayton, Wyoming, where we had parked our car about five hours prior. The next six miles were beautiful and easy. I locked in step with a female runner ahead of me and scampered over dirt, flowers and the occasional stream. I was tired but the downhill pains weren’t too bad, allowing me to cover much distance with few grimaces.

And then it all went to hell at Horse Creek Ridge.

Perhaps I should have learned that those early aid stations were there not intended to just replenish your energy stores, but also to prepare you for an incoming gauntlet of pain. Just past that third aid station, where I filled up on fruits, I reached a creek. I walked shakily over the makeshift log bridge, steadying myself with a thin rope. A thin dirt trail snaked over the thick grass ahead. I could see several runners ahead hiking the path, which cut to the right, behind a group of trees and out of sight.

Mile 19 - This was right before the Haul.  I couldn't take the camera out for the actual climb because it was too steep.

Mile 19 – This was right before the Haul. I couldn’t take the camera out for the actual climb because it was too steep.

Those trees, I would soon discover, were hiding a mountain. A short, but almost vertical mountain that the organizers call “the Haul.” No one ahead of me was running or even power-hiking this section. Everyone was pulling themselves upward, with their arms either resting on their hips or pushing off their legs. I don’t think my heels ever touched the dirt during this climb. A desire to rest taught me a harsh lesson: don’t stop. A break in the rhythm sent a flood of pain into my legs. I would have stiffened up completely and possibly fallen backward had I not snapped myself back into upward motion.

Heave, gasp, heave, gasp.

Once at the top of Horse Creek Ridge, something changed. The climb had sapped every last bit of strength I had, conspiring with the thin air at 8,000 feet to rob me of all remaining vitality. Every step from that point was painful, every single one. To make matters worse, the Tongue River Canyon opened up below me, interminably downhill. And there were 12 miles left to run. All downhill.

It wasn’t the race that changed – it was still the same brutal, unfeeling and uncaring event that I had found and decided to run. It continued to deny me any respite from the ever-growing acid in my quads or burning in my lungs. The mountains wouldn’t rearrange themselves and the path had no intention to suddenly pave itself to make way for someone who didn’t treat the distance with the proper respect. But even with this harsh lesson learned, and with every positive mantra I could muster at the time, I couldn’t help but slump.

Mile 20 - It would be all downhill from here.  Painfully, agonizingly downhill.

Mile 20 – It would be all downhill from here. Painfully, agonizingly downhill.

A runner’s quiver is full of motivational tools and positive thoughts. You have to overcome the bodily pain and ignore the struggle to get to the finish. I’d like to say that I overcame the challenges and stomped through the brick walls separating me from the finish. But that’d be a lie. In the moment, as it happened, I was not enjoying myself and really, desperately, wanted this race to end. Had there been a drop station, I am afraid to say that I would have seriously considered it.

The Tongue River Canyon was a gorgeous expanse of greens, lavenders, and yellows. Wild grass exploded out of the ground in enormous tufts, trees covered the exposed layers of rock in distant mountains like ancient mildew. It was truly a magnificent part of the country, the perfect place to embody the very reason why trail running is fun and in some cases, spiritual. But in the moment, as it happened, no part of me was enjoying it.

I winced with every step I took. If my quads weren’t searing in pain, then my toes were being bludgeoned against the front of my shoe. I did this for about four miles, stopping only to let faster runners zip by me. This was eternity, captured in an agonizing, yet beautiful stretch of slowed time. Each individual step did nothing to bring the mountains closer, but somehow, because each one had to lead me somewhere, I made progress. I was eventually thrilled to hear the heavenly sound of the Tongue River roaring through the canyon. I had reached the bottom.

Mile 23-24 -- In the middle of Tongue River Canyon

Mile 23-24 — In the middle of Tongue River Canyon

Replying to the young volunteer who offered to refill my water bottle and pack was a struggle. Whenever I spoke, I could hear my voice echoed in my head, as if a fishbowl were surrounding it, which threw off my balance and concentration. I tried to equalize my ears by cracking my jaw around but that didn’t help. Instead, I ate a handful of grapes, clipped my pack around my chest, strapped the bottle to my hand, and kept shuffling onwards with the worst of the race behind me. What lay ahead was a slow, defeated march.

Now almost completely flat, the course had spilled out of its single-track, rocky confines and onto a wide, two-lane dirt road. Cars and locals on bikes would show up on occasion, but I had no leftover energy to say hi or even look at them. The sun, a fixture of the day, had hidden behind large storm clouds, allowing for longer bursts of running (though my definition of “running” during these last five miles left a lot to be desired). Normally in a long race, I laugh at the idea of being just four miles away from the finish line. On that soon-to-be-rainy Saturday, though, that felt like another exercise in forever.

Mile 25 - Alongside the Tongue River, lots of uneven terrain

Mile 25 – Alongside the Tongue River, lots of uneven terrain

The race was no longer divided into sections of ups and downs, but instead a single stretch of road that went on and on. Aside from one aid station and the advent of storm clouds, there was little I noticed. On occasion, runners would pass me, some of them on their way to a fifty-mile finish. One runner strode by me with a pacer, and another pulled ahead with trekking poles. I felt pathetic by comparison. These guys were most likely finishing Bighorn’s 100-mile race, which had started the day before, and here I was, sputtering like a lemon after running under a third of that distance.

I crossed a bridge and made it to the tiny city of Dayton. Under normal circumstances, Dayton is a city that you’ll miss if you blink and barely registers on a map unless you’re viewing it with a microscope. But as my feet hit pavement, it became a bastion of civilization, the Emerald City, Roland’s Dark Tower and Mount Doom all in one. I had never been so happy for a race to be over, and I could practically smell the finish line over the scent of my own disgusting state.

I entered Scott Bicentennial Park, a recreational area next to the river with a baseball diamond, playgrounds and picnic tables. There were crowds gathered, cheering for each new haggard face. I heard Marla yelling my name but from both exhaustion and perhaps shame, I couldn’t turn my head to look for her. I simply threw a brittle index finger in the air and kept running, possibly signaling the number of minutes I could tolerate before collapsing. I saw Jay directly ahead of me in his green rain jacket, having finished almost two hours prior. He made an arching motion with his thumb, pointing to the finish line.

Mile 27 - No more climbing or descending, just flat road.

Mile 27 – No more climbing or descending, just flat road.

I could have finished this race happy. I could tell you that I found a deep well of wisdom in that last mile and siphoned out a reason to smile. But I did neither of those things. I dragged myself under the finishing banner and had just enough self-awareness left to turn off my Garmin, which read just under seven and a half hours. I could have forced a smile then, but my ego was too bruised. Over the years I’ve tried to cultivate an image of a runner with perseverance and strength, an image of someone constantly facing huge challenges with a cool confidence. Every time someone calls me crazy for the amount I run, I soak it in as a deserved compliment.

But fifty kilometers over the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming had taken that sturdy effigy and dragged it through the dirt. All the years I had spent becoming a competitive runner seemed to mean absolutely nothing anymore. I didn’t feel good having completed this run in what I considered a disgraceful way. It wasn’t the result itself that stung me, but the fact that I came face to face with a lesson I didn’t think I’d have to re-learn:

Train.

It’s such a stupid thing to have to tell someone, let alone someone like me who has done these things before. The mountains don’t care about your road half marathon PR, or what your most recent 5K time was. The thin air beyond 8,000 feet won’t cut you any slack if you don’t change your training routine to face it. Rocky soil and uneven dirt paths won’t catch you if every mile you log is on a perfectly groomed city path.

Mile 29 -- Why won't this end?

Mile 29 — Why won’t this end?

And I knew these things. I knew all of them. But I had the arrogance to think that I had reached an echelon of fitness where I was somehow exempt from all of them. Though I was lucky to leave this race without injury, I paid dearly for that attitude and couldn’t quite feel proud. Looking later at a map, the distance we had covered looked absolutely dizzying from above. How could I have taken such a blasé approach to it? Was it symptomatic of runners’ general overconfidence towards health? Was I not cut out for ultra distances?

I struggled with these questions as I lay on the cool grass, trying to fix the hollowness I felt in my head. Experience and training were everything.  Jay had run a 50k PR and didn’t seem the least bit shattered by the experience, while Marla, who had moved to Colorado just three months ago, had run the 30k distance, saying it was the toughest race of her life. Otter crossed the finish line not long after me, looking like a kid busting through the gates at a theme park. He was talking like an auctioneer, rattling off his race experience to all of us at an electrifying pace. Though his body was certainly pretty beat, his attitude could have probably turned around and done the whole thing again.

Finishers!  And I look like a madman!

Finishers! And I look like a madman!

Now that I’ve had time to recover from the experience, a deranged part of me is looking forward to the next intense, body-mangling experience. As I writhed in pain on the damp Dayton grass, I swore I would never run another ultra, ever again. But that promise was tainted by a poor performance, begot by being a pompous idiot. It didn’t have to be this way. It will be different next time.  Next time, I won’t be an idiot.  Next time, my plan will be smart and simple, summarized by one word that means both the steady improvement of the body through stress, and a sturdy, robust machine seemingly impossible to stop.

Train.

Forty states down – the final stretch has begun!

Marathon_Map 050 (WY)

To Feel Like an Elite (13.1 Marathon Chicago)

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

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

Elites Don’t Pay to Race

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

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

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

Could 2014 bring back that magic?

Elites Get Special Transportation

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

Elites Get the Red Carpet

Mama showing her credentials

Mama showing her credentials

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

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

Elites Get the Top Seed

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

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

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

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

Elites Are Fast

2014 13.1 Marathon Chicago Google Earth Rendering

2014 13.1 Marathon Chicago Google Earth Rendering

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finishing in 2009, my second half marathon ever.

Finishing in 2009, my second half marathon ever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014-131-marathon-chicago-medals

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

And now, it’s time to slow down.

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